“Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation." Paul Valery

Paul Valery (1871 – 1945), French poet and philosopher, delivered a lecture titled “Poetry and Abstract Thought” in 1939. This lecture traces the human tendency toward articulation that speaks to the tragedy of language and informs why we feel the urge to separate poets from philosophers. It was later anthologized in The Collected Works of Paul Valery in 1985 and is an important stepping stone in the areas of critical theory and literary criticism. 

Paul Valery Poetry and Abstract Thought
Like many other thinkers at the time, Paul Valery is interested in the ways our thought life concerns action and how this relates to art. What is clear to Valery is that the material the poet and philosopher use is the same: language. At the beginning of this lecture, Valery describes the way poetry is typically understood as the opposite of abstract thought. Poets are set apart from philosophers. He elaborates on this divide by exploiting the assumed incongruence between analytic thinking and creative thinking.
“Most people, without thinking any further, believe that the analytical work of the intellect, the efforts of will and precision in which it implicates the mind, are incompatible with that freshness of inspiration, that flow of expression, that grace and fancy with are the signs of poetry and which reveal it at its very first words.”
This idea of poetry as fresh inspiration or a creative flow of expression echoes William Wordsworth’s famous line in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Paul Valery wants to challenge the separation between intellect and creativity while revealing the intellectual worth and weight of poetry. Valery says our minds yearn for a kind of simplicity in how we approach knowledge which often leaves us prematurely dividing and classifying our material of study. This leads to arbitrary divisions that are far more hurtful than helpful. He describes this inclination for simplicity as though it were an involuntary impulse:

I feel we have adopted this antithesis without reflection, and that we now find it firmly fixed in our mind as a verbal contrast, as though it represented a clear and real relationship between two well-defined notions. It must be admitted that that character always in a hurry to have done, whom we call our mind, has a weakness for this kind of simplification, which freely enables him to form all kinds of combinations and judgments, to display his logic, and to develop his rhetorical resources — in short, to carry out as brilliantly as possible his business of being a mind.”

In other words, binary separations are comfortable, but we ought to resist the temptation and embrace a more complex approach to knowledge. Unlike some members of society, Valery recognizes that the philosopher is uniquely equipped to consider these kinds of ambiguities. 

“Philosophical and aesthetic questions are so richly obscured by the quantity, diversity, and antiquity of researches, arguments, and solutions, all produced within the orbit of a very restricted vocabulary, of which each author uses the words according to his own inclinations; that taken as a whole such works give me the impression of a district in the classical Underworld especially reserved for deep thinkers.”

From here, Valery describes the devolution of language with an elaborate metaphor. In Valery’s imagination, that Underworld he mentions is where mythological figures like the Danaides, Ixions, and Sisyphus eternally labor to redefine words that have grown dirty because of overuse. 

Paul Valery Poetry and Abstract Thought

Why might this task of redefining the same dozen words be considered eternal punishment? He gives us an example in the next paragraph:

“I stop the word time in its flight. This word was utterly limpid, precise, honest, and faithful in its service as long as it was part of a remark and was uttered by someone who wished to say something. But here it is, isolated, caught on the wing. It takes its revenge. It makes us believe that it has more meanings than uses. It was only a means, and it has become an end, the object of a terrible philosophical desire. It turns into an enigma, an abyss, a torment of thought.

The tragedy of words like this is that they each carry with them entire histories of thought that are dismissed before their complexity is even acknowledged. The result? Words are used over and over again and pass through various mouths without the proper refinement and care that language deserves. In other words: language is dirty.

“But how are we to think — I should say rethink, study deeply whatever seems to merit deep study — if we hold language to be something essentially provisional, as a banknote or a check is provisional, what we call its “value” requiring us to forget its true nature, which is that of a piece of paper, generally dirty? The paper has passed through so many mouths, so many phrases, so many uses, and abuses, that the most delicate precautions must be taken to avoid too much confusion in our minds between what we think and are trying to think, and what dictionaries, authors, and, for that matter, the whole human race since the beginning of language, want us to think…”

While many people inevitably contribute to the dirtiness of the written and spoken word, there is a posture that Valery advocates that we all might appreciate. First he calls “poetry an art of language.” He elaborates, “certain combinations of words can produce an emotion that others do not produce.”

This leads him to the following conclusion:

“I recognize it in myself by this: that all possible objects of the ordinary world, external or internal, beings, events, feelings, and actions, while keeping their usual appearance, are suddenly placed in an indefinable but wonderfully fitting relationship with the modes of our general sensibility. That is to say that these well-known things and beings — or rather the ideas that represent them — somehow change in value. They attract one another, they are connected in ways quite different from the ordinary; they become (if you will permit the expression) musicalized, resonant, and as it were, harmonically related. The poetic universe, thus defined, offers extensive analogies with what we can postulate of the dream world.”

Echoing Freud’s conversations on dreams and daydreams, Valery articulates his posture toward dreams in how they differ from poetry:

“Neither the dream nor the daydream is necessarily poetic; it may be so: but figures formed by chance are only by chance harmonious figures.

In any case, our memories or dreams teach us, by frequent and common experience that our consciousness can be invaded, filled, entirely absorbed by the production of an existence in which objects and beings seem the same as those in the waking state; but their meanings, relationships, modes of variation and of substitution are quire different and doubtless represent, like symbols or allegories, the immediate fluctuations of our general sensibility uncontrolled by the sensitivities of our specialized senses. In very much the same way the poetic state takes hold of us, develops and finally disintegrates.”

He builds his argument brick by brick. Recalling a walk he takes along the Seine in which his steps become “a very subtle system of rhythms,” he embodies a kind of peripatetic thinking. This sensation echoes Gaston Bachelard’s thought in The Dialectic of Duration and anticipates Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmnalysis

Unlike mental pictures in his head, this subtle system of rhythms is a bit more challenging for him to situate. He describes this experience “in order to bring about the profound difference existing between spontaneous production by the mind — or rather by our sensibility as a whole — and the fabrication of works.” 

His mentor and friend, Stephane Mallarme, enters into his argument emphasizing the profound materiality of language:


“…one does not make poetry with ideas, but with words.”


There is a reciprocal relationship between words and ideas and conversely between ideas and words that requires reading in a way that apprehends the magic of language. 

In speaking of the stage in which children learn to read simple materials in his work, How to Read a Book, Mortimor J. Adler explains,

“Something quite mysterious, almost magical, occurs during this stage. At one moment in the course of his development the child, when faced with a series of symbols on a page, finds them quite meaningless. Not much later -- perhaps only two or three weeks later -- he has discovered meaning in them; he knows they say "The cat sat on the hat.” Mortimer J. Adler

This is no surprise to writers like Haruki Murakami who calls magic an essential ingredient of writing. This is precisely what happens at the later stage of reading in which a reader aims to decode poetry. Along these lines, Paul Valery asserts “poetry is an art of language. But language is a practical creation.”

The process of creation, as Valery points out, reveals that language is transformed into nonlanguage. What is his point? Only this:

“in practical or abstract uses of language, the form–that is the physical, the concrete part, the very act of speech–does not last; it does not outlive understanding; it dissolves into the light; it has acted; it has done its work; it has brought about understanding; it has lived.”

Anticipating the weight that Gaston Bachelard offers the material imagination, Paul Valery deconstructs the binary separation between poetry and abstract thought to show the intellectual rigor and material weight that enters into poetic production. That production is life. 

 Richard Kearney’s Carnal Hermeneutics expands Valery’s vision and speaks to the way language, bodily sensation, and environment converge to create the poetic universe. Valery concludes his lecture by prompting his listener to consider how intellectual rigor required of the poet to communicate effectively. 

“Perhaps you think my conception of the poet and the poem rather singular. Try to imagine, however, what the least of our acts implies. Think of everything that must go on inside a man who utters the smallest intelligible sentence, and then calculate all that is needed for a poem by Keats or Baudelaire to be formed on an empty page in front of the poet.

Think, too, of all the arts, ours is perhaps that which coordinates the greatest number of independent parts or factors: sound, sense, the real and the imaginary, logic, syntax, and the double invention of content and form… and all this by means of a medium essentially practical, perpetually changing, soiled, a maid of all work, everyday language, from which we must draw a pure, ideal voice, capable of communicating without weakness, without apparent effort, without offense to the ear, and without breaking the ephemeral sphere of the poetic universe, an idea of some self miraculously superior to myself.”

Paul Valery on the Common Material of Poets and Philosophers