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The Gifts of Poetry
The idea for Mark Edmundson’s excellent book Why Read? came to him when he read the lines of William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” What is it in poetry that condemns us to the agonizing, slow “death” of quiet desperation when we lack it, that Williams suggests? What gifts does poetry bestow upon us? Many come to mind: the national pride from an epic like the Aenead, the aid to memory that poetic form imbues and countless others. However, specifically poetry can rescue us from “death” in three primary ways. First, it can instill in us a sense of irony which can in turn foster our imagination. Second, poetry can help us discover objective Truth through a subjective lens. Last, poetry can bring to light our personal self.
Irony in both the use of words and in the incongruence between expectations and actuality can well be expressed in poetry leading to the stimulation of the imagination. Here is a poem I wrote while viewing the horrors of the recent Japanese earthquake. It is called “The Wounding World.”
The wounding world breaks the heart upon its shallow shoals/It shades the mind in the fickle fog of fortune/Suffering saints meet murderous fools/Truth and Tyche seem fated to oppose/Man and Nature rare is their common repose/If this be Justice it is in justice we must obey.
In imagining this poem in a literal sense I tried to express the inherent irony of the world in that the good seem to suffer. Imagining the words of the poem itself as I observed them also produced an ironic reaction in me. Reading to myself the last line I was saying Justice must be obeyed. In hearing the poem aloud I might have said that in a “just” world like ours, it is injustice we must obey. We see in this example how the same words, when written in poetic form can produce two completely opposite meanings; one the literal meaning, the other the ironic meaning.
When comparing the message of the poem to the same message written in prose the stimulant to the imagination through verse becomes obvious. “The world often punishes the Good and rewards the Evil. The rational nature of Man is often defeated by the random fortune of his internal non-rational nature and the non-rationality of the world. Still, we must carry on stoically and pursue our life’s journey.” The prose, whether literally true or not does not stir in the writer or reader any image of the conflict between Man and Nature or Reason and irrationality. It simply states a proposition leaving the reader to either agree or disagree but not stimulating any thoughts about the essential idea or its opposite that the writer is trying to convey. That is; what is Man’s relationship to the world? These are the imagination questions that poetry can stimulate especially through irony.
Irony flows throughout the very nature of poetry in that through it objective Truth can be discerned through a subjective lens. This discovery is the second gift of poetry warding off “death.” The World War One poet Wilfred Owen wrote, “above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.” (Bate 101) In his brilliant poem “Dulce et Decorum est” Owen shows how that objective Truth about war can best be uncovered through the subjective perspective of the men doing the fighting. In the poem (100) Owen describes the sensation of being under gas shell attack, “Whew…..fup…..fop…..fup”, “Then stinging poison hit us in the face.” This is the objective reality of war told through the subjective experience of one soldier. It is through poetry that we can best see the congruent relationship between subjective and objective truth.
Through poetry what William James said about the nature of Truth may be discerned. We arrive at Truth by discovering our subjective truths. The immensity of Truth precludes our discovery of it objectively. But through a patchwork of subjectivities, including our own, we can at least approach the Truth and more importantly gain proof of its existence. The melodic form of verse, and the human ability to recognize that melodic form is that animating spirit of the rational order of the cosmos called Truth. If no such order existed then Poetry and its forms would be incomprehensible to us. Truth is the subjective and the objective. It is the binding that unites the two and the separation that differentiates them. It is the beautiful irony of the nature of poetry that allows us to see the unity of the subjective and the objective; at least for a fleeting moment to whisper and grasp the gift of Truth precluding “death.”
A third gift that poetry can instill is a discovery of the self. Walt Whitman in his “Song of Myself” wrote of his two selves, his poetic self and his “me, myself.” This was his inner core, his “I am.” Whitman’s poetry allowed him to answer the question “what am I?” (Bloom 91)
The great Marcel Proust author of “Remembrance of Things Past” wrote of his readers, “it would be my book but it would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.” (Edmundson 107) Throughout Why Read? Edmundson describes the writer as also a reader of his reader. In other words, the writer tries to stimulate the reader to discover truths about himself. In a modest way the poem I wrote above attempts to do this. The eye sees the words as an exhortation to continue on and have faith that there is a pattern and order to the world that is Just even if we cannot see it clearly. The ear might hear the poem as a call to rebel against the unjust order or disorder of the world by obeying injustice. Depending on the way the reader thinks of it he or she can discover something about themselves. Is the reader a Job dedicated to faithful obedience to God and the Truth despite the seeming injustice of the world? Or is the reader a Candide, seeing the Lisbon earthquake and questioning whether the world is truly a just and rational order? Often, depending on our place in the journey of life we may read the poem one way or another. Either way, it is this discovery of our internal being, our true self that poetry can help to uncover. This self awareness is another gift poetry bestows to ward off “death.”
Mark Edmundson wrote about a type of humanistic faith. (Edmundson 136) A great work or poem should challenge one to live it as if it were a guiding text, a “bible” if you will. His concern is that with the demise of religion nothing, no values, will take its place and humanity will be degraded to the level of what it seems we are becoming: self-conscious to the point of self-destructiveness. We value nothing that is internal to ourselves but only the value others place on us. We are Nieztche’s “Last Men”, eating, blinking, snorting, farting but ultimately unfeeling, uncaring, and unconcerned: dead. Edmundson’s concern itself is a mild irony in that religion, to the extent it is based on the Bible, is “faith in literature.” That being said, it can be poetry in which part of this faith in our selves may be restored and the “death” that Williams’ wrote of averted.
Embedded in poetry is the restoration of the self and a return away from death to life. Through a restoration of the imagination through the use of irony, through the recognition in poetry of both the subjective and objective nature of truth, and through the interweaving of irony, imagination, and Truth we can discover our true and inner self. This then is the lesson we learn about Life from Poetry. At the heart of the lesson is the great irony that we can arrive at Truth through Faith thus averting the death of our soul. Courage and bravery are the harvest of Faith in the knowledge that through the gifts of poetry we are not condemned to die miserably from their lack. The unique nature of poetry with its ability to be at once verbally and meaningfully ironic, simultaneously subjective in form and objective in essence and always imaginative throughout is an affirmation of the self.
Bate, Jonathan. English Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2010.
Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why, Scribner, NY. 2000.
Edmundson, Mark. Why Read?, Bloomsbury,NY. 2004.