Introduction: Dr. Louise Cowan on Poetry

(Excerpt from “Why Are the Classics Necessary?Imaginative Conservative, July 21, 2016)

In speaking of the classics as the primary curricular need in our time, then, I prefer to designate them not as literature but as poetry, the generic term used by the ancients for mimetic (fictional) writing. Since the advent of Renaissance humanism this kind of writing has been thought of as belles lettres, or in English as literature, and given until fairly recently a privileged if narrow position—along with proper speech and table manners—in the education of the few. But since the Enlightenment, literature has been increasingly marginalized as the “real work” of the university came to be dominated by analysis, measurement, factuality, competition: the sciences.

But when the Greeks spoke of poetry, they meant not so much a graceful polish of style, an artful use of language, as an entire cast of mind. Poiesis was considered to be a making process governed by mimesis, the envisioning, or imagining, of fictional analogies, a kind of knowing different from philosophy or history and yet occupying an irreplaceable position in the quest for wisdom. “Poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history,” Aristotle tells us in his Poetics. “For poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” Hence, “it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what ought to happen.”

Poetry appeals to the imagination, that faculty of the mind which enables the intellect to know the things of the senses from the inside—in other words, to experience by empathy things other than ourselves and to make of that experience a new form. This is the action that Coleridge calls the primary imagination (“the repetition in the finite mind of the infinite I AM”). In contrast, the rational intellect, musing on things from above, sees the structure of a phenomenon with a certain detachment that prevents any knowledge of objects on their own terms. It must abstract from them, reason about them, analyze them in order to reach its conclusions. Only through the agency of the imagination, which begins always with cherishing the things of sense—with finding a fullness of being in such lowly acts as seeing and touching—can the intellect know what John Crowe Ransom has called “the true dinglichkeit, the thinginess of things.” This active functioning of the imagination is not the act of a child, a kind of make-believe; nor is it fantasy; nor is it fancy. It is a mature and vigorous act of the mind and heart, oriented toward reality, expanding the cosmos within which the knowing mind dwells.

Yet this mode of knowledge—poetry ordering the passions so as to make them “philosophical” and hence matters for reflection—is increasingly dismissed in higher education. Consequently, American colleges and universities have ceased perform­ing one of their most important functions: not to be simply a repository of past thought or a sponsor of the new, but to serve as a guide for the otherwise wayward poetic impulse always present in the human community. For if this energy is unchanneled, it tends to flow in one of two directions: toward a dionysiac frenzy or toward the banality of kitsch. Poiesis is part of the human make-up, ineradicable and yet vulnerable to debasement in the absence of tradition. We rightly sense that this wildly creative faculty, if ungoverned, will end by making golden calves or bronze serpents–or, as in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, burning down the city.

Thus, if we could imaginably discover the telos of liberal education, the underlying purpose for which communities sponsor so impractical and expensive an endeavor as a university, we might find, surprisingly, that it is not so much to further individual success or to produce “new knowledge” or even to preserve the monuments of the past. Rather, it is to give form to this creative impulse in human culture. As we have always secretly suspected, democracy has imposed upon us from the beginning an obligation to provide a liberal education for every citizen—a charge that implies not simply literacy but an ability to judge the high from the low, the genuine from the shoddy. We are now failing to perform this task, largely because our schools have discarded the great staple of our education, the poetic mode of thought.

The two fountainheads of poetic wisdom for the West have been the Greek and Hebrew writings. One speaks of nobility; the other of humility. Both are necessary. And in both, it is primarily in poetry that they communicate their hearts and enable us to find our own. The Hebrew heritage looks inward, seeking the hidden God; the Greek heritage looks outward, aspiring to divinity. Greek poetry thus shows forth—in symbol, in mimesis, in the eikon—what it is that lies behind appearances. I have written at another time of the splendor of our Hebrew legacy and the necessity of including it in today’s curriculum. What I want to emphasize now is the importance of the Greek paideia, the leading out of the soul and directing it upward.

For it was unmistakably the Greeks who discovered eros, desire and aspiration, as the path toward the highest good. It was the Greeks who saw both the poverty and the profundity of the soul, and who proclaimed, as Aeschylus put it, that we must “suffer into wisdom.” It was the Greeks who intuited the underlying generic patterns of poetry: Who gave us epic, tragedy, and comedy. Homer, in inventing the epic, invented an entire civilization; and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides produced the most profound tragedies in existence at the moment of that civilization’s greatness, just before the decline. It was an encounter with the Greeks (through Rome, and later, Constantinople) that led diverse European peoples to know themselves and that taught the American founders the meaning of the polis. It is a return to the Greeks from time to time in history that reanimates those same peoples and allows them to remember who they are.

And the poetic process goes on. The sublime Greek writings have attracted to themselves others from various places and epochs and in response to new additions reveal fresh insights, transforming all sorts of heterogeneous texts into an organic, if polyphonic, whole. Diverse works from various cultures, such as The Divine Comedy, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Faust, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, Go Down Moses, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Beloved, among many others, strike sparks from the earlier works, revealing nuances hitherto concealed. Then these later texts themselves, after they have settled into the community of immortals, select their associates and invite them in, continuing to unlock within themselves meanings inaccessible without their fellows.

The Pully, by George Herbert (1593-1633) – Mary Conces

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

About the Poet: George Herbert | Poetry Foundation

Sonnet 19, by John Milton (1608–1674) – Nancy Lovell

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

About the Poet: John Milton | Poetry Foundation

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