An Introduction to Poetry and Its Place in an Integral Human Formation

Introduction 

It is well known to most sensible educators that one of the fundamental goals of their profession is the so-called “integral formation” of their students.  The enthusiastic educator strives to propose this formation, for he knows that to form but one or even several virtues, as good as they may be, does not suffice to the person as a whole: neither courage, nor self-control, nor social savoir faire is enough to satisfy the student who wants to form himself in an integral way.

One important aspect of this integral formation includes the acquiring of a rich and balanced character, full of human virtues and values that serve as a solid base for all their future undertakings.  The acquisition of such a formation enables the person not only to grow in his own maturity, but also to make a considerable contribution to an enriched way of life for his family, community, and indeed even of humankind.

I believe that this multi-faceted task cannot be completely achieved without an understanding and appreciation of the great poetry of our human race, and to expound on that belief is the goal of this brief essay.  Let us then delve into the reasons behind the importance of poetry for an integral formation.

The Importance of Poetry in an Integral Human Formation

“What good are poets in barren times?” the great German poet Hölderlin asks in his poem “Bread and Wine.”  A good question.  Many people, and perhaps some of us are among them, would even go further and ask “what good are poets in any times?”  However that may be, it is especially in our “barren” days –so hectic with activities, so bombarded by digital information of dubious worth, so bereft of time to read and study– that we might legitimately ask if we have the right to indulge in the reading of poetry.

In the Republic, Plato himself says that poets and poetry are not much good at all for an aspiring society: “We are aware that such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth, but that the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself, and must hold what we have said about poetry” (608a6-b2).  Plato’s basic argument against poetry is that it is not merely harmless, but that as far as formation of the human person is concerned, it is negative and seditious.  According to his statements in the Republic, poetry has two great faults: first, it is not true, nor does it “lay hold of the truth”, and secondly, poetry stimulates that irrational part of our souls that needs rather to be reined in: it feeds that part of us that most needs to be on a diet.  It is nearly the same argument as today’s common scoffer of poetry, who so easily dismisses poetry as being at the best amusing entertainment, and at the worst, sentimental drivel.

Unfortunately, no one can deny that there is this kind of poetry. In Greek, poetry comes from the word ποειν, to make.  Today, the “makers” of all kinds of images in the mass media only go to prove the correctness of Plato’s worries about the negative ethical and social effects of bad art (graphic depictions of violence, the degradation of sex, the banalization of immorality, the cult of the absurd and the ugly, etc.).   In the widest sense, all creative art can be considered poetry, and looked at from this perspective, there is a lot of bad poetry in our world today*.  Any art that does not live up to its call of promoting the best in us is not really worth our while, and this includes poetry.

Here, of course, we are not concerned with all creative arts, but specifically with the art of poetry.  It would be beyond the scope of this essay to enter into the difficult academic discussion of a precise definition of poetry.  Definitions for poetry abound*, and even the great poets do not agree among themselves on what poetry is and what it is not.  Let it suffice to say that we will define poetry as the art of written language that uses sound, rhythm, and imaginative meaning to evoke a profound response within the reader. When that response is edifying for the human spirit, when it helps him to realize his vocation as a human person, it is considered good.  Does such poetry exist?  Contrary to Plato’s claim in the Republic, we believe that it does, but that it must be identified, and only then proposed as a precious means towards our integral formation.

Let us now then look at three different qualities that characterize good poetry.

Good Poetry Engages Reason, Emotion, and Imagination.

Good poetry would be that which turns the two platonic objections –which we mentioned before– on their head: poetry that is true and gives a passageway to the truth, and poetry that feeds a part of the soul that most needs to be fed: in this case, the heart.

True, all good art should do this, but poetry has a certain pride of place among the arts because it combines in a unique way the worlds of the mind and the heart.  Poetry speaks to the mind with the word, and to the heart with music, or at least one of its most basic elements, rhythm.  Joseph Pieper called music that art that is closest by its nature to the fundamentals of human existence precisely because it is a wordless expression of man’s existential self, of man’s journey towards self-realization in what is good*.  The Greeks knew this and exploited this long before us in their greatest artistic achievements: Homer’s epics were chanted, and the great Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were most certainly sung. Today we can still experience the power of this combination in great operas, or even in contemporary musicals.*  As we have said, poetry combines the reasoning power of the word (the Greeks used the inexhaustible word λογος to express this) with the existential immediacy of rhythm.  Baudelaire, the great French poet, once said that dancing was poetry with arms and legs. We might turn this around and say something similar: poetry is spiritual dancing.  Reading poetry “activates” us in the spiritual world in a more complete way because it forces us to engage in it on two levels, reason and emotion.

The realm of poetry also includes a third dimension of the human spirit, the imagination.  Poetry is above all figurative language, language that uses images and symbols to evoke unknown or undiscovered aspects of the truth of things.  Once we have read “The Birches” of Robert Frost, for example, never again will we be able to see a birch tree in the same way: it will evoke boyhood, innocence, and the candor of our adolescent years.  Thus, poetry is powerful because it makes us move in the spiritual world of truth not as a philosophical tract focused entirely on reason would, but more in the way we actually live our everyday lives: with the memories, the impressions and the emotions that make us appreciate each creature that has passed us along our way. The word “mother” could simply mean the female who has given us our biological birth, but we all know that “mother” means much more than that. Using the means of music, image, and reason, poetry involves us in our spiritual world –the world of deeper meanings – in a much more complete way.

Good Poetry Introduces Us to New Possibilities of Truth and Freedom

Not only does poetry engage us in the good spiritual activity just described, but it also introduces us to new possibilities of truth and freedom.   In his Poetics, Aristotle praises poetry as higher as or nobler than history because it does not tell of what has happened, but what may happen; in other words, good poetry opens us up to the vast domain of what is universally possible and true.  Nevertheless, these possibilities will only become realities in our life if we spiritually engage ourselves in them. For example, a Homeric epic makes possible heroic effort and attitude, but only if the reader lets himself be touched by the power of the epic will this attitude become more apt to arise in his life.  In the same way, a Shakespearean romance like the Tempest opens up the possibility of beauty in an often trying and ugly world, and a lyric of Yeats broadens the heart to understand the sad but true fleeting nature of our world.  Great poetry tutors us in truth and in freedom; it opens us existentially and effectively to a world capable of truth and beauty that we may have never have imagined before.   This is, of course, one of the reasons why it can be formative in such a powerful way.

Good Poetry Is Personal

It is precisely because poetry is an exercise in truth and freedom that it is also necessarily and highly personal*.   This is the third characteristic of great poetry:  its power to evoke gets us personally involved.   Owen Baird (member of the “Inklings” group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), said that memory is to the poet what marble is to the sculptor: a great poem works with our spirit to reveal things otherwise hidden.  Thus, on reading a great poem, we are literally awestruck when we seem to recognize its subject matter in ourselves.   The reader of Tennyson’s Ulysses, bruised and fatigued by his past experiences, may well come upon the lines of

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. 

and say “Ah, despite everything, I too can still do that!” The experiences of the poet are so forcefully portrayed that the effect on us is not so much having read something, but rather having recognized it within our own experience. Thus, great poetry reveals to us truths in us and concerning us of which we were probably not even conscious, and in the process we grow in our capacity to understand ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Enlarging Our Life and Integral Formation

Wallace Stevens called poetry one of the “enlargements of life”.  The critic Harold Bloom says something very similar at the end of his small essay “The Art of Reading Poetry”:  “The art of reading poetry is an authentic training in the augmentation of consciousness”.  According to Stevens and Bloom, reading good poetry is thus an expansion of life and its powers.  In this essay our vocabulary is different, but the meaning is basically the same: it is growth in our integral formation.  All programs of formation propose paths towards some greater “enlargement of life”, but the goal of an integral human formation asks us to make our ability to encompass life as integral and complete as possible.  If the reading and appreciation of good poetry is one way of acquiring this augmentation of consciousness and expansion of life, should it not be included as an invaluable aid in learning how to accomplish that very goal?  The great mystical German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young aspiring poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.”  Should not every person strive to be “poet” enough to live the daily riches to which his human vocation calls him?

 

Notes

  1. “Human beings love poetry. They don’t even know it sometimes… whether they’re the songs of Bono, or the songs of Justin Bieber… they’re listening to poetry”. Maya Angelou
  2. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines poetry as “metrical writing”, or “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm”. Dictionary.com defines it: “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts”. Lewis Turco’s classic The New Book of Forms defines it simply as “the art of language”.
  3. For a brilliant and brief exposition of this claim, see Joseph Pieper’s, “Only the Lover Sings”, “Thoughts about Music”.
  4. Though there are many banal musicals also, anyone who has seen the contemporary musical “Les Miserables” knows the power that music can add to a successfully written text. Those who take the time to appreciate opera know that this is even truer in the great operas of Verdi and Mozart.
  5. Cfr. Christopher Burn’s “Introduction to the Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry”

 

Fr. Bruce Wren, born in 1962 in the small town of Cottonwood, Idaho, current serves as Chaplain of the Chicago Chapter of the Lumen Institute, Section Director to the Chicago Regnum Christi Men’s section, chaplain to the Catholic Professionals of Illinois, spiritual director for many religious and lay people, and helps regularly at several parishes in the Chicago Diocese. He also devotes regular time to the feminine congregations of the Missionaries of Charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Rosary Hill Dominican Sisters. He has published one book of poetry, “Fending off the Dragon Fire”, available at Amazon.

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3 Responses

  1. The Society

    Dear Readers,

    The discussion on Fr. Bruce Wren’s essay seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot and drifted into an entirely different topic, sometimes becoming potentially libelous. Therefore, most of the comments have been removed. This decision was reached after reading comments from Advisory Board members and their private input, as well as that of the legally affected party. Our apologies to Fr. Bruce Wren if any stimulating or pertinent commentary was removed in the process and of course, in such cases, apologies to the commentators themselves who took the time to substantially comment. Thank you for your participation in the Society.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Mantyk, SCP President

    Reply
  2. Charles Southerland

    Dear Mr. Wren, your essay is spot on for these times and is deeply satisfying. Deeply. Satisfying.

    Reply

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