bizarro puppy fight

These puppies don’t look quite so harmless anymore.

Don’t kill for poetry. By that I mean don’t take a gun into your hands, like Mark David Chapman (or Robert John Bardo, or John Hinckley Jr.), and shoot John Lennon (or Rebecca Schaeffer, or Ronald Reagan, respectively) because you were moved by The Catcher in the Rye. Don’t become so affected by a work of art, as Josef Nikolaus Kreer reportedly did on April 13th, 1982 (and four years later, Gerard Jan van Bladeren), when viewing one of Barnett Newman’s terrifying paintings, that you are forced to spontaneously destroy the object of your fear.

Do believe that poetry can kill. If you believe in poetry’s real potential to spur action, to do damage, to destroy, to hurt, then maybe you will have a sense of the awesome power you wield when you pick up your pen, or sit down at your computer, or sharpen your quill with a knife fashioned from Byron’s mouldy bones (in the dim light of your only candle, while a storm rages outside and Wagner booms from your iPhone). 

Of course, poetry is (thankfully) not limited to inciting violence. It can also create, nurture, and soothe. And maybe the reason you should understand poetry’s power in the first place is so you execute appropriate restraint when engaging with it. The stakes in poetry are real, maybe even more real than their material consequences. Poets should never play down the extent to which their work is important. I believe E Martin Nolan does this in a recent post on this blog, “PUPPY FIGHT.” I understand that he was attempting to diminish a debate that he thought was beside the point, but in the process he inadvertently took a few shots at poetry. There are enough people who have nothing to do with poetry willing to play down its importance; poets don’t need to get in on that themselves. Poetry isn’t just “delightful,” as Nolan writes. There isn’t “little at stake.”

Without poetry, we wouldn’t have a basis for understanding love, beauty, fear, violence, or awe. Far from being a supplement to human experience, poetry might in fact manifest our understanding of that experience. I got this idea from Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion, a book that challenges the claim that human experience is formed by our physical environments and not the other way around. Obviously there is nothing controversial about the existence of the physical universe, but our physical selves are not the extent of what it means to be human.

As White explains in his book, regardless of how much we learn about the human brain, consciousness cannot be explained satisfactorily in part because our explanations don’t really mean anything to the experience of existing. It is a philosophic, not scientific, problem, as the eighteenth-century philosopher Johann Fichte notes in The Vocation of Man:

Those original forces of nature are not to be explained at all, nor can they be explained, for everything explainable is explained by them. There just happens to be thought, it simply is, just as the formative force of nature just happens to be and simply is.

Which is another way of saying that no matter how many primary causes we line up (and we’ve come a long way since Fichte’s time), we just add to the catalogue—just more turtles stacked upon turtles.

In other words, poetry is not superfluous to reality. Because science is too focused on primary causes, poetry is one of the few tools we have for explaining and exploring human experience, which is probably why it is so often said that reading literature increases our capacity for empathy. But it does more than just describe our current experiences: it shapes our future as well. Shakespeare introduced so many new words into the English lexicon only because his poetry made those words resonate in the minds of his audiences and readers. In the process, his words and images created new ways of looking at the world. As White explains, Romantic poetry and landscapes caused us to recognize that the natural world was “beautiful” in its “pristine” state, and not necessarily the other way around.[1]

The message of Don Quixote isn’t that Quixote is insane, but that the courtly love and chivalry he read about had no basis in reality—and that to live as if it did would be insane. Most of us recognize that we’re not knights riding out to win romantic favour from a Lord or Lady, but the love codified in early romances or in later sixteenth century poetry is still discussed in movies, music, literature, and advertising as if it has a corresponding real existence. But love doesn’t “exist” in the physical world: it wholly belongs to the metaphysical infrastructure augmenting human reality known as culture. Most, if not all, of romantic longing and desire is created by culture, but that doesn’t make the experience of being in love any less “real,” just more complicated.

“Love” is different in reality than it is in art, because in art love can be a utopia, whereas nothing in reality ever functions that way. When we read a book, look at art, or watch a movie, I think to some extent we believe that the ups and downs, the alienations, triumphs, and bursts of feeling we experience are permanent or eternal, and that influences our own experiences, which are not as neatly summarized, wrapped up, or arranged.

And maybe that explains something about human experience: maybe there is always a disconnect between our physical and metaphysical selves, and poetry or art is one method, maybe the most important method, that humans have developed to bridge the gap, to bring the world of the concrete into our imaginations. So long as this disconnect exists (and it is likely to exist for at least as long as human consciousness does), poetry will always be more than “delightful.” It will remain necessary and urgent. Isn’t that why we wrestle with other puppies?



[1] On a recent train ride I had a chance to notice that even in a car with large unobstructed windows facing both sides of the track, passing farms, forests, and a completely unadorned, almost savage, Lake Ontario, someone at Via Rail still thought it was necessary to hang a landscape painting in the front of the car, as if to direct our appreciation.

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