We want to believe that reading improves us—that libraries make us better people. I’ve heard that we study the so-called “humanities” because they make us more conscientious, compassionate, and cosmopolitan. They expand our sympathies, to phrase it in a rather Victorian manner. I had thought it was John Ruskin who said this, but a quick Google search yields the following quote from George Eliot: “If art does nothing to enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” I’m also pretty sure Browning, Twain, James, and others said almost the same thing.
But that nineteenth-century vision for gentle social progress gave way to the twentieth-century realities of the Titanic, World War I, the Great Depression and, especially, Adolf Hitler. Hitler, a principled vegetarian, painter, writer, admirer of classical architecture—civilizational idealist who understood what humans love, right down to the Volkswagen Beetle—also inhaled Nietzsche like cocaine and committed the most horrific genocide in history. In Hitler we see that the humanities’ power to “enlarge men’s sympathies” is certainly limited and possibly even dangerous. Sympathy and passion, although they account for two of the three corners of the “rhetorical triangle,” are not inherently good things.
Twentieth-century literature indicates the same danger. Modernist poetry’s poster boy, Ezra Pound, so passionately supported Benito Mussolini that he ran a pro-fascist radio show in Rome. After the war, detained in Pisa by U.S. counterintelligence, Pound told a Philadelphia Record reporter that Mussolini might have gone a little nuts but that Hitler was “a Jeanne d’Arc, a saint.” Even Gertrude Stein, who might be considered the mother of modern art and literature, and although she was Jewish, stridently supported the Vichy Regime, calling Pétain’s deal with Hitler “a miracle.” Later that same century, Charles Manson took for his primary inspiration the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”; and John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in addition to having attended a Christian liberal arts college, was so fond of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye that he brought it to court as his only defense. Immersion in “great” or “canonical” literature, music, art, and philosophy is no kind of panacea, and may not necessarily even be a healthy tonic.
Having stumbled, dazed and confused, into the twenty-first century, we’re compelled to take a new look at culture and how it shapes its users. If we are to survive and not destroy, all of us, not merely Christians, need a renewed sense of what it means to be leavened by culture, a new sense of the power, purpose, and limit of art and philosophy. No doubt the utopianism of the nineteenth century and totalitarianism of the twentieth are equally untenable, but the fact of culture—from the Latin cultura meaning “tending the land” and cousin to words like “cult”—remains. Humans will always be makers of things, always live among the things we’ve made, forever creating and being created by the environment in which we spend our days. We will always be fans and admirers—lovers and worshippers.
Like sympathy and passion, culture per se is not a good thing. “The things we make, make us,” concludes a recent Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial; and it’s true. Considering culture’s power to shape identity and behaviour, we must approach poetry, music, art—even the U.S. Supreme Court and NBA basketball—not sentimentally but with caution. The things our society has made do make us; the values and beliefs encoded in their designs are subtly transferred to us as users. Perish the thought of some kind of neutral academic environment in which anything and everything can be reviewed and discussed. That’s a modern (1500-2000) belief, a basic assumption of “liberal arts” education, and I now believe it’s unfounded. In witnessing, mingling, touching, and admiring, we worship and become. Eventually we act.
I speak from experience, having spent most of my life absorbing poetry without much discretion. When I was small, my mother read to me from Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry, and, when I learned to read, I read it myself. At my bedside, my father read Psalms and Proverbs and, I think, the entire Old Testament, which is mostly poetry. I conclude that most of that experience was helpful to me, building me in a good way. It wasn’t until I began listening to pop music that my head started to swivel and the world opened up its questionable riches.
From the sexual rapacity of Prince and Madonna to the quirkiness of the Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants, to the raw funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to the piety of Keith Green and the virtuosity of Bruce Cockburn, my first twenty years were a roiling admixture of God and man. I realize now that it wasn’t primarily sexuality or social rebelliousness (of which we Christian high school students had been duly warned!) but the more subtle and alluring aesthetic philosophies that won my allegiance. I would listen to the Talking Heads ad nauseam. I drank R.E.M. and the Smiths, ingested it like syrupy medicine, though what I was trying to cure I did not know. I also read T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens like they were going out of style. Little did I know, they actually sort of had.
Eliot’s faith was in the image. His verbal record of the tangible world, fractured and out of temporal sequence, songlike and childlike, infused with allusions to popular and high culture, stood like Laban’s pile of rocks (see Genesis 31)—symbolic of a peace accord between subject and object. Stevens worshipped the imagination. For him, reality was real inasmuch as it could be imagined to be so, and the poet’s calling was priestly: “He dwells apart in his imagination, as the philosopher dwells in his reason, and as the priest dwells in his belief.” Stevens argued that the poet had created not only reality but God himself: “If we say that the idea of God is merely a poetic idea, even if the supreme poetic idea . . . and if we are able to see the poet who achieved God and placed Him in His seat in heaven in all His glory, the poet himself . . . would have seemed . . . a man who needed what he had created, uttering the hymns of joy that followed his creation” (from his essay, “The Imagination as Value”).
Poetry’s power to create is no small matter. I absorbed Stevens’s worldview primarily through his poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which contains lines of perfect blank verse:
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
It was not the poet-as-god philosophy that captivated me in this stanza, but the music itself. “That made / the sky acutest at its vanishing” and “single artificer of the world / In which she sang” contained so many s’s and were so pleasingly iambic that they became part of my poetic DNA. Music merged with meaning in a way that left me defenseless. Not yet a poet, I was a verbal learner and could hear and remember many such lines: “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, / Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred” from the same poem, and from Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
This passage is just insane with s’s—say, dusk, streets, smoke, pipes, sleeves, “claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” The term for this is consonance, where the same consonant sound repeats at the beginnings and ends of words. Here I also loved the poet’s way of creating a certain mood: “Shall I say,” which is similar to the poem’s beginning, “Let us go.” I’ve since learned that these are invocations and establish the poem’s tone. I also bit hard on the transition between “leaning out of windows? . . .” and “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” which is a juxtaposition (in logical terms, non-sequitur) full of synecdoche (where part of something stands for the whole thing, in this case “shirt sleeves” and “claws”). I liked how the juxtaposition is partly solved by an ellipsis (three dots suggesting omitted words). Years of teaching college literature have left me a walking glossary, unfortunately.
I didn’t know any of this terminology when I was sixteen and first read “Love Song.” I encountered it in the raw, naïvely, and it had its intended effect: I remembered it. Without even noticing, I began to employ similar tactics in my own writing. I also adopted Stevens’s and Eliot’s mournful, sentimental mood, captured in the latter in the famous question, “Is it perfume from a dress / that makes me so digress?” Eliot/Prufrock says he has “known the arms already, known them all— / Arms that are braceleted and white and bare.”
I spent years trying to solve this image in my own poetry. I wrote about everything from fashion accessories to hair products, identifying them by name: Alberto VO5, Allure, Pantene. I used the titles of magazines in my poetry, Elle, Oui, and others. It wasn’t imitative; it was more like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God (in Genesis 32). I didn’t want to let Eliot go until he blessed me. I discovered the same melancholy in popular music: Morrissey, Sonic Youth (songs like “Eric’s Trip” and “Candle”), the Cure, then later in Nick Drake. I found it in classical music, too, especially in Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, but also in Bach (especially the organ music) and Beethoven’s compositions for piano (“Pathetique”). In these works I could feel not the music of the spheres but the grinding of the universal gears. Later I would see the same in Brueghel, Klimt, and Magritte. All of this recognition helped me define my own voice as a poet, but all of it carried a powerful set of philosophical assumptions and led me, in grad school, to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.
Wallace Stevens was right about one thing, at least. Poetry, since it merges music and verbal meaning, holds a creative power that is deeply persuasive. The entry fee may be steep—most people these days don’t touch poetry for fear, I think, that they won’t “get it”—but once through the gate, poetry’s user can freebase a compound that isn’t easily quit. It’s truly alchemic, or hypnotic. Sound and sense interweave to become a third thing; it’s harder to identify its “thesis” or argue against it. How does one begin to argue against Frost’s “Birches”?
Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
Ah, the imagery, the childish fascination with tree-climbing, the music of the t’s and -ard, -ear, -ore in the penultimate line—the perfection of “dipped its top and set.” Underneath all of this, or within it, Frost is saying something about heaven and earth. Because he says it so beautifully, it sounds immensely dull to reply at all, let alone to point out that love’s likely to go better in heaven, that this passage reflects an essentially humanistic worldview, that we aren’t bound “toward” heaven but to it, and that in this world we are “aliens and strangers” (Hebrews 11). What Frost describes in “Birches” is a lovely sort of purgatory that doesn’t quite exist. He creates it into existence via poetical alchemy, and I, for one, love it. I’ve memorized “Birches” more than once down the years. I’ve even written a version of it that will soon be published in The Missouri Review, including the lines: “earth’s the right place / for TV // I don’t know where else / I’d be able / to watch Charmed.”
A hard look at poetry written in English from Wordsworth to the present reveals an intense love of—and dependence on—the world. This is slippery business for Christians, because truth is mixed in: beauty is praised (Keats), time rightly viewed as fleeting, vanity decried (especially in Thomas Hardy’s undervalued oeuvre), nature threatening. In evidence of this last point, one of Stephen Crane’s short poems from War Is Kind (1899):
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
This reminds me of a verse from They Might Be Giants’ “Particle Man”:
Universe man, universe man,
Size of the entire universe man—
Usually kind to smaller man,
The song also introduces, playfully, Triangle Man and Person Man—the latter of which, “hit on the head with a frying pan, / lives his life in a garbage can.” Incredibly dull, perhaps, as though one isn’t quite catching the humour, to ask what worldview these lyrics embody, but my kids love this song (and the whole TMBG catalog), so I’ll ask. A purely rational analysis of the song’s philosophical content yields a sort of deistic fatalism. Assuming the song’s deity to be Universe Man, compare “Usually kind” to John 3:16, which provides a concrete example of the length to which God has gone to reclaim and renew “smaller man.” While this kind of reading irks even me, and I’m not easily irked by rangy interpretive strategies, I still assume that the listener comes away with something—call them values, beliefs, assumptions—about the way things are and ought to be. Funny though “Particle Man” is, it is something; that is, it functions in a certain way. It is also forever stuck in my head, the way Psalm 23 and the Doxology are stuck in my head.
How does poetry persuade? I don’t want to give the sense that I think it’s by hypnotism, always to be wary of, awakened from. But after twenty years of writing, publishing, publically reading, and privately thinking about poetry I know that its form of persuasion is not obvious. The best poetry doesn’t arrive as propaganda or a tract. A great poem’s thesis may not be obvious, but no poem is without a thesis. And great poetry is especially powerful because it’s so beautifully memorable. Great poetry, compact and musical, begs its audience to remember it. Even notgreat poetry gets stuck in its audience’s head. I tune my car stereo to a classic rock station and know at least half the lyrics and instinctively sing along. The words just get stuck, and they’re all in my memory bank. They’ve made me, I’m sorry, who I am today.
If it’s difficult to be exposed to any form of human culture without being affected by it, it’s practically impossible to resist the perfume of poetry. The words, the wordplay, and the music merge to form a particularly seductive mental property that quickly becomes a fixture. What those words in that order actually mean becomes how they direct our footsteps and where, eventually, we go. Do we care where we go?
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” That’s the modern fetish for the aesthetic, articulated more than a century ago. He was wrong, and so was I.