In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters. Critics do not matter. The judgments of others do not matter. Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates. If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole. You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.
From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic. I think the best poetry is also useful. That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting? Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?
Poetry can be useful, and the greatest poetry is almost always useful. Poetry originated our need to communicate basic lessons about nature. When do you plant what seeds, and what are the signs for harvest? It’s not the most exciting thing to learn by rote the patterns of the stars, so these became stories, with personified heroes and gods, and this became mythology as poet after poet added layers to the basic lessons. From the ancient Babylonian practice of parallel themes within poetic couplets, which birthed the poetry of The Bible and so many other religions that endure to this day, to the Homeric Hymns derived from centuries of elaboration by Greek poets, to the Nordic edda and skalds (and thus scops and makars), whose tales embroidered the maps and navigation that gave them mastery of the oceans, evolving into the great sagas. Then there are the storytelling traditions throughout African and the pre-colonial New World.
Now that social utility is better developed than the needs of simple agriculture, the range of poetic usefulness is broader. Uses range from the sacred—bringing yourself through incantation closer to the deity of your chosen religion—to the profane—throwing out some choice quotes at a dinner party to impress the guests. But lyric poetry, light verse and the like emerged because you can’t just sit and listen to lessons hour after hour. You need diversions, and these diversions over time, as technology has reduced the need for mimetic means of communication, have become the essence of poetry. Music, of course, started as the accompaniment to poetry, and emerged into its own separate art form.
Poetry was life-blood in the days when we peopled ever more inhospitable corners of the earth, and pragmatic lessons passed from settlement to settlement, and generation to generation were an urgent matter. Poetry will never again be so important now that it’s main function is enjoyment rather than survival, and that is just the nature of things, but that doesn’t mean the concept of useful poetry is dead.
I myself use poetry in place of religious prayer and incantation. I recite memorized poetry to myself at times of stress—it has an amazing ability to calm me—or even when I’m bored and have no book handy.
Considering most of my audience here are writers, I’ll mention that I use poetry to improve my facility with language. Poetry, almost by definition, is the repository of extraordinary language, and having extraordinary at the fingertips makes it easier to express yourself even ordinarily. I’ve found that the more poetry I have coursing through my veins, the faster I write, the less I suffer writer’s block, and the more readily I marshal all the latent intellectual resources at my disposal. That doesn’t just go for literary writing. I also write a lot of technical articles in my professional career, and as a businessman I write a lot of commercial correspondence. It is a real gift to be able to do so very efficiently, focusing less on the mechanics of writing than on the technical and business problems at hand. I fully credit that to devoted reading and memorization of poetry.
For more general advocacy, I’ll level the biggest weapon. Greg Olear tipped his cap this way in comments to the last piece where he said:
“In college, I memorized “To His Coy Mistress,” and used it as a pick-up line. Totally worked. A poem 400 years old!”
Poetry will never outlast its romantic uses. Whether your Cyrano is a talented friend, a long-dead icon such as Andrew Marvell, author of “To His Coy Mistress,”¹ or you got it well covered yourself (you poetic vixen/stud), use poetry to get you some. And I don’t know how I can offer any better advocacy than that.
I selected this next poem not because it has “useful” in its title, but because sometimes the greatest use for poetry is to stimulate sympathy to an expressed perspective. This poem is brilliant in how effectively it makes you see a given situation that’s only too common. I felt it really made me understand something I’m lucky never to have experienced myself.
Catherine Tufariello is an accomplished and well-anthologized poet whose work I greatly enjoy, and recommend for her combination of sublime skill in verse with a very natural voice. She resides in Indiana with her family, where she teaches at Valparaiso University.
“Useful Advice” by Catherine Tufariello
You’re 37? Don’t you think that maybe
It’s time you settled down and had a baby?
No wine? Does this mean happy news? I knew it!
Hey, are you sure you two know how to do it?
All Dennis has to do is look at me
And I’m knocked up.
Some things aren’t meant to be.
It’s sad, but try to see this as God’s will.
I’ve heard that sometimes when you take the Pill—
A friend of mine got pregnant when she stopped
Working so hard.
Why don’t you two adopt?
You’ll have one of your own then, like my niece.
At work I heard about this herb from Greece—
My sister swears by dong quai. Want to try it?
Forget the high-tech stuff. Just change your diet.
It’s true! Too much caffeine can make you sterile.
Yoga is good for that. My cousin Carol—
They have these ceremonies in Peru—
You mind my asking, is it him or you?
Have you tried acupuncture? Meditation?
It’s in your head. Relax! Take a vacation
And have some fun. You think too much. Stop trying.
Did I say something wrong? Why are you crying?
(posted with permission from the Author)
For the second poem, I’ve chosen an excerpt from the beginning of Fulke Greville’s marvelous 16th century poem, “A Treatise of Humane Learning.” I chose it because it is one of the best didactic poems in English, and it has a real use. In it Greville lays out the concepts of humanism, which, from adaptation of platonic ideas by Erasmus at The University of Paris, through flowering in the renaissance, is the engine of Western civilization and modern thinking.
If you want to understand the forces behind the Reformation, behind much Western Philosophy in the spirit of Descartes, behind the exploration and colonization period of European history, behind the enlightened Caliphates of Moorish Spain (yes, Saracens often cottoned on much more quickly than white Europeans), behind the English Civil War, French and American revolutions, and ultimately behind socialism and thus the Russian revolution, as well as the Adam-Smith-derived economic science that evolved in parallel, you may never find a better discussion than Greville’s poem.
This poem is also aesthetically beautiful, and brilliantly crafted, which has not always been the case with didactic poetry. In fact, the reason you rarely see such poems in the modern age is because hacks put out stuff well worthy of ridicule in English as well as French after the Renaissance, and the influential Romantic poets (Wordsworth in particular) pretty much banished the practice. Yes, even my excerpt is a bit long (I selected from 152 total stanzas) but again I think the pay-off in food for thought is well worth it.
I look forward to discussion of how Greville’s characterizations of the various functions of consciousness, intelligence and reason match your modern take on these concepts.
Sir Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke was a Baron, accomplished statesman, and one of the greatest Elizabethan poets. I love Shakespeare and Sidney, but I’ve often felt that Greville is more suited to the modern ear because he is less fanciful in his style. Greville was also a famous biographer of Sidney.
I have modernized spelling throughout the poem.
“A Treatise of Humane Learning” by Fulke Greville
The mind of man is this world’s true dimension;
And Knowledge is the measure of the mind:
And as the mind, in her vast comprehension,
Contains more worlds than all the world can find:
So knowledge does itself far more extend,
Than all the minds of men can comprehend.
A climbing height it is without a head,
Depth without bottom, way without an end;
A circle with no line environed;
Not comprehended, all it comprehends;
Worth infinite, yet satisfies no mind
Till it that infinite of the God-head find.
This knowledge is the same forbidden tree,
Which man lusts after to be his Maker;
For knowledge is of Power’s eternity,
And perfect Glory, the true image-taker;
So as what does the infinite contain,
Must be as infinite as it again.
For our defects in nature who sees not?
We enter, first things present not conceiving,
Not knowing future, what is past forgot:
All other creatures instant power receiving,
To help themselves; Man only brings sense
To feel and wail his native impotence.
Which Sense, man’s first instructor, while it shows
To free him from deceit, deceives him most;
And from this false root that mistaking grows,
Which truth in humane knowledge knowledge has lost:
So that by judging Sense herein, perfection,
Man must deny his nature’s imperfection.
Knowledge’s next organ is Imagination;
A glass, wherein the object of our Sense
Ought to respect true height or declination,
For understanding clears intelligence: “clears”: illuminates
For this Power also has her variation,
Fixed in some, in some with difference;
In all, so shadowed with self-application,
As makes her pictures, still too foul or fair;
Not like the life in lineament or air.
This power besides, always cannot receive
What Sense reports, but what the affections please
To admit; ‘and as those princes that do leave
‘Their State in trust to men corrupt with ease,
‘False in their faith or but to faction friend;
‘The truth of things can scarcely comprehend.
So must the Imagination from the Sense
Be misinformed, while our affections cast
False shapes and forms, on their intelligence,
And to keep out true intromission thence,
Abstracts the imagination, or distastes,
With images preoccupately placed. “preoccupately”: with obsessive care
Hence our desires, fears, hopes, love, hate, and sorrow,
In fancy make us hear, feel, see impressions,
Such as out of our Sense they do not borrow;
And are the efficient cause, the true progression
Of sleeping visions, idle phantasms waking;
Life, dreams; and knowledge, apparitions making.
Again, our Memory, register of Sense,
And mould of arts, as mother of Induction,
Corrupted with disguised intelligence,
Can yield no images for man’s instruction:
But—from stained wombs—abortive birth
Of strange opinions, to confound the Earth.
The last chief oracle of what man knows
Is Understanding; which though it contain
Some ruinous notions, which our nature shows,
Of general truths, yet have they such a stain
From our corruption, as all light they lose;
Save to convince of ignorance and sin,
Which where they reign let no perfection in.
Nor in any right line can her eyes ascend,
To view the things that immaterial are;
‘For as the sun does, while his beams descend,
‘Lighten the Earth, but shadow every star:
So Reason stooping to attend the Sense,
Darkens the spirit’s clear intelligence.
Again, we see the best complexions vain,
And in the worst, more nimble subtlety:
From whence Wit, a distemper of the brain,
The Schools conclude; and our capacity
How much more sharp, the more it apprehends,
Still to distract, and less Truth comprehends.
But all these natural defects perchance
May be supplied by Sciences and Arts;
Which we thirst after, study, admire, advance,
As if restore our fall, recure our smarts “recure”: recover
They could, bring in perfection, burn our rods;
With Demades to make us like our gods. “Demades”: author of a life of Alexander the Great; possibly the first to suggest literal divinity for Alexander
Please remember, dear reader, that you are the key part of this column. Do tell what you think of these poems. What do you like about them? Do you have other poems you find useful in any way? What do you think bout the idea of utility of poetry, and in art? And I’m always looking for discussion of poetry in general? What have been your experiences? Do you have any poems you recommend to people who normally wouldn’t bother with poetry? Any poets you wished more people would check out? Any thoughts on big-name poems or poets you find overrated?
¹There have been numerous poetic responses to Andrew Marvell’s classic, from the very earnest to the very ironical, which in itself illustrates the imaginative power of the pastoral love lyric.