Where Parnassus Meets Young Hearts: The Use of the Poetic Mode in the Classroom

Dr. Kenneth Klassen, a pupil of Drs. John Senior, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick in KU’s Integrated Humanities Program, is the Academic Dean at Saint Martin’s Academy.

And God gave to Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart as the sand that is on the sea shore.  And the wisdom of Solomon surpassed the wisdom of all the Orientals, and the Egyptians, And he was wiser than all men . . . and he was renowned in all nations round about.  Solomon spoke three thousand parables: and his poems were a thousand and five. And he treated about trees from the cedar that is in Libanus, unto the hyssop that cometh out of the well: and he discoursed of beasts, and of fowls,and of creeping things, and of fishes.  And they came from all nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who heard his wisdom. (III Kings: 4, 29-33 )

Of the four types of intellectual knowledge–philosophical, dialectical, probable, and poetic–the poetic mode trumps all in terms of universality, intimacy, relevance, penetration and usually personal value.  Each type of knowledge differs according to the matter known and the soul’s mode of apprehension. Philosophical knowledge, absolutely certain, deals with particulars applied to universal principles. Logic, ethics, Aristotelian politics, philosophical physics, and metaphysics fall under this reasoning.  Dialectical and probable knowledge involve inferences drawn from generalizations, highly or less highly known in degree of certainty; these are applied to particulars to arrive at reasonable conclusions. Dialectical consideration seeks the high degree of certitude of the courtroom or dependable scientific theories, such as those  involving gravitational attraction or planetary motion. Merely probable knowledge applies to weather predictions, economic investments, actuarial science, and to debatable scientific theories, such as evolution or human contributions to global warming. These conclusions are limited by the lesser degree of universality of principles applied or by the limitations of comprehension of the particulars involved.  Nowhere can this be better seen than in the current realm of American politics, whose volatility and intense disagreement shows the limits of speculative accuracy and prudential judgment regarding temporal events.

Poetic knowledge differs both in what is known and in its mode of apprehension.  It is able to be articulated of the types of knowledge and works on the level of suspicion rather than rational clarity.  As an analogy, philosophical, dialectic, and probable knowledge allow us to see the world around us as in daylight. We look directly at things and gain an acute awareness of their surface qualities.  But poetic knowledge is perceived as if we were looking at the heavens at night, when to see the stars we must look slightly askance rather than directly at them. But thus we can delve into the dark, deep mysteries of the universe when superficial observation by daylight doesn’t even permit us to see these wonders.  Poetic knowledge deals with our abstract images of concrete objects, from which sensations are gathered and joined in a composite common sense image. If this were the extent of poetic knowledge, this sort of understanding would be of limited significance. But rather these images are then placed beside others in metaphoric combinations; the associations of images cause the mind to draw conclusions through analogy.  This praxis of analogy enables us to “duc in altum,” that is, cast out into murky, deep of unfathomable mystery. These mysteries include the subjects of love, birth, suffering, death, honor, sacrifice, holiness, and the sanctity of life. This mode of knowing, though seeing most obscurely through experience of the unknown transcendent realm, paradoxically drives our pursuit of meaning. Through this knowledge the mind becomes apt for meditative thought, contemplation, and ultimately, wisdom.

The poetic mode can be a tool for rhetorical persuasion as well.  Let me provide an example. An old acquaintance, a physician, carried on in a medical journal a debate as to when life support and medical care should be withdrawn from long-suffering patients with a so-called low quality of life.  My acquaintance said life support, including food and hydration, should be provide until the organs begin shutting down, leading irreversibly to death. The decision to passively euthanize a patient should never be chosen. Life is a gift from God and should be preserved due to the inherent sanctity of human life.  His opponent, an oncologist, said support should only continue until the patient’s financial resources have been exhausted. To end a comatose, vegetative patient’s life is actually a merciful gesture giving both the patient and the suffering family relief from their unremitting distress. Such a choice though difficult is the compassionate and appropriate call.  Such was the decision in the Terri Schiavo case a few years ago, when Terri’s husband decided to end her life through dehydration and starvation, even though Terri was able in a limited way to interact with those around her. The debate was carried on in the philosophical, dialectical, and probable intellectual realms, but ended with some finality in the mode of the poetic.  The oncologist told my acquaintance he was a mere opthamologist, and a specialist at that. He as an oncologist had cared for several dying patients. He knew their angst, their life ending only after what he saw to be meaningless tragic suffering. What did an opthamologist know of the reality of the comatose patient? The oncologist’s graphic, poetic image of this suffering soul carried great weight. But swift came the opthamologist’s response. “My parents,” the opthamologist said, “loved to play tennis, especially after my dad retired and had much more free time.  They would play around the lunch hour for one or two spirited sets. One day two years ago mom collapsed, suffering from what was diagnosed as a massive stroke. Hospitalized, she was given small chance to ever improve. She likely would never regain consciousness; brain function would be highly limited; she would never walk, eat by herself, talk, or enjoy what many consider an acceptable quality of life. The attending physician recommended life support be withdrawn and mom be allowed to die an easy, dignified death. My father disagreed. He stayed at mom’s bedside every day, holding mom’s hand and talking to her or reading aloud to her.  Sometimes he just sat silently present so as to be there when his dear wife awakened. Then one day after several months she did awake, lucid and coherent. A short time later she regained her ability to walk. Three weeks ago dad and she played two sets of tennis under the hot Kansas sun.” That poetic story finished the debate. That woman represented everyone’s mother. Her remarkable, if not miraculous, recovery was a source of hope for anyone in similar circumstances. It certainly is a cause for wonder. No life can be reduced to mere dollars and cents; no suffering cannot be meritorious.

There are no Cartesian measures of poetic knowledge.  Its accuracy depends upon the resonant chord struck in the beholder due to the common formal principle of wonder– synonymous with awe, astonishment, or admiration.  The English word wonder is the same as the Latin mirare and Greek thauma..  Thaumas was the Greek god of the wondrous and the father of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow.  Wonder in English has multiple meanings, including curiosity, speculation, and strong sensational response.  But these fall short of the Aristotelian sense of a recognition and response to the infinite mystery that lies beyond human comprehension.  We humans can apprehend some of the mystery and stand under it (from whence the word understand derives), but the fullness of the transcendent lies beyond our limited nature.  Ultimate mysteries include the supernatural sacred realities of the Incarnation and Trinity, but also the great, immeasurable human events of conception, birth, vocation, love, suffering, death, sacrifice.  And also the great wonders of nature, from the creatures Solomon “treated on” to the sunsets and stars and natural beauty that holds appreciative onlookers in awe. That’s what the Psalmist King David meant when he wrote,” Dominus, dominus noster, quam admirabile est nomen tuum in universa terra.” (O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is Thy name in all the earth!)  

The occasions for wonder lie often in gymnastic experience, that is, the direct “naked” experience with things.  The Greek word gymnos means naked; Greek athletes exercised without clothing in their gymnasia.  For us today the gymnastic experience has to do with directly experiencing the natural world, not through textbooks or manipulative classroom experiments, but rather as Wordsworth says, “Let Nature be your guide.”  The great medieval encyclopedic scientist the Venerable Luis of Granada wrote that God has written two books. The first and foremost is the revelation provided by Sacred Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And the second is the book of Nature, open to all of us in the great outdoors.  So when we experience the natural world, we read the attributes of the immanent Creator who made all things and still sustains them in existence. These created things first delight us, then lead us to wonder, and finally to the poetic knowledge of praise and song that transcends the analysis of the artificial laboratory.  “Quam admirabile” is our poetic conclusion.

This wonder elevates the mind to Truth; this admiration is the generating principle of the poets’ verses, songs, and stories that captures a creative, quickening vision sharing what the poets have seen inspirationally by the muses with minds struck by the  resonance that in turn generates another poetic heart and mind. The mark of great literature is its ability to communicate wonder; ephemeral literature never rises to this profound levels. Instead of casting into the deep, it wades comfortably in the shallows.  Though clever and witty, sensational and graphic, socially “relevant”, it lacks the depth of wondrous mystery and never engages the infinite depths of our human search for Truth.

The literary giants of our culture, writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dickens, Dante, Vergil, Homer, certainly evoke wonder in many aspects.  And characters in their stories are often struck with awe, astonishment, and wondrous admiration; these same characters have the ability to convey that same wonder to us readers.  Common to all of us is this poetic sensibility; by connecting images deliberately or subconsciously, we can join in the common human pursuit of meaning. The great authors perhaps communicate these mysteries more effectively, but we all have the capacity to celebrate and utilize our poetic vision.  This vision can delve more deeply than the other modes of human reason. Unfortunately, this wonder is often driven out of children by school systems concerned with facts and analysis, social adjustment and subsequent political correctness. How sad! How shallow!! The infinite mysteries of the cosmos are reduced to heatless algorithms–as if God was reduced to a giant calculating automaton, moved by Swiss watchmaking precision rather than by Divine Love.

The formal principle of wonder integrated into the metaphorical connections between the objects recorded in our imaginations comprises the form and matter of the poetic mode.  When we say we “get into” a story, both of these principles have struck a resonant chord in our soul. Perhaps this principle of physical resonance is the best way to explain this intellectual joining of souls, a natural participation in the “cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart) of which the spiritual writers discuss with our connecting to God in our prayer.  Our lives provide us with numerous memories gathered from passionate experience. The passions are both concupiscible and irascible: love and hate, joy and sadness, desire and aversion, hope, fear, audacity, anger, and despair. These emotions weave their way into our memories and intellectual fabric. Many times these memories lie latent; even if recalled they are vague and difficult to clearly articulate.  Over time these memories sink into the subconscious, seemingly erased and forgotten. But when the poet describes an analogous experience, or we find ourselves in similar surroundings to a past experience, the memory rekindles through our imagination’s vision what we had previously overtly known. When the poet describes an experience or even just an object, it is as if an intellectual concussive wave disperses through space, like the circular ripples on a pond radiating from a central point of disturbance.  The poet’s encapsulated crystalline vibration sends out waves in a series of reverberations that strike the hearts of listeners throughout space and time. The imaginations of this audience itself begin to sympathetically vibrate like the strings of a guitar that cause our eardrums to resonate at the played frequency. If we do not have a memory of the experience described the poet’s notes might pass through us without response. But if some analog lies within our active or passive memory, then our intellects resonate and once again, and that past experience lives in the imagination of the listeners.  Such was the reaction of the disciples walking unknowingly with the risen Lord to Emmaus. “ Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in the way. And opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). This is the manner poetry radiates to and through souls. Notice the use of the singular heart in the passage; poetry unifies and somehow makes us one with a given experience and one with one another, like the heart of the lover with his beloved.

Yet another way of considering the poetic mode is the consideration of its efficient cause.  This can refer to the [poets themselves, but it can can refer to the sources of the poets’ inspiration, the so-called muses of the Greeks.  These muses were said to be the daughters of Mnosthene, goddess of memory. The poets in the traditional sense are the media through which these muses  transmit their imaginative works of wonder evoking memories in listeners or readers. Calliope is the epic muse and inspires the relating of great and noble deeds.  Euterpe, the lyric muse, captures the eternal, perennial truths of given moments. Erata arouses those delightful warm and often sentimental recollections of romantic love.  Clio makes the deeds of history come alive in recounting the past. Terpsichore lifts voices in choral song and feet in lively, elegant dance. Urania, muse of astronomy, elevates our eyes and minds to the heavens as we gaze into the dark but brilliantly lit night sky.  “The heavens declare the glory of God. (Psalm ). Thalia is the uplifting comic muse that relates stories with a hopeful, bright expectation; Melpomene, Thalia’s counterweight, sees the darkness invoking suffering and despair. Lastly, Polyhymnia is the sacred muse that inspires sacred song, poetic verse,  and spiritual story. These muses all together inspire the wide variety of poetic output that enriches the imaginations of their audience, helping them crystallize and enkindle meaningful recollected memories from the past as well as prepare for future experience of the kind described.

From the pedagogical point view, how can we and should we integrate this poetic mode into our classrooms?  The why is quite simple: students have both powerful memories and imaginations.The contemporary secondary students suffer from three debilitating factors: the virtually omnipresent world of artificial technology and withdrawal from the natural world; the sentimentality imposed through caricaturish fantasy, and an apathy produced by what students perceive as the meaninglessness of education and often the emptiness of life itself.  This ennui leads often to a nihilistic violent anger or a disordered, self-destructive hedonism. A healthy poetic pedagogy cannot easily overcome these intellectual wounds, but can over time heal wounded imaginations if further supported by wholesome experience. The teacher in the poetic mode is a type of intellectual midwife to assist students to give birth to ideas which will in turn be used for reflection, meditation and perhaps even contemplation ending in wisdom.  Without the familial love of the poetic, the analysis and rhetorical argument of the student is merely the knowledge that St. Paul says “puffeth up,” as opposed to the warm fire enkindled in the disciples walking to Emmaus.

The discipline of the poetic teacher varies according to individual personality, but involves predictable, practiced means.  First and foremost, the instructor must possess a flexible and fertile imaggination.To be used as resources, the pedagogue must know a host of stories and anecdotes, ones that shed light on the many areas that emerge during classroom conversation.  Good verse read aloud and often memorized provides another treasure trove of poetry to inform students. At times lyric verse can be integrated with melody to share indelible songs. Scenes from plays or prose stories can be dramatically performed to fully engage students , body and soul, in works studied.  Works of art and student illustration is another gymnastic poetic connection, though these be not my forte. I have frequently through the years used various physical props to enhance poetic interest and sometimes wonder. Older students can work largely through verbal communication; younger students benefit from games and activities.  But the key is to address the imagination and combine it with gymnastic experience rather than reducing study to merely analysis. Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.” Breaking down things is way of analysis; building the synthetic imagination is the way of poetic learning. If wisdom is that which binds student to teacher in friendship, poetic wonder is the chief tool the wise teacher utilizes to draw students out into the deep.  “Duc in altum” is the motto of St. Martin’s; Christ, the Teacher of all teachers, poetically by parable and example follows in the tradition He himself initiated through Old Testament figures such as King Solomon. Solomon’s wisdom, made manifest through story and verse, drawing on numerous examples from nature still provides a standard by which effective teaching can be measured today. May Solomon intercede for us at St. Martin’s so that we too can lead students to wise thought and prudent decisions.

 

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