Every attempt at certain arguments reminds some of us of watching a particularly grisly and unfortunate accident in progress. Just because they are mentioned in the same sentences by the great and wise does not mean that these three things go together: scholarship, science and poetry.
Don Quixote, said to be the world’s first novel, makes the point mischievously. ‘Children,’ Cervantes has the arch-enemy of windmills pronounce in the translation Project Gutenberg carries, ‘are portions of their parents’ bowels,’ and must be acquainted with the ‘science’ of poetry – using the term when it had nothing to do with experimenting but meant something like ‘producing knowledge’. He continues:
Poetry, gentle sir, is, […] like a tender young maiden of supreme beauty, to array, bedeck, and adorn whom is the task of several other maidens, who are all the rest of the sciences; and she must avail herself of the help of all, and all derive their lustre from her.
[…] according to a true belief, a poet is born one; that is to
say, the poet by nature comes forth a poet from his mother’s womb; and following the bent that heaven has bestowed upon him, without the aid of study or art, he produces things that show how truly he spoke who said,
‘Est Deus in nobis,’ etc. At the same time, I say that the poet by nature who calls in art to his aid will be a far better poet, and will surpass him who tries to be one relying upon his knowledge of art alone. The reason is, that art does not surpass nature, but only brings it to perfection; and thus, nature combined with art, and art with nature, will
produce a perfect poet.
Why the persistent over-reaching, the insistence that poetry is in some vital sense ‘the same as’ science – or mathematics, as Shirley Dent, an adventurous but sometimes petrifyingly quixotic blogger, argues this week in ‘Maths and poetry have a special relationship’ ? To summon Einstein saying, ‘Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas’ does not prove that the mental processes involved overlap more than very slightly – in that both calculus and Coleridge’s Xanadu involve distilled and concentrated thought, imagination, and abstraction.
Her first claim for their alikeness, that we learn to count numbers at the same age at which we first recite poetry, made me wonder why she didn’t go on to explain what precious insight potty training – also associated with that phase – has to offer into ‘One, two, buckle my shoe,’ or the failure to faint at the sight of a logarithmic table.
I blame the one art with which real poetry overlaps – poetry in which rhythm is always detectable – for batty, irresponsible knight-errantry like Dent’s. In Musicophilia, his riveting report on what neuroscience has to tell us about music’s meaning for us, Oliver Sacks says that
[M]usic calls to both parts of our nature – it is essentially emotional, as it is essentially intellectual.
. . . and . . .
[W] e have separate and distinct mechanisms for appreciating the structural and emotional aspects of music […]
So it is only one half of what music is that resembles the sciences. My guess is that it’s anxiety about the intellectual respectability of poetry in a technocratic age, and the hope of glamour by association with maths and science, that are driving people like Dent in their hopeless quests for commonality.
Modern science, like scholarship, is about patient and minute logical analysis. Sacks reminds us that those are types of mental effort that can push our brains too far in the direction of structuring and systematising, bypassing – and even degrading – our capacity to appreciate the wonderfully strange ways in which music splices together thinking and feeling. Even if there have been miraculous minds like Lewis Carroll’s capable of leaping across the divide, I’d suppose that what’s true of music is almost certainly true of poetry, as in this complaint of Charles Darwin’s that Sacks mentions:
Formerly pictures gave me considerable and music very intense delight. But now . . . I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music. My mind seems to have become a sort of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact . . . The loss of these tastes, this curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes, is a loss of happiness […]
. . . and this one, by Sigmund Freud, a few sentences later, explaining that though powerfully affected by some works of art, he cannot enjoy them without being able to explain them:
Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.
Realising this young kept some of us from the formal study of art and literature – and in my case, was responsible for frantic and elaborate, intricate doodling in the backs of exercise books to shut out nearly all dissections of novels, plays and poems in school classrooms.
Anyone thinking about the difference between making art and its analysis might want to consider Ecclesiastes’. . .
He that observeth the wind shall not sow . . .
. . . or my most pressing reason for writing this post, which is adding the best words I’ve ever read about poems and poets, Robert Frost’s The Figure A Poem Makes, to the Geniuses section of this site. Here’s the most essential truth about poetry’s relationship to systematic thought:
Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art.
That’s Cervantes’ idea too, said differently.