‘In an age dominated as much as the past two centuries have been by science and the scientific method, those who fear mechanism have turned for support to the poets and artists. Professor Whitehead suggested that the metaphysicians of the future may be its poets rather than its philosophers, and that more than once, as in the case of Plato, this had been true of the past as well … In Kierkegaard’s century, the opposition to the primacy of intellect as the medium for acquiring knowledge came especially from the Romantic school of writers and thinkers in Germany, France, and England. Realizing that scientific mechanism would bring on what Nietzsche termed “the devaluation of all values,” the Romantics demanded the recognition that poetry communicated a higher knowledge than did prose, and that there was a wisdom in the history of the race which the intellect could neither transmit nor judge’.
So penned Jaroslav Pelikan in his richly-rewarding study Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955). While I do not consider myself one who dances with the Romantics (perhaps if you saw me dance you would understand something of why), I am unashamedly one of those who has – in the face of modernity’s unbridled confidence in scientific method – ‘turned for support to the poets and artists’. Consequently, and for some time now, it has been my practice to read a poem a day. Currently, I’m steadily making my way through C.K. Stead’s Collected Poems, 1951–2006, and a great collection by David R. Slavitt, The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems. Here’s Slavitt’s ‘Stupid’:
The sneezing having abated, the throat no longer
sore, I am nonetheless less, exhausted, stupid
as if my mental rheostat were turned down.
Paragraphs in books became opaque.
Even the talk on the radio faded in
and out, its reception fine but mine not.
An interesting adventure, one might have imagined,
but stupidity finds nothing interesting,
infecting, dulling the whole world down to itself,
with the one brilliant, heartbreaking exception—
that the dreams of the stupid are vivid as yours or mine,
their colors as bright, their mysteries all the more
mysterious and profound. Beyond, beneath
that intelligence we hold dear, they come into their own.
– David R. Slavitt, ‘Stupid’, in The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 16.
And let me share another one. Slavitt again, this time on ‘What Is Poetry About?’ (from pp. 17–18)
Or ask, rather, what earthly good is it,
when a trivial thing like not being able to find
my silver and amber pillbox can ruin my morning?
It’s somewhere here, I had it yesterday, I couldn’t have lost it,
but I can’t find it, which is as good as or as bad as.
One ought not to be too attached to objects, of course, and it is uneconomic
to pay a psychiatrist more to hear one’s kvetches about losing, say, a pillbox,
than the thing cost in the first place. But then think of the vessels
at Balthazar’s feast, not just cathected objects,
but holy, stolen out of the Temple by his father, Nebuchadnezzar.
This pillbox was from Krakow, a gift from my daughter.
We’d had a lovely day at Auschwitz … No, seriously, a good day,
with a Purim service at the end of it, and the old men, the remnants, the relicts,
chanting about Haman and his ignominious end in Shushan.
If you’re going to Auschwitz, you should go erev Purim,
which makes it bearable. And the pillbox was a memento of that.
So I dug through pockets of trousers and jackets, looked in the nightstand drawer,
peered under the bed, in a trivial but desperate
tizzy. Not to drag it out too exquisitely,
it was on the floor beside the nightstand, where the cats had knocked it
or left it after having played a little pillbox hockey,
which is as good as pinecone hockey with what they can snatch
from the guest bathroom potpourri. And everything was better,
I had it in hand and could relax, or at least stop worrying about that.
I’ve given up looking for the pen one cat or the other knocked off my desk,
not an important pen, but one I liked,
but I have forgiven them because what is the point in not forgiving them?
And they are dear cats, now that I’ve figured out
how their licking each other and then fighting, and then running around like dervishes
reminds me of my mother and my Aunt Vera, because these two
are also sisters and have a sororal connection, not
altogether pacific but deeply attached. So I forgive them for this, too,
which is easier, now that I have the pillbox back in my pocket.
Nebuchadnezzar was punished for having taken the vessels from the Temple,
went mad, and, like a beast, ate grass. Or if he wasn’t punished,
he just happened to go mad, which was, to the Jews who observed it,
significant. More modern ones might simply suggest that he see a shrink
and talk about whatever was bothering him, so that even if he was still unhappy
he would at least stop grazing like a bull in a meadow.
It’s the grass at Auschwitz that is misleading.
A friend of mine who was there, who was really there,
told me that they ate all the grass, not crazy but just hungry.
And poetry? Is what holds all this together, what keeps me
more or less together, or at least is a way of changing the subject.