Poetry will not improve our students’ job prospects or make them better office workers, but it is more important now than ever to teach poetry because it offers a unique antidote to the superficiality that dominates American culture. Poetry calls us back to tradition and calls us out of the shallows into the deeper water of human experience. It draws us toward transcendence.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Benjamin Myers, as he considers the value of poetry in our degenerating culture of superficiality. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
It is tempting to decry our age as the worst of times. Anyone who has studied history, however, knows that this complaint is unjust. For all our concern over gun violence, terrorism, and bullying, we pale in comparison to the violence of previous ages: no gladiatorial bloodbaths, very few Viking raids. There is the very real threat of mass violence inherent in our war technologies, but, on the balance, daily life in the developed world is less violent than at any other point in history. If one is inclined to bewail the sexual immorality of our age, one might take a peek behind the curtain of antiquity. We’ve got nothing on the depravity of some of the Greeks and Romans. Is our society unjust? Of course. Is it more just than all that have preceded it in the Western world? Obviously. Most Westerners today are freer, safer, and more prosperous than at any previous point in history. What we aren’t is more thoughtful.
This is the age of superficiality.
I don’t have room here to plumb the depths of our superficiality, but I will skim the surface to offer some indication of what I mean by “the age of superficiality.” In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor points out how in modernity “[p]ursuing the goods of life and prosperity, while eschewing ‘enthusiasm’, in a world designed especially to favour these ends, seemed to make life shallow, devoid of deep resonance and meaning; it seemed to exclude transports of devotion, of self-giving, to deny a heroic dimension to our existence[.]” Of course, many modern intellectual, artistic, and religious movements have developed to combat this feeling of superficiality. Yet, the influence of these voices for depth have been waning in recent decades, drowned out by a popular culture that is quickly becoming our only culture.
Consider Time Magazine and the online archive of its covers. In 1967, Robert Lowell was the last poet to appear on the cover of Time. He had been preceded by Robinson Jeffers, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, and Evgeny Evtushenko. Here are some people who have appeared on the cover since they last featured a poet: Leonardo DiCaprio (twice), Kanye West (twice), BB8, Darth Vader (four times, if you count young Anakin), Yoda, Spiderman, Adele, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Bono (thrice), Tom Cruise (twice: with and without Nicole Kidman), Julia Roberts, Pikachu, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carey, David Letterman, Jodie Foster, Bart Simpson, Kevin Costner, Superman, Mickey Mouse, Bette Midler, Molly Ringwald, the Alien from Alien and Aliens, Madonna, Crockett and Tubbs, Shirley MacLaine, Cheryl Tiegs (twice), Sylvester Stallone, Brooke Shields, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta, Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, King Kong, Charlie’s Angels, Cher, Elton John, Jaws, and Raquel Welch. To be fair, plenty of important political figures have appeared on the cover, but artists and intellectuals increasingly have not. As usual, novelists have fared slightly better than poets. Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover in August of 2010; Mark Twain in July of 2008; Harry Potter (not J.K. Rowling) in June of 2003 and September of 1999; and Tom Wolfe in November of 1998. Norman Mailer was on the cover in 1973, but only in connection to Marilyn Monroe. Serious music has not done so well either, with nothing besides conductor James Levine in 1983 and Pavarotti in 1979.
My point is not that Time has not covered important stories. My point is about what kind of material has apparently fallen out of the category of important. Nor am I suggesting that Time Magazine is the voice of our age, just that it is a convenient marker for what Americans are thinking about. That Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg have been featured many times tells us that we think primarily about money and entertainment. Pop culture has become the only culture.
A widely-discussed 2015 study by Andrew Powell-Morse showed that most pop songs are written at the third-grade reading level or below, steadily decreasing over the last ten years. Of course, pop music has always been pop music, but is there not a world of difference between Cole Porter, whose “Begin the Beguine” scores at about the eighth-grade reading level, and Maroon 5, whose hit songs average below the third-grade level? Sure, Porter is no Milton, but he does at least approach adulthood. The music that surrounds us is unlikely to provoke us to any emotion beyond the sentimental and saccharine on the one hand or juvenile angst on the other. It doesn’t have the vocabulary to do anything more. Everyone knows that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. What might be more surprising is that the great Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman appeared on the same episode. Rock musicians continue to appear on late-night television, of course, but how many violinists do you see on screen with Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, or Carson Daily these days? Our public fare is pure sugar. We are a nation with a mental junk-food problem.
Our morning network news programs give us about fifteen minutes of actual news followed by an hour or more of celebrity gossip and fluff. The most popular cable television shows offer little more than the pornography of violence and the violence of pornography. The once-lordly major networks have been given over almost entirely to the vapid wasteland of The Bachelor and Big Brother, vast stretches of nothingness that the average American can sit in front of for hours with no fear that our own empty lives will be made to seem cheap in light of some greater thoughtfulness or beauty. Our obsession with “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is a sure sign that we not only tolerate the vacuous and insipid but actually revere it.
My point is not that one might expect more from pop music or television (one might, but to insist seems futile); I mean, merely, to acknowledge the superficiality that is ubiquitous as mass culture drowns out all other forms of culture. It is now more than ever possible for Americans to live lives entirely untouched by anything that gestures toward transcendence.
Not too long ago, a walk home in the evening might occasion some gazing at the stars, a situation in which even the most congenitally superficial person could eventually find himself pondering the meaning of it all. While few of us would come to very profound conclusions, we would at least be stretched in the exercise. No more. Thanks to our portable technology, one need never rise above the level of kitten videos, “fail” compilations, and what our friends are having for dinner. Despite the great potential the internet holds for enriching and expanding the public sphere, if we are honest we acknowledge that memes are a very different—a thinner, poorer—thing than ideas, for which they are substituted. As Sherry Turkle recounts in Reclaiming Conversation, studies show that the mere presence of a cell phone significantly reduces the chance of meaningful conversation. Our technology is pushing us toward lives of shallow consumerism and the sort of unceasing entertainment that rots our brains and withers our souls. Josef Pieper argued that leisure gives birth to culture. It is sadly ironic that it is now our leisure, a debased thing lacking the dignity of the Greek scola or the Roman otium, under which we are smothering the culture bequeathed to us.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful is, at best, tolerated. As the Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno puts it in “The Schema of Mass Culture,”
from our earliest youth all of this [everything that is beautiful and good] is only admitted on the condition that it is not after all to be taken seriously. With every gesture the pupil is given to understand that what is most important is understanding the demands of ‘real life’ and fitting oneself properly for the competitive realm, and that the ideals themselves were either to be taken as confirmation of this life or were to be immediately placed in its service.
It’s fine to offer music classes or read a poem, as long as you can demonstrate how these things make students better at the “real” subjects we call STEM. But let’s be sure to wink and sneer about their little choral groups or poetry clubs.
This superficiality is traceable in part to our abandonment of tradition. When we abandon tradition as a guiding element in life, far from liberating ourselves, we enslave ourselves to superficial convention. Rather than requiring unthinking allegiance, true tradition asks us to join in the thinking of the ages, to think along with Plato or Aquinas, as well as along with our parents and ancestors. Convention, however, asks us to accept whatever flimsy thing is given us at the moment, to share a meme or repeat a slogan. Convention has always played a strong part in daily life, but social media and mass culture have rapidly increased the prominence of convention in American life at a time in which local and national traditions are vanishing. Every aspect of our lives is increasingly temporary. Pop culture seems to cycle at an ever faster rate. We might well ask how many of our own opinions are well-founded and measured against the wisdom of the ages and how many are merely fashionable. Tradition has depth, even to the point of usefully contradicting and correcting itself. Convention never fruitfully contradicts itself but is flat, flimsy, and brittle enough to easily break. Cut off from the depth of the tradition as embodied in great books, music, art, and ideas, we live in the shallows of mere convention.
What does poetry have to offer the men and women of such an age? The usual answers, mostly utilitarian in nature, are insufficient. Poetry will not improve our students’ job prospects or make them better office workers, but it is more important now than ever to teach poetry because poetry offers a unique antidote to the superficiality that dominates American culture.
Defenders of the humanities often declare that “employers want liberal arts graduates.” Literary study is pitched as a way to build those “soft skills” that employers are supposedly eager to pay for, such as the ability to communicate well in writing, to read and follow directions, to relate empathetically to others, and, perhaps, to discuss things one actually knows very little about. Undeniably, literary study, including poetry, develops these skills. Nor do I doubt that employers desire these traits in their employees, though we optimistically over-estimate how much (not a few employers are surely in the market for mindless corporate drones). But, were those employers to change their minds about this preference, would we then abandon the liberal arts? The development of “soft skills” is inadequate as a rationale for the study of poetry because those who take this line aren’t arguing at all for the value of literary studies; they are arguing for the value of programs in “soft-skills studies.” Were the English departments to find more up-to-date methods for imparting those skills, then poetry would be out the window. If it were discovered that juggling and tightrope-walking develop these “soft skills” with twice as much accuracy and efficiency as studying poetry, wouldn’t English professors be compelled to put away their Donne and their Frost to take up flaming knives and balance poles?
Even were English departments allowed to continue teaching poetry as a sort of second, or third best way of developing “soft skills,” they would be left teaching a discipline that has no inherent or internal order, only an external use. There would be no particular reason to teach Shakespeare or Dickinson if it were discovered that soft skills can be readily acquired by reading James Franco and Jewel. Literary study would become everywhere what it is in too many places already: a discipline governed only by whim.
Further, no one goes to graduate school out of a passionate devotion to “soft skills,” choosing a life teaching poetry due to a burning conviction that “those tech companies need people who can write well, and someone has to see that they get them!” It is a kind of bad faith to retroactively justify one’s profession with something that has nothing to do with one’s own attraction to it.
“Critical thinking,” often listed among the “soft skills,” is at least a little loftier goal than the writing of exceptionally clear office memos and is often evoked as nearly the single purpose for studying literature. Yet, critical thinking also falls short for all of the same reasons that “soft skills” in general fail as a justification. Teaching students to think critically about ideas is indeed crucial—perhaps now more than ever, though I suppose thinkers have felt that way since at least Socrates—but it is far better accomplished by reading Plato’s Republic or The Federalist Papers than by reading “The Song of Wandering Angus.” The English department justified by “critical thinking” can never be more than an ancillary to philosophy or political science and poetry itself nothing more than a randomly-lineated exercise in obscuring thought only for the purpose of practice in untangling it. The “post-structuralist” approaches that in the last quarter of the twentieth century came to dominate literary study—with its emphasis on critical thinking and the exposure of power—have unfortunately bequeathed to professors of literature the utilitarian impulse to make literature merely a means to a political or social end. “Critical thinking”—or, as we might better call it, “reason“—should be left to the rhetoricians (with whom teachers of poetry often share a department and even a person) and to the philosophers.
Could we not justify the teaching of poetry on the grounds that it leads to learning true justice? I think not, and for the same reasons I don’t ascribe to the “soft skills” justification. Poetry almost certainly is not now—and definitely could not remain—the best, or even one of the top ten—ways to learn about justice. Here, again, I think the teacher of poetry would be much wiser to yield the floor to colleagues in philosophy. No doubt the reading of some poems—Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, Claudia Rankin’s Citizen—can lead us into contemplation of justice, and no doubt we will thus find ourselves at times discussing justice in the course of discussing poetry. The same, however, could be said of agriculture or jazz. Justice is just one of many important topics addressed in poetry and thus hardly adequate to justify the whole endeavor.
Those who see in poetry a means of learning justice, however, usually have in mind not the gleaning of insights from sage poets but rather the use of poetry as a negative example. We learn justice, they argue, by tearing through the canon to see how unjust poets of the past were and how marred by injustice their monuments remain. If poetry, however, offers nothing more than a record of wrong thinking, isn’t it better consigned to oblivion? Of course, we note the moral flaws in the poems we read; it is impossible to teach Spenser’s Faerie Queene well without noting that he was monstrously unjust toward the Irish, as C.S. Lewis said. But were that lack of justice the whole point why bother to teach Spenser at all? He would be better off forgotten, as he no doubt soon would be without English professors to prop him up.
Rejecting these various utilitarian rationales for teaching poetry does not mean we must fall back into an anemic “art for art’s sake” position. Poetry does some good in the world. This good is, however, more nuanced than “soft skills” or “critical thinking” or “justice,” as fine and important as those things certainly are.
The teaching of poetry matters greatly in the age of superficiality, because poetry uniquely and especially calls us back to tradition and to traditional use of symbol. It calls us out of the shallows into the deeper water of human experience. It draws us toward transcendence.
In arguing for poetry’s ability to take us beyond mere convention and into contact with a great tradition, I am arguing for the importance of the canon. I’m not, at the moment, arguing for any particular iteration of the canon but rather merely for the concept of “canonical literature.” Great poetry makes a great chain of time, and to read poems in the context of a canon calls us out from the chronological provincialism that stunts our hearts, minds, and souls. We should conceive of the canon not as a fixed list of dead authors, but as a living, breathing presence, an ongoing election that has lasted generations, a working thesis. The student who travels the road back from Blake to Milton, from Milton to Dante, from Dante to Virgil, from Virgil to Homer has traveled far beyond the momentary yet infinitely repeating confines of popular culture: the number one movie, the number one song, this week and every week unto the crack of doom. The road to Homer is, of course, just one road through a vast country. The canonical country has borders, but those borders remain porous. The very act of maintaining the canon—of pondering what has been in, what should no longer be left out—cultivates a sense of the spaciousness of time.
All good poetry participates in tradition. Poetry by its nature is allusive, even when the allusion is embedded in form rather than content. Even avant-garde work draws its energy from violation of a tradition the reader is expected to know. A Shakespearean sonnet and Tzara’s “cut up poems” both work from a concept of what poetry is, or, at least, participate in the question of “what is poetry?”
Poetry also frees us from convention through its preoccupation with classical topoi, by which I mean not stale rhetorical exercises but rather powerful currents of thought and feeling running deeper than mere convention. We might gesture toward them with fragments of Latin—carpe diem, ubi sunt, memento mori—but they are not reducible to catchphrase. Consider, for example, the picture of life lived simply and well as it has been embodied in poems throughout the last 2,000 years, from Horace’s second epode, which begins, “Happy is that man who, far from business cares, / like the ancient human race, / works his father’s land with his ox,” to Martial’s epigram 10:47 as loosely translated by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey:
Martial, the things for to attain
The happy life be these, I find:
The riches left, not got with pain;
The fruitful ground, the quiet mind….
We might consider how the topos is picked up by Yeats in his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
From there, we might turn to certain poems by Frost or by Jane Kenyon, and, while there is no plain straight line between Horace’s rural laborer and Frost’s or Kenyon’s New Englanders, we sense in these poems a similar invitation to ponder, to dwell on, a certain, though undefined, aspect of human experience. Reading these poems we come to know things we must feel and see our way toward, things we could not really be told directly. The topoi are encountered incarnated in great poetry. They are not simple “morals of the story,” but rather places where beauty meets truth in subtle and various ways within the physical world we all inhabit.
As the traditionalist and the deconstructionist can agree, poetry breaks down our sense of easy one-to-one correspondence. Poetry gestures toward a state of true allegory. In the age of Dante, Western thought saw the cosmos as richly significant, a book written by God in which every detail gestured beyond itself: If a clover had three leaves, it was to gesture toward the Trinity, and, if it had four leaves, it was to point us to the four Gospels. Despite all the good done by the scientific revolution, we can’t deny that it in some ways impoverished us in changing the Western world’s dominant metaphor for the cosmos from a book to a machine. We gained an ability to deal with nature in wonderful ways—for all my love of the past, I would not wish to return to a world without penicillin, or even air-conditioning—but with Newton’s new and mechanistic universe we began a slow decline from symbol into sign. I think we have now reached the bottom. We look at the world and see no deep signification. If this is a result of what Charles Taylor calls the “disenchantment” of the modern world, it is aided and abetted by our addiction to superficial mass culture. But poetry can help. As Billy Collins says in “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader,” “[t]he philosophical motive behind poetic comparisons is, then, to move the world closer to the condition of harmony, ultimately an absolute harmony in which all things are connected, a simile-and-metaphor-riddled world where everything is like everything else.” Poetry gives us our depth-perception back.
Teachers of poetry, then, must cease their complicity in the eclipse and diminishment of their own object of study and reclaim the core curriculum rather than petitioning for a few extra moments given to Keats or Eliot if there is extra time after all the important STEM and professional subjects. To do so will require using embarrassing words like “soul” and “beauty” and insisting that there are few things in life more important. The job of the true educator, more than preparing students for their job, is to prepare students for the possibility of unemployment, to give them the resources of soul to see life as more than a means to a paycheck and to sit in their own company through the long night of doubt. Only true education can hold back the rising tide of the overwhelming shallows.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in June 2018.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Girl reading” (c. 1870) by Charles Edward Perugini (1839-1918), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.