Tuesday, April 5, 2011

the poetic impulse to reflect what is already there

The ancient Greek considered all education a matter of learning certain arts through imitation -- that is, through the poetic impulse to reflect what is already there.-- James Taylor
"Poetic" comes from Greek "poein", "to make" -- and it seems that to the Greeks, it was a given that people "make" things in imitation of what is.

Here, James Taylor's poetic mode of learning seems to overlae with this definition of mimetic instruction.    They are not synonyms, though, for mimetic instruction is consciously undertaken by the teacher for a goal, while the poetic mode itself is something quite natural to the human as human.    So teaching in this mode would be a matter of building on what is already natural to the student.

Tonight Paddy said as we were cuddling on the bed:

"You know, our minds are bigger than ...almost anything in the world "  and after thinking a bit more.  "Our minds are like roads."   

He was expressing something that the classical philosophers understood.  "The mind is, in a way, all things," said Aquinas.   In some ways, in order to understand, intelligere, we bring the universe into ourselves.  We participate in what exists by moving into it.   This is what Taylor calls poetic experience, which is different from (and precedes) knowing "about" something.  

It seems that a child naturally works in this mode.   I think of how my daughter dressed up, day after day, as Dorothy of Oz, or Curdie from The Princess and the Goblin... how my children played Sam and Frodo, or Merry and Pippin, by the hour.   Playing is participation.

So is working.   Aidan loves to help me in the kitchen, or his Dad in the workshop.   He also loves to talk in our language.   "We have to be out of here by 8 am tomorrow..." "Did you see that quarterback get sacked...?" Sometimes I don't realize we have a habit of saying something in a particular way until I hear our words and tone in his voice.  I realize that when he does or says what we do or say, he is in a way participating more deeply in our lives, or that is how he feels. 

The curriculum that Paddy is currently using encourages the kids to think in terms of "plot" and "setting" and "characters" when they read a story.   These might be helpful terms to know in some ways, but this is not in the poetic mode.   When you read a story poetically, you read it to be in that world for a little while.  You bring things out of it back into your own life, like a person in a fairy tale comes home with treasure.   You bring home ways of thinking about life, ways of expressing thoughts, and something that can't really be expressed because the experience IS the story itself.   No other words suffice, or the story would not need to be written, as Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories.   Talking about plot and characters and so on is knowing about, not knowing  -- not the immersing in the thing itself that poetic knowledge requires.

Moderns confuse poetic mode with being emotional or fanciful.  It's all very well for fun or for enrichment, but "real" things are more solid and quantifiable.   This way of thinking of it is backwards, though, because any quantifying or empiricism essentially depends on the simple recognition and perception of things in themselves.   "Knowing about" depends radically on "knowing".   You can't avoid the dependence -- as "the child is father of the man",  your intuitive perception of things precedes and grounds your analysis of them.    Some of the best scientific thinkers --- Einstein and Feynman are two examples -- specifically attribute their scientific achievements to this preceding basis of sensory experience and imaginative perception.

This week I'm going to try to be more aware of my kids as "makers" -- not just in the sense of handicrafts but in the more poetic sense of how they are "reflecting what is there".

See links to more discussion at a Healer's Geste


  1. Oh, I loved this post! I just read the first chapter of Poetic Knowledge. Great stuff! Loved your thoughts!

  2. "Playing is participation." -- That is great! I have noticed that when my boys are taken with a story or a subject, it starts showing up in all their drawings, and they want to draw more often. I am planning on harnessing that for the next school year, but I need to make sure I do it in a way where the requirement doesn't kill the joy.

    Are you going to add your link to the list? :)

  3. Thank you for sharing the Greek with us! I love the idea that making--imitating--was implied by the word itself. That doesn't translate at all into the English, so it is easy to lose that if we don't remind ourselves.

  4. I also enjoyed your thoughts very much. And I am taking from here your intention to see the making of your children.
    Thanks for this new angle on the word poetic and the examples you give are precious.

  5. Did you see this http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1463971&pageno=1
    and other free books on astronomy I am looking at An Old-Fashioned Education website.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!