Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Poetic Knowledge Week #4: Habit of Poetic Knowledge

Poetic Knowledge Book Club Week 5 continues Chapter 3 of Poetic Knowledge -- go to the link to read more discussion on this section.

Since this week is very busy with state testing among other things, I didn't have much time to prewrite my post, so I'm taking advantage of Mystie's thoughtful discussion question:

It is in this way that the habit of poetry, the habit of the poetic view of things, take raw experiences and forms them into essences. [...] When this habit of poetic knowledge is discovered in the life of the teacher, all subjects are seen in a new light. (p. 84)
What is this “habit of poetic knowledge”? What does it look like? What does it entail? How do we get it? How do we give it?
Since I am off again to town tomorrow and can't really focus enough to write a post of my own I am going to use the quotes I pulled out of the chapter to try to answer the questions.

First, what does poetic knowledge look like?   -- it comes as a shock of a sort:, perhaps what you might call an epiphany:
The act of philosophizing, genuine poetry, any aesthetic encounter, in fact, as well as prayer, springs from some shock. And when such a shock is experienced, man senses the non-finality of this world of daily care; he transcends it, takes a step beyond it. — Josef Pieper
What does it entail?- moving beyond daily cares and distractions::
The step beyond the world of daily care is the step of poetic knowledge where the nunc fluens, the flowing of successive “nows” of time, is transcended and we touch, or we are touched by, even if ever so briefly and obscurely, the nun stans, where the time of this world does more than stand still, it is no more, and in its place stands the eternal now

I looked up "nunc fluens" and it is from Boethius:

"Nunc fluens facit tempus,
nunc stans facit aeternitatum.

Translated, it means:
The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity

Boethius also says:

Eternity is the entire and perfect possession of endless life at a single instant. This becomes clear when we consider temporal things: whatever lives in time lives only in the present, which passes from the past into the future, and no temporal thing has such a nature that it can simultaneously embrace its entire existence, for it has not yet arrived at tomorrow and no longer exists in yesterday. Even one's life today exists only in each and every transient moment
Somehow, poetic experience entails a glimpse beyond the flow of the moments.  It probably resists exact definition.-- the way a poem or novel can't be encapsulated in a summary.  It is indivisibly particular, like CS Lewis's moments of being surprised by joy.    It seems to come from connection, an embrace of something outside oneself, a moment of vision of the whole, not separated into parts. 
Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding insofar as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. — Josef Pieper

How do we get it?  It is probably more of a gift, than anything else.   It certainly isn't something that you can reach out and grasp or "earn" with labor.   I think perhaps the old folk tales show something close to the truth when the simple youngest son, journeying hopefully from home, by chance or a simple act of kindness and respect gains the magic trinket that helps defeat the monster and win the princess.   There is an element of serendipity and unexpected generosity in the beginning parts, even if later we work and sacrifice to deserve it. 
And Pieper is in the tradition of the life described here, that carries the “secret germ of a poem” in every act of all the knowing powers, who only “work is to stand and wait before an intimately knowable reality. In spite of the misplaced “work ethic” of the modern world, there is no intrinsic value to difficulty as such… It is enough, say the poets, Maritain and Pieper, to simply grasp “existing things and in unveiling reality” And as Aquinas said in this regard: “Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious; it must be more difficult in such a way that it is at the same time good in a yet higher way.” Certainly, no one can seriously imagine someone working hard and being proud of the difficulty encountered in falling in love, or of the great effort needed to listen to beautiful music; or of an honorable endurance required to watch an evening’s setting sun. When difficulty becomes meritorious is when one will give one’s life for the beloved, or will go to great sacrifice to conserve a life that includes beautiful music and the sight of setting suns; but that is only because one has first loved (known) these things in leisure, experienced the rest, the union, and as a consequence, always yearns to return to them.” — James Taylor,

This moment of perception of the "nunc stans", the eternal moment behind the succession of "nows", comes with sorrow at times.   I must say that since I've grown to be an adult most of my "poetic experiences" have been associated with some sorrow.   I am not sure why that is.  Even Alcinous's feast, a token of "something very like perfection" repeatedly mentioned by Taylor -- comes in between tragedies and difficulties. 
That is the meaning of leisure — not just a cessation of labor, but the means by which the poetic powers celebrate the mysterious reality of things as they are, in joy or sorrow; yes, even that strange pleasure experienced in sorrow. We experience in leisure “the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it” for there is a sadness in reality — the lacrymae rerum Virgil’s “tears of things” — as experience sooner or later makes clear…. the parting from those we love ultimately by death, the loss of youth, the end of day, the season, all are real and sad. Normally, the irascible passion of hope sustains us with an anticipation of the rest and joy that sooner or later will returns

A feast -- is in so many ways the opposite of labor.   It is abundance, and relaxation, and joyous conviviality.  It is participation in something for the sake of itself, not for anything else, yet it goes beyond the physicality of itself to affirm significance and unity.  No nihilist could ever feast in Taylor's sense, though I imagine they could very well party themselves into a stupor  (as Faith pointed out last week).    A feast is a kind of awakening while a nihilist party is a kind of oblivion. 
There is still not a better image of poetic experience and knowledge than Homer’s portrait of Odysseus, overcome by the vision of perfection in the sensory and emotional delights at Alcinous’s banquet As a matter of fact, Pieper sees, too, that “The feast is the origin of leisure.. to hold a celebration means to affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of onens with it, of inclusions within it.” It is the life of poetry and the poetic sense ohings to feast, that is, to celebrate the reality that can only be found in leisure.

Is it possible to impart this poetic knowledge, to teach it, to give it?   James Taylor seems to advocate a sensory/emotional approach to subjects at least as a groundwork before the more formal analytic treatment.    But he does not come from a progressive mindset, but a traditional one, so it is interesting.
But the poetic impulse to imitate that leads to form the poem, even the germ of the poem in the preconscious intellect, that causes on to reflect on experience, gives to experience repeatability and thereby becomes real knowledge. When this habit of poetic knowledge is discovered in the life of the teacher, all subjects are seen in a new light. The teacher becomes as it were the poet of history, science, arithmetic, as well rescuing languages and literature from the deadening treatment of scientific analysis.
Apparently images, music and words (poetry and narrative) can in some ways make poetic experience repeatable and giveable.  
“From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.” Willa Cather

Details remain to be worked out in later parts of the book, but I think this part of the message is clear -- that if you have to emphasize one aspect of learning at the expense of the other, James Taylor would advocate emphasizing the poetic aspect of knowledge and leaving the scientific, analytical part to take care of itself. Certainly it's possible to have both, but the scientific part will tend to follow from the proper beginnings, whereas it is not so likely the other way around.

For Aquinas and the tradition he represents, the effort to know beyond the state of wonder is actually still to be considered as a means to clear the way for our natural powers “to follow our natural bent in the right way” of knowledge.

How do we  gain the habit of poetic knowledge?  The shock, the wonder, need time and space and a kind of silence of the mind to occur.   I am not sure quite how we acquire the habit, since it is not something we can do mechanically, in the spirit of earning, of a bargain.   The traditional Thomist meaning of the word habitus was a lasting disposition within us  that made possible the transition from potency to activity. 

"halfway between a capacity and an action, between pure potentiality and full actuality". 

Modern psychological theory has returned somewhat to its classical and medieval roots by holding that children are born with potencies, latent capacities, that take environmental triggers (and mysteriously, our uniquely personal response to them)  to develop into actual abilities and qualities.   So for example, most people seem to be born with the capacity for literacy (at least using the simplified phonetic system that was developed over time) but in the past many died illiterate because their capacity was never unlocked.   Aquinas would call the "habit of literacy" the ability to read whether one was actually at the moment reading or not.  (or so I understand it)    It is thus halfway between the innate potential and the actual activity of reading   Even children to some extent direct their capacities and response to their environment....   I know when I was a child I was always aware of a "me" that responded through temperament and upbringing and basic abilities, but that "me" USED or worked through those things --  I once talked to an atheistic friend who had the same awareness of her personal self, that was affected by temperament and biochemistry and intellectual power but was not identical to it.

But that's getting away from the habit of poetic knowledge.  

In the boy Bitzer from Hard Times, it seems like the capacity for poetic experience had basically been trained out of him.    Teachers and parents tend to starve the behaviors they don't want and feed the behaviors they do want to see   They have limited success, of course, depending on the child.   It is sort of inevitable if you are educating at all, and per se there is nothing wrong with this, though it can certainly be reductive and can "despise, offend or hinder" the child if the educator is not careful. 

But as Chesterton points out,  educators may differ sharply in what they want to see in a child.  Fagin wants to see sharp thievery and will encourage that, while our modern educational system probably doesn't particularly value poetic experience and does encourage dreamy, thoughtful children who wonder about things that can't be put on a multiple choice test, or dances in response to some delight.  In homeschools we may do better because no matter what we require in the way of grammar and arithmetic we probably make plenty of room for good books, pretend play, time outdoors and good healthy family chores, not to mention prayer.... all opportunities to see beyond the surfaces of things into what they really are, to participate in reality rather than stand outside it skimming its surface.  

Still I know I am sometimes guilty of hurrying a kid through a subject to get it "done" or else not really listening as my child comes out with a deep thought, or perhaps interrupting a quiet reverie by asking one of my boys to bring something upstairs for me.   I'm sure this sort of thing isn't fatal but I think the point is that the untidy, open, reflective times are crucial to developing the "habit" of poetic experience.

This is long but I'm in too much of a rush to write it any shorter ;-).


  1. I really enjoyed this post! I like the way you summarized it, "I think this part of the message is clear -- that if you have to emphasize one aspect of learning at the expense of the other, James Taylor would advocate emphasizing the poetic aspect of knowledge and leaving the scientific, analytical part to take care of itself. Certainly it's possible to have both, but the scientific part will tend to follow from the proper beginnings, whereas it is not so likely the other way around." Thanks.

  2. Yes! Writing shorter always takes longer -- twice or three times as long. It's frustrating. :)

    Thank you for developing the Thomist idea of habitus. I'd not heard that before, but it makes sense and sheds light on what Taylor is trying to say, too, I think.

    So we can create an environment where poetic knowledge is possible or where it is hindered or discouraged. I am still mulling over the 'celebration' and 'feasting' element, too. That was my favorite part of Pieper's book. A feast takes a lot of time and effort to prepare for, but once it's in full swing, you have that sense of kairos Shari wrote about.

    I know what you mean on the self-awareness thing. I don't think I'd really thought about it that way before, but I would say I have that same sense of "me." Somehow, the way you put it, reminded me of the personality tests and indicators that I love, and I wonder if those are intrinsic or also things that affect; that is, a part of temperament.

    Lots to think about. Thank you!

  3. Your post is full of meaningful quotes and thoughts... I keep thinking about this:

    When this habit of poetic knowledge is discovered in the life of the teacher, all subjects are seen in a new light. The teacher becomes as it were the poet of history, science, arithmetic, as well rescuing languages and literature from the deadening treatment of scientific analysis.

    Mystie asked us, I wrote and wrote, but like you, I've been in a rush so nothing short and concise... I need to mull on all this more.

    I also liked that concept of habitus. How do you think it relates to habit forming?

    Your last paragraph gives me an application and a way to see if this is being fostered or hindered.

    I also agree with that Chesterton points out. I see that things I value a lot have no value in the "school world" or simply in the light of worldly values.

    This book study is being very intense for me. I want to read all your wonderful posts with detail, but time and energy fail me... Yet I am reading, and I'm slowly commenting... I'm glad I'm getting familiar with your blogs and yourselves at least.

    Thanks for your posts on the book club too, Willa.

  4. I always love your posts, Willa...

    I like your comment on the "habit of literacy" meaning that it was a place where the possibility of reading always exists. Perhaps that is a litmus test for our homes. It isn't to put pressure on ourselves or our children to have poetic moments, but that we create an environment where the poetic is always possible. Is that perhaps the place where the "habit" would begin?


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!