Who needs poetry?

Author:Fitzpatrick, Sean

    In the practical work of defending Christian culture, there is no doubt that the Catholic Church needs pragmatists--pragmatists such as scientists and soldiers who will strive and struggle in the cultural and spiritual trenches to defend the Faith. Inasmuch as civilization needs professionals, however, so too does it need poets. The world will, as Wordsworth feared, be "too much with us" if ever we grow "out of tune" with the soul and the heart's expression. (1) Scientists without poetry are Faustian slaves to systems. Soldiers without poetry are barbarians devoid of quixotic chivalry. A people without poetry cannot be missionaries, because faith can be a dead thing without poetry. (2) Without knowledge or love of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, there cannot be any hope of attaining the glorious End of martyrdom--whether through war, in wedlock, at work, or on any given Wednesday.

    Can anyone strive for heaven that has no idea what heaven is?

    And heaven, a mystery of beauty, is a poem.

    To begin at the beginning, this article will open with an un-poetic statement, put forward as an axiom that all can agree with: Man, as Aristotle says, possesses a rational principle. (3) It should be generally accepted that man, as a knower, has contemplation of the truth as his purpose. (4) It should also be generally admitted that before man can fulfill this end, he must have some inkling of the truth before he can rest in it. In other words, he must have some obscure experience or indirect knowledge of his end before he can do anything appropriate in selecting the means to arrive there.

    This first knowledge, or pre-knowledge--this knowledge that is prerequisite to any scientific or ultimate knowledge--is often called poetic knowledge. (5) Poetry is the knowledge of experience, standing outside the categories of scientific knowledge that comprehends truths in a clear and distinct way through their causes. Poetic knowledge, on the other hand, comprehends truth in a clear yet indistinct way: truths such as love, fear, joy, and the rest of their kind. Everyone knows these things very well, but only as mysteries.

    The art of poetry is the attempt to create an expression of the knowledge of such experiences, to capture a moment of them and share this ordinary yet extraordinary knowledge. In many ways, the poetic mode can be understood as a cultivation of intellectual darkness, but where the darkness is actually a thing known in a distant yet delightful way--in a profound way, in the half-light of deep truths.

    Following a clear and distinct mathematical paradigm will not divulge the truth of everything. There are truths that logic cannot demonstrate nor rhetoric corroborate--and those truths belong to poetry. Poetry, however, being pre-rational cannot define itself. It is itself a mystery about mysteries, and so must it be accepted.


    Knowledge is a habit of mind, and habits that are unpracticed are lost. Sadly, no one reads poetry anymore. Thus society has largely lost its poetic sensibilities in how we come to know things, and this is a large part of the overall crisis of society. To be sure, the root of the problem is a loss of faith. As poetry is the expression of things held as true but not understood, however, poetry is a cause of faith as well, giving credence to conviction in things that are not fully comprehensible.

    No one reads poetry anymore--and so will the Faith remain un-nurtured by it. The only way to restore the lost habit of poetry is to initiate small ventures and simple inclusions of it in our lives and the lives of our children.

    Little drops of water, Little grains of sand, Make the mighty ocean And the pleasant land. So the little moments, Humble though they be, Make the mighty ages Of Eternity. (6) How many of you skipped over that? No one reads poetry anymore. Part of the reason for this is an opinion, whether conscious or unconscious, that poetry is unimportant and unnecessary. One way to approach this criticism is by means of a poetic argument--one that may seem right, but no one will be sure why--which shall here be assayed.

    If poetry is unimportant and unnecessary, then beauty--whether in speech, sound, appearance, or what have you--is unimportant and unnecessary. But this is not the case. God made the world beautiful; He made women beautiful; He made stars beautiful; and He did not have to. It was not necessary. One conclusion is that beauty is important even if it is not necessary. Beauty is often superfluous--in fact, it is more beautiful when it is. Some of the most important things people can do are the ones that are not necessary--like recreation or the corporal works of mercy. Such things, unnecessary though they may be, bring out the beauty of existence. Poetry taps into things of precisely that nature, giving voice to the mystery and order and beauty that lies at the heart of things. Poetry helps people see beyond the surfaces to realities that defy dissection. Are such things unimportant? It seems unlikely. Are they valueless? Absolutely, but the best things in life are. Poetry rounds out the person, teaching him to know things with his heart as well as his head. There are some realities that defy being spoken of in any way besides poetry--and again, this is true of the best things in life. After St. Thomas wrote the Summa Theologica and was rewarded with a glimpse of the Beatific Vision, the only thing he ever wrote for the rest of his life was poetry. Was this madness? Is it possible that the "Song of Songs" strikes closer to the Divine Existence than the "Five Ways"? (7) Such madness seems to get souls...

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