November 10, 2005

Poetry, 30 minutes, and SAT practice


Those of you who are the Beehive Faithful will recall that not too long ago (29 days ago, to be precise) I took the PSAT. Well, the scores aren't in yet, and I'm already thinking about the SAT, which looms into my life sometime in April. So in anticipation of that not-so-far-off day, I had a timed essay today, which turned out much better than expected or hoped, given the fact that I'm a slow writer. I've got this little problem called perfectionism, see. But anyway, Queenie wanted me to post it, so here it be.

Oh, and the subject was, "Explain the worth of poetry and why some people think it is a waste of time."

(A note-- being timed and all that, 30 minutes of time specifically, I didn't have time to polish it, so it's a tad on the rough side.)


There are two ways of looking at knowledge and education. One is to see knowledge as a means to an end– the way you get credits for college, or something that will get you a job once you graduate. People who hold this belief are usually the type who go around talking about how they have enough credits to graduate but their teacher won’t let them, or that their next school year will be easy because they have got all their credits except this or that science.

The other way of viewing education is to see it not as work that you can stop the minute you get what you are after, but as a continual life process to enrich and beautify the mind. These people believe that anything is worth learning, because God thought it was worth creating. Who are we to disvalue what the Lord thinks worthy?

The reason I mention this in an essay that is supposed to be about the worth of poetry is that these two sets of people have very different ideas on the subject, both of which bear looking into. The first type mentioned, the ones who are after credit, undoubtedly will read poetry at some point in their lives. Probably in some English Lit class that they had to take to get their credits. They will do it, and they will do well enough to get a good grade (because they want the credit), but they won’t really relish it. The other type, the ones who are after knowledge, will read poetry because it is a beautiful expression of creation; because in reading it they will be nourished.

The first type have a point. Or rather they have half a point. Because it is true that poetry which has no effect on us is not worth reading. But what they miss is that just because the effect of poetry is not tangible, not absolute, not practical, does not mean it has no worth whatsoever.

I wonder if these people have ever thought about the fact that they spend their entire lives immersed in poetry, in the form of song lyrics. They will turn on the radio in their car and remark that they love such and such a song. You ask them why, and they will probably tell you that they love the words, or that the words are special to them, or about something they have often felt. And here they unconsciously give testimony to the real worth of poetry.

Life is much less absolute than most people seem to think. It is composed of facts and emotions, twined together inextricably in the memory. While there is most certainly an absolute moral right and wrong, the absolutes stop there. Memory and experience are entirely subjective– two people can go to the same party, and one of them comes away thinking that everyone was in low spirits and the other thinking it was a lovely evening. Two people may be talking and one of them thinks they are flirting and the other thinks they are having a solid conversation. Experience is subjective enough as it is, but then the matter of emotion comes into play. No brain (unless it belongs to some completely rational monster) records ‘just the facts’ of anything. It also records hazy, half -realized impressions and vague feelings.

Poetry is the one form of language particularly suited to capturing and making sense of this jumbled mess (which is why even the most practical pigs continually return to song lyrics). While prose deals in absolutes, poetry flirts with the periphery of human emotion and experience. For instance, the apple-blossom poem by Christina Rossetti– she could have simply stated that she tried to be attractive to someone and failed, but she instead used a luscious metaphor that hints and suggests at nuances, just like memory. By using figurative language she comes much closer to capturing the essence of that evening than she would have if she had used plain language.

This is what poetry does for us– it acts as an extension of all five senses at once, mingling our very senses together. If you read most poetry very carefully, you will notice that images are used to express sounds, touch to express sight, and so on. Poetry, by blending the senses, becomes in essence a sixth sense.

G. K. Chesterton always said that the truth lies in a paradox. If so, the paradox in poetry lies in the fact that by confusing the senses it augments their powers of observation, by recording peripheral impressions it captures the essence of a thing, and by using swirling, metaphorical language it makes things plain. It binds and sets free, it clouds and reveals. And at each step of the way it makes another aspect of God and His creation plainer.


Androphenese said...

Very, very well done!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I don't believe I could have written the first paragraph in 30 minutes.

Table of Stone said...

WOW! 30 minutes huh?