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The scholar as poet, and vice versa

Here’s wishing a happy 2007 to whoever’s reading this. The holiday break is now over and I’m back in my classroom, typing these words on my lunch hour. In the past I’ve been seriously and dramatically demotivated about the imminent resumption of my teaching duties after a brief break, but none of them compares to the supreme disdain and inertia that have taken hold of me at present. Who knows how this will turn out? It’s a struggle even to contemplate performing the various activities associated with the job.

On a completely different note, some years ago, after I had already spent several years working through the graduate program in religious studies at Missouri State University, and also the teacher certification program for secondary English, I began to reflect on the kind of scholarship I had pursued. I had already written a long paper examining Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a nihilistic parable about the destructive interplay between objective science and visionary fervor in Western culture. I had written the initial version of a paper, which I later expanded to greater length, that read the biblical book of Isaiah as a horror story in which Yahweh plays the part of a (roughly) Lovecraftian extracosmic monster. I had written a couple of papers about Thomas Ligotti and his works. I had written a paper that argued for the ability of modern horror films with their combination of self-reflexiveness and hardcore gore to serve as spurs to a psychological-spiritual experience of felt transcendence. And there was more. My professors and instructors had all been very generous in allowing me to pursue my horror-oriented interests within the boundaries of their various subject areas (literature, psychology, film studies, philosophy, religion).

It was after I had written all of these papers that I began to notice in retrospect that while I was quite good at using the typical scholarly apparatuses to present my ideas — e.g., the extended paper with its scholarly schema of notes and references — I was completely uninterested in the traditional scholarly goal or approach of pursuing and manufacturing knowledge for its own sake. In fact, I was pretty much unable to undertake any project at all unless it ignited a kind of fire within me — that is, unless it resonated with a kind of internal homing beacon (as it were) that was constantly on the lookout for sympathetic subject matter. This was far more than simply saying that I was interested in some things and uninterested in others. Everybody can say that. All scholars pursue lines of thought and research that interest them, and only enter into their respective fields to begin with because they find them interesting and enjoyable. But I felt as if I were positively driven to attend to certain things and pursue certain projects, and that short of feeling that drive, I was incapacitated from the start.

This led me to start speculating about the concept of “scholarship as poetry,” scholarship pursued in the interest of a kind of visionary drive more akin to the poetic impulse than the traditional scholarly one which values research and the pursuit (and production) of knowledge for its own sake. I couldn’t help viewing the latter approach as dry and dead, at least when I considered trying to adopt it myself.

Then, as often happens, I stumbled across a passage written by another author that articulated exactly what I had been trying to say to myself. It occurred after I had attained the master’s degree and the teaching certificate and had worked as a high school teacher for two or three years. And it happened here at school, at my job, in the classroom where I now sit typing these words. The author was none other than Robert Frost, the 20th century American poet par excellence. I had stumbled across a volume of his complete poetry in the school library and had brought it back to the classroom to browse. The book opened with Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” and I sat mesmerized as I read him state my meaning with vibrant clarity as he first explained his experience of writing poems and then ended with a brilliant distinction between the fundamental working modes of the poet and the scholar:

“For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from a cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seems always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.

….”But the logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.

….”Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge, but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of knowledge; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs when they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild freeways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old places where it was organic.”

How well I know that feeling of fullness, of “unexpected supply,” that Frost writes about. It’s awesomely exhilarating when one sits down to write (or to compose music or pursue any other artistic endeavor) and discovers that the fund, the well, the supply of emotional impressions and imagery, is right there for the using and is ready to arise as needed. The thing is, I encounter that experience not only when I write fiction but when I write nonfiction as well. And in that regard I am inclined and even driven, as Frost describes, to remove all types of impressions from their customary contexts and assign a kind of proprietary meaning to them. But in the category of “impressions” I’m including not just sensory and emotional experiences but concepts and data as well. I’m including items drawn from wide-ranging reading in whatever field it is that I’m studying in preparation for writing a given project. I organize these things around a thesis — and indeed I formulate the thesis itself — more in the spirit of, and in the pursuit of the emotional resonance of, poetry or fiction than in the pursuit of scholarly precision. I produce scholarship as a kind of fiction that speaks to me emotionally.

So this probably makes me a lousy scholar. And maybe a lousy fiction writer as well. In any event, here endeth the lesson.

Autumn Longing: Edgar Allan Poe

First, my standard proviso: If you haven’t already read the first installment in this series of posts, then please do so before reading this one, since the first one lays the groundwork for what I’m going on about.

I assume Poe needs no introduction to most readers, seeing as he — or at least a caricature of him: the alcoholic, opium-addled pedophile who wrote a few bizarre horror tales and a weird poem about a raven — has been a staple of high school literature classes for a very long time now. It still shocks me when I discover literature anthologies dated from only a very few years ago which, in their biographical sketches of Poe, perpetuate the smear campaign that was engineered against him after his death by editor Rufus Griswold and Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.

But that’s tangential. As many people know, Poe was a brilliant literary critic in addition to being a poet and fiction writer of genius. He was particularly interested in the ways that various forms of literature achieve their peculiar effects, and in this regard he wrote a couple of passages in his fine essay, “The Poetic Principle,” that touch on the subject of this ethereal longing that interests me so deeply. The essay’s purpose is to identify as nearly as possible the essence of poetry, that is, the principle that motivates poets to write and infuses words with that veritably alchemical ability to affect the reader. Poe ultimately identifies this principle as “simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty,” and says its “manifestation. . . is always found in an elevating excitement of the soul, quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart, or of that truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason.” So obviously he’s talking about something sui generis, something that falls into a special category all its own.

In elaborating his ideas about the appeal of the Beautiful — note its elevation to iconic status via the capital “B” — he writes a couple of passages that focus directly on what I am here calling the autumn longing or sehnsucht. As you’ll see if you’ve read my earlier posts in this series, what Poe says interfaces wonderfully with the words of C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of whom, perhaps not incidentally, once called Poe his “god of fiction” and remained a lifelong devotee of this fellow resident of Providence. In the first of these passages I’m quoting, Poe pursues the idea of the “sense of the Beautiful” and, like Lewis and Lovecraft, opines that beauty itself generates the impression of a supernal, transcendent reality lying behind the concrete forms that we call beautiful — the Platonic Form of the Beautiful, we might suppose. In the second passage he lists some of the things “which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect.” Although I do not personally, in my own affective experience, follow him when he turns in typical Poe-ish fashion to dwelling upon the supernal “beauty of woman” (not because I don’t find women beautiful, but because I’ve never encountered this particular longing in that connection), I do find it most fascinating that the first half of his catalog mentions many poignant natural beauties that echo similar items listed in Lovecraft’s letters.

* * * * *

“An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet faded to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

“The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted–has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.”

* * * * *

“We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect. He recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven–in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Aeolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far-distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter, in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.”