Is Poetry Dangerous?

Sappho and Alcaeus *oil on panel *66 x 122 cm *1881

Plato, according to some readings, seemed to think so.

It’s an odd question to ask because poetry, as we usually conceive of it, has been so marginalized from our daily discourse, relegated to esoteric journals and graduate courses, that most people feel as though they don’t even know how to read it, never mind worrying about its nefarious influence. This absence could be partially due to the inaccessible and exasperatingly experimental nature of much contemporary poetry–but then again more traditional forms don’t seem to be faring much better.

However, we could expand our definition of poetry to include music, and we’d have strong justification for doing so. Lyric, of course, comes from the Greek word lyre, an instrument played often to accompany ancient recitations and performances of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop chanted the three-thousand lines of Beowulf and Virgil wrote “I sing of arms and the man” in the opening line of the Aeneid, just as Homer “sang” of the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad and the man of many ways in the Odyssey. Historically, poetry was inseparable from song. Including modern music within its domain might make Plato’s anxieties more understandable.

Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and Socrates, in The Republic, seems inclined to agree; he is especially concerned with the power of poetry to elicit our emotions:

And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (The Republic, Book X)

Charles Griswald observes:

The debate about the effects on the audience of poetry continues, except that today it is not so much poets strictly speaking, but the makers of others sorts of images in the “mass media,” who are the culprits. Controversies about, say, the effects of graphic depictions of violence, of the degradation of women, and of sex, echo the Platonic worries about the ethical and social effects of art. (“Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In The Republic, Socrates famously recounts multiple examples of Homer’s unseemly descriptions of weeping heroes and badly-behaving gods in the Iliad as evidence that even great poetry is bad for people. Eventually, Socrates concludes that most poets should not be allowed to enter his ideal city–since even the best ones entice the listener with misrepresentations of the divine. Only the “rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed” will be allowed inside.

That is, the only poetry he’ll countenance is the didactic sort that unambiguously directs the listener toward the practice of virtue. I can’t help but think about the recent hoopla in some Catholic circles (yes, again) over the dangers of reading Harry Potter.

Socrates’ solution seems rather puritan, even obtuse, until you consider the sorts of lyrics most young people are listening to on a daily basis. I’m not living under a rock, but I remember chaperoning many high school dances where my stomach twisted at the kinds of things, especially about women, blasted from the speakers. And it’s pretty evident that these messages were being absorbed and even enacted by my students; I had to step in to firmly interrupt a lot of “dancing” that ought not be occurring anywhere, much less a Catholic school gym. What we see and listen to inevitably shapes our imagination and, in ways we may not fully understand, our behavior.

On the other hand, it is hard to conceive of a sanitized poetry that would satisfy Socrates and, at the same time, be worthy of the name. In Book 10, he grants that poetry could return from her exile, but only if her defenders could articulate an argument as to her purpose:

Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?

Ah, yes, the old objection. What use is it? Why should we read this stuff?

Still, the interlocutors in The Republic seem to have a kind of awe before the power of poetry that is difficult for most people today to understand. If poetry could only be proven to be useful to the city–and, by extension, to the harmony of the human soul–Socrates and his friends would consider subjecting themselves to its spell.

Perhaps the most important danger of poetry articulated by Socrates is its tenuous relationship with the truth:

Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.

The poet is a mere “imitator”, and unlike the craftsman of swords or musical instruments, he doesn’t have a precise knowledge of the thing he makes in words. He is at several removes from the thing itself which he describes.

This seems like rather an odd objection–especially if you read Homer, because he seems to take great pains to describe the disembowelments on the battlefield in somewhat excruciating detail in many places–but if you understand the objection to be referring to something rather oblique in the nature of poetic language itself, it becomes somewhat easier to see the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that Socrates identifies.

Emily Dickinson has a kind of response to Socrates, I think, in one of her most famous poems:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

She insists upon telling “all the truth,” but seems to think that the best way to do so is in a “slanted” manner–that is, through poetry.

I think it’s worth pondering her claim that poetry, perhaps even because of its indirectness, its strangeness, has a unique capacity to wound us. It does stir up our emotions, as Socrates fears, but I would argue that the best poetry does not do this in a cheap or unfair way. Poetry affords us a unique way to approach the dazzling and dangerous truth–a way that does not try to seize it in a grasping way but rather, in a phrase Virginia Woolf uses, “alights upon the truth”.

Dickinson seems to locate the danger more in the destination than in the poetic path: the “Truth” itself is dangerous; it is like “Lightning” and has the power, paradoxically, to “blind” us.

It seems to me that Plato must–to some extent–agree with her. The Republic itself, as well as his other dialogues, though they are philosophical works, are highly poetic. They don’t read at all like Aristotle or Aquinas. He seems to approach the truth indirectly as well. The Socrates of one Platonic dialogue is sometimes quite incompatible with the Socrates of another, and Plato’s own views are never clearly reducible to those of any of his characters. He, too “tells the truth slant.”

In a really wonderful essay in Poetry magazine entitled “Unknowing Lyric”, which I have been reading in preparation for the seminar I’m leading this fall, Matthew Bevis digs deeply into the experience of reading lyric poetry. Why read it?

Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping  just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.”

How beautiful, and how true. The poems that stay with us contain the words that speak to, but also speak just beyond, our experience. We are like this with our favorite poems, but with people too. Isn’t the experience of falling in love killed most quickly by the (incorrect) sense that you have suddenly “figured someone out”? A riddle or puzzle delights only as long as it bewilders us, but a good poem re-bewilders us on every rereading.

Bevis continues,

One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun.

I’ve said this to students before, and I will again: I think poems are a lot like people. They are frustrating in a lot of the same ways people are, and lovely in a lot of the same ways. And I’m not trying to be overly romantic. Some poems are downright disturbing; some are frightening; some are so long-winded and complex (Eliot) that you’re not sure you could manage a second reading; some are so simple and short that you’re not sure how to move forward (“Red Wheelbarrow”, anyone?). But learning how to approach all poems well, to develop a kind of love that allows you to return to them again and again, with a humble attentiveness, can help us read the folks around us better, too.

I suppose that’s one way of explaining to Socrates why they are useful to the city.

And finally–last quote from Bevis, I promise, but really you ought to read the whole thing:

My feeling whenever I get to the end of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.

But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”

So, is poetry dangerous? Yes. And one way it is dangerous is that it makes you painfully aware of what you do not know–a highly Socratic experience, I might add. That kind of intellectual wounding just might open you up to wonder.


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