For Those Who Want to Love Poetry: Philistines Need Not Apply
“Like all poetical natures, he loved ignorant people. He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea. But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education — people who are full of opinions not one of which they can understand….” — Oscar Wilde on Christ
Oscar Wilde, in alluding to Emerson (in De Profundis), pointed out that most “people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” For my own health, I’ve got to stop quoting people, but –for now– I’d like you to consider the above. And what’s below.
Poets, from the 19th-century onwards (for the most part), have a mental set which is not acknowledged much, if at all. To wit, what virtually all people embrace as “progress” is anything but…. They may not write directly about that in each instance, but the edifices they create have –as a fundamental foundation– antagonism vis-a-vis the alleged benefits of so-called civilization.
This is important if you want to be able to appreciate more in poetry than the exceptions to this rule, deviations from this mindset…as represented by the likes of, say, Rudyard (but not “The Way Through the Woods”) Kipling, William Ernest Henley, et. al. As a rule, it’s not much of a challenge to get their work.
Reading/interpreting/analyzing poetry of the last two centuries without the “pov” I am advocating here will put you in the following position, indubitably: Imagine yourself studying the facade of a building, thinking –from your limited appreciation of the false front– that you’re viewing a solid structure. Not knowing…not only that there’s zero behind it, but, more importantly, not knowing why (there’s nothing substantial in the rear).
Surely, you can have lots of fun –and impress friends and foes alike– by running through the various aspects of what is on the surface. However, such exercises will neither nourish you, nor serve anyone else well. It’s perfect fare for (compulsory) schools, but avoids what is most important to/in one’s soul.
Anyone who wants to learn something truly sweet about poetry, desires its nectar…for the drink that resonates with Beauty in the core of their being…must be interested in the definition of Philistine. Again, enter Oscar Wilde: “He is the Philistine who upholds and aids the heavy, cumbrous, blind mechanical forces of Society, and who does not recognize the dynamic force when he meets it either in a man or a movement.” Italics mine.
When Italo Calvino says, “…seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” he is encouraging readers to be supportive of the dynamic force. There is such a force in all of us, but it is not nurtured. In fact, it is usually beaten out of us. The saddest thing is that today infernal elements do not have to threaten us with their hot pokers. They do not need a stick or a gun to keep us in place, as was the case until just recently. No, today people expectorate the nectar of life without force, on cue; 1984 has arrived. We are self-regulating with respect to the Unbeautiful. We need to help ourselves to endure, to learn to give ourselves space. We do not. We do not “wage the war every child of light has to wage.”
The good news? Poetry does. Can help, teach. Not in traditional utilitarian terms, but simply by being beautiful. Insisting upon Beauty.
Read Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Black Panther. Compare it to Rilke’s counterpart, Der Panther. They have something in common. They are not being critical of the powers-that-be in the manner of Blake. But their Ground of Being could not be popular with the vast majority of people you and I know…who are too personally invested in the status quo. Poetry invites you to depart from the Philistines.
I was inspired to write this piece because of my contact with people in my poetry group. Our group. I met most of them at a film I showed not too long ago. And at that meeting I recited the opening lines to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence. I encourage one and all to return to ESt.VM’s youthful work –she was a teenager when she wrote it!– and take in the role that philistine measurement plays (in the opening lines). Awesome that such a young person could know how Philistines suck the Life out of us, insist upon the mundane, the predictable, the Unbeautiful.
Boy, I would just love it if the people in the poetry group would recruit such individuals –people not yet lost to the inferno–and get them to our next rendezvous. They might help us all to believe in Beauty again.