For most people today the reader of poetry is a quaint and obscure character, like a collector of antique dolls or stamps. The reader of poetry is looked upon as someone absorbed in a personal and sentimental interest with almost no cultural or political significance. Literary theory (i.e. critical theories) are enjoying a cultural and political ascendency, but poetry itself is almost entirely peripheral to twenty-first century life. This is because poetry, and literature more broadly, has been desperately misunderstood and then (inevitably) shuffled to the sidelines of our lives both individually and collectively; we’ve lost our capacity to read literature rightly and so we’ve lost sight of its value.
In his extended essay, Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis illuminates the cause of this inability to read works of literature: “We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.” We’ve been trained not to sit-under and learn from a text, but to stand-over and make use of a text. We’ve been taught that the important thing is our subjective response, not the words on the page. We accepted the utterly foolish (and distinctly modern) idea that literature is mere self-expression and then we devolved until poetic and literary study became an exercise in self-congratulation, an isolating practice of prioritizing the self and forcing our preconceived ideas upon the work of another.
Thus in the modern classroom poetic and literary study becomes a source of identity politics and social unrest on the one hand and solipsistic anxiety on the other. Instead of being our tie to a world not provincial in time or space, modern literary study becomes an excuse to emphasize the (supposedly) incompatible experiences of various group identities. Instead of revealing our shared humanity, modern literary study divides us into ever narrower and lonelier groups. Instead of binding us together, it tears us apart.
C.S.Lewis prescribed the remedy to our flawed appreciation of literature and of art more generally:
We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them their vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations… After the negative, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.
When we read well, when we get ourselves out of the way, we begin to understand that literature, rather than displaying insuperable differences between groups or individuals, is the place we can go to be bound together by a common language and common understanding of the world around us.
In his Nobel lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of the nearly intractable differences in understanding between people and nations. He said:
Who is capable of extending such understanding across the boundaries of his own personal experience? Who has the skill to make a narrow, obstinate human being aware of others far off grief and joy, to make him understand dimensions and delusions he has never lived through? Propaganda coercion, and scientific proofs are all powerless. But, happily in our world there is a way. It is art, and it is literature.
So literature, rightly understood, is the tool which overcomes the apparent divisions between people or peoples. Solzhenitsyn continues:
I think that world literature has the power in these frightening times to help mankind see itself accurately despite what is advocated by partisans and parties. It has the power to transmit the condensed experience of one region to another, so that different scales of values are combined, and so that one people accurately and concisely knows the true history of another with a power of recognition and an acute awareness as if it had lived through that history itself.
Literature can bind us together politically, can overcome the barriers set up by ‘partisans and parties’ and allow us to truly sympathize with the experience of diverse peoples.
In “Is English Doomed?”, C.S. Lewis said it this way:
The true aim of literary study is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him ‘the spectator’, if not of all yet of much, ‘time and existence’. The student, or even the schoolboy who has been brought by good… teachers to meet the past where alone the past still lives is taken out of the narrowness of his own age and class into a more public world.
And literature doesn’t just heal the divisions between peoples or parties, it also overcomes division between individuals or between each of us and humanity in total.
Owen Barfield said it this way:
The man of today, overburdened with self-consciousness, lonely, insulated from reality by his shadowy, abstract thoughts, and ever on the verge of awful maelstrom of his own fantastic dreams, has among his other compensations these lovely ancestral words, embalming the souls of many poets dead and gone and the souls of many common men.
One of the great gifts of literature is the felt community between writer and reader; a good poem speaks to the reader, ‘even here, in the half-formed and up-until-now inarticulate reflections of your mind, in your tottering understandings of the world about you, many have gone before and have managed to tame the chaos of human experience – to capture it in fitting metaphor and pleasing rhyme.’ Good poetry shows us that we are not alone.
Reading literature offers us profound solidarity with an author and admits us to a broader human community but it also holds up a mirror that allows us to see aspects of ourselves more clearly than we could have before. If the self can be put out of view for a moment it will return in sharper definition. In reading literature rightly, when the text works upon us, the self is both expanded and articulated.
Lewis said it better:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself… Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Rather than literary and poetic study taking the student out of ‘age and class’, out of race, gender, or any other factor of our individuality, ‘into a world more public’, the modern student is encouraged to think only of themself or their tribe. The student is not asked to enter into a greater human community, but to remain alone; instead of learning sympathy for others different than themself modern literary students become practiced in self-obsession and narrow mindedness. This perversion of literary study is one the underlying causes of the fracturing identity politics and the political disintegration so apparent across Canada, the United States and beyond.
And yet, poetry and literature could be the answer to much of what ails us personally and politically – it could offer our societies common understanding and values, and it could offer each of us a way out of anxiety and loneliness by admitting us to a broader human community.
As Richard Weaver wrote:
The discipline of poetry may be expected first to teach the evocative power of words… and then to show that there are ways of feeling about things which are not provincial either in space or in time. Poetry offers the fairest hope of restoring our lost unity of mind.