A side benefit of this essay: It succinctly states what makes poetry different from other forms of writing: Poetry is concerned primarily with creating images that delight us with their economy and elegance.
Poetry may be concerned primarily with creating images that delight us with their economy and elegance, but the moral significance of those images is not negligible.
In his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Michael Oakeshott maintains that the intellectual life of a society is best understood as a conversation rather than a shared “inquiry, or debate among inquirers, about ourselves and the world we inhabit.” The problem with understanding public discourse as an inquiry, Oakeshott argues, is that it acknowledges only one “voice”—that of “argumentative discourse” or the language of “practical activity,” which Oakeshott associates principally with politics.
The two most common voices in society aside from politics are science and poetry. These voices have properties that are distinct from the language of practical activity, Oakeshott argues, and one characteristic of a healthy society is the real presence of all three in conversation with one another:
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but where they are profitable, they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.
Defining society in terms of one voice is a kind of barbarism because of its violence and bad taste. It demands that other voices either keep silent or speak only in the tenor of the single voice. At a time like ours, which values the practical voice above all, science, for example, may be allowed to speak—but only if it offers solutions to practical problems. Poetry may speak, too, but only if it advocates revolution or right living. This stricture leads to a discourse that is dogmatic and dull, certainly not “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Each voice, Oakeshott writes, “is prone to superbia, that is, an exclusive concern with its own utterance, which may result in its identifying the conversation with itself and its speaking as if it were speaking only to itself.”
Education, which used to be understood as an induction into the conversation that is civilization, now understands itself primarily as a problem-solving and knowledge-acquiring enterprise. It trains students in the use of a single voice. Such an education is barbaric, no matter how developed it may be. An increasingly monopolized discourse, Oakeshott writes, “will not only make it difficult for another voice to be heard, but it will also make it seem proper that it should not be heard.”
For Oakeshott, regaining the voice of poetry as poetry is a step toward reviving civilization. What are the characteristics of the voice of poetry? For Oakeshott, the poetic voice is distinguished by the beauty of its language and images, which produce a contemplative delight. Poetic language is not mimetic, but generative: It “begins and ends as language.”
How does poetry, as a “contemplative delight” that “begins and ends as language,” contribute to the great conversation? Some argue, Oakeshott writes, that poetry contributes by providing rest from useful tasks, after which speakers can return with renewed vigor to practical problems. Others argue that poetry performs “a variety of useful” tasks itself, such as disseminating “moral values” or helping us to see things “as they really are.” Both of these accounts of poetry’s contribution are misguided, according to Oakeshott, since both admit poetry to the conversation on terms established by the practical voice alone. Poetry needs to be admitted on equal terms.
Oakeshott argues that poetry is an escape from the other two discourses, and not an escape that is in the service of those discourses. It is an escape for the sake of an escape. The voice of poetry is valuable for its difference alone. The voice of practical language is likewise an escape from poetry and science. The voice of science is an escape from practical language and poetry. To refer to escapism with a “note of deprecation,” Oakeshott writes, “merely advertises an imperfect understanding of the conversation.”
Like Aristotle, Oakeshott views balance as inherently good. The conversation of mankind is good to the degree that each voice speaks in its own idiom in the right proportion regardless of the direction of the conversation. Oakeshott espouses an art-for-art’s-sake view of poetry. He would likely agree with W. H. Auden’s famous line in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “poetry makes nothing happen.” (What Auden means by “nothing” is another question.)
There is one problem with Oakeshott’s theory of voices, however: His definition of each is too strict. According to Oakeshott, the practical voice is concerned only with solving problems. For him, all utterances in this idiom are directed exclusively at this. But, of course, that is not true. One can write a book or an essay that focuses primarily on a practical matter but that also seeks to please—that shows a concern for how something is said as well as what is said. Science may be marked primarily by uninhibited curiosity, but it may also seek to solve problems. Poetry may be concerned primarily with creating images that delight us with their economy and elegance, but the moral significance of those images is not negligible. Oakeshott admits as much when he writes that “some of the things said in this manner”—that is, regarding how poetry contributes to our moral education—“may not be ill-observed or untrue.” Poetry is mimetic. It does help us to see things “as they really are,” especially immaterial things such as love and justice, by re-presenting them in images. But poetry’s value is not found exclusively in what it expresses.
What Oakeshott gets right is that if poetry is admitted to “the conversation of mankind” only to the degree that it contributes to moral education—to the degree that it offers solutions to practical problems defined by the practical voice—then that is a violence against poetry. It is to admit poetry merely as a means to an end. The form of poetry is valuable in its own right. It is inherently pleasing. If poetry is to regain its integrity in American intellectual life, we must take seriously not only what it says but how it says it.
But poetry also has a secondary benefit: It shows us that an ordered life is a beautiful life. Robert Penn Warren argues in Democracy and Poetry that poetry as poetry can be a model of a rightly “organized self.” Christopher Lasch believed that one might learn any number of virtues from literature—courage, self-discipline, charity. Warren believed the same, but says that the form of poetry expresses something even more profound: “The form of a work represents, not only a manipulation of the world, but an adventure in selfhood. It embodies the experience of a self vis-à-vis the world, not merely as a subject matter, but as translated into the experience of form.”
Style and form are not merely examples and guides in what Warren calls “the adventure of selfhood.” They also teach us that it is good to entertain, to be a good conversationalist. Focusing exclusively on the moral content of poetry may—and it’s a big may—teach kids to be good, but it also teaches them to be bores. Reading poetry as poetry develops an appreciation for restraint, whether or not it teaches us to practice it. It develops an appreciation for wit, for understatement, for the pleasure of finding just the right word, for the beauty of harmony and variation. It teaches us that a life occupied exclusively with practical concerns isn’t a full one.
There is no immediate lesson to be learned, for example, in the parade of vowels and alveolar consonants in the first stanza of Amit Majmudar’s wonderful poem “Metamorphoses”:
A turkey, turnkey, turncoat, dovecote, dove
waddles and wavers and wings her way above,
crossing horizons, orisons, seasons, seas . . .
A turkey is mistaken for a dove or—more likely, becomes one through a trick of the imagination—which is replicated in a trick of language in the slight changes in phonemes in the first line. One thing becomes another through comparison. But the movement and flight of both birds—different and strangely similar—become more wholly their own through comparison, too. The exhilaration of discovering unexpected similarities or the surprise of seeing a sudden change (a dove breaking into flight) is the same in art and nature, Majmudar writes in the second stanza, and both art and nature think “nothing of it.” “A pageant in a grove” is the same as “a page in Ovid.”
The lesson, if there is one, is that moments like these—seeing a turkey or a dove waddle into flight or reading phantasmagorical Ovid at night—are the stuff of life. They need no rationale, no grand theory, no secondary benefit without which they would be somehow lesser. Take them or leave them: They are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.
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