On March 24-26, Baylor University’s English Department hosted its 27th annual Beall Poetry Festival, described as “A three-day celebration of some of the finest contemporary poets, with readings, a panel discussion, and the Virginia Beall Ball Lecture on Contemporary Poetry.”
While the virtual event attracted English majors and poetry aficionados with unique opportunities and renowned poets, it is unlikely that many students or faculty outside these specialties recognize that the study of poetry has crucial lessons to offer to political science students, communications majors, or anyone who wants to think and dialogue well on important issues. Poetry has the potential to model new possibilities in a culture of superficialities, slick soundbites, tribal tendencies, and false binaries.
Social media—on which global internet users average 244 minutes per day—has revolutionized the way people share and process information, whether personal or political. On Twitter, users share and consume views in 250 characters or less. While Facebook posts can be longer, studies show that those that receive the most engagement are the ones that are limited to less than 80 characters. The typical instagram scroll session involves an almost constantly moving screen as the user glances from one post to the next, and even dating apps make use of the rapid “see, swipe” rhythm that is now the norm.
The result is that our brains have become accustomed to the rapid intake and dismissal of successive, tiny blurbs of information that are by nature limited, superficial, and summarizing. One overarching point is made, to be either promptly agreed with or summarily rejected by the consumer, who has likely spent no more than few seconds reading the post. There is no room for details, specifics, thorough explanation, or nuance.
“Poetry teaches us how to honor the complexity of things—reminds us that what we think we know is not that simple, that what we see may be seen differently at second glance, and so teaches us not to leap to judgment too quickly.”
It is not only social media use, however, that contributes to tribal and binary ways of thinking. Accepting collections of beliefs and ideas under the banner of one larger platform or overarching principle is simply easier than manually considering each element and weighing it for its merits and flaws. Participating as a member of a social group that adheres to a specific set of beliefs is simpler if you accept the group’s reigning thoughts and opinions as a package. People join groups in the first place because they share an overarching goal, value, or other commonality. Once you have become a member of a “tribe,” it is assumed that you have accepted “the whole package,” and it becomes increasingly difficult to question smaller facets of it without seeming nit-picky, argumentative, or worse—disloyal.
It’s not difficult to notice our culture’s refusal to acknowledge nuance, detail, and complexity when we do things such as:
Mentally summing up someone’s character and beliefs based on the sticker on the back of their car, their baseball cap, or the political sign in their yard;
Defending a political candidate’s or party’s every action because they represent “our side,” we voted for them, and we feel duty-bound to be loyal;
What might it look like to train ourselves to reject this toxic mode of thinking?
Poems, in many cases, are also composed of relatively few words. But be not deceived—brevity in poetry does not equal simplicity or superficiality. As the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught” (“Adam’s Curse”). As a distinct art form, poetry is intentionally crafted, each word specifically chosen as a gateway into widely various thoughts, philosophies, and connotations. Poetic words function as signposts pointing to something beyond the words themselves.
Students in the senior-level course on Modern British Poetry at Baylor quickly learn that summary or paraphrase is “heresy”—so described by Cleanth Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947)—when approaching a poem. They are taught to ask questions such as, “Why this word and not another?” “Why does the poet repeat this particular phrase in a poem that is already very short?” “How do these specific rhymes and rhythms correlate with the poem’s meaning?” “What individual words and images does the poet use to evoke a certain tone or emotion?”
In short, poetry asks us to look ever deeper into details, to explore every nook and cranny to learn a poem’s parts and then attempt to puzzle out the proper relationships between them. The words and lines of poetry are more like windows than mirrors, inviting us to gaze through at what lies beyond the glass instead of merely reflecting what is simple and plain to see.
Take, for example, a stanza from another Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The words are powerful, even shocking, perhaps. Did you know at once that “gyre” refers to Yeats’ belief that history runs in 2,000 year cycles, and that he is seen by some as a prophet of the horrors of the twentieth century still to come? This poem has been quoted repeatedly since its inception, yet explorations and questions remain fresh. Why did he choose a falcon? Which institutions make up the centre of things? Who is he indicting with the line, “the best lack all conviction”? Were the answers to these questions immediately clear to you as you read?
Poetry is exceedingly complex. And the truth is that human beings, too, are complex. As Geoffrey Hill notes in “The Art of Poetry,” “Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other… One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”
Because human beings are complex, human issues are complex. It is horribly reductionist to think that we can accurately represent or understand reality through summaries, abstractions, soundbites, or slogans. Phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “Make America Great Again,” “Save the Earth,” or “Anti-Masker” carry weight because they are rhetorically charged, but they cloak complexities in gross over-simplifications. Such phrases recall Inigo Montoya’s mild aside—“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, MA, PhD, writes insightfully in “What Poetry Does” that “Poetry schools us in subtlety—demanding that we look closely, make precise distinctions and comparisons…Poetry disciplines us to see with precision. Poets don’t deal in general truths or abstract propositions, but in concrete particulars—the meticulously chosen word, name, image.” She adds further, “Poetry teaches us how to honor the complexity of things—reminds us that what we think we know is not that simple, that what we see may be seen differently at second glance, and so teaches us not to leap to judgment too quickly.”
The study of poetry invites us to muster up the strength to step outside of the fixed set of ideas, the simple, the bird’s eye view—into the specific, detailed complexity of real life. It takes courage to live in acknowledgement of nuance and ambiguity; to be willing to question your own groups and dialogue on details with those who assume you already agree with them. It takes wisdom to see that the landscapes of ideologies, policy proposals, and human hearts are not neatly divided into “valley or mountain,” “black or white,” “my side or theirs,” but are thoroughly mixed. Even Texas, after all, isn’t totally flat, and not all of its residents ride horses.
“And so,” McEntyre notes, “poetry calls us to attention. The practice of poetry is the practice of paying attention, noticing, looking again, and correcting our vision.”
Reading poetry helps us to pay attention and look past the first glance, and thus if we transferred the skills used for studying poetry into the public sphere, we would attend to detail and listen to understand rather than to rebut. We would acknowledge that we do not have to defend a candidate, policy, party, platform, or ideology to the ends of the earth—there is nuance, and we would admit that. And if we will defy the norm by approaching the most important issues with the same humility with which students of poetry approach the most magnificent poems—with a desire to learn and a realization that our understanding is so very limited—then we can begin to foster meaningful dialogue in the pursuit of human flourishing.
Caelan Elliott is a junior University Scholar studying literature, political science, and music. She also works as a research assistant to the Dean of the Honors College and competes in Model United Nations. If she goes missing, check the best local bookshops, the nearest campgrounds and hiking trails, or the most aesthetic piano practice room.