Once I knew a scholar who thought fiction was useless, poetry merely sentimental, and wished Plato had written plainly instead of using dialogues. A “myth” was just a false story and an ancient icon was “badly drawn.” This was a better scholar and person than I was, certainly at that time, and probably now, but there was something wrong in this particular opinion.
We need poetry not just for our hearts, though that would be reason enough, but for our reason. Logic is a mechanism that will grind whatever true premises are placed within to produce a conclusion that cannot be false. Read and practice enough analytic philosophy, and everyone should, and you will know that intuitions of the philosophers govern what premises seem likely true, plausibly true. The poetic soul, one with a salutary dose of Dante, Wordsworth, Blake, Hughes, Adélia Prado will have, I think, better intuitions.
If, as Plato thought, love drives reason, then poetry inculcates love. Nothing a Christian does should ever be driven by the fear that perfect loves casts out. If one needs the awesome wonder that is the “fear of the Lord,” then one need only love wisdom, see the state of one’s own mind, and tremble at how easily Divine Love is missed.
In Republic VIII, Plato pictures a man as made up of three parts: a beast, a lion, and a “small man.” The small man is the rational part of the soul and usually modern philosophers rush to associate this with logical thinking. This is part, but not the whole since the small man would contain within himself the erotic and spirited nature, properly ordered, that exist in the whole man.*
There is within us, Plato suggests, a way of coming to right order, through a pattern in the Heavens that is matched in our minds. This will include a right ordering of all our loves, not just our fierce love to truth. We should also love the beautiful and the good rightly, properly, ordered. For Plato this is possible due to the “small man” within our minds. For a Christian, the work of the Holy Spirit can order all our desires. God knows few of us, certainly not me, achieve this in totality, though we can grow in grace.
Reason or logic without poetry is like Lent without Easter. Our intuitions, as many great philosophers demonstrate, become crabbed, small, and monstrous. We become great fact grinding machines, but miss what a star is in stating what makes up a star. We live by love not just in our appetites or spirited natures, but in our reasoning. The man who loves may go wrong, but if his love is genuine, he will self-correct and become better than he was.
Here is a better way of saying much more than I have just said by Adélia Prado.
Once in a while God takes poetry away from me. I look at a stone, I see a stone. The world, so full of departments, is not a pretty ball flying free in space. I feel ugly, gazing in mirrors to try to provoke them, thrashing the brush through my hair, susceptible to believing in omens. I become a terrible Christian. Every day at this time the sound of a giant mortar and pestle: Here comes Gimpy, I think, and sadden with fear. ‘What day is today?’ says Mother; ‘Friday is the day of sorrowful mysteries.’ The night-light glimmers its already humble ray, narrowing once and for all the black of night. Enter, in the calm of the hour, the buzz of the factory, in continuous staccato. And I am in heat, unceasingly, I persist in going to the garden to attract butterflies and the memory of the dead. I fall in love once a day, I write horrible letters, full of spasms, as if I had a piano and bags under my eyes, as if my name were Anne of the Cross. Except for the eyes in photographs, no one knows what death is. If there were no clover in the garden, I don’t know if I would write this; no one knows what talent is. I sit on the porch watching the street, waiting for the sky to sadden with dusk. When I grow up I’ll write a book: ‘You mean fireflies are the same thing as lightning bugs?’ they asked, amazed. Over leftover coals, the beans balloon in the black pot. A little jolt: the end of the prayer long gone. The young pullets did not all fit under the mother hen; she clucked a warning. This story is threatening to end, stopped up with stones. No one can stand to be merely Lenten. A pain this purple induces fainting, a pain this sad doesn’t exist. School cafeterias and radio broadcasts featuring calisthenics set to music sustain the order of the world, despite me. Even the thick knots extracted from the breast, the cobalt, its ray pointed at pained flesh – upon which I have cast this curse: I refuse to write one line to you – even these settle in among the firewood, longing for a place in the crucifixion. I started this letter bursting with pride, overestimating my ability to yell for help, tempted to believe that some things, in fact, have no Easter. But sleep overpowered me and this story dozed off letter by letter. Until the sun broke through. The flies awoke. And the woman next door had an attack of nerves; they called to me urgently from the garden wall. Death leaves behind photographs, articles of clothing, half-full medicine bottles, disoriented insects in the sea of flowers that covers the body. This poem has gone sticky on me. He won’t shake loose. He disgusts me, with his big head; I grab my shopping bag, I’ll stroll around the market. But there he is, brandy in his spittle, heels callused like a woman’s, coins in the palm of his hand. It’s not an exemplary life, this, robbing an old man of the sweet pleasure of grandchildren. My sadness was never mortal, it’s reborn every morning. Death doesn’t stop the pitter-pat of rain on the umbrella, tiny droplets innumerable as the constellations. I trail behind the funeral procession, mixing with holy women, I wipe the Sacred Visage. ‘All you who pass by, look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow….’ ‘What day is this?’ asks Mother; ‘Sunday is the day of glorious mysteries.’ Happiness alone has body: Head hung low, glassy eyes and mouth, bruised feelings and bruised limbs.**
*“Now, then, mold another single idea for a lion, and a single one for a human being. Let the first be by far the greatest, and the second, second in size.”
Plato. The Republic of Plato: Second Edition (p. 271). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
**Prado, Adélia. The Mystical Rose: Selected Poems . Bloodaxe Books. Kindle Edition.