Poet-olatry: Poetry Misperceived

February 25, 2014 — 4 Comments

poetsWhen does our appreciation of a particular writer border on literary idolatry? Well, not idolatry proper, since even shrines like Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey don’t endorse “worship.”

We naturally appreciate the memory of those whose work has contributed to our lives. And that’s fine. But when we begin to focus more on them, than on the real, breathing people around us, our priorities are skewed.

In 1989, Hollywood released a film entitled “Dead Poet’s Society.” It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and ironically won the Oscar for Best Writing. In the movie, an English teacher awakens his moribund students to literature, and the more reflective aspects of life.

At last week’s writers meeting, we were introducing ourselves to a visitor, and as part of that process, mentioned the type of writing each of us pursues. I listed several genres and concluded with the words “but I’m not a poet.”

A member of the group immediately “corrected” me, since I have, in fact, written several poems during the past couple of years. Well, I guess I should get used to saying something like, “I don’t consider myself a poet.”

Poetry, some poets insinuate, carries a more artistic air than other, pedestrian genres. Fiction, of course, has its own advocates, and they too occasionally look down on folks like me who typically muddle around in the nonfiction worlds history and religion.*

In the following paragraphs, C.S. Lewis offers some provocative thoughts about how we should rightly feel toward departed writers. His argument is really about how we must not neglect our duty to living humanity by focusing on those who are “gone.”

A special treat in the selection is his coining of the word which inspires the title of this post.

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little.

It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious. You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify.

Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you.

He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come. I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace.

If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour. Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy).**

Lewis alleges our emotional “bonds” with departed writers are fruitless, imaginary, and perhaps even detrimental. I agree that when they displace our connections with living people, it is tragic.

While I rarely disagree with the Magister Lewis, I will in this case. I would make an exception to his argument—in a single sense. For Christians, our filial affection for a departed Christian writer, is a unique case. The distinction being the fact, that in light of the resurrection, and the gift of eternal life, we are not talking about others who are permanently severed from a genuine relationship with us.

On the contrary, there are many other disciples of Jesus living today who feel a powerful connection to writers like Lewis himself. And, with all eternity ahead, there should be ample time for each of us to enjoy his company, and thank him for the blessing he bequeathed to us through his work.

Postscript:

I recognize that it may be in questionable taste, but the subject of departed artists reminds me of a humorous song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s called “Decomposing Composers,” and the modestly disconcerting lyrics are rendered in a somber, classical manner. If interested, you can listen to it here.

_____

* I intentionally refer to “religion” as nonfiction, since I regard it to be just that. (And also because I know that pushes some people’s buttons.)

** Last year I approached this same passage by Lewis from a different perspective. If you would like to read some thoughts related to pet fads, check them out here.

4 responses to Poet-olatry: Poetry Misperceived

  1. 

    Sometimes it’s nice to read something and say “there – that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say, but haven’t been able to put it in words” – then find out it’s by a writer from many many years ago. That’s sort of a delight.
    Lovely post.

  2. 

    I think Lewis was overstating his point.

    It is possible to feel attachment – even friendship, or at least kinship – for person who lived long ago. It is not less of an emotion because the subject cannot know of it.

    Relating emotionally to the work of a dead writer does not preclude emotions for the living. It seems to me that those who are capable of such responses might be more inclined to caring and feeling for those around them as well.

    • 

      The glass is half full person would concur with your sense that the people feeling a bond with a dead writer would be more inclined to care about the living. I would like to believe you’re right. In Lewis’ day he may have been referring to a rather different “class” of poetry aficionados. (By that I mean he might be thinking of the upper classes who didn’t quite care all that much about people who “weren’t like them.”) That’s merely conjecture, though.

      As for overstating one’s point… I think that’s standard operating procedure for many writers who intentionally seek to be provocative (in terms of provoking others to thought).

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