Great thoughts from Billy Collins
I came to realize that to study poetry was to replicate the way we learn and think. When we read a poem, we enter the consciousness of another. It requires that we loosen some of our fixed notions in order to accommodate another point of view — which is a model of the kind of intellectual openness and conceptual sympathy that a liberal education seeks to encourage. To follow the connections in a metaphor is to make a mental leap, to exercise an imaginative agility, even to open a new synapse as two disparate things are linked. Flying a kite, say, can suddenly be seen as a kind of upside-down fishing; a flock of blackbirds may rise up like a handful of thrown, black confetti. I began to see connections between surprise and learning.
Further, to see how poetry fits language into the confines of form is to experience the packaging of knowledge, the need for information to be shaped and contoured to be intelligible. It is to understand that form is a way of thinking, an angle of approach.
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Our supersonic, digital age demands rapidity. And, understandably, students want colleges to speed them toward their future goals. But the true tempo of education, and the best thing about any college, is a slowing down of things to an earlier, more human, pulse — the leisurely pace of deliberation. Education may be the way to slow back down from the computer to the television, to the newspaper, to the essay, to the novel and, finally, to poetry.
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Let us remember that poetry began as a memory system. Mnemosyne was, by Zeus, the mother of all the Muses. In poetry’s most ancient form, the now-familiar features of rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration, and the like were simply mnemonic devices — tricks to facilitate the storage and retrieval of information, and vital information at that. In an oral culture, before it was possible to write anything down or look it up, knowledge had only one reliquary: the human memory, the library of the mind. The history of one’s people, one’s family genealogy, survival facts about hunting, fishing, and farming — all were saved from oblivion by what we now call poetic devices.
Today, some may view poetry as a sport of dilettantes, despite its ability to say what cannot be said otherwise. But originally poetry was necessary for survival, for human identity, and it issued forth from the wellsprings of human memory.
While I don’t agree with the idea that the important part of poetry is memory, most of the article is sound. I suppose I’m just too much of a Blakean for that. Blake sought to replace “the daughters of memory” with “the daughters of inspiration.” Inspiration is of course uniquely human, and poetry is indeed it’s highest manifestation. At least to me.
I think that my study of Blake has complicated lots of stuff for me. Photography once seemed to me to be a tool of memory, but now I begin to wonder if it also might better serve as slave to inspiration, rather than memory. Blake thought that the slavery to memory, to tales of past glory and conquest, was at the heart of humanity’s problems. He thought that we had to replace this with a higher innocence, a sense of wonder, a fresh and new approach that did not sanction corporeal war, but rather celebrated a continual state of mental involvement, mental war to overthrow the stain of the past.
Maybe one day I’ll learn to write poetry. Right now, prose gives me fits enough. But I must confess a growing fascination with the precise control over the construction of meaning that formal poetry provides. Free verse just doesn’t do it for me; it’s just prose with silly line breaks.