Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review
In my first semester as a tenure-track English professor, my chairman asked me to represent our department at a weekend recruiting fair for high-school seniors. My job would be to court prospective majors. Knowing that "yes" was the right pre-tenure answer, I agreed, and so found myself that next Saturday morning standing behind a folding table, cheap brochures littered on its brown surface. I was irritable, hung over, and resentful.
A father and son immediately appeared, in virginal Wake Forest T-shirts and blond crew cuts. They smiled at me as if I had just praised their promptness. The younger looked up at dad, and father nodded to son, and son blurted: "Sell me the English major!" Through my brain's murk, I searched for the hype. Failing to find it, I confessed: "It makes you weird."
After a confused "OK," the two looked down, backed away, and were gone. They shouldn't have been so hasty. I had revealed to them, though I didn't know it then, the great payoff of literary study: It estranges us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullifies old conceptual maps, and so propels us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious, more sublime than the ones we already know. The uncanny—not truth, beauty, or goodness—is literature's boon.
Like most English professors, I endure the grumbling of undergraduates subjected to literature requirements. "What's the use?" they ask. "Why must I study complicated, densely worded fictions that have little to do with the real world?" In the past, I had my elevated answers ready. What Aristotle says of poetry is true of all great literature. It is "more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." Wordsworth believes that the literary—which is mainly, for him, verse—also invigorates our emotions, issuing from the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," thus arousing us from "savage torpor." He would have heartily concurred with Matthew Arnold: Poetry teaches us "how to live."
The students I pelted with this rhetoric would squint into the "I'm thinking" expression, and, brown-nosing, say, "I see." If they'd read Plato, they could have countered that poetry is an irrational fomenting of lies. Or they could have invoked Auden, who admitted that poetry "makes nothing happen."
But I now no longer unleash the literary giants. I simply tell my disgruntled students about the first time I read, as an undergraduate, these lines:
There's a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
I had often witnessed beams of dull December light with a melancholy I didn't understand. Dickinson's flash clarified my feelings: In the impoverished glow of the cold time were heavy reminders of brightness I desired but couldn't possess. But this affliction had fever, intimations of future heat that was luminous, like hymns.
Dickinson's verse spelled out the abstruse, made the strange familiar. In this new intimacy, however, was a novel astonishment: The chilly light from that day onward exposed the enigmas of longing, both tormenting and radiant. Her poetry left me amazed—caught in wonderment as well as labyrinth.
Other epiphanies followed. What I had taken for granted was shattered; the marvelous erupted amid the fragments. In Whitman I saw ordinary grass morph into the "uncut hair of graves." In Eliot's "Prufrock," I watched twilight transmogrify into "a patient etherized upon a table." The grass, the evening—in these metaphors, they grew more lucid than before, and more cryptic.
Shelley articulates literature's invigorating disorientation: "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." But the result of that alienation is not only an aesthetic rush; it is also a moral life. In shocking us into awareness, poetry urges us to relate to the world in fresh ways. The problem is, How do I connect my own mind, relatively familiar, with what is before me, enticingly bizarre?
Shelley answers: Imagine what it's like to be what you perceive. To accomplish that connection requires "a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own." I take that to mean that the more distinctly we imagine the plight of another, the more empathy we feel, and the more beauty we appreciate. As Shelley put it, "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause."
Literary study propels us into uncharted regions, where we must create coordinates more sublime than the ones we know.
The poet most likely to practice and evoke ethical imagination is not "poetical," in the sense of flamboyant or opinionated. Thinking of Shakespeare, Keats, who was Shelley's contemporary, claimed that the most powerful versifier "has no identity" at all, for "he is continually ... filling some other body." He inhabits shade as much as light, Iago as much as Imogen.
The chameleonesque Keats had a preternatural talent for this "negative capability," his phrase describing the ability to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Adept at suspending the prejudices that so often accompany dogmatic surety, especially in moral contexts, he could adapt to myriad perspectives, and relished doing so.
As a close friend once reported, Keats, while describing his appreciation of Spenser's description of a whale, "hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, 'what an image that is—sea-shouldering whales!'" Keats could expand into a leviathan; he could also contract, telling another friend that he was able to imagine a billiard ball delighting in "its own roundness, smoothness and rapidity of its motion." He felt himself transmuted in other instances into a tormented bear, a sparrow picking at gravel, and a woman whose leopardlike seductiveness caused him to "forget [him]self entirely" and "live in her."
Neither Keats's nor Shelley's ethics of identification justifies nefarious behavior, of course. True, the empathetic imagination, as Keats claims, can shock the "virtuous philosopher." But just because a poet occupies an Iago or a Robespierre doesn't mean that she endorses the villain's actions. The purpose of suspending stereotypes is to make one more sensitive to the irreducible intricacies of the real, and so be better able to forge informed judgments about what is right and wrong.
Those slantwise lines of Keats's disciple, Dickinson, likely arose from her mind's blending with the light. Electrified by her language, I tried to become more empathetic. Seeing in the winter's oppressive beams revelations of my own melancholy, I grew more sensitive to the troubles of others. I thought freshly, and with more kindness, about the anxieties (usually irritating) of my girlfriend at the time. I told myself that I would treat her more gently in the days to come, and I did. My charity fizzled out pretty quickly, though, as my ego again took charge and redeployed its agents: blame, resentment, self-righteousness.
Still, even though my will faltered, I learned the ethics of standing where another is and saying, in earnest, "yes." My moments of affirmative identification enable me to be more gracious, though less often than I'd like. Perhaps Dickinson's poetry affected me as nature did Wordsworth, arousing "little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love."
I no longer show up at recruiting fairs—a perk of tenure—and so have fewer opportunities to spout haze-induced aphorisms on the use of the English major. But I do teach Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Dickinson, and work hard to initiate my students into these poets' transformative strangeness. I fail more than I succeed, even on days when my brain is as brisk as a new recruit's.
Walker Percy once wrote that our educational system has lost the "creature," treating specimens, whether Shakespearean sonnets or dissected frogs, merely as "examples" of ideas—of Poetry or Anatomy. We don't see the particular for the general, the trees for the forest. Percy recommends that biology teachers bring sonnets to class, and English professors, frogs: to stun abstraction, ignite the concrete.
I'm too cowardly to tote amphibians down the hall. But I continue to hope that during a Monday-morning class, when the weather and the mood are right, I can chant Keats's reverie of the "murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" and a drowsy student will jerk awake. Green-blue bugs will buzz eerily in his head. Suddenly nothing is right. Something has happened.