“Vanitas Still Life” (17th century), Edwaert Collier

This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In our house, we make a joke about the phrase “It teaches us what it means to be human”. The trick is to spot this cliché in reviews of, introductions to and even critical work on poetry. (An American friend does the same with chickens in movies. She maintains that every film has a chicken in it somewhere − dead or alive.) My husband is always daring me to use the line myself. I’ve managed it here already.

The trouble is that, as with most clichés, “Poetry teaches us what it means to be human” does contain an element of truth. Like maths, or political theory, poetry is a form of thought. It is a way in which human understanding goes on. This being the case, we might expect good poetry to understand more, or more deeply, than bad verse does, just as professional mathematicians can discover what high school students can’t. Sure enough, we find William Mc­Gonagall’s odes implausible and hilarious but read William Shakespeare’s sonnets for insights into lovers’ behaviour.

But there’s more to poetry than wise thinking in full rhyme. The work it does is altogether more sui generis. We recognise this intuitively, too, not least when we use the term “poetic” to mean something unusual or aesthetic or something that isn’t straightforward or evokes complex emotions. It is this special way of going on that makes poetry an essential part of a rationalist world-view, though I suspect that it does much of its work unnoticed. Let me try to explain.

Like it or not, we live after the death of God. Many of our ways of thinking about experience, embodiment and society, while they satisfy rationalist criteria, were hammered out in a world that was still poised between heaven and hell. We’re a little like the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet of “The Wanderer”, living among the remains of Roman civilisation, those “eald enta geweorc/idlu stodon”, the “ancient work of giants/standing unused”. Kantian ethics are a good example of such carried-over thinking. Immanuel Kant’s 1788 Critique of Practical Reason has an enticingly rationalist title. His model of ethics − based on recognising the other person as another self, as being an end in him- or herself in the same way as one is oneself − cuts through the insidious Aristotelian “some are more equal than others” distinction. We feel comfortable basing our desire for anti-discriminatory fair dealing on its picture of recognition and equivalency.

But that’s the thing: we feel comfortable. There is nothing unfamiliar about the idea because it isn’t new. We have inherited it from what we might call the metaphysical era: Kant’s “proof” of his principle is tortuous, to say the least. To remember this isn’t to discount the practical insights it offers. I would call myself a Kantian when it comes to ethics: it means to accept living with uncertainty and proceeding with contingency. Sometimes, we do things just because we have agreed that they are a good idea, not because we “know” they are “true”. This requires us to keep our nerve.

In Keats’s formulation, in a December 1817 letter to his brothers Tom and George, the poet’s special talent is: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Keats describes the poem-writing mind as one that is able to contain ambiguity. (There’s real human pathos in reading this passage written, within three years of his death, by someone already living with the radical ambiguity of a mortal illness. Keats’s immediate family was already dying from tuberculosis; because of his clinical training, he knew what this might mean for him.)

This ambiguity is brilliantly at work in his late, great Odes of 1819. “Ode to a Nightingale” plays on the brink of both ecstasy and death, from its famous opening:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk ...

through the equally famous:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death ...

to end not in resolution but with a question:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Life and death, pleasure and suffering are being contained here simultaneously. The poem is like a piece of music that wavers between major and minor keys. This balancing act is tremendously hard to achieve, like laughing through tears, yet the poem does it for us. The poetry allows us to experience more than one thing − in more than one way − simultaneously. While this is the case, so also is that. In Walt Whitman’s blunter, transatlantic formulation:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).

The lines are from “Song of Myself”, composed less than 40 years later than Keats’s ode, but in an utterly different cultural moment. And ambiguity isn’t just the private obsession of particular poets. The 20th century literary critic William Empson founded the highly influential Anglo-American school of New Criticism on his theory that writing explores conflicts of understanding through Seven Types of Ambiguity, as the title of his well-known 1930 study indicates. Meanwhile, it is a truism of mental health care that containing the “multitudes” of ambiguity is a sign of health. Donald Winnicott, the paediatric psychoanalyst who emerged as a leading figure in the “Middle Group” of British 20th-century psychoanalysis, argued in Playing and Reality (1971) that “potential space” − created by children in play and by adults through the arts − is where we practise this containing ambiguity. We do so not least through developing empathy.

Winnicott contrasts this playful, democratic approach with immature, authoritarian personalities. Today, the refusal of ambiguity that characterises religious and other types of fundamentalism highlights just how key an understanding of the coexistence of multiple possibilities is to a well-functioning society. It also highlights how difficult it is to surrender certainty. Allowing ambiguity to exist means accepting, for example, that I’m not always right, that there are limits to what I can know, that more than one thing may be going on simultaneously, and that there can be kinds of meaning that are local or individual rather than universalisable. The American poet C K Williams − a sometime therapist and a master of the Whitmanesque, all-containing long line − writes in “Tract” about hanging on to:

[...] the hope that someday I’ll accept without qualm
or question that
the reality of others
the love of others the miracle of others all that which feels like enough is
truly enough
no celestial sea no god in his barque of being just life just hanging on for
dear life ...

Keats was a Romantic, one of the second English generation of that movement’s poets that also included Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their exploration of the self as the locus of experience can seem at our distance self-indulgent. But it is also the major British contribution to a movement that originated among Kant’s contemporaries in German philosophical idealism and arrived in the 1880s at Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”.

It is true that the Romantics have dominated the British reception of poetry for too long: they seem to be the patrons of every amateur diarist and New Age counsellor who believes in “expressing yourself through poetry”. But their exploration of emotion and its communicability was a crucial part of a shift from the sense of an existentially passive self, subject to divine law, to taking individual responsibility for understanding and agency. Casper David Friedrich’s 1817-18 portrait of “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, fashionably dressed but standing alone above the cloud-line on an Alpine crag, is typical Romanticism: it is the self as transcendent subject. But it is also a portrait of a tailcoated human individual replacing the omniscient Mosaic God on the mountaintop. From now on, this is who will be making meaning.

Poetry, then, is embroiled in the understanding and celebration of ambiguity. But surely this is at least
potentially true of all forms of literature − or even of speech − that aren’t reportage? Memoir, fiction, joke or gossip: all leave room for us to select from numerous potential motivations for their protagonists, none more schematically than detective fiction.

But poetic ambiguity is more thoroughgoing than this. After all, one of the things we know about the poetic genre is that it doesn’t have to be faithful to something in the “real world”, or even to a story it is telling. We know it sometimes seems to be “about” just its sound, for example. There’s a kind of semantic instability built into its every word that is hard for some readers to bear and enormously seductive to others. And this is both produced and contained by an equally thoroughgoing semiotic identity. In other words, what helps us bear the radical openness of poetry’s meanings is the patterning, usually of sounds, that it offers to us at the same time.

To put it yet another way, poetry shows us that the world is “Crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural”, as Louis MacNeice writes in “Snow”; but it also allows us the consolations of a formal pattern that means nothing beyond itself. The form of a rhyming couplet can allude to its hundreds upon hundreds of predecessors; it can imply the poet’s technical training; it can even mime the “coupling” of lovers, as when they “get together” at the end of a sonnet or a sestina. But it does not itself mean anything. So poems allow us to rehearse the possibility that pattern is something we recognise or employ only for its own sake: because it reassures us or gives us pleasure.

In other words, it is something like beauty. Keats’s ending to another of his 1819 odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), now falls into place. Keats isn’t saying that we can recognise truth because it’s beautiful – it frequently is not, as the chaos of true human motivation, for example, demonstrates − but rather the opposite. Beauty is true only to itself. It is an end in itself. Better still (or worse, depending on your point of view), we can’t be sure of anything more than the “fearful symmetry” of beauty. It implies no “immortal hand or eye”.

The poem from which those familiar phrases come, William Blake’s “The Tyger”, has a lovely cockney rhyme at the end of its first verse:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Or, if it hasn’t got a cockney accent, it has a slant − which is to say it is slightly “off”. Such a “slant” in poetic form plays with strict formal pattern and in doing so embellishes it. The ear oscillates between -tree and -try: “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” are part of the sound of poetry, too. Another “formalised” example is the extra metrical foot in the alexandrine line.
But meaning can also be slanted. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” the American poet Emily Dickinson instructed herself, sometime in the mid-19th century, in a poem (#1263) now well known for the advice it gives to writers:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise ...

Dickinson’s “truth” is metaphysical. But her insight − that it would be oxymoronic for such a truth to be susceptible to handling by the local, human self − is applicable to the most rationalist of contexts. We must proceed gradually, by way of doubts, uncertainties, metaphors, hints and ambiguity, as poetry shows us: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind–”. It is hard to do.

Thought and imagination are after all forms of impatience that want to work on and change the given. The poet has to unlearn wilfulness and to learn patience instead. Speaking for myself, I’ve never done anything more difficult.

Fiona Sampson’s latest poetry collection, “The Catch”, was published by Penguin/Random House this spring. Her poem “Daily Bread” appears on page 61 of this issue