Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is Poetry? Answers on the Apocalypse

My post on the failed predictions of the End of the World (and, no, I'm not talking about the Warmers) has garnered some interesting comments, and, as I anticipated, some misunderstandings. What I said was several things (and I am adding a few things here that were not explicitly in the original post for purposes of clarification):

1. That the Book of Revelation was, like all works in the apocalyptic genre, primarily a poetic work rather than a prose work and that that matters when it comes to how you interpret it;

2. That a poetic work cannot be quantified in the way a prose work can and that therefore any attempt to interpret it as if it were prose is doomed from the beginning; and

3. That dispensationalists (like Harold Camping), because of their modernistic tendency to quantify the unquantifiable by treating poetic works as if they are prose, are particularly prone to this, as evidenced by the failed May 21 prediction.

Now I anticipated some misunderstandings of my statements here in part because most of us now are literary eunuchs, having been poetically castrated by a public education establishment that is not only incapable of simply teaching children to read and write, but which has given up on passing on Western culture, a significant aspect of which is its poetry.

We are the first generation that does not read poetry. All ages prior to our own read and understood poetry and were therefore familiar with poetic idiom. And since we don't read it, we don't understand it. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that poetic understanding is essential to a Christian worldview, since large swaths of Scriptural Revelation employ it and if we do not understand how it works, then we cannot understand large swaths of the Revelation.

I have only begun to realize the tragedy of this over the last 10 or 15 years as I have gone back and gotten the education I never got by reading Dante and Milton, and Eliot, as well as Yeats and Berry, and Wilbur.

So, in other words, I am not at all shocked that my comments here are misunderstood.

But let me address one of the comments here. One of my interlocutors, Lee, said the following:
One could read your post, Martin, and come away thinking that you believe poetic content is all that there is in Revelation. But I don't think John was so much a poet as he was the last of the great, fulminating Old Testament prophets. Much of the imagery he employs is in the style of earlier prophets predicting the end of great cities such as Babylon and Ninevah.
First of all, this statement assumes that the Old Testament prophets were not themselves using poetic expression. They clearly were. Ezekiel is probably the most obvious example of this.

Second, poetic expression does not limit the message of the author. To say that "poetic content is all there is" is to betray the belief that poetry is somehow more limited in its ability to communicate a thought than prose. As Chesterton has put it, "The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say." Well, what does that mean? For one thing, it means that poetic expression can communicate a lot more than prose because there are many more things a word does not mean than things that it does mean.

But let me see if I can articulate what poetic expression consists of to make my point clearer.

What I think Chesterton is saying is that poetic expression is analogical in nature, not univocal. That just means that the words it uses invoke a resemblance which many times cannot be completely captured by rational prose words. Poetic expression also has a different purpose: it is meant to appeal to the imagination and not the intellect. If I say
Love is a rose, but you better not pick it
It only grows when it's on the vine
This is not saying that love actually is a physical flower. It is saying that there is a relationship between the flower and the picking of it in the physical world that is similar to the relationship between the beloved and the act of trying to possess her. That "You'll lose your love when you say the word 'mine'." I have compared love to a flower, which, like love, often seems to wilt when we try to possess it. But saying it in this latter way is somehow insufficient. It does not encompass the full import or effect of the poetic expression because some truths are better apprehended by seeing them through the imagination than by understanding them through the intellect.

The "Love is a rose" example is a fairly direct kind of poetic expression. It is almost telling us what it is doing. "Love is a rose" is just one step away from saying "Love is like a rose," which would turn it from poetry to prose--and which would break the enchantment, because it would no longer be seen in soft light of imagination, but under the rude glare of the intellect.

Most poetry is not that obvious. It doesn't bother to telegraph what it is doing. It just leaps directly into the metaphorical:
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.
This is about the purest form of poetry you can find. If you try to perform your intellectual surgery on it, you will kill it. It is meant for your imagination and the tool of the imagination is analogy, not analysis. To try to turn it into something univocal is like trying to grasp a bubble: it will disappear the moment you touch it.

This doesn't imply that the passage doesn't mean anything or that it means less than it otherwise would or that it doesn't communicate a truth. It most definitely means something--something more and maybe something less that what a poetically challenged person might want to attribute to it. But the main point is that its meaning will be most fully understood by taking it for what it is: an appeal to the imagination, and its meaning is just as likely to be misunderstood by treating it as an appeal to the intellect.


Lee said...

Fine, I admit that my literary training is substandard. But I got As in my English classes in public school, so there was some complicity in arriving at this low level of achievement.

And I don't think we can blame recent trends in education, since I'm pretty sure I'm older than you are, Martin.

But the feminization of public schools even in my day succeeded in turning literature and poetry into sissy stuff. Most of the guys I knew who liked to read found refuge in the Sci-Fi of the day. Say what you want about Robert Heinlein, but it's a masculine read.

Now that the disclaimers are over...

In the previous post, you wrote:

> Under the gaze of a non-literary mind, each of these must have a definite one-on-one allegorical referent. The figurative must be pursued and rendered literal, and no metaphor can escape without being captured, tagged, and totaled.

Now, look, Martin: I've spent much of my life around dispensationalists, but have never met a single person who took that Revelation passage literally. Not one has ever said he believed that an actual monster with seven heads and ten crowns was going to rise out of the sea, Godzilla-like, and attack Tel Aviv.

It is always presumed that there is some sort of allegory with that particular phrase. Most believe the Beast at least to originate from Rome. Some think it was Nero. But you can arrive at neither conclusion by taking the passage literally.

> It most definitely means something--something more and maybe something less that what a poetically challenged . person might want to attribute to it.

I think this cuts both ways. Yes, someone with no poetic understanding might under-interpret it; but, likewise, someone sensitive to poetry might over-interpret it. Fair is fair, right? If, as you admit, an objective truth may be present in the scripture, it makes sense to try to figure out what it could be.

And we Protestants chuckle about some of the Catholic beliefs, too.

Martin Cothran said...


I wasn't chuckling at Protestants at all, although I think Protestants do tend much more to look at things univocally.

Also, even sci-fi and the Dune books are on the poetic side of the ledger, since they are imaginative works of the fiction. The "poetic" broadly speaking includes imaginative fiction.

In addition, I wasn't saying that dispensationalists interpret things strictly literally, in fact, I specifically attributed to them the penchant for simple allegory. John Bunyan was a Protestant, after all.

In fact, Pilgrim's Progress is a good example of the kind of poetic expression favored by non-poetic people. He even tells you in the names he gives to his characters what they stand for. Everything has a one-on-one correspondence. "x" stands for "y". And then we've got it.

The Lord of the Rings would be a good popular example of poetic expression which defies this kind of analysis. The symbolism is too deep for that; you can't just say Aragorn stands for Christ. So does Frodo--and Gandalf. There are broad similarities between the Paths of the Dead and the Descent into Hell--but also between the Descent into Hell and Gandalf's mortal struggle with the Balrog.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but any comment?

Lee said...

> I wasn't chuckling at Protestants at all, although I think Protestants do tend much more to look at things univocally.

When Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my body, take and eat in remembrance of me," was he being too literal?

Lee said...

I guess what I'm saying is that transubstantiation is one of those things where the Protestants aren't the ones applying a literal interpretation.

Martin Cothran said...


Obviously some passages are meant literally and some not.

When Jesus says that we should "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood" in John 6, it is recorded that, as a result, many of his disciples left because of it. They obviously interpreted him literally and he did nothing to disabuse them of that notion. And in his conversation with his disciples afterward, he did not (as he often did after telling a parable) give them the literal explanation of his figurative saying.

One wonders, if he was talking figuratively, why this passages reads as it does.

Lee said...

> Obviously some passages are meant literally and some not.

Well... Actually, I don't know how obvious the methodology is, by which we determine that some passages are intended to be literally interpreted and others are not.

Some of the obviousness may be provided by a bit of dogma.

> They obviously interpreted him literally and he did nothing to disabuse them of that notion.

This is, of course, subject to interpretation. All I'm doing is pointing out that Protestants aren't the only ones who take some fantastic-sounding things literally.

> One wonders, if he was talking figuratively, why this passages reads as it does.

At the Last Supper, instead of passing around bread and wine, why didn't He just start carving off pieces of His body and putting them on the disciples' plates? And couldn't He have dripped some of His blood into a cup and passed it around? Then there would be no question that He meant it literally.

There are certainly other obviously figurative references juxtaposing food (physical nourishment) and Christ (spiritual nourishment). Here's one: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God," and as John said, Christ Himself is the Word made flesh.

And as you pointed out, the Bible is full of imagery and poetic language.