Article by Stephen Morrissey
Montreal Journal of Poetics, spring-summer 1981
Those who have great learning desire generally to seem to be accounted wise in the world. But there are many things whose knowledge brings but little profit and little fruit to the soul; he is most unwise who gives heed to any other thing except what will profit him to the health of his soul.
—Thomas à Kempis
In teaching, as in poetry, there is a major division between insight and knowledge. As a teacher I spend an hour or more a week per course giving lectures, but now I realize that despite this attempt to communicate knowledge what I have always tried to teach is insight. Knowledge has its function in education and the traditional view of education is that one fills the students with facts; however we all know from experience, having all once been students, that facts or knowledge have a very tenuous existence. After a course is finished what we learned is often quickly forgotten. Most of us have also had the experience in school of having insights into the course material. It was these moments of insight that seemed to be the height of going to school, the thing that encouraged us to continue being interested in being students. A large part of formal education is made up of transmitting knowledge and its possible value is that it quickly gives the students a body of information that will help create an interesting class discussion as well as create an "educated person". Knowing the importance of insight I have asked myself how one goes about laying a foundation in the classroom that will allow for insights to occur. One way is to put free class discussion ahead of lectures; out of three hours of class a week I allow myself the luxury of only one hour of lectures, the other two hours going to class discussion or some other activity. Perhaps lectures can produce insight but that has never been my experience. Class discussion can generally be generated through organized oral projects, whether individual or in groups. A class atmosphere of free discussion, non-comparison of students, and no fear are all prerequisites to a good class attitude and working environment. Personally, I believe that the teacher who can get twenty-five students participating in a class discussion is doing an excellent job. In-class discussion makes for an enjoyable course but not for an easy one; free discussion forces the students to think, to come up with new ideas, and to go deeply into the subject matter of the course. The ideal student is one who is receptive to the course material and capable of insight into it. One must wonder, however, if the educational system is involved with that area of teaching that goes beyond transmitting knowledge to the student's own discovery of the relationship between himself and his world. One also wonders if the student wants that type of education.
Poetry has always been a form of education, a way of teaching people something about themselves. The kind of poetry that lets us see something new about life seems to me to have an intrinsic value. So if poetry seeks to teach, how does one go about doing this? One way is through transmitting knowledge. Anyone familiar with Pound's Cantos knows of the amazing amount of knowledge he categorized, sifted, weighed for importance, and finally gave us in that book. But there is still the division between insight and knowledge. Knowledge is subject to fashion, time, and history; a fact of 1938 may no longer be a relevant fact for today, for instance it may have been scientifically disproved, or have become historical information that is discredited.
So if poetry tries to teach insight then how does it go about doing this? I don't think we can be mere communicators of fact, and I doubt that fashion has anything to do with teaching towards insight. The poem that gives today's reader an insight into life is the poem that will possibly be read by future generations and have some value to them. Perhaps the main pivot that insight rests on is self-knowledge, but that pivot is also the ordering of any information so that it appears in a new way. The central insight of literature, as I see it, is the one that deals with existence and the understanding of life in all of its complexities. Obviously this requires a lot of care on the part of the poet. The haiku relies on insight to determine its success—often a new dimension to things is revealed in the haiku's reversing of ordinary linear and ego-centric logic. The Chinese also relied on insight, the insight as experienced by the poet as well as the ability of the poem to render this experience to the reader. Indeed, all the poet can do is set up the parameters for the possible experiencing of insight by the reader. This isn't the intention of the poet, but it may be a by-product of the finished poem.
Perhaps it is the question of the "good life" that is also central to poetry. Insight into life helps us move toward the good life and I am tempted to say that to be open to life and to have insight into life is the good life. Seeing into things clearly requires us to change how we live if the insight is one that challenges and provokes change. The beauty of insight is also that insight is action; seeing and then doing are not separate functions of being, both emanate from the same perception of things.
A poetry that moves towards generating insight is often involved with self-knowledge; we have to find out what we are and in that perception is not only the foundation of the good life but the good life itself.
Poetry that deals with insight may also deal with catharsis; emotions are brought to consciousness and then expressed. The maieutic function of the poet and teacher lies in bringing to consciousness what we have had only a glimmer of before. So insight in poetry operates on two levels. First, the poet spontaneously writes his thoughts almost before they become thoughts, or in the moment that they are manifested in the form of thoughts. And second, insight is communicated to the reader, and this depends both on the quality of the poem and on the person reading the poem.
March 11, 1981
Copyright © 2007 The author