Introduction to Poetry

Michaelmas 2012

Dr Simon Perry

During the summer, my youngest son asked me, “Dad, can you explain to me, Frankenstein’s theory of relativity!”  One of our physicists told me I probably had a better chance of explaining that, than of explaining Einstein’s: and he may well have been right.  So here goes:

Frankenstein seeks to relativize the all-pervasive influence of modern science – by concerning himself with the deeper secrets of life – and, of course, he succeeds in creating his own, alternative life-form: unfortunately, that life form became known as Frankenstein’s monster.  The monster himself carried a deep sense of alienation – he craves acceptance by his creator, he longs for affection and companionship.  He shows deep sensitivity towards a peasant family, saves a girl from drowning, but in the end is rejected because of his hideous appearance: the monster seeks revenge on his creator, and becomes a murderous, violent demon.  As the story progresses, Victor Frankenstein himself, slowly turns into the alienated monster he has created, obsessed with revenge, alienated, guilt-ridden.  In the end, his attempt to create alternative life, just ends up with more-of-the-same: the dehumanised, alienated and violent self. Mary Shelley’s novel is thus a narrative for the modern, human self: trapped inside a world and a worldview from which there is finally no escape.

Well, our theme for this term is Poetry.  So what has poetry got to do with Frankenstein?

For some people, poetry is a bunch of words that rhyme.  And poems are the product of those who possess the literary genius of T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton and Dizzee Rascal.  But, according to existentialist philosophers, poetry forms a specific function within language – that opens up a world beyond language.  Not so much something that you read, as something that invites you to read differently, to see the world differently, and to act differently.

If all is well with the world, if life is happy – free of tragedy, suffering and pain – then there would be no need for poems.  But if the experience of Frankenstein, the alienation, the remorse, the anguish does describe something of the modern human condition, then it is here that poetry has a specific function.

Poetry has its place in a world full of woe, a gloomy, depressing reality.  It is the gloominess of our reality that is described in Christian terms, with the concepts of sin, and fallenness and guilt:  The feeling that there is something wrong with the world.  In its crudest forms, Christianity says to people – ah, thou unbeliever art destined for eternal damnation – unless you accept your guilt, repent, and become a tedious and intolerable do-gooder – thus guaranteeing a seat in eternal bliss, alongside a multitude of other tedious and intolerable do-gooders.

Hardly surprising then, that the late Christopher Hitchens, an icon of militant atheism, used to plagiarise that famous line that – according to Christianity, we are “Created sick and commanded to be well.”  That is, a prominent strand of Christianity says, that every human being is sinful, depraved and utterly corrupt, from before the moment we were born.  But in order to avoid hell, we have to become perfect!  Created sick, commanded to be well.

But – it is not only the corrupted mainstream of Christian orthodoxy that promotes this view.  There is a far more pervasive way of life that instils this belief: and it’s called, Advertising.  It was recognised as early as the 1950s, that lots of advertising works on the basis of telling us that we are too this, too that: too fat, too thin, too inadequate, too plain, too outdated for us to be happy – and, of course, the only way that we can taste paradise, is to buy the product on offer.  Our lives are unfulfilled, until we obey the advert – created sick, commanded to be well.

You see this in marketing trends in recent decades.  There was once a time when if a company wanted to sell a car – they would simply say: look, this is a motor vehicle, a fully functioning masterpiece of precision engineering – so, if you happen to be looking for a new vehicle, this is an excellent choice.  Then later on, the adverts moved from practicality, to envy, to keeping up with the Joneses: look at your neighbour’s marvellous vehicular equipage!  See how beautiful it is compared with yours… Solution?  Ah, purchase the motor vehicle we are selling.  Eventually, adverts move on again – no longer are Ford selling you a car – they are selling you a feeling. Quite an expensive feeling: peace, satisfaction, security.  If you want to be happy, you need to attain the items that produce this feeling.  Of course, the moment you do possess it, whether its car or clothes or wardrobe or technology: the satisfaction is short lived – because in order to be happy, you need the next upgrade.

This is not simply a critique of advertising, as though mass advertisers were free to employ alternative tactics. Advertising is simply one manifestation of the era of capitalism in which we live.   Advertisers manipulate individuals to open their souls like countries open their economies to foreign investors.  Once inside, an alien character dominates its host, leaving victims with the ‘unhomely’ feeling that they are living someone else’s life.

It stretches beyond the world of advertising and into the depths of modern self-identity.  Social Media offer a fine example, since they are a necessity in the modern world.  Those who abstain from Facebook, for instance, are increasingly regarded with suspicion.   These social media require a ‘profile’ page in which individuals construct their public identity with the use of favourite music, sports, activities, philosophies and quotations – all of these identity-markers being carefully packaged by corporate organisations.  The result is nicely critiqued by a figure who is undoubtedly today’s foremost social critic, Stewie Griffin.  Having created a MySpace page, he announces ironically, “yeah, I loaded up other people’s creations to express my own individuality.”

In other words, even our attempts to express who we are, our own most individuality – tend to be shaped by a alien forces from which there is no escape.  Plenty of what passes for poetry – coming in the form of music, books, or movies – prevent us from imagining an alternative world, an alternative way of being.  The result is what existentialists call the herd mentality, the they-self or the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist.  And to exist is to stand out, in Greek, to ek-sist, from this inescapable, all-pervasive gloomy reality.  In other words, genuine poetry is meant to liberate, to do the impossible, a miraculous, world-changing event – Poesis – in Greek. 

Poems are simply one aspect of Poesis, because they have the ability to break down dominant worldviews, and draw us to inhabit other worldviews.  It is not dissimilar to the function of education.  On the one hand, it is easy to portray education here at Cambridge as though it were mere training – where you absorb information, acquire certain skills, and go back into the same old world to function efficiently and slavishly within it.  But – education is not training.  Education means to be liberated – to climb into new worldviews, to embody and to offer alternative ways of being in the world, and so to create – to make a new world: in that sense, education is poetic and those who use well their time here at Cambridge go back into the world as poets.

Of course, this is not the only way to understand poetry.  But it does highlight one of the major literary dynamics of Scripture:  In the preaching of Jesus, we see him constantly turning people’s worldview inside out:  the first will be last and the last will be first, everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted; whoever would be the greatest among you, must be the servant of all.

With the parable of the rich man and Lazarus – the predominant, accepted worldview is one in which the wealthy man is blessed by God – and Lazarus, outside the gates of the wealthy man’s comfortable world, is clearly cursed.  We may not experience life like Frankenstein or his monster – we may eat and drink and live in relative luxury.  But outside the gates of our household, there is a world where nasty things happen: a world where 2.5 million are transported into forced labour every year, a world in which 200 thousand children are subjected to slave labour; where drought and war have left 19million west Africans in dire need.  Of course, we can extend the list indefinitely. 

The point of the parable though, is not to force us into guilt about not doing more the solve international crises that seem beyond our control:  Feeling guilty because we benefit from the world’s economic injustices; feeling hopeless because we cannot change those injustices. The impossible burden of selflessness simply brings us back to the notion of being created sick and commanded to be well.  No, the parable does not force upon us what Oscar Wilde described as the “sordid necessity of living for others.” 

Instead, the parable works poetically: to re-orient us in our world, to change our worldview, to help us to understand who we are in relation to others.  To see ourselves through the eyes of others, even others who go by names like Lazarus.  We live in a world that has programmed us with particular ways of understanding our place in the world, faced with a constant barrage of adverts and other cultural dictates that help us to forget about Lazarus.

Poetry, however, serves as a literary explosive device.  It is the invitation to an alternative world, a world that might otherwise have been unimaginable, but a real world nevertheless.  Throughout the term, we will explore in more detail, the territory of the world that poetry creates.