A Brief For Didactic Poetry

Copyright © by Esther Cameron, 10/7/01


  Among the extinctions of the twentieth century must be counted several genres of poetry.  Fortunately, genres may be easier to revive than animal species.  I would like to put in a word for a revival of didactic poetry.

  Modernism has rejected didactic poetry with a peculiar vehemence, as it rejects the idea that poetry should aim to be informative, edifying, or in any way useful.  Any expectation of utility, any external purpose, is perceived as impinging on the absolute freedom of the artist.   In modern textbooks on poetry it is sometimes recalled that poetry was once used as a mnemonic, and usually “Thirty days hath September” is cited as a last survival of such usage.  But the authors always say that this is “not poetry” but only “verse.”

  The foreclosure of the possibility of didactic poetry seems particularly unfortunate in a century that has supplied humanity with so much new information to process, and which has brought such rapid and violent social change, that everyone feels somewhat disoriented.  For (closely though the secret has recently been kept) poetry is the ideal vehicle for sorting out ideas and information.  Through poetry, knowledge of the external world is assimilated to our subjective self-knowledge.  If we should ever really want to do something about “the alienation of modern man,” a revival of didactic poetry would be a logical beginning.

  Numerous poets have of course noticed that to live in a world radically reshaped by science, and yet to refrain from speaking of science, is to mark oneself as an anachronism.  Accordingly, many poets read a lot about science and strew their verses with scientific terms -- those terms, at least, which can be poetically assimilated.   The hard core technical jargon -- “deoxyribonucleic acid” -- of course defies such assimilation, being completely inorganic.  And it is notorious, too, that words cannot follow mathematical reasoning very far. Thus the use of scientific terminology in modern poetry is merely allusive; it resembles Pound’s habit of quoting scraps from Dante and the Greeks. 

  In Pound these illusions impress (they may also annoy) the reader by implying familiarity with the masterworks of the past; and they may sometimes enlarge the meaning of the present passage, for a reader capable of recalling the quotation’s original context. Unfortunately, the effect of a habit of scientific allusion is very different.   The reader usually does not know, and moreover suspects that the poet does not know, very much about the original context of the scientific terms.  The poet seems just to be picking up these terms as a crow picks up shiny objects and carries them to its nest, without having the slightest idea what they were fashioned for.   Involuntarily the reader imagines what a specialist in the field might think, and is embarrassed for the poet.

  In these poems of scientific allusiveness, the subject is seldom really science.  There is no attempt to expound any domain of knowledge systematically, to give the reader any genuine information.  Rather, the aim is to create interesting verbal configurations, which inevitably center on the one topic of modern poetry, to wit the isolated, disoriented subject, bombarded with information which he or she has no possibility of arranging in a sensible order, and locked into narcissism by the lack of social context.   Of the making of such verse there is no end.

  Is this sort of me-tooism the poet’s only option in technocratic society?  Surely not.

  Granted, the unassimilability to poetry of numbers and inorganic jargon is a fact that will not change.  But within that periphery where the physical sciences fade out of communication with any but their respective initiates, there is a great deal of information that could be assimilated and ordered by poets willing to re-forge the tools of Hesiod, Lucretius, Dante and Pope.  There are the discoveries of behavioral psychology and sociobiology, the complexities of the technocratic society, and finally, the law.   In all these fields there is plenty of jargon, but most of the jargon can be readily translated into immediate human terms.   To do so is to begin rebuilding a framework within which human beings might again orient themselves.  Furthermore, it is possible that even the specialities of physical science could be brought closer to the common reader, if poets trained in these specialities and in the poetic tradition would write popular treatises in poetic form. 

  Here I would like to leave the ground of general speculation, and share something of my actual experience in writing a work of this nature.   In 1982 someone showed me Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth, a prose work meditating on the implications of nuclear weapons and the prospect of extinction in general.   Moved by this work, and feeling that some of its questions should be pursued further, I immediately attempted to write something in prose, under the title The Consciousness of the Earth; but I found myself unable to get a grip on the subject.  It seemed to spread out in all directions, and every sentence seemed vague and questionable.  After eighty pages or so I gave it up.

  Some months later, I was asked to write an article on Paul Celan for a literary journal, and chose to write about the image of the earth seen from space, which appears rather frequently in his early work and especially in Die Niemandsrose.   One day, soon after finishing the essay, I found myself writing out, rapidly and almost without corrections, a prologue in blank verse to -- The Consciousness of Earth.  It was about 130 lines long, and I felt that, unlike my earlier prose attempt, it managed in that space to say a good many things and to say them clearly.  I had committed myself to writing a didactic epic on the ecological situation. 

  Naturally, I was appalled at the scope of what I’d taken on; but, as the prologue stated, the important thing was to make a beginning.  So to the library I went, to read up on the ecological situation in all its myriad aspects. 

  Having done the reading for each chapter, I proceeded to try and write it in blank verse.  At first it was slow going.  I set myself a pensum of fifty lines per day, good, bad or indifferent, and at first the verses were invariably bad -- creaking, wooden, with nothing poetic about them but the scansion.   This was not like the writing of a lyric poem, which comes out of the inner world and hangs together by the logic of the psyche.  Here I had to assimilate information coming from without, to which I did not necessarily feel an inner relation.  And yet, as I persevered, somehow the verse came gradually to life.  The dead mass of information began to cohere and to glow.  Apparently by being tumbled around in the verse-machine the pieces of information had both acquired a polish and had begun bonding with each other.  

  Since this poem was finished, in 1989, I have written quite a bit of didactic or expository verse, including a number of letters in this form, and verse seems to me an excellent medium for exposition.  I find blank verse actually easier to write than prose; the rhythm of blank verse is something you can fall into, like a runner’s high.  And it’s well worth pushing oneself to the point where this occurs.  In a good pentameter line, thought acquires an almost visual dimension, leading the writer to hope, at least, that the reader will see what she means.   The exposition is far more memorable in verse than in prose.  Moreover, it is harder in verse than in prose to wander off into unreality, since in verse, with the critical presences of Shakespeare and Milton looking over one’s shoulder, one cannot use jargon!   Thus, didactic poetry is a possible critical discourse, at least with respect to the social sciences (including law).  In the course of the process described above, one discovers the limits to which new terminology can be incorporated into a traditional poetic language.  From the point of view of the respective disciplines, of course, such an effort must always fall far short of completeness.  But by expanding the limits of poetic language, one enlarges the area within which the human being can feel at home.

  For works of this kind to be useful, of course, people must be induced to read them! Given the habits of inattention fostered by a commercial culture, this is no easy task.  But it is not wholly impossible; without the approval of any sort of establishment, I have managed to get a hundred or so of my friends and acquaintances to read The Consciousness of Earth.  Moreover, seeing that criticism of this culture is widespread today, why should not poets aggressively advocate didactic poetry as an antidote?  A form, if one likes, of yoga.

  One development which could favor the rebirth of didactic poetry is the Internet, which makes it possible to publish longer works at a very low cost.  The Internet is chaos at present, but form is always born out of chaos; the Internet is a great opportunity for the invention of new forms.  It would be possible for instance to establish forums for the exchange of didactic verse in various fields.   Through the overlapping of membership, these could be connected, and perhaps there could eventually be a central site where the map of poetically assimilable knowledge would be pieced together.  The Divine Comedy of the twenty-first century may well be not a static masterpiece by one mind, but a pattern of collaboration, a dynamic pattern for the flow of in-formed speech in a changing world.  An art in which beauty and elegance are, as in the sciences, inseparable from the power to communicate.  Something, in fact, like a poetic science.  


(Note: Esther Cameron’s poetry and essays have appeared in BELLOWING ARK, THE ANTIGONISH REVIEW, HUNGER MAGAZINE, MOBIUS, THE ECLECTIC MUSE, and other publications in the U. S. and abroad.  The Consciousness of Earth is slated for installment publication in BELLOWING ARK beginning with the September-October 2001 issue.)


[Dan replies: Very good Seek essay. Succinct & straight-forward. I hope your call for a didactic revival is in the best sense of the word- not the pedantic. This piece is a good contrast to the essays of Frederick Turner's which appear in the BYLINES pages. I do think some of your absolutisms- i.e- on the unassimilability of jargon [Will the art of poetry not expand- you think it will stagnate?] are overstated, but the piece is well-wrought, even if I do not agree with all its posits.]


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