C.S. Lewis and the importance of poetry

2nd February, 2012 - Posted by Christine Perrin - No Comments

C.S. Lewis is widely known for his view of myth as that collection of stories and archetypes that express our deepest desires and musings. He takes it another step further when he insists that these very desires (and their common currency among all cultures) suggest a truth about the reality structure of the universe. Our desire, he suggests, is evidence of an answer to that desire. We desire food which suggests there is such a thing as food. We implicitly believe, in the case of this particular argument, in the presence of transcendence (that there is more to the world than what we see, more than the material) and in a transcendent being who accepts and loves us, hence it is probable that this desire indicates its possible fulfillment.

I taught a semester long poetry course in 15 days recently and one student asked me earnestly–why we study poetry, what is its point, what are we supposed to know from it, when do we know we have achieved its end? I was delighted that he asked, he said that in his field, math, these questions were clear and the path was clear. We entertained the subject the whole semester but I think an examination of metaphor best answers such a question. Metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things, it is comprised of a vehicle (concrete aspect) and a tenor (abstract aspect), it is saying matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, it is finding the mysterious links and unities in the world. To believe in metaphor, in sense, is to believe that there is more than what we see–the structure of the device (which is not purely literary but a function of the way our brain works) makes an argument for transcendence. The world is not just what we see, what we see and experience in our senses (images) is suggestive of a reality beyond. Mario from “The Postman, Il Postino” asks the poet Neruda–”is the whole world a metaphor for something else?” Our very mind and the way it thinks (imputing meaning to/beyond the material)becomes its own testimony to transcendence. This is, of course, how poems are made (“Ye objects that utter forth my meanings…” says Whitman)–people put down in embodied language the relations they have found between matter and spirit, between object and thought. Even math was derived from such a structure and demonstrates that “things” “numbers” “patterns” are not simply themselves but suggestive far beyond their literal value. Poetry reminds us of the multivalence, the fathoms of this ocean we are swimming in.

Posted on: February 2, 2012

Filed under: C.S. Lewis, why poetry

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