Saturday, January 17, 2009

Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor: Chapter 1

(I am reading through _Poetic Knowledge_ with Tim's Mom, and plan to blog about each chapter. Of course I jumped in with both feet this week, and did a regular article on the first chapter. I don't know if I will put this much effort into writing about every chapter, but it seemed important to me to really sift through his "Validity of Poetic Knowledge". This book is a big challenge to me, and I'd like to get started with an attempt to acquire an accurate sense of what he means by poetic knowledge.)

“Music is meant to be experienced. I don’t like all this talking about it.”

So said Mariel Thursday morning after an admittedly fact-heavy composer study—it was our second lesson on Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Triss and I had become absorbed in discovering and writing down tidbits such as the date of composition, what kinds of instruments were in the orchestra, and the name of the conductor at the first performance of the piece, much to Mariel’s consternation. We had the piece playing in the background, and that may have been part of the issue. We were talking over the music.

Mariel was expressing her preference for poetic knowledge, an “essential perception about the human being, about the world, and how we learn about our world,” that too often gets “dumped from the modern educational experience.”* In contrast with most modern educational efforts, poetic knowledge is whole, intuitive and perceptive.

In the first chapter of his book, _Poetic Knowledge_, James Taylor states that the poetic experience is “knowledge from the inside out,” or knowing a thing rather than simply knowing about it. It is a non-analytical, spontaneous awareness that awakens a sense of significance of the thing experienced. As Job stated after the Lord answered his questions with a head-on experience, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” Such knowledge is whole and integrated, less calculated and mechanical; it often comes on with surprise, as an “a-ha” moment. I doubt anyone could meet with such a learning moment as Job did and take it with an analytical head, coolly dissecting it to bits to figure out everything about the Lord. Some things are meant to be experienced wholly.

I wonder how Job explained his newfound knowledge of the Lord to his friends afterward? Such a wonderful experience would be very difficult to convey in words. Antoine de Saint-Exupery expressed the intuitive nature of some knowledge in his poem, “Generation to Generation”:

If others impart to our children our knowledge
And ideals, they will lose all of us that is
Wordless and full of wonder.


Poetic knowledge, then, is sympathy with the unknowable. Mr. Taylor informs us that his definition of intuition is not “a hunch”, but “the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within the object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.”

A few years back a fellow homeschooler talked to me with concern over whether her children should be allowed to read the Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. I tried to communicate the solid sense of godliness I got from the series, which never mentions Christianity or Christ. I ended by saying lamely, “I know there is magic in them, but they are definitely Christian. You have to read them to understand.”

However, I can’t help but think there must be some better way to explain it than my feeble attempts. There is more than one mode of knowing—poetic knowledge is only one of the four which Mr. Taylor introduces in Chapter 1, as defined by one of the professors in the University of Kansas’ Pearson Integrated Humanities Program:

1. Poetic: “truths grasped intuitively, as when you trust another’s love,”

2. Rhetorical: being “persuaded by evidence, but without conclusive proof that we might be wrong, as when we vote for a political candidate,”

3. Dialectical: using two opposing arguments and testing each to reach proof beyond reasonable doubt that one or the other is the right one, and

4. Scientific: “science in the ancient and not the modern sense which is dialectical and rhetorical, but science as *epistemai*-- we reach to absolute certitude as when we know the whole is greater than the part, that motion presupposes agency.”


These modes are different from most modern (and skeptical) schools of thought in that they are founded on first principles: “objective reality impossible to be ‘proved’ by argument because they exist as givens, intuitively known by all”. These were the kinds of knowledge widely accepted before the Renaissance, after which Subjectivism rose into favor and slowly eclipsed belief in absolute truth.

According to Mr. Taylor, “the ancient Greeks considered all education a matter of learning certain arts through imitation—that is, through the poetic impulse to reflect what is already there”. Observation—listening, looking, feeling—is the way to such knowledge. “Poetic experience and knowledge is essentially passive,” says Mr. Taylor. I think what he means here (and I tremble to challenge one of his word choices) is not really passive, but seemingly passive. Giving your full attention to an object is not passive, it only looks that way. As Charlotte Mason stated in her first volume, _Home Education_, “Attention is… the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand.” (p. 145) Quite an effort indeed, unless the student has acquired the habit.

But I understand his point: poetic knowledge is perceptive. Listening and looking are the routes to that form of learning. Mr. Taylor refers to Frank Smith’s book, _Insult to Intelligence_, for an example of learning to read in the poetic mode:

One of the leaders in research on how children learn to read, Margaret (Meek) Spencer of London University, says that it is authors who teach children to read. Not just any authors, but the authors of the stories that children love to read, that children often know by heart before they begin to read the story. This prior knowledge or strong expectation of how the story will develop is the key to learning to read, says Professor Spencer.


Not look-say, not phonics, not high-tech aides or methods, but loving a book enough to want to read it over and over. “The child is left alone, undistracted by methods and systems, so that the senses and emotions come naturally into play when being read to, where wonder and delight gradually lead the child’s imagination and memory toward the imitative act of reading.” Is it quantifiable for the teacher or parent? Not for awhile, at least. But is it effective? My, yes. I have often been asked by other parents how to teach reading, and I never can give a satisfactory answer. It is a mystery, I think—a mystery of perception, the parent and child delighting in sharing books until the child is inspired to imitation.

(We have used both phonics and look-say in our home to teach reading, but these aids never eclipsed the joyful reading of books, because I could not give that up, even in my anxiously conscientious efforts to be an excellent teacher. Read good books to your children with joy if you want them to love reading. That’s all I know to say.)

We live in an age that is defined by modern science. Results are wanted, and wanted now. But many times the education we desire for our children is not to be achieved through filling in blanks and checking off lists. It must be experienced in its entirety, from the inside out, perceived, delighted in and gradually reflected back. This is poetic knowledge.

It seems difficult to know if we are on the right track, but is it really? If we are listening and looking ourselves, rather than incessantly demanding "facts" that we can correct and put in the grade book, we may be able to sense, rather than explain, that the children are grasping “all of us that is wordless and full of wonder.”


*All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Chapter 1 of _Poetic Knowledge_.

2 comments:

Tim's Mom said...

I decided not to read your post until I had read and posted on chapter 1. I think we both understand the definition of the term in the same way - we even used similar examples!

Katie said...

How about that? I'm excited to get further into the book. He is good at communicating a difficult-to-explain topic.