Poetic Knowledge

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this.  Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.  This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic.  In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.  This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement.  These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.  — G. K. Chesterton

The posts have been slim here lately because I was at a retreat last week for classical educators.  And what a retreat it was!  I think it was the first time in my life that I have been to an organized getaway for the purpose of personal development that actually included large blocks of time dedicated to relaxation, contemplation, and unstructured conversation.  Training sessions in the morning and early afternoon followed by late afternoon walks and late night, informal conversations on the porch was a perfect combination.  It’s amazing what real leisure can do for the soul.

One of the greatest insights I gained from last week was the ability to think through and converse about the notion of “poetic knowledge.”  Poetic knowledge, more than the mere memorization of facts, is knowledge of something, anything, that is personal, experiential, intuitive, and full of wonder.  One of the best words to describe it is that it is “passive” knowledge.

When I say “passive,” I do not mean that the mind is not active in knowing it.  I mean that in knowing something, the one who knows it poetically is the one who does not seek to create knowledge but rather to receive it from outside of oneself.  If I, for example, want to know an orange, I cannot determine by my own decision what the essence of the orange is.  I can only receive it into my mind.  If I am to understand something, then I must stand under it.  I cannot stand over it.  That would be overstanding.

It strikes me that children have a gift for poetic knowledge.  They are full of wonder at the world all around them.  I remember taking my son Benjamin to the zoo when he was about a year old.  At the time I thought, “Why are we taking him to the zoo?  The whole world is his zoo!”  And I guess we took him more for ourselves than for him.  He would have had the same wonder-filled experience in the backyard, but we, with our modern, desensitized brains, would not have been able to share it with him as effectively.  In the passive wonder of children we catch a glimpse of what it is like to know the world poetically.  And somehow we manage to grow out of it and replace poetic knowledge with dry, ho-hum, textbook facts.  Of course, we must have facts.  But isolated facts are nothing more than a barrage of nonsense.  Within the context of a story, a story laced with poetic elements, facts become the tools of the poet and the servants of true knowledge.

We have so much to learn from children.

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3 Responses to Poetic Knowledge

  1. Ginger says:

    Not sure that I understood the passive part. Isn’t all knowledge passive? When do we create knowledge?

  2. We don’t. But post-Kantian epistemological theories of various kinds often assume that we do. Existential philosophy, for example, assumes that when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the world around us, we create meaning for ourselves. This idea turns us into gods.

  3. Diogenes says:

    You got it brother. Less is more.

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