Friday, April 20, 2018

Poetry saving America Day 20 #NationalPoetryMonth

We have now reached the penultimate poem in Tony Hoagland's list of Twenty Poems That Could Save America. Here's what Hoagland has written about it:
Obviously, poems in a curriculum may usefully complicate and contradict one another. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” addresses the ethics of language and the need for trustworthy speech. Against Rukeyser’s urgent formulation of that truth, one might, in our imaginary curriculum, counterpose Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which asserts the superiority of silence and nature to scholarly language and ideas. In Whitman’s poem, two kinds of learning are opposed to each other, and the speaker advocates playing hooky:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” represents a streak of anti-intellectualism that is a familiar part of the American tradition of self-sufficiency and independence. The natural man, claims the poem, has little need for arid recitations of classroom knowledge. Rather, as Emerson suggested, it is the true work of each American to go outside and forge her own original relationship with the universe. Whitman’s lyric embodies that American narrative.
evening "stars"
evening "stars"
Photo by J. Harrington

Another way to think about this poem, less anti-intellectual we hope, starts with an idea that each of us learns differently. Some of us are more comfortable in a built environment. Others much prefer a natural setting. Think about Aldo Leopold's wonderful observation in A Sand County Almanac:
 “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”
As we were growing up, we learned about a similar, but somewhat different distinction: that between "book learning" and "street smarts." In general, it's been our experience that wisdom requires some of each. Part of our contrariness toward, not Whitman's poem, but Hoagland's assessment of it, is that we think perhaps anti-intellectualism and independence have become too dominant in the American narrative. We need to learn how to better recognize and act on our interdependence and the different ways each of us comes to know what we think we know. Synergy over reductionist thinking, yes please! Just looking in perfect silence at the stars would not have brought us Earth Rise. The equations that got us there lack the emotional impact of the picture.

Earthrise taken on December 24, 1968
Earthrise taken on December 24, 1968

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