theory is all about questions and addressing them. Let’s look at five questions that theory asks.
First, what is the ultimate source of poetry? Where does it come from?
Does it come from on-high?
Are we inspired by God or Plato’s forms?
Do they tell us what to write?
Maybe it is nature or spirit that inspires our poetry?
Maybe poetry is a form of self-expression, so that the source is perhaps not an external god, but an internal consciousness or internal self-expression?
We’ll look at this question throughout this series.
Second, does poetry as a fiction, draw us closer to, or further away from truth? What is poetry? There are a lot of people out there who will say that poetry is all lies, so why even bother reading it? It’s funny how sometimes very religious people will say that, yet then some real technical people will say it as well. It doesn’t make us wise or teach us anything, but leads us astray. Let’s do learning that is practical instead.
On the other hand, some people say no, not only is poetry not lies, but it’s a higher kind of truth. Think about the prophetic books of the Bible, all written in poetry, as are all the wisdom books, like Proverbs or Job. So that’s a debate within poetry, is it fiction or a higher kind of truth?
Third, is the poet an artisan working a craft, or a divinely inspired genius? In other words, which is more important in the production of poetry, genius, so you have to be born a poet or pre-made a poet, or is an art, craft, or skill, is it something that we can learn?
Now really, all people are going to say that it’s a little bit of each. Yet some are going to say more genius, while some will say it’s more art. Again, this is a perennial question in literary theory.
Fourth, does poetry and the poet, serve a useful function in society? Now there’s a big question. As our society becomes more scientific and technological, people say poetry, that’s a waste of time. There’s no practical or pragmatic value in it. Throughout the course, we’ll make the analogy between poetry and literature, and the humanities, because a lot of the things people say about the “useless” features of poetry, they also say about the humanities. Being an English professor, Louis feels this very strongly, and he did when he was an English major as well.
So that’s a question, if poetry is just frivolous and has no value to society, or if, on the other hand, is poetry actually very useful? Is the poet somehow a public figure that can add to his society and state?
Fifth, is a poem a self-enclosed artifact whose meaning is eternal and transcendent, or a product of various social forces? Now we won’t get that that question really, until later in the course when we get to modernism and postmodernism. The debate there is if poetry captures truths that are eternal?
Like we say of Shakespeare, he was not for an age, but for all time. The truth of poetry is ever-relevant and ever-true. Yet others say that poetry is not eternal, but that poetry and the arts in general are just a product of society, just like politics, economics, or any other product of a society. So that means poetry is not eternal, but temporal. That’s a struggle.
Now these questions we’ve gone over, we’ll emphasize they are not merely academic questions. This is not just ivory tower stuff that has no meaning outside the academy. Louis will try to show us through the course that we’re talking about important things there, which have relevance. Louis believes that literary theory, how we define poetry and the poet, has a bearing on at least three things.
First, on the way we view ourselves and our culture. Again, if poetry is eternal, somehow that makes us eternal. If there are ideas that are always relevant, then perhaps inside of us, there are ideas that are also always relevant.
In addition, what about culture and society? Much of our culture is stored in our arts, our so-called Belle Lettres. So the way we define poetry, actually is going to be linked to the way we define ourselves, who we are, what our purpose is, and what the purpose of our culture and civilization is. Now that’s a big claim, but we hope to substantiate it as we go along.
Another thing literary theory has bearing on, is our appreciating and estimation of such things as beauty and truth. There is the famous like by Keats:
“beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
We hope to show that the way we define beauty, is linked to the way we define truth as well. If we look at beauty with some kind of eternal standard, “Beauty” with a capital B, we’re probably going to look at truth that way, and vice versa, so they are related.
Finally, another thing that literary theory has bearing on, is our ability to find meaning and purpose in the midst of tragedy. Now unless we ourselves die young, we are going to have to go through the grieving process. We’re going to have to go through tragedy and despair, and how are we going to deal with it?