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  • Beyond Confinement
  • Sydney Lea (bio)

We limit not the truth of GodTo our poor reach of mind,By notions of our day and sect,Crude, partial and confined.Now let a new and better hopeWithin our hearts be stirred:The Lord hath yet more light and truthTo break forth from His Word.

This verse from an old Protestant hymn is scarcely what anyone—let alone the self-styled hip secularist of our time—would describe as great poetry. And yet it seems something of a synopsis of what poetry can do, at least for me. I speak for no one else: humility is a value I strive for, although it is forever evident that I do so very imperfectly.

In any case, poetry's main effect in my life has been to move me out of my aprioristic thinking, my allegiance to convention, whether personal, social, or even theological. I am scarcely unique in this regard: most poetry since the nineteenth century has been an outlet for the passive mind, what we lately call the right brain. (In my teaching days, this always made for a real challenge: if poetry does not chiefly consist in rational effort, how come I kept talking about it to students as if it did?)

But what do such terms, rationality, conventional thinking, and so on—what do they really signify? For us Westerners the concepts derive mainly from the Enlightenment: we valorize logic, the movement from premise to conclusion. Be reasonable, we caution, whenever someone's behavior or conversation tends toward the erratic.

Mind you, I don't lament our inclination to the ratiocinative, because it can serve us well in many if not most ways. Recent American history has shown, for instance, that its absence from our politics can be a bane. I am, that is, making no case here for right brain process as self-evidently preferable to left. I merely claim that the right brain calls for cultivation: to ignore the passive mind is to make us the poorer, at least if we are poets, or, I'd submit, other sorts of artists. Poetry, though it neither attacks nor rejects reason, simply [End Page 251] challenges reason's dominion, not so much assaulting our tendency to dialectic, to patterns of either/or, as asking us to consider the world, or worlds, that may exist on the far side of such patterning.

When we profoundly admire a work of art, we are apt to use the word transformative in our praise: by my lights, that suggests that a poem, say, may alter what had perhaps been opinionated apprehension, turning it in the direction of a fuller perception. That poem's content and structure may fly full in the face of dialectic . . . in the manner, say, of Jesus' parables or of old Gnostic hymns, or of any number of creations by an Emily Dickinson or a Robert Frost, works which can be seen from at least two perspectives, and in fact, of course, many more than two. In the words of the hymn I cited at the start, these reveries can show us that the "notions of our day and sect" are "crude, partial and confined."

To that extent, no matter the popular cartoon of the artist as a mad and egomaniacal striver, at its root the poetic art may well have to do, exactly, with humility. The poet who poses as a prophet is, in my view, an impostor, a figment of Hollywood's imagination. Poems by their very nature reject all vatic presumption.

I recently read of a judge's obliging a Native American man, in the usual manner, to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." The fellow seemed clearly to struggle at first; but at length he replied: "I don't know what the whole truth is. I only know what I know." To behold an accomplished poem is to sense the wisdom of that response.

In this respect, then, this little essay is bound to be almost as unsatisfactory as the discussions of spirituality into which I'm often forced as I converse with my friends, most of whom are rather...


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