Notes to Teachers-to-be in the Humanities: The Central Place of Poetic Perception


I want to use poetry in a very wide sense

These photos are poetic as well as factual


What do they speak or bespeak?

The book that contains these depression era WPA pictures is called: Let us now praise famous men


What do we feel here?

What is the quality of life?

What virtues or vices speak?


Do we feel pity, admiration?

Are these lives base or noble?

Do they bespeak the dignity of labor or the shame of political/social neglect?


I recommend an inquiring generosity that flows into praise.


It’s unlikely that we’d get negative with these pictures, but we could:

             Is the photographer a snoop, a voyeur?

            Are these folk being set up for condescending exploitation?

            Are they just stupid trying to make a go of it in the dust bowl?

                        Are we stupid to look?

            What’s new?! — “The poor are always with us.”


My worry is that when we teach we can fall prey to the “gotcha” mentality, or an  

                “Only the facts, Mame” mentality


You may like or dislike this novel, Moby Dick, but it’s “really”

         Just white privilege

        Just a mirror of imperialism

        Product of apocalyptic hysteria

         Utterly sexist


We’re afraid of the opposite “Wow!” mentality for fear that after the “wow”, what do you say?


But there’s plenty to say.

We don’t read novels or look at art just for pleasure.

Why not praise Moby Dick for

            Racial inclusiveness

           Admiration for “cannibal” cultures

           Homo eroticism

           Critique of violence and hatred

            Critique of Quaker hypocrisy

          Embrace of the wonder of motherhood and birthing

         The over-all hope of rebirth and salvation through story-telling?


There’s a danger of emphasizing mainly facts, explanations, and ‘quiz-knowledge’

            Take the High school emphasis in reading Emily Dickinson:

                    “Look for rhyme scheme, alliteration, metaphor, simile”

                   “Look for the meaning of a poem as a whole”

                  “Do biographical research”


This suppresses the ring, the lilt, life, of

 “Wild nights, wild nights”;    “A funeral in my brain”

“I’m nobody, who are you?”;    “Hope is a bird with feathers”


I’d push literature and philosophy and religion closer to

           dance, theater, music, visual arts, and movies

           where “live-bodily performance” is essential.


 Parts of history, philosophy, sociology, and physics are obviously not

 this.  But then, if you aim philosophy at social justice,

     or aim history at exposing evil,

     or refuse to do research into better weapons,

     or aim psychology at caring for souls,

then you come close to “live-bodily-performance” in your efforts. You try to evoke what it’s like to sit in poverty before a camera, or to balance in a boat pulled by a whale.


More examples of “gotcha” academic moments — real quotes:

            “I aim to expose the cracks in the granite of genius”

            “We don’t want to hear about King’s ‘I’ve got a dream’ – but about

                    his ‘clay feet, his plagiarism and affairs’


The humanities is where we can find individuals and communities sorting out

                        Violence, pity, condescension,

                       Piety, hatred, tenderness, love of all sorts,

                       Death, suffering, tragedy, exaltation,

                      Joy, bitterness, age, sex, innocence, blame

                      Silliness, wit, burial, resurrection,

The display and reenactment of all these (and more)

— all this will be conducted “free-lance,” apart from false academic disciplinary rigor or esoteric expertise (Warning: Don’t tell the funding czars!  Careful at job interviews. Reveal this AFTER you have tenure.)


The humanities exist for richness, fullness of life,

            not for a better job or for security

           or for “pleasure” [shame on Stanley Fish — and many others — for saying this]

          or for sociability (shame on Rorty for saying poetry is good  for making an impression at parties).


Our vocation, quite simply, is to be

       Curators of the soul,

             it’s memories, animations, actions, passions, histories, and hopes —

(and only secondarily, to be aware of the blindness and  narrowness and evil that stand in our way)


These notes were background at an invited talk given to graduate students and faculty at Columbia University Teacher’s College, March 2016.










2 comments on “Notes to Teachers-to-be in the Humanities: The Central Place of Poetic Perception

  1. dmf says:

    one could certainly forget about being moved in academic work but then again one is moved or not, seems appropriate to a kind of adult education to teach _____ appreciation.

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