Can you read poetry if you have no moral base? By reading I mean of course that one carries away the aesthetics of the matter. I don’t just mean the shapes evoked by images or the sounds but the grains of philosophy–the hard to define reasoning that both the poet and the reader must do whether they like it or not. Frost says famously at the end of a very famous poem: “And that has made all the difference” and we understand him because we too must make incontestable moral choices each and every day. Frost chose to write narrative poems about his rural neighbors thus giving them places in the Parthenon of American culture and if you think that’s too imposing a figure let me add that Frost’s poems are the most widely read poetic works of the 20th century and that’s a matter that isn’t going out of fashion anytime soon.
But if I were a bad man would I read poetry? This is a silly question of course. I am a flawed man but I believe in the social contract; demand equal rights for all. What kind of a question is this? I might as well start talking about what the next life will be like. But wait.
You see the thing is I’m a neo-Platonist. I think art should delight as well as instruct. By “delight” I don’t mean things have to be cheerful. Substitute if you like the word “engaging” or “puts a spell on you” and that’s just fine. But art instructs because it demonstrates the mind working at better solutions than mere sensation. What does it mean to be seeing, hearing, eating, loving, worshipping, fighting, running, birthing, standing alone? What does it mean and how did the meaning arrive?
When works of art deliver something like a partial answer to these mysteries I’m grateful to the woman or man who took that path. The smaller man inside me is instructed. He’s reassured there’s a reason to all this navigation and itching and circling we do down here on this planet.
Stalin famously enjoyed playing a gramophone record of wolves howling. He’d make his guests dance to the record and if they didn’t dance they’d be killed if not in that moment then surely the next day. And the guests danced over and over as Stalin turned the crank and watched them with his feral eyes.
Safe to say he didn’t require poetry. He knew it would complicate the minds of readers; knew that poets had to be stopped. The immoral mind discourages choices and all complexities.
Several years ago I was invited to meet with men in prison, “lifers” all, most of them in jail for having murdered someone; all of them were now raising puppies for a guide dog school in Ohio.
These men wanted to meet a real guide dog user: a blind person who was out in the world and traveling and who could talk to them about the end user’s experiences.
What I found was a room full of men with a shared passion for doing something that was arguably good, unambiguously good. They were pouring out their hearts and souls to their puppies and to each other and then to me.
Criminal acts do not invariably derive from immorality. Complexity and beauty can be in the most unforseen places. I read those good guys a poem about my first guide dog Corky which describes how she guided me around New York City.
No one knows at face value who is moral or who lacks all redemption. That’s why we read and write the poems; why we keep with whatever troubles our assumptions.
“See life steadily,” said Kenneth Rexroth . “See it whole.”