Over at the LTW Mentor we’ve been discussing what book of poetry folks recommend to a mother who wants to give her daughter a gift book. As you might expect, I wandered from the point when somebody asked what to choose if you don’t already know what you like.
It’s a good question and it underscores our dilemma. We want to be educated, but, to quote that boxing manager from the ’20’s, “We was robbed.” So what do we do?
In what follows, I propose two options: the first solves the immediate problem. The second begins to solve the long-term problem. The first is to look to someone else you trust (an authority) and the second is to learn the nature, principles, and form of the thing you are learning about – in this case, poetry, but it applies to every art. The goal is to learn to think for yourself, not by following your own impulses and desires, but by knowing what is fitting and appropriate based on the nature of the art.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote over there (edited and develop just a frog’s legs worth):
You always have two options, either look to yourself or look to an authority. If you don’t know what you like, then ask someone you trust – ie. an authority (as you just did). But always do it with an eye to one day having that authority yourself.
To gain the authority to make your own decisions does not mean, first of all, identifying what you like. It means learning the nature of the thing you are studying.
To learn its nature is both easier and harder than you think. The best thing to do is to look at examples of the thing you are learning about (frogs, dogs, bogs, poems, novels, etc.). First notice them for what they are. Look for forms and elements/parts.
Then compare the thing you are studying with other things, especially very different things. For example, a frog is very, very different from a poem. That will help you identify obvious things that make each what it is. A frog’s legs taste good, for example, while a poem doesn’t even have legs. At least not literally. Though some poet somewhere has no doubt written a poem about a poem’s legs. Which points to another difference (but I’m not telling you what it is).
Next, compare the thing you are studying (e.g. poetry) with more similar things. For example, a novel is more like a poem than a frog is. So now you look for how the novel and the poem are similar and how they are different.
By following this sequence, you come to learn the nature of literature, novels, poems, and frogs. You learn how each should be studied. And you learn how each should be treated.
And this is an overview of the lifetime classical curriculum!
How to get started? I recommend Robert Frost as an easily accessible, very beautiful, very thoughtful poet. His Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening will reward you for the rest of your life. Compare that to a frog. Then to a favorite musical composition. Then to a favorite movie. Then to a favorite novel. Then, at last, to another poem. And then another. And another.
When you come to forks in the road, take them. You might even want to take the one less traveled by. It makes all the difference.