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Heat & Light: How to Read Poetry Classically

Someone recently asked me what it means to read poetry classically. As I’ve been mulling over this question, I’ve been reading Andrew Louth’s book Discerning the Mystery which explores the legacy of the Enlightenment, in particular its definition of truth, and the legitimacy of the humanities’ unique way of apprehending it. It raises questions such as: what can we know about what we are reading? what establishes its authority? what happens in the reading encounter? The book goes on to describe the way in which the Fathers of the Church understood tradition and interpretation.

My son gave me this book as a Christmas present. It is published by Eighth Day Books which has a presence in a local coffee shop named Agia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). These details of my engagement with the book are not incidental to my love of it. This emphasis Louth would appreciate—reading is fundamentally human and personal, the “content” of the “material” cannot be separated from the writer, the period, the view of life, or the reader. We don’t shed the skin of our presuppositions to read, to compute the objective meaning of a text. Neither does a writer decide what will go in a work of literature and then just put it there, hoping that we readers will gather a single meaning that he or she has decided upon. This aspect of interpretation hearkens back to the title of the work with words such as “discernment” and “mystery;” books of literature (and scripture) are not a problem to be solved with the scientific method. In discussing the proper relationship with a text, Louth engages a metaphor he takes from the realm of human relations – a conversation.

When we read to understand we are concerned with what men have felt and done. Objectivity in this context means to achieve immediacy with the past. Words do not simply convey a meaning that the other unequivocally decodes. We use words with our own private echoes, based on our own history; with several interpretations, it is only with engagement with another in conversation that we attain understanding (28).

Not only are we unable to be objective, objectivty is redefined as our ability to achieve closeness with the writer, the past, the made artifact before us. Elsewhere, Louth describes this closeness as the “imaginative amplification of indwelling where one seeks to enter into another’s experience” (23). Louth describes the notion of objectivity as one that is false, borrowed from the sciences, and artificially imposed on the Humanities. He believes that real truth (proven by the willingness of a person to lay down her life for it) is subjective and tied up with the engagement of a person with it. The task of the Humanities is to bring “men into engagement with what is true,” not simply to transfuse the content of the great books, or even the reading experience, into our minds (27).

Three kinds of conversation partners

Louth describes the following three approaches as analogues for the way we often relate to books:

  • I categorize and determine what sort of person my conversation partner is and predict behavior
  • I may not use my engagement with my conversation partner as a means for extending my knowledge of human nature (as above), but I am not listening, I’m trying to read between the lines, I recognize his/her personhood but am trying to withdraw my own personhood from the relationship—seeking to be the master of the exchange
  • I recognize the otherness of another but also her claim over me and listen to what he has to say–not trying to dominate her through understanding, but seeking to understand what she has to say, remaining open to learning in the moment.

We have all experienced this spectrum of conversation in our lives. We have spoken to people from whom we experience a categorical rejection on the basis of our being middle aged, or liberal, or _________. They do not hear the particulars of what we are saying, they presume they know what we will say and they respond to that anticipation of who they assume we are. Students do this in class when they reject or pass immediate judgment on a book that has elements of paternalism, as mine did last semester while reading The Odyssey. Many were so dismayed by the absence of egalitarian standards that they missed the remarkable nuance of the female characters in the epic (Helen, Clytemnestra, Penelope, Nausicaa, Arete). Also difficult was apprehending the likemindedness (homophrosune) of Penelope and Odysseus. They had judged Homer from a long distance off and couldn’t be disabused of their categorical verdict.

The next kind of conversation is more subtle. When we read (and live) we are always searching out themes (elements of human nature). Indeed, this is an early form of the indwelling that Louth names. If we believe that this book has something to say about human nature then it can speak to us, we can be subject to it in some nascent form. But Louth’s aim is higher, bolder, more deliberate than even this. He desires that we would have some form of communion with the writers we read, that we would let them into our hearts and minds and sup with them.

Tradition and Reading Community

This poses a clear problem for all of us—what do we reject? How do we filter the pages and pages that have been written (sheer volume)? How do we decide what to read, how do we discern what to open ourselves to fully (quality). This is where the tradition and its communality enters into the discernment equation. Every time we read a book we are reading with the others who have read and responded to this book, we become a part of the living tradition as we read—our own engagement keeps the living books alive. Our reading community also accrues importance by this way of thinking. Those with whom we read shape our relationship to a book and its author. My daughter read a book in high school with a teacher who did not prefer it and then read it again in college with a teacher who did. She observed her own relationship to the book changing before her eyes and realized how essential are the guides we choose.

Who should our guides be, how should we choose them? In the classical movement we are aware of these principles—we are attempting to read the books that have lasted, that have won the lottery of time through this process of tradition. Are we also aware that meaning is also something that is never finished but is “an infinite process by which the tradition is handed on?” (33).

Louth refers to Hans Georg Gadamer who describes our coming to understanding through community in the family, in society and in the state in which we live: “The self awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life” (32). This view suggests that reading is radically communal (as opposed to the Romantic myth of the individual who masters the text). There is no way to avoid the fact that we are only reading these books because others have read them and found them to be a blessing and worthy of our attention. There is no way to avoid the transmission process from one reader to the next, teacher to student, lover to lover. We are radically attached to others in this process. For Louth (quoting Congar) this is a metaphysical truth that we ignore or attempt to objectify to our own peril:

Tradition, taken here in its broadest meaning is an example, the chief example, of the quiet general law of man’s dependence on, and obligation towards, his fellows. Elementary analysis of the concept of tradition, as a matter of transmission or delivery, shows that two persons are implied, one to transmit and one to receive. This important feature, of the human condition in the first place, and so also of the Christian condition. We belong to, and are part of a world. Fecundation by another, recourse to another in order to fulfill oneself—this is a general law of life, at least in corporeal beings. We can bring about our own death, but we cannot give ourselves life…Thus, it is normal for persons to depend on one another in order to achieve their supernatural destiny. In our sharing in the divine life through another’s mediation we may see a reflection of the divine life itself, which is the self giving of one person to another.

We are radically attached to ideas of individualism, autonomy, independence, the artist as creative genius, even the critic as creative genius (think Foucault, Derrida, Bakhtin). We are also deeply influenced by ideas of objectivity and content which is separate from its source. Think of the way in which our view of the news has changed in our own lifetime—there was a time when people spoke with confidence about neutrality, objectivity; there was a time when news programs from one political bent or another didn’t exist openly and students were taught that they could achieve some golden separateness from presuppositions. We are far more alert to the fact that even what we privilege has a great impact on what gets reported, let alone the slant that the network and the individual reporter might have.


We must not ignore the interdependence of the reading process—this brings a great responsibility to read and to teach with the awareness that we are having a great impact on fellow readers. We must not ignore the human, un-scientific nature of the reading process. How we feel about a book is part of what it is teaching, how those we respect have felt about a book is part of what we need to learn. We cannot empty the reading process of its subjectivity. When we do we misrepresent the importance of the human task and risk the student’s relationship to the book.

What does this mean practically and what are its problems? What is our tradition? Who are the gatekeepers we can trust? When we read scripture we have the church fathers, we have the doctrine and practice handed down by the church. One friend said that she knows her theological tradition is Aristotle and Aquinas and the Patristics but asks what this would mean in terms of literature. For another it might be Luther, Calvin and the Westiminster Confession. This is a very good question and one that is complicated by time and proliferation. Some principles that Louth’s argument suggests are the following:

  • you are operating in a tradition and in a community, seek an understanding of what that tradition and that community have read
  • there are other traditions and communities and that those with whom you read are a large part of your reading process, not incidental
  • how you respond and how your students respond to a book is an enormous part of the practice of reading
  • what you choose to read is part of developing and sustaining a tradition—that you are integral to the process
  • writers are the preeminent readers—when we read writers, we can be sure that they have read and been influenced by other writers and that their response in art is the highest and most perfect form of ‘criticism’ or response
  • finding who our beloved writers are and knowing who they have read is part of our education (this is true for a community and for an individual)
  • the subjectivity of reading does not mean a work of art means whatever we think it does—we are responsible to look up words, understand context, understand biography, understand the body of work of this writer, even know how others have responded to this writer
  • we must always return to wonder, not doubt. Wonder at the mystery of our being, at the mystery of creation—both our creation and that of the work of art (we are creators and partake in God’s creating/creation); much of our doubt is related to our false understanding of certainty
  • this process takes a long time, we have to let time be a part of the process
  • there isn’t one perfect point to enter the system of readers, the circuit of books, entering wherever we enter and working our way to the next book (forward and back) through the entry point is a perfectly reasonable form of movement—it isn’t scientific, it’s organic
  • at conferences we should probably talk about what we read and even spend more time sharing the texts we have built a relationship with (in teaching sessions), speaking less of how we do things instead practicing what we do in front of each other
  • it is very important for us to know what those who have gone on before us (not just our ancestors but programs that are more developed than ours) have chosen to read—do you know what St. John’s College’s reading list is (over 4 yrs), for instance?
  • it is a benefit to teach the same books again and again because our relationship accrues over time and we have more time to understand their context in terms of biography, history and the body of work of the writer we are reading


Becoming a good reader is multifaceted, but here are some practices that are useful, but only taken alongside the personalism of what is described up to this point.

In poetry, learn the constituent elements or materials that poems are made of—image, symbol, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, meter, stanza, tone. Learn them, however, in the context of poems and poets that are read first for delight and second to understand a literary concept such as metaphor. Learn the context of your own country—American poetry, for instance, which requires that you learn some history, some biography. Use the context of the body of a poet’s work to help you interpret a single poem. Memorize the ones that really appeal to you, dwell in them, let them instruct your life, question them, bang your head against the ego of their maker. “Why do you embrace everything?” is a question I used to ask Whitman in heated frustration. Now I ask it in wonder. I don’t agree with much of what Whitman believes (pantheism, for instance) but I am enormously instructed by his embrace of the world, of others, and by the way he makes an event in the language. Start slowly, at first, learn one or two poets well and in the company of others whose attention helps you to pay attention longer. Always read aloud and read multiple times. Find out who the grandfather or grandmother (literary influences) are—in Whitman’s case the psalms and opera had a significant shaping role in his work. Find out who read this writer so well that he or she wrote poems in response to his influence. In Whitman’s case one such example is Langston Hughes. Study what each saw in his or her predecessor. Are there books we should not read? This is a communal question, one that requires knowledge. There are some books not worthy of our time, there are some books that are best read at a certain time of life, and some that should be read with spiritual caution and guidance depending on what our own patterns of challenge are. We cannot neatly cut discernment out of the process, the question is who should discern?

Learning to read, like learning lifestyle eating (that will sustain you over some 80 years), is a long process which requires discernment (to see or apprehend, comes from the Latin ‘to separate’), submission to the tradition, reading in a community, and an acknowledgement of the unplumbed mystery of our being. Integral to that process is our relationship to what we read. How we feel about what we are reading is as essential as what we are reading. The flame that flickers in the hearth of the poem or book is our privilege to tend with our iron tools and our breath and it will warm us in return, it will make our lives habitable. We can’t tend them if we don’t care about them with others. As much as anything else that you transmit, you are conducting that love; you are also learning to love your students with the heat and light of the books.

Louth, Andrew. Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology. Witchita: Eighth Day Press, 2007.

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