Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 1}

    April 5, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Thus saith the LORD,
    “Stand ye in the ways, and see,
    and ask for the old paths,
    where is the good way,
    and walk therein,
    and ye shall find rest for your souls.”

    But they said, “We will not walk therein.”

    Jeremiah 6:16

    James Taylor claims he is not saying anything new, that, in fact, he is reminding us of something quite old. Something of value has been lost, and Taylor is going to tell us all about it. In his introduction, he describes his work as a bit of

    philosophical archeology and the attempt to resuscitate a nearly forgotten mode of knowledge.

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationThis is important to remember. Since the ideas feel new to us, it is easy for us to begin to believe that they are new. But our interests lie in discovering if what has been lost is valuable, for recovering old ways is never easy. Some old ways are forgotten because they were never worth remembering. Poetic knowledge, however, is an old way that we forget to our peril.


    We tend to look upon the past with a wistful eye, do we not? We see a painting of a medieval village, and something tugs at our hearts, even though we know they had no central air, nor running water. We look at the great and wonderful accomplishments of the Middle Ages–the cathedrals, the artistry–and we wonder why our own churches look like boxes and lack wonder and imagination.

    Taylor tells us that these things are trappings of a poetic society. They are the natural outworking of a culture that is steeped in poetic knowledge. If we long to have these things–all the details of a beautiful culture–as our rightful human possession, we are going to have to recover poetic knowledge first, for Taylor tells us that

    [t]hey are simply the tools, clothing, tables, chairs, sculpture, and paintings that naturally emerged from a culture that, in spite of its relative hardships, found itself whole, integrated, and spiritually free enough to celebrate the ordinary as wonderful.

    What is Poetic Knowledge?
    Of course, the first question we have ask is, “What is poetic knowledge?” Thankfully, Taylor clears this up {mostly–he will continue to flesh it out as he goes on} in his first chapter.

    1. Poetic knowledge is not knowledge of poetry. It is akin to poetry, though, in that it is a “sensory-emotional experience of reality.”
    2. It is nonanalytical, and the heart of the knower is involved. He experiences awe, wonder and “sees in delight, or even in terror, the significance of what is really there.”
    3. This does not mean that it is dependent upon feelings or mysticism.
    4. It is

      a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning.

    5. Remember: he is trying to show us in this chapter that poetic knowledge is a valid means of knowing which is distinct from and unlike the scientific way of knowing.
    6. It is

      knowledge from the inside out, radically different in this regard from a knowledge about things.

    That last one is, I think, very important. Science is based upon observation, no? We live in a scientific age, and we think that we best know things by watching them and then thinking about them, by hypothesizing about them, and then somehow testing our hypothesis. Scientific knowledge is from the outside in, if we ever get in at all. I think we can even say that there is a way in which scientific knowledge separates the knower from the known, for it locks him on the outside. Poetic knowledge is the attempt to know the way a child knows things, or the way a lover knows the beloved. It gets inside and becomes a part of what is known.

    I watch my older daughter, and she is the most poetic of all of my children. She tries to become the things she cares about. My son might read a book about ants or birds, in order to know a bit about them. But Daughter A. will be outside, risking ant bites, building a home for the ants, or even pretending to be an ant. She pretends she belongs to our duck flock. She wants to be a mallard duck, she says, after watching mallards splash in a pond. She wants to understand in a way that many these days think is a waste of time, and yet it strikes me that she wants to know in the most significant way because she wants to understand as a kindred, rather than know as a separate observer.

    Poor Professor Gadgrind
    I always wonder if Dickens knew how many educational idealists would hold up Gadgrind as a lesson in what-not-to-do {Hicks, Esolen, and now Taylor–oh my!}. Gadgrind, who wants nothing but “facts” and fails to realize how superficial facts are without understanding. Taylor tells us that the first chapter of Hard Times is called The One Thing Needful, and that is an interesting word choice, is it not? This seems to be a double allusion, first to Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Martha is nagging Jesus. She wants Him to tell Mary to come and help her; Martha is frazzled, hurried, and yet convinced that what she is doing is so very important.

    Jesus tells Martha,

    But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

    If this is not the spirit of modernism disputing with the spirit of poetry, I don’t know what is.

    But what is the one thing that is needful? I think we find the answer to that in the Bible’s famous love chapter, in which we learn that we can have all sorts of things–powers of prophecy and speaking in tongues, good works to outshine our peers–and yet if we have not love, we have nothing.


    What does it mean for education if we say that without love it is nothing? {Can we say this about education?}

    I ask, because I believe that Taylor is making the case that it is true–that education without love is nothing.

    The Gateway
    Taylor tells us that poetic knowledge is primarily passive. After spending time watching my daughter, I feel I can envision this a little. I see her there, outside with some creature–a frog perhaps–and she is so open and willing to come into relationship with it. She talks with it, pets it, puts it in her pockets, or sets it free to see where it goes. Where do they live? she asks me. This is passive and engaged all at once. The passivity is coupled with this willingness to learn whatever the teacher {or creature} might teach, but not in the sense of working to understand.

    Taylor tells us that

    listening is above all the gateway, along with looking, to the poetic mode. {emphasis mine}

    This is one reason why, regardless of reading level, I read aloud to my children every day.

    I think we can see here how readily Charlotte Mason dovetails with this. So much of the child’s learning is oral at young ages. They learn by narrating–imitating–what they hear. They learn to delight in knowing, and pursue knowledge out of love. They learn to see and observe in a way that allows them to tell about what they have seen as if they were telling a story about an old friend. Mason encourages a comradeship with what is known in the world, rather than distantly knowing in the scientific sense.

    Four Degrees of Knowing
    The interesting thing to point out here at the end is that there is an ability to know deeply as well as scientifically. What we see in the best scientists tends to be a love for what is known. My hunch is that their initial knowledge was poetic in nature, and that poetic knowledge is the necessary precursor to the other sorts of knowing. This is why Taylor tells us of John Senior’s belief in for degrees of knowledge–poetic, rhetorical, dialectical, and scientific {in the ancient sense of the word}. This is sort of like ascending a ladder. The question is, can a student climb the ladder at all if he has entirely missed the first rung? That is what we are seeing today–almost an entire populace that is missing the first rung.

    Links and Thinks:
    -Read more book club entries linked at Mystie’s blog
    -Buy Poetic Knowledge and join in the fun

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Mystie April 5, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    “Education without love is nothing.”

    Now *there* is something that could keep a mind engaged for a very long time.

    Love for the student, love of the student, love to the material….

    “Comradery” as the permeating spirit of poetic knowledge is also the perfect word.

  • Reply Silvia April 5, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Bravo, Brandy. I like that you have read ALL the book and you anticipated things I could not see yet by just reading the intro and chapter 1.
    Modernism and a poetic society. YES, I agree. As for how you describe that approach to knowing life that your daughter has. TRUE.
    Great connections with Mason, and formidable reassurance of why we read to our children every day.
    Now I know another reason why this book hypnotized me from the first page, I need to LISTEN, and poetic knowledge is about listen.
    You cannot listen if you are talking. You cannot listen if you are always busy doing. You cannot listen if you are analyzing, dissecting, cramming facts…And the best connection, that this is the first rung that we are missing so much in today’s life and education. YES.
    I enjoyed your post, it enhanced my understanding and made my reading even the more pleasant.
    If knowledge was a pie, the problem is that some people and societies are eating up the space and part that corresponds to it in the whole, and overdosing us with others. The unbalance in this diet is making us sick.

  • Leave a Reply