Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Sublime Art

One of my hobbies is listening to Objectivist lectures on tape. I've developed quite a collection over the last 20 years. I think I have everything by Leonard Peikoff that has been sold by Second Renaissance Books, now Ayn Rand Bookstore. The hobby can get expensive. The History of Philosophy cost me almost $600. It's a bargain. You won't find a more fascinating 64 hours and 45 minutes of tape.

I just finished The Sublime Art: An Introduction to the Elements of Poetry by Jason Rheins. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in poetry, which is not many people these days. How the sublime art has fallen in the last century! In the 19th century, people memorized the latest poems; families would read poetry aloud in drawing rooms. Today it is a dead art -- dead because most people find no value in poetry without beauty and form.

It's a pity that poetry is now the most minor of arts. Pre-modern poetry can be profoundly moving, ennobling even. But the inexperienced reader should approach poetry with a knowledgable guide or else his eyes will glaze over at anything longer than a sonnet, and many readers will not make it to line 14 of a sonnet. Like classical music or any field of study, the more you know about it, the more you enjoy it. That's where Rheins's course is valuable. He introduces the student to all the aspects of poetry -- meter, rhyme, metaphor, and so on -- and he makes it interesting. This course could have been called, "How to Read a Poem."

You can't just read poetry for sense the way you read prose. You must be aware of the formal elements. If a rhyme scheme is abba, then you need to be aware of this to appreciate it fully. If a poet writes spencerian stanzas or petrarchan sonnets, you can't enjoy the poem without some understanding of the form. If a poet starts a line of iambic pentameter with a trochaic inversion, you'll miss it if you don't subject the line to a quick metrical analysis. It takes some effort at first before these methods of reading become habit.

Is poetry worth the effort it takes to enjoy it? That judgment depends on each individual's taste. I personally am thrilled by the masterly use of the english language in great poetry. Jason Rheins's course has deepened my understanding and reinvigorated my reading. Rheins has made poetry a greater value to me. Can't ask for more than that.

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