Rain falls on the tin roof outside my office window. No snow tonight; it isn’t even in the forecast for the week. Nevertheless, I am thinking of snow, as I have been reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Since I am also reading Poetic Knowledge: the Recovery of Education (James S. Taylor) I am reading this familiar poem to make connections to ‘poetic knowledge’.
Taylor’s book is challenging for me to understand. If the book is brick and a bracing wind, the poem is comfortable and a warm mug. It is like a pillow into which I lay my head and think private thoughts. I can pull it in close, while I have yet to wrap my mind around the thesis of Taylor’s book. And yet, Frost’s poem teaches me two things about poetic knowledge: that poetic knowledge is what we experience between appointments, and that it can make us know reality in a way no science can.
Since Taylor does not define poetic knowledge in one tidy paragraph, but rather triangulates from many angles, I am going to take a stab at defining it myself. “Poetic knowledge” is the sensory-emotional experience we have with reality. It contrasts with “scientific knowledge”, which consists of the quantifiable, empirical facts of the subject. While both use the senses, poetic knowledge moves us, whereas scientific knowledge informs our intellect. That means on the subject of snow, I know it poetically by standing out in a snowstorm and feeling it fall on my face, listening to its whisper as it lands, shivering in the chill of snow-perfect weather. Scientific knowledge covers the chemistry of its crystal formation, the effect of temperature on shape, and the knowledge that the upper atmosphere conditions are ripe for eight inches to fall. (I must say, the latter knowledge moves me. Whether to delight or despair, it depends how far we are into the winter calendar.)
Read the poem here:
First, “Stopping by the Woods” teaches me that poetic knowledge comes when we pause between appointments. I experience something deeply when I am intentional and in the moment. It happens when I read aloud to my family and we are moved to laughter or compassion by a well-written story. When we pause to watch the downy woodpecker eat peanut butter suet, or practice dance steps in the kitchen with my boys, that is poetry in action. Frost lives in the moment of the snowy night, rather than thinking of his journey as a waste of time between important moments. I think our promises are better kept when we pause for meditation, and this leads to my next point.
Second, I perceive reality more fully through poetic than through scientific knowledge. We need both, but facts cannot tell me what something means. Though poetic knowledge is not primarily about poetry, poetry is its highest expression. Implicit in excellent poetry is the sense that our lives have transcendence. Poets bring order out of random experience, beauty out of the commonplace, meaning out of the mundane. This poem’s rhyming scheme weaves between verses with its aaba bbcb ccdc dddd arrangement. Stanzas do not stand alone; they are interconnected, like my many tasks and cares. Repetition of the sounds gives a sense of unity, and the contrast lends interest.
Frost makes me feel the tug between my responsibilities and my need to meditate, to process what I observe through the day. Just the act of reading a poem acknowledges transcendence over utility. I am not merely the sum of my tasks. I am a work of art encountering a work of art.
Scientific knowledge and poetic both work in me to interpret reality. If poetic knowledge is a warm-hearted woman, scientific is the competent man who marries her. He knows a good thing when he finds it! Together they explore the world; she teaches him to delight in his discoveries of the natural world and he grounds her by showing her the patterns. Frost’s scientific knowledge of the craft of poetry led him to use iambic meter in four feet, onomatopoeia suggesting the sound of downy flakes in the easy wind, and the steady pulse of one and two syllable words until the jarring “promises” that intrude on his meditation. When we live with both, we love what we do. I think of the sparkling countenance of Linnaeus, who loved nature’s creatures as he grouped them in binomial nomenclature for posterity. Wouldn’t you like to know him personally?
In contrast, I do not think Darwin loved his life’s subject.
I will end by quoting Frost again, this time from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”. Though he speaks specifically of uniting his work and his affections, without too much trouble we can think of poetic and scientific knowledge this way:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.