Poetry is everywhere. Poetry and references to poetry are in books and on the internet; forms of poetry are present in corporate slogans and names; poetry is the stuff of song lyrics and sometimes the foundation of great political or legal tracts. Poetry is perhaps within us at a fundamental biological level in the form of the arbitrary symbols, forms, patterns, symbols and grammars of our DNA and RNA. Poetry is a fundamental characteristic of human consciousness. For humanity, poetry is everywhere.
Lesley Hazelton begins (and, regrettably, quickly abandons) these ideas in a few pages of Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, a book with a very different focus and agenda than inquiring into the deep metaphysical roots of poetry. Hazelton’s website is titled The Accidental Theologist and carries the slogan “an agnostic eye on religion, politics and existence.” Whether Hazelton’s book fulfills the promise of being an agnostic manifesto for spirituality and whether agnosticism itself fulfills promises on spiritual questions is matter for a different inquiry than one exploring whether Poetry is Everywhere. Except, perhaps, that it is an interesting demonstration of how quickly poetry becomes a relevant reference point in diverse and esoteric inquiries.
In the brief moments that Hazelton attends to poetry, she argues that
we’re not very good at dealing with abstractions. We need to concretize. We need metaphors – the kind of striking images that fix things in our mind’s eye (a metaphor right there)…In the influential coinage of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, they’re metaphors we live by. “Our ordinary conceptual system, ” he wrote, ” is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”….Metaphors aren’t just for poets. Or perhaps we’re all poets without knowing it, because metaphors are built into the way we think. We use them automatically. They work their way deep into our minds, mediating and shaping how we see the world, how we understand ourselves in it, even how we interact with it.
Admittedly, Hazelton makes a big jump from observing an inherent human penchant for metaphors to musing that we’re all poets, without knowing it. Or maybe Hazelton couldn’t resist the opportunity to float a variation of the tired line, “I’m a poet and didn’t know it”. Furthermore, there is clearly much more to poetry than metaphor and some poetry which uses metaphor as minimally as possible.
Despite these little hesitations, there is still something enticing and ennobling about the idea that the poet’s work engages the deepest instincts and patterns of human existence. In a cultural environment where “why poetry” seems to be a genuine question, this could be a part of the fullest and most significant of answers.
Poetry as Maker
If metaphor, and by extension poetics, is a fundamental characteristic of human consciousness, then Hazelton’s comment that it mediates and shapes how we see see and interact with the wold is particularly worthy of consideration.
In my poetics inquiry, I noted the ancient etymological roots of the terms poem, poetry, poet, poetics to making. In the Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere inquiry, a response to a Peter Babiak essay, noted is Babiak’s assertion that a poet “isn’t a discoverer but a maker – of stories, myths, knowledge – who makes thought ingots out of words“. Now, adding to these perspectives is a notion of poetry (metaphor) itself as the maker.
This suggests that there is an evolutionary relationship between poetry and humanity. Brett Cooke seems to have been exploring this relationship in his 2001 article Literary Biopoetics: An Introduction where he writes
Is there any limit to the fields that can be combined in interdisciplinary study? Surely, it would be difficult to exceed the grasp attempted by biopoetics, a new discipline which links the arts and literature not only with our common ancient heritage in the evolution of human behaviour but also much further back with the evolution of life and, yet more, with the self-organizing systems that structure the universe.
Cooke’s biopoetics pitches a much-needed academic bridge between biology and physics and linguistics and literary studies, if not entirely the arts. It is a bridge which seems to be an entirely good idea.
And good ideas tend to bubble up more than once. Indeed, as poetry is to metaphor, so Cooke’s biopoetics is to biosemiotics. On the website for the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies, the following statements are made regarding this other new field:
Biosemiotics proper deals with sign processes in nature in all dimensions, including (1) the emergence of semiosis in nature, which may coincide with or anticipate the emergence of living cells; (2) the natural history of signs; (3) the ‘horizontal’ aspects of semiosis in the ontogeny of organisms, in plant and animal communication, and in inner sign functions in the immune and nervous systems; and (4) the semiotics of cognition and language. Biosemiotics can be seen as a contribution to a general theory of evolution, involving a synthesis of different disciplines. It is a branch of general semiotics, but the existence of signs in its subject matter is not necessarily presupposed, insofar as the origin of semiosis in the universe is one of the riddles to be solved.
Perhaps it isn’t merely that Poetry Is Everywhere, perhaps Poetry Makes Everywhere.
- Eric Adriaans’ Poetry Showcase
- Martin Heidegger’s The Thinker As Poet
- Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere
- George Bowering’s Vermeers Light
References and Citations
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- Original draft: July 26, 2018