Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

Living Like You Mean It

When Andrew Pudewa and I present our writing workshops, one of the topics we address is what we call the five paths to great writing. I’ve introduced them HERE.

I need to clarify that those five paths arise from a direct consideration of the use of language. There is one more thing a writer needs to do besides reading, thinking, and writing – and that is living. Some would-be writers, and I suspect I have this tendency, want to write because they love writing. This is a bit like teaching because you love teaching.

Fine. Do it. But have something to teach too!

Same with writing. I have this old New Yorker cartoon in my computer where a man’s wife is leaning over his shoulder while he is trying to come up with something to write in his journal. He has writer’s block. She says to him, “Maybe you should do something first and then write in your journal.”

Indeed. The greatest poets and writers all wrote about things they experienced or at least witnessed and their souls were informed by the experience. When poetry is written by poets who sit around writing poetry for readers who sit around reading poetry, poetry is living off the neighbor’s stream. The poet needs to dig his own well, just as the teacher needs to reinvent the wheel every year or two.

The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely,  or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. IF the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers, has not them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (highly recommended!)

As Mary Oliver is using standing among flowers as a synechdoche for the act of living perceptively, I’m confident she will not object if I add a few more: from engaging in battle, raising children with your eyes open, holding a lover’s hand always for the first time, listening to Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute with mind and ears engaged, participating in the liturgy, eating a freshly picked radish that you grew yourself, jumping out of an airplane, teaching an eager student, teaching a stubborn and unperceptive student, contemplating Euclid’s definition of a point, looking into your spouse’s eyes – you know, living like you mean it.

That’s what literature and writing should teach us.


Andrew and I will be in California from June 7-10. Please come see us!

Art as Discipline; Self-Expression as Decadence

I have argued, and will argue, that art ought not to be a matter either of self-expression or of “impressing” the audience. This matters for many reasons, not least of which is the inevitable historical decline of any art that reduces itself to “expressionism” or “impressionism.”

Believing that art is an expression of the human spirit, the sort of art that a community produces is both cause and effect of its spiritual condition.

It is cause, because whatever the artists theorize about how they became artists and do art is likely to end up in the classroom one or two generations later. Picasso, for example, was trained classically, and some of his early works, during this classical period, are astonishingly beautiful.

However, he developed a disintegrated visionof reality that came to be reflected in his paintings. Lovers of Picasso’s later works who would have trained their students in Picasso’s vision, would have failed to lay the foundations that were laid in Picasso’s training, and the art of painting will have declined as a result.

In our Progressive schools, public and private, we can see the same decline. Teachers are taught that children should express themselves in art, so they flounder and blunder and bluster about trying to teach children to get in touch with their inner lives when the children have yet to learn how to hold a pencil or punctuate a sentence.

They regard the disciplines of the art as limitations and obstacles to free expression. To this I reply with the words of two truly great artists, Wendell Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Wendell Berry replied, in a characteristically condensed spark, when he said, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”

Much can be drawn from that sentence and one day I would like to lead a series of discussions revolving around its insights. I will say this much here: An unlimited thought is a thought not thought. An unlimited expression of self is a self unexpressed.

When children are taught self-expression instead of discipline, they are, quite literally, retarded by the training they receive.

T. S. Eliot loved John Donne’s poems, especially in his early life. In fact, one could argue that Eliot was responsible for the rehabilitation of Donne’s reputation in the 20th century. But later on, he came to see a limitation and a weakness in Donne’s poetry that left him deeply unsatisfied as a reader and as a critic. 

Donne was also a preacher, an Anglican priest. It may in the context of Eliot’s reflections on his preaching that Eliot makes this point most clearly. Comparing Donne’s sermons with the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th century Anglican divine,  Eliot says:

Donne is a “personality” in a sense in which Andrewes is not; his sermons, one feels, are a “means of self-expression.” He is constantly finding an object which shall be adequate to his feelings; Andrewes is wholly absorbed in the object and therefore responds with adequate emotion.

This comparison would also merit a whole series of discussions, which I would love to lead. But again, let me highlight two or three points.

First, notice what Eliot regards as the healthy (at least artistically healthy) relationship between the object and the emotions.

Read a book on poetry or take a poetry workshop, and what do they tell you to do? Too often this: find an object adequate to your feelings. Poetry, we are constantly told, is about the emotions. Prose, we are sometimes told, is about thoughts.

So when you write poetry, you are told to scour your memories and your heart for feelings and images, and you are told to draw them together.

This is to confuse blessing with purpose, and in so doing to risk the purpose for the blessing – for if you lose the purpose, the blessing follows.

Instead, Andrewes, because he is “wholly absorbed in the object… responds with adequate emotion.” The emotions follow. The object rules.

Here we see how we should be teaching people to write poetry. Behold. Be held. Contemplate the object. Stay on it. Learn to see. Learn to perceive. Learn to observe. When you do, you will respond with adequate emotion, without being distracted from the object that produces this adequate emotion.

Indeed, by staying on the object, you sustain the very emotion you want to feel. Direct your attention to your emotions and they will shrink away. They don’t like being watched; they don’t want to be written about; they don’t want to be the focus of attention. They want to help us observe the object of our attention (love) by making it enjoyable.

Does love not make this rather obvious, even and perhaps most vividly in love-making? I do not increase my love for my wife or children or friends when I contemplate my love for them. I grow in love for my wife when I contemplate her, and so also for my children and friends.

In fact, at least for most men I know, contemplating our love for each other is a rather embarrassing distraction. Friendships grow through the mutual contemplation of a third object. That is why some of my closest friendships have been with students. That is why working together on a common object (which is a form of contemplation) or thinking together about something that is not immediately useful are essential ingredients of friendship.

The pleasure of friendship seems largely to grow from shared irrelevencies.

When we teach our children any art, therefore, we need to teach them to master the tools of perception first and imitation second.

Even artists trained on bad theory produce great art when they perceive and imitate. Self-expression is disciplined by forms, like sentences, conventions, rituals. Disciplined self-expression has this great advantage over undisciplined self-expression: it can sustain itself through trials, it can endure hardship, it can accomplish great things.

It can produce a bang, when all undisciplined self-expression seems to produce is a whimper.

“You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”


The Lost Tools of Writing is a writing program based on this approach to writing. We have already seen extraordinary results and will be releasing Level II very soon. It will be available for the 2010/11 school year. Follow the link to the left to learn more.

Poetry, Marriage, Definitions, and Meaning

A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short.

Wendell Berry: Standing By Words
Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms (1982)

That is to say, it is the nature of marriage to define limits. The word define literally means to set limits (that’s why the Latin word for neighbor is “finitimus”).

Certain limits, in short, are prescribed–imposed before the beginning.

Here Mr. Berry approaches the heart of our cultural crisis: imposition. One must not impose one’s values on another. But what if nature itself imposes values on us? What if we only have values at all because nature has determined that we must?

Then it is no longer a question of one person imposing his values on another, but of a person with authority given that one by nature itself (e.g. a father or mother) defending, on behalf of the “subject”, the claims of nature itself. In fact, if nature itself does not establish values, then it is not possible to live in a world where people don’t impose values on others. It’s the nature of the case.

That human nature, at least as we possess it, inclines toward abusing this natural state and claiming more authority than nature allows hardly means that we should abandon the only thing that could possibly restrain the tyrant or the self-indulgent.

The pious are inclined to react to that statement by appealing to God as sufficient without nature, but I must point out that God is the maker of nature and to separate the two is harmful in the extreme and leads to the dissolution of the religious mind – forcing a dichotomy between the spiritual life and the supposed secular life. It’s a pious sounding theory, but it doesn’t correspond to reality.

In fact, it’s what leads to the religious varieties of tyranny that the modern mind is so afraid of. When God starts asking everybody to offer up Isaac, it’s hard to see how He could love the world.

Even religion has a nature. The religious have to function within the limits established by the nature of religion. Otherwise, there is no religion. Because nothing but God exists if it is not limited to what it is.

The contemporary nonsense about living without limits is an appeal to death and negation. And the absence of the category of nature makes the modern mind incredibly gullible to such meaningless words.

To see how dangerous this is, ask yourself how you would like to live under a government that does not regard itself as limited.

An effective Approach To Reading a Poem

Since a poem has the four qualtities identified and haltingly addressed in this post: it’s music, its imagery, its logos, and its unspeakable quality that I’ve reluctantly and insultingly reduced to its connotations, we can develop a strategy when we approach a poem that is consistent with the nature of poetry. We don’t need to become mathematicians, looking for precise and certain knowledge, but we also don’t need to become unbelievers, believing there is nothing to look at.

First, we can read the poem on its own terms but from the perspective of an observer. It is not, so far as I have been able to determine, possible to enter the heart of a poem on the first read. I suppose an experienced reader can probably tell garbage the first time he smells it in a poem, but the really great poets occasionally throw a garbage smell into their poems to play with us. For the rest of us, we need to take the poem as it is given to us and read it without judging it.

Then, when we are finished, I often ask myself or my class whether they liked the poem. This is, of course, an almost useless question except for this fact: that’s the question we are asking anyway most of the time. It’s usually the first thing we want to know about a poem: do I like it or not? So this seemingly useless question has a great value: acknowledging it begins a discussion about the poem.

After we’ve established that question (and it’s importance does fade with experience, but students and many of us readers simply don’t have that experience), then we can enter the important discussion about what we like or don’t like about the poem. We can test our impressions and see if we maybe missed the point, were hasty in our judgments, or hit the bullet on the primer.

At this point, the four qualities of a poem become quite useful. Why did I like this poem? Was it the music (rhythm, meter, rhyme, schemes, etc.)? Was it the imagery (similes, metaphors, hyperbole, apostrophe, etc.)? Was it the logos – something in the heart of the poem that spoke to me and into my own experience? Or was it something indefinable that I can’t get my head and heart around?

When we ask these questions we are examining what John Ciardi called The Sympathetic Contract in his excellent book How does A Poem Mean?”. “In addressing his subject,” Ciardi reminds us, “the poet takes an attitude toward it and adopts a tone he believes to be appropriate.”

When you read a poem, do you sympathize with the attitude and tone of the poet? That’s what we are asking when we say to our students or selves: “Do you like this poem?” After we’ve asked the more objective questions above about music, image, logos, and unspeakables, we can rather easily begin to explore the more subjective side of the question of sympathy.

How does this poet feel about his subject? Himself? His reader? Poetry itself? What does he seem to find valuable or repulsive? What does he respect or despise? What advantages does he seek or what disadvantages does he flee? What does he want to honor/dishonor? What does she want to be honored for? What or whose dishonor does he fear?

What are his attitudes toward his subject, poem, self, reader, art?

What is the tone of the poem? What feeling does it evoke? Is that feeling fitting to the subject of this poem?

Grab any two or three of these questions and you can have a wonderful discussion of a poem with your students, your family, or a small group of readers.

Here’s a helpful practice to keep it simple, especially for beginning readers of poetry or people who feel like they are beginners: be rhythmic in your discussion, like breathing.

First, read the poem, carefully, slowly, and, probably, a couple or more times. Think of this as inhaling.

Then begin your discussion with impressions, likes and dislikes, feelings, etc. Think of this as exhaling.

Then read the poem again: inhaling. It will be a little different from the first couple reads.

Then evaluate the poem by challenging your first impressions. Here you discuss objective things in the poem: the images, music, and logos. You’re exhaling.

Now read the poem again. You’ll probably be itching to do so anyway, because it’s still in front of you and serving as the focal point of the conversation. Make everybody wait until you feel the pressure to read is built up (you’re running out of breath); then read. You’re inhaling again.

Next, explore the more subjective elements like the tone, the poet’s apparent attitude toward his subject, his apparent values, feelings, etc. (see above): exhaling.

Finally, read the poem one more time. You’ll find it isn’t the same poem you thought it was when you started.

Now you have come back to that most practical of all questions: “Did I like the poem?” And now, having figured out why we like or dislike it, we have come to know a good deal about ourselves, the poem, the subject of the poem, poetry, the images used in the poem, and very possibly the poet himself.

Here’s an idea to turn the reading experience into a sort of contest with your students: Read a group of five or so poems that you have identified as finalists for the [School name] Academy Award in Poetry. Read each poem as described above, but with this qualification: at the end of the process, the students will be awarding to one of these poems the [school name] Academy Award. They can argue, discuss, etc. but in the end, each will vote for the poem they think should receive the prize.

Then have a ceremony in which the winning poem receives the prize and the people who voted for it present an acceptance speech on behalf of the poem. Unless the poet is still living. In that case, you might go ahead and invite him to offer an acceptance speech of his own. You never know!

Have fun!

How to Read Poetry (again)

Earlier I mentioned things like the music and the images used in a poem and then a third thing (maybe I’ll call it the connotations). But what needs to precede all of that is that the poet has something to say. It’s conceivable that he could use mediocre music and less than perfect imagery and still write a good poem because what he is revealing carries so much weight in and of itself.

This is particularly true of a poem that speaks to an individual. For example, I might come across the notoriously manufactured Hallmark section at Target and find a verse that expresses something I feel for my wife or child. It is unlikely that we are looking at a good poem, but it might just fit the bill.

 But I doubt it could happen very often. Furthermore, if Hallmark expresses my emotions well, I probably need to cultivate, refine, and better understand that particular emotion.

To summarize, the purpose of a poem is to verbally embody an idea effectively. If the idea (which includes the subjective feelings attached to the idea) is effectively expressed in words it will be because the poet has made effective and appropriate use of music and images (and that third thing).

How to Read A Poem (II)

It can be a great deal easier with an accomplice. For one thing, all good poems have things you will miss the first time or the first ten times you read them. That’s why the poet wrote a poem and not prose.

To caricature, a poem is extremely condensed while prose is much looser. In a poem, the poet is trying to squeeze as much meaning into a single line or stanza as possible. The limitations of the poetic form are what make the poem possible, much as the limitations of a marriage vow are what make a marriage possible (cf. Wendell Berry, Standing By Words). In prose, you can say something and then spend a paragraph explaining what you just said – rather like I am doing right now.

So if you have an accomplice, you are pretty well guaranteed that the other person will see things you can’t see when you read the poem.

A second reason for reading with an accomplice is that it pretty well forces you to read aloud, which changes the experience. Even reading aloud alone differs from reading silently. Reading aloud with another person changes it even more.

By compacting so many things into so small a space, poetry cultivates a poetic faculty, thus refining the working of the intellect and imagination. Sometimes the poem will be obviously complicated, full of misdirections and secondary meanings. Other times, the poem will seem to be obvious but will be telling you a great deal more than you thought it was on the first read. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” illustrates this second type.

Here’s an example of the first type:

Night Watch, By H.L. Hix Published in Poetry March 2oo8

As gestures to beckon geometry’s end
I post letters to my lost Mayan sisters,
solicit layers sussed from layers to test
history, push past parallel. Mystery
becomes you, Mother, as does the lust the rest
of us suffer, lust you must once have induced.
What perceptions I trust defy perspective.
I take my troubles scribbled, not erased.

On first read, this poem was very confusing for me. It didn’t have much of an impact on me emotionally either, at least not by way of some gripping image linking to my own epxerience. I tend to read a little more analytically, I think, so I see the logic of things like this sooner than I experience the power of the imagery. That’s a matter of degree and there’s no strength or weakness in it – just a starting point. My wife is much better at perceiving the images.

So my mind goes, perhaps too hastily, to the second last line because it is a simple statement, at least grammatically. I’m inclined to read a poem as a riddle and to derive pleasure from the quest as long as it promises reward. (I like John Donne. But I also like Chaucer, who gives God’s plenty to the questing questioner, but also writes simple and beautiful poetry for the reader who wants a good story. And I don’t always have time for a metaphysical conceit, as Donne’s tricks are often called).

Karen noted immediately that geometry is related to temples and lines (layers). She saw Mayan temples and even, possibly, Mayan sisters who had been lost in temple sacrifices. When she pointed that out, I realized that the whole poem is centered on geometry – even literally. There, right smack in the center, is that disruptive phrase: “push past parallel.” What?!

But then I look closer and realize it isn’t smack in the center. It’s a line up: 3 1/2 lines before and 4 1/2 lines after. It’s a little off center. Or is the last line, maybe, not exactly part of the poem’s natural form. Is it an afterthought? Those are the sorts of questions I ask when I read a poem. Sometimes I’m taken in for therapy afterward.

She posts letters to her lost Mayan sisters and then addresses her Mother. Why does she capitalize the M? The reader should form a hypothesis and then read the poem again to see if it works. Does she capitalize Mother because she is referring to the earth? Well, if she is talking about layers sussed from layers and maybe those layers have to do with the steps of a Mayan pyramid, then to push past parallel would take you into the earth.

And does mystery become the earth? Rather! Does “the lust the rest of us suffer” become the earth? And so on.

My point in writing these questions and reflecting on them is not to interpret the poem with you but to show the sorts of questions that can be asked when you read a poem that is obviously intended to challenge the readers interpretive skills. I read a line, I ask whether it is clear, I compare it with surrounding lines, I fearlessly and almost carelessly (who cares if I get it wrong) develop hypothetical interpretations, I suggest them to my wife or my paper or my mind or, now, my blog. I invite others to think through the poem with me.

By doing this every now and then I become better at reading poetry. I learn some of the tricks poets use. My memory is stretched and my “comprehension skills” are cultivated. My human faculties are being cultivated. That is always a good thing.

To read a poem like this with a class, simply go through the same steps with your students. Start with clearer works, like Robert Frost, but by middle school help them to see beyond the surface of a Robert Frost poem. Frost was a genius and a truly great poet. His work prepares the student for the more difficult poets who write without a clear surface meaning, like the one above.

By the way, on the next page, the same poet, H.L. Hix writes a poem every bit as skilled but with a clearer surface:

Beyond (A System for Passing)

To say how much I’ve missed you, I offer this,
at most mist, at least assorted letters, lists,
numbers I insist tell stories. I kissed you
last, Dad, in the casket in which you passed on,
to some next place, but last listened for your voice
last night, these long years after, will listen next
when next oppressed by blue-gray, as I am now,
as I, thus lost, am always by your absence.

Look at how effectively the poet uses the “st” sound throughout: last, kissed, oppressed, etc. I like that. I also liked how the beginnings of the last few lines echoed something from the previous lines (because a child echoes the father?): last listened…/last night; will listen next/when next; as I am now/as I, thus lost, am always.

Perhaps it is safe to suggest that the first poem is dominated by the imagery and the second by the schemes. Perhaps.

The ear finds pleasure in these repetitions and hidden echoes, and when the mind doesn’t notice them the soul does. Our joys and our mournings have a rhythm and until they are expressed musically they are incomplete and unformed. Perhaps the poets are our professional mourners and our clowns. They make great accomplices.

Maybe I’ll post a poem I wrote when I heard that my father had fourth stage cancer one of these days.

By the way, you can get the magazine I’ve been drawing these poems from at Barnes and Noble or almost any book store for $3.75. It’s called Poetry.