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.

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!