Updated: Aug 19, 2019
We’ve all been asked what superpower we would choose, if some magical being would grant us such a gift. Most people would wish for speed or strength or flight or x-ray vision or invisibility or telepathy. Some people are more inventive and ask for teleportation or time-travel. The rare man asks for an ability to freeze time.
All these skills, save one, are available in one form or another to humans today. We have machines to give us speed, strength, flight, x-ray vision, even some that make us near invisible. Instant teleportation is more challenging of course but we’re getting there. Time-travel can be achieved, but not in the way people would like it. There is no wand you can wave to transport you to the time of the dinosaurs (where you’d be dead in five minutes). Rather, to achieve time-travel requires that most difficult of tasks, the reading of history books. But what about freezing the world around you?
The ability to freeze the world, or, more commonly, to slow it down so much as to appear frozen, is a real power open to anyone with the desire to develop it.
There is a discipline which trains one in the art of slowing down. That is the reading of poetry. (I must quickly add the adjective “classic” to the word poetry, as what has been dubbed poetry over the past half century bears about as much resemblance to poetry as a pile of cigar ash resembles the Pieta.)
Nothing else teaches one to examine with severe scrutiny every word, phrase, clause, connotation, denotation, and idiom in language as does poetry. To bring order to a complex poem, one must trod every path that every idea, metaphor, analogy, simile, image and idea may take one. Reading poetry trains one in the art of subtleties and hyperboles, of tone and voice and sound as meaning. There is no understanding of a complex poem without dozens of careful readings. This last fact — slowly re-reading — is the critical training ground most relevant to our ability to become super-heroes. Since our every thought and expression is conjured in language, to master this discipline is to master the nuances of human existence.
To master poetry — or even dabble in it — is to step up a rung toward heaven. It elevates one’s daily life, where trees are no longer mere trees but a bower for lovers, where romance is an object that nods and sings, where literature is a realm of gold and frogs actually do turn into princes; to read poetry provides one a looking glass through which one can see every human experience tabulated by those most excellent above average livers of life, the great poets; to scrutinize the words of John Donne makes scrutinizing the words of Bob the Butcher as easy as slicing into a perfectly tender steak; to spend time with Homer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Blake and company is like training in bodybuilding with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
There is a discipline which trains one in the art of slowing down. That is the reading of poetry.
The average defender of poetry will point to the usefulness of the themes in poetry to the living of our daily lives. When inevitably someone close to you dies, you can turn to poetry for salvation. It is no coincidence that the sacred books of all major religions are written more in a poetic verse than a straightforward prose. Thus, the great poets are not great due to an occasional cute turn of phrase or an ability to make meaningless rhymes (we’ll leave that to the modern and spoken word “poets”); the great poets communicate the experiences of life by calling forth all the forces of language available to man. A great poet not only communicates these experiences, but transforms ordinary life into something eternal.
Here is an example. On April 15th, 1802, a young woman and a fine writer named Dorothy Wordsworth, wrote of an experience seeing a bunch of daffodils in a park. She wrote:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that flew upon them over the Lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.
This is a fine piece of journaling. Despite some unoriginality, the prose conjures a quaint image of a bunch of daffodils seen while walking along a country park hand-in-hand with loved ones. From Dorothy’s perspective, by the way, the inclusion of “we” is very important here. She is writing as an individual who is representative of a group; she doesn’t say that “I went along,” but that “we went along.” She is part of a group who all shared an experience. Or, so she thinks. More likely, one individual was completely disinterested in the daffodils, another was more interested in the bit of flesh below her throat, another dreaded the extra few hours with a group he probably never should have associated with, and yet another was mildly enjoying the experience. Nevertheless, Dorothy conjured an ordinary slice of life, and she imbued it with some meaning, though not too much.The passage suggests something of the raw beauty of untamed nature. “We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore.” She gives nature a purpose. A colony sprang up in the same way humans built the city of London. There is even some good imagery in her prose: “some rested their heads upon stones… stones as a pillow.” And “the rest tossed and reeled and danced.”
Yet in the hands of a great poet, this same exact ordinary and random life experience is transformed into a profound piece of artwork on the universal human experience of aloneness and the power of introspection.
I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud
By William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed — and gazed — but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils
Take a moment to re-read that poem. Try reading it aloud. No matter how many hundreds of times I have read it, there is a new sense I get from it each reading.
Notice the similarities between Williams’ poem and his sister’s journal entry. Yet, it is the differences that provide the profound experience.
First, William abstracted his sister and the rest of the “we” from his land of solitude. The poem opens with a wonderful image of a man likened to a lone cloud. Normally, men have very little in common with clouds. But here, in the land of poetry, a man can have something in common with a cloud: aloneness. We can picture this cloud-man floating around the British valleys and hills, until suddenly his aloneness is interrupted by a burst of yellow, or, more precisely, of gold.
We all suffer from the same condition. It’s a condition of being trapped in our head. No matter if you are a world-renown writer loved by millions, or an ordinary woman loved deeply by a husband; no one will ever fully inhabit your experiences, feel what you feel or think what you think. This is an essential of the human experience: aloneness.
Yet in this first stanza William Wordsworth hints at not only the solitude of our inner experience, but how our mind can be brought into sharp awareness of the world around us and the connectedness of all of our conscious experiences of the world.
For millenia, philosophers have decimated entire forests trying to communicate the concepts of consciousness and existence. In 6 lines, Wordsworth communicates and creates the essence of human consciousness and its grasping of existence. He has presented an image and a song — a paean perhaps — to the absolutely deepest human experience of the interplay between consciousness and existence. It is an experience almost impossible to completely communicate to another person. In the outer world of Wordsworth’s poem, for instance, he sees not a bunch of flowers blowing in the wind, but a host of golden daffodils “floating and dancing in the breeze.” Only humans with consciousness can dance. It requires direction and focus (trust me I can’t dance very well but I’ve tried. It takes lots of training to do more than un-rhythmically gyrate). But in Wordsworth’s contemplative state, he imbues these daffodils with human consciousness, making his own aloneness alleviated (a bit) in the creation of an infinite number of dance partners.
We all suffer from the same condition. It’s a condition of being trapped in our head.
To expand on this experience of the inner and the outer world he compares this host of daffodils to the stars above. They were as “continuous as the stars.” Though, of course, we all know that daffodils will not in fact live forever. They have a shelf life as do you. In a sense, however, they can live forever, like the stars above and the ocean bay. The daffodils may disappear in the winter, but as certainly as the coming of the tide, they will return, And, even if these particular daffodils, the ones that Wordsworth and his sister actually picked from the ground that day two hundred years ago, will all vanish, they will live in immortality through his poem. Indeed, there they are on the page “tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” (Can you not see them?) Perhaps that field is today a manufacturing plant for jean zippers, but the daffodils the great poet saw have been elevated to the level of eternal myth.
Now the poet is in a mood to transform all of nature into his plaything. The waves, too, are dancing; ah! But those daffodils “out-did the sparkling waves in glee.” The poet — though alone and unable to fully share his feelings about his experience — was happy. “I gazed — and gazed — but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought.”
Foolish poet, viewing daffodils doesn’t put food on the table. No wonder there have been so many starving artists. All their wealth is a feast of the mind! But surely, we can even today sympathize with the poet here. His mind may be more attuned to those natural sights. And perhaps happiness requires more than material wealth. Ah, who knows, just food for thought.
And there he is (can you see him?) that lazy poet, he is not even sitting but laying on his couch. Of course, he is in a thoughtful mood; what else do poets do with their time? For that matter, when you have flushed your toilet and before you reach your couch perhaps you, too, will take a few moments to be pensive. What does solitude bring to you? Is there a wealth or a bliss? Does your heart with pleasure fill? Or, must you rush to your phone before a moment of solitude crashes in on you?
There is a growing anxiety in our time, which is never to truly embrace a moment of solitude. It is one of the tragedies of our era. It’s not the only tragedy of course. There’s still disease and prostitution and starvation and blindness. Think about this for a moment: Much of the power of Wordsworth’s poem would be lost on a man born blind. No description of daffodils is ever communicable to such a man. He may be capable of enjoying the euphony and even some of the words, but there is a level of understanding he will never reach. Unfortunately, most sighted men and women are willfully blind. Anyone with sight can open their eyes and see a field of daffodils blowing in the breeze. That’s as automatic as breathing. Poetry requires a special sight. But sight is not quite the right word. Poetry is a specialized vision of reality. This is why poets so often refer to that inward eye.
For millenia, philosophers have decimated entire forests trying to communicate the concepts of consciousness and existence. In 6 lines, Wordsworth communicates and creates the essence of human consciousness and its grasping of existence.
To read poetry is to train a faculty of the mind commonly called “imagination;” AKA The image-maker, AKA the carrier of meaning. Parents of the millennial generation adamantly admonished their children for lacking this mystical imagination. “Go out and play” was likely a refrain you heard at home. “Stop playing video games and use your imagination!”
Yet, this image-making faculty is not as automatic as the functioning of our eyeballs. Mere wandering outside is insufficient training for this power. To train this power one must enter a world where dancing daffodils actually refer to the introspective ability of the human mind, where the mind is actually a kingdom, the north star means the steadfast love of a spouse, and a flea can refer to premarital sex.
The difference here is profound: poetry requires training while seeing a field of daffodils is a gift of birth.
This is why so few people read poetry (or enjoy looking at daffodils). Yet, were I to tell these potential super-heroes that by performing a certain strenuous activity for 30 minutes every day, they would obtain the power of instant teleportation, they would certainly do it. At least I am hopeful that they would.
Imagine the time saved. You could skip the traffic and transport to work exactly at 8:59 AM. You could save a whole day of air travel; no lines, no TSA, no airplane food. Those 30 minutes every day doesn’t seem like such a bad trade-off in this context.
Poetry gives you a much more profound ability. It can save you years, decades even.
The ability to slow down the world around you is really the ability to have the luxury to pay attention. Imagine the potential. You can stop the world from moving for a moment and consider what exactly this person you are dating is all about. Why does he always make that face when you start speaking of your dreams? What is he communicating to you? Is your boss really going to give you a promotion or is she just leading you along? Also, your power with words allows you to stop meaningless and confusing moments of miscommunication before they derail your whole relationship. You can slow down and see the crash coming. When your manager says he wants your “input,” for instance, what precisely does he mean? Does he want your opinion? Or an explanation? Or a well-thought out defense? Is there a certain amount of data he is requiring in your explanation/opinion/defense? Or is it something else he desires such as confirmation of something he already believes?
There is a growing anxiety in our time, which is never to truly embrace a moment of solitude.
The power to slow down the world allows for the decisions you make to be more thoughtful and impactful. You will have the ability to contemplate what someone says, develop a strategy to achieve your own goals (even fun conversation is a goal that someone must be responsible for) and to develop a plan. If you make a mistake that’s no problem, after all, you’re going slow, so you have plenty of time to regroup and approach from a different angle.
More bad decisions derive from an inability to examine yourself and the world around you, than any other evasive policy. Socrates was more than right, if such a thing is possible. The unexamined life is not worth living; and the unexamined world is not worth living in. A man who evades the evidence that his wife is having an affair simply may not have the tools to live in the world. He does not have the power to slow down and observe. Unnoticed goes the sudden change in her body language. Or, the way she has ceased to argue with him. He does not see with either his eyeballs or his inward eye, the look of disdain she gives him when he speaks of… well, anything. Tightening around his consciousness like a noose is the cheap slogan “But she’s my wife!” And this unproven absolute holds total control over the kingdom of his mind. There be dark forests of truth just beyond yonder gate, good sir! No matter. Best not venture there. Stay where it’s safe. “Sure babe, I understand you’ve got another late night of work as an elementary school teacher.”
One reason the fantasy of superhero comics are so impactful is that they present a world where men simply “possess” abilities that they needn’t work to attain, kind of like the Garden of Eden myth. They are abilities that come from falling in acid, being bitten by something, or perhaps an encounter with aliens. In other words, no working stiff need apply to the superhero world. Either ya got it or ya don’t.
Reading poetry is not easy. It truly is a discipline. The reward is worth it. To train in poetry is to gain a real life superpower. It is the ability to see into men’s minds, predict the future, master the self, and experience the world in ways no ordinary man is capable. To achieve this superpower does not require being struck by lightning during an explosion at the local “science” lab. It requires something from you. The lightning must be self-generated. It requires, simply, the reading (and re-reading… and re-reading…) of poetry.