The Uses of Poetry and Search Queries

Blog search traffic patterns are fascinating when they clearly relate to someone’s English class—over the past couple days, I’ve seen a few dozen hits on “Ian McEwan and ‘The Use of Poetry.’” Many come in a form like this, from today: “the use of poetry ian mcewan analysis”. On November 15, when I’m writing this, the McEwan piece already has 20 hits, which is very unusual for a two-year-old post that hasn’t been, so far as I know, linked to by other bloggers or discussed on forums. Given the nature of the queries, I would guess that students are the prime consumers, and out there somewhere are papers on “The Use of Poetry” that will claim seduction to be the primary use of poetry, never mind the distinction I make that seduction is the primary use of poetry for Michael Beard, the eventual protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar, and what is true of Michael Beard will not necessarily be true of every reader of poetry.

This semester I assigned Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony to my own students. When the first draft of the paper came due, I noticed that “Thoughts on Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election” was getting an unusual number of hits; points two and seven occurred distressing frequency in the papers I eventually read. Some of that is probably due to those features being obvious in the novels. The rest might be attributable to the Internet. No one outright plagiarized, to my knowledge, though I have heard professors say that students search the Internet, find one of the professor’s articles on a subject, copy it, and then turn it in to the very professor who wrote the article.

These practices remind me of William Deresiewicz’s essay Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” where he says

I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever.

What worries me about the people searching for “The Use of Poetry” or Election is simple: I get the sense many of the people doing so are becoming “hoop jumpers,” instead of thinking for themselves. The scholarly and intellectual practice of seeking the opinions of others to stimulate your own thinking is an important one. But how many of the searchers for “analysis” are doing that? I suspect most of them are looking for someone else’s pre-digested work to parrot back to their instructors. And this might be a viable way of getting through school. But the digestion is the point—without the time spent struggling with a problem in your own mind, you’re not going to learn how to identify and solve problems that no one else has seen, or worked on, or discussed.

I see this issue around me among grad students (and, sometimes, professors). A lot of grad students have spent their whole lives trying to please someone else, and when they get to the point in their careers—usually around their dissertation—where they have to work without real guidance or guidelines, many flail. A lot of people in general experience that sense when they leave school, whether they leave at 18 or 38. The externally imposed goals and rules get removed. Instead of being told the use of poetry, or statistics, or calculus, they have to decide it for themselves. But if they haven’t spent time thinking about what poetry might do in “The Use of Poetry,” or how McEwan expresses himself, or any number of other things, they aren’t going to have the skills they need not only to write, but to deal with life.

The Internet is a wonderful thing for seeking the opinions of others, but it’s a mistake to seek them before you’ve taken the time to try and develop opinions and skills of your own. If you lean too much on others, you won’t be able to work through things for yourself. Deresiewicz gets this, and the perils of too much copying and listening to others and going to the Internet for opinions: “I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.” Used wrongly, the Internet can become a vessel not for thinking, but for its opposite. Before you hit the Internet for ideas, you need to give yourself time to develop what Grady Tripp, in Wonder Boys, calls “the midnight disease,” which writers suffer from; he describes it this way:

[… it] started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too (Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “Mr. Frankel [. . .] began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you play with them”): all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work. Writers, at least of the novelist variety, are usually writing about people, which makes it odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true. Tripp calls it a “disease” and “a simple feeling of disconnection,” both with their negative connotations, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it Flow and others call it creativity. Creativity needs other ideas to stimulate it—that’s one of Steven Berlin Johnson’s main points in Where Good Ideas Come From—but it also needs silence. It needs to stay away from Google, from other people babbling in your ear and telling you what to think and giving you their dubious “analysis.” The Internet gives us the option of letting others do our thinking for us. So, if you’re reading this on the Internet, let me encourage you to think for yourself before others do it for you.

Ian McEwan and "The Use of Poetry"

The main use poetry in “The Use of Poetry” is seduction: specifically, the seduction of the liberal artist Maisie (recalling shades of Henry James: What did Maisie know?) by the scientist Michael Beard in the late 60s. Michael learns enough Milton to impress Maisie, with her artistic tendencies, a feat that I doubt I’d have the discipline for despite being another liberal artist; they go out, Michael realizes his disdain for what seems the foppish laziness of the liberal arts, and he reinforces the inferiority complex many English majors feel in the face of hard science.

Or maybe not: when we think we see Michael’s perspective on how easy it is to read “four of the best essays on Milton,” McEwan drops this in by airmail:

Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, “But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.”

That’s the only mention of the “English professor in Hong Kong,” who appears, nameless, only long enough to correct us. He or she disappears: there is no wrapping up, no coming together of the English professor and some deeper meaning. He or she is there to tell us, and “The Use of Poetry” seems like a rebuke to the “Show, don’t tell” school of writing: it is all telling, or nearly all, and it teasingly plays with real world correspondences. “The Use of Poetry” says:

This understanding was the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights—not possible at first attempt. He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to grasp some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week.

A February 2009 profile of McEwan, also in the New Yorker, says:

McEwan enjoyed studying calculus—“It was like trying to lift a weight that was a little too heavy”—but he settled on literature, and showed enough promise that he was urged to apply for a scholarship at Cambridge.

Maybe McEwan fears the limits of our cognition, or his own cognition. Or maybe I am engaging the intentional fallacy. Surely the editors of The New Yorker noticed this correspondence in their earlier nonfiction piece and this later work of fiction. What, if anything, did they make of it? Were they as uncertain as me?

Finally, what to make of the title: “The Use of Poetry,” rather than “uses?” Apparently poetry has only one use, seduction, as I unfairly said in the first line of this post. But maybe it is not asking, “What is poetry used for?” but rather, “how and why is poetry used by a particular person—Michael—or people in general?” The title probably has other meanings too, like most poems, with their rascally habit of evading a single interpretation.

For some reason, I am reminded of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: both that novel and this story are highly directive, allusive, focusing on what love means in a modern context, using love to examine ideas and ideas to examine love. They both end, not with a statement or feeling of wholeness, but with a feeling of new sight but perpetual incompleteness, like that is our fate, no matter the math we learn or the poems we study. Could “The Use of Poetry” be to remind us of what we can never fully grasp, like Michael trying to understand the liberal arts, or Milton, who was in turn trying to understand us? Hard to say. But then, a lot in life is hard to say. The best we can do with it is try. Maybe with a poem.

Or a story.

EDIT: If you’re here because you’ve been assigned a paper on McEwan, you might find this post to be of great interest.

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