What Is Poetic Education?

Exploring the mystery and beauty of the world through real, deep engagement
By Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.
September 14, 2021 Updated: September 14, 2021

I once attended a lecture on Plato’s “Republic,” in which the lecturer pointed out how Socrates argues that poets should be banned from the ideal city as they employ arts that stir the passions too much and aren’t as precise and perfect as the rational arts. A heavy condemnation. And what defense can Poetry make for herself, the professor asked. How can she justify her existence in the face of such logical dismissal?

Then he did something completely unexpected and wonderful. Standing at the podium with a twinkle in his eye, he began then and there to sing the old Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” As he sang, “Oh, ye’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road,” other voices joined in the familiar tune until the whole audience was singing with him.

Poetry spoke—or sang, to be specific—and won the argument. This was a moment of poetic education: a strange and beautiful realization or confirmation of something true, good, and beautiful, without precision or perfection perhaps, but at the same time, without requiring persuasion, defense, or apology.

When Logic and Rhetoric Fail

We all know the joy of that recognition. It’s like the joy of returning home, or of returning home in its many forms. We all know the profundity of seeing something again for the first time. We all know these fulfillments of the heart when suddenly something old and familiar becomes new and unfamiliar. Whether in a story, a place, or a long-remembered conversation, returning to some memorable thing and finding new meaning, new significance, and new satisfaction is a vital aspect of the human journey. And such touchstones, such moments of wonder, form the backbone of a poetic education.

The famous philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas recommended poetry when rhetoric and logic fail. In this, Aquinas, who wrote a good deal of poetry himself, alluded to “poetica scientia,” the persuasive power of mysteries to impart truths that are elusive, realities that are engaged by the heart more than the mind.

The late University of Kansas professor John Senior liked to call this pre-rational, or super-rational, experience of things “poetic knowledge,” which comprehends truth in a clear yet indistinct way: truths such as love, fear, joy, and all the rest of their kind. Everyone knows these things very well, but only as mysteries. They are the truths that science can’t demonstrate, and rhetoric can’t corroborate, and these truths belong to the poetic.

A Familiar Surprise

Great poets and artists have the gift of seeing things with fresh eyes, of experiencing them as they really are. Everyone has this ability, but it tends to become dulled or crusted over by custom, especially in our artificial, technological world. Take, for example, your experience of the ocean. You may have seen it many times. You read about it, see it on screens, refer to it casually in conversation, and you think you know what it is. Then one day you go to the ocean and see it as if you’ve never seen it before. It has become wonderfully strange to you, and your heart leaps up in praise for such an awesome creation. This can happen with many things: an apple, an old song, a beloved face. When it happens, we feel that we have been given a precious gift.

Such discoveries are the goal of a poetic education, and it’s given by planting perennials in the soul, by steeping the heart in beauties that can and will provide context for the things of life. These perennials include not only actual poems, but the poetry of literature and the liturgy. The regular rhythm of the prayers of ordinary people and the impact and impression of good stories work their way into the soil of the heart, appearing or returning as unexpected fruit in the lives of children grown to adults, often when their savor is most needed.

It’s in these moments of unexpected comprehension, after years of pondering even, that life’s meaningfulness may well lie. This is what is at stake, and it’s of eternal moment. Such are the homecomings of a poetic education.

A Poetic Moment Under an Ash Tree

And they come about when one least expects them. I remember rounding up my literature students and leading them out to a large ash tree on the front lawn of our school’s campus. I have taken hundreds of students out there to talk about Robin Hood, but little did I know, walking toward that tree, that this year it would be different. The boys strewed themselves on the grass around the trunk with their books, as they always have, and I looked up into the branches, fast growing bare, the air littered with fluttering yellow leaves. It was then that I heard it:

“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?”

I suddenly recalled a poem that my literature teacher had taught me—a poem about fall and childhood—and it was then and there, standing under that golden unleaving tree with those children, that I understood the poem for the first time. I had memorized it when I was a child myself and had carried it in my heart all those years for, as it seemed, that precise moment. I had come home to that poem at last. I recited Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” as I never had before, with a new and real meaning.

“Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?”

My eyes may have glistened behind my glasses, but none of my young companions were the wiser as they pulled at their ties in the warm autumn air and swatted at leaves, waiting to talk about the bone-rattling battle between Little John and Eric o’ Lincoln at Nottingham Fair. They weren’t ready yet.

And neither was I ready for the surprise that awaited me when I went into the academic dean’s office after that class only to find him hearing recitations of Hopkins from his junior students. I sat in, listening to one boy struggle to recite. Then he stopped and said in frustration, “What is the point of learning this poem when I can’t understand what it means?” What glad words I had ready for him. Sometimes it takes years to learn what you already know. Often, we don’t see how the goods we gain will profit us. A poetic education awakens us to the beautiful in its own good time—and it’s worth the wait.

Keeping It Real

Part of the end of any education should be to give students the experience of what Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things.” It’s a reason why the use of intermediary technologies, or media, should be limited in learning, but more importantly, why students should be put into contact with real and primary things as much as possible. It’s in these experiences that the basis of poetic knowledge resides and can begin a lifetime of hinting at the essences of things—the essential things.

Instead of listening to recorded music, students should learn to sing for themselves. Instead of dissecting dead frogs, they should go out and find them living in ponds. Instead of reading a textbook’s retelling of the greatest stories ever told, they should read them themselves. They should commit good poems to memory, learn the names of people, places, and things, and have a sense of the integration of reality.

It takes a special type of education, a poetic education, to learn to find those delicate moments when the finer aspects of existence we often, or even usually, take for granted assert themselves—an education that trains the mind and heart to pause and reflect and allow the subtler beauties of things to exert their indefinable influence.

Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.