Friday, September 13, 2013

Perfectly Impractical

I’ve written earlier about my interest in poetry. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends about the inherent ‘value’ of certain disciplines, and while my position on the essential importance of literature and the liberal arts has been consistent and earnestly argued, I worry that I’ve occasionally come off as a bit of an apologist. I’ve made the mistake of appropriating the construct of ‘usefulness’ and applying it to these disciplines – purely for argument’s sake (or so I told myself).

But the thing is, there’s always been a tiny, insistent and annoying voice emanating from an unknown recess in my mind that’s been asking me – ‘What if you’re mistaken? What if this stuff really, actually, doesn’t count?’

I’m happy to report that those doubts have now been laid to rest. I’ve been taking ModPo, an online course in poetry run by Prof. Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania on www.coursera.org. It’s only been a week, but I’m intrigued, inspired and engaged. Most importantly, I think I finally get it. At least as ‘it’ relates to poetry.

I’ve realized that great verse can make something of a moment, a mood – compressing something vast into something bejeweled and small, or expanding something small into something large and expansive. It can make the stuff of reality more vivid, moving, inspiring, complicated, fraught, surreal. It can change the way we look at the possibilities offered by language – and while I’ve always been curious about how language can shape perceptions, I haven’t paid enough attention or given enough thought to how language can shape relationships. Or to how the form in which we speak is almost as important as what we say. 

Maybe other people come to these realizations in other ways. The point is that for me, and for several other people taking this course, insights into the power and potential of language and linguistic structure seem to be coming thick and fast. Which is wonderful. And which is enough. Enough reason for poetry to be practiced, to be taught, to be learnt and analyzed and to maintain a space in public life. 

The same probably holds true for whole host of other disciplines – history, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics. Are they useful? Maybe not in the practical sense. But practicality is overrated.  It’s easy and maybe even logical to cut funding to these departments and direct it towards – I’m not sure – Engineering? Medicine? Economics? The world runs on usefulness, skills, employability, applicability, numerals, results.  But shouldn’t there be some space for students to explore things purely for the sake of pleasure, curiosity and passion? Do we want to build institutions that only wield one yardstick of worth and accomplishment? That tell us that being inspired is somehow, optional? That teach us all of the answers but not how to ask any of the questions? Do we want to take a punt on ideas originating only from certain kinds of intellectual spaces? Do we want to assume that inspiration will always travel upwards and downwards (never sideways), creating a virtuous loop of invention and innovation?

There’s someone taking my course who is currently in a hospice, and using the time he has left to study language and philosophy. I find that moving, and it reiterates my belief that there are the things that make life possible, manageable and workable, and then there are the things that make life worthwhile. So much of what we care about – truth, art, beauty, fiction, nouvelle cuisine, architectural conservation - is strictly speaking, unnecessary, and yet we would be so much the poorer without them. These things don’t exist and thrive in a vacuum. And by uprooting the academic and institutional ecosystems that nurture them and make them possible, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall. No matter what the spreadsheets say.

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