Book Review: Poetic Knowledge

This is a review of the book Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor.

Poetic knowledge is a term that our rational, scientific society doesn’t think about too much.  When we hear the word poetic, we automatically think of poetry, or maybe a good bit of prose that is heavy with beautiful, figurative language.  We might go as far as identifying an experience as poetic…meaning that it was the type of experience that poems are written about.  This last example is getting close to poetic knowledge, although the term goes much deeper than that.

To know something poetically is entirely different than knowing it rationally.  Poetic knowledge is knowledge of something that uses your whole self – body, soul, and mind.  It is experiential knowledge, not of abstractions, but of things themselves.  An example used throughout the book is the difference between knowing a slew of facts about horses (scientific knowledge) and truly *knowing* about horses because you grew up riding and caring for them (poetic knowledge).  I would say it is also the difference between knowing about a country from reading about it in travel guides and knowing about it by actually living there, breathing in its smells, eating its food, observing its people.

Poetic knowledge is other things, too.  It is that feeling you get when you have read an amazing book, and have felt that the author communicated a truth that you can’t necessarily put into words, but can *feel* in the depths of your soul.  It is the transfer of knowledge from one soul to another that occurs outside the realm of the rational mind.  It is knowledge that provokes one to awe and wonder, to feel a connectedness to that which is being studied.  Think of watching a baby being born, of being moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music, of star-watching on a crystal clear night in the mountains, of seeing a friend fall in battle – logical explanations simply fall short.  If you have read Life of Pi, you will recognize the comparison of the two types of knowledge.  I believe that faith in God begins with poetic knowledge of the Creator, and it is poetic knowledge that sustains belief…for me, anyway.

Taylor provides the reader with a chart in his book of the order of knowledge.  First comes knowledge of the senses: sight, smell, touch,etc. as exterior senses and imagination (meaning the ability to reproduce pictures in the mind when they are no longer in front of you), memory, and estimation (judging good and evil) as interior senses.  The senses provide us with the most basic knowledge of things.  After knowledge of the senses comes emotional knowledge: fear, anger, bravery, hope, love, desire, and joy.  After emotional knowledge is knowledge of the will:  knowledge that allows us to make choices, and allows us to love.  After all of these comes intellectual knowledge, the first of which is poetic knowledge.  Rhetorical, dialectic, and scientific knowledge all come after poetic knowledge.

Intuition is a component of poetic knowledge.  I read a book a couple years ago called The Gift of Fear, which is basically about how to protect yourself and your children from predators.  One of the things that was stressed in this book was to always act on your intuition, your “gut” feelings, which are nearly always right.  An individual in line at the bank might give you a bad feeling, and intuitively you tell yourself “something is not right.”  It might be only later that your rational mind catches up, and you are able to logically explain the signals that your intuition picked up on immediately.

In Poetic Knowledge, Taylor argues that our society too readily dismisses poetic knowledge and races past it toward the goal of accumulating as much rational and scientific knowledge as possible.  So children in lower elementary school might be assigned a two-page research report on rivers without ever having soaked their feet in one or fished from a riverbank.  They are taught to analyze literature without first learning to simply bask in the beauty of a good, true story.  They study physics in high school without ever working a real lever.  They look at pictures of liquid measurements without measuring them out themselves and feeling their weight.  The learning that can take place by simply sitting at the beach and watching the waves for an hour or two is viewed as idleness.

Poetic knowledge is about knowing  and experiencing things, being connected to them in their whole, natural state.  Scientific knowledge is about breaking things down into pieces and analyzing  those pieces.  It is a knowledge that looks at things critically, debates, experiments, and tears apart.  Both are important types of knowledge, but a society that stops loving and standing in awe of the whole before dissecting it has lost something very fundamental.

This book has really inspired me.  It is one of those books that is a “game-changer” in that it has opened my eyes to a way of learning that I haven’t been giving nearly enough weight to.  It has helped me understand why I feel passionate about studying some things but not others:  it is easy to learn when you have poetic knowledge about a topic, because your soul is drawn to it, and a bond of love is formed, a spiritual connection is made.  Scientific knowledge can greatly add to this “first” poetic knowledge, but if the poetic knowledge isn’t there, all you have are dry facts that you have absolutely no connection to.  My goal now is to approach every topic I introduce to my children poetically, so they can love it and wonder at it and be amazed by it and know it in their souls before they are required to approach it logically.

There is so much more I could write about, but this blog post is getting pretty long.  Let’s just say that this book  knocked my socks off.  It gets 5/5 stars, and I can pretty much guarantee that this is not the last you have heard from me on the subject.  🙂
2 CommentsLeave a comment »
  • January 21, 2013 Reply
    Taydn said:

    Thanks for sharing this! Hmmm, such a challenge to first introduce new topics poetically to the kids. Would love to hear your ideas and plans as you implement this:)

  • January 21, 2013 Reply
    Lisa said:

    Poetic Knowledge sounds very Orthodox. 😉

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