"Poetry and Self-Governance" with Dr. Matthew Mehan



thank you thank you for having me it's an honor to speak at this school your headmistress I've known for a number of years as a serious scholar herself and I know that this community cares a lot about the liberal arts and classical education and this book is designed to be a kind of display speech of beautiful art and poetry that has a particular point but also a kind of general walk through a kind of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum of the liberal arts so what I want to do tonight is sort of explain to you a little about how self-government right one of the things that this school and I think any good school that calls itself you know a classical school or a liberal arts school wants to do is to help train up good citizens because a good citizen really needs to have the full panoply of virtues and how you go about doing that it's actually you know there's a whole tradition and the liberal arts tradition is what that is and I think it's good to start by translating the liberal arts a little differently it comes from the old Ciceronian you know tradition of the artist liberally or the good letters but we say liberal arts but it's always good to translate something a little differently sort of turn it on its head to give you a fresh flavor and I like to call it the arts of Liberty what it means to be free and it turns out to be free is something that requires quite a bit of art a lot of art full thinking and a lot of artistic endeavor and I don't just mean like we need more people to be painters or poets what I'm what I mean is that we need each and every one of our citizens and especially our leading citizens to have that kind of artful judgement about what to do next ie prudence which governs all the other virtues so that's like high from mountain comes Zeus with his lightning bolts of philosophical blah blah blah right that's the background of this book and so I mean it but what I want to do is walk through a little of what one aspect of the liberal arts can give you and that's particularly ARS Poetica the poetic arts and in a certain sense the ARS rhetorica the rhetorical arts and the two are sort of blended together and not easily extracted from one another so I want to talk about those and how they're related to self-government now when I say self-government I really do mean self-government right from time immemorial Plato's Republic right it was about the city soul analogy that this the soul and how its govern is going to be reflected in the city and vice versa how the city is arranged will have powerful influence over the soul right so self-government is a kind of you know double meaning it means literally governing the inside of yourself right governing your soul and mind and body your heart your passions what you think and do but also how to govern right as a free people here in this Democratic Republic the United States so tall order now let's talk about a bunch of ridiculous and fuzzy mammals right like right that's that's the strange thing about this project which so now I'm gonna sort of take my philosopher serious guy hat off and try to put on the ridiculous guy who has a bunch of fuzzy mammals to show you but before I do one last entrĂ©e why this mouthful mister means mildly amusing mythical mammal I've been on television a few times and this newscaster especially the guy in Cincinnati was hysterical he's looking at the teleprompters like I'm here with dr. Mian and his new book and he almost sort of shot me it look like I'm gonna kill you like mr. Bravo thank you like you've got it but there have been a number of like oh no you know in fact I was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and each time they announced it every 15 minutes there's an author here they slaughtered it in some new way mr. means mystical Mammalia and you know whatever but um but I nevertheless I knew that it's a little crazy and I had multiple editors say don't do that it's it's mad people will hate you for it it's like yeah you know what there's something about the tradition that likes things a little wooly a little personal a little off kilter right especially our tradition that the American the Anglo tradition of culture law and language we don't like Versailles shave our orange trees and lime trees into cubes right we'd like it a little wooly er and a little more of a personal touch a little more freewheeling so I wanted my name in it right but let me just go through that this title mister it's a formal title so formality there's actually formal poetry in here learning how to use the forms of poetry Mian I wanted it to be an act of friendship because I think actually at the end of the day you could reduce much of what the liberal arts are and the ARS Poetica and the ARS rhetorica under a different heading which is the art of friendship which if the more you think about it as a as an art artist as an art form the more likely you are to be a great friend right and that's an incredibly important bond for a free society and for your own human happiness see the latter part of Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics so I wanted it to be an act of friendship because the friendship between this guy the dahle and his friend the blog is actually fundamental to the work mildly poetry and rhetoric actually teach you how to be peaceful how to speak mild words how to calm passions how to gain people's consensus about what to do next right harsh words sometimes there's a place for them but what's harder to do often and I think anyone who's experienced a Twitter mob might agree with this it's what's harder to do is actually to calm passions to speak peacefully words that bring about justice right rather than to excoriate and destroy one's opponent that is to say there are arts of war but there are also arts of peace and poetry is fundamentally about those arts of peace how do you move people through images and well-chosen words right how do you do that without using force and compulsion that is to say tyranny how do you treat people freely with dignity and move them along in truth part of it as you got into the truth you need philosophy but you also might need to know how to make that philosophy move people right in the right direction how to actually speak to they're not just their minds but their hearts even even their bodies with a little bit of rhythm amusing right poetry should be fun humorous goofy lights them relieve the burdens of life in a certain sense so but it's also a double pun on the muse inspiration right you have to be properly inspired by the right sources both divine but also human you got to go drink from the well of good poetry good philosophy good arts and so there's an emphasis on that and it's actually in the middle of the whole title mythical myth is the way we talk about complex truths imagistic aliy for easy understanding right and even when something is not easily rendered by argument there's even truths that can be brought to our hearts and minds through image that don't don't really allow for a very clear discourse or if you do offer a discourse it almost obscures the fact that this is something transcendent ly mysterious the good the true and the beautiful oftentimes in Plato's dialogues had to be represented in the end not just by argument but by imagistic myth but let me give you a pick chair of what I'm talking about so truth oftentimes comes to us in myth right it's a it's a fundamental part of how we come to know the causes of things and even the causes of internal things Aesop's fables are essentially myths about the morals and the passions that run within us and if you don't figure out how to use myth you probably won't actually be able to talk about immaterial things like ideas passions causes right the mind and the soul and then mammals it's really important to remember that we're mammals that sounds so stupid and it sounds stupid every time I say it but it's actually incredibly important we're a rational animal but more than that what kind of animal we're not a sponge in the ocean right that's an animal we're a mammal what are mammals known for the fairer sex among us actually turn their blood into milk sacrificially to feed our young and we're not known for our Grace and power even though we have it right we're the strongest and the fastest of all the animals but what we're best known for cuz there's grace in birds and there's power and fish we're known for our affection we're known for a hug we're known for a nuzzle itll otters on some nature video right go type in kitten emergency on the internet and look at what mammals are about right there's actually something really important about not forgetting the body because it's what you are and if you ignore it you can commit all kinds of atrocities right ignorant of what we are as in fleshed embodied creatures right it can be extremely dangerous right and part of mental health part of governing your own spirits is recognizing the hilarious laughable limitations of your mammalian self right I'm very upset so Nietzsche might write his like third autobiography about his blue period right but a sensible person right might actually go like well maybe I'm hungry right because I'm a mammal so there's actually a kind of a very practical and and down-to-earth thing I think it actually transcends that – it's actually a way into learning a little bit more about our soul as well but that's kind of a longer discussion but and especially in an era where people think the body is essentially a collection of Legos that can be pulled apart and reconfigured any which way it's really important to remember the autopilot setting which is you are a mammal and that's very very good so that's the title just the title there's a lot of words besides those let me just walk through what I tried to do with the first three poems though each each poem has an alphabet block so a letter block for little kids that they can trace their fingers on and it usually depicts the mammal more clearly than the painting often and it also has a bunch of alliterative puns so the Ango in the letter block is actually awkwardly aiming another archers arrow at an auburn apple and that's just some of the A's so that's for the little kids they can see the letter and then if they know the letter they can play some alliterative games the poem itself is little more aimed at middle graders and above and then the painting and the poems wider and deeper themes right are for adults and teenagers so I tried to write a family book that the entire family can engage all at once and separately but let me not stand behind a podium while I'm showing you a painting and let me just recite the first poem and tell you a little about why the first three poems are a kind of introduction to the ABCs of the poetic arts so this is the it's the poems called what's an Ango I mess up somebody grab a book and prompt me but hopefully I get it what's an angle the angle has but little Fame because folks hate its proper name Ango Grubb you Gunkel unk's tiss has a ring that most find unctuous and worse the Ango has a look that bits the awful name took angle grab you Gunkel Uncas is only loved by uh turd dunces who loved to use long latin words when pointing out the plainest birds Corvis Brockie runkis and carton Ollie's cardinalis are what angle lovers like to call the common crow and cardinal so when your latin troubles you and you forget just where your tongue is thank God for words of common use like Eng go for Aang go grub you Gong Columbus it's a silly little beasts fable about a silly little mammal but there's a lot more going on there it's important to know the uses of poetry and they're very important for helping you communicate the truth both to yourself and to others that sometimes putting things more simply in common tones in common and easy to understand ways is better than getting all of the truth out all at once what is this creature it's an angle grub you gunk along sness right how about Aang go for starts right let's get something on the board that everyone can understand and agree to what is this it's a cardinal not a cartoon Ollie's cardinalities it's good to have technical knowledge it's good to have philosophical and scientific knowledge but if you think that that is going to win the day all the time or move people initially towards the truth I think you're in the wrong you're in the wrong field right you're not going to be a good communicator you're not going to bring people along in a prudent way right you have to start where people are and move from common opinion to truth in one sense this is a sort of ridiculous version of the age-old debate between the philosophers and the poets right I'm gonna give this to you imagistic Lee intermingled right I'm gonna give you the straight dirt just give it to you with the firehose of truth oh and I flipped it this guy's the poet are you saying please there might be another way an indirect way and this guy's know you're gonna learn the whole thing right now poetry appeals to the five senses and that's important to remember that not just an appeal to the mind because we're amell's because we have bodies right so rhythm song beauty image the five senses and they're represented here sight hearing a big fat air horn this guy's got a huge snus right smell his tongues out taste and touch yes he's actually reading Braille and the Braille says Ango right the appeal to the five senses that's one thing that the visual arts and poetic arts can do through rhythm structure even the sound rattling off your eardrum the oral nature of poetry right and if you think that doesn't have Civic repercussions go do a poetics scan of some of Abraham Lincoln's finest speeches and listen for his intermittent use of real rhythm which the man memorized a ton of Shakespeare so that's that's a sort of there's a lot more I could say there's I tried to so in lots of depth but that's a basic one of the things that poetry does is it teaches that kind of prudence how to keep things simple but also how to appeal to the whole of someone and move them along at stages this is the blog he's a big fat yellow ball looks like a little piece of sunshine right he's sort of part hippo part Blowfish but let me just let me just read or recite the poem the plug bumbling by as slow as the slug is the Tobias creature known as the blog the blog plods a humorous pace so slow in fact that he came in third place against the tortoise and the hare who had the finish line stood and stared at this blah Bueller jolly gelatinous jug is across the sky his body he lugged on the tiniest wings at the world's yet seen they're both the size of a kidney bean why the blood is quite a slug but he seems not to care as he happily chugs through the cumbersome air simple little beast bold and again a kid can just enjoy the letter B and some alliteration see some rhyme see some meter I remind them of Aesop's fables and the tortoise and the hare a little joy of recognition about the tradition the littles will get something out of it but ideally right if it's taught or if it's reflected upon hopefully this is actually an image about what poetry is in toto right so let me just the letter B creature let me just tell you a little about the symbolism of the painting poetry does something kind of amazing it takes very heavy matter like a big fat blog and makes it incredibly lightsome and winsome whimsy delight play even tragedy which puts something at a distance from you and you get to watch it on stage rather than live it out right it's sort of like a a holodeck version of something you could screw up in your own life right you to test it out and see oh yeah that's bad I don't want that right that's great but much of it is this lightsome way of communicating really serious truths a nice ops fable about a stork and some frogs could be about God and the punishments of justice right but it's a bunch of weird little animals hopping around the pond right that's some heavy duty stuff put in this silly and goofy way so that's one thing poetry can do is handle very serious metal matter in a very light way that you can engage right Horace says in the ARS Poetica that all good poetry must both delight and instruct so it has to be delightful it has to have a kind of ease and whimsy and that's the book he rises up above in some sense mere moralia it's not just a lesson there's something else at play and in a certain sense poetry even has access to the transcendent and if you look back here this is actually the skyline of Christ's Church College Oxford you did Bravo one it's one of the the primordial sort of Lazarus pits of Anglophone culture poetry philosophy law it's it's and it's also where Lewis Carroll taught so Christ Church College is a kind of it does triple duty for me in this poem in this painting because he's coming from there that is to say as again Horus in the arts Poetica says the font of all good poetry must be wisdom capital W wisdom right so here Christ's Church erudition right the transcendent and it's making its way slowly to an end I saw you've got nikka McKean ethics Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics on the wall and big letters here at the school Bravo but so you know my you might know the word Telos the greek word for an end a purpose poetry has a purpose it should should come from wisdom but it should have a purpose and it takes its slow time bumbling by as slow as a slug right through the cumbersome air it's not in a hurry it's not get it right right now it's leisurely we need to rest sometimes animals get tired and sleepy and weepy and we need something delightful and so let's take us from what circumlocution out to the truth right Emily Dickinson tell all the truth but tell it slant success in circuit lies right but it has a purpose and we have Peter Tenniel's white rabbit Peter Tenniel's the original illustrator for Alice in Wonderland through the looking-glass he was a friend of Lewis Carroll's and this is a direct visual quote of the white rabbit no time to say hello goodbye I'm late I'm late I'm late I'm late busy busy busy mister business poetry right takes it son it's leisurely otm versus Nageotte 'i'm leisure versus business right business is good business is important but you need to be able to in noble your rest time and that's something that good poetry can do right oftentimes we were very serious in our business and then we and sort of static into trash right what if we rested with nobility and beauty and truth but done in a light and meandering way it's sort of that's the ennobling side of the ARS Poetica right it's very important so that's something to do with that one the blood let me give you one more and then I'll just briefly account the wider theme of the book because this is just sort of the ABCs introduction a kind of mega nerd liberal arts warm up this is the coal vein oh he's not depicted if you look in the book he's a sort of strange dragony gremlin he looking he actually has like a Thanos chin but it was before I never thought about fan o's but he has the same ribbed chin as Thanos you know I guess great minds think alike no I don't the so the coal vein oh he's actually hidden right here in this cave the Covino eats rocks deep down in the earth he's a creature of some considerable girth thick fat legs and claws like the mole for digging his den and his surfacing hole the entrance is wide like an elephant's rear and smells just as foul if you dare to draw near The Cove a nose quite picky turning some rocks away that one's too icky this one's too gray and oh by the way the Covino belches fire so meeting one's not something one should desire yes beware the coal vein Oh has his Roxy slurps and run for your lives if ever he burps silly stupid delightful beast poem right not much there right did you all get the joke the basic joke the coal vein Oh sounds like volcano yeah it was interesting I had 40 kids in a room yesterday and like they all were like volcano like immediately like oh I thought it was being a little trickier than that a volcano if you notice this paintings a little moody you know the other two are kind of crisp and bright right and clear this one is hazy dark even Suns going down it's based on an impressionist painting called Mount Helicon which is the birthplace of the muses right where Hesiod was Shepard and was given the inspiration the muses the problem is the muses tell Hesiod right we tell lies but we know when to tell truth when we wish right oops all right that's the great problem with poetry is beauty can be deceptive some poets are bad poets who actually want to move you away from the truth or don't know what they're doing and are so chaotic that they wind up accidentally moving you away from good things simply out of ignorance and bumbling lack of craft and earnest desire for good so I wanted to get at that the volcano and I said I said the students yesterday said so you know obviously there's a volcano come from a Covino burping fire and rocks yes like no no it does it right now this is the whole point right it's not that right that's the danger right as you can be misled by false causes myths can be false myths that are not true or that are only true in one sense and you have to have what Chaucer called a good mother wit to see this is dangerous but it's actually good in this way but it's not good for this right so there's this problematic side and if you don't learn how to deal with images wittily if you don't see when you're being manipulated or moved which poetry is supposed to do but move in the wrong way you are going to be an innocent little sheep who might just be lured into a very dangerous fiery den there's a line in the Gospel of Matthew Matthew 10:16 being wise as sir it's innocent as doves right in the tradition right in the Western tradition those serpents have been interpreted to mean poetry and philosophy the arts of philosophy logic right thinking clearly metaphysics morals and rhetoric and poetry right that you actually need those skills right so that you can protect like what is good true innocent and worth protecting the Dove it's a very important part of training up the next generation is that they can tell a hawk from a handsaw they can tell a tyrant from a leader they can tell a good law from a bad one it's actually being able to turn things around in your head and see like that's deceptive this has these downsides that's a lie right that's a bad way to put it you're speaking poorly this speech isn't a good representation of a good soul it's a kind of mythical representation of a bad soul or at least a bad display from a bad day of a good soul right like ie sit this one out you're not my candidate I won't vote for you it's actually really important to be able to see images which are put forward all the time now we call them means there's all kinds of images we're bombarded with and be able to see whether they're good or bad and see the intermingling of light and darkness because oftentimes they're not all bad they're not an evil image they're just kind of messed up but there's something good in them and we need to have that loving friendly patient with our neighbor our fellow citizen with our friends with our family to say that's good in this way but let's talk some more about some other things that maybe we could improve like let's maybe here read this or let's talk about that or let me give you a counter image so the honors poetic on the arms rhetorica and thinking about these things clever cleverly shaping that wit that good mother wit which often times by the way in our tradition of self-government has been called Republican wit a good sense of humor that can see something and turn it in a bunch of different ways right and laugh in the face of difficulty as well because it's hard to live liberty it's actually difficult and requires a kind of stern stuff but not just a stoic sternness the ability to live together with other people and not be harsh with them so the ability to soften difficult things with laughter and humor and light some heavy things put lightly right living the burdens of our community of communal and shared life in a serious way that's what poetry and good rhetoric can do and it can also do one other thing and let me just transition quickly into sort of the wider theme of the book and then I think yeah and then I guess we can switch this and take some questions and I can maybe read some more poems if you want it's up to you this is the dahle the letter D creature he's our sort of every man his guns neckties like sort of Joe average headed to work faithful dog face but kind of monkey Gibbon body something a little more simian a little closer to us but let me read his his poem one of the simplest poems in the whole collection the dahle among the pelting drops of rain the dahle can be seen again the rocks the trees they know him well but where he'll show no one can tell for though the forests soaked and soft the Dahle skirts each drop that's plopped but if you are one keen of eye who sits and Stoops in storms you'll spy the dodgy dolly dancing dry again simple little poem little rhyme little alliteration for the letter D shout out there at the end right blue and yellow neckties right coming out of his brain sunshine and cloud light and dark happiness and sadness he's a little bit of a troubled fellow what does it mean to dally we talk about a dalliance it usually means you took some time with something that was probably a bad call for you and somebody else – Dahle is to take too long in something that you should have moved on to other work to other duties to other parts of your life right – deli it can also mean just to rest and have fun so it's kind of got a good side and a bad side right it's interesting to note that in the moral tradition of moral philosophy Arts and Letters right dallying is the thing that starts you down the road to the vice of sadness by wasting time by being slothful right rather than properly active and properly contemplative right you actually can invite the door to sadness and despair failure the dahle knows how to dodge the rain so he doesn't suffer he doesn't get wet he knows how to dodge every problem right but in the very next poem he meets the evil the letter e creature and he tells him the saddest tale about the whole world and argues that fundamentally the entire cosmos is tragic you see the stars behind them are black spaces of night right that say I love not you rather than charity being the formational reality behind the entire cosmos the way Cicero argues or the Christian tradition argues he says no no death nothingness the daily sits and listens to this weepy tale and gets rained on and cried on by the evil and the rest of the book is him taking a tour through a bunch of mythical mammals most of it very light bestiary some of it a much higher register I take a few liberties with young readers and go let's just go way up into the clouds with a a very complex poem but in general tetrameter light verse but symbolically laced throughout and then hinted at in a glossary that you can actually use to unpack if you wish a little more deeper deeply the meanings in the poems is a journey learning friendship with the blog but learning what the Western tradition what the liberal arts and the ARS Poetica can teach you about how to govern your passions and how to govern your heart towards what in the moral philosophical tradition is the cure for sadness and by the way I've been teaching for a long time and I've watched sadness be a growing problem in the digital age of comfort and so called social media and so I took this series seriously as my theme for this book because it's good to think about what the antidotes to anxiety loneliness and sadness are one of them is the art of friendship it's fundamental that your sons and daughters learn how to have good friendships that means they have to learn how to communicate very finely write very justly and very nobly with other people and very humorously and lightly and entertainingly and delightfully because you have to attract friends they have to want to be with you right but it's also the you have to foster the discipline of your tongue for what not only you tell other people what you tell yourself the daily encounters a number of creatures one of them is the know lay it's this beautiful creature a winged creature meant to fly that can't get out of the pool of Tears her own tears and she reaches up and and and gropes around for help occasionally but every time she does she starts to sing a song that is about how she failed how she took too much time with the wrong kinds of things and indulged and the sweetness happened Stan xual and the pleasures so unnatural she just forgot herself but not only did she football she cannot now stop monologuing like a bad guy in a brad bird Incredibles movie right you caught me monologuing you sly dog right you-you-you don't know what to tell yourself to get out of to get out of trouble right part of it is what your friends tell you but then you have to gloss what they tell you and we always are speaking to ourselves and if you don't attend to the artful speech that you speak to your you'll be blinded like the blind ape the evil who tells himself a story about everything around him that's false and blind and dark and you'll actually trap yourself more deeply in sadness and sorrow and you'll dig a deeper hole rather than begin to fill it in and step up back into the sunlight and it's actually really important to learn how to do this and it requires a certain artfulness and by the end of the of the book they actually meet the sea lion zeal ion right we can talk about that in the Q&A if you want what that might mean but zeal is if you don't know that's the actual antidote to sadness you know there's always a vice in a contrary virtue right so sadness zeal that's the contrary zeal is the cure so thinking about that virtue and what that means is essentially one of the things I try to put forward and shoot through the entire poetic work now my wife is echoing in my my back of my brain right now don't get too serious don't be so serious man why so serious this is a ridiculous set of poems right and there's satire and I tell some ridiculous bad puns there's all kinds of goofball arre so don't get me wrong what I want to do is provide an antidote to sadness so the book is light some colorful ridiculous strange funny right because part of the thing that cures sadness on the way to zeal right if you're really gonna have zeal you first have to be able to laugh and that's why wit isn't just about the things I mentioned before it's also fundamentally a way to disarm evil right it's a tradition like laugh at the devil I can't stand it because pride can't stand being mocked laughter right shared laughter is really important and that's at the end of the day one of the great things poetry so that's the book in a sort of tiny nutshell of nerdery thank you for actually listening to it and you know I'm happy to take questions [Applause]

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