Human Nature - The Poets' View

Many thanks to all who attended Tuesday night’s “Human Nature - The Poets’ View.” The poetry recited or read aloud was wide-ranging and the discussion far exceeded expectations. Here’s the email from O&I that got this whole thing going:

Can we modern humans, three hundred years since the Enlightenment and a century-and-a-half since Darwin, accept as truths teachings about Humankind derived from sources other than secular science materialism? Is the inner view of self and outer vision of Humankind now all about science and its tech derivatives? Are the artists, musicians and poets merely useful as entertainers?

Yes, scientific or not, we humans, all of us, still like art, music and stories. But can the views expressed in, say, poetry impact us to the degree they once did, to the same degree that scientific facts do today? Can artistic, musical, literary/story truths be as consequential as those of the natural sciences? At the next O&I Confluence, led by yours truly, we shall read aloud and discuss selected poems from the Western canon and try to answer some of these questions.

Attached is a selection of such poetry and soliloquies, pieces I’ve collected over the years and reread often. Please look at them beforehand, though, and choose one, or a portion of one of the longer ones, you’d be willing to read aloud and initiate a discussion on.

You may, of course, choose other short poetic works or extracts not found in this compilation, or from works of non-Western origin. Feel free, if you wish, to read some of the online expert commentary on the piece(s) you’ve chosen. But, your own personal take on it may be best and more indicative of our locale, times, the general population, and the power of the piece than the views of academics. Your reactions would also include any language and ideas you don’t understand. O&I members typically rely heavily on scholarly views, but are not bound to seek their help every time. We of the Confluence think original thought, if such is possible, is also worth pursuing. Let us dare to think freely!

Truths, as we’ve explored at a previous O&I meeting, come in many forms with varying degrees of potency and utility, be they poetic, scientific or religious. And why not? Humankind is an amalgam of the matter of the universe and no less of the stories we create and tell each other.

Join the discussion!

As last Tuesday’s night’s chair I opened the meeting with a brief comment on the often disputed notion of “human nature.” I recommended to the Confluence and received no objections to this definition by Skye Cleary and Massimo Pigliucci:

“[W]hile there are fixed elements to our being, we are not fixed beings, since we are (or ought to be) free to choose our projects. Neither biology nor natural obstacles limit our futures to a great extent, and how we live out our human nature will vary because we give different meanings to our facticities. An authentic life is about acknowledging these differences, and stretching ourselves into an open future. It does not follow that this openness is unlimited or unconstrained. We are limited, but mostly by our own imagination.”

Further notions of human nature may be found here, a handout from the meeting.

I opened the recitations and readings with Shakespeare’s Sonnet II, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow....” The ensuing discussion included the following about human nature: the sex and childbearing priorities of commoners in 16th Century rural England; the universal purveying of wisdom by elders and it often being ignored by the young; the human concern with youthful appearance and beauty and what we vainly do when it transforms with age; and the lessened pleasure and impact of this poem had it been written in the vocabulary and style of science writing.

Richard M. read a portion from Book IV, "The Senses," Section line 821-836 of Lucretius's The Nature of Things. The excerpt was about the notion of "Mother Earth," and how this one concept embodies Humankind's connection to the planet, to Life and its evolution within the cosmos.

"For Time changes the nature of the whole world, and one phase
Must be succeeded by the next; there is no thing that stays...."

John C. recited two poems by A. E. Housman (1859-1936), "To An Athlete Dying Young," and "LX. Now Hollow Fires Burn Out Black." John memorized these poems at age fourteen. In succeeding years John became a runner and ran marathons. The first poem has personal meaning for John. A fairly extensive collection of Housman’s poetry may be found here.

A.E. Housman

Now hollow fires burn out to black,
  And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
  And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
  Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
  There’s nothing but the night.

John also discussed Harold Bloom’s book, How to Read and Why, and Bloom’s notion of the importance of irony to great writing. John also offered that “truths come from deep inside of us,” something that great thinkers such as mathematician and historian of science Jacob Bronowski and physicist Robert Oppenheimer agreed with and often mentioned.

Steve Y. read Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. Steve commented on despair as something that is likely inevitable to occur sometime in every human’s life. Steve and the group understood Macbeth’s pessimism given his circumstances. In the discussion that followed, however, there was unanimity among the Confluence that there seems to be something inherent in our nature to strive for meaning and purpose in our lives; and most (some?) do in fact achieve some measure of significance, in some form or other.

George D., harkening back to his youth at the Woodshed School of Poetry, quoted from Longfellow. He then recited the lyrics from the Eagles song, “Learn To Be Still.” George mentioned but did not read or recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert William Service, a must read for those not familiar with it. The themes in the Eagles song and Service’s poem include the restless voices in our heads, greener grasses, satisfaction unfulfilled. All, asserted George, are part of an important truth: “you’re never going to be satisfied.” The discussion that followed tied the notion of our lives signifying something with our worries that they will not. One attendee commented it was a wonder to him that a significant portion of each generation survives given the extreme challenges we have no choice but face, namely, our selves, others, and the physical world. That a further significant number of these survivors thrive and flourish is even more remarkable, he said.

Pam D. began by reading excerpts from Woody Guthrie’s full version of “This Land Is Your Land.” She then read aloud Guthrie’s “Deportee” and played an audio recording of the song. Pam then led a discussion regarding inequality and the exploitation of migrant labor in the United States, and the importance of lyrical protest songs such as those of Guthrie’s, and the songs and poems of protest of others.

With the help of her stuffed animal props, Serenity the Comfort Sloth and Earth, Ramona L., in expert voice, sang “Lean On My” by Bill Withers. On Human Nature? Indeed, our dependence on each other is a hallmark of what we are and how we survive and thrive. The truth is, says science and art, we cannot live well without each other, in good times and in bad.



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