Today I did a high-ropes course with some fellow pediatricians. It was a team building exercise, and was described as a way to move us from "our comfort zones" and into "the learning zone" which is outside the comfort zone. Outside the learning zone is "the panic zone." The learning zone was described as a place to go in order to grow, to expand ourselves via experience, to learn, to move forward / progress. When this image - the image of a target, with the bull's-eye as the comfort zone, the next zone as the learning / growth zone, and the one outside of that the panic zone - when this metaphorical image was provided to us, I immediately felt it true against my experience. When I exercise, I always track the amount of weight or the amount of repetitions I do, so next week I can go BEYOND that number, or at least aim to go beyond - and by doing so in the past I've gained size and strength; in short: I've grown. Another area where this applies: Literature, or any art really.
It may not be true for all people, but what I've valued my entire life is art that is outside what I'm comfortable with (used to seeing) and that brings me into "the learning zone," where I'm experiencing something new. This is when my imagination is captured, when I lose a sense of time, when my eyes are dilated and adrenaline is rushing. Keats said we know poetry by the pulse.
When I think of what art may exist in EVERYONE's panic zone, I think of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.
This doesn't change anything about my aesthetic values, which I can sum up really in one word: unfamiliar. But it does give me a nifty image - the bull's-eye - with which I can imagine the idea as a thing.
To be honest, I really think some of the other things people believe poetry can provide - some kind of eternal or noble truth - is best sought in non-fiction, like essays or magazine articles, or science papers. Then I recommend a dose of philosophy to knock you back on your ass. I'm not sure I've said it on my blog so I'll say it now, something I thought of recently and feel sums up nicely what I've learned from experience (as a published poet and physician):
Art opens your eyes and makes you pay attention (increasing awareness / consciousness / self (?) ), and what you see after Art is Science (what is / ontology).
Since most people who read this know me personally, what I say won't be taken as authoritative. So I'll reprint some words from a poetry textbook now in, I believe, it's 17th or 18th printing, Perrine's Sound and Sense:
"If we limit ourselves to looking in poetry for some lesson, message, or noble truth about life, we are bound to be disappointed. This limited approach sees poetry as a kind of sugarcoated pill - a wholesome truth or lesson made palatable by being put into pretty words. What this narrow approach really wants is a sermon - not a poem, but something inspirational."
Unfortunately, in the American education system, we are taught to analyze a poem and write about what it "means." I loathe this so deeply, but find most people really buy it, which depresses me, or used to. Now I just thank heaven I'm no longer party to that extraordinary popular delusion. And I'm (hopefully) done trying to convert people away from that way of thinking, except I'll still preach my way on this blog :) Isn't that what blogs are for?