Our Inner Poet | psychology today

Suppose you see a person whipping himself mercilessly. What do you think? Is he a masochist? Become crazy ? Or is he, perhaps, forced to act as he does by a punisher with a twisted sense of justice?

You couldn’t tell just by looking. You should know the significance that man’s actions have for him. Perhaps he is a deeply religious person in a state of exultation. If so, physical pain can be experienced by him as sublime and as a path to the divine.

Woman looking up.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

It is this ability we possess to give both objects and our own actions meaning, meaning that cannot be measured from the outside, that I wish to call our ‘inner poet’. We all carry a storyteller who sees aspects of life invisible to ordinary perception.

The dreamer and the inner poet

Nietzsche suggests, on the other hand, that we use too much of our art in dreams to have any left over for waking life. He says that dreams:

[C]circumscribe our experiences, our expectations or our situations with such poetic audacity and such determination that in the morning we are always amazed at ourselves when we remember our dreams. We use too much art in our dreams and as a result we are often impoverished during the day.1

It’s certainly true that dreams are usually steeped in meaning, unlike waking life. There is almost nothing in dreams that is experienced as ordinary. The world created by the dreamer is like an enchanted forest in which everything is capital.

But waking life is therefore not devoid of poetic audacity. In fact, the inner poet is better than the dream narrator in one important respect: he or she is a clearer communicator. While in a dream each item seems to have a particular meaning, we are never quite sure of its meaning. We feel like we’ve been given a glimpse, but that glimpse remains elusive, and we’re not even sure there is one.

The waking life inner poet, unlike the dream narrator, cannot infuse the whole world around us with special meaning – some objects and events remain stubbornly ordinary – but the meaning is clearer.

Child, Teenager, Adult

While Nietzsche, as we have seen, compares the ability I have in mind to that of our dream narrator and finds the former lacking, William James compares it to the poetic leaps of toddlers. In an essay titled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James writes:

It is said that a poet died young in the bosom of the most phlegmatic. Rather, it can be argued that a (somewhat minor) bard in almost all cases survives and is the spice of life for its possessor.2

James is right that a lesser bard survives in everyone’s bosom, but is it true that a better poet dies?

I would say no. It is true that the ability I have in mind is very pronounced in children. Consider children pretending during play, and a broomstick becomes a knight’s sword while a straw wreath becomes a crown. No one usually teaches very young people to do these things. The budding inner poet of children seeks expression and finds it in imaginative pretense. Moreover, this poet is powerful and can turn just about anything into anything.

But the poetic vision of the child usually stops when the game stops. Then ordinary objects lose their special meaning and become everyday objects again. While the child poet is in one sense powerful, in another he is weak, since he can only create fantasies.

Children, of course, have the consolation that one day they will grow up and do things real importance. Adults have no such prospect to look forward to, so imaginative play is insufficient. Unsurprisingly, for the self-flagellator, the ritual is not a game, and its meaning is not lost at dinnertime. He is a religious man, not fantasizing about being one. The inner poet of an adult cannot transform anything into everything, because transformations must be more than fantasies, and it is only in the imagination that limitless change is possible.

It can perhaps be argued that our poetic powers peak in adolescence and early adulthood when we no longer engage in imaginative, imaginative simulations as children do; we then undertake projects that we believe have real meaning but with the dedication and wholeness of a child. This poet, perhaps—that of the adolescent—can we say that he died in the adult. This may explain why it is easier for young people to risk their lives for a cause or to endure periods of extreme deprivation in the service of an ideal.

I think, however, that in fact, the adolescent poet turns into someone less inspired but more committed to finding real meaning rather than imagining it. A mature person is not someone who renounces poetic ideals but someone who wants ideals without illusions.

The impostor and the absurd man

There’s no guarantee that we can always “spice up” our lives, of course. The special significance of events, people and ways of life can be lost to us. If the self-flagellator I started with loses faith, he may come to regard his previous religious fervor as a self-delusion. If he does not reveal this disillusionment to anyone and continues to go through the stages, he may come to feel like an impostor. (The reverse is also possible: a person may start out as an impostor but gradually become what they say they are.)

Losing not this or that ideal but our very ability to give meaning to life is to become what Albert Camus called “the absurd man”. The absurd man still has a need for meaning but sees the universe incapable of satisfying this need. He believes that accepting the conflict between our desire for meaning and the silence of the world is the only honest position.

This attitude can be fought. This brings me to my last point. In the essay I quoted earlier, William James suggests that our lack of access to the inner life of others, to the meaning they perceive, to their delights and sorrows, severely limits our view of them. . It may even seem to us that only we having an inner poet when everyone’s life is ordinary. This is what James calls a “certain blindness” in human beings.

It just seems right. What I would like to add here is that a certain type of existentialist philosopher suggests not that no one has an inner poet, but that no poet is capable of creating anything other than illusions. There is no sense in having, argues this philosopher, and accepting that is the only honest attitude. To assume that we have the power to breathe meaning into a meaningless universe is to believe that we can escape the human condition.

Maybe. But it may also be that an escape is in fact possible. Success is never guaranteed, of course. We may not soar to the heights or achieve the rapture we hoped for, and even if we do, what we once perceived as deeply meaningful may later appear mundane. We can become disillusioned or imposters or both. Yet it would not result from our inner poet’s mental block or even death that everyone’s inner poet is just a liar and a coward who refuses to face reality. It is the emotional anesthesia of the absurd man that renders the world around him meaningless. To assert that life should be meaningless for everyone regardless of condition is to crown the blindness we have to each other’s minds and call it “candor” and “insight”.

About Christopher Rodgers

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