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This article is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.

On the Apotropaic Element in Poetry Christopher Middleton

Traditions East and West have for millennia sustained through various transformations the notion of the poet as a teacher. In relatively illiterate societies, even, epic, elegy, eclogue or lyric brought news about gods and agriculture, love and loathing, civic virtues, a people's history, marine navigation, coastal topography, and models of endurance. Oral traditions provided, in a way, digests or encyclopaedias: scalds composed grand instruments of instruction for kings or cowherds. Rumi still teaches the generations how to let go and love Creation. Troubadours taught high love, and the Countess de Die the tone in which to abuse a neglectful lover.

Even today, for all their supposed autonomy, poems not in the least didactic may retain an aura, if no more, of the old notion. Yet, while reading this or that poem, you hardly ask what 'lesson' it secretes, or what it is 'for'. We have our stock of learning instruments elsewhere. But then, struck by the singular quality of language in a specific poem, you might well ask how it is procured, ask in what direction it might be pointing as regards the evolution of mind. Then you'll perhaps wonder, all over again, that infinitesimal nuances should so accrue to notable refinements of mind, and of sensibility; wonder about relations between aesthetic and moral values. In the history of our species, does this poem serve any purpose? Did it make you, there and then, a slightly more perceptive, more discriminating person, a less atrophied person? And you ...

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