Elizabeth Drew's 1933 book Discovering Poetry has been on my nightstand for months (I found a yellowing copy for $1), and occasionally I dip into it. Recently while browsing the chapter "What Poetry Does" I came across some striking and insightful commentary on the value of poetry as "organized vitality". As she says, "It gives us a special kind of living." Her description of how poetry can do that is quite modern in its biological language. I frankly prefer her analysis to most of the current books I've seen on the neurophysiology of mind.
In this discussion Drew also hints at some wonderful ideas on how to live better lives as human beings. It's a theme — self-actualization — that sometimes gets labeled "New Age" and which then gets tangled up with a cluster of beliefs to which I often have a severe allergic reaction. It's also vitally important to think about.
Elizabeth Drew writes:
Now it is one natural function of the organism to seek experience. From the flatworm to ourselves, organic life possesses curiosity. And it is another natural function of the organism to co-ordinate. None of us could live for a moment or perform the simplest movement without a most intricate ordering of the nervous system. When we pass from the simple actions of practical living to the complicated activities which determine what kind of life we shall live, the arrangements involved in the nervous system are of quite incalculable complexity. Daily we become the unconscious and conscious battlefield of vast hordes of warring impulses, and our life is one long effort of conscious and unconscious adjustment.
These efforts are all directed towards freedom and fullness of life, self-completion, or perfection of co-ordination among all the myriad claims of our intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical being. It is the nature of the healthy organism to delight in fine co-ordination. We all know the sense of satisfaction, of fulfilment, which comes from more than usual order or coherence of any kind. It may be purely intellectual — a lucid scientific exposition, for example; or a complex organization of human material towards practical efficiency, as a ship's crew, or a big business; or it may be emotional. We all know people, very often people of no education at all, whose human, emotional nature seems to possess perfect control, balance and beauty. And this sense of satisfaction in the presence of successful co-ordination, is matched by a sense of frustration and disharmony when we meet disorder or muddle, from the discomfort we feel at the blurred presentation of a simple argument, up to the passion of rebellion which can seize us at the warpings and distortions of the human soul. 'The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told.' Man is an ordering animal. Civilization is order imposed on disorder, cosmos created from chaos.
But individuals differ widely in their capacities and limitations in co-ordinating power, and each individual varies widely within his own scope. We all know that there are special times and special experiences and the influence of special individuals which produce a condition in us when we feel ourselves to be harmonious and at one. The psychologists tell us that these conditions of easy adjustment and ordered vitality occur at times when there is the minimum of suppression and sacrifice and frustration among our nervous activities; when the minimum of effort is needed to hold the balance of warring forces; when the maximum number of our total claims is being satisfied; when, in a word, we are most fully alive. At such times we are conscious of a general heightening and sharpening of sensibility; we recognize a quickness and fineness of response in ourselves of which we are not generally capable; and we instinctively feel and know that the times when we attain to this fully poised equilibrium are the hours of greatest value in our lives.
The causes which create such moments vary with each individual and within each individual. It may be human love, or any of the myriad adjustments of sympathetic human relationships. It may be religious ecstasy or contemplation; it may be communion with nature, or the creation of art; the passionate pursuit of what Sir Philip Sidney calls 'the tougher knowledges', or the thrill of physical adventure. Or it may be the reading of poetry. For in poetry that special harmony of vision created by the poet is communicated to the reader (if he be capable of receiving it). He too 'apprehends'. He recognizes that profound satisfaction which is the unmistakable symptom of a more perfect co-ordination of his whole nervous potentialities. It brings him finer and wider responses, or in more old-fashioned language, increased fullness of life, greater riches of the senses, the mind and the spirit.