The Art of Poetry is Always Purposeful
Leslie Marmon Silko’s poem, “Ceremony,” is a prime example of how poetry, even simpler to understand ones, can be productive. The poem is productive because it conveys a message: stories are powerful. The message a poem conveys can be used justly, or unjustly. Whether or not the poem is used to achieve good or evil, it is purposeful. On one hand, Plato in The Republic of Plato is against the poets because their works of poetry prove to be problematic in his Republic. His goal is to devise a perfect city and to do that he must set strict rules which dictate the behaviours of his people. Poets, in his opinion, create poetry that would be destructive if unmonitored in his city. On the other hand, Sidney in An Apology for Poetry defends poets and poetry by owning up to the charges against poetry. He claims that poetry has importance when it combines delightfulness and teaching together. Even though these two literary theorists have different opinions as to the question of poetry being good or bad, they both can agree that poetry is useful. People can learn acceptable behaviour and morals from reading poetry. Poems, then, can be used as a teaching device. Hence, even though Plato and Sidney have opposing perspectives regarding poetry, both literary theorists would agree that Leslie Marmon Silko’s poem, “Ceremony,” is purposeful.
Plato would find that the content of the poem purposeful for maintaining order in his Republic, while Sidney would value the poem’s utility; thus showing that poetry is productive as it can be used to teach desired behaviours and ideologies. Plato fears that poetry will ruin the hardy mentality he wants people in his Republic to have. As mentioned above, he wants the people in his Republic to behave and think a certain way to ensure a prosperous city. To dictate the ideologies of the citizens, influencing the young is one of the easiest approaches to this problem. Plato says that the beginning of any work is the most important, and that rule also applies to young children (Plato 54 377b). The reason why young children must be taken care of with great consideration is because “at that stage [they are the] most plastic, and [they] assimilate[e] [themselves] to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give to [them]” (Plato 54 377b). In other words, children will behave and grow up based on the values or norms that they were first taught when they were young. In Book Three, Plato mentions two noble lies that only the makers of the city will know. The purpose of these lies is to promote courage and kindness towards everyone in the city while discouraging people from doing a role that is not fit for their souls. Taking into consideration his opinions regarding the plasticity of children’s minds and the noble lies he wishes to implore, readers can see why he fears poetry as much as he does. He fears that some works of poetry will ruin the mentalities of the young. The “young children [cannot] judge what is [the] hidden sense [in poetry]” and whatever message they take from poetry at that age will be “hard to eradicate and unchangeable” (Plato 56 378e). That is why Plato asserts that the makers of the city “must do everything to [en]sure that what they hear first, with respect to virtue, be the finest told tales for them to hear” (Plato 56 378e). He asserts that children cannot distinguish what is right or wrong yet when they read poetry. Consequently, they will not always be able to discover the virtues hidden between the lines of poetry. If they misinterpret the message of the poem, it can lead to disaster in Plato’s Republic because he would have a generation of children growing up contrary to how he wants every citizen raised. For instance, in “Ceremony,” the idea of the Thought-woman pre-determining everything in the world can be frightening to children. They may feel that their life and their actions are out of their control because the Thought-woman dictates everything that they are currently doing and will do in the future. The children can misinterpret the main message of the story and end up devaluing their ability to make choices. If the children grow up devaluing their freedom of will along with their choices, they may not work as hard, or protect the city with enough ferocity; which is why Plato would not want poetry that can convey wrong ideals being read by people in his Republic. Having citizens disregarding the purpose of the noble lies results in a disorganized and spiritless city. Thus, he only wants certain poetry with particular rules allowed in his city. To continue, poets are only allowed to portray the gods as the creator of the good things, and the bad things are created by other things that are not gods (Plato 57 379c). He even goes as far as making a law that speaking and producing poems cannot violate this rule: “the god is not the cause of all things, but of the good” (Plato 58 380c). Gods cannot be seen making war on other gods, or plotting against one another and having battles with each other either (Plato 56 378c). By having poetry depicting gods in disputes and having secret plans to overthrow other gods, it leaves an impression on the maturing children. Having poetry can deem wrongful behaviours acceptable as the children may be inclined to imitate this behaviour and replicate it in the future because if the gods can plot against one another and fight, they can do it too. Plato concludes that they “must supervise the makers of tales; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected” (Plato 55 377c) and they will “not let the teachers use [unapproved poetry] for the education of the young” so that their “guardians are going to be god-revering and divine insofar as a human being can possibly be” (Plato 61 383c). In other words, poetry that breaks the rules Plato has created will result in less divine human beings because they would adopt unacceptable behaviour that would pit citizen against citizen in his Republic, thereby poisoning the harmony he tried so hard to induce. Hence, Plato does not want unapproved poetry to be allowed in the making of the best city because it will create undivine children that will one day grow up denying the two noble lies and have the wrong impression of acceptable behaviour.
While Plato frowns upon unapproved poetry, Sidney encourages poets to create poetry as they see fit to enhance, delight, and teach. He claims that only the poets can make things better than the forms nature can produce (Sidney 330). Sidney claims that the poet makes poetry that is above nature because they bring a new perspective that has not been seen before or were never found in nature in the first place. Furthermore, Sidney goes so far to say that nature is not nearly as beautiful as poetry. He says that “nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done” (Sidney 330). Nature is only beautiful when poets describe it, and without poetry, nature is bland. To continue, Sidney responds to earlier literary theorists, such as Plato, who have criticized poetry for being memetic. He does not refute those claims but instead backs up the positives of poetry being memetic. Admittedly, he says that poetry does imitate, but it imitates to teach as well as to delight. Without the two components combined together – teaching and delighting – poetry loses half its potential. If poetry taught but did not delight, then the lesson placed in their minds would fly away unlearned; and if poetry delights but not teaches, then they would be moved by the words but they would be moved without direction (Sidney 332). The poet then, “with his imitation [made] his own, beautifies it both for further teaching [and] delighting” (Sidney 339). Similarly, it is like lecturing a student continuously about morals. The lectures aim to teach the student, but since it does not delight him/her, the student may not take those lessons to heart and learn from them. On the other hand, running an activity meant to teach morals to the student but not debriefing the activities’ significance at the end is also as pointless as lecturing without delighting. Sidney’s argument can also be found in “Ceremony,” as there is both teaching and delighting embedded in the poem. The teaching aspect is found in the speaker’s defence of stories. The speaker claims that stories “[are not] just entertainment” (Silko line 3) as they are “all we have to fight off illness and death” (Silko line 6). Furthermore, “[one does not] have anything if [he/she] [does not] have stories” (Silko line 7-8). The speaker identifies stories as the only weapons that can fend off sickness and death. Without stories, one is susceptible to ailments that lead to death. The delightfulness in this poem is not found in the beautifully arranged or chosen words, but rather in the oratory voice that can be heard. There are humorous points in the poem where children would find delightful. For instance, the speaker rubs his belly and asks readers to put their hand on his belly to feel the stories moving (Silko lines 16-21). The oratory aspect and the engagement with the readers are what makes “Ceremony” delightful to read. Thus, a sense of warmth and trust is subsequently founded, which bridges the teaching and delighting aspects together – a concept that Sidney finds absolutely necessary. Contrary to what Plato thinks, Sidney says that poetry does not deceive and lie to younger or older readers. Plato thinks that poetry can be dangerous to children because they can learn inappropriate moral lessons as they do not have enough experience to judge for themselves what is virtuous or not. However, Sidney refutes that by saying that the poets affirm nothing, and therefore does not lie as “to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false” (Sidney 348). He continues to say that poets do not actually make readers believe what they write is true, and even children can distinguish what is real or not in poetry and plays (Sidney 349). Sidney is not wrong when he claims that poets do not lie. For example, in the poem “Ceremony,” the speaker says that the Thought-woman and her sisters created the universe just by thinking about it (Silko lines 26-28). No where in the poem does the speaker affirm that this is the absolute truth and readers must believe that this Thought-woman is real as it is simply a story that one would share with others. To conclude, Sidney defends the attacks on the art of poetry, making poetry more respected.
Although Plato and Sidney have different views on the art of poetry, they can both agree the Silko’s poem, “Ceremony,” is purposeful. Since Plato’s goal is to raise the people in his Republic with certain beliefs embedded from childhood, he would find “Ceremony” purposeful in achieving that goal. “Ceremony” could be one of those first tales that he would share with the children. Even though poems like Silko’s are, “as a whole, false,” there “are true things in them too.” Plato would be able to “make use of tales with children before exercises” (Plato 54 377a). Since the Thought-woman is the creator of all things and everything that is happening, he can use the poem to reinforce his noble lies. To have people believe they are all from Mother Earth, he would use the Thought-woman and say that she created them all, which makes them all brothers and sisters of the Republic. Moreover, to have people believe they have different metals in their soul that determines their place in society, he can say that the Thought-woman has thought of and given them the appropriate metal in their soul and that she knows exactly where they should be, thereby keeping the people satisfied with their place and have no intention of doing a job that they are not fit for. Similarly, Sidney would also find the poem “Ceremony” purposeful in teaching appropriate attitudes and behaviours. Though, instead of teaching for the sake of keeping harmony in a city, he would like how Silko’s poem teaches readers the importance of stories in a non-philosophically complicated way. He asserts that the philosopher teaches obscurely where only the educated can understand him/her. The poet, on the other hand, writes poetry so that everyone can absorb the lessons from the poem (Sidney 337). Sidney likes how the poet creates works that even the less educated can understand. Creating philosophical works with highly sophisticated language only teaches the educated people in society – the least in need of learning. Moral lessons should be easily read by even the less educated because they are the ones that can gain the most from it. The language in “Ceremony” is simple, and could be easily read and understood by anyone, including children, which both Sidney and Plato would like. While Sidney would like the simplicity of language as it can teach everyone the theme of the poem: stories are important and powerful, Plato would like the simplicity of language because it would be purposeful in teaching children the noble lies in his Republic. Therefore, even with different values placed on poetry, Plato and Sidney would find “Ceremony” purposeful in teaching readers ideologies derived from possible truths. Thus, poetry is purposeful as it can teach acceptable behaviour and ideologies to people of all ages and levels of education. Whether it is for dictating the mindset of citizens to maintain control, or for making philosophical ideas easier read and understood, poetry remains to have a purpose. Even the easy-to-read poem “Ceremony” by Silko has a purpose in teaching and instructing.
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