How Our Minds Were Once Shaped By Poetry

We often now picture our minds in unsound ways. They’re built to resonate to poetry. We’ve all but lost the memory of poetry’s historic role in molding minds (that’s the unsung pretext of Plato’s poetry ban). Poetry is a key cognitive technology , so powerful it was the Internet of its time. 


Few now sing the praises of when poetry shaped us. Its history of molding minds is almost lost (it lasted till prose, and its logic, could last). That’s the unsung pretext of Plato’s poetry ban.

1.  You and I are both, right now, using the “most momentous” technology ever (Ong). It changed thinking itself. All other tech needs it.

2. It’s hard to imagine life before the technology of text. But before alphabetic writing, poetry was the one way to store and share bulk information.

3. Poets sang their culture’s shared knowledge. “Metrical encyclopedias” provided “moral training” (Havelock). Poetry was school, library, entertainment… the Internet of its time.

4. The mother of all muses Mnemosyne "symbolised not just… memory… as a mental phenomenon but...the total act of… memorializing”—>how poetry and music made “words... recollectable (before writing).

5. This might beat music’s evolutionary conundrum, perhaps it isn’t useless “auditory cheesecake” (Pinker), but an adaptive memory expander (music-assisted rhythmic storage of Homer’s 27,803 lines).

6. Without text, what isn’t frequently repeated, is lost. Nontext cultures still record what matters by setting repeated formulaic phrases to a beat. Your lyric memory and “earworms” testify to its effectiveness.

7. Rhapsody means “stitched together song,” and rhapsodic recall ruled most cultures (only ~106 of ~7,000 known languages have “literatures").

8. Text-free cultures think differently, they’re concrete “image-thinkers,” with situational (vs abstract), aggregative (vs analytic), and participatory (vs objective) thinking patterns. We all start similarly, then learn text-centric thinking.

9. Plato felt poetry was “crippling [to] the mind”—"Our eros for this kind of poetry” (meaning epic and drama) is a perilous “immature passion.”

10. Poetry’s effects were “the exact opposite of rational objectivity.” It transformed you by “mimesis”—you “became Achilles,” absorbing his ethos. This mimesis was “essential to education,” but dangerous.

11. Plato saw how art could manipulate behaviorally dominant unreasoned emotions. Art usually glamorizes or ghettoizes something, even if unwittingly (see beauty vs duty). Plato grasped better than many now how emotions and reason interact.

12. Plato knew “the gods... have the character that the poets… give them” (Gass), so he “waged the first media war" (McLuhan). Philosophy needed “exotic new skills of abstract thought and objectivity,” which meant breaking oral-poetic thinking patterns.

13. Plato’s writing, often a “morass of interpretive confusion” (Goldstein), about writing is ambiguous—it weakened memory, couldn’t defend itself, but its “restructuring of thought” was needed.

14. Sustained collaborative abstract thinking, indeed “logic itself emerges from the technology of writing.” You can’t “syllogize in images.”

15. Our text-centricity pictures our minds in unsound ways. They’re built to resonate to poetry. Its memorable mind-formative phrases still matter more than many now think.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits (author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions) modified by Jag Bhalla (using Lyre Clip Art from vector.me, by papapishu).

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