In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that in his search for wisdom he consulted poets. If today someone were on a Socratic quest for wisdom, seeking out poets might not be on that person’s list. For the average person these days, poetry tends to mean something syrupy inside a greeting card, hardly to be taken seriously when asking how to live a good life. As for abstruse modern poems, the kind with complex ambiguity that clamors for attention and acclaim, they fall short as well.
A poet works within a long literary tradition, but the poet’s allusions and metaphors must be instantly, even instinctively, understood by the reader. A poem needing scholarly footnotes has lost its immediacy, as well as its intelligibility. That an ancient poem could need such critical apparatus is easily accepted; that a new poem would be made deliberately obscure and in need of academic commentary is easily annoying.
For Socrates and his Greek-speaking contemporaries in the fourth century B. C., poetry meant a disciplined, metrical use of language in order to convey deep truths about what it means to be human. While conveying those truths, the poems were expected to entertain and engage an audience. So, what Socrates had in mind were the epic poems of Homer and the plays and lyrics of other ancient Greeks, works then known to everyone.
As part of popular culture, those poems were meant to be read or recited aloud, sometimes at drinking parties, and most of them were meant to be sung or chanted. In any culture, song is easier to recall than prose, and ancient peoples had vast stores of music and poetry beating through their memories. The same fact holds true for humans today, as our imagined latter-day Socrates would find out.
In our day, although there are recordings on compact disc of talented actors reading poems by, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, the equivalent popular poetic literature is known more for who performed those poems than who wrote them. Thus the equivalent would be the ballads sung by the likes of Jo Stafford and Vera Lynn, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. It is a living tradition, kept alive by singers such as Harry Connick, Jr., and Tony DeSare, and groups like the Manhattan Transfer and OC Times.
In his pursuit of wisdom, a modern Socrates would listen to the lyric poems composed (if not recorded) a few generations ago. He may well lend an ear also to more recent fare, but distinguishing every word of such lyrics is not always easy or edifying. Here it is worth recalling Charlton Heston standing up in 1992 at a shareholders meeting of Time Warner and reading out the words of a particularly controversial rap song. When the chairman of the meeting cut him off and told him that such vulgar and violent language was inappropriate, Heston asked, “Then why are we selling it?”
In any case, it will not be surprising if in a few decades a history of the twentieth century’s English-language poetry will spend more time on the lyric verse of Cole Porter than on the dream songs of John Berryman. Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin will likely get more notice than Allen Ginsberg. If this speculation turns out to be correct, consider some lines of what such a literary historian would chronicle and what our hypothetical new Socrates would hear:
“I’m with you once more/Under the stars,/And down by the shore/An orchestra’s playing,/And even the palms/Seem to be swaying,/When they begin the beguine.” In those lines anyone can see at once the scene of two lovers and the waves and the music. Mentally entering into that image will open up a lot of truth about romance, if not love.
“Somewhere, beyond the sea,/She’s there watching for me./If I could fly like birds on high,/Then straight to her arms/I’d go sailing.” Separation and longing, flying birds and sailing ships: here are themes and images accessible to all. Even the most land-locked of us can appreciate such maritime evocations. Socratic interrogation of these word pictures would echo the question found in the lyrics of one Dame Vera Lynn’s big hits: “Was that a dream or was it true?”
“Fly the ocean in a silver plane,/See the jungle when it’s wet with rain./Just remember, till you’re home again,/You belong to me.” Here again we find the theme of lovers who are apart and wish they were re-united. Also, we encounter anew the images of travel and the tropics, all suffused with amorous desire for fidelity and being together.
In Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton wrote that a poet “worships the peak of a particular mountain, not the abstract idea of altitude.” As Socrates understood, poets must evoke elemental desires of the human heart. From the first time man gaped at what Homer called “rosy-fingered dawn,” poets have evoked those desires and conjured images from within the audience, appealing to basic realities we all can know, from beneath the palms and under the moon to beyond the sea.
True, most of us might not know what a beguine is or how to begin one, but everyone can grasp what it means for it to bring back the sound of music so tender, a tune making lovers remember. Whereas a rapper might repeat vivid phrases about violating girls or killing cops, an old-style crooner assures his beloved, “I’d sacrifice anything, come what might,/For the sake of having you near.” Given those two diverging outlooks, the implications for the development of society could not be more stark, something worth reflecting upon during this centennial year of Frank Sinatra’s birth.
The men who wrote the lines of what has been called the Great American Songbook are the abiding poets of our culture, and the men and women who have recorded them are our troubadours. Snobbery may lead some people to deplore those songs as cheap and the singers as merely popular, but that same attitude forgets that Socrates sought truth in popular poems. While Sammy Cahn was not Sophocles, long after Ezra Pound’s cantos have been forgotten, people will still turn to these lyrics and these interpretations to articulate the hope that their waiting lover stands on golden sands, and still beg for the love that was once a fire to remain an ember.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.