Over at the LTW Mentor—the Yahoo! group for The Lost Tools of Writing—we have been discussing what book of poetry folks recommend to a mother who wants to give her daughter a gift book. As you might expect, I wandered from the point when somebody asked what to choose if you do not already know what you like.
It is a good question and it underscores our dilemma. We want to be educated, but, to quote that boxing manager from the 1920s, “We was robbed.” So what do we do?
In what follows, I propose two options: the first solves the immediate problem; the second begins to solve the long-term problem. The first option is to look to someone else you trust (an authority) and the second option is to learn the nature, principles, and form of the thing you are learning about—in this case, poetry, but it applies to every art. The goal is to learn to think for yourself, not by following your own impulses and desires, but by knowing what is fitting and appropriate based on the nature of the art.
Anyway, here is what I wrote over there (edited and developed just a frog’s legs worth):
You always have two options: either look to yourself or look to an authority. If you do not know what you like, then ask someone you trust—i.e., an authority (as you just did). Always do this with an eye to one day having that authority yourself.
To gain the authority to make your own decisions does not mean, first of all, identifying what you like. It means learning the nature of the thing you are studying.
To learn its nature is both easier and harder than you think. The best thing to do is to look at examples of the thing you are learning about (frogs, dogs, bogs, poems, novels, etc.). First notice them for what they are. Look for forms and elements/parts.
Then compare the focus of your study with other things, especially very different things. For example, a frog is very, very different from a poem. That will help you identify obvious things that make each what it is. A frog’s legs taste good, for example, while a poem doesn’t even have legs (at least not literally, although some poet somewhere has, no doubt, written a poem about a poem’s legs). This points to another difference (but I am not telling you what it is).
Next, compare the focus of your study (e.g., poetry) with similar things. For example, a novel is more like a poem than a frog is. So now you look for how the novel and the poem are similar and how they are different.
By following this sequence, you come to learn the nature of literature, novels, poems, and frogs. You learn how each should be studied and you learn how each should be treated.
And this is an overview of the lifetime classical curriculum!
You might ask, “How do I begin?” I recommend Robert Frost as an easily accessible, very beautiful, very thoughtful poet. His “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” will reward you for the rest of your life. Compare that to a frog. Then to a favorite musical composition. Then to a favorite movie. Then to a favorite novel. Then, at last, to another poem. And then another. And another.
When you come to forks in the road, take them. You might even want to take ‘…the one less traveled by.’ It makes all the difference.