Elaine Scarry

Professor Elaine Scarry
Harvard University

"The Call to Poetry"

Marta Sutton Weeks Lecture
Stanford Humanities Center

Monday, February 4, 2008, 7:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Eavan Boland introduces Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value for the Department of English at Harvard University. She quotes Elaine's 2002 Presidential Lecture at Stanford "Nine One One: Citizenship in Emergency": "the best wy to defend the country is to see something that we need to revise." (Stanford Report). Elaine Scarry writes about the body under torture and airplane crashes. She wants to tell the truth, to clear the path. She presents the ethical within the aesthetics. Her book The Body in Pain [1985] is a definitive study of pain and inflicting pain. In a 2005 interview, she says "In political and moral life you must be aware of the pain of people whom you may never see." Elaine Scarry's Dreaming by the Book [1999] won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. What really shines out is that she refuses to be narrow. Today she'll talk about Seamus Heaney and Thomas Hardy in "The Call to Poetry".

None of the handbooks on poetry have "Call" in their lexicon. On one side of the heartbeat to poetry, there is no sound. On the other side, you have to supply it. But the call to poetry comes early in childhood. Wordsworth in his "Intimations to Immortality" celebrates the glory of early childhood, proclaiming the six-year old child to be the best Philosopher. Coleridge will rebuke Wordsworth for this viewpoint in granting wisdom to someone so young.

Seamus Heaney: "Lightenings vi"
from Seeing Things (1991)

Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.

In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting

For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original

Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.

Seamus Heaney: "Lightenings vii"
from Seeing Things (1991)

(I misremembered. He went down on all fours,
Florence Emily says, crossing a ewe-leaze.
Hardy sought the creatures face to face,

Their witless eyes and liability
To panic made him feel less alone,
Made proleptic sorrow stand a moment

Over him, perfectly known and sure.
And then the flock's dismay went swimming on
Into the blinks and murmurs and deflections

He'd know at parties in renowned old age
When sometimes he imagined himself a ghost
And circulated with that new perspective.)

Seamus Heaney's Lightenings: i, vi-viii

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