Maurice Manning’s poetry lecture summary and thoughts

As promised, some highlights from yesterday’s Maurice Manning poetry lecture.

The lecture centered on “Some Thoughts on Sympathy.” Maurice began by defining sympathy. First, it is not the “I feel your pain” emotion that is manipulative, fake and inaccessible — a show of feeling rather than creation of feeling (i.e. the desire that you feel me feeling your pain). Sympathy defined as honest feeling, common understanding — as in “two beasts bound together” like oxen — of suffering.

Maurice cited the Romantic period as the historical place where sympathy in literature is born — where the outward reaching heart surveys the humanity of the world and returns to the mind where it is changed, sympathetic, and reaches outward again. “Isn’t that what we seek in poetry, to be changed?” Maurice asked. From there he presented the two-step machinery of Romanticism — heart and mind cycle — using the physics examples of sympathetic motion in plucked strings and pendulum motion.

This is the part of the lecture where I was deeply engaged. He went deep into physics and linguistics to make the point that sympathy occurs naturally — it is part of our nature. It is the transfer of energy from one property to another, one person to another, from the page to the spirit. This is the kind of lecture that challenges me, resonates with me, makes me want to go deep. I’m starved for it.

Maurice used Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” as examples of sympathy in poetry. After an in depth analysis of the linguistic patterns of “To a Mouse,” he concluded his lecture by stating that the poets he referenced found the self in these poems. “We’re always yoked to something…” he said. “The mysterious force of the poem stays with us even after we have closed the book.”

The applause was loud and seemed not to affect him as he paper clipped his lecture notes. As the applause subsided he quietly stated, “I guess it’s lunch now.”

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