What is Poetic Knowledge?

Editor’s note: Since so many people have responded favorably to the Civilized Reader column with requests for more information about John Senior and his educational vision, it seemed appropriate to republish this review of James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by (State University of New York Press, 1998).  Taylor and Kramer were both educated in the program created by John Senior and his friends Denis Quinn and Frank Nelick.

O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in all the earth!

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are.

Awe. Admiration. Amazement. Marvel. Delight. The Psalmist, Wordsworth, the child who looks up at the night sky and lisps the nursery rhyme, all speak of that passion of wonder which Aristotle taught is the beginning of philosophy.

The immediate, direct apprehension of reality that inspires wonder and awe is called by St. Thomas Aquinas poetica scientia, “poetic knowledge.” It is the first of the four kinds of knowledge that St. Thomas distinguishes. It is this neglected, even distrusted way of knowing that is the subject of an important book recently published by the State University of New York Press.

The author, Dr. James Taylor, explains that poetic knowledge is not merely a knowledge of poetry, “but rather a poetic experience of reality.”

Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awe-full), spontaneous, mysterious… Poetic knowledge is a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning… It is, we might say, knowledge from the inside out, radically different from a knowledge about things. In other words, it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.

Poetic knowledge

If this passage seems like heavy going, it must be said straight away that it is. This book is a work of philosophy worthy of a Gilson or a Maritain or a Francis Kovach or one of the other great thinkers of the scholastic revival. The author’s elucidation of the distinction between subjectivism and subjectivity is brilliant (and incidentally of great value, at least to this reviewer, for understanding the philosophical personalism of Pope John Paul). Dr. Taylor has made an exhaustive study both of what poetic knowledge is, using the methods and vocabulary of scholastic philosophy, and of its history from ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages, down to its deformation since the time of Descartes in the seventeenth century.

As Dr. Taylor says in defining poetic knowledge, “it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.” The scientific knowledge he speaks of is not science in the ancient and Thomistic sense of metaphysics, but knowledge which is empirical, quantifiable, and dialectical. It is the kind of knowledge demanded by Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times:

Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

The technocratic leaders of the modern West (perhaps more than the East), and those “leaders” in modern education especially, are faithful disciples of Gradgrind in believing that “Facts” are the only thing of any importance.

Poetry and experience

A chief interest of this book lies in its discussion of the role of poetic knowledge and experience in education. Having laid the philosophical and historical groundwork, the final chapters discuss concrete, practical ways in which a school inspired by the poetic mode of learning will teach and function. They also relate the story of two attempts in the twentieth century to take seriously Aristotle’s dictum that philosophy begins in wonder, and that unless a man’s education awakens his heart to this disposition of wonder, he can never fruitfully study anything.

One of these was a boarding school for boys at a village in France called Maslacq, which closed in 1950. Dom Gerard Calvet, Abbot of the French Benedictine monastery of Le Barroux, was a student at Maslacq.

Nearly twenty years later, in the midst of the student unrest of the late 1960s, the second was established at the University of Kansas. It was called Pearson College, or the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP).

Dr Taylor writes:

The professors of the IHP clearly recognized the steady falling off of students’ abilities to read, speak, and write on a general level taken for granted only a generation ago. But the goal was never to improve test scores. They would say that the tests themselves and the entire system built up around such Cartesian measurement instruments were an indication of the problem in modern education.

Hearts Full of Wonder

The professors in the IHP did more, however, than bemoan the problem. They set out to solve it by stirring up wonder in the hearts of their students.


The core of the IHP was a four-semester sequence of humanities courses in which the students read and considered the great books of Western civilization: in the first semester, Homer and other Greek writers, in the second, Virgil and the Romans, in the third, the Bible and St. Augustine and other writers of the Middle Ages, and finally Shakespeare and other modern writers. So far the curriculum appears identical to Great Books programs at a score of other colleges. But there the similarity ends.

The three professors of the IHP spent classes conversing together about the assigned books. The students were not allowed to take notes, but rather were asked to listen. The aim of these conversations was not to use the books to impart moral instruction, much less to pile up facts about them and their authors and their historical setting. Rather the professors sought to help the students to experience the purpose of all stories and songs and poems: delight.

In place of Cliffs Notes and all the suffocating apparatus of modern critical scholarship, the conversations of the professors revealed the beauty of these books and made the hearts of their students leap up in delight. Outside of this core class, the students met in smaller groups to memorize poetry, not by reading it from a book, but by hearing it recited by upperclassmen and then repeating it. The students also learned calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. An attempt was made early in the program to teach horseback riding, a poetic way of teaching young men chivalry (a word which means a man upon a horse) far more effective than mere didactic instruction.

In Dr Taylor’s words, “Night-time outings were organized for star-gazing with the unaided eye where students learned to recognize the constellations and their main stars and the Greek stories that accompanied them.” (How important for wonder is that verb to gaze!) “In addition to the weekly lectures, the IHP also offered Latin, taught in the beginning entirely by the oral method, that is, without the use of a textbook or formal grammar.” Each semester the students learned several traditional songs, and often the class would begin with the students singing a favorite by Stephen Foster. Each winter the older students in the IHP began teaching the younger ones to waltz, and together they hired an orchestra and organized a formal spring waltz—poetry incarnate.

The last chapter of the book, “The Future of the Poetic Mode of Knowledge in Education,” begins with some other lines from Wordsworth:

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Dr Taylor, both as a student and as a teacher, has harkened to the music and the Muse of poetic knowledge. In the final chapter, he makes a passionate call for the restoration of the poetic mode to education. Or if that is too much to ask, then the establishment of at least one school grounded in this way of knowing and the tradition that grew out of it in pagan antiquity and the Christian West. Let his eloquence have the last word:

To found a school (of this kind) requires only the listening heart of perhaps just one courageous, poetic soul who has come to see—intuitively and positively in an awful delight of wonder, as well as from the heights of reason and deliberate serious thought — that our land, our homes, the heavens and the earth, and those dear and those distant from us are important not only in their nature, but have meaning and purpose far beyond the reach of the current means of analysis and measurement… Science sees knowledge as power; poetic knowledge is admiration—love.


A version of this review was first published in Oriens: The Journal of the Ecclesia Dei Society of Australia, under the title “Poetry on the range” in the Winter of 1999.


Kirk Kramer, a sometime gandy dancer for the Frisco Railroad, writes from Cottage City, Maryland.

  • Kirk Kramer

    Those whoe are interested in the subject of this review will want to read these lines drawn from the introduction to a 1953 anthology of poetry, ”The Faber Book of Children’s Verse’ edited by someone called Janet Adam Smith.  Goodness what sense she talks about poetry.

    I am assured that nobody objects to being called a child up to the
    age of fourteen: and I have compiled this book with the ages eight
    to fourteen mainly in mind. . . .

    One reason for having the ages of eight to fourteen in mind is that
    I, and many others, have found that the poetry we most enjoyed
    reading in those years has stuck in our minds, without any
    deliberate learning, in a way that poetry learnt more recently has
    not. So it seems reasonable to give children poems to read at this
    age that they will like to find in their heads twenty or thiry years
    later. When I try unsuccessfully to remember a good poem that I
    committed to memory five years ago, I find it intensely irritating
    to remember instead a bad poem that I learnt 35 years ago. It is
    like going to the attic to look for the comfortable sofa you stored
    there not so long ago; not only has it vanished, but in the place
    where it ought to be are a couple of broken-down cane chairs with
    holes in their seats. So, to the main purpose of this collection,
    which is to give you pleasure now, I would add a secondary one: to
    stock up the attics of your mind with enjoyment for the future.

    One of the greatest pleasures of poetry is the discovery that a poem
    which you have always known means far more than you could realise
    when you first met it and liked it. This is a process that goes on
    as long as we read poetry at all: nobody can ever re-read The
    Ancient Mariner, or see a Shakespeare play again, without finding
    that his experience has now led him to find new meanings in the
    familiar words. So I have inclined towards poems which, though
    there is some strong reason why children like them now, have these
    reserves of meaning. I shall not be worried if anybody criticises
    me for including poems which children cannot ‘understand’. The
    poems are here for pleasure: the understanding will grow with the
    reader. ‘That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot’, said
    William Blake’, ‘is not written with any care. The wisest of the
    Ancients consider’d what is not too Explicit as the fittest for
    Instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act.’ There is,
    too, active pleasure in the unknown or half-known, whether it is a
    word or a feeling: in, as Andrew Lang put it, ‘the sense of a
    margin beyond, as in a wood full of unknown glades, and birds, and
    flowers unfamiliar.’ . . .

    I have no patience with those who say that love and death are not
    proper subjects for children. Children can often respond to these
    large subjects with minds less coarsened and imaginations less
    infected than their print-sodden elders. It is largely in
    childhood, and largely through books, that we learn of attitudes to
    admire, which we can then try out in real life – the heroic, the
    quixotic, the stoical, the impossibly magnanimous. It is not that
    we necessarily identify ourselves with every person in the poems or
    stories we read: but that we learn from them a language of feeling
    and enlarge our own vocabularies. And the attitudes which we
    finally choose will, whether consciously or not, affect our
    behaviour all our lives. Poems can help us in this choice by
    showing us something of the variety of possible attitudes and
    moods. A child who has learnt that death can be looked at in more
    ways than one is better able to cope with a loss of his own than one
    who has only learnt the stereotyped responses of the newspaper or
    cinema. Stereotyped emotion – which approximates all battles to
    Heroism, all love to Romance, all death to Tragedy, which cannot
    respond to irony or wit at all – is always something coarser than
    any individual is capable of feeling.

    Feelings have to be trained: you can learn to feel and to
    discriminate between feelings, as you can learn to swim or ride a
    bicycle or play the flute. And if you do not learn what your powers
    of feelings are, and how to live with your feelings and not be
    overwhelmed by them, then you will be easy game for those who wish
    to impose emotions on you for commercial or political ends. We
    should never despise an emotion just because we share it with a
    great number of other people – at, say, a party, a Coronation, a
    Test Match, a performance of King Lear. But we should be chary if
    someone is bullying or cajoling us to feel an emotion for some
    purpose of his own. This training of the feelings is part of what
    Blake called ‘Instruction’ in the words I quoted earlier:
    the ‘rousing of the faculties to act’. And in the same letter of
    Blake’s I find the best words to introduce a book of verse for

    ‘Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity. Some Children
    are Fools and so are some Old Men. But there is a vast Majority on
    the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation.’

  • Kirk Kramer

    James Taylor’s book is still available in paperback from the SUNY Press.  Ordering information can be found here:  http://www.sunypress.edu/p-2667-poetic-knowledge.aspx

  • James

    My grateful thanks to Kirk Kramer and  the folks at Crisis for reprinting Kirk’s kind review of my book.  My plan is to write a follow up book based on the idea of poetic knowledge but, where only hinted at in the previous book, I will show how poetry and the poetic experience of things is consistent and close to essential to embracing the “poetry” of Christianity.  The mystical theological and spiritual traditions of the Early Fathers and Eastern Christianity will be featured as the eternal, living metaphor of Glory.

    • John Burger

       Dear Docta T,

      You best be writin that book soon, or I’m gonna find you and pull some Annie Wilkes on your a$$. . . I got two sledge hammers by the way.
      With some miserable love,
                                                            J. Burger

  • James

    Also, less expensive copies of my book, in paperback, are still available at amazon.com


    • Ben Callicoat


      How about a Kindle version? 

      (ducking and running for cover)

      Ben Callicoat

  • Mike Lawless

    Sounds  wonderful!  I agree whole-heartedly with this view of education.  I plan to acquire this book and enjoy it along with “A Thomas Jefferson Education” by Oliver Van DeMille.

  • Mar

    The ‘poetic knowledge’ approach to education brings to mind a distinction that the

    philosopher Josef Pieper talks about, namely, knowledge as ‘ratio’ or discursive

    thought, and knowledge as ‘intellectus’ or intellectual contemplation. The one is

    active and requires hard work. The other is passive – or rather receptive and

    contemplative – and requires no effort.

    These were two modes of attaining knowledge that Plato and Aristotle and later St.

    Thomas Aquinas recognised and considered valid, with the ‘intellectus’ mode having a

    slight edge from a certain philosophical perspective. Pieper decries the modern 

    perception of knowledge where only the ‘ratio’ mode is recognised, whereas the

    ‘intellectus’ mode is considerd worthless.

    Books such as Taylor’s are a blessing and serve a very important role in our modern

    times because they show how to redress the balance in the current popular lop-sided

    view of knowledge.  

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  • poetcomic1

       Thanks for reprinting this.  I just got Taylor’s book from the library and have begun to read it.  It meshes beautifully with my beloved Dietrich von Hildebrand.  If you find D.V.H. heavy going I would strongly suggest the LIFEGUIDE, a short, vital, inexpensive selection of von Hildebrand quotes that captures the essence of this heroic man with many searing insights into sacred beauty, sacred value and the supremacy of reverence in every area of life and worship.

       Reverence…in painting a picture.  Reverence in liturgy.  Reverence in marriage.  Reverence in everything.  It is the one element that seems to be missing from Taylor’s work and that would ‘complete’ it.

    • James

       Dear Poetcomic1 — Thank you for checking out my book.  I have never been compared to D.V.H., so that is a new experience for me, though I am not sure of the connection.  I think Dr. Hildebrand a good man.  It is possible I failed to get certain aspects of poetic knowledge across if you think I neglected to demonstrate that poetic knowledge is, in fact, precisely “reverence”, a good word, though I think I used instead “admiration” and “wonder”.

      Best regards,


  • Rocchalk1

    Just reading this review again on my saddle pad, made my heart leap up again as it always does when I recall my youth spent in IHP at KU. One never forgets the swirling gaze of his beloved while waltzing. The friendships of James and Kirk are a close second. Cheers from Mark of Hogshooter

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  • eminca63

    I too was a part of the IHP at KU…was fortunate to have these great professors, Drs. Senior and Quinn. We all sat mesmerized in class, listening. To this day I remember the waltzes I attended. We were supposed to go “stag” if I recall correctly. Magical evening.