The skills of praise

In the colder weather, the early sun rising over our eastern hill glides freely into the woods behind the house, striking the trunks and branches with fresh light. For a few minuts the purples of twilight gather and linger in hollows, then slowly fade away like smoke.

Many times, in watching this act of light, I have thought that what I am seeing resembles skillful praise. It is modest, understated. It casts a new view on a subject, perhaps an ordinary one, bringing into clarity some of the startingly fine qualities inherent in the subject.

Praise well done is badly needed in any society. Someone who praises, sees. In reflecting his recognition of worth by his praise of it, he gives to his own experience the values of perceived good, beauty, amusement, accomplishment, and surprise.

Our society is full of bad praise, in exaggerated advertising, political good fellowship, sports reporting, clubby introductions. This may contribute to the cynicism our times are famous for. Praise is widely equated with falsehood. When questionable, it sets the cynics hammering around, hoping to crack some feet of clay.

We could use a renewal of the lyric spirit -- that attitude of mind which sees virtues clearly and sings what it sees. This attitude is one of the main stances of poets and other artists.

Basic to lyricism is perception. First, the lyricist has to notice. Then he looks harder, peeling back the inevitable standard reactions. Seeing more deeply, he finds qualities he had never perceived before. Finally, he is jostled by surprise. His loving probing has led him to flashes and glints he knows to be fresh. As he sets down his surprises, he bumps other people into wakefulness, pushing back the rims of their consciousness.

Just so, the skilled lyricist notices the small. The Psalmist even praises God for creating rocks for the coneys to hide in, and fir trees to house the storks. His delight is unbounded.

Robert Frost opined in one poem that "the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." This is true to the spirit of praise, which involves a keen sense of fact. Approximations will not do. Poets gravitate to facts, often odd ones. After all, what makes a fact odd is that we haven't been noticing it. A powerful magnifier makes even the palms of our own hands into maps of foreign territories.

However, the spirit of praise may include extravagance, though never exaggeration. Extravagance is play. Exaggeration falsifies. The friendliness of two horses caused James Wright to remark that if he stepped out of his body, he would break into blossom. We feel his pleasure. We also see his smile stretch across his lines at the extravagant thing he has said. He never tells us these were new and improved horses. Instead he has thrown the morning light of his gladness on what were ordinary horses before. Henceforth no horses are quite ordinary.

Lyric praise often takes the form of wit. Every poet has his own way of approaching this dimension of his art. One of our most brilliant and endearing phrase-makers, Marianne Moore, praises the elephant for his "fog-colored skin," compares a sycamore trunk to a giraffe's neck, or the small, dry weed by the sycamore to a "field mouse at versailles."

Whatever our approach to lyric praise, through surprise, perception, wit, fact, extravagance, it is underlain by a willingness, even eagerness, to reveal the abounding vigor and fine design of the lives we walk through. Behind his individual pleasures, the person skilled in praise usually hints at further patterns, pleasing and even ultimate arrangements and principles.

He takes it as his task to lift our eyes from our economies and feel our place in a grander product, neither gross nor national . For these acts of light he himself deserves our praise.

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