I had revealed to them, though I didn't know it then, the great payoff of literary study: It estranges us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullifies old conceptual maps, and so propels us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious, more sublime than the ones we already know. The uncanny—not truth, beauty, or goodness—is literature's boon.
. . .
Shelley articulates literature's invigorating disorientation: "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." But the result of that alienation is not only an aesthetic rush; it is also a moral life. In shocking us into awareness, poetry urges us to relate to the world in fresh ways. The problem is, How do I connect my own mind, relatively familiar, with what is before me, enticingly bizarre?
Shelley answers: Imagine what it's like to be what you perceive. To accomplish that connection requires "a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own." I take that to mean that the more distinctly we imagine the plight of another, the more empathy we feel, and the more beauty we appreciate. As Shelley put it, "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause."
. . .
Walker Percy once wrote that our educational system has lost the "creature," treating specimens, whether Shakespearean sonnets or dissected frogs, merely as "examples" of ideas—of Poetry or Anatomy. We don't see the particular for the general, the trees for the forest. Percy recommends that biology teachers bring sonnets to class, and English professors, frogs: to stun abstraction, ignite the concrete.
I'm too cowardly to tote amphibians down the hall. But I continue to hope that during a Monday-morning class, when the weather and the mood are right, I can chant Keats's reverie of the "murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" and a drowsy student will jerk awake. Green-blue bugs will buzz eerily in his head. Suddenly nothing is right. Something has happened.