The Great Ideas, A Lexicon of Western Thought, by Mortimer J. Adler, was first published by Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., in 1952, the year I was born. Adler’s book includes 102 essays that introduce the chapters of the Syntopicon, which is an index to the great ideas for The Great Books of the Western World.

What is a “great idea”? Adler explains that these are the ideas that have been continually discussed during the last twenty-five centuries of Western culture, with each subsequent participant in the great discussion explicitly commenting on the thoughts of his or her predecessors.

I intend this book of poems to continue this great discussion. For example, you may see that this book, unlike Dante, is silent on the dependence of the existence of angels on God, and that it disagrees with Aquinas: angels are not “intellectual beings,” they are intellectual, emotional, spiritual constructs. Similarly, you may see that this book agrees with Montaigne: the existence of instinct does not separate animals from humans.

To have these poems participate in this great discussion, I do not presume that they should be without irony, allusion, or allegory. There are, perhaps, many definitions of “meaning,” which does not invalidate any, but illustrates the wealth of the human spirit and imagination. You can’t have it in a jar like a pickle.

Art imitates nature, or so Seneca claimed. Much later, was it Oscar Wilde who said that nature imitates art? We are not always constrained to communicate with seriousness and solemnity if we can count on an audience of kindred spirits. It can matter less what we say, than how we try to say it, or what we try to say. Such kinship exists because art is natural, or nature is artistic. We could not share our thoughts if it were not natural for us to speak, to attend, and to understand. Poetry, dance, painting, music, medicine, and all the other arts rely on nature, and nature is one way to understand such reliance.

The challenge of continuing the great discussion is to avoid relying on an artificial or didactic exposition of the idea. If there is poetry in the equivalent of a college textbook, most readers fail to observe it. But poetry can not be confined to the flowery terms of love and nature in its superficial beauty. One aspect of poetry is point of view, as in Browning’s dramatic monologues. I hope I may be pardoned for posing thoughts that are not my own, and that my own attitude is expressed at least in selection, juxtaposition, and tone. The challenge is not only to avoid the artificial, but to reach out to the world from which great ideas have extended.

But my purpose is not merely to continue the great discussion, but to create poetry, and the possible inventions for poetry are infinite. I cannot describe them; the best means of discovery is to read the poems.

Tom Sharp, then and now