One of my most beloved lines comes from Boris Pasternak’s brilliant novel, Dr. Zhivago which I read nearly 50 years ago. Pasternak describes Lara as seeking “to call each thing by its right name.”
“Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.”
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak 1957
That phrase has been my lighthouse as I have made my path in life. It seems to me it is the essence of poetry, for does not every poet, and both Pasternak and Zhivago were poets, seek to call each thing by its right name. Now that certainly does not necessarily mean a single word or a definition, it must mean much more than that. For a right name could be metaphor, it could be a phrase, it could be a description. Is this not want poetry is all about?
And is this not what science and mathematics are all about as well? For like poetry they require us to learn a new language, to use metaphor and definition. I am not much of a poetry reader. I think it is because it takes effort to read poetry. We cannot just scan it. We have to read it, often aloud. We have to think it and imagine it and wonder it. And this is just what we must do with science and math. We can’t just scan those equations those symbolic presentations. We have to think them, say them, imagine them, and of course wonder them.
So, just as poetry is the language of life so too are the symbolic sentences we see in our science and math books. Like poetry we have to read them slowly, to ingest them, to think about them. We have to analyze them and rewrite them in our own “right names.” And does this not tell us a great deal about the importance of poetry in our schools and in our lives. For it can help us learn to seek right names in our world of science and art, and “to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment.”