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Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”

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John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a list of my blogs. I invite you to check out the other two sometime.
https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

The Deadly Elixir of Group Think’s Certainty

I just got a “like” from a blogger, one of which I am particular proud.  For this man is one of the “godless heathen” that my Christian tradition eschews….a Muslim.  I am pleased that a lot of the “hits” I get on this blog are from people of different spiritual traditions who see, who “grok” something in my blatherings that they find of value.  For spirituality has the pitfall of evolving into a death-trap in which only those of “like mind”…and therefore, “like biases.” are accepted.

I had that comfort as a child; a “comfort” which was mitigated by the realization that, “Oh, there is something not right about this.”  Somehow I knew from early on that the Grace of God, aka “the Grace” of the Universe, is inclusive and not ex-clusive.  This intuitive understanding was present from the early days of my life and instilled into my heart a deep experience of alienation, that I did not belong.  And I didn’t “belong” for “belonging” involved accepting unquestioned premises in which my young and innocent heart could not imbibe.  This was the onset of alienation, from which can emerge complete madness as the pain of alienation initially elicits terror.  It is this terror that elicits a demand for certainty,  a “certainty” which group-think always offers.

I am learning the value of just “being here.”  The ultimate purpose of life is not to find a place in a chaotic world that is often mad…and certainly is now in my country, at least; this ultimate purpose is to just be here.  Ram Dass called it “being here now” and Eckhart Tolle more recently described it as, “The Power of Now.”  “Being here” is, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, a “condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”  Or as Janis Joplin put it so eloquently in the 1960’s, “Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose.”

Symbolic Communication and Susan K. Deri

Susan K. Deri has been a profound influence in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life.  I only discovered her two years ago with her book, “Symbolization and Creativity.”  In this riveting book, Deri explored the creation of the symbol as it emerges from instinctual energy which has a built-in capacity for creation of this “symbol.” It is the creation of the symbol that is necessary for “symbolic communication” in which primitive, old-brain “jabberings” (Carl Sandburg term) are shaped into what we know as “language” which is the means of “symbolic communication.”  Without this facility we would still be in the stage of grunts, moans, screams, et al which precedes our ability to “wrap a word” around our wishes, including the ability to “name an object”; anthropologically this is very much related to the Old Testament accomplishment of “naming the beasts of the field.”

One critical dimension of this creation of symbols is “distance” or detachment.  We start life inside an uroboric state in which we are not separate and distinct from what the Buddhists call “the world of 10,000 things.”  We can’t “see” a rock because we are not differentiated from it, we can’t “see” a tree because we are not differentiated from it, we can’t “see” momma’s breast because we are not separate from it.  “Close up everything becomes a blur,” declares Deri.  “There must be some separation between perceiver and perceived.  Symbols, in contradistinction to signs, provide this distance.”

But the creation of this “distance” is primeval; it is the “fall” from Edenic bliss into the limitation of form and the “fall” is so painful that we are insulated from the pain by repression.  This is the “loss” that led T.S. Eliot to declare, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” which is why we cling so desperately to our symbols, even if in doing so we disallow the symbol to accomplish its function of bridging the gap between instinctual experience and symbol.

Here I wish to introduce a relevant poem by a Mississippi poet, Edgar Simmons, who related this to an experience with the Divine:

THE MAGNETIC FIELD

Distance…which by definition
Indicates a separation from self
Is the healing poultice of metaphor,
Is the night-lighting of poetry.
As we allot to elements their weights
So to metaphor we need assign the
Weight of the ghost of distance.
Stars are stars to us
Because of distance: it is in the
Nothingness which clings us them
That we glory, tremble, and bow.
O what weight and glory lie abalance
In the stretch of vacant fields:
Metaphor: the hymn and hum of separation.

I’m Getting a Reservation in Doggie Heaven!!!

My beloved 11 year old daughter is now in doggie heaven, chasing butterflies, ground squirrels, rabbits and scratching furiously in the celestial dirt for “divine” insects.  She has found her brother and sister, also delightful dachshunds, and they are comparing notes with each other about the parental “mistakes” they were subjected to down here. In a text I just received, she told me that all of them completely forgive us and love us dearly.  She also told me she already put in my request with Dog that a place be reserved for me and their mother as “Doggie heaven” sounds like a better idea to both of us!  Lassie told her to tell us that She would “keep us in mind.”

I had a nice talk with this darling little girl this morning before we took her to the vet.  I told her how she had continued the lesson in loving in which her two predecessors had already done the “heavy lifting.”  For I had learned through them, and in my marriage to their mother, that love is not so much a thing that you “do” as it is something that you are “open to” and thus receive.  A 13th century Persian poet Rumi said it is what happens when you discard all the barriers you have constructed to keep it from happening.

With these three doggies working in consort with their mother for the past three decades I have learned that the heart offers evocative potential, an infinite source of riches which cannot be accessed without the ability to recognize the resistance that Rumi noted.  When the heart is open…Toni Morrison described it as “petal open”… it is full of “penetrable stuff” (Shakespeare) and a Divine work of art like a puppy, or a delicate tulip, or a beautiful sunset, or a lovely wife can “evoke” a Divinity that has always been there.  This experience is what the spiritual tradition of my background termed, “the Spirit of God”; and that notion is now profoundly meaningful to me.

There is an absence in my soul this afternoon.  This absence can be described as an “Absence” for it is during loss that we can feel a dimension of our heart that is closely akin to the Divine.  For this experience can bring to our awareness…on a deeply emotional and experiential level…the profound connection that we can have with the whole of this world if we find the courage to “lose our mind and come to our senses.” (Fritz Perls, saw “senses” as the “feeling” dimension of human experience.)

Tony Kusher, “Change Is Difficult”

How do people change?  Well, most of us don’t; we start out lives in a rut, learn to cling to that rut, find others in a similar rut, take comfort there and try not to deviate.  To deviate is scary.  There is comfort in sameness.  When “deviance” presents itself…and any “difference” often evokes the fear of “deviance”… we are prone to put up the sign of the cross and run away.

But change is part of life.  Life is fluid; and its flow takes us different directions at times and if we resist that flow we will find ourselves in a static dimension of life.  Technically, that is “death.” However, if we are firmly ensconced in “stati-ticity” we will never make this discovery as it would be troubling to the safety we have found there.  There is comfort in living in the bubble.

Playwright Tony Kushner, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his play, “Angels in America.”  In this powerful play there is a scene which the internal tension of change is vividly put into words; here it is presented as  gut-wrenching, which at times it can be.  Fortunately, most of the time it is merely discomforting or stressful as people like myself do not have the brilliant, sensitive, artistic temperament of people like Kushner.  Here is a quotation from one memorable scene:

Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice.

God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching. 

Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

Harper: That’s how people change. 

Change is so painful as it often requires questioning the premises by which we have lived our life.  And “God” is involved often as the change involves premises that lie in the inner most part of our being, basic assumptions that we take for granted and would prefer continuing to do so.  This can be unnerving.  Theologian Paul Tillich understood this when he wrote a book entitled, “The Shaking of the Foundations” based on one of his sermons in which he presented the teachings of Jesus as intended for such a “rattling of our collective cage.”

The culture of my country is in turmoil because of the tension between the need for change and the need to maintain the status quo.  These needs are necessary in any social body and even in any individual psyche.  If any of these opposing impulses prevails to the exclusion of the other, catastrophe will take place.  The need is for some “over-arching” concern that can unite the two, can offer an harmony in dedication to a common cause.

Will the Madness Ever End?

The White House intervened to prevent the U.S.S. McCain from being seen during the Trump visit to Japan.  The Wall Street Journal reported negotiations between the White House and the U. S. Navy to move this ship “out of sight” so that the President would not see it.  This is because of the rage that Trump has for this now deceased Senator who dared to be critical of him.  Trump denies having anything to do with this decision, of course. Trump may not have had anything to do with this silly decision…directly.  He does not need to as his handlers are completely in his thrall and automatically move to protect this two-year old child from anything that might make him uncomfortable or angry.  Can you imagine the time, energy, and expense that went into this decision-making process and negotiation between the White House and the Navy?  And they even bought a tarp to drape over the ship!

My concern here is not Trump.  He is but the symptom of the madness that is unfolding in our culture, a madness that is daily being aided and abetted by a supporting cast of handlers, aides, cabinet members, and Congress persons.  He has them in his grip and many of them do not have the “awareness” to know it.  Some of them are aware of this I suspect but are stymied by intimidation or black mail, and do not have the courage to speak out.

Trump’s two-year old narcissistic wound has been aided and abetted like this his whole life and he has always felt indomitable.  He still does!  And now he has what he sees as ultimate power, for he is the “duly elected” President of the United States!  Holding that office, to him and his supporting cast, is the ultimate validation of their beliefs and they support him steadfastly. BUT, the “hunger” of a frustrated and angry two-year old can never be satisfied unless an “adult in the room” will find the courage to set limits.  If the “parents” continue to indulge, a monster will be created and catastrophe will ensue.  In my clinical experience, this “catastrophe” often would find a “parent in the room” with my intervention which at times entailed hospitalization or juvenile court referral.  At times, this did not suffice and catastrophe did happen in the form of violence, often leading to incarceration.  The “acting out” of the two-year old, then running amok as a 16 year old, could not be contained other than by the strong arm of the law.  The phenomenon of a “brain-stem without arms and legs” in life is usually reined in by reality; but when “reality” allows it to occupy the Presidency, the peril for all is great.

Something About “Nothing”

A friend noted decades ago that I often quipped and joked about negation.  That was the first moment I noticed this feature of my soul and realized just how it influenced the whole of my life.  Poet Anne Carson noted, “The poet is someone who feasts at the same table as other people. But at a certain point he feels a lack. He is provoked by a perception of absence within what others regard as a full and satisfactory present.”

However, I am not a poet.  I am, though steeped in poetry and have been since my mid-thirties when a friend gifted me a book of poems by W. H. Auden.  I think that poets have the ability and courage to dive into that “lack” buck naked, and come back with the gift of poetry.  I don’t think my lot in life is to get that naked, probably because of a lack of courage or the gods’ wisdom that I could not handle the vulnerability.  But the “lack” is present and I am growing more comfortable with it, finding that “chopping wood, carrying water” is effective in assuaging the soul’s experience of this emptiness.

This lack is now being presented to our entire culture in the person of our president.  He illustrates what happens when one sell’s his soul to distractions and is left with a gaping maw in his heart that seeks to destroy everything and everyone.  These distractions are what allow most people to have that “full and satisfactory present” mentioned by Carson above.  These “distractions” are a gift but when they become the soul focus in one’s life, or a culture’s life, a meaninglessness eventually finds expression.  Watch and listen to Trump and one can see meaninglessness and emptiness personified.

Emily Dickinson Offered Wisdom Relevant to Modern Religious Zealotry

The mass murder in New Zealand illustrates again the problem with “True Believers,” those who believe so strongly they will even resort to violence.  This is because if one knows the truth, and knows it with enough passion, it will shut down the “pauser reason” which would tell one that another person might feel differently about what the truth is so that violence would not be necessary.  Furthermore, it would reveal internal boundaries, i.e. discretion or “the faculty of judgement” which would allow for value of life, in all forms, so that any belief that one has would not merit acting with violence.

There is inherent in belief a peril as one can be so invested so strongly in his beliefs that the aforementioned discretion is obliterated.  This discretion involves a “still small voice” in one’s heart which might tell one thinking of acting in this fashion, “Well, maybe I don’t really have to go to that extreme.” And if this discretion is fully functioning, the issue of acting out will not even be on the table.

Poet Emily Dickinson offered wisdom about this matter of discretion and related it to meaning.  She wrote that at times, “a certain slant of light” will break through our consciousness and will bring an “oppressive” mood into our heart; it might even bring us “heavenly hurt” though “we can find no scars, but internal difference where the meanings are.”  The ability to feel “difference” in the depths of our heart, though often bringing distress, i.e. “heavenly hurt,” will offer us meaning to our life which will empower us to see meaning beyond the values and beliefs we hold dear to ourselves. The inability to experience “difference” that would offer a meaningful life will create a rigidity denying the “heavenly hurt” that is part of the human experience; it is then more likely that the resulting pent-up anguish will be projected on someone else.

People who can’t handle this internal “discord” which intrinsic to a heart that is alive, will inevitable have to “them” someone else or some group of people.  They will have to find someone who is seen as an “other” and vent their self-loathing on them.  This is a spiritual issue which is the reason why we find it so common among religious individuals and groups as spirituality often taps into a very dark dimension of the human experience leading to speech, attitudes, and deeds which can only be described as evil.