Category Archives: poetry and prose

The Dynamic Nature of Language

Words are not static, just like life.  Heraclitus, (535 bc-475 bc) told us that life is an eternal flux and now that wisdom is even born out by modern science and quantum physics.  Life is a “flow” and if we are to be alive, rather than a static, dormant potential for life, we too will experience the flow of life in the depths of our being.

T.S. Eliot emphasized this wisdom in his Four Quartets, with observations such as,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

Poets are very familiar with this dynamic energy, not just intellectually but emotionally, which allows them to “play” with words and images to create new, meaningful images for those of us who live more on the surface of life.  One local poet who is a friend of mine recently demonstrated this verbal finesse with the term “leaking adjacencies”, describing how that two images juxtaposed with no apparent relationship, if deftly chosen, could then “leak” into each other and “meaning” could be evoked by the reader.  One example that comes immediately to mind is Shakespeare’s term, the “pauser reason” in which “pause” and “reason” are juxtaposed in such a way to tell us how that reason does indeed impose a pause on our thoughts and thus our behavior.  Well, it could…and should though we have a President for whom this is obviously not so!

Virginia Woolf also had tremendous insight into the fluidity, the flux, of language.  A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, revealed that she saw her task as to “Tempt words to come together” and I would surmise to become one of the “leaking adjacencies” noted above.  The author of the TLS article quoted Woolf, “…words are not useful at all because they lead the mind capriciously on from one image to another, and will not stay put.  The trouble with the plain reader, when confronted with the stuff of literature, is that words as he knows them are useful, and quite unexciting.  He cannot make them stand on their heads and perform tricks.”  This command of words is the craftsmanship of poets and novelists such as Eliot and Woolf who stand aloof from the verbal field enough that they can utilize words in a meaningful fashion to bring to the table truth that is hidden to most of us who live on the surface of things, those of us who are the “plain reader.”

In the same article, Woolf asked, “How do words live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love and mating together …Royal words mate with commoners.  English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy.”

Woolf saw that language becomes a medley, a medley which becomes commonplace over generations as the meanings are lost in common usage.  But to a thoughtful writer, poets and novelists, words can be brought together in “leaking adjacencies” so that meaning can be evoked in the hearts of the readers.  Furthermore, artists and even comedians can put “leaking adjacencies” on the table and allow us to see into the depths of our heart…if we are open to it.  And these “leaking adjacencies” are not just single words, but concepts; for concepts, juxtaposed against each other, can abrade against each other and “leak” meaning.  For example, “justice” and “mercy” are meaningless unless they are brought together, and are allowed to abrade against one another leading to a judicious decision on the part of the “judge.”  The best example I can think of this is Jesus who was confronted with the “woman at the well” who was a prostitute.  “Justice” demanded she be stoned to death, mercy directed him to tell her accusers, “Let him without guilt cast the first stone.”  The accusers walked away with their tail between their legs and he told her, “Go, and sin no more.”

We live in words.  In some way, our very being expresses itself in a verbal structure, a capricious edifice tittering and swaying on the subterranean unconscious pre-verbal dimensions of that edifice.  Thus, “our thoughts become us” or “we are what we think.”  ‘Tis a scary proposition and is much more comforting to remain ensconced in the delusion that we are only what we think we are and never heed the wisdom of the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Daimonic Energy, Creativity, & Families

Eugene O’Neill is one of my favorite playwrights. I just read a book review in the New York Review of Books in which his personal foibles were put on the table, letting us see once again that so many men and women of “the arts” are the “toy of some great pain” as Ranier Rilke put it.  O’Neill’s personal life was often tragic and the tragedy was passed on to his children, two of which committed suicide and another drank herself to death.  This review described him as narcissistic and often physically and emotionally abusive of his wives.  It is as if he was living out the script that his father had left him. (The book is, “By Women Possessed: a Life of Eugene O’Neill” by  Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb)

Life is painful.  Most of us hide it well, living out our lives in a pedestrian manner, finding solace in the amusements and distractions that our culture affords us.  We have boundaries that keep the pain beneath the surface, boundaries that I like to describe as the “fig leaves” that God gave us to hide us from our nakedness.  Creative people, those who frolic about in “the arts”, do not have boundaries that are solid and thus daimonic energy flows through them and from that primitive source of all good…and bad…the gods communicate with us.

T.S. Eliot was aware of this daimonic energy in families. In his play, “The Family Reunion” he painted the picture of one very conflicted,  even dysfunctional, upper-class family through whom one particular individual seemed destined to carry the load of these dark forces. And, from his own personal life, he clearly was speaking of himself.  In this selection from the play he describes the “sin bearer” of this family, the scape-goat in a sense, who he described as the families “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

What we have written is not a story of detection,

Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.

It is possible you have not known what sin

You shall expiate, or whose, or why.  It is certain

That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle

In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness

And so find expurgation.  It is possible

You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,

Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.

Indeed it is possible.  You may learn hereafter,

Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen

To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer

 

Someone noted, “Always remember when you encounter someone, he is carrying pain.”  The point is to be willing to allow some slack to this individual for you don’t know what is going on with him.  Auden put this eloquently when he noted that all of us, “Wage the war we are.”  Each of us have our ways of handling this duress and most of the times these adaptations are within the pale of social acceptability and everyone is happy.  But people like O’Neill, Eliot, and “the artists” in general, are more open to this pain, this “daimonic” energy, and that is why our culture usually grants them a little more slack.  They bring great beauty and wisdom to us, without which we’d be condemned to live only on the surface of life, missing the breath of fresh air that the gods offer us.

********************************

Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

the surface of life without these breaths of fresh air from the gods.

Shakespeare and Jesus Heard the Same Call!

Shakespeare’s wisdom in Sonnet 46, “Within be rich, without be fed no more,” brought to my mind the teachings of Jesus who clearly understood the presence of a dimension of life that most people are oblivious to which He called the kingdom “within.”  The “call” of this inner voice that Jesus heeded, as did Shakespeare and many others, can easily be misunderstood as purveying an “us” vs. “them” paradigm in spirituality—“some of us have heard the call, the rest of you haven’t.”  The temptation of this egoic arrogance always presents itself to those who have heard this “call,” for the ego loves the knowledge that it is special and others aren’t.  There is a certain intoxication to ferreting out truth in literature…or in life in general…and realizing that most people do not see or understand this “truth.”  And that awareness is understandable if one can avoid the temptation of then sitting in judgment of those who view life in more prosaic terms.  Jesus recognized there were distinctions in his world but he did not subscribe to the temptation of bifurcating his world neat categories of “us” and “them, or “right” and wrong,” or even “saved” and “unsaved.”  Those who insists on this bifurcation have been intoxicated with binary thinking and cannot see beyond this limited view of the world.

Let me illustrate from the ministry of Jesus in Matthew ch. 11.  He and his disciples were walking along the shores of Gallilee one morning and one of them wanted to delay heeding the call to follow Jesus, explaining that he needed to first go bury his father.  Jesus responded with, “Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.”  In my youth, I understood this to mean that Jesus was saying that those who did not heed his call were “dead” in the sense they were “lost and going to hell.”  My understanding at that time was that Jesus was promulgating a cognitive gospel, a set of teachings to which one could merely intellectually assent and then take comfort in knowing that he had done so.  But the Truth that Jesus offered when he said, “Come follow me” was not offered in any creed or body of dogma but in a relationship that his ministry and the whole story of his Incarnation was an elaboration of in terms of flesh and blood, i.e. “human life.”  “Come follow me” did not mean to Jesus, “Come tag along behind me and be one of my groupies” but “Come follow me” and participate in a relationship with a spiritual Presence that I have embraced, one that can include you and one that does not emphasize “ex-clusion.”  His message was one of “in-clusiveness, not “ex”-clusiveness which has been the tradition in Western Christianity, especially Protestantism.   By describing those who were not following him that day as “dead”, those who were busying themselves with the important responsibility of burying a dead man, Jesus was not condemning them to exclusion from the Kingdom but merely telling the hesitant follower that a more important responsibility was beckoning him that morning.  Those left behind, dutifully “chopping wood, carrying water” are equally covered by God’s grace and those who consider themselves so spiritually “sublime” as to think that those with a different, “less enlightened” lot in life are “lost and going to hell” are not reading the gospel closely. Truth, when embodied and not merely an idea, offers unity, not disunity.  “Oh God, guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone.  He who sings a lasting song will think in the marrow bone.” (W. B. Yeats)

*****************************************************************************

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

“Within be Rich, Without be Fed No More”

Shakespeare knew that life was a spiritual enterprise, that the essence of life was buried inside what Hamlet described as “this mortal coil.”  The Bard knew that human nature was to avoid this inner essence, preferring instead to invest in the external where sensual experience offers a ready deterrent from the excruciating labor involved in delving into the heart.  In his 46th sonnet he encouraged us to overrule those “rebel powers” that encourage arrayment in the gaudy apparel of this ego-driven “mortal coil.”  He knew that the accomplishments and accouterments that culture entices us with to avoid our inner essence gives us a sense of fulfillment that is illusory, leaving us with an inner emptiness gnawing away at our soul.  He suggested a different emphasis, “Within be fed, without be rich no more.”  I do not think that he would say that cultural contrivances have no value.  But when these superficies become predominant and we become the “Hollow Man” of T.S. Eliot or Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play, “Death of a Salesman,” we have allowed superficial accomplishments to predominate at the expense of paying attention to our own soul.  This is what Jesus had in mind with his famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

And, with the quotation of Jesus, I think Shakespeare was quite aware of false piety and hypocrisy which facilitate a gross misinterpretation of that famous verse from the Bible.  Even spirituality can become a “thing” purveyed by a “thing-oriented”, objectifying culture and we can miss the danger of letting “godliness” and “piety” be merely a thing of the external, a matter of adherence to creeds and dogma while allowing the “stillness” of our heart to go untouched.  Thereby we reduce this teaching of Jesus to the superficial cognitive grasp of his teachings and disallow them penetration into our heart, failing to realize that in keep his teachings and the whole of our life on that superficial cognitive dimension we are “losing” our own soul.  This is the truth that Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he expressed fear of coming to the end of his life and realizing that what he had lived was not life at all but a mere facsimile of life.  And that can be readily done under the guise of spirituality.  As Shakespeare noted, “With devotions visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself.”  Shakespeare was the most astute teacher of the human soul since Jesus.

 

Sonnet 146, Shakespeare

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
Thrall to these rebel pow’rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
  So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
  And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
*******************************************************************************

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Imagination and God

When I was very young my family lived in the sticks of Arkansas and had no running water.  During the summer we would take a bath in a galvanized-tin “bathtub” on the front porch since we had no neighbors nearby.  One day when a long dry spell in the weather was breaking and it was beginning to sprinkle, a sister of mine who had a more active imagination than I did innocently noted,“God is pouring his bath water out.”  Neither of us took this literally but the image has always stuck in my mind.  And I’ve always regretted not having become pompous at that time for I would have reminded her that God does not get dirty and does not need to take a bath.  Furthermore, I would have dismissed the notion that Jesus walked around heaven with a baby sheep under one arm and a lightning bolt under the other.

Human imagination is a very important dimension of our heart and is critical in our religious experience.  Without it we are left with sterile cognitive images of our Source and it reveals just how sterile and barren our heart is for the “heart” is more than a bunch of ideas floating around in our head. And I find it very interesting currently how that many Christians who deny the “imaginary” nature of their Friend have now voted with great passion for someone who has, and is expressing the part of their imagination than they have never acknowledged.  For, imagination does include unsavory “stuff” and it is our fear of this forbidden material that deters us from utilizing the “mind’s eye.”  In Donald Trump all Americans need to consider, “Out of the abundance of our heart our mouth now speaketh,” to paraphrase Jesus.

Poet John Masefield wrote a sonnet that reveals so much about the role imagination has in our ideological formulations of God:

How many ways, how many different times
The tiger mind has clutched at what it sought,
Only to prove supposed virtues crimes,
The imagined godhead but a form of thought.
How many restless brains have wrought and schemed,
Padding their cage, or built, or brought to law,
Made in outlasting brass the something dreamed,
Only to prove itself the things held in awe.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and the Trans-gender Issue

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the Nigerian born novelist and feminist, has created a stir with her views on the trans-gender issue that is so much in discussion currently. (See link to The Guardian article at bottom.) The problem occurred when she noted that a trans woman who had been raised a male certainly was not uninfluenced by the power that accompanies “male-ness” even if “he” has become a “she.”  Adiche was roundly criticized by feminists and the Left but refused to apologize, merely noting that her critics had not listened carefully.  She furthermore chided them for clinging to “language orthodoxy” without employing a discriminating ear, i.e. “critical thinking.”  Adiche declared, “…I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.”  She pointed out that critical approach to speech and language is necessary and just because something we hear or read does not fit into our “orthodox” view of the world does not mean that it should be immediately dismissed.  This point is often made of the Left about conservatives but Adiche called attention to its presence in liberal thought.  For, this “uncritical ear” is a temptation to any vein of thinking.

Adiche, being a talented writer, understands the nuances of language and the whole of culture as she demonstrated in her excellent novel, “Americanah.”  In this current controversy, Adiche is reflecting the belief in the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  She encourages us to listen better, open our hearts more than is our first nature, realizing that as we do so we might find something being said has more value than we first thought.

She declared, “If we can’t have conversations, we can’t have progress.”  She understands that a closed mind, one religiously devoted to “orthodoxy,” is a conversation stopper or, better stated, a dialogue stopper.  Conversation in the sense of mindless palaver…chatter…can go on endlessly without accomplishing anything.  But the dialogue that Adiche has in mind is meaningful exchange of ideas the effect of which will lead to an opportunity to broaden one’s world view, or mind-set.  Orthodoxy always brings dialogue to a screeching halt, best illustrated by the congressional impasse of my country.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the newspaper article:

She suggested in an interview last week that the experiences of transgender women, who she said are born with the privileges the world accords to men, are distinct from those of women born female. She was criticized for implying that trans women are not “real women”.

“I didn’t apologize because I don’t think I have anything to apologize for,” she said on Monday. “What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate.

“Had I said, ‘a cis woman is a cis woman, and a trans woman is a trans woman’, I don’t think I would get all the crap that I’m getting, but that’s actually really what I was saying.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/21/chimaman da-ngozi-adichie-nothing-to-apologise-for-transgender-women)

 

Elizabeth Bishop and a Poet’s Loneliness

I have a close personal friend in Oregon that I’ve known for decades and kept in touch with him as he pursued a career in teaching English literature at a small college on the coast.  He sent me a link to a New Yorker book review of a new biography about poet Elizabeth Bishop which explored her tumultuous family, romantic, and literary life.  This life story might be summed up with a note she sent once to poet and lover, Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Bishop’s loneliness was a common theme in her poetry.  My friend, who also writes poetry admits he shares the same label that I do, a “word fetishist,” though both of us at this point in our life very much in recovery.  He shared with me his impression from reading the review, noting his own profound loneliness over the course of his life time even though he is quite gregarious, socially adroit, and well-regarded.

He described his own love of literature, poetry, and writing as, like Bishop’s, some effort to assuage this loneliness which could best be described as existential.  Being familiar with psychological “shop-talk” which is my forte, we recently explored how words are one powerful way of bridging the gap between humans, extending a hand across the abyss which separates us and hoping to find a receiving hand.  He has been fortunate to often finding that receiving hand as his literary skill is of note.

Something was lost in this man’s childhood which the contrivance of culture has helped, but has not sufficed.  Words have helped him address this lack, just as it did apparently with Bishop and I think with many other writers.  I think Tennessee Williams knew about this loss and had reference to it in a closing line, describing Laura’s brother Tom, who was leaving the dysfunctional-family black-hole and setting out on the life of a vagabond, just as his father had done decades earlier. The narrator in the movie, as we watched Tom exit the drab flat and descend the stairwell, he intoned, “Trying to find in motion what has been lost in space.”  “Space” in this context refers to a spiritual space which most people cover adequately with the aforementioned cultural contrivances.  Tom could only seek this in the frenetic motion of a vagabond life while my friend, and Tennessee Williams, found it with words.

(You might enjoy reading this very interesting, well-written, and insightful book review:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/elizabeth-bishops-art-of-losing)

***********************************************************************

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com