Category Archives: poetry and prose

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/

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Shakespeare on Narcissism, Commitment,and Marriage

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth.  This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.”  Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person.  This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.”  And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”

Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it.  Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”  In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.  Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot)  was the source of the Infinite.  But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it.  Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it.  And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Julian Jaynes, Consciousness, and Meaning

Julian Jaynes published a very controversial book in 1976 entitled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind.” I bought the book back then, delved into a mite, and then let it catch dust until I eventually discarded it.  But for some time the book title has been coming around in discussions with friends and I finally found me a cheap cast-off version of the book in a locale resale shop.

Forty-one years later, I find the book very arresting.  He argued that “consciousness” as we know it began to evolve  during the time of The Iliad and involved a newfound capacity of “self” awareness, a subtle grasp of the phenomenon modern psychology describes as the “I” vs the “not I.” Jaynes noted that this “internal difference” made possible an internal dialogue which, I think he would agree was probably related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”  For with an internal dialogue as part of consciousness, mankind could begin to develop a moral and ethical compass in his heart and not be driven merely by unmediated impulses.  It was the event in the evolution of our consciousness that “meaning” also appeared on the scene which is relevant to the “internal difference” mentioned above.

And the subject of meaning and difference brings to my mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
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 –

Thinking vs. Feeling Our Way Out of Life’s Wounds

Shakespeare knew that unacknowledged fear could stymie a person and keep him from meaningful action.  This was best illustrated in Hamlet whose internal conflict led to a tragic end.  In his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy he said, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Hamlet was tormented by Oedipal issues which he could not acknowledge and thus was driven to unconscious “acting out,” leading to a tragic course of action.

In King Lear, we find another example of this truth.   Goneril said to Edward, “It is the cowish (cowardly) terror of his spirit/that dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs which tie him to an answer.  Our wishes on the way may prove effects.” Lear, like most people, did not have the courage to face the terror in the depths of his heart that left him powerless to “undertake” or to commit to action.  This was because he had experienced “wrongs” in his youth which were so profound that his adaptation had locked him into a pattern of avoidance, a pattern which could be broken only by “feeling” these wrongs.  Because of this imprisonment, the whims and fancies (i.e. “wishes”) were only the “effects” of unconscious wounds and the not the result of conscious, purposive intent. Instead of being the driver in his life, he was driven.

Shakespeare grasped a powerful insight of modern psychotherapy.  Gut-level issues that wound us deeply cannot be resolved with band-aid interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy in which “thinking” and “thinking about our thinking” are utilized, albeit often with a degree of effectiveness.  But he knew that the real core issues of human experience, those that tie us up in knots, must be addressed with “feeling” and not with thinking.  These issues we must “feel” our way out of as we can never “think” our way out of them. I think the emphasis of cognitive based clinical intervention, though certainly of some value, ultimately reflects our culture”s wishes to keep maladaptive behavior and mood disturbances on a surface level and not address the gut-level dimensions as depth-psychology seeks to do.  Until we are willing to acknowledge the subterranean dimension of life, and go there when the circumstances of life nudge us in that direction, our life will be, as Ranier Rilke noted, merely, “The toy of some great pain.”

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The following are three blogs that I offer.  Please check the other two out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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.

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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.