Category Archives: poetry

favorite poetry

“My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” —Hermann Hesse

Life is messy.  So, we attempt to eliminate the mess but the end result is that at best we lessen the mess for ourselves and heap it upon others.  But we can’t get away from the gist of Hesse’s observation, life is messy unless we are willing to lie to ourselves. Of course, “lying” to ourselves is how social convention is formed in the first place.  That is to over state the matter for sake of emphasis but, as Otto Brown once wrote, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” and I’m benefiting from this veil even as I write.  The problem lies only in the human tendency to not acknowledge the veil, to not realize that it subjects us to seeing “through a glass darkly” and basking in the comfortable illusion that we see things objectively.

“Not wanting to lie to ourselves” is now becoming ever more apparent as the contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies of our social facade have crystallized into a single point, Donald J. Trump, who is merely the figurehead of our collective duplicity.  He is obviously the “toy of some great pain,” spinning and twisting about like the bit of paper cavorting about in the wind in that mesmerizing scene in the movie, “American Beauty.”     He is being used by the gods to give us an opportunity to own our ugliness, our horrid self-absorption that refuses to see beyond the end of our own nose.

Of course, I’m talking about you…and all of those who aren’t reading this…as I stand above all of this, being as narcissistic and psychopathic as Trump!  Wink, wink!  Really big wink, wink!!!  My facetious point is that this is a human problem and all of us have this tendency to go to great extremes to avoid reality, reality which includes a deep-seated aversion to being disillusioned of our pretensions.  ‘Tis much easier to cling to our “invented stories.”

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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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Lao Tzu, Emptiness, and Protestantism

Lao Tzu (6th century BCE) first introduced me to the paradoxical dimension of reality.  One stanza of his Tao Te Ching, #11, grabbed my attention before I really knew where it would lead me.  Here is my favorite translation of that wisdom by Witter Bynner:

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,

By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

 Comes from the hollow of its absence;

 Doors, windows, in a house,

Are used for their emptiness:

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.

This ancient Chinese sage realized that there is a hidden dimension of life which is the essential dimension of life but is recognized only to those are attuned to the subterranean regions of the heart.  This hidden dimension is described in the Christian tradition as the spiritual realm.  But the Christian tradition, especially here in the West, has erred by not appreciating the true essence of spirituality as emptiness, and fashioned a spirituality which is merely a thing among other things, an object among other objects.  Western thought has objectified the world and its spirituality has, therefore, been reduced to a rational enterprise that has no room…in most circles…for the wisdom of Lao Tzu. What has happened, therefore, is that spirituality has become a “graven image” which the Old Testament rather sternly prohibited. This subtle “idolatry” is particularly so with Protestantism which does not emphasize mysticism and meditation which places value on the quietness of the mind.

 

I ran across a beautiful poem today on Facebook which brought these thoughts to mind, a poem which was shared on the page of Parker J. Palmer, a noted member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker):

WHAT ELSE by Carolyn Locke

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.

And so, what else can you do 
but let yourself be broken 
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

 

Poetry Sometimes Puts a Dollop of Grim on our Plate!

EXSANGUINATIONS by Joyce Carol Oates

Life as it unspools
Ever more eludes
Examination
We wonder what is best—
Exsanguination in a rush
Or in a 1,000 small slashes.

Oates has the grim that poets often have. This poem makes me think of Shakespeare’s cryptic observation about, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Poets do not have the filter that most people are equipped with…in a sense, “cursed” with…and therefore are skilled at bringing our attention to the underbelly of life as well as the sublime.

Life is harsh. This harshness often bites us in the butt and the gods have equipped us with an infinitely resilient heart to cope…most of the time! Here I want to share an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Preludes” relevant to the beauty and Grace that is available in the context of human struggles:

DUST as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all 5
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I 10
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use 
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

“Tired of Speaking Sweetly” by Hafiz

God is found at the boundaries of our life, in what I like to call a “liminal zone” where the distinctions between “me and thee” are nebulous; one might even say where all distinctions are nebulous.  When this experience comes to us…if it ever does…it comes as an intrusion or invasion of sorts which psychologist Carl Jung described as an “einfall.”  This phenomenon is usually conveyed with the image of a transcendent God toying with mankind…in some sense fiddling with him…until he breaks through his resistance and allows Him in.  John Donne wrote a beautiful sonnet in which he prayed, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” for otherwise his adamantine resistance would never be overcome.

Hafiz, aka Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, was a 14th century Persian poet who wrote a beautiful poem about this process of einfall.  This very human experience, so very human that it merits the description Divine, is often gut-wrenchingly painful as the Donne sonnet conveys and as Hafiz conveys here in a more light-hearted fashion.

TIRED OF SPEAKING SWEETLY (aka “God’s Drop Kick”) by Hafiz

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes get tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

John Masefield Sonnet on Mystery of Life

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

This witty and insightful little poem has amused me for nearly three decades, helping me to maintain caution given a tendency myself to overthink. But this “thoughtfulness,” combined with deep-rooted passion is what has produced poetry of the sort found here in a John Masefield sonnet, showing it can have value! (My commentary below is in italics.)

What am I, Life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin;
A world which uses me as I use them,
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

The “unresting cells” are seen to both drive mankind on, to use us even while simultaneously giving us agency to “use them.” Modern science was captivating this young poet. When only 13 years of age, his guardian aunt sent him to sea to break an “addiction” to reading. Thus her “cells” were using her to introduce him to a major dimension of his literary opus, the sea.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes north, this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

“Like a marvel in a marvel set” made me think of a line from W. H. Auden poetry in which he described life as “a process in a process, in a field that never closes.” Masefield did not see life as static as his ancestors certainly had. The “tingling” of his “I” made me think of what Kierkegaard described as the “giddiness of freedom” which others have described as simple existential anxiety. Human awareness, “not knowing how, yet wondering why” will introduce one to giddiness.
 

Language & the Existential Abyss

There is some way in which we don’t have language, but language has us. To put it differently, in our youth we don’t “acquire” language but language “acquires” us. We are born into a verbal field and the matrix of that field consumes us…in a sense…as it shapes our identity. To illustrate one dimension of its formative influence, in English we say, “I see the book” while Eastern languages would say, “The book is seen.” In the West language has shaped us so that we see ourselves more separate from the object-world while in the East the subject-object relationship is more nebulous. Language, infinitely subtle and complex, makes us human. It allows us to communicate, to reach a hand across the existential abyss that would otherwise separate us.
Here are two Carl Sandburg poems which illustrates the mysterious complexity of language:

JABBERERS by Carl Sandburg

I RISE out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

Two tongues from the depths,
Alike only as a yellow cat and a green parrot are alike,
Fling their staccato tantalizations 5
Into a wildcat jabber
Over a gossamer web of unanswerables.

The second and the third silence,
Even the hundredth silence,
Is better than no silence at all 10
(Maybe this is a jabber too—are we at it again, you and I?)

I rise out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

One thing there is much of; the name men call it by is time; into this gulf our syllabic pronunciamentos empty by the way rockets of fire curve and are gone on the night sky; into this gulf the jabberings go as the shower at a scissors grinder’s wheel….

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PRECIOUS MOMENTS by Carl Sandburg

Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!

WHAT ARE YEARS by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

I have referenced and explored this poem before in this venue, but I wish to delve deeply into the heart of the matter this time.  She dives into the meat of her message with “he who sees deep and is glad” to introduce the notion of furrowing into the marrow of life which, borrowing from the title of an Adrienne Rich poem I like to describe as, “Diving into the Wreck.”  For the “deep,” i.e. the “marrow” will always be murky, dark, wet, confusing, and frightening until we get accustomed to it.  But in so doing we are “acceding to mortality” which is to say we are becoming human which culture has offered us a myriad variety of ways to avoid.  But as we embrace our mortality, recognize that death is our ultimate fate…a veritable imprisonment…we can then rise “upon ourselves as the sea in a chasm, struggling to be free and unable to be, in its surrendering find our continuing.”

I have been to the ocean many times and the vivid image of the ocean crashing into those chasms, powerfully and noisily, and then surrendering into calm is so gripping.  And only in this catastrophe do the waves, in surrender, find their “continuing.”

This poem is a beautiful picture of the infinite energy that we are coming to grips with the world of finitude.  Our first impulse is to rail against the limits that we find, even death, but Moore had discovered that in accepting the circumstance of human life she found empowerment. And then there is the powerful observation, “They who feel strongly behave.”  I have seen so many who feel so very strongly that they cannot behave and succumb to a haphazard life which often includes addiction.  I know one young man, for example, who can give expression to his artistic skills only when confined to prison walls and is spending his early adulthood and soon-to-be middle ages in and out of prison.  When there he has found the answer to the famous movie line of Jim Carrey, “SOMEBODY stop me.”

“Satisfaction is a lowly thing.  How pure a thing is joy.”  Moore recognized the pyrrhic victory of immediate gratification.  C.S. Lewis described sin as, “Preference for immediate satisfaction over a ‘believed-in’ pattern of glory.”  The dilemma of modern life…so vividly illustrated in the United States currently…is an obsessive “preference for immediate satisfaction” over the interest of the long-term welfare of the country…and the species.