Tag Archives: Carl Sandburg

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….



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.


Awareness is All

“Awareness is all” states a bumper sticker on a friend’s car.  I believe this is so true but there is a catch—“awareness” always means to contemplate that our “awareness” is not complete and never will be.  So this “awareness” has a built-in catch-22 so you will always understand that you only see part of the picture. This morning I do think I have some degree of awareness but an important dimension of this “awareness” is that my view of the world is always filtered by biases and preconceptions so that I’m rarely under the illusion that I have complete awareness.  Earlier this morning as my wife and sweet dachshund Elsa sat on the back stoop and watched the dawn unfold, in deep admiration of the experience of the moment, I quipped to them, “Our view always tends to block our view.”  I was aware that as I watched the flycatcher birds cavorting about, scouring for food for their new born, I had witnessed moments like this many times in my life but had never seen the beauty unfolding as I was at that moment.  The process of growing awareness works toward allowing us to grasp our beautiful world in more of its pristine glory.  And I watched the sun beginning to light Taos Mountain for another day, flickering different permutations of shadow and gentle light on these mythical mountains, dressing them for another day of bringing magic to this lovely Northern New Mexico community. As always, Elsa was doing her part to quicken the moment, just setting there on her cushion in all of her exquisite, innocent beauty, licking her ribs and fantasizing about the exciting world she would get to play in another day.

My quip came from the realization that this pristine beauty has been with me from the earliest moments of conscious life.  But like all humans I learned to take it for granted, often seeing not the beauty of the world but my usual image of the beauty, “my view of the view,” not humble enough yet to approach the whiff of “the thing in itself,” less encumbered by the blinders of cognition. These blinders are, albeit, a very necessary part of life but they can become so familiar to us that we never venture beneath the surface and flirt with the aforementioned pristine beauty.

The poet Carl Sandburg understood this truth in his poem, “Precious Moments.”  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.

Sandburg realized that a word is “alive” only one moment, in the “moment of doom” when it is formed after which we will be left only with an imprint.  But this beautiful poem was encouraging us to explore the depths of our heart and discover that flirtation with the pristine beauty of life can be rewarding. This exploration will help us to understand how that our view of life often blocks our view of an intrinsic dimension of life.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he challenged those who live on the surface of life, having “eyes to see but seeing not, ears to hear but hearing not.”

Human Bondage and the Mystery of Truth

I want to continue to explore the Carl Sandburg poem, “Who Am I?” and focus on the notion included in the poem that Truth is a “captive” quality in our heart.  It makes no sense that such a noble quality of Truth is hidden, even imprisoned in our heart, suggesting that beneath the surface of our conscious life there are things of which we are unaware.  Truth is usually seen as a commodity in our life, a body of wisdom that we can claim as our own if we subscribe to what we see as essential tenets of Truth, and hold steadfast to them.  But poetry, and certainly Holy Writ such as the Bible, if taken superficially will lead us to believe that “I” know the truth and so would anybody else that listened to my passionate affirmation of this “fact.”  But Sandburg throws a monkey wrench in this mind-set, insisting that “Truth” is not factual but is a hidden dimension in our heart always seeking expression but only in the context of our conscious wish to avoid it.  If we understood this wisdom, it would give us pause about our certainties and encourage us to hold firm with them but to realize that other people’s understanding of the matter might be different than our own.  The absence of this humility is daily on display in our world in the Trump administration.

Poet John Donne understood the bondage of his will on this issue, declaring that the Reason he has assumed would lead him to Truth, is “like an usurped town to another due…(and) is captive’d and proves weak or untrue.”  In the beautiful sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” he portrays this internal conflict in the human heart that wants the freedom of truth but is stymied on the pursuit without Divine intervention.  Here is an excerpt from this sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Sandburg and Donne realized that humankind has a divided heart.  Yes, we want noble qualities like “Truth” but fail to realize that on another level, “No we don’t!”  They realized that Truth is very disruptive to our status quo, personally and collectively, and does not come without a willingness to pay the price of disillusionment.

An Alternative to “Truthiness”

Yesterday I shared a Carl Sandburg poem about truth, titled, “Who Am I?” Today I would like to explore the poem more deeply as Sandburg grasped intricate dimensions of Truth, describing it as “the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Just how can truth be so elusive and how can it be “elusive” if it is already “captive’d” within our heart?  Sandburg believed that we have intrinsic knowledge of the truth in the depths of our inner most being but we have a fear of acknowledging and embracing this Divine gift. “Truth” is frightening to our ego-bound consciousness because She is a process which is disruptive to our shallow, self-serving grasp of her intricacies.  “Truth” is a dynamic process which is catastrophic to our shallow certainties about life. It is very frightening when She begins to penetrate “the small bright circles of our consciousness” (Conrad Aiken) and challenges the “canned” truth that our ego prefers. Therefore, Truth eludes us though She is already in our heart, a “captive” which usually we do not allow to “come out and play” in our life.  But She is always there, nevertheless, nudging us along and encouraging us to let Her in for a visit someday.

And what did Sandburg have in mind when he asserted that Truth disregards “all signs that read, ‘keep off.’”  He realized that Truth, as opposed to what Stephen Colbert described as “truthiness,” is contrary with the self-serving limits that we have created in our life.  If Truth is given access to our heart, it will always confront “Do not trespass” signs marking the areas of life that we don’t want challenged. T.S. Eliot had this in mind when he encouraged us to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  Sandburg and Eliot were not discouraging having anchor in our heart that affords us existential courage, but saw that the only “anchor” that survives the test of time is the “certainty” of some “thing” that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind. This is the very Ground of our Being.  The self-serving bromides that we take for truth will never pass the test that this “Ground” presents to us. And on this note a conclude a witticism from a dear pastor of my youth, “Yes, Truth will set you free.  But it’ll first make you miserable.”

The Elusiveness of Truth

Trump is again demonstrating his alienation from what most of us know as “truth.”  He foolishly claimed a few days ago that he and Vladimir Putin discussed a joint cyber security unit but was immediately confronted with how the rest of us saw this as complete nonsense.  So he changed his tune yesterday, suggesting…and I paraphrase…”You must not take me literally.”  His handlers found the temerity to challenge him privately and let him know just how completely inane and foolish a “cyber security unit” with the Russians sounds.

Trump definitely believes in “truth” but he reserves the prerogative of getting to define the notion without reference to what others think.  He sees “truth” as a static quality and to him it amounts to whatever whim and fancy courses through his brain.  He reserves the prerogative of defining the term…and all other terms…without regard to how the notion is seen in the context that he lives in, that context which most of us call “reality.”  This arrogance resonates with many of his followers who also see truth as a static quality, some “thing” which they have certainty about without any consideration to the rest of us.

I increasingly believe in “truth” and I even have the temerity to spell it out as “Truth.”  But this Truth is an elusive quality which can best be described as a process, a “process” which the Christian tradition sees as a person, illustrated with the words of Jesus, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  But this “Truth” lies deep in our hearts and, while always seeking expression, it denies the objectification that would permit any mortal to say that he owns it, objectively.  Those who claim to know “the Truth” objectively always do so with a certainty, a certainty which always betrays itself in real time as specious.

Here I wish to let poet Carl Sandburg present this notion beautifully in a poem entitled, “Who am I?”

My head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of
universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I
reach my hands and play with pebbles of
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty
And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs
reading “Keep Off.”
My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive
in the universe.

Semiotics, Language, Meaning, & Politics

Words do have meaning.  They have value.  I do not think it is trivial that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition we have been presented with the notion of Jesus being “the Word made flesh” though this notion is much deeper and more meaningful than I understood as a child.  I have been immersed in linguistics, semiotics and philosophy for the past 20 years or so and now understand that language is much more than meets the “eye.”  Language, i.e. “the Word”, is a gut-level dimension of our experience and its value extends deeply into this “gut”, or heart, what some label the unconscious.  Words not only extend into this subterranean dimension of our lives but they arise from those depths and are essentially what makes us human.  (See Sandburg poem at conclusion)

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst who was one of the earliest figures in my venture into this heart-realm argued that our very identity, on some level, is basically a verbal structure which I think provides further understanding of the admonishment of Jesus, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”  Our words reveal who we are, or as someone said, “Our words become us” and as the Bible teaches us, “As a man thinketh, so is he.”

But the value of words is multi-dimensional.  There is the very superficial dimension which allows us to perfunctorily live in our culture and offer a “convincing performance” each day of our life.  Without this level of verbal experience, any culture would collapse because the hidden dimension of language, that of “meaning”, would be too intense for most people.  In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  Yet in this superficial level of experience, “common sense reality”, language even then must be offered respect.  Words do matter including the context in which they are used.  The example the contextual issue is often put on the table with is the observation that though one might have free speech, he does not have the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.  Words do convey “fact” in some respect even though some of us pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals admittedly like to question things like “fact!”  But the “factual” world must be respected if a social body is to cohere in a meaningful fashion.  If our political leaders start to play fast and easy with facts, i.e. with truth, then the very fabric of society is threatened.

And, you might have guessed, this brings me to Trumpism.  I will offer a link to a story in the Washington Post which addresses this verbal disintegration that threatens us.  Trump has ushered in what is being called a “fact free” world in which people can say anything without anything to back it up and will get by with it.  People will not be held accountable for their words, which was so pointedly demonstrated with Mr. Trump during the campaign when he said the most outrageous things and his followers completely overlooked them.  Even now as he is preparing for inauguration he and his transition team and continuing to demonstrate “fast and easy” use of language and now even trying to justify it.  Words do not matter to them.

This is relevant to an earlier point that words emerge from the depths of our heart.  In Trump’s heart there is grave “porosity of boundaries” so that he speaks and lives with disdain for common sensibilities and decorum, paralleling his life-style.  He was right when he declared months ago in the campaign the campaign that “I could shoot someone in the streets of Manhattan” and not suffer at the polls.  He was exactly right.  He early in life discovered that no one would set limits for him and could steam-roll over any obstacle before him.  The American electorate has been steam-rolled and he is still being propped up by his supporters, many of whom continue to claim that God “has raised him up” to Make America Great Again.  And I can’t help but wonder if Trump is the mouth-piece for some heavily repressed dimension of his supporter’s heart

For perspective on this emerging fact-free zone, read the following (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-post-truth-world-of-the-trump-administration-is-scarier-than-you-think/2016/12/02/ebda952a-b897-11e6-b994-f45a208f7a73_story.html?utm_term=.cffac584016f)

A great poem by Carl Sandburg about our words rising out of our hidden depths.  (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/jabberers/ http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/jabberers/)

Words can Kill…or at Least Deaden!

Blogging the past three years has been such a wonderful experience for me. One of the nice things is that it has put me in touch with interesting people from around the world people who have books, movies, and experiences to share and thus broaden my life.  But yesterday, I received a comment via email from a “real-time” friend who I only recently met which further stimulated my thinking about words and their relationship to reality; or, the converse of that notion, “words and their lack of relationship to reality.” This person is a local artist/musician and is preoccupied with a similar concern of mine—words and their “meaning” they have in the depths of the heart, a “meaning” which is completely missed if we live only on the surface of life and take words…and the rest of our experience…only on a surface level. The following is an excerpt from Martha’s email:

A book I look at from time to time by Leonard Shlain would no doubt interest you, Lewis if you have not already read it! “The Alphabet vs. the Goddess” where this binariness is explored throughout history. He presents things in a left-brain right-brain paradigm and would probably agree that labeling was the end of beauty. I am fascinated by brain scans of children when taught that a color has a name. Can you imagine simply experiencing the color blue, all through your body and senses, before you were told that this experience was associated with the label “blue?” The scans show the brain tingling in all its parts and portions, lit up! When scanned later, once the label “blue” is assigned, the brain activity becomes very localized to the verbal areas, and I dare say, the experience is also tempered down. I just don’t want anyone’s light to be under a bushel and my mission in life is to wake up those experiential aspects that true artistry awakens, no matter the medium. (http://marthashepp.com)

 Martha’s thoughts brought to the table an additional dimension to my post of yesterday, illustrating how that there is a sense in which words can kill…or at least deaden…and keep us on the surface level which in the Christian tradition is known as “the letter of the law.” The brain scan research she referred to is just stunning.

Martha’s observation brought to my mind a marvelous poem on this subject by Carl Sandburg, a poem which captures poetically the “diaphragms of flesh negotiating the word”–attaching a subjective experience to a word which has currency “out there”. But this experience, there on the threshold of consciousness, introduces us to a “verbal order” (i.e.l patriarchy) which some of us spend the rest of our lives finding the courage to lay aside…in some sense…and allow the words to have meaning again.

 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.

The warning holds yet: Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Ecce home had meanings: Behold the Man! Look at

          Him! Dying he lives and speaks!

(NOTE: If you check out Martha’s web site—where you will find some of her art and clips from her music…make sure you read her “Artist’s Statement.”)