Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?


Emily Dickinson & “Internal Difference”

In one of my favorite Dickinson poems, quoted a few days ago, she describes a descent into the interiority of one’s soul where is found “internal difference where the meanings are.” In modern terms this descent is an openness to one’s unconscious which is given us if we start paying attention to the whims and fancies that pass through our mind…including those that are unsavory…as well as to dreams.  It also involves enough “self” awareness to begin to ask, “Why does this always happen to me” as we recognize repeated patterns of behavior in our life and find the courage to tolerate the suspicion that it is not necessarily someone else’s fault. But focus on this subterranean dimension of life is dangerous to those who have spent their life on the surface, busying themselves with the baubles that life tosses their way, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

This adventure was described by Dante at the beginning of The Inferno as a journey into “the deep forest” for in the forest conveys a childhood fear of getting lost; and, on this journey one pretty well has to “get lost” at sometime.  Here is an excerpt from a W. H. Auden poem which describes this risk:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.


ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!




Meaning and Meaninglessness

The subject of meaning teased me in my youth though it never was allowed to flourish until I started college and began to escape biblical literalism.  This escape was into a gradual appreciation of the metaphor which didn’t fully materialize until a prescient friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and W.H. Auden’s collected poetry in my mid thirties.  My life has not been the same.

Meaning involves intricate and intimate experience with difference.  Until one encounters meaning, he lives in a sterile universe of sameness usually marching lockstep with those of a similar orientation to life.  A quest for meaning inevitably leads one to a face-to-face encounter with meaninglessness for the one cannot exist without the other.  For example, there is no blue without non-blue.  Now I have been blessed as my venture into meaninglessness has been gentle for it can drive one stark raving mad.  I think I am fortunate to have what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability,” the ability to live with pronounced self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional fragility.  It is no accident that since the gift of poetry in my mid-thirties I have been immersed in poetry and literature for there I find metaphor which allows me to find an anchor in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that the linear thinking in which I was stuck for 35 years cannot abide.

One of my most beloved poets is Emily Dickinson and she wrote a poem which so beautifully captures the internal descent where this meaning is found.

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 –

Maria Popova on “Outsiderdom”

Decades ago I read a book entitled, “The Outsiders” by Colin Wilson, an unlettered but very erudite gentleman who spent his life “thinking outside of the box.”  At the conclusion of this post I provide a link to an essay from Brain Pickings about William Blake and Ludwig von Beethoven who spent their life in what Maria Popova described as “Outsiderdom.”  These two men made significant contributions to human history but their life story was complicated, to say the least, and existential loneliness abounded for the whole of their life. Beethoven was isolated by blindness but also by social awkwardness, so he battled the anguish of alienation as he developed his musical genius. But Blake was more of a rebel, balking at convention and then finally “turning his back to the citadel of convention.”

Standing apart from the herd is excruciatingly painful.  Some people, such as Blake and Mozart, lived with it from their youth and adjusted adequately though with great pain.  Some do not experience it in their life at all, others during times of crisis or tragedy, and others after some neurological “shock.”  This loss is extremely traumatic as one is suddenly bereft of all the trappings of his identity and suddenly starkly “alone,” like King Lear on the heath, where he stood naked and, “pelted by this pitiless storm.”

But loss, and the sting of existential solitude can be redemptive.  Jacques Lacan has noted that “nothing of any value comes into being without the experience of loss.”  Emily Dickinson suggested that is hope found in this void, writing, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue, the letting go of a presence for an expectation.”  Dickinson knew that most men and women are comforted with a cloak or “presence” of culturally provided accoutrements.  She was stating that in this profound loss she had found hope

Culture is predicated upon avoiding all existential anguish.  Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences and we have been given the comfort of contrivance to avoid it.  I call this contrivance our God-given “fig leaf” as it hides our nakedness.  And these “contrivances” are useful but not when one spends his whole life immersed in them, pulling them tightly around him to keep from being exposed.  This thought always comes to my mind in this Christmas season as I watch American culture gorge itself on “stuff”, naively assuming that this “stuff” will suffice.  If you think it works, just look at Donald Trump.

Carl Jung has been a guiding force in the past three years of my life as I’ve participated in a reading group of his work and often come across his wisdom about the importance of loneliness in the quest for individuation, aka “authenticity.”  Here are a few samples of his wisdom on the subject.


The highest and most decisive experience of all . . . is to be alone with . . . [one’s] own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, par. 32.

As a doctor it is my task to help the patient to cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decisions, because I know from experience that all coercion-be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion-ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung; Psychology and Alchemy; CW 12: Page 32.

As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. ~Carl Jung; Memories Dreams and Reflections; Page 356.


(Link to Brain Pickings—https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/08/aldred-kazin-william-blake-beethoven/)





Embedded in our Own Thinking

Emily Dickinson noted in one of her poems the person who “is too near himself to see himself distinctly.” This is one way of describing the human dilemma of being embedded in a private, self-referential system of thought, which can also be described as “embedded in his own thinking.” This is best illustrated in someone who merits the term “delusional” and is, perhaps, wearing a tin foil hat to keep out the rays from “out there” which are seeking to influence his mind. But it is possible to find a group of people with the same delusional way of thinking which will then provide the validation to an individual who has just ventured over into the delusional realm. The only thing that makes this group delusional is that their shared delusion is different from the delusion of the shared reality of the larger collective in which they happen to be situated.

Yes, this smacks of the demon “relativism” that I was taught to eschew in my fundamentalist youth and, yes, carried to an extreme one can find himself without any grounding and without any sense of reality and come unglued in the dark abyss of nihilism. But taking that direction is not necessary and is actually merely the easy way out, avoiding the responsibility of finding meaning in the very complicated and mysterious phenomena that we call “life.” Self-indulgent nihilism is a delightful alternative though the “delight” usually proves short-lived and is harmful to the individual and to those around him. “Meaning” is gut-level work of the heart and most people avoid it, opting for nihilism or the ready-made escape into mindless dogma.

But, discovering that we are “embedded in our own thinking” does not mean that our way of thinking and perceiving the world is inherently invalid. The discovery of this “embeddness” only opens us to considering the limitations of how we see the world and the recognition that others might…and do…see the world differently. This insight is often very painful for it makes us realize, intellectually and emotionally, our existential plight of separateness which immediately subjects us to the anguish of loneliness which culture was contrived in the first place to avoid. But this discovery simultaneously makes possible a connection we did not know was possible, one that can best be described as one of spirit/Spirit. In this realm of the Ineffable we discover the interconnectedness of the whole of life– human, animal, and plant– and even Mother Earth herself. We are “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches us.

Let me close with one simple illustration of how our language illustrates this embeddedness and how it shapes our view of the world. In some Eastern languages, if an individual wants to point out that he sees a book, for example, he will say, “I see the book.” But in the West, he will likely say, “I see the book.” For, here in the West, especially in my country the subject-object distinction is more pronounced which is because one of the fundamental things we learn as a child is that we are separate and distinct from the world around us. This “separateness” is important but its emphasis neglects often our inter-relatedness with others and with the world.

W. H. Auden on the “embedded thought” of the collective:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.

My Life in a Mega-Church

I spent two years as a member of a mega-church in the early eighties, a Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. I was so proud of myself, so pleased to be a member of a church that was so “up-and-coming” and growing larger and larger and larger. And the pastor was very good. And I mean very, very good; even today I appreciate memories of his skill as an expositor of scripture.

And I was single at the time and didn’t “smoke, drink, or chew…or screw”…though I will admit I faltered on that latter point from time to time. And, yes, God forgave me. I knew he would. He had to. But I hated relying on that “duty” of His and so didn’t “imbibe” as much as I wanted to. But, nevertheless, I did not “smoke, drink, or chew!!!” But, I continued to flirt with darkness in the fall of 1981 when, after hearing the pastor lament the passing of Arkansas’s “Blue Laws” I stopped by after service and reveled in a luxurious Wal-mart for a while and bought a lot of “stuff.”   (The “Blue Laws” disallowed most stores to open on Sunday) I do remember to this day the guilt of that offense, hoping that no other church members saw me!)

But it was so nice to be part of a church that was really special and powerful and becoming more so. The Word of God was being preached and souls were being won to Jesus and even though the world was lost in sin, we were doing our part to win the world to Jesus. And I was a small part of this enterprise. It felt nice to belong.  Now looking back on it, the “pride” is kind of awkward, for it is the pride that Emily Dickinson had in mind when she described, “a mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.”  Or, to put it in the words of a recent Face Book discussion group re Paul Tillich, a mind “embedded in itself.”

Looking back on it, I was merely an “actor” in my life and my faith and so I’m tacitly accusing this church of the same. But, I have some guilt over accusing them. For, they were very, very good people and are so today. And, so was I! And they will not be reading this account and if so they must take it as it is, a revelation more about myself much more than an account of them. Yes, those people were “limited” but who is not and there was none of them more limited than was I. Dealing with my “limitations” has taken me a different direction than most of them but I’m sure most of them are not in the same place as they were back then. We are all “actors” in some sense and God takes our “strutting and fretting” during our “hour upon the stage” and weaves them into this beautiful tapestry that we call the human experience.

“Quintessence of Dust” We Are!!!

Emily Dickinson is one of my soul mates. She was a spinster, living in her father’s attic, making observations about life with her brilliant poetry which would not be appreciated here on earth until she got to heaven. One of her pithy little quips that I really like is, “Life is over there, on a shelf.” Cloistered there in Puritanical New England, she dared to explore her own soul and at the same time pay attention to what was going on out there “on the shelf.”

I can relate so well. For, I too am an “observer” and in some way I too have spent my life cloistered in some spiritual attic. I think Shakespeare also lived in one of these little self-imposed prisons and from that vantage point could offer such brilliant wisdom about the human condition. He referred to humankind as the “quintessence of dust” and that pretty well sums us up, though considering our “dustiness” is very difficult for our ego. It is for mine. I am DNA’d to take myself way too seriously which is what we little dust bunnies tend to do.

One of my Facebook friends is apparently also one of these observers though he is blessed with brilliant poetic skill. He lives only five hours away (in Denver) and one of these days I’m gonna meet this kindred spirit. I want to share with you here one of his poems which so astutely captures the essence of being a human. His name is Randy Welch and you can find him on Facebook.


Being Human
Is As Far From Being A Spider
As It Is From Being God
It Is To Live In The Past
While Fretting About The Future
Barely Aware What’s Going On Right Now
Being Human Is Feeling Alone
Amidst A Crowd
Yet Crowded By The Presence
Of Just One Other Human Being
Being Human Is Wanting
To Save The Children
To Save The World
But Being Too Busy
Getting The Car Tuned Up
Or Spreading The Latest Gossip
About Other Human Beings
To Actually Do Something About It
Being Human Is Being
The Most Glorified Presence
On The Planet
Yet Constantly Wishing
We Were Anything But Human
It Is Having The Gifts Of
Conceptualization And Visualization
Of Logic And Reason
And Refusing To Use Them
In The Face Of Raw Emotion
Being Human Is Knowing
The Beauty Of The Ocean
And The Fear Of Drowning In It
It Is The Tragedy Of Living
In Complete Ambivalence
Most Of The Time
Being Human Is Something
That May Not Continue
For Very Much Longer
On Account Of
Humans Being Human…
-randini- (aka Randy Welch)