Tag Archives: W. H. Auden

A Texas “Outlaw” Poet Demonstrates Semiotics

In the six years that “literarylew” has existed, I’ve explored poetry at great depth.  A lot of my exploration has been in the area of semiotics, that unconscious domain where instincts and external demands of society encounter each other and an identity amenable to symbolic participation in the world is created.  If this identity is too well-endowed with instinctual energy, psychosis could emerge in the extreme.  If “external demands” rule the day, then at an extreme linear thinking will prevail one will find comfort in the world that W. H. Auden described as that of, “a logical lunatic.”  The goal is for both dimensions of human experience to freely interact with instinctual energy finding expression in socially acceptable terms.

But the poet has that “id”-stinctual energy working with more intensity than those of us who live a more prosaic life.  With the poet, words cavort about in the subterranean regions of the heart, making it challenging to, “buckle his distempered “swollen” heart within the belt of rule….as Shakespeare put it.  The energy of instinctual energy that would threaten dissolution is harnessed by the poet’s capacity to use words to bind that energy and to use words creatively. At the conclusion I will include a poem by Archibald MacLeish who so beautifully describes the meshing of what William James called the, “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” with words.)

However, I first would like to introduce you to my most recent blog subscriber, a Texas “outlaw” poet, Jeff Callaway, whose life story and poetry so beautifully illustrates the struggle of one poet in “binding” the energy of his heart and life.  This poem is a hodgepodge of imagery, often lacking “sense” other than to one who has a heart for poetry and will intuit and feel a whole lot of “sense” by giving it a close, attentive reading.  Here I quote the initial stanza of this raucous and often bawdy poem which clearly reveals this man’s energy bursting at the seams:

the greatest poems
are never written down
but lonely and forgotten
before a pen can be found
the greatest poems never find the ink
in the time it takes you to think
slowly with time they fade
and face the guillotine
of jilted poems and unrequited lovers
or glued to my own vague memory
of what could’ve been
if only i’d had a pen
and the recollection to keep repeating
what it was i was trying to say…

For the whole of this poem, check out this link:  https://texasoutlawpoet.com/2018/02/16/the-greatest-poems-of-all-by-jeff-callaway-texas-outlaw-poet-2/

“Words in Time,” by Archibald MacLeisch:

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!

There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.

That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.

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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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“Logical Lunacy” Besets All of US (illustrated by cartoon)

 

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W. H. Auden bemoaned having to put up with the folly of, “a logical lunatic.”  In this cartoon is illustrated a dimension of a rational mind that is meticulously “rational” as long as you are confined to the premise, “I support Trump.”  If you do not support Trump, you will “see through this” and understand the implicit “logical lunacy” of the reasoning process demonstrated.  HOWEVER, this same “splinter in the brain” besets us all and leads to the “lunacy” we witnessed last night when the U.S. Senate could not pass a bill which led to our government shutting down.  There is a tendency with us all to believe only what we want and refuse to consider there is another way of looking at the world.  It is only when both sides of a disagreement can trot out some degree of “meta-cognition” and recognize this that compromise can be found.  When this cannot happen, the opposing sides “hunker down” and draw swords, emphatically declaring, “I’m right!  You’re wrong.—it is always easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the “other guys.”

AN IMPORTANT AFTER THOUGHT–It is so much easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the other guys!

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.
 

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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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/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

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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/

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?

 

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.