Mary Oliver: “…with your one wild and precious life.”

“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I don’t know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

Which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver, from the poem “The Summer Day”


Mary Oliver: “When it’s over…”

When it’s over I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

– Mary Oliver, from the poem “When Death Comes”.

The Time Button

When the sensorium is assaulted the faculties go limp and time speeds up (is lost).  When the faculties labor in quiet, time slows down.  When we are  consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies.   When we are producing, time stops.   In an odd restatement of Einstein’s famous equilibrium between matter and energy, there is an equilibrium between these two:  1.  How hard the creative mind is working, and  2. The perception of passing time.

Aggregate this insight to the collective:  as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume the work of other people,  the sense of passing time in pop culture grows more acute.  There are ancillary effects.   Hoarding, for example, a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some new disease.  Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash.   The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present.   Mounds of memory.   Fear of death.   Physical nostalgia.

Nostalgia and entertainment culture go together.   I’d go so far as this:  individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.   (By “creating” I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)

There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them, and each needs longer treatment.   One, nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing.   Two, reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book.  Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen.   The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom.   Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind.  It’s not a rule, it just happens.   Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel.   Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.

Again, time stops when we make things.   God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.

In theological anthropology, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other.   Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”;  Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria of the adept.

The theme is understandable and has plenty of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision over a remembered verbal proposition.

But any proposed fix of this imbalance by elevating one over the others mistakes the symptom for the disease.   There are pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, indeed, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance.   Pathology has random permutations.  But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience.

The impulse to seek solitude is understandable.  And can be healthy, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work.  But not if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense.   Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.

There is no correct hierarchy of sense, to re-order.   There is only the active man, and the passive man.  As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically,  pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task.   The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.

Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier,  and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.

Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions.  In the end,  alienation is experienced more like a narcotic.  A long, not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.   Ending in a whimper.

Helen Vendler, on Gerard M. Hopkins: “…second-order reflection…”

“The subjects that interested Hopkins were chiefly intellectual ones; even his most sensuous responses to the natural world were immediately referred to the intellect, which, in the poetry, meant referral to philosophical or theological thought. Although it has seemed regrettable to some readers that Hopkins grafted religious sestets onto octaves of natural beauty, it must be acknowledged that if he had led a different life, his penetrating sense-perceptions would even so have had to be presented to, and mediated by, his intellectual preoccupations (which, in that alternative life, might have been philosophical rather than religious). In any case, the two aspects – the senses and the intellect – would still have had to struggle into stand-offs, reconciliations, suspensions – the very things that happen in the religious poems.

The overwhelming elation Hopkins felt in the presence of natural phenomena (and his consequent grief at the destruction of natural beauty) could not exist unaffected by second-order reflection.”

Helen Vendler reviews ‘The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Vols I-II’ edited by R.K.R. Thorton and Catherine Phillips · LRB 3 April 2014