“A poem should always have birds in it.”
From her poem “Singapore”, from the collection “House Of Light” (1990).
“A poem should always have birds in it.”
From her poem “Singapore”, from the collection “House Of Light” (1990).
If you put all my joy over all our pots together,
It would not touch how I feel about this cast-iron pot.
Let all my joy from all our pots be plopped together
and it slops around, with room, inside this iron pot.
I never thought I’d find a black utensil packed together
with a lid and poke inside and thrill to feel a pot.
When old we’ll need to lift it’s weight together
or I’ll bend beneath the iron. But today I waltz this pot.
We ate our people’s roots but no-one’s meat
or wine, and hung our harps on willow wands
unplayed by winds. I read our people’s book
and found the number there of years we must
be slaved. From sorrow we’d forgot to look.
I turned toward the wall and would not play.
I told Yahweh it must be His to count
the years, I said “We are your portion
in the earth. You’re poor. We’re all you’ve got.”
The instant when our sins should slash a vein,
when lambs are hushed their crying by a blade,
the legate Gabriel enpierced my room.
A word went out. He said. An actual word,
resuscitating sentences, germ cells of books,
as books are matrices for nations. Words
went out at dusk and I have fought celestial
orcs to bring them home. Get up, get out,
go virgin to a virgin couch and and kiss a virgin
mouth, plant stories in your fields, fire
pots for wines, and sing new wedding psalms
beneath your virgin vines. Go home.
Fragments overheard before the police came.
I jotted down what I could, then I hid in the cupboard.
Come now, sing now, happy tunes
and drink, drink, drink — we’re in our youth.
“Fool, fool, deliberate fool:
can you drink the cup?
Or will it drown you?
Down, down, three times down,
take the triple-bath, play the triple-tool.
Fool, fool, deliberate fool…” (repeat)
“For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
“…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”
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”.
“What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.”
– Mary Oliver, from the poem “I Looked Up”.
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
– Mary Oliver, from the poem “YES! NO!
Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended. The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes. These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive, time speeds up. When the faculties labor, time slows down. When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies. When we are producers, time stops. The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time. (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)
After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites. When a session of creative work is over, we feel integrated, whole. Consciousness is fuller. But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say. We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk. We feel alienated.
So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it. Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.
Let’s aggregate this insight: as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content, the sense of passing time grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood. There are ancillary effects. Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent 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.
So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together. I’d go so far as this: individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.
There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them. Each needs longer treatment. One: nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing. Another: 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.
There are ancillary insights. For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.
Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other. This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically, around our sight. 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 (or contemplation) of the adept.
The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).
But this mistakes the symptom for the disease. There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, 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. None works.
Another impulse is physical solitude. We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope. Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work. But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution. Work is. 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. There is no redemption in place. 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, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.
“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
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
From the poem “Sometimes”.
…It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
So we’ll live, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies…
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
Over the swinging parapet of my arm
your sentinel eyes lean gazing. Hugely alert
on the pale unfinished clay of your infant face,
they drink light from this candle on the tree.
Drinking, not pondering, each bright thing you see,
you make it yours without analysis
and, stopping down the aperture of thought
to a fine pinhole, you are filled with flame.
Give me for Christmas, then, your kind of seeing,
not studying candles – angel, manger, star – but staring as at a portrait, God’s I guess,
that shocks and holds the eye, till all my being,
gathered, intent and still, now you are ,
breathes out it’s wonder in a wordless yes.
– John V Taylor
Not sure of the actual title.
Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be there where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence, and expectancy.
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there,
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness
– Ann Lewin, “Candles and Kingfishers”, quoted in Lost In Wonder , Esther de Waal, without title.
Moses understands, as do the prophets after him, that being in the land poses for Israel a conflict between two economic systems, each of which views the land differently. On the one hand, the land is regarded as property and possession to be bought and sold and traded and used. On the other hand, in a context of covenant, the land is a birthright and an inheritance, one’s own land as a subset of the larger inheritance of the whole people of God. If the land is possession, then the proper way of life is to acquire more. If the land is inheritance, then the proper way of life is to enhance the neighborhood and the extended family so that all members may enjoy the good produce of the land.
– Walter Breuggemann, in Sabbath As Resistance.
Land as inheritance versus land as possession. Commodity versus covenant. Think Wendell Berry. This is the one perspective the environmental movement has right. Then, of course, they immediately begin advocating for state controls over property in order to impose, by law, the right spiritual perspective.
I do feel this lack every day: the lack of a home, in the form of a patch of land inherited from my family with the marks everywhere of my ancestors’ work. A farm, I suppose, which is nothing but a worked garden. Land with real trees and a wet stream and fields moving in real winds. Modernity needs mobility. And the price is home.
“God-making” amid anxiety is a standard human procedure!”
– Walter Breuggemann, in Sabbath As Resistance
“Prosperity breeds amnesia.”
– Walter Brueggemann, in Sabbath As Resistance