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Making Space for Wonder

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

In a few weeks my husband and I will be headed to Prague where we will be attending a workshop on creativity. To prepare for that workshop, we’ve been asked to go out in hunt for a variety of things we are to take photos of to bring to the conference– spirals in nature, human faces in man made objects, animals in clouds, inanimate objects that appear they are in love, living people who look like they belong to another century, and more. The past couple of weeks I’ve gone out for short walks around the area where I live, looking. Some things are just not easy to find. I thought human faces in man made objects, for instance, wouldn’t be so difficult. My husband’s family has a habit of looking for hidden objects in clouds, knots of wood, the trees. My father in law discovered the Virgin Mary in a whiskey bottle that he found in an abandon lot while out for a walk and had the neighborhood lined up to see it on his mantle. So, there’s a kind of family history in looking closely that we’ve practiced over the years. The results can be surprising.

I’ve had my students go on searches for things, given them a paint chip like ones you might find at the paint store and had them search for a week to see if they could match it with the exact color somewhere out in the world. Another thing I’ve asked them to find is something they think no one else would notice but that they think is interesting. A good part of a writer’s work is to notice things, I explain, things that are in plain sight but hidden because no one is taking time to notice them. A person can notice a lot of amazing things when paying attention. One of those things you might discover or rediscover is wonder. What you find is perhaps not really as important as the search. In the search you can find all kinds of wonders.

Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” but February can definitely be difficult too. For many who live in cold countries, it’s a snowy month–snow stacked so high you’re blinded by the white on white emptiness. With windows blocked by icicles, you know spring is coming–color will eventually return to the streets–but that time seems far off. How do you get through those bleak times? This is where a search cIMG_3931omes in. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Give yourself something to search for, and wonder might  turn the corner to greet you at an unexpected moment. The other afternoon, I was out walking the campus where I live, looking here and there at things I’ve seen a thousand times, hoping to find a hidden face in an object so I could take a photo to bring to the workshop I mentioned earlier, but I could find nothing. Over and over again, I scrutinized objects. Nothing. I was telling myself, “There are simply no faces anywhere.” I looked down. There on the sidewalk was a face smiling up at me with a grass strand for a lock of hair. I couldn’t believe it! It’s the only face I’ve found so far in various ventures.

February may be cruel in other parts of the world, but is actually the best month if the year in Delhi. Here, February has the least amount of smoke in the air, it’s not too hot or too cold, and there are no dengue carrying mosquitos. What Delhi has a lot of in February are flowers. As I went out hunting for spirals in nature to photograph, I enjoyed looking at the splendid variety of spirals flowers present. From fibonacci spirals to the mandalas of a dahlia, flowers can make your head spin.

It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for, however. One thing I’ve learned from living in India is that the good and bad, the exquisitely beautiful and the horrible are often side by side, as if they are part of each other. You don’t often get the one with out the other near by. Living here in India also presents questions there are no easy answers for, as I’ve written about before in these blog posts. Suffering is visibly present here. All you have to do is leave your house and go out into the street and you will see it. How to respond to it is constantly challenging.

Today, as I walked through the INA market, I was on the lookout for images of people who look like they could be from another century, as that is one of the things we are to take photos of for our creativity workshop. I saw scenes there that could have been from a past time, but I also saw scenes that make a person very conscious of all the animals sacrificed to meet our hunger. Food is glorious, but it carries with it a great deal of blood,  guts, and stench. Yes there is the beauty of flowers, the fabulous flavors of curried meat, but there is also some horror behind it all. Men torch feathers off fowl, and fur off goat heads. Boys scrub the goat heads in a plastic tub of water. Thwack, the butcher hacks a haunch of meat against a wooden block. A hundred or so chicken feet sit on a tray. Blood runs down the alleyway between shops. It’s all there, along with that beautiful cut of fish you are going to take home and barbecue.

Donald Hall’s poem, “Eating the Pig” describes well the complexity of the horrors that can come alongside the wonders,

and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.

Then, there he is a few moments later, eating the pig and reveling in its flavor.

For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter

After the pig has been devoured and just the head remains, he can’t help but feel a friendly affection for it and finds himself reaching out to pet it behind the ear as if might purr. As he does so, he sees his connection to the pig. He leans into the pig and whispers,

I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It’s not just this pig alone, it’s the way eating the pig connects him back to who we are before the time of empires–all the way back to prehistory. The poem ends by saying,

“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”

There is a reverence for the pig, a recognition for how consuming the animal roasted in this ancient, barbaric ritual connects him to both the pig and to human kind. Life is both full of wonder and horror simultaneously, and this poem clearly demonstrates the paradox.

One weekend morning a couple of weeks back, we opened the bedroom curtain and there sat a monkey eating the tomatoes off of our plant in the window box. (No wonder we’ve had so few tomatoes this year!) The other day a monkey got into our compost box that we have on our balcony and then smeared his hands across the kitchen window. Two days ago I looked out the window of my classroom to see two monkeys walking across the roof of the building opposite me, only to appear in the courtyard below a few minutes later. You can go along for years without barely a monkey surfacing anywhere. Things seem fine, and then suddenly, there they are, monkeys jumping on your roof, tramping through your garden, and getting into whatever they can. When a monkey is around you’ve got to be careful because you never know what they are up to.

It’s good to be aware of holding both the difficult things in balance–the days with the monkeys vs. the weeks and months without them, as well the truly wondrous moments that come along. Actually doing this takes practice. When things grow dull or difficult, when struggle or white snow is all that can be seen, we have to purposefully change our perspective so we don’t feel crushed under the weight. That’s hard. But we don’t have to wait until things become unbearable. For a few moments we can break the routine of work, we can lift ourselves out of a situation that feels full or sorrow or dread. There’s a variety of ways to do it. We can sing, walk out the door and notice the trees or birds, arrange some fruit in a bowl to give away, put on some music, dance around the room, push our hands in the garden soil, pull some weeds or pick some flowers. A paint chip or a spiral, a face in the cloud–it doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be something; something to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something bigger. Who knows what you will actually discover in the process. It might not be what you intended. Doing that something can help us nurture joy and wonder while at the same time continuing to recognize the realness of the struggle or sorrow that we continue to live alongside. Maybe it is this very sorrow and struggle we know so well that allows us to experience the depth of joy when we give ourselves to it, or when it comes along to surprise us like the smiling face in the cement. We know then how precious such joy truly is.

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Questions There Are No Answers For–Why Poetry Matters

Poetry matters. When we grapple to find the words that express the most profound moments of human existence, the deepest questions of reality, the moments in life that indelibly change us, we turn to poetry. Why?

The root for poetry can be traced back to the Greek poesis, and means, according to etymology online “literally “a making, fabrication,” variant of poiesis, from poein, poiein “to make or compose”.’ In its fundamental sense, then, the poet is one who creates, who brings into being. Historically, the poet in places like the British Isles and India went from place to place telling the histories in poetic form. The Ramayana, for example, was written in verse. Traditionally, storytellers in India carried scrolls from village to village and retold the epic. Storytellers, paid by patrons who wanted to hear their stories, also carried story boxes–which functioned as a kind of traveling temple with paintings of the gods on fold-out doors, and storytellers used these as touchstones as they told their tales.

In previous decades, poetry held a larger part of our culture’s fabric. Students regularly memorized poems in school as an important part of their education. I remember my father quoting lines from Longfellow while frying eggs for breakfasts on Saturday mornings. I can’t help but think of the lines from Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” when I see a ring around the moon. “Last night, the moon had a golden ring,/ And tonight no moon we see!” I can see the back of my father’s head even now in my mind’s eye, and hear the tone of his voice as he recites “Under the spreading chestnut tree,/ the village smithy stands;” or as he says the lines from “The Song of Hiawatha.” The rhythms and sounds of the poems he learned as a child followed him through the years, and have stuck with me as a result of hearing them so often. “By the shores of Gitche Gume,/ By the shining Big Sea Water.” The words and their rhythm link me to story and to memories–connecting the smell of food, the open flow of time, the slow start of a Saturday morning, to my father’s presence and the world he inhabited and learned from.

What makes poetry especially powerful for me, and the reason I come back to it over and over is because poetry tries to name what can’t actually be named. It tries to get at the essence of the mysteries life contains and is. Logic and rational thought have limitations after a certain point. Life and the experiences in it are, after all, more than the sum of parts. Data displays and statistics can powerfully demonstrate ideas and can even be displayed beautifully, but poetry, like other art forms, is able to take us into a place that moves beyond the boundaries of logic into a deeper space of being—one that holds life open to be witnessed in a deep looking and reflection, in an awareness of the presence of something that can be felt in the totality of one’s being. As poet Donald Hall says in his essay, “The Unsayable Said”, “—poetry exists to say the unsayable.”

A central aim of poetry is to find the words to tell the thought—the right words that name the truth of one’s own experience, the lens through which the poet sees the world. Through that act of naming, the poet enters into the creative act of making and shaping meaning. The ancient bards of the British Isles were called shapers. In writing poetry, we join ourselves to the world anew through this naming and shaping and become co-creators, so to speak. Maybe Adam in the Garden was the first poet. He had to study the animals, observe who and what they were, and find the word that best distinguished and defined that animal’s essence.

Writing poetry intimately connects the writer to the creative act, and the creative act is one of the most fundamental qualities that makes us human. Genesis tells us humans were made in the image of God, and when creating poetry, the writer can experience a connection to that ground of all being that the mystics have written about. The poet Karl Shapiro in his essay, “What is Not Poetry?” explains, “Every good poet is a “mystic”; that is, he departs from the dictionary, as the painter departs from the straight line and the perfect circle.” When I write poetry, I feel like a scuba diver immersed in the depths of the experience I am writing about, swimming through it and living fully inside of the moment. I sense the current moving around me–the water buoying me up. I peer under rocky shelves of an experience or an idea, notice the shafts of light drifting down, grow aware of movement in my peripheral vision, and discover what rises up from the depths. I feel alive, connected to the moving fabric, the breath of being—something that can’t be wholly defined, but is nevertheless felt as present.

I’m not talking about the supernatural here so much as I am speaking of the presence of life inside of the physical world, whispering through it, so to speak. Shapiro goes on to say in his essay,

“It is idle to claim that poetry is a secular art or an art of the supernatural. These are critical dualisms, secular and supernatural, which solve nothing. The poet does not distinguish between them. The natural poet, the primitive poet, the “lyrical” poet, cannot make any such distinctions because they do not exist for him. The poet is always “one” with his experience; to that extent he does inhabit the realm of the supernatural. All artists search for a unification of the elements of a particular experience, the photographer cropping a negative no less than the painter choosing his landscape or model, or the poet looking for the poetry of the thing that engages him at the moment. The artist is different from other people in that he is in a constant state of “oneness” with his experience. When he is not, he is out of Paradise; he has fallen into the world of rationality where all dualisms run riot. It is a fact, I think, that to most poets the ordinary world seems insane; and quite naturally the poet seems mad to the pedestrian or rational mind. Pure science bears most of the characteristics of art; chiefly what is different about the work of abstract science is the absence of the emotional center of motivation; but scientists are, in the popular rational mind, also considered mad.

Poetry is able to take us beyond the world we often inhabit where we are defining and deciding, evaluating and cutting away. Poetry can reground us in a world of being that moves beyond dualisms and divisions where we recognize our shared humanity.

This is not to say that poetry doesn’t try and define or doesn’t use analysis. It does. But its larger aim is to return us to a sense of wholeness. Though people may not recognize it, poetry meets the human need to probe the mystery of life, and this is perhaps a central reason why I return to it over and over. Poetry causes me to grapple with questions there are no answers for, moves me to an awareness that I am a small spark in the midst of the flame of life, makes me stand in awe at the wonder of being, and fills me with gratitude that I am able to wander around in the midst of time. Writing poetry returns me to an awareness of the great gift life is. What is the benefit this can have for our lives? The lines William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”  offers an explanation,

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

According to Williams, though we might not readily see its value, we could all use a bit more poetry in our lives. Many things happen in this world that make it into the news, but those things that bring deep meaning and joy to us—those things that nourish and sustain us—are found in the personal, in the relationships and loves moving inside our lives’ inner rooms, in the spaces of our heart that connect the world at large to the intimate. Poetry feeds these needs.

There is plenty of misery in this world. Poetry doesn’t remove the misery or the tensions of life, but it gives us a way to look at it and to talk about it that digs deep into the bone and speaks the truths of our being. Through imagery, metaphor, rhythm, alliteration, and other poetic devices, poetry in its musicality and its reliance on word connotations and associations, joins words to the physical world. It allows us to reflect, to search our hearts, to name our questions and what we know. Our brains respond to poetry like they do to music recent research tells us. (See more at Red Orbit, “This is your Brain. This is Your Brain on Poetry.”) The truth and the gift that poetry has to give us isn’t laid out for us to grasp directly. Its message isn’t delivered in a thesis statement with clearly enumerated points falling beneath. Instead, its insight is hidden inside metaphor and  embodied within imagery. You have to hunt to find it. You must search.

Perhaps this is in part why poetry is not currently popular. We live in a world where we value data and points that are clearly laid out in a logical plan that we can follow step by step. We want the main idea of what we’re reading made obvious without wasting our precious time, because time is something most people don’t have the patience to take slowly. I’m reminded of the opening lines from Dickens’ novel Hard Times, “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” I must confess, I wonder why I feel compelled to cite research about poetry and the brain in order to make poetry’s value more convincing. I suppose I do so in part because I recognize that research is what gives something credibility these days, but this raises questions for me. We need both rational and irrational thought to function well in this world. Isn’t there something imbalanced in our way of being, though, that we can’t recognize the value of other ways of thinking that aren’t left brain and rational as having credibility in themselves? Again, as Dickens writes in Hard Times, “There is a wisdom of the Head, and… there is a wisdom of the Heart.” Poetry is not only an expression of the mind, it educates the heart.

Ange Mlinko in an interview in Poetry magazine with Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010) talks about how poetry is currently, in the US anyway, “isolated from public discourse…poets can’t be considered possessors or transmitters of “knowledge” because we as a society have decided that knowledge is quantifiable—but art is not. Art is precisely the experiment that can’t be reproduced under identical conditions.” McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary, argues about the “primacy of metaphor to our thinking.” (See more of this interview at the Poetry Foundation web site.) McGilchrist explains, “We live in a society where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are not valued.” Poetry arises out of the brain’s right hemisphere where the oblique and implicit reign, says McGilchrist, and poets may need to smuggle in their jewels by distracting the officers of the left hemisphere.

In general, people today want quick results for most everything. We don’t like to wait for food, for profit, for growth. To give ourselves to a poem, either in reading or in writing it, is to reorient ourselves to the organic nature of understanding and wisdom earned over time and through effort. Poetry gives us jewels if we take the time to dig for them. The question poetry gives us is, are we going to open ourselves to see the value in the time that the digging takes?

Poetry, because it requires that we use words with their clearest, most precise and truest meaning in a given context, moves us beyond the empty or false rhetoric that often fills our world, inundating us with advertising campaigns where even some news reports employ words to sell the audience on ideas. In general, the way language is often used in our contemporary context actually sells us short because the language we frequently hear is not authentic communication coming from the center of who we really are. In a world where nearly everything is commodified and holds some kind of monetary value, poetry, instead, aims to use language in a way that is authentic and real. Poetry opens a window into truth and requires integrity in the words used. In this way, poetry can restore us to a connection with each other, or at least shows us a picture of this potential. In our world where it’s difficult for people to comprehend the value of quietness or the interior life, where carving out time for reflection is rare, and where the vulnerability it takes to speak the truth with integrity seems too risky, it’s not a wonder that poetry isn’t much valued by the general public.

The surface reality is more or less accepted as actual substance today. An example of this is how corporations have taken hold of our government structures, and those with money and power control much of what we hear and see in the media. This has led us into environmental problems, where it is acceptable for corporations to take whatever they find beneficial in order to increase their profits without having to give much back to the environment or the community in return. The capitalist system encourages us see ourselves as separate from the natural world so that we can go on using up resources without feeling any particular responsibility for what is taken from the community because the goal is to increase profit, not to preserve wholeness or balance. Poetry, on the other hand, speaks to a different kind of power—the power that comes from the search to connect to an authentic presence, which seeks to reveal the truth of the self in relationship to society and to the environment. Poetry connects us to the physical world again, and helps us to listen to and notice its mystery and value it for its presence. A poet must listen to the voice or voices underneath the surface of things, to what is being said that doesn’t have words—to the hidden realities and to that which is unnameable and try to name it—call it in to being. In this way writing poetry is a kind of spiritual practice, and as such, it’s no wonder that poetry is left on the fringes of cultural discussion.

Poetry, is a unifier. Because poetry requires truth telling, and because it joins the inner and outer worlds, the personal and the communal, because it seeks to name and/or re-envision the world, it could be an important tool that enables us to open up new dialog in the community at large. Poetry could allow us to break through the dialog that has increasingly placed people in separate camps and made it nearly impossible to listen to each other in any deep way and genuinely communicate. In this sense, writing poetry—reading and discussing it could be thought of a radical act. It could help us find how to communicate from the heart.

Maybe people don’t want to, or don’t feel they have the time to invest in uncovering what a poem is talking about. Maybe most of us are satisfied on the whole with the way things are. On the other hand, it may be that many of us feel stuck in our current cultural dilemmas and we don’t have the tools to understand how poetry could be useful in opening a discussions because most people haven’t been exposed enough to quality poetry to be able to read or understand its value. Charles Simic’s poem “Stone” comes to mind.

STONE

Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

(Here’s the poet reading it on Keilor’s Poetry Everywhere if you are interested.)

For the poet, everything in the world holds mystery, wonder. The stone in Simic’s poem is like poetry. It is the enigma, the hidden thing that is in plain sight that holds the mystery. It gets knocked around, and sinks down into the earth. That’s where it is now. We come close to it and whisper to it like the fish in his poem. Lying there inside its stony body, hidden as if behind a hill that makes it hard to peer through, there is the moon of poetry, the light it gives through strange writings on the wall—star charts that can help us find our way.