31 August 2010

Perfect Imperfection

On his good days, when Gerard Manley Hopkins was not so weighed down with the deep grief that comes from the heavy work of living on this planet, the poet-priest could render with incredible clarity the fundamental beauty of a world infused with divine perfection. I have yet to meet a person who does not enjoy his poem"Pied Beauty"; even readers who are not spiritually inclined appreciate the imagery and musicality, and more especially the way the poem's details teach us how to love the world and embrace its contradictions.

Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things--
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
     And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                Praise him.
Image from Mr. Cordova's Trout Blog

Contrast, opposition and change create beauty and prompt the poet to honor the eternal paradox: contrast, opposition and change are constant and therefore divine -- stippled, fickle, beautiful, perfect, all.

29 August 2010

On Purpose

I was trolling for some enticing tidbits of American literature with which to tempt my students into enthusiasm for what probably feels to them like dusty old writing by dead white guys who were never on Facebook.  I flipped the anthology open  and found just the right page from Thoreau, no mean accident, I'm sure.  Often quoted, yes to the point of cliche, but still worth visiting here is the following passage from Walden, Chapter 2, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For":
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life...
When we begin a yoga practice, it's not unusual for an instructor to encourage us to "set your intention to be present in your practice today."  I think old Henry David (who, by the way, studied the ancient texts of Hinduism and Yoga) offers some real insight on the matter.

23 August 2010

We are All Avatars

In Louise Erdrich's novel Four Souls, the character Nanapush considers the existence of a reality other than the one we see. Many of Erdrich's characters have the ability to understand and manipulate mysterious forces originating in some other reality, so to enter this novelist's world is to accept that other worlds exist beyond the one most of us consider "real". (And indeed, isn't experiencing a fictional world itself already a sort of alternate reality?) In Erdrich's fictional world, certain individuals simply accept that other realities exist and seem to understand that perhaps we can move back and forth among them. Others only intuit the presence of these various layers of reality, and still others just remain clueless. Nanapush observes
Each of us has an original, you see, living somewhere underneath the shadow of our daily life.  That life we live in the moving world is the dream life of the copy.   She runs, she breathes, she cares for others, she mends their clothes.  You gaze into the water of your day and there your face floats back, serene, unguarded.  See! See! Beneath that thin smile you are smiling somewhere else.  Your hand moves and the hand moves below you.  Perhaps in another country more real than you are, in another life.
There's something a bit Platonic about this notion that the physical world, or what our habits of mind dictate as "real", is merely a copy of another world.   But Nanapush's description of a  two-layered reality also reminds me of tales from many cultures that suggest what we consider a "dream" world, is more real than our "real" world.  Dreaming time allows us a momentary glimpse into the myriad other possible "realities".

So, while Marie Ponsot's Denis "sees what is there to see", and my previous post used that line to decry our over-dependence on metaphor and symbol to create meaning, I find Nanapush's view a helpful counterpoint.  So, while we strive to see "what is there to see", we live with the paradox that there is, most likely more to see that what is there to see.

21 August 2010

Figure Not

I love how really good poems focus the attention on the beauty of the ordinary, the divine details.  In her poem "For Denis at Ten" Marie Ponsot takes us walking with a boy, Denis, on his way to a brook to harvest watercress, a happy little chore he's been sent to do, by grownups no doubt, who probably need their world-weary palates entertained by something crisply cold & bitter.  On his way, Denis notices critters, cow poop, sky, stones. They are just there, and so is he, and that is that; he is on his way to the brook.  And,

                             He goes there, whistling.
                                               Nothing reminds him of something.
                             He sees what is there to see.

Oh, perhaps in her imagination Ponsot idealizes a tiny bit the child's sense of the world's immediacy, that be-here-nowness we somehow believe children naturally possess.  Still, I appreciate the poem's suggestion that a walk to the brook (or, by extension, down the street, across the room, around the continent) need not be laden with symbolism, metaphor, nostalgia, anxiety, imminence, the fancy figures we think make meaning.  The world is as the world is. Focus the attention.  See what is there to see.

15 August 2010

Something in Common with Kay

I've been considering the possibility that Kay Ryan, the U.S. Library of Congress's 16h Poet Laureate, and I share the same problem with the muses.  Well, it's not just Kay Ryan's problem, or mine of course.  Anyone whose creativity has gone a bit fallow might wonder about why the muses have gone mute.  In "Her Politeness"Ryan observes

                                                     how she
                                     isn't insistent, how
                                    she won't impose, how
                                    nothing's so urgent
                                    it won't wait

Now I don't mean to blame my laziness or general lack of discipline about blogging on the mute muse.  But what I like here in Ryan's ever aphoristic verse is the notion of non-attachment tweaking the nose of desire.  Of course we want that muse to whip us up, give the command, tell us the answer.  We wish for, as Ryan says

                                               the muse                               
              you'd have leap at your throat
              you'd spring to obey.

But Miss Museypants just sits there all meek and quiet, smiling politely, waiting for you to figure it out on your own.