Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Summer spirit

July 30, 2012

Lovely cool morning, birds in full voice, air crisp and sweet, 60s heading for the high 90s again. Up early enough to cheat the heat, if not quite yet to re-establish a reliable routine for the schoolyear soon to begin. What ever happened to Labor Day, academic calendar-makers?! But that’s not what I want to think about today.

Awoke to the fine (and free!) Librivox version of John Muir’s My First Summer in the SierraHe goes on too much, to my taste, about God’s glorious creation: Heseems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.” (More MuirBut fine dawns like this one do awaken the spirit, even in a heathen like me. And a glow of enthusiasm is exactly what I need. My landlord Dr. Curtis might be an inspiration here. Again, he was called to Dayton to testify on science’s and John Scopes’s behalf.

The defense believed he would make a good witness because he tended to emphasize the spiritual rather than the material influences of science.

Well, now that I’m up I must turn attention to the assignment I’ve put off long enough: rank a batch of new baseball poems. Don’t know much about poetry, but I know what I like: the spirit of summer, what William Carlos Williams called a delightful “spirit of uselessness.” That’s what I’m looking for, what I’ll be trying to hang onto: a particular species of spirit, not separate from but actually implicit in the material of existence.

And that’s what August is about to try to steal!

Getting a grip, adjusting stance

June 16, 2012

Speaking of making words sing, Mark at Baseball Bard sent along a pleasing poem for Father’s Day. “Better air in our lungs,” indeed!

Baseball as metaphor for life is cliche, but find a better one. Paternally considered, it’s hugely gratifying when your home-team’s players develop skills exceeding your own. Not just talkin’ baseball here. How’s writing camp going over there in Memphis, Older Daughter?

“When I Think”

May 27, 2012

The concluding snippet of Robert Creeley‘s lovely poem about time’s paradoxical presence in passing. Reminds me of Blake, Beatles (“In My Life”), Santayana, Spinoza, Einstein, Nietzsche, Bill Murray…

When I try to think of things, of what’s happened, of what a life is and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant, the sad days passing, the continuing, echoing deaths, all the painful, belligerent news, and the dog still waiting to be fed, the closeness of you sleeping, voices, presences, of children, of our own grown children, the shining, bright sun, the smell of the air just now, each physical moment, passing, passing, it’s what it always is or ever was, just then, just there. WA

Happy Memorial Day weekend. May your memories of it recur pleasantly, too.

Pocket poems

April 26, 2012

It’s Study Day, aka Dead Day, after classes end and before finals begin. It’s also national Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends. You can also share your poem selection on Twitter by using the hashtag #pocketpoem.

Okay, I have several pockets. I really like the Matthew Arnold poem I used as my semester benediction:

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

Casey at the Bat can take another pocket.

And Billy Collins’ “Morning,” of course:

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

But I guess my primary pocket poem is going to be that Emily Dickinson hymn to the powers of the mind (brain) I’m always citing in class, the one carved into the edifice of Buttrick Hall on the Vandy campus:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

It’ll be too warm for more pockets today. Wait ’til next year.


October 4, 2009

We shall not cease from explorationMissouriColumns1
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets

Nearly every semester, a student comes to me with an interview request– an assignment from another teacher. I’m usually happy to comply. Often as not, lately, the interview is conducted quickly and impersonally via email. But late on Friday we spent a solid hour in my office, after classes and other student consultations ended, discussing my background, influences, reasons for taking the path less traveled, advice for young people treading the same road. (My advice is short and simple: find your passion. Don’t major in, say, concrete unless you’re pretty sure that’s what you want to do with your life, lest you get stuck for good. For bad.)

Oddly, despite the gorgeously-beckoning weather outdoors and the pull of the weekend ahead, and at the tail end of a week of conceptual shot-gunning (in other words, way too much talking), I found myself in a talky  mood and enjoyed the interview. A person really ought to look over the shoulder periodically, pace Satchel Paige (“Don’t look back”), to trace the footprints back to their source. It’s low-tech GPS, Hansel & Gretel-style.

So there I sat, volubly recounting those long-ago days at Enormous Midwestern State University, under the tutelage of Professors M. and S. and B.and B. and vS. (having  bailed on PoliSci, after learning that what I cared about was really not comparative  statistics). I’m grateful for the fine introduction to philosophy they furnished, even though I sometimes gripe about the absence (then and now) of American philosophy from their curriculum.

EMSU was smaller then, but it’s grown into a larger and more epistemologically-oriented program. A fine one, but not fine enough– last time I checked– to provide a corner for the likes of William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, or Josiah Royce, let alone the Concord Transcendentalists they probably still consider too literary to count as philosophers at all. (As though being artfully adept with language disabled the reasoning function.) This is a sensitive point for me, as wave upon wave of freshmen, year after year, arrive in my Intro classroom without even the barest recognition of the giants of their own tradition. It’s as if a Greek student hadn’t heard of Socrates, a French frosh of Descartes, a German of Nietzsche, an Aussie of Peter Singer. (OK, I suppose there are Aussies who don’t know Animal Liberation.)

So my road in the woods has diverged sharply from theirs, as regards content-provision. But the point I made in the interview is that my profs were first-rate, and the first cause of my presence in this role now. Young Dr. M., fresh from UMass, was our pal. He had us over to his apartment, he joined us at our “Hegel Society” Friday afternoon sessions in Michael’s pub, now just a bulldozed memory. (But I don’t think he was there the day D.R. tried to demonstrate his free will via violent confrontation with a beer mug– an event I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of, over the years.) He was an analytic philosopher, treating it all as a fun and challenging puzzle but nothing to be solemn about.

Dr. vS., on the other hand, was older, more serious and intense in demeanor, mysterious and cryptic and continental. We lined up to be humbled in his Heidegger seminar, where we understood a tiny fraction of what he said about Sein und Zeit, but that didn’t matter. I recall giving up at least one weeknight when several of us met at the department after hours, trying in futility to comprehend dasein and its discontents. (But how grown-up we felt when Herr Doktor Professor wandered in unexpectedly at around 9 pm and saw us sweating over our text!)

What we got from him is what philosophy students– not just philosophy students, but them possibly more than most–  should always be most grateful to receive from a teacher: an urgent sense of the power and importance of ideas and thinking (and, my pragmatist models added, the equal urgency of connecting them fruitfully to experience and action).

As William James said in Pragmatism of C.S. Peirce, his lectures “delivered flashes of brilliant light relieved against Cimmerian darkness! None of us, I fancy, understood ALL that he said…” To say the least. But we were elevated by the effort, and improved by the habit of stretching.

It was vS. who first introduced me to Plato’s myth of the cave, inviting us to think of ourselves as fellow cave-dwellers seeking the light. Another humble pedagogical metaphor he offered portrayed us as fellow ladder-climbers, with himself just a rung or so ahead of us.

And it was vS. who gave me my first solid reassurance that I wasn’t wasting my time and talents in a philosophy classroom. He told me I wrote like T.S. Eliot. I’m still not sure what he meant, I think he was being kind but also corrective. But as a St. Louisan with a touch of anglophilia, I wasn’t insulted.

He also gave me my first real encouragement to pursue graduate studies. “I think there will be a place for you.” Doesn’t look like much, in so many words, but it meant everything. It’s what got me to Vanderbilt, into the life-changing orbit of John Lachs, and put me onto the American philosophers I’ve been wrestling with for most of my adulthood.

And so I returned in memory to the place where I began, beginning to know it for the first time.

BTW: my peers at EMSU were mostly first-rate, too. There turned out to be a place for many of them as well. And remind me to tell you about “Cruisin’ Cal” sometime, and C.M. who was fond of the poet “Cool-ridge” and who provoked my California-cool Journalism School roommate at a party, repeatedly addressing him as “Snide.” Are you out there, guys?

Who’ve I forgotten, Andy?

wondering, wandering

September 9, 2009

Wanderer“The presence of the observer in the landscape changes everything,” comments one interpreter of this iconic image (“Wanderer Above the Mists“) so often associated with Nietzsche but actually produced by David Friedrich (1774-1840), before Nietzsche’s birth.

“Changes everything,” indeed. The wandering observer is above all a questioner, a challenger of convention and authority, a re-arranger of mental landscapes, a shaker-up of status quos. That’s a pretty good first-draft definition of “philosopher,” and a fitting place to begin a chapter called “Philosophical Questions.”

The landscapes philosophers are most interested in surveying are initially  interior, having to do with our various estimations of value and how those judgments play out in the quality of our respective experiences of life. The allegorical image of a thinker mounting a peak and gazing upon altered perspectives is enticing and, as Nietzsche would have said, bracing. Not everyone welcomes the opportunity to see things from an unfamiliar vantage. Surprisingly many of us consider it bad manners or ancestral disrespect, even for a moment to entertain a different point of view. Not so Mr. Keating of “Dead Poets Society” (and Montgomery Bell Academy).

I’ve complained about Rodin’s immobile Thinker. The Wanderer is clearly in motion. He agrees with Nietzsche: “the best thoughts come while walking,” and climbing. (Depending on your own locomotive predilections, you might also like to add pedaling.)

So my message to Intro students today is: be brave, dare to pose a new question, look at it from fresh angles, and really wrestle with your response.  You show no disrespect to family and forebears by exercising your special birthright, as a young representative of the Questioning Species.  Climb up, look around, see things in a different way, find new ground and your own voice…

…and then tackle at least a couple of these Big Questions:

*If you had only a few minutes (days, years) to live, what would you do with them?

*What’s the purpose of your life?

*Which is more “real”–the chair you’re sitting on, the molecules that make it up, or the sensations and images you have of it?

*How could you prove that you have thoughts, feelings, and a mind?

*How, without contemporary astronomical evidence, could you prove that the earth moves ’round the sun?

*How do you know you’re not dreaming right now?

*Have you ever made a decision that was entirely your own, free and unconditioned?

*Do you have a good reason for wanting (or not wanting) to have children?

*Would you like to step into the happiness box?

Out of the box

August 20, 2009

Young Leonard Cohen (reports Sasha Frere-Jones) said “I haven’t a single concern” but to ask himself each dawn if he’s waking in “a state of grace.” If no? Back to bed.

That’s a clue to Emerson’s cryptic statement about the days being gods. The (idealized) best ones are independent, creative, without trivial concern, unencumbered by the errors and follies of their predecessors. Not a bad way to try and be.

Another very nice line in Frere-Jones’ Cohen piece: “On [Jeff] Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah‘ the verse melodies ascend, and the open-throated singing transforms the chorus into a kind of earnest incantation that the songwriter probably wouldn’t attempt himself. Cohen may sing about transcendence, but he seems never to fully endorse it.” I’m down with that too.

pandora(BTW: the “Pandora” virtual radio app put together a superb Cohen “station” for me on the Touch last night. How is it that everyone else, including my technologically-disinterested spouse, already knew about Pandora? What else have I been missing?!)

The 40% solution

August 8, 2009

Sonja Lyubomirsky says in The How of Happiness that half of happiness is “set” by genetics and 10% by “circumstances,” leaving a full 40% subject to our constructive, creative, intentional activity. “Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attraction or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities… what we do in our daily lives and how we think.”

Putting the vagueness of those numbers aside, this is the good news Positive Psychology brings: we possess “untapped potential for increasing our own happiness.” (Here’s how she explained it on ABC’s chirpy 20/20, and at the Google campus.) Happiness, “the Holy Grail, ‘the meaning and purpose of life,’ as Aristotle famously said, ‘the whole aim and end of human existence,’ ” is ours for the taking. 40% is a lot of leverage.

But isn’t there something unseemly and narcissistic about this movement? Lyubomirsky’s epigraph is the Mary Oliver poem “The Journey,” addressing a subject who “finally knew what you had to do” and turned away from other voices and their bad advice, “determined to save the only life that you could save.”  Sounds pretty self-absorbed.

But, “happier people are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative,” they live longer, they do more good. “If we become happier, we benefit not only ourselves but also our partners, families, communities, and even society at large.”  We owe it not just to ourselves but to everyone else to brighten up. Lyubomirsky says the new  science of happiness can tell us how. So that’s where we’ll begin in Happiness 101.

patriotic naturalist

August 6, 2009

My country is this dirt

that gathers under my fingernails
when I am in the garden.
The quiet bacteria and fungi,
all the little insects and bugs
are my compatriots. They are
idealistic, always working together
for the common good.
I kneel on the earth
and pledge my allegiance
to all the dirt of the world,
to all of that soil which grows
flowers and food
for the just and unjust alike.
The soil does not care
what we think about or who we love.
It knows our true substance,
of what we are really made.
I stand my ground on this ground,
this ground which will
recruit us all
to its side.

“Patriotism” by Ellie Schoenfeld , from The Dark Honey. © Clover Valley Press, 2009. Published with permission.

And in much the same vein:

“All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that’s now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.”

Conrad Aiken, who  died in 1973 and left instructions that his tombstone be made in the shape of a bench, so that peopleaiken could stop by at the grave and have a Madeira. Aiken’s tombstone in Savannah, Georgia, reads, “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner — Destination Unknown.” His gravesite became famous after John Berendt wrote about it in his true-crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994). Conrad wrote in a self-obituary: “Separate we come, and separate we go, / And this be it known, is all that we know.”

Writer’s Almanac 8.5.09

This, by the way, is the anniversary of the day in 1945 when bombers acting on behalf of the people of the United States deployed their atomic weaponry on 80,000 citizens of Hiroshima, Japan. Harry Truman said he  lost no sleep.

good question

July 24, 2009


Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Billy Collins