philosophy

8 posts

Philosophy Needs Metaphor Like Cookies Need Milk

flyfish

They say we stand apart from animals on one count and one count alone: we think metaphorically. What’s more, if you want to show off by thinking philosophically, metaphor is surely your friend.

This knowledge, paired with something that you as a writer hold deep knowledge of, is literary gold. Philosophically speaking (like Plato or Aristotle might if you gave them another chance), what is your pastime, passion, or skill like?

If you were to hew a poem from such a question, it would require descriptive and narrative skills (important stuff only, please) as well as the gift of comparing two unlike things that readers would agree are alike in some way, after all. Do it well and even the lion might crown you king of the beasts!

Wondering what this might look like? Today’s poem, by Jeffrey Harrison, gives us both a pastime (fly fishing) and a cliché (the same river twice) in order to create metaphor.

Could you do the same for something you love to do, Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Philosopher Slash Poet or Short Story Writer or Essayist? Rhetorical question, of course.

 

The Same River
Jeffrey Harrison

Yes, yes, you can’t step into the same
river twice, but all the same, this river
is one of the things that has changed
least in my life, and stepping into it
always feels like returning to something
far back and familiar, its steady current
of coppery water flowing around my calves
and then my thighs, my only waders
a pair of old shorts. Holding a fly rod
above my head, my other arm out
for balance, like some kind of dance,
trying not to slip on the mossy rocks,
I make my way out to the big rock
I want to fish from, mottled with lichen
that has dried to rusty orange, a small
midstream island that a philosopher
might use to represent stasis
versus flux, being amidst becoming,
in some argument that is larger
than any that interests me now
as I climb out dripping onto the boulder
and cast my line out to where the bubbles
form a channel and trail off in a V
that points to where the fish might be,
holding steady amid the river’s flow.

“All Genuine Poetry in My View Is Antipoetry.”

simic

Like Tony Hoagland, Charles Simic is no one-trick pony. In addition to his prowess in poetry, he knows his way around an essay, too. Yesterday, reading “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” I noted much of interest, both from Simic and from the poets and philosophers he quotes.

For instance, Wallace Stevens once said that the twentieth-century poet is “a metaphysician in the dark.” Simic, not so sure, compares this idea to chasing a black cat in a dark room. Not only is poetry on the loose in there, but theology and Western and Eastern Philosophies as well. So if you’re bumping heads a lot, don’t be surprised. And if there’s no cat to begin with, don’t be surprised by that, either. It may be the trickster Devil and not the cat that’s truly on the loose in the dark.

Surprisingly, Simic does not believe that poets know what they are going to write about in advance, simply sitting down to execute those ideas. He says, “My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc.,… where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear.”

He then shares the pleasing (to oft rejected poets like us) anecdote of the time he wrote a series of poems about ordinary objects such as knives, spoons, and forks. The poems were summarily rejected by a poetry editor who wrote back asking why the young Simic wasted his time on such topics.

Simic was struck by how an “insider” like this editor might consider certain topics worthy and serious enough to write about and certain others not. In his own defense, he quoted Husserl: “Back to things themselves.” (This reminds me of William Carlos Williams famous words, “No ideas but in things.”)

Added Simic: “An object is the irreducible itself, a convenient place to begin, it seemed to me. What appealed to me, too, was the discipline, the attention required, and the dialectics that went with it. You look and you don’t see. It’s so familiar that it is invisible, etc. I mean, anybody can tell when you’re faking it. Everybody is an expert when it comes to forks. Plus, all genuine poetry in my view is antipoetry.”

The gist of Simic’s philosophy on poetry comes after he quotes Jack Spicer: “Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.”

Simic riffs on this idea: “Everything would be very simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot.

“This is true of poems, too. We may start believing that we are recreating an experience, that we are making an attempt at mimesis, but then the language takes over,. Suddenly the words have a mind of their own.

“It’s like saying, ‘I wanted to go to church but the poem took me to the dog races.’

“When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants to go.”

The basis of all this talk? Simic’s love of philosophy—Heidegger in particular. Old Heidegger said that poetry could not be understood until thinking itself was understood. “Then he says, most interestingly, that the nature of thinking is something other than thinking, something other than willing.

“It’s this ‘other’ that poetry sets traps for.”

That’s philosophy for you. Something is what it is not. In short, according to Simic, “The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words….

“Being cannot be represented and uttered—as poor realists foolishly believe—but only hinted at. Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words.”

I’ll come back to Simic’s essay for more later. That seems enough to chew over for today. Plus, I have to open my poetry file now so my poems can write me.

Should be nice for a change, don’t you think? Like having your car tugged slowly through an automatic car wash, only with words and sentences instead of suds and brushes….

“The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art”

radical light

Voice. It’s that magical je ne sais quoi that draws us like magnets. To people, yes. But to writing, too: people heard through the medium of paper and ink.

From the earliest pages of Christian Wiman’s new book He Held Radical Light, I found myself attracted to the voice. To me, it seemed the voice of reason. Balanced, yet opinionated. Informed, yet informal.

And the biggest test of all? I found myself liking most of the poems that meant a lot to Wiman. As Facebook and Twitter have proven (though not to me, as I avoid both like the plague), there’s nothing people like better than listening to a sermon from the choir.

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the book as a whole. Today we’ll look at some of the early poems Wiman shares in this 115-page gem. On the first page, in the first sentence, we find Wiman reading the letters of A. R. Ammons “who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca, New York.” This leads to an Ammons poem, the one that would lend Wiman a title for his collection of short essays. Let’s listen in:

 

THE CITY LIMITS
by A. R. Ammons

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

 

From here, Wiman gets into anecdotes about listening to Ammons do a memorable (for the wrong reasons) poetry reading. Then to 80-year-old Donald Hall’s scary admission, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.” Those words gave Wiman a “galactic chill.” For a writer—especially a young writer—it’s like walking willingly into that dark night.

Which of course puts Wiman onto his themes for the book. Or shall I say its dichotomies: religion vs. atheism, fame vs. obscurity, faith vs. art. He offers up two looks at the same chasm: Jack Gilbert’s and Mark Strand’s. Here are the two poems, a bracing start for your Sabbath Day morning with Wiman’s commentary in  between:

 

They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.
—JACK GILBERT

 

“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means. Gilbert’s poem amounts to a kind of metaphysics for materialists. Something survives us, the poem suggests, some cellular imperative ravening past whatever cohesion kept us, us; some life force that is suspiciously close to a death force: it’s winter, after all, and not any ordinary winter but one from which even Puccini and Pittsburgh have vanished, an ur-winter, you might say, even a nuclear one. Of course on the literal level the poem is referring to the way information dies out in one man’s brain—Gilbert was actually from Pittsburgh, and I assume he loved Puccini—but the end of the poem reverberates in a way that is both beautiful and terrible. When you are ending, it can seem like everything is, and the last task of some lives is to let the world go on being the world they once loved. But what song—or what but song—can contain that tangle of pain and praise?”

And below, Mark Strand, who sheds some light on love. A love, perhaps, you haven’t thought of. I’ll leave it at that for today!

 

A.M.
by Mark Strand

. . . And here the dark infinitive to feel,
Which would endure and have the earth be still
And the star-strewn night pour down the mountains
Into the hissing fields and silent towns until the last
Insomniac turned in, must end, and early risers see
The scarlet clouds break up and golden plumes of smoke
From uniform dark homes turn white, and so on down
To the smallest blade of grass and fallen leaf
Touched by the arriving light. Another day has come,
Another fabulous escape from the damages of night,
So even the gulls, in the ragged circle of their flight,
Above the sea’s long lanes that flash and fall, scream
Their approval. How well the sun’s rays probe
The rotting carcass of a skate, how well
They show the worms and swarming flies at work,
How well they shine upon the fatal sprawl
Of everything on earth. How well they love us all.

 

Nota bene: If you think you might be interested in Wiman’s book, the excerpt above was taken from Chapter 1, which can be read in its entirety on Poetry Daily’s website here.

And if you are interested in hearing more of my voice, you can find it somewhere in Nepal (yet only 2-days delivery away) here.

One Poetry Editor’s Epiphany

wiman

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine and a poet himself, has been there and back. Not just the highs and lows that come with the life of a poet who gets hosannas one second (via acceptances) and brickbats the next (via rejections), but the more soul-searching variety—the one that comes with cancer, bone marrow transplants, and an arduous journey back.

I say this by way of explanation. Wiman’s new collection of essays are about poetry, yes, but they are also about art as faith (and faith as art). Thus, the subtitle in his new book He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art. Thus the reason Wiman walked away from one of the most prestigious editorships for other callings: art, love, faith coming in the form of writing, marriage, and Yale Divinity School (how’s that for a career shift of a higher order?).

The mix of art and faith, so seldom seen together in these troubled times (unless you’re in a museum or Florence, say), makes for a bracing read. And Wiman does not go wild with add-in poems by way of example—either his own or others’—instead choosing to fine tune his own prose voice by choosing support more selectively: the poets and the poems who have spoken to him on a transcendent level.

Who are these poets? They are A. R. Ammons (circular, as he appears at both beginning and end), Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Craig Arnold, Susan Howe, Denise Levertov, Jack Gilbert, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand (among others). Of this lot, I’d yet to meet Ammons and Arnold, but all that’s changed now, which is the beauty of reading books—they create a new you under the currency of change.

First, though, Wiman tackles himself, namely his youthful confidence that a poem could be written that would outlast him forever (meaning: enter the annals of eternity).  He no longer believes this. Even Shakespeare will face a time when there are no eyes to feast on his lovely pentameters, Wimar reminds us.

A quote I liked: “Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”

In addition to the poetry and the philosophy, there’s a rich vein of memoir running through this little book. Wiman recalls, for instance, reading poems sent to Poetry in Herculean 8-hour shifts. He writes, “An editor…especially one responsible for a monthly magazine, and especially one whose literary predispositions are, let us say, snarlish, quickly discovers that if complete critical approval is the only criterion for inclusion, then either he or the magazine is going under. I became a different kind of reader.

“I started out as a poet believing that greatness will out, as it were, that fate will find and save the masterpieces from oblivion no matter what. A decade of standing in that aforementioned storm, as well as making my way through the collected works of just about every American poet of note for the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement, has convinced me otherwise. Chance and power play a large part, and I feel sure that some genuinely great things fall through the cracks—forever.”

Wow. Your suspicions (and mine) affirmed! And even though you may be kidding yourself, you can’t help but believe that some of your stuff is some of that stuff. You know, the sterling silver being rejected as flatware. Through cracks the size of the Grand Canyon. In a cold, cruel poetry world where Chance and Power share the throne with an iron fist like Ferdinand and Isabella.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll share a few of my favorite poems among Wiman’s favorite poems. And continue writing for the cracks. Until then….

 

 

 

 

A Certain, Lovely Ghostliness

lake

There is more poetry in autumn than summer, it would seem. Traveling from the congested highways of an overcrowded Commonwealth to the quiet shorelines of a Maine lake proves as much.

Last night we arrived to high winds and whitecaps. This morning I arise to clear, Canadian air, sun, calm. That coupled with the possibility and hope that comprises every dawn if you wake and look for it.

Maine lakes in autumn are a different animal than their summer counterparts. For one, the vacationers have returned home to their jobs and their schools. The buzz of boats and jet skis has gone, as have the screams of swimming children, the voices from up shore and down.

Today, traffic on the lake, this early on, consists of the sun’s reflection and a pair of loons.

It’s human nature to say the loons’ appearance is personal. A postcard for me. As is the soft wind high in the pine tops. And the chickadees’ back-and-forth. All an antidote for any blues coloring the spirit.

The neighboring camps on either side? Empty. Though they are not closed and shuttered for the season, they seem circumspect, lips sealed out of deference to me.

I expected some leaves to be in the early stages of fall color, but no. Still green, celebrating their false summer born of our recent warmth and humidity.

Thoreau would like this, I think. The lake in autumn, after all, looks much like it would in his century. Or any younger, more innocent century, for that matter. Any time you find a vista that can make that claim, you’re in a good spot. Far from the madding media.

But Thoreau was not one to stay in one place, either. He was a restless spirit, a walking botanist, a bridegroom to changing trails, hills, and outlooks.

That’s OK, though. Details like this never get in the way of capital-R Romantic delusions. Those are like deep breaths of cool air, those metaphors for a life lighthearted. They can even be found here in the cabin, in rooms still crowded with the ghosts of loved ones from the summer months.

I once wrote in a poem about such loud silences — how they’re like a school playground in early summer, empty yet still reverberating with the echoes of their youthful essence.

Yes. Like so. A certain, lovely ghostliness. Something both spiritual and reflective like a poem. A poem like all unwritten poems. The laughing and elusive one, waiting to be captured and translated, forged from ethereal to real.

Writing Is a Solitary Pursuit, But…

hayden

Writing is a solitary pursuit, yes, as well it should be. And it seems best suited for the early morning hours.

But first things first. If you have a dog, you have a perfect excuse to walk it in pre-dawn darkness. Only this morning there was the full moon, making the headlamp unnecessary, and that white brushstroke of clouds around it, lining itself up for you and you alone. On mornings like this, only the brightest stars still have their say, and you say in kind, “Good morning,” with a humble nod of the head.

Back inside, dog fed, you make coffee like a Buddhist, listening as the water boils, enjoying the steam as it rises from the wet grounds, sniffing those warm echoes of distant Guatemala’s beans.

Waiting for the water to settle through the cone, I typically read a poem. This morning, opening Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems 1946-1991, it was “Of Brook and Stone” on p. 245:

 

Bo, may you someday,
as I now you,
here by our brook in a yellow
August afternoon,

bless your son in his absence
from you, you then
standing as I stand, alone
on our big stone.

And may, though many changes
will have transmuted many
things, this rock still
hold you, and this old brook’s

water still flow then
as now, murmuring
beneath your feet of why
and how and when.

 

Kind of sad and beautiful, that, reminding me of my own absent son, of how we have things that are “ours” too, things as simple and lovely as a big stone. The first sip of coffee couldn’t help but taste better after that.

As a youngster, I was a writer of letters. Thus, the daily arrival of mail in the summer was an event. Approaching the mailbox. Hearing the rusty hinge upon opening. Hoping the hollow would be filled with envelopes, at least one of which was addressed by a friend responding in kind.

Nowadays, as a writer, there is some of that in checking morning e-mail. Writing is a solitary pursuit, yes, as well it should be. But one always anticipates the arrival of a stranger’s e-mail. A stranger / editor accepting one or more of your poems.

This is one thing writers live for, no? For their work to speak in some way to a stranger. A stranger eager to share it with even more strangers through publication. That way the poem can become a big stone, too, words flowing below it like a brook.

You stand on the stone. You think of others who now hold it in common with you. The “why and how and when.”

 

The Possibilities in an “Endlessly Muddled Middle”

story

They say man is a storytelling animal, which therefor means he is a story-listening animal.

Children love story time, of course, but adults do as well. Teachers know that high school seniors will be as rapt to a great story read aloud as kindergarteners will. As for movies and the theater and television? One big, ear-and-eye-popping story.

In his book, Minds Made for Stories, Thomas Newkirk argues that all writing–expository, persuasive, descriptive–is essentially narrative at its root. Jonathan Gottschall, meanwhile, put out a bestselling book in 2012 called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. His thesis? You must be some kind of monster if your dislike stories (never mind that monsters make for wonderful stories, as the dark space under your bed can testify).

It’s hard to argue with all this, right? We are surrounded every day by unfolding storylines. Our lives are storylines, in fact. Ones where Free Will steps into the ring to do battle with Fate on a daily basis. We either write our own lives or watch helplessly as our lives get written for us.

Into this end-of-story fray steps William H. Gass. In his essay, “Finding a Form,” he begs to differ with the story enthusiasts. With relish, even! Hark:

“If words find comfort in the sentence’s syntactical handclasp, and sentences find the proper place of pieces of furniture in the rhetorical space of the paragraph, what shall control each scene as it develops, form the fiction finally as a whole?

“Well, the old answer was always: plot. It’s a terrible word in English, unless one is thinking of some second-rate conspiracy, a meaning it serves very well. Otherwise, it stands for an error for which there’s no longer an excuse. There’s bird drop, horse plop, and novel plot. Story is what can be taken out of the fiction and made into a movie. Story is what you tell people when they embarrass you by asking what your novel is about. Story is what you do to clean up life and make God into a good burgher who manages the world like a business. History is often written as a story so that it can seem to have a purpose, to be on its way somewhere; because stories deny that life is no more than an endlessly muddled middle; they beg each length of it to have a beginning and end like a ballgame or a banquet. Stories are sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in a building. Stories are a bore. What one wants to do with stories is screw them up. Stories ought to be in pictures. They’re wonderful to see.

“Still, a little story gets into everything. Thank the Ghost of Fictions Past for that.”

An amusing foray, I found it–especially the word play: “There’s bird drop, horse plop, and  novel plot.” And what about this: “Stories are interesting only when they are floors in a building.”

God save us from the 13th story, eh?

For poets, Gass’s rant is inspirational in its way, for which genre “screws stories up” more than poetry? Yes, yes, we have narrative poems, and we have those who love them. But more often the Hansel-and-Gretel trail is lost in the dark wood of a poem. Dark and lovely wood, one hopes.

I once wrote a young adult novel that actually got a reading and a handwritten reply from an editor at a top publishing house. Her rejection apologies were all about the plot, but she ended on a positive. “Beautiful descriptions,” she wrote. “The imagery is inspiring. Have you considered poetry?”

Truth be told, I had not. But the seed was planted, and when a seed germinates and pierces the earthy ceiling of possibilities above it, a story begins and rushes and commences the search for its “endlessly muddled middle.”

Therein lies the art, I think. No need to be spellbound with neatly-ribboned endings are advance-screen cheers for happily ever afters. Life is a muddle. And reading poems that muse on that muddle in unique and beautiful ways is a story unto itself. Leave plots to the rabble and the cemetery’s diggers. The end may just be another beginning.

If Humans Were Formulas…

formula

Not being of scientific or mathematical mind, I’ve never thought of humans in terms of a formula. Imagine my surprise, then, when I poked around Lin Yutang’s tome, The Importance of Living, and discovered this quixotic mix:

Reality – Dreams = Animal Being

Reality + Dreams = A Heart-Ache (usually called Idealism)

Reality + Humor = Realism (also called Conservatism)

Dreams – Humor = Fanaticism

Dreams + Humor = Fantasy

Reality + Dreams + Humor = Wisdom

Lin Yutang himself admitted that these formulas are “pseudo-scientific” and that he distrusts, to a degree, “all dead and mechanical formulas for expressing anything connected with human affairs or human personalities.”

And yet, as writers know full well, abstractions, when given expression through the medium of concrete objects and human character, can lead to poetry. Thinking in this manner, a poet might be moved to find ways to write, for instance, about heartache.

As proof, let’s look at helpful formula #2. Said poet might begin by mixing equal parts reality (concrete images) with the abstraction of a dream (human desire). The contrasts, written with an alchemist’s precision, could conjure poetry to be reckoned with–the type of poem readers read and react to with, “Yes! That’s it, precisely! A wistful, poignant moment captured by an actual moment in time I can identify with!”

The sixth formula might be the most challenging of all. Here the “show” vs. “tell” takes the form of three formidable objects being juggled at once. A slice of life (reality) teamed with mankind’s addiction for dreams, leavened with the spice of wry humor that expands the vision (and don’t you just love the warm smell of vision?).

Easier said than done? Surely! But what fun is writing without a challenge?

And look at formula #4! Does it not remind you of our world’s 1930s-style shift to right-wing governments and brash demagogues? I leave t to political writers who go where angels fear to tread by attempting political poems that don’t come off as didactic and sanctimonious. A good resistance poem is a rare wonder, and sometimes the best approach is to objectively describe the humorless dreamers of a past that never existed and leave it at that.

Meaning? I’m no fan of formulas, but I can see how Lin Yutang’s pseudo-scientific equations might serve as interesting prompts, a jumping-off point into a refreshing quarry pool of wonderful things.