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- 40 Days of Poetry: Reflections for Lent
My life closed twice before its close by Emily Dickinson
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Well I went and chose another Emily Dickinson poem for today’s 40 Days of Poetry offering. Emily D. is just far and above my favorite poet. She herself said “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s the way so many of her peoms make me feel, including this one, which I think is particularly appropriate for Lent .
During Lent I like to try to come to terms with the eventuality of my death, and what that means to me personally,so i appreciate any poem that helps me do that. Contemplating the possible meaning of death helps me to see more clearly exactly how significant and miraculous it would be be if I really can be redeemed and gain eternal life. If we like our life we tend to want to keep it. This poem is also about the deaths that occur within ourselves while we still breath the physical air of the earth. I would agree with Emily that living death occurs when we are separated from someone we love or something we desire so much that it – or they – have somehow grafted into our being.
But to be honest I so do not want to analyze this poem. It is like a riddle but the answer is best captured by the poem itself. To restate it line by line would sort of ruin it – like dissecting a flower. I do find the the final two lines especially powerful, rather like two punches to the gut. If Hell had no fire or other discomforts, even if it were a luxury condo with spa services, if it meant I was separated from everything and everyone I love it would be torture enough.
Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I am not absolutely sure The Prayer of St. Francis qualifies, strictly speaking, as a poem in the literary sense, but it has been on my mind all morning and will not leave me alone, so I am going to go ahead it as my offering for day six of my 40 Days of Poetry series. I sing in the choir at the church I attend and Sunday’s anthem was the song based on this prayer. It seems like I have been singing it all my life, beginning in the Catholic School I began attending in first grade, which I believe was taught be Franciscan nuns. We sang it constantly fo years at that school. I have never liked the tune which is too bad because right now I can’t get the annoying little jingle out of my head. But I love the words. Perhaps the tune has blocked the words from penetrating my skull all these years, which is all the stronger reason to post them on my blog today, tune-free.
The Prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but the first known printed version similar to this one was first published in a French periodical in 1912 – according to Wikipedia. I don’t think there is any need to analysis here, but there is plenty of need for reflection. My thought is that this prayer contains the one and only reason God allows the corrupt world to go on and on, seemingly getting more and more corrupt, although it was plenty corrupt at the time the Lord walked the earth in the flesh. We always think things are getting better but it always turns out we have only been trying to fix up a house God has told us long ago is already condemned. When a house is condemned, the only way you can redeem it is to tear it down and build a new one. So if we are alive as a human being in a condemned world scheduled for demolition and rebuilding, the best thing we can do is encourage ourselves and others to build up things that are not condemned, the things that will survive death, our own and that of this world: peace, love, joy, forgiveness, faith, hope, and light.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” Revelation 21:1
Dear March – Come in by Emily Dickinson
Dear March – Come in -
How glad I am -
I hoped for you before -
Put down your Hat -
You must have walked -
How out of Breath you are -
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest -
Did you leave Nature well -
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me -
I have so much to tell -
I got your Letter, and the Birds -
The Maples never knew that you were coming -
I declare – how Red their Faces grew -
But March, forgive me -
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue -
There was no Purple suitable -
You took it all with you -
Who knocks? That April -
Lock the Door -
I will not be pursued -
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied -
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come
That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame -
I hardly know why I chose this poem for Day 5 of this 40 days of Poetry series – except that is a fun poem and I am in an Emily Dickinson sort of mood and on this 1oth day of March the wind just blew it my way. I love how Emily D. personifies everything: events (“Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me -”), plants (“A Burdock – clawed my Gown -”), animals (“A bird came down the walk; He did not know I saw;”), emotions (“Hope is a thing with feathers – that perches on the soul -”), and as in this poem, intervals of time.
March is apparently Emily’s good friend; in comparison April is an annoyance. But does the poem suggest any insight for Lent? Only that Lent generallys occurs during the month of March. Also March is perhaps the great equalizer and moderator of the tumultuous four-season year: smoothly or roughly transitioning the climate from winter to spring, neither one nor the other. It is a n0-nonsense coming-to-terms sort of month, a time to sort out the facts without hand-wringing judgment or over-indulgent praise, conducive to the mood of Lent. Indeed both March and Lent are our friends if we welcome them in and spend some time contemplating what they offer.
My Life Has Been the Poem
by Henry David Thoreau
My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
Today’s offering for this 40 Days of Poetry series is the shortest poem I know of, but oh how many hours of discussion it could spawn about art verses life and internal values versus external. Writers, such as Mr. Thoreau, are often motivated by the desire to leave something of themselves behind when they leave this life, and I for one, am grateful that so many great minds did that. Some people can benefit humanity in that way.
But as for increasing the value of one’s own soul, I doubt that writing or doing any other art is of any more worth any other kind of work or activity. This is the message I am taking away from this little gem today: what increases the growth and value of the soul is the motive behind the activity with which we choose to occupy our time. Let’s consider one activity that is generally regarded as healthy for the soul: feeding the hungry. I could feed a hungry person for publicity or I could been a hungry person so that I might have the pleasure of congratulating myself for being such a wonderful person. Or I might feel a hungry person because I care about that person and genuinely wish to relieve his or her suffering. The hungry person will benefit no matter what my reason may be for providing food but only one of these motives is going to nourish my own soul. As for those times when my motives are mixed, God will be sure to sift the wheat from the chaff, and in moments of honest reflection I will have a pretty good sense of the wheat/chaff ratio.
The same principle goes for writers. Whether writing is of any value to my soul depends on my real reason for doing it, whether or not other people now or in the future will enjoy or benefit from what I write. As far as soul value is concerned, if I am writing to satisfy my ego or get a paycheck, I might just as well wait tables or paint houses or install carpet. I will get my reward in all cases, but the reward will be short-lived and probably small. But if I am waiting tables or painting houses or installing carpets because I truly care about the impact of my work on other people, then these occupations can nourish my eternal soul more than writing the deepest treatise on the meaning of life.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)
I chose this famous sonnet for my third day of my 40 Days of Poetry series because it hits on — or rather, pounds it in — the theme I touched on yesterday concerning the impermanence and unsatisfactory nature of investments in worldly systems. This is one of commonest themes in poetry, not to mention literature, scripture, and history, which is why it never ceases to amaze me that still, after all this time, we humans continue to sell our souls bit by bit for footholds in the current flimsy power structures. True the trade does frequently procure for us a life of material comfort, as long as we continue to play by the rules. I am aware of that I am guilty and do not blame those who do what they need to do to pay the bills. Poverty is depressing, painful, and unhealthy, and generally does not put one in a strong position to help others who are suffering.
Voluntary poverty is a good way to go, but to help others materially you have to have a source of excess goods or funds. Monks and nuns who choose to live a life of voluntary poverty have their basic needs taken care of and can use the church organizations money to run hospitals, orphanages, and other humanitarian efforts. Perhaps the best most of us can do is invest as minimally as possible in worldly systems so that we can retain as much freedom of thought and action as possible. To do this we need to try to keep our material needs and wants simple. Although I am tempted to judge those who go far beyond the desire to pay the bills and become a useful member of society and seek power primarily to feed their insatiable egos, Lent is not the time to judge others, so I will refrain.
The message has been around for a long long time but apparently is is a difficult one for humans to get into our heads. Jesus said it clearly. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Matthew 6:19-20
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton
I chose this oldie for my second day of my 40 Days of Poetry project because it touches lightly along the lines of my thought lately – about how relatively worthless is most success in the world when compared to even an atom of real internal mastery of any art or even of mastery of one’s own character. Reading that last sentence I am thinking how prudish and old-fashioned it sounds and I suspect that plain common sense has become old-fashioned and internal or non-publicized values have become relegated to the category of quaint old wives tales. Anyway, Lent is about God and God is about internal values that have no salient value in the world’s market. If you don’t think He exists I suppose anything relating to Him is going to sound like echoes from a remote mythology. Whatever the case with the fashions of the world, if no one else on the planet believed in God I would still believe because I sense strongly that without a sustaining, creative, and engaged intelligence there would not be a planet. To me not believing like the leaf who does not believe in the tree out of which grows its branch.
Anyway, I have often been anxious about whether I am doing the best I can with my small talents and afraid I am squandering my the little time I have to live in this world. Recently I read or heard somewhere that there is always sufficient time to do what God asks of you and because so much of our time is spent doing things we need not or should not be doing. Maybe to some extent I am willing to allow the truth of this, but I also know that to be alive in this world means you must have food, clothing, and shelter, and for the vast majority of humanity it takes nearly all one’s effort to provide these things for self and family.
This poem brings to mind the quote from Pascal’s Pensées that reads, ”All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Pascal says that is because being alone for any length of time with one’s own thoughts brings most people to a state of panic so intense that they will run out of the room screaming and seek any activity – a trip to the stale local bar, the nearest party, even a NASCAR event – rather than facing that horror. I am not sure that Pascal took into account the numbers of people who would starve or lose their shelter if they stopped their economic activity for 24 hours.
Maybe the point is that we don’t have to frantically busy for the sake of being frantically busy or to convince God that we are doing our fair share or using our gifts to the full extent of their capacity. God doesn’t care how busy we are. Probably it’s more like he tolerates our business because he knows we live in a flawed and corrupt system that requires us to work too hard for our daily bread. But once the daily bread it achieved, to keep working and doing things for the sake of appearing active or to avoid being alone is not pleasing to God and not particularly production for our own character development.
Tagged with: His blindness by John Milton
Lately I have developed a strange and possibly dangerous condition: a fascination with birds. I have always liked birds but is only quite recently that I have become fascinated. I am sure there have been years at a stretch in which I did not even register their existence. What could have brought this on? Since I am writing this post in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, and since this week’s theme is “Threes” I tried to search my soul and identify three reasons that might explain this sudden fixation with our feathered friends.
Reason 1: Art. This year I have decided to bring my art skills to a higher level through lots of focused practice, and birds are challenging and abundantly available models. They have unique shapes and colors and textures and can be stylized in endless ways and still be recognizable as birds. They all fit this category of “birds” and yet the variety seems infinite. There are the showy ones: the hummingbirds, the great blue herons, and rare sapphire flashes of blue birds in a bushy meadow – and there are more ordinary ones: the sparrows and robins and finches and cardinals. They are always there and readily available if I am quick and observant enough.
As I look back on my artwork from the past few years I see that birds have been appearing in my pictures for years. Of course I did not pay attention to how to portray actual birds – my birds up until recently are mostly cartoons, a graphic symbol to designate the idea of ”bird.” Now I want to learn to draw and paint more about the actual animal. The last picture shown below is a sketch I did recently as I was thinking about the difference.
Reason 2: Politics. By politics I mean all the events of the world – the sorts of things that appear on the news programs as if they are the only things that matter: betrayals, scandals, wars, and all the ways those in political or economic power are currently using everyone else to further their own interests. It’s all so ugly and some of it is scary, especially when the future world that some of people envision does not include me or the people and things I love. If you start thinking about politics and world affairs too much you can get anxious, irritated, angry, and depressed. You want to know what is going on in the world but you don’t want to sucked down a hole of useless emotion. It helps that right outside my window I can witness a parallel universe full of pretty flying creatures who have absolutely no concern with the human society and its politics. My world intersects with theirs only where I sprinkle the birdseed. I could make a similar statement about any sub-system of the animal kingdom, but the bird world is special because it is complex and plainly visible if you just look. Of course, the more you watch the little critters the more apparent it becomes that they have politics of their own.
Reason 3: The double thrills of symbolism and coincidence. Just like when you have set your heart on a new car of a certain type and suddenly you begin noticing Jettas or Mustangs or Jeeps that you you never noticed before, when your mind goes to the birds you suddenly see them fluttering up from the pages of your books and peeking out of pictures, and in my case, sometimes flying into my living room though the chimney. Recently I finished Donna Tartt’s wonderful novel The Goldfinch, in which of course the central symbol – the image that ties the entire complex plot together into a neat whole – is this 17th-century painting of a bird by an artist named Carel Fabritius.
About the time I finished that book my teenage son happened to take this picture in our backyard:
You see the little guy on the left looking at straight as us? That is a goldfinch. You can sure see the resemblance to the the stoic little guy in Fabritius’ painting, especially in the facial expression:
So birds in appear symbolically all over literature and spill out of the pages into our lives. It is always fun to discover connections. In closing, here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul -And sings the tune without the words -And never stops – at all -And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -And sore must be the storm -That could abash the little BirdThat kept so many warm -I’ve heard it in the chillest land -And on the strangest Sea -Yet – never – in Extremity,It asked a crumb – of me.
I thought long (off and on for a day) and hard (tossed around several options) about how to mark Lent this year. Even though I do not currently participate in formal Catholocism, Lent it still important to me. It “lends” structure and background to the year and to time itself, which without our rituals and ceremonies and deadlines can become limp and aimless. Of course the best thing is being in the moment, appreciating the beauty that comes our way, and doing whatever it is we feel like doing. But these moments of freedom become more valuable and meaningful when they happen in the context of some structure. I admit don’t like a lot of structure, but I do like Lent, a period in which His yoke is easy and His burden is light. It’s the magic period of 40 days, not too long but long enough to do something transformational. Of course any of us can choose any 40 days of the year to make some commitment to God or to ourselves. But Lent is already hanging there in space and time, a hefty chuck of the calendar juicy with history and tradition, a blank check that renews every year, ready to spend however we choose.
There is nothing I really need or want to give up, so any resolutions must be on the positive “doing something” side of the equation. I have made a private resolution or two between myself and God, and also this public resolution: to share a poem a day and probably to write a few lines of reflection about it. “And how is this a spiritual discipline?” you may ask. Well if I were to stick strictly to the rich poetry of the Bible – the Psalms, the book of Job, etc. the answer to that question would be apparent. The way I see it, if Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life as he clearly claims to be, then all poetry that captures even a wisp of truth or life or direction must relate to Him in some way. I need to re-connect with poetry and through it, if my theory is correct, I will connect with God in new and unexpected ways. This blog gives me a place to do it and also to share with those who are interested.
I am calling this series 40 Days of Poetry but since I am starting on the second day of Lent perhaps I will need to go a day over schedule all the way to Easter Monday. Hope I can keep this up. I could do the whole 40 days with just Emily Dickinson poems, but I want to use this as an opportunity to explore other poets. To get started I went to PoemHunter.com and checked out their poet of the day who turned out to be Arthur Hugh Clough, a poet I was not familiar with who lived 1 January 1819 – 13 November 1861 and was from Liverpool, England and worked as an assistant to Florence Nightingale. Out of his peoms I found this gem which seems appropriate for beginning a daring new 40-day journey through the wilds of poetry…..
All Is Well
Whate’er you dream, with doubt possessed,
Keep, keep it snug within your breast,
And lay you down and take your rest;
And when you wake, to work again,
The wind it blows, the vessel goes,
And where and whither, no one knows.
‘Twill all be well: no need of care;
Though how it will, and when, and where,
We cannot see, and can’t declare.
In spite of dreams, in spite of thought,
‘Tis not in vain, and not for nought,
The wind it blows, the ship it goes,
Though where and whither, no one knows.
Arthur Hugh Clough
This book choice was one of my attempts to keep up with current literature. I have to choose carefully because there are so many books and so little time. But I know I like Wally Lamb and I think my time investment in We are Water was worth the effort on many levels. Here’s my review from Goodreads:
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We are Water is a beautiful contemporary example of the family secrets novel genre. The characters are complex and multi-layered, neither all good nor all bad, and highly convincing as real human beings. The main characters are Orion and Annie Oh, a middle-class Connecticut couple, and their three adult children: twins Andrew and Ariane Oh and their sister Marissa. I found them all so realistically described that they came to life, although perhaps Orion is a little too good to be true. The only thing I will reveal here is that after 27 years of marriage Annie decides to leave the marriage. The plot is nicely interwoven with the characters and involves art, one of my favorite subjects, something I did not know when I chose to read the book. I knew only that is was a family drama by Wally Lamb, an author I like.
I enjoyed the way the story deals with contemporary issues and how they affect ordinary people. It touches on racism, gay marriage, abortion, in vitro fertilization, PTSD among returning veterans, mass shootings, and the culture clash between evangelical Christians and the secular world — all through the lenses if one family of five. Lamb is not preachy and I think generally deals fairly with all sides of most of the issues. In general he comes down on the side of acceptance and tolerance of all people, flaws and all, except perhaps pedophiles, and even the pedophile character is allowed to speak and give his side of the story.
You begin to feel sympathetic toward a character and then find out something about the character that you have no sympathy for, but by this time you are already invested in the character and can’t help caring about his or her welfare, just as in real life if the first thing you know about a person is that he is a child abuser you can neatly stamp and file that person as worthy of contempt; but if the person is someone you know well, and later you discover he or she is has a horrible character flaw, it is more difficult to dismiss him. Unless you are Dr. Laura – who actually appears in the novel: an entire chapter is comprised of a phone call to her program from the son Andrew and his fiancée. Very entertaining. Other than the Dr. Laura chapter, the story is told by alternating characters, which works well. I love hearing the same event addressed from different points of view.
The novel is nicely written, absorbing, and does what fiction does best: lets you get deep inside the heads of other people and further explore what it means to be human in this crazy world.
The Education of Henry Adams was assigned reading in college but somehow I don’t think I actually read it. Maybe I read the Cliff’s Notes. Anyway, I finally got around to doing the assignment and it was all new to me, my sole memory from any alleged previous reading being the title. Why, after so many years, did I suddenly get brave enough to try it again? Because in the last book I read, Informed Common Sense, Mr. Nock talks what an anomaly its popularity is (that is, was – he was writing in the early 1930s) because Mr. Nock considered most books that were popular with the masses to be low-quality garbage. Apparently he did not consider The Education to be garbage was therefore surprised that it had become a bestseller. This is not the first time I have allowed Albert Nock to influence my reading. You could mine out a 24-caret gold reading list from anything you read by him.
* * * * * * * * *
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I gave the book four stars but it really ought to be more like 4.5. I just couldn’t give a full 5. It is long and strange and after the first two chapters I thought I would never be able to stick with it but then I got sucked into narrative and slowly became fascinated. If this were a 10-point rating system I’d give it a 9. This book is an unusual autobiography, ironic and self-effacing which is ironic in itself since Henry Adams was born into a family firmly established in history and society and had access from the beginning to the most powerful, richest, and most famous people living in the 19th century. He is an eye-witness six decades of history and interacts with many famous people including world leaders,scientists, artists, and writers. For example he saw Abraham Lincoln shortly after he was elected President and gives us his vivid impressions. Henry Adams had every possible door of opportunity wide open to him but the entire book is about his inability and lack of desire to commit to a definite position in the world. As with many people who cannot commit to a position in society he eventually becomes a writer. He ends up being quite successful but he tries to convince the reader that any success he had was happenstance and in spite of himself.
Adams presents himself as a man trying to attain an education and continually failing to find what he is seeking. What Adams means by education is sort of part of his education, the sort of thing he thinks he will recognize when he sees it. The third person device works well because you can imagine Adams standing off to the side observing his foolish clueless self as he goes through all the motions of life. Even more than with most books, your reaction to this book is going to depend on who you are and what you bring to it. I remember being assigned the book in in college and being unable to make heads or tales of it. Now in middle age I find it fascinating: through the eyes of Henry Adams you get a thorough inside education of the politics, philosophy, and science of 19th century Europe and America with some art and music thrown in. His insights and observations about human nature are the aspect of the book I personally find the most interesting. He lives 18 years into the 20th century but ends the the book in 1906, wrapping up his life with a grand theory about the nature and mechanism of history. I felt happy for his sake that he was able to find a meaningful way to make sense of his life, even though – to the extent I understand it – I don’t think I agree with his theory.
Welcome to my blog….This is my wordshop where I try out ideas for my essays and first book. I write about literature, life, and mostly end up in the places where life meets literature. I love comments!
- 40 days of Poetry, Day 7: My life closed twice by Emily Dickinson March 12, 2014
- 40 Days of Poetry, Day 6: Prayer of St. Francis March 11, 2014
- 40 Days of Poetry, Day 5: Dear March – Come in – by Emily Dickinson March 10, 2014
- 40 Days of Poetry, Day 4: My Life Has Been the Poem by Henry David Thoreau March 9, 2014
- 40 Days of Poetry: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley March 8, 2014