Category Archives: nature of art

Poem E

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God’s Time Is the Best Time

(English subtitle of Cantata No. 106, by J. S. Bach)

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

The Rockettes

The Rockettes

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

I don’t like to explicate my own poems — I let my students do that, and then they explain them to me, and then I get them (the poems; not the students) — but I am not as confident of this poem’s integrity as I would like to be… I keep changing and expanding it… although I think it’s finally Done. I just don’t quite get it! My own poem!

This poem, “Life Is Poetry (Now),” is on my website’s home page, and it is the theme of my free online course “How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically.”

Tap Kids

TapKids again, astounding the audience (see short video below)

And I am going to do a bit of superficial explication, because I’m not sure what the poem is trying to tell me. If you approach poetry-writing properly, your poems will outrun your conscious understanding, just as dreams do. And puzzling them out is usually fun and revealing.

Below are some of the messages I think the poem is trying to express. But I still keep missing that train….

Being ‘on’

If you’re always running after your life, you won’t be paying attention and you’ll miss the signals

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

Fred Astaire and dancers in the 1935 romantic comedy TOP HAT

But if you must live chaotically, do even that with panache; be magnificent, even if you arrive halfway through your big number

Be bold
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love – Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Don’t ever, in anything, go on autopilot. I heard recently that Orthodox Jews have prayers and rituals for every conceivable activity, even those that occur in the… um… powder room

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Timing is everything… being in sync with the rhythms that surround you, but also knowing which ones to pay attention to [Ah. I think there’s something here. Not in sync. Unaware of the rhythms]

Brutus, the speaker in the Julius Caesar excerpt above, seems to imply that if you miss the train (“the tide… at the flood”), it’s over, and you might as well just mark time until you croak. I, however, think we have lots of chances, an infinite number. The train keeps coming back… it just doesn’t stay very long in the station… so, travel light; don’t let your baggage weigh you down

BUT THERE’S MORE. I’m still missing something. Look! Except for the fellows below, all the images I chose to illustrate “the poetic life” are big clumps of dancers. I suppose stranger things have happened, but I’m pretty sure that I will never be a Rockette.

The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia
The Scottish Pipe and Drum Band, Alexandria, Virginia

LIFE IS POETRY (NOW)

When you find your spot and hit your stride,
regardless of how hard you tried to be
on time and didn’t quite succeed, yet neatly,
gracefully, and perfectly in step,
slipped into your appointed place as if
you were the missing tuba player in
a marching band, but landed with a grin
and saucy bow, finessing now,
extemporaneously starring in
an unpremeditated bit, and everyone
applauded, just assuming it was part
and parcel of the entertainment — then
you’ve made a work of art out of a chance
anomaly, and life is elevated
from the ordinary: It’s a symphony,
a dance, a comedy… perchance, by grace,
beyond felicity, to be accompanied
by ginger tea and love and handmade lace
and wondering at Coleridge and Blake… now
you must get some pixie dust (before
you are allowed a bit of rest and solitude)
to give you extra effervescence and
a bit of magic, and, not merely reading
sonnets of Rossetti, Keats, and Sidney,
be a sonnet, one with careful, offhand
rhyme, magnificent. Be poetry;
its tide is in, its time may not soon be
so sensible again

STUDENTS

  1. Obviously, “be a sonnet” and “be poetry” suggest metaphors. In what ways might a person be, metaphorically, a poem? (I want your wild guesses here; there are no wrong answers)
  2. Why a sonnet, do you think? Why not a rondeau or a cinquain?
  3. The poetic device called sibilance is conspicuous in this poem. What functions might be served by the use of sibilance here?
  4. Life, metaphorically, is a symphony, a dance, a comedy — something orchestrated, choreographed, managed in a way that the poet (who would be me) evidently believes to be a step up from an entropic, path-of-least-resistance lifestyle. How does the poem indicate — explicitly, or by use of rhetoric — that the poet doesn’t want this “managed” life to exclude spontaneity?

Music Heals!

(Suggestion: Listen to the movie and TV themes without watching, and play “guess the movie (or television show).” Really. I mean it. Do you have something better to do with the couple you’re having for dinner?

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Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

Kevin McCormack and Riverdance

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Detour

The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line

In the poetic life, the shortest possible distance between two points is not always a straight line

MAP LEGEND

  1. We plan to go to the Washington Monument (intended route = straight vertical line)
  2. Just as we are leaving, we receive emergency phone call: Grandma has fallen down the steps. We drive as quickly as possible to Grandma’s, dodging kangaroos along the route; Grandma is able to walk (a very good sign) and knows her name, what day it is, who is president of the U.S., etc.
  3. We take her to see Dr. Checkerout, who says that Grandma is hale and hardy and that the very best remedy for the small laceration on her left nostril (splinter on steps) would be to spend the day at the Washington Monument (Is that a coincidence, or WHAT?)
  4. We drive back to Grandma’s so that she can get her hat and camera and put on her walking shoes, and we set out again for the Washington Monument

  5. Oh, no! There is road construction in the vicinity of the Washington Monument; we must detour via Bermuda
  6. Well, since we have to go there anyway, we enjoy the sun and the surf in Bermuda, along with numerous tropical drinks containing rum; Grandma is sloshed, so we check in to a hotel
  7. We resume our trip to the Washington Monument the next morning, arriving without incident and having a wonderful time

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course
Lesson 34
Dealing Poetically with Adversity

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

roadsign_kangaroo2 

The poetic life is nothing if not flexible.

In the above diagram, the shortest distance (as the crow flies) from our house (upper left) and the Washington Monument is represented by a vertical arrow. Once we had learned of Grandma’s accident, however, it was not possible for us to take that route, poetically speaking. The shortest distance had become much longer. If you are going to live poetically, you need to use mystic math.

Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

Is it so foolish to deny that 2
plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.

 

How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?

 

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.

 

One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

 

fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.

 

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree.
 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.

 

by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies,”  “tulips,” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

 tulips_magentas

The Ashley Incident

My son Jack and daughter-in-law Ashley live next door with their children, one of whom is Little Jack, who is almost a year old.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanner
Computerized tomography (CT) scanner

Last Sunday, I got a 7 a.m. phone call from Ashley. She was obviously in huge pain. I told her to go immediately to the hospital, where the emergency-room personnel discovered via numerous expensive high-tech methodologies that she was hemorrhaging, which I could have told them without the machines and the expense. After about six hours spent groaning in agony, Ashley was rushed to the operating room for exploratory surgery, anesthetized, split open like a salmon, and relieved of a couple of pints of blood and a ruptured ovarian cyst.

i-40_map
Red line = I-40

They sent her home on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery, with an incision the length of Interstate 40 and instructions not to lift the baby or any other heavy object for two weeks. This was one of those unfunded mandates doctors and hospitals are so fond of issuing, because of course they did not send Mary Poppins or Mr. T  home with Ashley.

“How,” I asked myself, “would a Person Living Poetically respond to Ashley’s dilemma?” This was not an idle question, because I tend to feel that I am to blame for everything, including World Hunger, and that everything is therefore my responsibility. I am a pathological People-Pleaser, and my default definition of myself (CONtentwise) is “one who ties up all the loose ends in the universe.”

As it happens, I had a lot to do this week, and Ashley’s plight arose at a very inconvenient time for me. I had deadlines to meet and telephone interviews to conduct and no clean underwear.

...telephone interviews to conduct...
…telephone interviews to conduct…

Theoretically, it would have been possible for me to keep to my schedule, just as it would have been possible for the Washington Monument–bound family to call 9-1-1 for Granny and go on its merry way. But if one has decided to live poetically, such choices are no longer simple. Another possibility would have been to help Ashley and grouse about it continually, moaning and groaning every time I had to carry little Jack from one room to another or, worse yet, up a flight of stairs, which I did, several times, moaning and groaning shamelessly because, after all, I didn’t drop him, so I attained the victory only slightly tarnished.

Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)
Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)

Fortunately, I had done the decluttering exercise in Lesson 5.1 and I had finished the personal inventory assigned in Lesson 13, so I wasn’t being a knee-jerk do-gooder when I decided to devote as much time as was needed to Ashley for as long as she needed it. Using the Golden Rule, it turns out, is a pretty good way of making decisions much of the time, and what I would want Others to Do unto Me, if I had just lost 25 percent or so of my blood supply and had major abdominal surgery and if I were lurching around due to the pain of an incision that looked like the Aleutian Islands, is, I would want Others to cater to my every whim and relieve me of all responsibility for babies, diapers, six-year-olds, meals, and the like.

Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)
Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)

So that is what I have been doing instead of attending to my blogs and my deadlines and my laundry. That, and accepting with gratitude the various casseroles and salads and desserts supplied by the Church Ladies, because that is what Church Ladies DO, just as helping one’s grown children when they are in need through no fault of their own (as opposed to being in need because they have screwed up Big Time) is what I do, when I am living poetically. 

Assignment 34.1

  1. Identify as many poetic devices as you can in “Mystic Math,” above.
  2. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  3. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.  

* * *

 

To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

   

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self

 

Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:

THE OTHER SIDE

"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.
 

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.
 

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.
 

THE SUMMER OF GOING BAREFOOT  

"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.
  

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.
 

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.
 

ANNA SIGHS   

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.
 

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.
 

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.
 

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.
 

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.

 

In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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The Darkness. Is Dark.

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Assignment 17.2
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

Figure 1: Working Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

 

Perpetrating truculent profligacies can put you in a pickle

First, review our working definitions of art, poetry, and verse (above).

There is such a thing as bad writing, which, simply put, is writing that doesn’t communicate well. I suppose that bad poetry exists, too, though I prefer to think of it as “amateur verse.” Poetry, as we’ve discussed, generally requires some knowledge of rhetorical devices and the disciplined application of them.

Below are excerpts from poems appearing in the New American Poetry Anthology* (1988 edition). The NAPA sponsored a competition and, one infers, accepted most of the entries, calculating that the poets whose work was published would buy copies of the book (at $50 each plus shipping; back then, $50 got you a couple weeks’ worth of groceries). There are some fine examples of poetry in this book, although the excerpts below are not among them. Common themes are loneliness, love lost, love found, regret, aging, and, of course, The Darkness, with its pesky ineffable primitivities.

Amateur Verse?

Table 1: Amateur Verse?

I do not criticize the poets. Their sentiments are often moving, even heart-wrenching. The NAPA exploits the poets and their emotions, however, by characterizing amateur verse (lines of dubiously metrical text) as prizewinning poetry in order to make a profit.

Please copy the table, add your comments to mine (column 2) based on our working definition of poetry, on what you’ve learned about rhetorical devices, and on your subjective responses to the poems. E-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Feel free to disagree with my opinions and offer your justification for doing so. I will not grade your submission, but I will return it to you with comments.

_______

* Not to be confused with Donald Allen’s 1960 project The New American Poetry

Next: Everybody Wants to Be Happy

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Witches and Metaphors

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 15
Chapter 5: The Creaky Old House

 

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An Introduction to Poetic Devices

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado — A far cry from Smelly Creek

I grew up in a big, old house that creaked. It was especially creaky just when I was trying to fall asleep at night. The creaking was sinister, my brother, Johnny, told me. Actually, he probably didn’t say “sinister”; it would have come out “thinithter.” I think the word he used was “demonic.”

Ours was a fine, solid, gabled, Tudor-style house set about halfway down a long hill, which terminated at Smelly Creek. If we were playing ball in the front yard, and the ball got loose, it usually rolled into the storm drain. We would run or bicycle as fast as we could down the hill, trying to beat the ball to the creek. The ball always won.

The youngest, weakest kid on the scene – usually me – got bullied into retrieving the ball. It was only a matter of removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, and wading into the sludge a couple of feet. This was not the Oneonta Gorge.

The problem was that eventually we would have to go inside and face our parents, who had a preternatural sensitivity to Smelly Creek fumes. Even if you’d washed the mud off your legs and feet with the hose, they Knew. The odor of Smelly Creek gets into your lymph nodes or something.

Evil in the attic

I hated bedtime and the sinister creaking of the house a lot worse than I hated getting in trouble about Smelly Creek.

Where did the creaking come from? It depended on whom you asked. Both my brother and my dad were very good at explaining things. Dad’s explanations were gentle and reassuring. Johnny’s explanations were creative and lurid.

Dad’s explanation. “Houses – especially old houses – creak because of changes in heat and humidity.

“Heat and humidity make things expand, the way our front door and the frame around it expand in summertime. (They expand toward each other until they are actually touching, which makes them ‘sticky’ and hard to open.)

“When things get cooler or drier, or both, they contract – that is, they get smaller. That’s why our front door opens much more easily and smoothly in the winter.

“When the air gets cooler at night, the change in temperature makes things in our house, including the floorboards, contract. If it is wintertime and our furnace goes on and off throughout the night, the floorboards will warm and cool, warm and cool, as the furnace changes the air temperature.

A Resident of Our Attic

A Resident of Our Attic

“The creaking sound is the expansion and contraction of the floorboards and other parts of the house.”

Johnny’s explanation. “Witches and monsters live in our attic. Dozens of them. The witches are green and warty, and the monsters are slimy, hairy, warty giants, with worms slithering out of the warts. At night they come out of their hiding places and they plot their wickedness. They are probably hungry. I wonder what they like to eat?”

(On two sides of our attic, near the angle of the roof’s steep slope and the floor, my parents had built long, narrow closets. From the doorway, which was on one end, you couldn’t see the wall of the far end, even with a flashlight. For all I knew, those closets stretched to Argentina. Certainly they were roomy enough for a few dozen warty witches and slimy monsters and maybe a couple of smallish dragons.)

Quiz: Which explanation was correct?

(a) Dad’s, the scientific, rational one

(b) Johnny’s, the “make-believe,” sadistic one

(c) Neither

(d) Both

  • The correct answer is (d) Both.

The witches and monsters were real enough, but they didn’t live in the attic. They lived in my mind – as metaphors for fears I couldn’t name. By personifying my nighttime terrors, my brother gave me a method of escape: I could sleep at a friend’s house or I could crawl in bed with my parents (which, now that I think about it, might very well be why I am the youngest child).

A few times, as a last resort, I slept in the bathtub, with all the lights on. Somehow I just couldn’t envision witches and monsters in our cheerful bathroom with shiny yellow tile. I stopped taking refuge in the bathroom when Johnny told me about the flesh-eating cockroaches.

The monsters in my mind

Pink-cheeked child by day, quivering puddle of protoplasm by night, I heard every creak as a monster’s stealthy progress toward his supper. But if it hadn’t been for the haunted attic, I would have had to find something else to be afraid of.

Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall

Scary times

Right around the time I was born, a lot of bad things happened to our family: deaths of close relatives, polio, pneumonia, and other troubles, one right after the other, like a bunch of homicidal Rockettes parading onstage at Radio City Music Hall.

While my mom was pregnant with me, she had surgery on an ovarian tumor – just a few inches from where I was curled up, sucking my thumb and reading The Return of the Native, to get it over with. Surgery to remove an ovarian tumor during pregnancy isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with the availability of Modern Medical Advances such as

(a)   Sharpie Permanent Markers, which have made the old Random Amputation and Hit-or-Miss Mastectomy systems obsolete;

(b)   miraculous new antibiotics; and

(c)   even more miraculous new bacteria that go “Nyah, nyah, nyah” to the new antibiotics and zoom off to overrun entire subcontinents while the new antibiotics are still in basic training, learning to salute.

So imagine how terrifying this surgery must have been to my mother in 1947 – long before hospitals had acquired advanced lifesaving technology – when the practice of medicine was so primitive that your invoice was written in pencil on one of those pads of newsprint-type paper with blue carbon-paper backing that made a mess all over your hands. But the fees were much lower then (Item: Bullet to bite on ……… 8 cents).

Babies feel the sadness and fear that surround them. When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

That sadness and fear stuck to me for years, especially at night. Daytime was a different story. I was a happy child when the sun was shining and there were books to look at and friends to play with… brave souls with whom I even ventured into the attic, a cozy retreat on a winter afternoon.

But at night, alone in my bed, I was beset by (literally) nameless fears — until Johnny named them: Gruntilda, Aradia, Sasquatch, Bozaloshtsh, the Blob, Hecate, Medea, the Giant Frog Creature, Professor McGonagall, and, of course, (1) Aundulim, Baurobalinirng, Calroth, Falul, Gbargot, Ingoglor, Mamorgur, Orirchaur, Thau, Thaug. Knowing your adversary’s name might be cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort.

Draw me a picture

Fears are intangible. You can’t draw a picture of “a fear.” The cause — a rhinoceros charging toward you in Sumatra — and the effects of your fear might be tangible, especially if your heart is pounding and there is sweat pouring down your face. But emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, dread, and anger, are intangible.

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

A Rhinoceros Is Tangible

Intangible things are not experienced through the five senses, through which your body tells your brain what’s physically happening around you (and inside you, if you are feeling the pain of, say, Acid Indigestion because, for example, you have just eaten, with a spoon, the entire can of Betty Crocker Sour Cream Frosting that you bought to ice the cupcakes you made for your son to take to school on his ninth birthday, after you had given up on Never Allowing Your Children to Ingest Food Containing Processed Sugar).

Which has more power: the tangible or the intangible? Ideas or objects? Emotions or facts? Fantasy or physical actuality?

All art, even that which is solid and realistic, depicts the intangible. Writing poetry is like painting feelings and ideas. When a poem is honest and courageous, the poet can sometimes see herself in it — maybe for the first time in her life.

Key Vocabulary — Figures of Speech

A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetoric, or locution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. Wikipedia

Here are some examples:

PERSONIFICATION: A description of something nonhuman — often a feeling or an idea — in human terms, giving it human attributes.

  • Adolph Hitler personifies evil.
  • Santa Claus is a personification of generosity and love for the innocents.
  • In her wicked stepmother, Cinderella saw the personification of cold, cruel vanity.

This sentence — “Breaking the grip of the vicious wind, the sun’s warm fingers stroked my face” — personifies the wind and the sun, giving them “hands” with which to grip and stroke.

OTHER NAMES for assigning human traits or feelings to nature or inanimate objects are pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism. Examples from above are the wind’s grip and the sun’s fingers.

Other relevant definitions

TANGIBLE: Able to be experienced with the five senses.

INTANGIBLE: The opposite of tangible. Similar in meaning to…

ABSTRACT: Existing in the mind but having no physical reality.

LITERAL: Physically actual. LITERALLY: In a literal sense.

Dangling from the helicopter, Marcia was literally high as a kite.

VIRTUALLY: Almost completely; for all practical purposes.

In the storm, without a phone and miles from any neighbor, Lobelia was virtually cut off from civilization.

FIGURATIVELY: In a manner of speaking; metaphorically.

Mom was boiling mad (figuratively speaking, of course).

NOTE: Contrast virtually and figuratively with literally.

 

Assignment 15.1

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

Henry VIII, 1491-1547, King of England 1509-1547

The story of King Henry VIII of England, below, illustrates the power of intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs to produce tangible results. Using the Henry VIII story as model, create a similar illustration for one of the suggested topics, or choose your own — listing the relevant intangible ideas, emotions, or beliefs, and their tangible results.

Suggested topics

1. Adolph Hitler was a charismatic orator. During his rise to power, he spoke to mass audiences, exhorting them to cast off “the yoke of Jews and Communists” and build a new empire.

2. Football commentator and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is famous for his fear of flying. He reportedly refuses to do commentary for the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Several of Madden’s friends – members of the Cal Poly football team – were killed in a 1960 plane crash. This tragedy may help explain Madden’s phobia, though he continued to fly until he experienced a panic attack on a 1979 flight out of Tampa. Madden claims he’s not afraid of planes or heights but of being encased and unable to get out. He travels between assignments on a luxury bus, the Maddencruiser.

3. One of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works is The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Ballets Russes staged the performance, which was unlike anything the audience had ever seen or heard. Many were shocked by the intense rhythm, the pagan theme (featuring fertility rites), and the violent dancing. Before intermission, the work’s supporters and detractors began a noisy dispute, which quickly degenerated into a riot persisting throughout the performance, even after police intervened.

4. Annie Sullivan (Anne Sullivan Macy) was born in Massachusetts in 1866. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants – her mother suffering from tuberculosis, her father an alcoholic. By the age of ten, Annie had lost her mother, her father had abandoned the family, her younger brother had died, and she had been sent to the state almshouse at Tewksbury. After four years there, Annie approached a visiting state inspector and asked permission to enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

Helen Keller in 1905

Helen Keller in 1905

Though several operations at Tewksbury had failed to improve her vision, surgery in Boston was more successful. Extremely intelligent, she quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet.

In 1886, an Alabama woman, Kate Keller, read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, which contained an account of the education of a child like her own Helen, who had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. Mrs. Keller began a search for help for six-year-old Helen that led her to Perkins and Anne Sullivan.

Annie spent most of the remainder of her life with Helen. Under Anne Sullivan’s determined but patient tutelage, the little girl’s education progressed astonishingly. At twenty-four, she graduated from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.

Keller’s life is legendary for its achievements in literature, social reform, and other areas. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, four years before her death at eighty-eight.

King Henry VIII of England: A Story of Pride, Fear, and Love

When King Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism was virtually the only form of Christianity practiced in the realm. Though royals and nobles usually married for political reasons in the sixteenth century, Henry and Catherine apparently shared love and respect.

But Henry wanted – believed he needed – a legitimate son to inherit England’s throne. Catherine bore him only one child, a girl. When Catherine’s childbearing years had all but ended, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. She was young, beautiful, and passionate – and likely, Henry believed, to bear him a male heir. After almost twenty years of marriage to Catherine, Henry determined to divorce her and marry Anne.

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

Edward VI was King of England from 1547 until 1553, when he died at the age of 15

When the Pope refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself as its head. 2 By the time Henry married Anne, she was despised by almost everyone else. Numerous pregnancies produced but a single daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was easily persuaded that his wife was a witch, and he ordered her execution. He would marry four more times, but only one of his wives, Jane Seymour, gave him the male heir he desperately wanted, and Edward was a sickly child.

What intangible ideas, emotions, and beliefs motivated Henry’s actions?

Among Henry’s motives were

  • hubris (the pride that seemed to require a male heir; the arrogance that often comes with power)
  • love (of England and, for a time, of Anne Boleyn)
  • passion
  • fear (of dying and leaving England without a strong ruler)

What were the physical, tangible consequences of Henry’s actions?

Separation from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s penchant for having people beheaded, would lead to thousands of deaths in the ensuing decades. Monarchs were quick to execute “enemies of the throne.” Their armies died defending their sovereign’s right to the throne. And of course it was necessary to destroy “heretics,” Catholics or non-Catholics, depending on who was ruling at the time. Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was a devout Roman Catholic whose unpopularity as queen made her desperate. Suspected heretics were tried, declared guilty, and either burned or hanged. London became a virtual forest of gallows, and the city reeked of rotting bodies.

The reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, was much more enlightened and tolerant, but persecution resumed after Elizabeth’s death, when her Stuart cousins succeeded her. Religious intolerance at home stimulated English settlement along America’s east coast.

Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

__________ 

1 Courtesy of the Seventh Sanctum Evil-Sounding-Name Generator, seventhsanctum.com

2 This is a gross oversimplification of a complex set of maneuvers involving years of “negotiations” with the Pope and other representatives of the Church. In the process, Henry had several people executed, including former allies and close friends. One was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s onetime adviser and secretary. The 1966 Academy Award-winning film A Man for All Seasons beautifully depicts this historic transformation of friendship into treachery.

Next: Lesson 16, “Figuratively Speaking”

 

Art and Beauty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 9

 

Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 2: What Is Beauty, and Is It Optional?

Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris

Cubism: Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris

 

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Many will object to the word beauty in any definition of art. I doubt if most people seeing a Picasso cubist work for the first time are struck by its beauty. Many artists paint or dance or compose primarily to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their talent, or to innovate, or to shock people out of their complacency, or to reflect what they perceive as “reality.”

I read this anonymous posting to an artist’s blog: “Art is an attempt to objectify the world as the person sees or knows it”  (http://www.artnewsblog.com/2005/10/crazy-paris-art-work.htm).
I submit that “the world as the person sees or knows it” is not very different from “the person as she sees or knows herself.” I think that to improve or beautify the world, or oneself, is more worthwhile than to “objectify” it.

And I believe that art works both ways. It is not just something that the artist imposes on the medium. Creating the work is part of the perpetual creation of the artist. And the artist can choose the path of that creation: toward life, energy, beauty, love… or not.

Intellectually, we may try to justify the layering on of ugliness and chaos. Intuitively, in everyday speech, we equate beauty with art. We hear the phrase “poetry in motion” used to describe someone who moves gracefully. A person whose voice is charmingly melodic is said to “speak musically.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

You have ordered a custom-made chest of drawers from a skilled woodworker. When you see the finished piece, it takes your breath away. The grain of the oak, the craftsmanship, the carving, the proportions — all are lovely and elegant. “Do you like it?” the woodworker asks anxiously. “Do I like it?” you echo. “It’s a work of art.”

Beauty is in the eye of the baby

If we agree to create and evolve beautifully, can we agree about what constitutes beauty? There is too much variation in cultural programming and personal history for beauty to be recognized universally. On the other hand, humans do seem to share a core aesthetic sensibility. (If this were not true, there would be no supermodels or movie stars.) Visually, we find characteristics such as luminosity, color, and symmetry to be aesthetically pleasing.

Numerous studies have investigated the way adults and infants react to sounds, sights, and scents. Researchers at the University of Texas and elsewhere have found that babies look longer at people who are generally considered beautiful, regardless of ethnicity (Langlois Social Development Lab, the University of Texas at Austin, 2006. Cited from this page on the Langlois Social Development Lab website).

In any case, inasmuch as we will never agree completely about what characterizes a chair or an ocelot, how can we expect to reach a common understanding about beauty? When I say “chair,” an image of a chair pops into your mind. It might be an upholstered chair, a desk chair, or a captain’s chair. In my case, the word chair invariably brings to mind my father’s Morris chair.

So I think that we will not turn ourselves inside out trying to define beauty in a precise way. Let us agree, for purposes of our current endeavor, that something is beautiful if it stimulates the best within us… if it makes us feel peaceful, inspired, loving, or joyous… and especially if it arouses our own creativity.

Lesson 9.1: Assignment
Examples of Beauty

 

Examples of Beauty

Examples of Beauty

 

Please submit your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Assignments will not be graded but will be returned to you with comments.

Next: Chapter 4—Me, Myself, and I

Belching Doom Kangaroo

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 8

 

Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 1: Leftover Pizza Is Not Art

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Cradle of Ptomaine

Cradle of Ptomaine

In philosophy, as in many other disciplines, good definitions are the product of lengthy debate…. Children talk, and know what they are talking about, although they cannot define even one of the terms they use. Using and understanding a language does not involve being able to define its terms…. Definition allows us to improve our use of language….  —Norman Swartz, “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning”  Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997
This revision: September 27, 1997. Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University

Art: A Definite ‘Maybe”

Now, let’s define and clarify our terms.

Art, poetry, beauty, and the self are huge ideas, not easily defined. The practice of defining is practically a science in itself, one that is rather neatly described by philosopher Norman Swartz (quoted above) in “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning.” In that article, Swartz describes seven types of definitions. The type we will be using here is called “operational.” Briefly, an operational definition is one that we agree to agree on, whether or not it is strictly accurate.*

I have chosen and adapted the definitions that I believe will be most useful to us. Here are a few to get us started:

Some Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

Some Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

 

 

In short, art (including poetry) requires creativity, emotional honesty, originality, skill, imagination, and intention. In our current context, beauty and spirituality must also be present.

For there to be art, there must be an artist. Therefore, according to our operational definition…

Leftover pizza is not art

Just as you can call yourself Arnot-Jean-Jacques Feuillette [Seventh Sanctum French Male Name Generator ] or Belching Doom Kangaroo [Seventh Sanctum Humorous Monster Name Generator] if you want to, you can string a bunch of words together and call them a poem:

I.
The magneto lurches into fetid paste
spurning the crispy scythe
on a poaching ä safari in Kenya
shadowing the uncommon solicitor.  **

II.
U Ua-Uo U (uracil) (NLM) UA UAA UAG
UAL Ubidecarenone Ubiquinone
Ubiquitin Ubiquitination Ubiquitous
UBT UDP-glucuronosyltransferase UGA
UL Ulcer Ulcer aphthous Ulcer
Buruli Ulcer duodenal Ulcer esophageal  ***

At a poetry reading, you could breathe raggedly into the microphone for precisely seventeen seconds and then pronounce the word ruction — and call it a poem.

The following “poem” consists of randomly selected html code:

<TD WIDTH=”50%”>&nbsp;<A HREF=”HistoricalDocuments.html”><IMG
SRC=”BookFeatherPen.gif” WIDTH=”70″ HEIGHT=”62″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM”
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”3″ BORDER=”0″><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>Historical
ocuments</FONT></A></TD>
<TD WIDTH=”50%”>&nbsp;<A HREF=”index.html”><FONT FACE=”Verdana”><IMG
SRC=”caplink.gif” WIDTH=”50″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM” BORDER=”0″ HEIGHT=”65″
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”2″></FONT><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>National
enter Home Page</FONT></A></TD>

If art is merely “an expression of human creativity”—a widely held belief—then anyone can be an artist. You don’t have to take classes or anything. There’s no particular discipline involved. You thought of it, you created it; ergo, it’s art.

Let’s say you have created a painting that looks something like this  (the outside border is the frame):

Dash, by You

Dash, by You

It’s art, all right, no question about it — an “expression of your creativity.” But surely you have applied your creativity at other times in other ways that might not qualify as “art.” Like the time you told your dad you had been detained at a roadblock while law-enforcement officers searched hundreds of vehicles for an escaped homicidal maniac, and that’s why you got home past your curfew. “Creative,” your dad said, and then he grounded you “for your own protection” until the missing maniac had been returned to custody.

Notwithstanding, you take your painting, which you have titled Dash, to an art gallery for validation by a real professional art personage, but Monsieur is unavailable at present. Still, you are encouraged by the inscrutability of the other works of art on display, although, examining them closely, you wish you had thought to vomit on your work of art before framing it.

Depending on the year and the location, you might see the following examples of art in the world’s most respected museums:

  • One of 90 copies of Merda d’artista, by Piero Manzoni, consisting of thirty grams of Manzoni’s feces sealed in a tin can. The Tate gallery in London reportedly paid more than $20,000 for one of these copies in 1961.
  • Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the urine of the artist, Andres Serrano. This is one of Serrano’s more traditional works.
  • Tom Friedman’s Untitled, a dead ladybug in a Styrofoam cup, which sold for almost $30,000.

Other works given the stamp of approval by critics and patrons of the arts include

  • This poem (reproduced here in its entirety):

LIGHGHT

The poet, Aram Saroyan, explains that his intent was to change the word light “from a verb (the agency of illumination) to a noun that yet radiates as light does. The double ghgh seems to work in that way.” The poem was published in the 1969 American Literary Anthology [Source: Rapportage, the literary journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild, Fall 2005].

  • A novel consisting of blank pages.
  • A musical work by composer John Cage titled 4’33” (Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds), in which a pianist sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a single note.

My opinion on the more mystifying or malodorous forms of art mentioned above is that they represent a variety of artists and motives:

  • The genuine artist who has been formally trained, has exhibited talent, and has grown bored with pretty pictures and conventional media (water colors, for example, as opposed to the more exotic elephant dung à la The Holy Virgin by Chris Ofili).
  • The person who may or may not have talent but whose principal motive is to shock.
  • The artist who wants to make a social or political statement, illustrating the ugliness and depravity that surrounds us, as if we didn’t know.
  • The con artist who has seen an easy way to make $20,000 and get invited to lecture at prestigious universities by creatively assembling the contents of a wastebasket using duct tape, which can be analyzed for its likeness to the ephemeral quality of substantial yet emergent flora that have been dispossessed of their progression toward ultimate decay and regeneration… which everybody swallows (figuratively) because they don’t want to admit that they think it’s stupid.
  • The true artistic genius who is totally out of my league.

I repeat, art is not merely “an expression of human creativity.” If it were, then Auschwitz was art.

Art is disciplined

Few would argue that art is an external expression (a dance, a sculpture) of a spiritual or at least an intangible quality (such as love, beauty, anger, or despair). I believe, with Keats, that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I am unable to separate spirit from beauty, or to believe that whatever emanates from the life-force common to us all can lack either truth or beauty.

Again, beauty is essential in our operational definitions of art and poetry. In theory, however, I am willing to entertain other viewpoints.

Is found or readymade art — noted examples are Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and Tracey Emin’s My Bed — intentional? Does it require skill? Can you just pick up any old thing and call it art?

Possibly, if the picker-upper is legitimately an artist. As my poetry professor at Stanford University explained when we wanted to let our free spirits loose on paper and he made us write sonnets instead: You must work from the inside out; examine the interior of your territory before you explore the nether reaches; know what the boundaries are before you stretch them; internalize the discipline until it is part of you; master the discipline in order to not be mastered by it.

I know a few people who have arranged every aspect of their lives so as to spend as much time as possible hang-gliding or soaring. “It is the ultimate experience in freedom,” they say. “It sounds wonderful,” I say. “I’d like to try it.”

Do they hand me their gear and say, “Great idea. Go for it”? No. They warn me about the expense and the hours of training and practice and the necessary physical conditioning and the skills, specific to the sport, they had to acquire. The cost of freedom was servitude to the goal. 

In these pages we are concerned with the discipline of poetry as a tool to realize your potential for joy.***** We are not “searching for joy” or “journeying toward joy.” The joy is right here, right now. It might be guilt-bound, fear-encrusted, or anger-suffused. It might be hiding in your gut, having run for cover from an abusive parent or an oppressive spouse. (Many people, not all of whom are modern-day snake-oil salesmen or delusional, believe that the site of a physical illness is related to the way in which you have tried to shield your core being from harm.)

NEXT: What is beauty, and is it optional?

____________________________

* “Many philosophers have chosen… to leave some terms undefined… [claiming that we] cannot define being, unity and similar concepts.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition, accessed January 12, 2008

** Assembled from numerous Random Sentence Generators on the Internet

*** MedicineNet.com medical dictionary

****  Duchamp’s urinal, which he exhibited as My Fountain (1917) created quite a fuss in the art world, as did Emin’s My Bed. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Bed), “the artwork generated considerable media furor, particularly over the fact that the bedsheets were stained with body secretions and the floor had items from the artist’s room (such as condoms [and] a pair of panties with menstrual period stains…. The bed was presented as it had been when Emin had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression…. [During the Tate exhibition] two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped on the bed with bare torsos in order to ‘improve’ the work, …[calling] their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey’s Bed. The men also had a pillow fight on the bed for around fifteen minutes, to applause from the crowd, before being removed by security guards.”

***** We will explore the discipline of poetry in “The Therapeutic Value of Strict Poetic Forms” in a later chapter. Gosh, that sounds so pompous. A better title might be, “When You Focus on Form, Feeling Flows.” It’s alliterative, too.

 

True and Not True

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Chapter 2, Why We Need Poetry

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Key Component of Apple Crisp

Key Component of Apple Crisp

 

People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.

 

The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”

 

We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.

 

But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?

 

Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.

 

KEY CONCEPT: Metaphorical truth

 

In these tables, adapted from the assignments for Lesson 6…

 

…all the expressions are metaphorically, or figuratively, or spiritually true. They make sense in the language of poetry and emotion. It is one’s spirit that is in pieces when one is “torn up,” not (usually) one’s physical body. When your friend says, “Hey, Man, get it together,” he’s not telling you to go retrieve your hand or your cerebral cortex. If he’s a true friend, and your brain has gone missing, he’ll go look for it himself.

 

♦♦♦

 

We create in order to grow spiritually

 

I said earlier that “once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.” I explained that living things are programmed to grow. Without the energy of growth, there is entropy and there is decay.

 

The conscious incentive for growth is the lack of perfect contentment with the status quo.

 

However satisfying things are, they can be better. If that weren’t true, the concepts of wanting, improving, and evolving would be meaningless, and there would be no reason to get out of bed.

 

We might want nothing more at the moment than to open the blind and let a little more light in, or to warm our coffee. This little unit of life, perhaps this quarter of an hour in the early morning, would be better with a little more sunshine, a little more steam rising from the coffee cup.

Where's the Steam?

Where's the Steam?

 

We could probably agree about hundreds of qualitative comparisons. For example:
(1) Love and harmony in the home are better than bloodshed.

(2) It is better to be healthy than to have double pneumonia.

(3) Playing baseball is a better activity for children than using crack cocaine.

(4) It is better to live in a tidy neighborhood with flowers and trees than in a rusted station wagon under a bridge.

 

The values that underlie these comparisons are widely, almost universally shared. If you are an adult, the Gallup people might call and ask whether you think a particular Republican would make a better president than a particular Democrat, but they will never mail you a survey like the following:

 

Which Alternative?

Which Alternative?

 

Because some things, such as health and harmony, are self-evidently better than others, then there must be, at least theoretically, a best. When we move from point A (bad) to point B (neutral) to point C (better) to point D (better still), our progress is usually represented as being upward toward the ideal or the perfect.

 

Moving Up

Moving Up

 

If a theoretical Ideal and theoretical Perfection exist, then so, in theory, does God. (The English word theory arrived in our language in the sixteenth century through Latin from the Greek thea “a view” plus horan “to see.” Thea was also the feminine form of the Greek word theos “god,” which gave us theology in the fourteenth century. Some etymologists insist that the linguistic resemblance between theory and theology is only coincidental. These are the types of things etymologists like to argue about.)

 

A perfect box of eggs

 

The words perfect and perfection are often misused. (See “The Perfect Game” in the appendix.) If there are a hundred questions on a test and you answer them all correctly, you are said to have a “perfect score.” But that’s like claiming that if you buy an item labeled “one dozen eggs” at the grocery store, and you take the item home and open it and, yes, there are twelve eggs in it, you have a perfect box of eggs.

 

Accuracy is not perfection.

 

 

Whether or not you use the vocabulary of religion, art is fundamentally spiritual. Any creation begins with an idea (inspiration) and gives it form and function—“the Word made flesh,” in a sense.

 

If you don’t yet understand this, it may become clear the first time you create something that is more than the sum of a series of mechanical processes… something that seems to have a life of its own. It’s like seeing your child, almost grown and blooming, and realizing that he is more than a genetic combination of his mother and father.

 

Except that you can’t go on creating children indefinitely, whereas your unique artistic capacity is infinite, once you find the source.

 

 

* Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theory (accessed: September 02, 2007).

 

Lesson 7.1 Assignment

What are the meanings of metaphor?

 

Write one or two paragraphs (about fifty words) on the meaning of metaphor and the differences between metaphor and simile, with examples.

 

Please send assignments via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Submissions will not be graded but will be returned with comments.

 

Go to Lesson 8—Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty

Core of the Heart

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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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Chapter 2, Part 3: Participating in Your Own Creation

We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. —Buckminster Fuller

Hear from the heart wordless mysteries! Understand what cannot be understood! In man’s stone-dark heart there burns a fire That burns all veils to their root and foundation. When the veils are burned away, the heart will understand completely… Ancient Love will unfold ever-fresh forms in the heart of the Spirit, in the core of the heart. Rumi

Rumi

Rumi

Let’s assume that you have your systems in place. You have workable plans for taking care of your basic physical needs — food, water, shelter from excessive heat or cold — and for maintaining health and energy by exercising, eating properly, getting enough sleep, having medical checkups, and so forth. You have a system for acquiring other physical necessities — housing, clothes, furniture, transportation — and for keeping them in good working order. You have a system that sees to your social needs; perhaps you live in a family and belong to the Red Hat Society or have breakfast with your buddies at the grain co-op.

So life ticks along. It is not just one big emergency after another. Should an emergency arise, you have a system for dealing with it. A well-ordered life can be very satisfying, especially after a time of chaos.

For human beings, there are two problems with a life that is merely well organized:

  • It is not ultimately fulfilling. Once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.

  • In the universe of possible events and experiences, we have control over very little.

The futility of control

There are several ways of dealing with the things we can’t control. Six of them are mentioned below. I can recommend numbers 1, 5, and 6 — which are closely related — having used them myself with excellent results. Conversely, every experience I have had with strategies 2 through 4 has ended badly.

African Lily

African Lily

1. Living in the moment

This is the response favored by the Lilies of the Field. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” [From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, New King James Version] 25 Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

(I wonder if Jesus was prophetically referring to an event that would take place some two thousand years later, when I went out of town for a few days and left my adolescent son in the care of a trusted neighbor. As it happened, I arrived home several hours early. I walked through the door and knew instantly that grass had been thrown into the oven. My son and the trusted neighbor’s son, David, had, under cover of night, harvested several stalks of an illicit crop discovered in a fenced backyard a few blocks away. The boys were nowhere to be seen, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up. It was Officer Holmgren, and this was not my first conversation with him, nor would it be my last.)

31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek you first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Emulate Your Labrador

Emulate Your Labrador

Living in the moment is also the favored response of your Labrador. Look at him, snoozing in his square of sunlight. Is he worried about his next meal? Is the threat of a bioterrorist attack gnawing at his innards? No. He is at peace, secure in the knowledge that when something gnaws at his innards he need only leap onto your stomach while you are sleeping, lick your face to wake you up, and fix you with a Look of such potent worshipfulness that you would break eight of the Ten Commandments to give him his two cups of kibble.

The above-cited passage from the Beatitudes, part of JesusSermon on the Mount, asserts that seeking the kingdom of God is the ultimate anti-entropy strategy. Mow the lawn and make entries in your planning calendar if you must, Jesus might have said, but first, emulate your Labrador and his attitude of potent worshipfulness.

2. Attaining power

As people acquire money and influence, they also gain more control over certain aspects of their lives. If you are poor and a tree falls on your house, you have big trouble. If you are wealthy and a tree falls on your house, you can just pay somebody to fix it.

The problem with power is that it is based on fear. Since there will always be things you can’t control, you will never be satisfied. There is always something to fear, so you will always need more power than you have.

3. The illusion of controlling the uncontrollable

This futile strategy is often employed by people who want to make their spouses or children behave in certain ways. Trying to make somebody love you, or adopt your values, or practice your religion, are examples of trying to control the uncontrollable—as are roughly ninety-five percent of city ordinances and state and federal laws, and virtually all wars.

4. Diversion

There are many ways of distracting yourself from the ever-present threat of being struck by an asteroid while you are walking down the street. Diversions range from “keeping busy” to watching television to injecting temazepam in your eyeballs.

5. Meditation

I could have included meditation under “living in the moment,” above. But I wanted to make a point: Dealing with the things we can’t control by trying to control them anyway, or by gaining power or through diversion, assumes that the cosmos is a hostile place. If we can’t control it, it must be dangerous. Most forms of meditation, however, view all the uncontrollables as part of a neutral or benevolent universe of infinite possibility.

6. Creating

Acting creatively through the arts is an exercise of genuine power. At its loftiest, it is a spiritual practice and the artist inhabits a transcendent, spiritual universe where all things are possible. This is not an “escape from reality,” as critics protest. The artist is not unaware of global terrorism or gang violence or the execrable conditions under which much of the world’s population lives. These are entropic conditions, and art, by definition, brings order out of chaos. The artist is a healer and a peacemaker, but her focus is on the ideals of healing and peace rather than on hatred and violence.

That, really, is what this book is about.

Lesson 6.1 Assignment
Emotional altitude and organization

People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song...

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song...

The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”

We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.

But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?

Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.

Apple Crisp

Apple Crisp

Our emotional geography is often mapped vertically. When we feel good, we are “up,” when we feel bad we are “down.” Fill in the spaces below with at least five more examples in each column. (Phrases beginning with highly, as in “highly pleased,” don’t qualify.)

 

 

 

Table 2 Emotional Altitude
Table 2 Emotional Altitude

Lesson 6.2: Assignment
Everything’s under
control

Other expressions of how we feel are related to space in a different way. Feeling good is equated with unity – being all of a piece. Feeling bad is related to entropy – being scattered or dispersed. Fill in the blanks below with at least three more examples in each column.

Table 3 Spatial Words and Phrases
Table 3 Spatial Words and Phrases

Please send assignments, OR assignment summaries or comments, via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.

Go to Lesson 7.

Dis-entropized: Staying Alive

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Chapter 2, Part 2: Why We Need Poetry

Are babies programmed for language?

Hard-Wired for Speech?

Hard-Wired for Speech?

Current linguistic research is exploring the hypothesis that “children [are]… programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk… Indeed, children in the first five years of life have such a remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally quite different languages simultaneously—if, for instance, their mother is Chinese and their father American—without displaying the slightest signs of stress or confusion.” *

 

In other words, according to the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and others, babies are apparently wired to get what’s inside their heads—thoughts, ideas, questions—out into the Great, Wide World, through the medium of language.

 

Part of the evidence for an “innate appreciation of language,” according to Bill Bryson, writing in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, is that children everywhere, in every culture, whatever its language, no matter how complex or “wildly inflected” it is, learn to speak in exactly the same way.* By the time they are barely a month old, they show a preference for the sounds of speech over all others. Their infant babbling consists of the same sounds and commences at the same time—four to six months before they begin to talk. Their first words are simple labels (Me, Da), advancing to subject-verb combinations (Me want, Da go), and so on—my older son excepted. His sister, who was nearly 11 when her baby brother Jack was born, recorded in his Baby Book that his first words were carrots and onomatopoeia.

 

Additional research appears to confirm the theory that “children are programmed for language,” which is good news for those of us who use poetry as a way of gaining access to buried emotions and inclinations. Learning the discipline of expressing ourselves through poetry creates a channel to the unconscious—one that is wide enough to accommodate something as unruly as rage, but narrow enough to keep all our feelings from spilling out at once so that we can identify what emerges bit by bit.

Staying alive: God trumps entropy

This is not a religious book. Virtually anyone who wants to write poetry and to grow in self-knowledge and self-expression can benefit from it.

I Find God in All Things

I Find God in All Things

 

As a person who experiences God in all things, I am unable to write a shopping list, much less a book about poetry, that is entirely secular. Strip anything of spirit and there’s nothing left, is the way I see it.

 

But I am not going to preach or to espouse any particular theology. When I speak of God, for our present purpose, I am referring to the Ideal, the Perfect, the Goal that motivates all growth and change, the Organizing Principle—the opposite of entropy.

What (not to put too fine a point on it) is entropy?**

Entropy is the tendency of things to get messier when left on their own. You first heard about entropy from your parents: “Why are you just sitting there? The lawn’s not going to mow itself.”

Entropy is the tendency of everything to fall apart unless something, some form of energy, is holding it together. Think (but not too hard, because this is not a perfect analogy) of a Popsicle after it’s been out of the freezer for a while.

The inanimate universe leans toward chaos, decay, disorganization, and disintegration. Entropy is, you might say, the natural state of things when energy is not applied to them.

The attributes of God are counterentropic—a word I just made up because I can’t think of a better one. Anti-entropic won’t do. God isn’t against entropy. God is life and order. God is love, and growth, and beauty. It is the way of God and nature to lift things up, and these attributes are manifestations of energy, and they are the reason we are all still here. It is the way of entropy to melt like a Popsicle.

Entropy is not evil. Decay, in fact, is necessary to growth. Think of compost, which is decaying organic matter, and how it literally feeds growing things.

Life = order

Harry Potter Postage Stamps

Harry Potter Postage Stamps

A living thing — I’ll use myself, the living thing with which I am best acquainted, as an example—is highly organized at the cellular level. All I have to do consciously is eat, drink, and breathe, really, to exist. It might not be a giddy or intellectually satisfying existence, but the potential is there. When I breathe, my body gets the oxygen it needs to convert food to energy, which keeps my various systems functioning more or less efficiently, which enables me to walk and talk, and from there it’s a short step to giddiness or scholarly pursuits.

Our anatomical systems are programmed upward, toward life and growth. They make new cells and dispose of the old ones, filter the blood, manufacture various proteins, and so forth, and I don’t even have to pay attention. I can kick back and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time without having to check even once on whether my pancreas is still doing whatever it is that a pancreas does.

Disease and death = entropy

Entropy in the Human Body

Entropy in the Human Body

It is no accident that diseases are called “disorders.” Injuries and illnesses are entropic. Cancer cells, for example, reproduce in a chaotic, unpredictable manner, whereas healthy cells are in balance, new cells replacing old cells as needed. Healing from injuries and illnesses is a process of returning cells to their normal, orderly functions.

When a living thing dies, entropy takes over. I know this because not long ago a couple of rats died under my shower. They did not die where they could be conveniently scooped out by someone, anyone, please, God, other than me. Removing them required a major bathroom overhaul that took several weeks.

Meanwhile, major entropy was occurring at the cellular level within these rats, as their cells ceased to regenerate. They decayed. They rotted. And they did these things no more than three feet from where I brushed my teeth.

I hardly need point out that dead cells are not programmed toward life and growth. They aren’t programmed at all. The programming quit when the life went out of them. They are completely at the mercy of entropy, so they disintegrate. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t disintegrate fast enough.

The opposing, or perhaps complementary,*** effects of entropy and order take place at every level: microscopically and personally; in your household and your community; globally and universally. The body may run okay on automatic pilot — at the cellular level — but when you move up to the organism level, there’s a lot you have to do to, consciously and intentionally, to keep things from falling apart.

A street corner in the ghost town of Bodie, California (photographed by Jon Sullivan and released into the public domain)

Entropized: A street corner in the ghost town of Bodie, California (photographed by Jon Sullivan and released into the public domain)

Consider what happens when you fail to “apply energy” to something — from combing your hair or washing the dishes after supper, to doing your homework or going to your job. Parents have to impose order on their children. Car owners have to keep their vehicles maintained. Homeowners have to paint their houses. Gardeners have to water and weed their flower beds.

We expend much of our energy in a race with entropy, maintaining ourselves and our stuff before they descend into chaos. If we don’t do it, or if someone doesn’t do it for us, everything goes to pieces. The car rusts. The grass dies. The wood rots. The porch sags. Our teeth fall out. We flunk out of school. Our kids grow up to be axe murderers with absolutely no table manners.

Psychologically, we are programmed to prefer order and we are cranky when it is lacking.**** The most miserable people I know are those who are constantly running after their lives. “I don’t have time to plan,” they say. “I’m too busy fighting fires.” They don’t buy new car tires until there’s a blowout. They don’t clean the yard until a family of weasels takes up residence behind the garage.

These are not orderly lives. They are continually being snatched from the jaws of entropy. The only organizational principle is urgency. There is little joy in such an existence.

If you are wise, you make conscious decisions about what’s truly necessary and, just as your cells do, you (the organism) develop systems for taking care of necessities so that you can also attend to wants and desires. A planning calendar is such a system. It is a powerful anti-entropy device. I actually own one. I’m not sure, at the moment, where it is. Perhaps the weasels have taken it.

Other obstacles to orderliness

Entropy is not the only thing that interferes with maintaining an orderly existence and indulging your wants, interests, and talents. Other people’s expectations, real or perceived, throw a lot of us off course. The more you are concerned with the opinions of others, the more obligated you feel to do unnecessary things. Your life slips out of your grasp like the Little Gingerbread Boy, and all you can do is to run after it and try to rein it in.

My sister, Pipi Campbell Peterson, is an author and professional organizer who specializes in decluttering—closets, offices, lives—so that her clients can have greater serenity, enjoy more time for the Good Stuff, and find their keys. If  you are going to Live Poetically—indeed, if you are going to finish this book—you will probably have to declutter and create some space for it, just as you would if you were taking dance lessons in your basement.


* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. William Morris & Co. (New York), 1990.
** Entropy = The physical Universe’s macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive. —Buckminster Fuller
*** Order, in the form of growth — and entropy, in the form of decay — are complementary in that they rely on one another. 
**** Psychological entropy is “the distribution of energy in the psyche, which tends to seek equilibrium or balance among all the structures of the psyche.” Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian.