How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 13
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge
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One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living
What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,” http://www.projectmind.org/intuition.html, accessed September 3, 2008
A Work in Progress
We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because
1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).
2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)
3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.
4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.
Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:
Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas
Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor (1)
If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu
- The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. –Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)
You are not your thoughts and feelings
A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.
I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.
So where to begin?
Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:
Everybody wants to be happy.
Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.
Happiness ≠ cake batter
When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)
My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.
I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom.
I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.
Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.
Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.
The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.
I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.
A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes
I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.
B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No
I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.
Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?
Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
I walk down a different street.
The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)
Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.
Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)
Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.
Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.
The only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.
Lesson 13.1: Assignment
Exercise: Personal inventory
Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.
1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.
Things you most enjoy:
2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.
Things you least enjoy:
3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).
Your talents, skills, strengths:
4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.
5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.
Your dreams and ambitions:
6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.
7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.
How you deal with your vulnerabilities:
Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.
1 I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?
Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.
2 Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.
3 I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.
4 How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8
5 You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.
6 Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 10
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.
Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! —Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.
All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous
[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)
Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?
These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,
During or after a crisis
During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday
As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions
What is the self?
Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want
In what sense can you know yourself?
Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.
(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)
There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *
I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).
Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.
Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?
Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is
a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.
Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.
In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.
She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,
Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”
Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”
But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.
The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.
During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.
I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.
* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.
Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?
Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.
Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.
If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.
Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):
What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?
It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.
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.
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:
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:
The magneto lurches into fetid paste
spurning the crispy scythe
on a poaching ä safari in Kenya
shadowing the uncommon solicitor. **
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%”> <A HREF=”HistoricalDocuments.html”><IMG
SRC=”BookFeatherPen.gif” WIDTH=”70″ HEIGHT=”62″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM”
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”3″ BORDER=”0″><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>Historical
<TD WIDTH=”50%”> <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):
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:
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):
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.
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.)
* “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.
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)
April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.
Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.
I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.
There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.
The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.
In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.
First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.
Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.
Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.
Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.
“Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.
Seven words with the force of a Light Saber
It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.
My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.
“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”
You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.
The man with two red dogs
According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).
I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.
I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.
“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.
“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”
I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.
The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.
Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”
The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.
“You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.
Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.
Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.
When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”
But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.