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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
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Chapter 2, Part 1: Why We Need Poetry
This is important: All moments of meaning
in our lives are moments of the heart. —Anonymous
[At a ] Mind and Life Institute conference… at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, … Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy…. “Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living *
Art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118] —Ransom Fellowship, accessed March 12, 2009
If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it
Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is “a parade of odd and wonderful events.” **
It’s that simple, really it is. So why do we need prenuptial agreements, social workers, car alarms, and the like?
Babies are born expecting happiness. Insisting upon it. “I am hungry,” they wail. “This is unacceptable. It is not a Good Feeling.” Their wants and needs are identical.
Newborn babies broadcast their dissatisfaction to the world at large. They don’t know who or what is going to take care of the problem, but, by God, they are not going to suffer in silence. ***
Before long, they perceive that it is not the world at large that responds to their demonstrations of discomfort but rather that every meal has a pleasing similarity and comes with a bonus: warmth and softness, swaying, and other lovely sensations. Soon they discover that the warmth and softness are attached to Something — the same Something that comes to the rescue when they, the babies, are cold or when another, smaller Something has dropped a Tonka truck onto them when they were just lying there cooing and watching dust motes cavort in a shaft of sunlight. The larger Something has the power to ease their pain and restore their little psyches to equilibrium.
Eventually, babies learn that they don’t have to let out all the stops when their tummies are empty. A little less effort with a little more focus achieves the desired result. They sense that a partnership has begun with the meal-providing-Tonka-truck-removing Something, and they find even her presence reassuring. Sometimes they make hungry noises when they’re not hungry, just for the warm, soft swaying. Their wants and needs are becoming differentiated.
Once they know the routine, they are at liberty to look around, wondering if there’s anything more to life. Wow, is there ever! It’s a veritable parade of odd and wonderful events. In no time at all, their world consists of not merely needs and wants but Extras—discoveries, surprises, sometimes unpleasant (like this afternoon’s chickenpox inoculation) but more often delightful.
There’s that pink glow in the morning, for instance. Patiently — they don’t have any pressing engagements — they watch the pearly light move across the wall, brighter, warmer and — oh, wow — suddenly it’s yellow, and it paints the teddy bears and the striped wallpaper and it moves toward the bed and brushes the tiny toes with yellow warmth, and the babies talk to it, and it talks back. They speak the same Language. They chat like old friends.
The mamas and the daddies, who are in the next room, smile and listen to the delighted cooing and burbling. The long-forgotten primal Language stirs a joy that had become almost dormant, and they relax into it as if it were a featherbed. For them, too, time stands still, and if they do have pressing engagements, these are trivial next to the conversation of sunlight and innocence.
For many stay-at-home mothers, these are golden days, and gone too soon.**** In my own experience, there has been no more blessed time than the early months of parenthood… feeling the physical and emotional surge of pleasure when breastfeeding… having the almost godlike ability to supply everything the baby needs and more besides… bathing and powdering and dressing the baby in clean, soft clothes… covering her with a light blanket when it’s warm or enclosing her in a sturdy sleeper if it’s chilly… placing her cradle near a window so she can watch the sunlight dance among the petunias in the window box and ruffle the eucalyptus leaves on the big tree in the backyard… arranging my life so that there is nothing clamoring for my time besides caring for the baby, tidying up the house, and preparing dinner for the rest of the family.
There is a transient sense of power, especially with the first baby. I felt that her father and I would be able to keep her safe throughout her childhood, though I knew we could not, and should not, always shield her from disappointment.
And so, for a few months, the baby is the center of the universe. Her demands are met almost instantaneously.
If I am the baby, feeling the warm sunlight on my toes and listening to my mother hum as she folds my diapers (I am a baby who was born when mothers still laundered diapers), I am thinking that life is pretty sweet, and I smile and laugh a lot, and everybody else smiles and laughs when I do.
I have noticed, however, that when I am hungry in the dark of night, my mother is less and less cheerful and accommodating. Then comes the time when I wake up and cry, signaling that I am hungry, or perhaps just lonely, and my mother comes in and holds me for a minute and talks to me and maybe even gives me a little water, but she doesn’t feed me. She goes away, and I cry for a while, but she doesn’t come back. So I wear myself out crying, and I go back to sleep, and soon I don’t wake up at night any more.
Oh, wow! I can move! My bear is over there, and I am over here, but if I wiggle and squirm a certain way, I can get over there. There are other things over there, too, shiny things, and I reach for them, and my mother says, “No!” in a Different Voice. And for the first time I am thwarted.
As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that I cannot always have what I want, but I’m not sure why. Apparently other people have wants and needs too. I am playing with other toddlers, and one of them, Ethan, has a bear sort of like mine, and I try to take it but Ethan holds it tight. I want it, Ethan has it, so as night follows day, I bite him. Everyone speaks crossly to me and makes a big fuss over Ethan. I am not the center of the universe any more.
This is where parenthood gets tricky. How do you find the balance between giving your child freedom to explore and keeping him from hurting himself or someone else? How do you convey that his wants and desires are important and at the same time teach him to compromise or negotiate with people whose wants and desires conflict with his? How can you help him learn that it is in his long-term interest to suffer disappointments, failures, separations from his parents—delayed gratification, in short—when (a) he has no clear concept of the future, and (b) you’re still learning those lessons yourself?
Most parents accomplish all this, more or less clumsily, because their biological and emotional need to protect is at war with the imperative of allowing independence and teaching self-reliance. Ideally, they do it in baby steps, so to speak, letting out the leash slowly and gradually. Sometimes the lessons are sudden and brutal, imposed by crisis.
It’s comparatively easy for a child to learn to function within the nuclear family—the home team, as it were. If there’s only one ice-cream cup in the freezer, and both little Rupert and little Helga want the ice-cream cup, Daddy is not going to run out and buy another ice-cream cup. Rupert and Helga each get half, or Rupert gets the ice-cream cup and Helga gets the Popsicle, or some other arrangement is made that is not completely satisfactory but is better than nothing.
As the child’s comfort zone expands—she goes to play group, to school, to church, to the park, and to the supermarket—she has to adapt her expectations to ever-more-conflicting wants. The way her elders deal with these conflicts determines, in part, how much of her essential self she will surrender. Well-meaning but misguided Sunday-school teachers might convey to her that she must always consider the wants and needs of other people before her own. Since other people have unending and urgent wants and needs, she might conclude that hers are of no value.
Ideally, however, she will learn that she has God-given abilities that are pleasing to her and that meet a particular need of her universe—that she is here for a reason, and that in discovering that reason she will give and receive more joy than she knew the universe could hold.
*Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Harmony Books (New York) 2007. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. The author, a renowned Buddhist teacher, has, “with an infectious joy and insatiable curiosity,” integrated “the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, and quantum physics” (per the dust jacket) in friendly, affirmative prose. The Joy of Living is a delightful, uplifting read and a demystifying guide to meditation.
***This is so whether the baby is born into a refugee camp, a brothel, or a middle-class family desperate for a baby to love. Though it is hardly universally the case, for purposes of this discussion our baby will be one for whom the basic physical and emotional necessities are available.
****This might be true for fathers, too, though the daddies of my experience have always been in a hurry for the babies to get big enough to play Bonk (the introductory version of Catch) and climb in tree forts.