Hear me out

It’s not a social norm–real listening. Despite the recognition that human beings are social animals that require communication, despite the recognition that “talk therapy” (which at its foundation employs active listening) and writing therapy can heal broken psyches,  even though many studies over decades have demonstrated how relationships rely upon partners’ openness to listening–listening stays a bit unconventional.

So many people think listening is passive. No, it is an active verb. Bombarded with information from numerous sources, the processes of discerning what one should listen to get tattered and confused. Our brains want to chunk information, to ignore, to elide, to suppress and glean and separate the various threads so the mind can prioritize.

Listening is difficult.

~

solomonseal

Not asphodel but Solomon’s seal, also a greeny flower

William Carlos Williams famously claims it’s difficult to get the news from poetry–and, in the same poem, he asks us (by way of Flossie, his wife) to listen:

…Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
from books
and out of them
about love.
Death
is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
which can be attained,
I think,
in its service.

the mind
that must be cured
short of death’s
intervention,
and the will becomes again
a garden. The poem
is complex and the place made
in our lives
for the poem.

[I am not html-savvy enough to code the spacing of this poem on my blog, but you can find it here (p. 20) or here; the excerpts are from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”]

~

Poetry :  “A way of happening, a mouth.” It survives, says Auden, in his poem on the death of Yeats.

The mouth expresses the mind and also what we call the heart, the soul. To make a poem is an intentional act.

Is listening a subversive act? is compassion?

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Dogs & lions

By chance, I encountered the poem “Thorn Leaves in March” by W.S. Merwin (1956, Poetry magazine) a day ago and felt levels of resonance such as poems can evoke. The powerfully “clear expression of mixed feelings”–thank you again, W.H. Auden–converges with seasonal details in this early Merwin piece and merges, completely by happenstance, with events in my current life.

Walking out in the late March midnight
With the old blind bitch on her bedtime errand
Of ease stumbling beside me, I saw

At the hill’s edge, by the blue flooding
Of the arc lamps, and the moon’s suffused presence…

My elderly dog stumbles beside me on these late-winter nights; I do not think she will see another full-blooming spring. Resonance.

alicelamb

Rescue of an orphaned lamb.

“As a white lamb the month’s entrance had been…” Well, that has certainly been true of this year’s weather. And the lamb allusion makes me think not just of the old saying about March but about my daughter, who is spending this month’s last two weeks working among ewes on a farm in Scotland as lambing season progresses.

Merwin’s speaker refutes the aphorism; his March comes in like a lamb because it is white, and goes out in white, as well:

…as a lamb, I could see now, it would go,
Breathless, into its own ghostliness,
Taking with it more than its tepid moon.

The lion, he claims, is “The beast of gold, and sought as an answer,/Whose pure sign no solution is.” No lion in this quiet, late-winter/cusp-of-spring snowfall–the light is silvery, the budding leaves of the thorn trees translucent and cold. The speaker stands beneath the “sinking moon” and wonders, questions, listening for something he knows he will not hear.

The old dog, domestic companion (neither lion nor lamb), completes her mission; the man lets go of metaphysical thoughts; the earth inexorably turns toward summer–despite the snow.

I’ll keep this poem in mind as the next snowstorm heads my way on the equinox.

 

Giving in secret

“All the poems I have written were written for love.” ~ W.H. Auden

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret…” Matthew 6:3-4

~

Acts of compassion, great or small, are good for us. I state this not because of ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts about the Good, nor out of any religious dogma, but because psycho-neurological studies almost definitively align with this aspect of received wisdom. Hanson writes, “Compassion draws on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula,” which help us observe (or “read”) the reactions of others, an action critical to the survival of a social species. It turns out that when we pay attention to others, we are more likely to help them; that’s how the average human brain works.

Unfortunately, human beings often stop paying attention once we think we have ascertained another person’s intentions and have passed an internal judgment upon them. We tend not to attend past that initial observation. Thus, we may miss actual intentions. Usually this miscommunication of intent leads to problems, but not always. Some people desire to hide their deeper intentions, and not because those intentions are “evil” or even merely narcissistic.

Viz: W.H. Auden, as portrayed in this quietly-written, reflective essay by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books (March 2014). Mendelson begins:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

Auden was a Christian who had an often challenging relationship with his religion (being homosexual did not help with the dogmatic wrestling match). In this essay, Mendelson says that “Auden had many motives for portraying himself as rigid or uncaring when he was making unobtrusive gifts of time, money, and sympathy. In part he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left.” The author also looks at Auden’s era: Fascists, Nazis, dictators, and how they managed to sway so many potentially and otherwise “good folks” to bad causes, the use of “good/evil” in the literature and intellectualism of those times and the writers who used celebrity to lionize their causes–a posture Auden found distasteful.

Yet Auden was willing to make himself distasteful, socially awkward, arrogant, in the service of a hidden compassion. There’s no good word for this in English. “Modesty” does not suffice. “Humility” does not quite hit the mark, either.

~

It seems to me that Auden, and others like him (there are others, many undiscovered), chose to follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:3.

A contemporary person may ask why all the modesty. After all–a good deed is a good deed. Does keeping it “hidden” increase the inherent goodness? Are anonymous philanthropists somehow more authentic to the concept of compassionate giving than those who allow their names to grace buildings and organizations? Those people who benefit by good works and kind acts–surely they feel a desire to thank whoever is responsible, so why disguise the giver?

~

One possible answer: compassion does not need a specific object, though that is generally how we learn compassion in the first place.

The gratitude a human being feels when he or she is the receiver of a kind, anonymous act has no immediate object. We do not know whom to thank. Although the receiver’s response may initially be one of suspicion, in most cases the sense of gratitude will be directed more widely into society; the receiver of a kindness is more likely to be kind to others, to perceive others as potentially benefactors or at least to view other people with less suspicion and envy–because the secret donor is somewhere among all of us.

The secret gift works to spread compassion to all sentient beings.

~

It turns out that, as far as the brain is concerned, doing good sets up a kind of feedback loop. Doing good for others improves how good we feel in general. Not how good we feel about ourselves in an egotistical way but how good we feel mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

Love is all you need

Love is all you need

We not only write for love. We live for love.

~

 

 

Mixed/media

~

From J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: “Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

~

From W. H. Auden: “…poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” For Auden, this communication of mixed feelings didn’t mean ambiguity; it referred to double focus–seeing or feeling or otherwise knowing two conflicting feelings simultaneously. Something that, according to Barrie, fairies could not do.

~

The mixed-ness of life presents many of its irritants, but also many of its joys. Think about the amazing complexity of a human being, a consciousness, a sentience: the mish-mash of experiences filtered through a mish-mash of other experiences and through unique neurological channels. I relish the fringes and edges of things such as meadows, rivers, horizons, roads, neighborhoods, and cultures. Combinations are more interesting than homogeneity. Paradoxes are more exciting than indelible rules.

I appreciate the design of formal gardens, or swaths of tulips; but a cottage garden interests me for longer, as do bogs and wetlands and the borders of woodlands. Most of the poems I love best, those that resonate the deepest and longest, express multiple and mixed possibilities. I enjoy poetry that can be interpreted several ways, or that twists back on itself and points out a paradox or a different focus, poetry that opens up perspectives and challenges expectations and perceptions. Mixed media, mixed expression, mixed feelings, mixed perennial borders, mixed forests, mixed neighborhoods…these juicy collages of experience keep the brain lively and interested.

They also pose good challenges for meditation. One can concentrate or focus on the unity of the disparities, for example. Lose yourself in a meadow.

 

Sublime beauty

In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:

The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.

I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.

Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.

In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)

~

This, too:

“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…”   Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)

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“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.

~

In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:

A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.

~

paintdaub
I stand on my back porch; I am small and negligible, the sky is large and Sublime.