Poetry, awe

Welcome, National Poetry Month. This year’s poster was designed by one of my favorite cartoonists, author/artist Roz Chast. She illustrates Mark Strand’s famous poem. Click the link to order a copy! You can donate to Poets.org while you’re at it.

~

Apropos of my last post (here), it turns out that Berkeley Social Interaction laboratory (BSI) has done studies on…awe. Awe might be what Ehrenreich experienced in a fashion more ecstatic or charged than the more garden-variety awe that BSI’s Dacher Keltner writes about in this essay in Slate. Some of the early findings from social research suggest that awe, even more than compassion and joy, contributes to a sense of personal well-being and counteracts depression.

Possibly more surprising is the indication from respondents that awe is not as uncommon as we think:

[A] study from our Berkeley lab speaks to the promise of daily awe. Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living. Every third day, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend. For example, seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such an experience. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.

When I reflect on my own daily life, I realize that’s true–this sort of experience grounds me many days when I feel I am losing purpose or overwhelmed or simply sad. It might be the sight of a raptor in an amazing dive toward prey, or the shimmer of light on a bird’s feathers, or a particularly stunning sunrise. It might be a story a student tells me, something moving or courageous.

Every once in a rare while, awe is larger, encompasses more, displaces my sense of self, flames into ecstasy. That kind of experience exhausts, whereas “everyday awe” invigorates, calms, balances life toward the bearable. And often, reading a poem pushes me into the state of awe. For Poetry Month, I will grant myself the daily possibility of awe by reading poetry.

 

Advertisements

Familiarity & awe

The region I live in is not known for dramatic landscapes–no big sky, no ragged peaks or ocean shoreline, no palms, grand flora, impressive architecture. Nonetheless, there are days such as this one when my familiar commute fairly glows with beauty. In the long slant of mid-autumn morning sun, the half-harvested soybean fields shimmer under frost: beige never looked so glorious. Even the big agricultural gleaner glimmers with ice crystals. The sky’s washed with upswept cirrus clouds, and backlit dogwood leaves cling like maroon pennants to silhouetted branches.

Perhaps my aesthetic appreciation of the view is due to a neural release of dopamine responding to images processed through my eyes’ rods and cones; that understanding, if true, in no way lessens my awe.

As I head toward the campus building, the clamorous urgency of wild geese momentarily catches me by surprise. Welcome.

Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.

~

While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?

~