“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

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Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.

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I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.

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I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.

I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.

A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.

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Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.

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We need clarity.

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I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.

Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.

Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.

Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

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Love is all you need?

My daughter made this collage when she was nine years old. This is a poorly PhotoShopped version (the original has faded pretty badly):

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Love is all you need

I was listening to The Beatles recently, music that takes me pretty far back into my childhood. I’ve been thinking about musical cues to memory for another poetic project on which I am currently working, so the concept of music evoking imagery, subjects, memoir has been uppermost in my mind. More on that project perhaps later, when I have arranged my thoughts more cogently. Meanwhile, some thoughts on “All You Need is Love.” Or more correctly, some musings that begin with “All You Need Is Love.”

When I was an adolescent, that Beatles’ song seemed to signify on several levels. One level was the universal: Love as the root of human sharing, as the means to peace and understanding, as the solution to the Big Problems. Another level was the romantic: Love as the way to solve personal loneliness, finding the partner with whom I could mesh, forge a permanent and personal understanding.

Love as solution. I view that ‘philosophy’ as a non-philosophy now; it is simplistic and impossible. Love is not a solution; it is a verb, active and engaging. Love certainly does not fix things. Its necessity, however, I do not question. Not for those who wish to be fully human.

Wait, you’re going to object–love is a noun, too. In most dictionaries, love as a noun is the entry before love as a verb. Arbitrary on my part to assert precedence for the verb, but I am cautious of abstractions even though I relish philosophy. Love as noun is abstract.

Merriam-Webster: “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” My OED (compact, print edition) contains 9 columns defining Love as a noun and two defining Love in the verb sense.

When I say love is a verb, I mean that in definition 3b in the OED: “to entertain a strong affection; in the reciprocal sense” and 4c: “to take pleasure in the existence of (a virtue, a practice, a state of things) in oneself, in others, or in the world generally.” Love need not be reciprocal, though that feels best to us–hypersocial beings that we are (see my post on Brian Boyd). Love is the greater part of compassion, in which case love is something we do.

I know people who have chosen to take their own lives. A few felt the sense of despair that comes from feeling there is no love (and therefore, no hope). But that is not always the case; some who took their lives did feel love, knew love deeply, knew that others loved them and would miss their physical presence. Love was not all these people needed.

And love was not the solution.

I think we damage ourselves when we believe that love is the solution to our problems. We need other strategies, other fullness in our lives, the tools to overcome or bear with many obstacles; we need perspective and humor and grace. Love alone, in and of itself, doesn’t make peace break out. It does not solve all the issues in a truly profound and sharing relationship–not on its own. Love needs other actions, and other abstractions (trust, communication, compassion, patience, for example) to do its work. It does not solo well–that is not what love needs. Altruism cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can romance, nor compassion.

It takes some effort not to become sentimental here (but Bachelard defends a certain amount of sentiment…)

This is not my definitive post on the subject of love! I need to read more philosophers on love, and to consider love’s evolutionary role, and its spiritual role, in human existence. I’ve done reading on t his in the past, but it was all very long ago. Now might be a good time to begin anew (since “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”).

Why I read poetry

A few months ago, I posted a light-hearted look at mondegreens and malchichés. Clichés are useful to some extent because we believe we know what those phrases mean, and they serve the purpose of general communication. To confess “I’m feeling blue” can elicit compassion from a good friend, or help us to state a mood so that we might, possibly, move on from it. Popular song lyrics employ such figures of speech often, and often to good effect.

But clichés also leave something to be desired, don’t give a full enough account of the human situation. In the poem “Madame la Fleurie,” Wallace Stevens describes a man who looks into a mirror and believes what he sees depicts his actual life. But it is only a reflection; the image is “a page he found in the handbook of heartbreak.” A page in the handbook of heartbreak: that begins to express a more complex and specific feeling.

Poems can express every subtle shade of blue a person might feel. There is Emily Dickinson’s Hour of Lead and Elizabeth Bishop’s art of losing, Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues and Theodore Roethke’s desolation in immaculate places.  For thousands of years, poets have understood, and been able to convey, the vivid and expansive range of human emotions that our lively and energetic brains and souls experience—from unbearable grief to listless ennui, from a moment of surprising cheerfulness to the uplifting embrace of romantic or spiritual love. How poets accomplish this subtle connection between people, this empathy, amazes me. Especially as this mutual exchange of feelings takes place through the abstract medium of words.

This is why I read poetry. When a friend’s child died, I consoled myself with Ben Jonson’s words, “farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” and nothing else seemed as apropos, even though the poem was composed almost 400 years ago. When life gets tough, Andrew Marvel’s lines about how feeble hope has tinsel wings in the face of magnanimous Despair just about sum up my feelings. Such poems may offer little cheer, yet they can comfort. Through gorgeous language and imagery that is honest if sometimes fanciful, good poems remind us that we are not alone in our circumstances.

Poems identify feelings, places, situations, and allusions to which another human being—perhaps hundreds of years or thousands of miles away—can relate. That relationship has a wonderful effect, for poetry offers a way to connect the rich and complicated scope of our humanity with the lives and sympathies of others, especially during troubled times. I know that my own heart begins rebounding from stress and gloom when I read Neruda’s lines: “through me, freedom and the sea/will bring solace to my downcast heart.” As we navigate through political and economic and personal hassles, we might want to open a poetry anthology now and then, or call up a website such as A Poem a Day or Verse Daily for a fix of shared humanity in an increasingly virtual world. After all, “What the heart longs for,” says Gregory Orr, “the poem accomplishes.”

One person who has taken this poetry inspiration into the wider world is Nicelle Davis. Check out her year-long poetry project at The Bees Knees.