A Poem for Our Time

Yesterday, as I paged through a nice collection of Mary Oliver’s poetry, Devotions, I found a poem, published in 2008, that characterizes the state of our nation and our world better than countless learned articles that attempt to explain us to ourselves.

Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

OF THE EMPIRE by Mary Oliver

“We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many. We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity. And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accomodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness.”

 

What Rough Beast?

William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911

I posted William Butler Yeats’ best known poem, The Second Coming five years ago. Its time has come round again. Yeats (1865-1939), one of our greatest English language poets, had an abiding interest in the mythology and folklore of his native Ireland.

He was also a member of The Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to western esotericism. The Golden Dawn developed a series of visualizations and meditations designed to awaken subtle areas of consciousness. Yeats presented The Second Coming as a breakthrough of visionary experience, framed within his personal theory of  “gyres,” or cycles of time, analogous to the eastern idea of “yugas,” or ages.

Written in 1919 and published in 1921 The Second Coming was naturally read at the time as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. But the archetypal imagery Yeats brought up from the depths cuts deeper than specific personal or historical issues. It speaks as clearly to our own times, as if the forces that break and end eras and empires and civilizations are not exhausted in a decade or two. And though we can all identify our own Rough Beasts du jour, that doesn’t answer the key question of where the forces that drive such men to loose the blood-dimmed tide may come from…

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A change coming

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Arthur Hughes, 1870, public domain.

I’ve been enjoying the recording of a discussion at a conference with James Hillman and Michael Meade on literal, psychological, and mythological modes of understanding.

Hillman, a former director of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, has been the most prolific and influential of post-Jungian thinkers. He spent his life as champion of psyche, soul, and imagination in a world that has too few such champions. Hillman took particular aim at literalism, which he called “an idol that forgets it is an image and believes itself a God, taking itself metaphysically, seriously, damned to fulfill its task of coagulating the many into singleness of meaning which we call facts, data, problems, realities.” (Revisioning Psychology).

When I think of literalism, I recall the last lines of a poem a brilliant young poet I knew wrote about his high school principal:

His triple-breasted chin, arranged in folds upon his chest,
He blunts my life with a technicality.

Hillman also takes aim at much psychological thinking in books like The Soul’s Code. In this conference, he points to the 20th c. understanding that “The Gods now live in the psyche,” as a core statement of one of our greatest collective problems: the world and nature have lost their connection to the divine, and as such, are ripe for exploitation by greedy men who have traded their souls for profit. If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Ronald Reagan famously said when he was California’s governor.

Michael Meade noted that one of the hallmarks of myth is a sense of abundance. The current miasma of scarcity thinking – that there isn’t enough to go around, so you better get yours while you can – is a clear indication, if we need it, that we have no myth, no shared stories of who we are as a people. Continue reading

Notes from 2017 – A New Year

believe-everything-you-think-small

At midnight tonight, something changes – in our minds, and nowhere else. It’s like a graffiti artist once wrote on a step of the local library: “Time does not exist, only clocks exist.”

That could be a Buddhist aphorism, like the image of my all time favorite bumper sticker pictured above. Through Buddhist contemplative practice, we come to experience that the contents of our consciousness – the thoughts, emotions, concepts that shape our reality – are fluid and insubstantial. Like rainbows. Like state lines.

State lines exist because legislators, surveyors, and highway departments put signs saying things like “Welcome to Oregon,” at certain points in the landscape. The mountains and rivers and deserts know nothing of state lines, but I need to. The speed limit drops in Oregon, and I’ll get a ticket if I ignore that gap between consensual and ultimate reality.

Today I am thinking of Joseph Campbell who called out one of the core abstractions that separate people. In the last episode of The Power of Myth series, Campbell said the view of our beautiful planet, photographed from space, might well serve as an emblem of the religion of the future.

Image converted using ifftoany

Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. The Power of Myth was released in 1988, a time of optimism and economic expansion. In our current era of fear and economic decline, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, and class warfare are becoming the new normal. No national or state boundaries are visible from space, but we, collectively, are killing each other over such abstractions, both with weapons and legislation.

I’d love to have started this post with, “Happy New Year,” but I don’t think that’s very likely. Nobody really believes it. There isn’t much “Happy days are here again” in the air. There’s too much bullshit online these days so I won’t add to it. Not for the first time will I say that I think the road ahead was accurately painted by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem, Dover Beach. In the last stanza he said:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

More than 100 years ago, Arnold saw our world as struggling through the death throes of a dying age and the birth pangs of a new one. That labor continues.

I hope you and your loved ones survive and thrive in 2017.

Notes from 2017 – William Stafford

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

Some poems are prophetic, though readers and the poet alike discover this only after the passage of time. William Stafford (1914-1993) wrote poems like this. Of his process, he said, “It’s like fishing,” and “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” (1)

Stafford was born and raised in Kansas. During WWII, as a contentious objector, he served in Civilian Public Service camps from 1942 t0 1946 for $2.50 a month. In 1947, he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College, a post he held for 30 years. He was a late bloomer, who did not publish the first of his 57 volumes of poetry until he was 46.

William Stafford was named “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” in 1970, a position now called Poet Laureate of the US. He was Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-1990. James Dickey said William Stafford was one of those poets”who pour out rivers of ink, all on good poems.” He wrote 22,000 of these in his lifetime, and published 3,000 of those.

He left an unfinished poem, “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” on August 28, 1993, the day he died of a heart attack, containing these lines:

“You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.”

In an article in the New York Times Review of Books, Ralph J. Mills Jr. said, “Stafford’s work and attitudes say a good deal indirectly about contemporary modes of living that have lost touch with the earth and what it has to teach. He uncovers and keeps alive strata of experience and knowledge that his readers are in grave danger of losing, and without which, Stafford keeps saying, they will forget how ‘To walk anywhere in the world, to live / now, to speak, to breathe a harmless / breath.'”(1)

All these are reasons why Stafford’s work remains fresh, and seems even more timely as time goes on. One of my favorite poems, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” was published in 1962. It seems to me that out of time, he is speaking to us directly, urgently, pointedly at this solstice season of 2016:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford, (from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems)

Irreplaceable

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016. CC-BY-SA-2.0

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016. CC-BY-SA-2.0

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
– from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

Those who know Leonard Cohen’s poetry, music, novels, and songs, know he is irreplaceable. Those who don’t know his work actually do, for unless you were raised by wolves, you’ve enjoyed some version of “Hallelujah,” which I understand has passed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the most widely covered song of all time.  Both awaken something within us to hope in a dark time.

“Hallelujah,” written in 1984, was initially rejected by a recording company as not commercial enough. A Jeff Buckley cover ten years later brought it public attention, and since then, at least 200 artists have recorded their own versions, though to hear most of the 30 verses, you have to find Leonard’s version on youTube.

I first became aware of Leonard Cohen’s music through Judy Collin’s stunning cover of “Suzanne,” almost 50 years ago.  It was covers, rather than his own gravelly voice that won him initial acclaim, though I remember vividly how his renditions of “The Stranger Song,” and “Sisters of Mercy,” were perfect for the moody western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971.   “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” Cohen sings in the opening scene, as Warren Beaty, a hapless gambler, rides into a forsaken mining town under a lowering sky.  That’s one of those lines that has stayed with me ever since.

I don’t really have a single favorite Leonard Cohen song – so many of them are memorable. What comes to mind this morning, and is best heard Cohen’s own voice, is “Joan of Arc,” another ballad that awakens hope in some deep, visceral way as it paints the portrait of time of darkness and suffering. It still sends chills down my spine.

I send this post out to Leonard in memory of a debt of gratitude that can only be repaid as we seek for something deeper and brighter behind the apparent disasters of our lives.

The 10,000 Idiots

Hafiz. Public Domain

Hafiz. Public Domain

Hafiz or Hafez was a great 14th century Persian poet and mystic whose dates are given as approximately 1325-1389. During his life, he is said to have composed 5,000 poems of the seeker’s longing for union with the divine. Unfortunately, many of these were never written down.

His poems retain an amazing resonance to those who practice any kind of spiritual discipline.  This is one of my favorites – not one of his most sublime, but always relevant…

The 10,000 Idiots

It is always a danger
to aspirants on the Path
When they begin to believe and act
As if the ten thousand idiots
Who so long ruled and lived inside
Have all packed their bags
And skipped town
Or
Died

Getting rid of those pesky memories

In my previous post, I wrote of advances in the field of virtual reality, and posted a video clip that brought to mind the dystopian landscape of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Word (1932).  Huxley imagined life in “The World State” in 2540, where children are born in “hatcheries.”  They are raised in “conditioning centers” and learn to be avid consumers and abhor the thought of solitude.

Happy face thumbs up

One of the World State’s tools for keeping people docile are “the feelies,” multi-sensory movies, most often centered on sex.  The connection to virtual reality should be obvious.  Another conditioning tool was “soma,” a side-effect free hallucinogenic drug that World State citizens used to go on “holidays.”  Soma relates to the subject of this post – a potential advance in the technology of feeling happy, happy.

In “Unwanted Memories Erased in Experiment,” an article in The Wall Street Journal (12/23/13, p. A1), Gautam Naik writes that scientists used electrical currents to erase memories they had implanted earlier.  Someday doctors may be able to zap painful memories and leave the rest in tact.  Assuming the technology becomes (relatively) safe, would this be a wise thing to do?

In a few cases it might be – the 39 patients who volunteered for the experiment were already undergoing electroshock therapy for severe clinical depression after all other treatments had failed.  But the article’s assertion that memory erasing might be useful to remove “associations linked to smoking, drug-taking, or emotional trauma” suggests the kind of social engineering Huxley wrote about.

Last year at a Buddhist teaching, I met an elderly woman who had spent her youth in a Soviet gulag.  As difficult as the hardship was, she had written a memoir for her family to read, “So they’ll know who I really am.”  Her core identity, as well as her later practice of Buddhism were direct results of those years of suffering.

In my late 20’s, I knew a woman who lost her closest male friends over a short period of time; they died of cancers related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.  After surviving a deep depression, my friend enrolled for training to work in a hospice.  Without the pain of loss, she wouldn’t have found her calling.

The poet, Rilke, declined Jung’s offer of therapy work saying, “If you take away my devils, I fear my angels might flee.”  

The disowned parts of ourselves are especially important in scripture.  When Jesus offers living water (Jn 4:10-13), only those who know they are thirsty will hear him.  When Buddha teaches a path beyond suffering, we won’t listen if we’ve deadened ourselves with soma or reality TV.

A tour of America 80 years ago sparked Huxley’s vision of an economic and political culture at war with soul values.  Now that another “holiday season” has run its course, as the media waits for the next distraction, I am reminded once again of the cautionary words in this wonderful poem that William Stafford published in 1960:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.