Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/30/2007: O Taste and See

O Taste and See

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

Denise Levertov

Ms. Levertov's poem flashes by like the world from a subway train, moving with as much energy. By calling us to live, though, she integrates growth with the speed of the modern world. Levertov is working with several elements here. First, she responds to a Wordsworth sonnet, which begins, "the world is too much with us." His lines express grief and anguish at the failure of the French Revolution, the weight that overcomes all humans. Since the French Revolution, times have changed. Now, we don't live enough, we don't respond enough. There is less joy and freedom than there used to be--merely lines of movement along subways, sidewalks, roads, and offices. So when we end up in the orchard, we ought to free ourselves!

She also responds to the Adam and Eve story, and to a Christian morality that no longer has a place in this world (though this interpretation of the A and E myth is only one level of its interpretation). Rather than denying outselves, with the paradoxical puritanism of work and capitalism, we ought to live more.

Perhaps, though, we might say that she is merely encouraging the small appeasement of desires, the endless deferment of experience by little pleasues of the modern world. So I will attempt to frame this in a way that will give her credit, with Foucault at my side. When I talk of the puritanism of capitalism, I mean the double-standard of repression and appeasement. A good example here is sexuality. We have a lot of rhetoric about sex being forbidden, a lot of paranoia about sexual harassment, a lot of messages of abstinence, safety, and responsibility. Sex is a transgression, nowadays. And yet, we are conversely called to do it all of the time. That is, any time somebody says "no" about it, they actually bring it up. They make you think about doing it, and so make you complicit in it. So the double standard of the media makes sex both transgressive, which makes it tempting and forbidding, but it brings it up. Hm. After writing all of this, I am not sure whether my argument holds. I am trying to say that there is a difference between responding to transgressive social norms and really following what ought to be.

The former implies still some kind of restriction, because society regulates our actions by pulling them into a discourse, by telling us what to think and when to think it. The latter has to do with enlarging ourselves by experience. By really living, by being grateful for everything that we have been giving, this beautiful world, which though sad and difficult, ought still be lived in. We need to engage, Levertov says, and we can in such a way as to grow.

Thanks for bearing with this thought-process of a PotW.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/21/2007: Death Poem of Koho Kennichi

Death Poem of Koho Kennichi

To depart while seated or standing is all one.
All I shall leave behind me
Is a heap of bones.
In empty space I twist and soar
And come down with the roar of thunder
To the sea.

Koho Kennichi 1316
Died on the twentieth day of the tenth month, 1316 at the age of seventy-six

In Japan, there is a tradition of death poems: poems written just before the moment of death. Koho Kennichi was a Zen Monk in Japan in the 14th Century. A few notes will be helpful in order to understand this poem. First, departed "while seated or standing" treats the position in which it is worthy to die if one is enlightened. Ultimately, this position is merely a form, for bones are the only thing that remain of the physical form.

The next three lines are somewhat more mysterious, and I have only a few thoughts as to their ultimate meaning. If Koho is enlightened, as the sitting or standing comment implies, the "empty space" *might* refer to the open, unified realm of the absolute. His moving toward the sea as death approaches is then the particular manifestation of the infinite (his Buddha-seed, as it were) rejoining the sea of ultimate reality. Death for the enlightened person is Pari-Nirvana, the final extinction of ties to samsara.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/10/2007: from Duino Elegies

The Ninth Elegy

Why, when this short span of being could be spent
like the laurel, a little darker than all
the other green, the edge of each leaf fluted
with small waves (like the wind's smile)--why,
then, do we have to be humanm, and, avoiding fate,
long for fate?

Oh, not because happiness,
that quick profit of impending loss, really exists.
Not out of curiosity, not just to exercise the heart
--that could be in the laurel, too...

But because being here means so much, and becaues all
that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us
and strangely concerns us. Us, the first to vanish.
Once each, only once. Once and no more. And us too,
once. Never again. But to have been
once, even if only once,
to have been on earth just once--that's irrevocable.

And so we keep on going and try to realize it,
try to hold it in our simple hands, in
our overcrowded eyes, and in our speechless heart.
Try to become it. To give it to whom? We'd rather
keep all of it forever... Ah, but what can we take across
into that other realm? Not the power to see we've learned
so slowly here, and nothing that's happened here.
Nothing. And so, the pain; above all, the hard
work of living; the long experience of love--
those purely unspeakable things. But later,
under the stars, what then? That';s better left unsaid.
For the wanderer doesn't bring a handful of that
unutterable earth from the mountainside down to the valley,
but only some word he's earned, a pure word, the yellow
and blue gentian. Maybe we're here only to say: house,
bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window--
at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember,
to say them in such a way that the things themselves
never dreamed of existing so intensely. When this silent
earth uyrges lovers on, isn't it her secret reason
to make everything shudder with ecstasy in them?
Doorsill: how much ir means to a pair of lovers
to wear down the sill of their own
dorr a little more, them too, after so many
before them, and before all those to come... gently.

This is the time for what can be said. Here
is its country. Speak and testify. The things
we can live with are falling away more
than ever, replaced by an act without symbol.
An act under crusts that will easily rip
as soon as the energy inside outgrows
them and seeks new limits.
Our heart survives between
hammers, just as the tongue between
the teeth is still able to praise.

Praise the world, to the angel, not what can't be talked about.
You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos
where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show
him some simple thing shaped for generation after generation
until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it's ours;
Tell him about things. he;ll stand amazed, just as you did
beside the ropemaker in Rome or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours;
how even grief's lament purely determines its own shape,
serves as a thing, or dies in a thing--and escapes
in ecstasy beyond the violin. And these thingsm, whose lives
are lived in leaving--they understand when you praise them.
Perishing, they turn to us, the most perishable, for help.
They want us to change them completely in our invisible hearts,
oh--forever--into us! Whoever we finally may be.

Earth, isn't this what you want: to resurrect
in us invisible? Isn't it your dream
to be invisible one day? Earth! Invisible!
What's your urgent charge, if not transformation?
Earth, my love, I will. Oh, believe me, you don't
need your Springs to win me anymore--one,
oh, one's already too much for my blood.
I'm silently determined to be yours, from now on.
You were always right, and your most scared
idea is death, that intimate friend.

Look, I'm alive. On what? Neither childhood nor
the future grows less... More being than I'll ever
need springs up in my heart.

Ranier Maria Rilke

I do Rilke a lot--these are probably my favorite poems of all.