Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Humanity

The recent Brexit referendum and the ongoing presidential election campaign in the United States have got me to thinking about the politicization of daily life, a subject that I have considered here in the past. But let me be clear at the outset:  this is a non-political blog, and you will not hear any opinions from me on either Brexit or the presidential election. I am not a citizen of the United Kingdom, so Brexit is none of my business. As for the presidential election:  I intend to sit it out.

What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political "activists," and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be:  political animals.

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936.)

Be careful before you make any quick judgments on what the poem "means."  Depending upon how you read the poem, you may be a misanthrope or you may be a lover of humanity.  Or both.  Or neither.  In his fine study of Frost's poetry, Tim Kendall says this of the poem:  "This is what I can see happening, the poet tells his reader.  Make of it what you will."  Tim Kendall, The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), page 356.  But this much is certain:  you are standing there on the sand, dear reader, as are we all.

Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1948)

Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul.

                    Balances

Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock's nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas -- not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Gilbert Spencer
"The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (1952)

Each of us has a far better opinion of ourself than we ought to.  That is a given.  A part of human nature.  But, when you add politics to the mix, the opportunities for superciliousness expand exponentially.  Vast territories of grandiosity, oversimplification, and unexamined assumptions lie open for exploration.  And you can be sure that the politicized -- left, right, and center -- will undertake the expedition.

                                                     Learning

To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor  for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

W. B. Yeats could be as supercilious as they come.  But every once in a while he experienced a moment of clarity.

                                     Paudeen

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind
A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on the lonely height where all are in God's eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

"A single soul," yes.  Yet something else comes to mind as well.

                           Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

George Charlton, "Welsh Chapel" (1950)

I am well aware that there may be those among you who find this disquisition (diatribe?) to be supercilious in its own right.  Apathy and quietism as the world goes up in flames.  I see your point.  Ah, well, we are all in "the vale of Soul-making."  We each choose our own path.

                    Politics

You say a thousand things,
Persuasively,
And with strange passion hotly I agree,
And praise your zest,
And then
A blackbird sings
On April lilac, or fieldfaring men,
Ghostlike, with loaded wain,
Come down the twilit lane
To rest,
And what is all your argument to me?

Oh yes -- I know, I know,
It must be so --
You must devise
Your myriad policies,
For we are little wise,
And must be led and marshalled, lest we keep
Too fast a sleep
Far from the central world's realities.
Yes, we must heed --
For surely you reveal
Life's very heart; surely with flaming zeal
You search our folly and our secret need;
And surely it is wrong
To count my blackbird's song,
My cones of lilac, and my wagon team,
More than a world of dream.

But still
A voice calls from the hill --
I must away --
I cannot hear your argument to-day.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick and Jackson 1917).

But life is more than a matter of blackbirds singing and lilacs blooming, isn't it?  Thus, please forgive me as I return once again to some of the best advice that I have come across during my time on earth:

               . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

18 comments:

Sam Vega said...

Thank you for this selection, which is very nicely judged. A refreshing break from what we are currently being fed by the media in the UK. I agree with you about how political position-taking leads to stereotyping and ultimately dehumanising others. I suspect that this is a perennial tendency, carried out in the past by means of religions, guilds, and cultures: it's all updated tribalism, isn't it?

Some of your selection reminded me of Henry Reed's poem "Naming of Parts". This is (at least in the UK, where it resonates strongly with those who experienced National Service in the military and the existential threat of war) so well-known that it is something of a cliche. But it's still a fine poem:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.


For those less familiar with it, the rest can be found here
http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/namingofparts.html
and, it seems, in almost any collection of British war poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for your thoughts on the post. The UK media reaction hasn't greatly surprised me (my expectations of the media anywhere in the world are quite low), but I was taken aback by the stereotyping, generalizing, and clichés that I encountered on non-political UK blogs that I visit. I suppose this shows how little I know about the UK. Yet, as you say, this sort of thing is nothing new, is it? I know all too well the temptations of oversimplification and generalization.

Thank you as well for the reference to, and the lines from, "Naming of Parts." It's been some time since I have read it, so I appreciate your sharing it. Another world entirely. I've always meant to track down other poems by Reed, since "Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," and "Chard Whitlow," his parody of Eliot, are the only poems of his that I have read.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again.

Bovey Belle said...

A very interesting post in the light of the fallout from our recent Reforendum. An excellent appraisal from you Mr Pentz, and a wonderful selection of poems which I shall return to shortly. A pity that the Media has so much influence, politically and otherwise. One thing I learned at University (apart from LOTS about Archaeology!) was to always question, and then question again. I am not a political animal and would just have my country governed positively FOR the benefit of its people. I wonder if that happens anywhere in the world?

Sam Vega - thankyou for another poet to explore.

Here is something I have just discovered, whilst searching, which seems to have a good grip of reality:

The Government -- I heard about the Government and
I went out to find it. I said I would look closely at
it when I saw it.
Then I saw a policeman dragging a drunken man to
the callaboose. It was the Government in action.
I saw a ward alderman slip into an office one morning
and talk with a judge. Later in the day the judge
dismissed a case against a pickpocket who was a
live ward worker for the alderman. Again I saw
this was the Government, doing things.
I saw militiamen level their rifles at a crowd of
workingmen who were trying to get other workingmen
to stay away from a shop where there was a strike
on. Government in action.
Everywhere I saw that Government is a thing made of
men, that Government has blood and bones, it is
many mouths whispering into many ears, sending
telegrams, aiming rifles, writing orders, saying
"yes" and "no."
Government dies as the men who form it die and are laid
away in their graves and the new Government that
comes after is human, made of heartbeats of blood,
ambitions, lusts, and money running through it all,
money paid and money taken, and money covered
up and spoken of with hushed voices.
A Government is just as secret and mysterious and sensitive
as any human sinner carrying a load of germs,
traditions and corpuscles handed down from
fathers and mothers away back.

Carl Sandburg

David said...

Stephen, your blog is a delightful refuge at this time of turmoil here in the UK. Haven't people always turned to nature in such times for consolation and perspective? I am also reminded of this lovely poem by Yehudi Amichai, which seems so apt just now:


From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this topic, and I thank you for sharing the poem by Carl Sandburg, which is new to me. I think it is evident to many that there is a disconnect between the citizens and the government in both the U. S. and the UK, and I think both the Brexit vote and the presidential campaign are reflections of this. Those who make stereotypical assumptions about the motivations of voters often fail to recognize the role of this disconnect. As Sandburg suggests, the government does take on a life of its own. The simple fact is that most people just want to be left alone to live their lives in peace and quiet.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. As I indicated, I do feel that the Brexit vote is none of my business, but I couldn't help but notice the parallels between the reaction to the vote and similar attitudes being expressed in the context of the presidential election. But my overall reaction to politics is the same as John Drinkwater's: "I must away . . ."

Thank you very much for sharing the poem by Amichai, which is new to me, and which is indeed lovely. "From the place where we are right/Flowers will never grow/In the Spring" is wonderful. I greatly appreciate your posting it here.

Your comment about people "turn[ing] to nature in such times" brings to mind the following poem (a waka) by Saigyō (translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite):

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

As we all know from our personal lives, change can be difficult. But it can also be liberating and joyful.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

R. T. Davis said...

Another fine, thought-provoking event you've offered. I admit that I've fallen into the trap of wondering about what a poem "means" every now and then. However, I try to recover from my descent by discipline, keeping focused like a New Critics on what makes a poem "work." I then abandon my New Criticism by focusing instead on what the poem makes me "feel." In any case, the poems and your words, like your others, provoke me to observe the working and the feeling rather than the meaning. You will notice in the foregoing that I said nothing about politics and/or current events. Poems must be above all that nonsense. Even as I would hard pressed to "define" poetry, I would insist that such a definition ought to include proscriptions against any focus upon politics and current events. But, of course, I admit to being an unrepentant 19th century Romantic, which I guess is an admission that more accurately describes my engagement with poetry. Hey, enough of my babbling. Now, I end my rambling with another "Thank you" for your fine posting.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you very much for your kind words. I like your comparison between what a poem "means," how it "works," and how it makes us "feel." All of them need to be taken into account, but I think that, particularly in the last century (as a result of the obscurities of "modernism") the idea developed that poems are puzzles or mysteries to be solved and that is where the focus now lies. Hence, my oft-repeated (and no doubt tiresome by now) refrain: explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

I confess that I tend to focus on "feeling," although I prefer to think of it more as "xin" or "kokoro," those wonderful Chinese and Japanese words that mean a combination of mind, heart, and spirt.

I hope that you are enjoying your return to teaching! As always, thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

When I see "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" I always remember reading it in Freshman English in college, in 1955. Our wonderful professor was Sam Hynes, in his first year of college teaching after getting his PhD. My new roommate was also in the class, & after her comment on the poem I turned to her & said, "But Georgia, you couldn't possibly understand this poem. You're from the Midwest!". Hynes told her years later that it was all he could do to keep a straight face.
I was from New England, & thought that I owned Robert Frost.
Forgive me for this personal anecdote, Susan

Tim Guirl said...

"What does a poem mean?" Readers may enjoy this anecdote about Beethoven. He was asked by an amateur musician whether he really intended the first notes of his C minor Symphony to represent a yellow hammer or the knocking of Fate or something else. His reply was, "I meant what I wrote; that's what I meant."

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you for that anecdote, which is wonderful. As one who was born in Minnesota, and did not see an ocean until I was 11 years old (when my family moved to a coastal town in southern California), I can attest that there may have been some -- some! -- truth in your kidding of your roommate. I remember being so excited at moving to California (which was the Promised Land at that time) and being able to go to the beach.

I recall you mentioning here in the past that you had Samuel Hynes as a teacher at the start of his career: how fortunate you were! I'm sure you have followed his subsequent illustrious career with interest.

It is very nice to hear from you again. I hope that all is well. As ever, thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: It is a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you for the anecdote about Beethoven, which fits well here.

I immediately thought of an anecdote by Charles O'Dowd, who worked with Wallace Stevens at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. O'Dowd once commented to Stevens that he didn't understand his poetry. Stevens replied: "Chawlie [Stevens's New England accent], it isn't necessary that you understand my poetry or any poetry. It's only necessary that the writer understand it. I've got paintings hanging in my house, and I don't understand. But that isn't necessary; I think they're very beautiful. What the painter is trying to say, I don't know. But it isn't necessary that I understand it; it isn't necessary for you or anybody else to understand my poetry. I understand it; that's all that's necessary." Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (Random House 1983), page 43.

I suppose that some might say that Stevens and Beethoven are being insufficiently attentive to (contemptuous of?) the needs of readers and listeners. Perhaps. But, on the other hand, we can only expect them to be who they are. My experience of Beethoven's music is shamefully minimal, so I am not qualified to comment. But I can say of Stevens's poetry that, although a great deal of it remains a puzzle to me, I still find it to be beautiful without knowing exactly what it "means." The same is true of "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep."

Thank you very much for stopping by again. I greatly appreciate your long-term presence here.

Graham Guest said...

To complement the words of Larkin, here (in translation) is what Politimester Bastian says: “You shall not bother others, you shall be nice and kind, otherwise you may do as you please.” – from When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town, by Thorbjørn Egner.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guest: Thank you very much for that. It is indeed a fine complement to Larkin's lines. The book is new to me, so I appreciate your sharing it.

I particularly like the combination of "you shall not bother others" and "you shall be nice and kind." As I have observed here in the past (and this is a non-partisan comment, since I ignore politics as best I can), we live in an age of busybodies, in which certain people are intent on telling the rest of us how to live. But most of us just want to be left alone in peace and quiet. (And not be patronized to.) Yes, "you shall not bother others" is excellent advice.

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Jeff said...

This is a much-needed perspective these days, Stephen.

I've always ended up regretting it whenever I've come close to identifying with a political party or movements that claim to have easy solutions to complex problems. Yet I've never regretted sharing art and poetry, or having art and poetry shared with me. There's going to be a great deal of bullying and shaming in the weeks and months ahead, a tremendous pressure to commit to a tribe and join in the braying and bellowing. It will come from people who don't realize that many of us have, in a different sense, joined a quieter but much hardier tribe, just one they can't easily discern.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: I heartily agree with all that you say. Yes, the time between now and November will be horrible. I always try my best to avoid "the news" in all its forms, but I will be redoubling my efforts this year. But, the way technology is these days, things always seep in, unfortunately.

The mental and emotional energy that taking political positions drains from people is alarming. I have adopted the perhaps clichéd view that the best way to effect change in the world is to try one's best to be a better human being, and to follow Larkin's advice and the advice noted by Mr. Guest in his comment.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear your thoughts. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Seamus Sweeney said...

Recently I came across a discussion of hesuchia - a virtue in various Ancient Greek authors often clumsily translated as "quiet" or "submissive". However, hesuchia properly understood is something else entirely:

"Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire." (from Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue"

The idea that “we strive in order to be at rest” is at odds with much of the spirit of the present day, for which the maxim from Goethe’s Faust “he who unceasingly strives upwards, him alone we can save” could be designed. And I wonder how much of the restless, unhappy preoccupation with politics as an endless game of moral oneupmanship and (oft concealed) tribalism stems from this cultural rejection of rest and repose?

I also wonder is it worth distinguishing between politics-as-participant in the real world (even at the most humble, volunteer level it strikes as something that has the potential at least to root some individuals in a common effort and - if rooted in the local, the particular, and a genuine commitment to collaboration - a wider connection to not just "Humanity" but humanity) and politics-as-online-virtual-signalling, as a sort of disconnected echo chamber discourse? Of courses the participants in politics are all too willing to deploy their online virtual mobs, so perhaps this distinction is meangingless.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sweeney: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

First, thank you for introducing me to "hesuchia," which is a new word and concept to me -- and one which is very appealing. I did some further exploring and came across this passage in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism (Routledge 2000): "[Hesuchia is] a word that is often mistakenly translated as 'solitude.' This word actually implies peaceful meditation, a condition that is not automatically attained by dwelling in isolation. Hesuchia is more correctly understood as a state free from all desires as well as from the multitude of distractions that emanate from them." (Page 963.) The goal is "taming the mind by calming the mental process or, if not yet possible, in at least not being distracted by the various thoughts that might arise." (Ibid.) Very intriguing. It sounds a great deal like Buddhist practice, doesn't it? I will be looking into this further. Thank you again.

Second, I understand your point about "politics-as-participant in the real world." I'm afraid that I have no taste for politics of any sort. I may certainly be mistaken, but it always seem to devolve into (1) generalizations and categories (for instance, as you point out, "Humanity" versus "humanity") and (2) "us" versus "them" (which you point out in your comment). Perhaps this makes me "apathetic." But I don't want any part of it.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I always appreciate hearing from you.