Saturday, August 6, 2016


It is entirely possible -- and perfectly acceptable -- to live one's life without holding opinions on the political issues of the day.  As the years pass, I have been steadily throwing these sorts of opinions overboard, and I feel none the worse for having jettisoned them.

Mind you, I do hold some opinions.  For instance, it is my opinion that we should be kind to one another.  (Long-time readers of this blog have heard me quote Philip Larkin numerous times on this point:  "We should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.")  I am also of the opinion that it is rude to carry on cell phone conversations in public, particularly while waiting in lines at post offices and banks.  I confess that I favor dogs over cats.  (Although I have known and loved many wonderful cats.)  Further, it is my opinion that those who commit murder in the name of religion (any religion) are evil.  So, there you have it: I am not opinionless.

Granted, most of my opinions are in the nature of truisms.  (With the exception of my preference for dogs over cats, for which I beg the forbearance of those who prefer cats.)  But, as I have noted in the past, I am perfectly content to live my life in accordance with truisms, which are, after all, true.

                 Mute Opinion

I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

I understand the allure of constructing a well-ordered set of opinions.  The world can be a chaotic, horrific, and dispiriting place.  It can be comforting to believe that one's opinions are correct, and that the implementation of those opinions will lead to a better world.

But this is where problems arise.  A great number of people believe that holding the "correct" opinions is de facto evidence of one's personal virtue and morality.  More alarmingly, there is a disturbing totalitarian undercurrent in modern opinion-holding:  We are right.  You are wrong. And you had better adopt the correct opinions.  Or else.  Anyone who believes that totalitarian tendencies are limited to one side or the other of the political spectrum is deluding themselves.

But I mustn't rant.  I wish all opinion holders well, as long as they don't expect me to believe what they believe.  In any case, the end result of political opinion-holding amounts to a hill of beans.

                The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

Yes, Humbug will for ever walk the lands in which you and I dwell, dear reader.  There will never be a dearth of snake oil salesmen, whether of the left, right, or center.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

Opinions on political issues are beliefs, not statements of reality.  In the wake of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment," belief in utopian political schemes has in large part replaced religious belief.  Political believers can be every bit as fervent as religious believers.  This is not a criticism of fervency.  Everyone is entitled to hold their own opinions.  But it is important to recognize the critical role that utopian political beliefs play in the lives of a large number of people.

Most political true believers are not aware that their opinions are the tenets of a religion.  Political religions are as rife with controversy as the early Christian church:  doctrinal disputations, denunciations, apostasies, and schisms abound.  Words are paramount, and are worshipped.  The niceties of creedal language are parsed in a fashion that rivals the labors of the Council of Nicaea.


Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

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

Adam Bruce Thomson, "St Monance"

Holding opinions is a tiring and tiresome business.  Think of the amount of mental, emotional, and psychic energy that people expend on defending their own opinions and attacking those of others.

As for me, I am one of Hardy's "large-eyed few, and dumb."  And happily so.  I am content to remain mute.  There is a great deal to do.

              Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"


sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for another wonderful post. I love your choices of poetry. What about opinions as a matter of decades of taste, cultivated in one direction or another? I would not say that anyone should prefer Hardy's poetry to Bukowski's, but I would proclaim dozens of reasons why I think Hardy is better and better worth a read. Is that a matter of taste over opinion? Is it opinion, taste, or old age that makes me think that college students would do better to study Shakespeare than comix?

In any event, I certainly enjoy your blog and find it always and ever edifying.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog.

Your point about poetic (and, more generally, literary) "opinion" or "taste" is an excellent one. In fact, I had thought about addressing that point in the post, but decided that the post was getting too long. I had thought to include something along these lines: "Of course, I have opinions about poetry and art. Those opinions are reflected in the poems and the paintings that appear here." So I believe that you and I are in agreement. Thus, I certainly agree with you that college students would be better off studying Shakespeare rather than comics.

As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again.

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

I too LOVE your choices of poetry, thank you so much!
I'm enjoying reading your blog, it's great.

Thank you.

Wurmbrand said...

Goodwill and patience are needed because one of the things about which people differ is what matters are matters of opinion and which aren't. Most people would agree that it is not a matter of opinion as to whether a bystander should intervene if someone is hitting a child with his fists. At the other extreme, most people would agree that it is a matter of opinion whether public road maintenance should be financed by property taxes or sales taxes or driver's license fees. Alas, there is a big area between these extremes where whether something's a matter of opinion or not is not so clear. Goodwill and patience seem to be in short supply.

Stephen Pentz said...

Half-heard in the Stillness: Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. I consider myself as merely a messenger for the poetry (and the paintings), so I am happy that you enjoy what you find here. I hope you'll return soon. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Excellent points. What I was trying to get at (inarticulately and inadequately) was the manner in which more and more topics have become politicized, and turned into matters of political opinion. It is this sort of thing that I don't want any part of.

I certainly agree wholeheartedly with you that "goodwill and patience seem to be in short supply." Hence my comment about kindness.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, which I greatly appreciate. Thank you for visiting again.

Lee Hanson said...

Thanks for this latest post. I continue to love your blog, the art and the poems. Pellucid as always.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for the kind words about the post and the blog. I'm happy to learn you are still visiting. Thanks again.

Martin Caseley said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post - highly relevant in the Trump v. Clinton climate. When you read a poem like the Hardy one, it's the sudden intrusion of a word like 'outwrought' that makes you realise you're reading a great poet! I take it Hardy means 'worked upon' or 'shaped', like 'wrought iron'? It's always a pleasure to be reminded of Hardy's scrupulous phrasing.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Caseley: Yes, Hardy's use of unusual and eccentric -- but exactly right -- words is wonderful, isn't it? Shallow critics of his poetry have criticized Hardy for this practice, suggesting (incorrectly) that it demonstrates his quaintness, old-fashionedness, etc. However, astute critics have shown how wrong this view is: as you say, such words remind us of his "scrupulous phrasing," and of his precise choice of words. I'm sure you are familiar with the story Hardy told on himself: he was pondering whether to use a particular word in a poem, so he looked it up in the OED, whereupon he discovered that the sole use of the word was attributed to him!

As for "the Trump v. Clinton climate": as I have stated in a previous post, I intend to sit this election out. And I am doing my best to not hear a single word about the election campaign.

Thank you very much for the kind words about the post, and for sharing your thoughts. And thank you for stopping by again. It's good to hear from you.

Deb said...

Something I read once, and it has stuck with me, is that it is about preferences. We all have them, but it doesn't mean that anyone else needs to share the same. This is what makes us individuals, choosing our own route through the fun fair. And we can honour others as sovereign individuals by allowing them to have different preferences, if they so desire. Not always easy when your preferences bump up against mine, but we sort it out one way or another, all part of the grand adventure.

Love that last poem, so utterly peaceful...

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I agree entirely. As I said in the post, I wish all opinion-holders well, as long as they don't expect me (or others) to believe what they believe. Of course, I have preferences or opinions (however one wishes to characterize them) on scores of things. For instance, as I noted above in response to a comment, each post I make is the expression of an opinion: I like these poems and paintings. It is the political preferences and opinions which are no longer of interest to me.

I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

Just visiting for another read this morning.
That last comment above by the lady called Deb puts it perfectly,.......for me (of course!). We are all individuals, 'choosing our own route through the fun fair', I shall commit that one to memory.

What a perfect picture of peace the last poem paints.


Stephen Pentz said...

Jane: Thank you for the follow-up comment. I agree with both you and Deb about "the fun fair" and about "Consider the Grass Growing." The poem is one I often return to when I feel in need of perspective and serenity. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

About "The Pier": first, in my (yes) opinion, it would be a better poem without the last two lines.
Second, it makes me think of two very different poems: Cafavy's "Waiting for the Barbarians", & a very favorite Frost poem, "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep".
What a thoughtful & timely post this is. Susan

Anonymous said...

You have misunderstood that politics is how we act, how we take responsibility for our own lives, and work alongside/with and care about each other. If you do not have opinions then you allow power to exist and grow and others to run our lives.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I am fond of both "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," but I hadn't thought of them in connection with "The Pier": I agree that they provide a nice complement to it. On the other hand, I confess that I love the last two lines of the poem! But, as you say, it is all a matter of "opinion."

It's very nice to hear from you again. As ever, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on the role of politics in our lives. However, I'm afraid that we shall have to agree to disagree. Perhaps this is a definitional issue. It appears that your definition of "politics" is much broader and more all-encompassing than my definition. Thus, I do not agree that "politics is how we act, how we take responsibility for our own lives, and work alongside/with and care about each other." I do not believe that "politics" enters into any of the human activities that you enumerate. Speaking for myself, I can assure you that "politics" has absolutely nothing to do with how I "act," how I "take responsibility for [my] own life," and whether I "care about" other people. But, again, this may be a definitional issue.

As far as "allow[ing] power to exist and grow and others to run our lives," I do not know what you mean by "power" and "others to run our lives." I have no idea what "power" means in this context. Nor do I know who the "others" are who wish "to run our lives." It certainly sounds as though there is some nefarious activity afoot in the world! But, without specificity, I have no idea who is behind this nefarious activity and who these "power" hungry "others" are. Of course, answering these questions leads us directly to "opinions" and "politics," doesn't it?

Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.