Friday, December 14, 2012

How To Live, Part Eighteen: "In Broken Images"

I am wary of those who are preternaturally self-assured, particularly when it comes to matters of politics, philosophy, and religion.  I tend to assume that they have arrived at their level of certitude by leaving something out of account.  The question then arises:  Have they left something out of account inadvertently (through ignorance, sloth, and/or lack of curiosity) or intentionally (making them untrustworthy and/or dangerous)?

Perhaps this marks me as a cynic.  But I believe that any truth that we are fortunate enough to encounter in this world arrives in momentary flashes, not in systems, creeds, or over-arching explanations, however well-intentioned.  (And we all know where good intentions lead us, don't we?)

This may explain, at least in part, my attraction to poetry.  Although I do not believe that the purpose of poetry is to "teach" us anything, I do believe that a good poem (emphasis on good) provides an inkling of truth about Life or the World.  (But this does not mean that the purpose of poetry is to edify.  Nor does it mean that the intimation of truth embodied in a poem can be explicated or explained.)

                         Stephen McKenna, "An English Oak Tree" (1981)

                In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

Robert Graves, Poems 1929 (1929).

The approach to life suggested by Graves in the poem reminds me of his poem "Flying Crooked," which I have posted here previously.

                                     Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)


Fred said...


Thanks for posting the poem by Robert Graves. I might say that he's someone I've neglected to look into but "ignored" is probably closer to the truth.

"Mine is the mind of a fool--ignorant and stupid!
The common people see things clearly:
I alone am in the dark.
The common people discriminate and make fine distinctions;
I alone am muddled and confused. . . . . .
The masses all have their reasons for acting;
I alone am stupid and obstinate like a rustic."

-Lao Tzu-
Tao Te Ching--Chapter 20
trans. Robert G. Henricks

I think they might understand each other, even though 2000+ years separate them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you very much for the Lao Tzu. You're right: it complements Graves's poem very well. As you know, the Chinese and the other ancients covered all of this ground centuries ago, and, still, each "modern" generation forgets what has already been told to them by the wise.

I confess that I have only skirted around the edges of Graves's work, and one of my resolutions is to delve deeper into his poetry. I'm not sure that I have the patience for "The White Goddess" and his other mythological expeditions, though.

As always, thank you for stopping by, and for your thoughts. Merry Christmas.

Fred said...


I think the only work I've read by Graves is _I, Claudius_, and, of course, I've seen the magnificent BBC Masterpiece Theatre dramatization.

And, Merry Christmas also.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I understand that "I, Claudius" and his other historical novels are quite good, although I haven't had the chance to read them yet. In addition to his poetry, I have read some of his essays, which are very entertaining.

Thanks for the follow-up.