Friday, September 11, 2015


The goal of the purveyors of popular culture is to steal Time from us. Popular culture is always about the pursuit of the newest and the latest chimera.  It loathes quiet space and reverie.  Hence the freneticism we see around us.  Mind you, it has always been this way.  Modern technology merely speeds up the proliferation and demise of the distractions provided to us by the thieves of Time.

Space was holy to
pilgrims of old, till the plane
stopped all that nonsense.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1972).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979) "The Cottage Window"

Let me be clear:  I do not claim to view popular culture from an Olympian height.  I am definitely not above it all.  How could I be?  I was born in the United States of America in the middle of the 1950s.  It has been a non-stop carnival of distraction since my arrival during the first term of the Eisenhower Administration.

I have no complaints.  I have the ability to choose.  And I am in no position to adopt an ironic, superior attitude to what goes on in this land, as long as no one is harmed in the process.

At some point, however, one wants to get off the Tilt-A-Whirl.

In willow shade
where clear water flows
by the wayside --
"Just a while!" I said
as I stopped to rest.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 61.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

"Space was holy to pilgrims of old."  Auden seems to have had physical space in mind -- the distances we travel.  But I think the notion of temporal space is apt as well.

We have to be jealous of the temporal space that we are allotted, for, in the end, it is all that we have.  Popular culture abhors a vacuum.  I would humbly suggest that this is where poetry and art come in.  Poets and artists create a space -- an arrested, timeless moment -- that then becomes available to all of us.  But, with all that is going on around us, it requires an act of will to inhabit that moment.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say:  one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934).

Tessimond's poetry is full of references (both approving and disapproving) to the popular culture of his day, and he worked for a time as a copywriter in the advertising business.  He does not hold himself aloof from the modern world, nor does he disparage his fellow denizens.  He knows that we are all in this together.  As in these two poems, he often reflects in a wistful, affecting fashion about what has gone missing from our lives.

                           Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Ibid.

Anthony Eyton, "A Kitchen Range" (c. 1984)

Looking back at what I have written in this post, I fear that I sound annoyingly haughty or high-minded on the subject of popular culture.  But, as I said above, I have no complaints.  I am wholly a product of it, it is where I live, and I take the good with the bad.  Please take what I have written as an admonition to myself.  Something along these lines:

"Some think that sloth, one of the capital sins, means ordinary laziness," I began.  "Sticking in the mud.  Sleeping at the switch.  But sloth has to cover a great deal of despair.  Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive.  This activity drives off the wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought -- none of the highest human functions.  These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being, as some philosophers say.  They labor because rest terrifies them.  The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous.  But this calls for unusual strength of soul.  The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances.  The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming."

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (Viking 1975), page 306.

                    Five Minutes

"I'm having five minutes," he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
"Just five minutes," he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1954).

Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (c. 1935)


Mark V said...

I just wanted to thank you for your wise posts here. They are an oasis of calm and reflection to which I often return. They help me, and I am sure others, when things are difficult or demanding. I much appreciate your own commentary as well as the poems and pictures you select. Mark

Acornmoon said...

I wonder who owns the red shoes by the black door? Maybe some man has come to steal away her thyme? Your post reminded me of the song, "let no man steal away your thyme" I always thought the word was time.

billoo said...

These are lovely thoughts and give one pause for thought.

A minor quibble
..didn't they think " place" was holy? Space is already too abstract.

Merton once wrote that we have to find ourselves in the time ( and space) that has been allotted to us. I think that's about right if one adds: one must also feel estranged from them ( Augustine: yearning makes the heart grow deeper).

On light flowing through rooms I thought you might like these lines by Irby:

The light in each room is different/
But the light in the whole house/
Hangs suspended in eternal afternoon.

deborah said...

Thank you again. Having spent the morning rushing around, your post once more made me "stop and stare" a while. It may have been written as an admonition to you, but it provided a timely reminder of the importance of having "space" to reflect and be still.

Bex said...

Just lovely. The entire page. The paintings especially Steve, they are wonderful. Where do you find them all?

And how do you select your poem snippets - are they poems you already know or ones you search out with a certain subject matter? I suspect the former... as you seem to be totally educated in poetry from dawn til night. I always love your blogs. These four specific paintings, though, just thrill me. They make me think of Vanessa Bell and her group.

I am also an Anglophile so your entries hit nerves all over my being! Lovely.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mark V: That's very kind of you to say. I find myself at a loss for words, except to say thank you, which seems inadequate.

As I have noted here before, I am always gratified and humbled to find that the things I love may resonate with others as well. And, as I have also noted before, it is the poets and the artists who carry the weight here: I am just the messenger.

Again, thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. I'm not familiar with the song, but I would have thought the word was "time" rather than "thyme" as well if I had heard it.

Your thought about the owner of the red shoes is an apt one, and it fits well with the story behind the painting. A drawing of the painting appears on the back cover of a book by Walter de la Mare and Harold Jones titled This Year, Next Year (1935). It is a book of verse for children with lovely illustrations by Jones on each page. I suspect that you are already aware of it, but, if not, search for it on Google and you will find numerous images available around the Internet.

The book closes with a poem by de la Mare titled "Farewell" which talks about the painting (and which also fits well with you comment about the red shoes):

Ah me! That pen should be where mine is --
That F.I.N.I.S. spells FINIS!
It means -- oh sad! -- our book is over,
And all its pictures, excepting one
You'll find, dear Reader, on the cover --
Of starlings feeding in the sun.

There, open stands a shining door;
To let us out -- but in no more.
There glides a stream. A linden tree
Dreams of the Spring. The distant woods
Hear the gentle wind sigh, 'This is she!' --
And into leaf unfurl their buds.
Listen! that far, faint clarion! . . .
Farewell! All blessings! I am gone.

Like many of de la Mare's "children's" poems, I think that the poem is for adults as well. A lovely poem.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Thank you for the thoughts from Merton and St. Augustine, and for your comments on them. They go well here. And thank you as well for the lines from Erby (Kenneth?), which are lovely. I hadn't heard of him before. (I'm not very familiar with contemporary poetry, as you have probably already noticed.)

As for "space" versus "place": don't pilgrims (which we all are) view their entire pilgrimage, with all of its milestones and waypoints, as "holy space"? Yes, they are bound for a final destination ("place"), but it seems to me that the journey itself may be nearly as significant to them as the destination. Just a thought. (And I may be entirely missing your point!)

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

deborah: It's good to hear from you again.

I suppose that a large number of my posts are an attempt to create a quiet, calm space in the onrushing world, an attempt to momentarily slow things down. I agree with you that this is something we all need to do. But it is a constant struggle.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

billoo said...

But Stephen,that place was always " here", the journey is always back home, no?Surely the milestones are only milestones if we make them our own, part of our lives. Place is just that series of attachments. Iris M. The quality of our understanding is the quality of our attachments". Bellow says much the same in Herzog.

' Space' to me sounds too abstract, too devoid of the web of human relations.

I'm trying to remember a line from R.S. Thomas..was it: there are no more journeys?

Yes, ken Irby.



Stephen Pentz said...

Bex: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate.

As for the selection of poems, when I started the blog I decided that whatever I posted would be based solely upon what I had come across in my own reading. So, yes, the poems are all ones I know. I don't do any "research": that would make it too much of a job. Of course, that means that I am in danger of exhausting the contents of my mind!

As for the paintings, I first encountered many of the painters in books, but, in recent years the Internet has become, as you know, a wonderful source of images. One of my primary sources is the BBC "Your Paintings" website, which (to quote from the website) "aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings." There are 212,797 images of paintings on the website as of today.

I'm pleased you like the paintings in this post. I'm very fond of each of them as well. Except for Eyton's "A Kitchen Range," they have all appeared here in the past. I think that I could spend a lifetime living in each of those rooms.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Jeff said...

This post really strikes a chord with me. I'm a child of popular culture—but the older I get, the less interested I am in keeping up with the latest whatever-it-is. I've started to suspect that this isn't just middle age glaring ruefully at youth; rather, it's sorrow at the ways we've marginalized many higher forms of art. I almost didn't discover art, poetry, and classical music; I often wonder how many younger people never will because the popular culture tells them these soul-soothing pursuits are snooty or elitist. Pop culture was more fun when it had high culture as a seemingly stable foil...

Anonymous said...

"Don’t words such as “civilization,” and phrases such as “rise of civilization,” convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed."
From"Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond

I'm late getting around to Diamond's profound book. It's an enlightening book. He says that could a true IQ test be designed the New Guinea tribesman would have a higher IQ than a stockbroker. He suggests that we tread carefully around the word "progress" and "civilized."

We are of course grateful for modern technology, if just in medicine, the advances in eliminating scourge-ridden diseases, the advances in palliative medicine. We are grateful for labor-saving devices. We who dabble in words find a computer aids us immensely in our task, but it's also true that no computer had churned out any words that can equal Shakespeare's words written with a feather.

But when we get down to the basic philosophical problem of how a man can find purpose and meaning in life, Diamond says, as do you, that we haven't made much progress at all. In fact, it's possible that the New Guinea tribesman that most of us sneer at, call savage and backwards, is happier than any of us.

Emerson says that "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." you have well noted our culture's mania for owing things, for objects designed, it seems, merely to entertain us.

Well, perhaps not everywhere. Of course neither you nor I is advocating a return to life as it was thousands of years ago. But we should resist thinking that our civilization has made remarkable progress in finding happiness or meaning in life.

Diamond says that "the blessing of civilization are mixed." I wonder whether historians centuries hence will look back at the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, at the carnage, the suffering and the atrocities, and find it bewildering and absurdly contradictory that the people of this time prated about progress, as if a smart phone, and a clutch of other implements, symbolizes the good life. How madly incongruous is it that a man in a crowd stoning a woman to death for being a witch records her agonizing death on his smart phone.

bruce floyd said...

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry "The Peace of Wild Things"

Berry knows the important of the "pause" in one's life. He emphasizes that he is "free" only for a time. This reminds me of a Frost poem I'm sure you know well and probably have posted before: "Birches." The narrator wants to get away from the weariness of "considerations," from the duties and demands life. But he knows, too, that he must come back to the world, for it is in this world that one finds "love"--and, my implication, physical reality. Keats found out he couldn't stay in the perfumed darkness with the nightingale. But he did escape for a moment or two. So should we all.

All of us, I suppose, are shackled with the vexations of life, its demands and anxieties. We might want to approach life like the "wild things," find ourselves nowhere but in the present. But we can't. Madmen can live outside of time, but the rest of us can't. It flows around us like water.

We can, however, as Berry says, find respite from the human predicament. We should not forget that Berry eventually must rise from his place there by the placid pond, where the great heron feeds, rise and give up that moment of grace among the wild things. He must, we might say, have to go back to his office and balance his books or deal with some recalcitrant family matter.

We can presume, no doubt, that the pond and the heron, this place of wild things, waits for him, and will receive him again some time in the near future.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: I understand the distinction that you are making. And I agree that "place" has a more comforting and stable feel to it than "space." But (maybe this is the argumentative lawyer in me coming out!) I still think that Auden's use of "space" is perfect for the point he is trying to make: travel by plane arguably put an end to the notion of moving through holy space on a pilgrimage. But did it put an end to "place"? I don't think he is saying that.

A random thought occurs to me (probably based on a documentary I saw on TV recently): the Americans who travelled from the Mississippi River (or thereabouts) to the Pacific on the Oregon Trail in covered wagons travelled through holy space; someone who makes the same trip in a few hours in a jet does not. I once stood near the Continental Divide somewhere in Wyoming. You can see the ruts worn in the rock by the wagons that passed that way in the nineteenth century.

Thank you for prompting me to think at greater length about this distinction, which, as I said, is a good one.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thanks for stopping by.

I'm the same as you when it comes to keeping up with popular culture. I too thought it was a product of age, but the emptiness of what's out there has something to do with it as well. Your point about higher culture no longer being present as "a seemingly stable foil" is an excellent one. "Higher culture" has essentially disappeared in most of American culture, be that culture popular, political, economic, scientific, etc. It simply doesn't exist as a point of reference (or as an alternative) except for the few who have been fortunate enough to come upon it, and to recognize what it offers. As you say, it is sad to think about the younger people who will never know what they are missing.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

billoo said...

Dear Stephen, you must excuse me but I'm finding it difficult following your train if thought. I doubt that many people have ever thought of ' space' as holy or as a category itself ( before the scientific view took hold, that is).

But if anyone traveled through holy space I'd suggest it was the Native peoples on the trail of tears. Settlers tend to see wide open spaces, a " wilderness", devoid of people who are, to them, mere " dots and dreams" (Whitman) anyway.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the quotation from Diamond's book (which I am aware of, but have never read), and for your own thoughts. As you have probably noticed from past posts, I am skeptical of "Progress" and any sort of utopian thought (scientific, theological, political, philosophical, etc.). But, by the same token, there are no golden ages in the past, or in any particular civilization or way of life.

For me, the common thread is human nature, which, in my humble opinion, has never changed, and will never change. And with human nature comes the entire range of good and bad. In that respect the tribes of New Guinea are no different than stockbrokers, regardless of what Diamond may feel about the respective IQs of the two groups. I suspect he is engaging in a bit of romanticizing. But, again, I have not read the book.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for the poem by Berry, and for your own thoughts. Since you mention Frost, that well-known phrase of his comes to mind: "a momentary stay against confusion." He was speaking of poetry in particular, of course. But the applicability of the phrase can perhaps be widened to include Berry's wood drake and heron.

As always, thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: I think we should agree that we are ships passing in the night on this space/place distinction. Moreover, I am alarmed that we are heading into political territory ("native peoples" versus "settlers," et cetera), where I absolutely do not wish to go.

For instance, this would likely lead us into a discussion of whether you may be taking Whitman's "dreams or dots" a bit out of context. I doubt that he had our contemporary politically-correct categories in mind. We should be wary of reading our contemporary political obsessions back into the literature of the past, don't you think? I realize that this practice is de rigueur in today's academy and in today's literary criticism, but that doesn't make it right. I'm old-fashioned that way.

As ever, thank you for your thoughts.

billoo said...

Of course you are right, Stephen; I am not making a political point but one about human sympathies-that is, after all, what poetry is about, surely? So, assuming the Red Man is a human being, is it not allowed that his memory be evoked here?

I think you're spot on as well about the dangers of both de-contextualized and/or politicized interpretations. For me 'place' is contextualized, local, and specific (someone has already referred to Wendell Berry). I don't think it is a political point to suggest-and it is only a suggestion, I'd hasten to add-that since the scientific revolution our sensibilities have been influenced by an abstract, rationalistic or 'mechanistic' way of thinking. To my mind thinking in terms of 'space' is part of that trajectory, a very newfangled way of thinking.

Stephen, I have picked up some Hardy on your recommendation. I wonder if he loved a particular person, a specific place?

Anonymous said...

I will presume the below poem by Pablo Neruda speaks for itself. Like you, he calls for a pause. Let's stop what mad pursuit we are engaged in, most probably a frenzied search for some good, or, perhaps, for some imagined notion of happiness. Let us sit in the shade of the huge poplar tree and be still, be silent--in the bright blue silence of the soft September afternoon.

Keeping Quiet
Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about...
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Thank you for the follow-up comment. But, please! Have mercy! Don't drag dear old Thomas Hardy into this!

Don't you think that a time comes when too much talking destroys poetry? My general rule (oft-repeated here in the past) is this: explanation and explication are the death of poetry. I've appreciated this discussion, but we have travelled too far afield from what really matters.

What has happened to a lovely three-line, 14-word poem by W. H. Auden as the result of our discussion? As the benevolent (I hope!) dictator of this blog, I hereby decree that it is time to bring our discussion to a halt. And Auden deserves the last word:

Space was holy to
pilgrims of old, till the plane
stopped all that nonsense.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1972).

There is no more to be said.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the poem by Neruda, as well as for your own thoughts. They both provide excellent advice. "We will all keep still/for once on the face of the earth." "Be still, be silent." Yes, excellent advice. Thanks again.