POEM: Awkward Phase

I often find myself stuck in that awkward time between birth and death

My Dad is fond of saying, “The only constant is change.”  Life is dynamic.  Buddhism teaches that no thing is permanent in itself; but rather that every thing exists within a constantly changing relationship with everything else.  Thus, the centrality of impermanence in Buddhist thought.  If you think that things are “stuck” or even on a plateau, then your perception is illusory.  Of course, this perception of “stuckness” or permanence is commonplace.  The awkward moment or phase is when one realizes that all of life is in this condition of impermanence!  Of course, the “all of life” is typically placed between”birth and death.”  Philosophers, theologians, and metaphysicians are also inclined to ponder life after death and/or life before birth.  Cynics are bound to ponder whether there is life between birth and death!  Either way, impermanence remains in all of life’s glory.  If you don’t like it, just wait, things will change!

POEM: Serendipity and Dippity Doo

On occasions
I find it easy
To believe
In sarin gas
And dippity doo
Rather than serendipity
These are not special occasions

While many of my poems have an edge to them, my body of work is decidedly hopeful.  This poem reflects on the way too easy response in life to be inane or even cruel.  It seems that the “reptilian” deep part of our brain that responds to immediate threats with “fight of flight” is a default mechanism that is triggered, and acted upon, unless higher functions override it.  When confronted with violence or injustice, a first response is often to strike back (fight) or avoid conflict (flight).  In an unreflective reflex to large, institutional violence or injustice, the “sarin gas” option feels good, to strike back and hurt when hurt.  Fortunately, such actions are rarely converted to action!  More commonly, conflict avoidance is practiced by burying ourselves in simple denial or inane distraction — thus, the dippity doo (for those who may not get the reference, dippity doo is a hair gel).  Each of these fight or flight responses is contrasted with “serendipity,” a playful alliteration, and a lucky or pleasant surprise.  This is a call to live in a place that is more luminous, patient, and generous — to live in the presence of a higher power that is beneficent and life-giving.  This may seem namby-pamby or a cop-out to some, but it is actually a place of being from which right action emanates.  With gratitude rather than anger and hurt, we can de-link our actions from simple fight or flight responses and transcend to a higher level of action.  Of course, allowing time for reflective mental processing is essential for finding a third way, out of “reptilian” action-reaction.  When the instantaneously “easy” way is taken, and the “reptilian” brain runs our lives, “These are not special occasions.”

To learn, adapt, and grow, we need to be open to that which is new.  Humans have a special gift of conscious awareness and will or intent to aim and frame our experiences with a chosen attitude.  More simply put: expect to be pleasantly surprised.  Certainly, we are animals.  But more importantly, we are so much more than animals!

POEM: Infectious Hope

Hope is a blood-borne pathogen
The seed of martyrs
Inflaming that allergy to injustice
Present in us all
Infected by a singular epiphany
Of friend and foe
Alike

I see hope as an irreducible reality in human nature.  Just like “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again” (William Cullen Bryant), hope is rooted in a realm that mere brute force or violence cannot destroy.  Even in the face of deep despair and generations of disappointment, hope finds its way into our hearts. Hope rises like an infectious weed, out of control of the powers that be that rely on violence to grasp onto control. Trying to describe hope reminds of the description of love in the movie Shakespeare in Love: “Like a sickness and its cure together.”  In this poem I use an analogy and metaphor of hope as an immune response by reality to injustice. Of course, viewing hope as an antidote or a poison or pathogen can be a matter of perspective.  In the face of objectively crappy situations, hope can be viewed more cynically as Pollyannish. The blood of martyrs can be seen as a tragic waste or as fuel for hope and resistance to injustice. Hopes indefatigable nature can elicit respect and well…more hope.  While I posit that hope has a mystical quality to it that cannot be banished, perhaps the closest I can get to capturing its essence is the last three lines of this poem where people are “infected” by a singular awareness that friend and foe are one, “alike.”   I see hope emerging and growing where this epiphany takes root.  For instance, I consider “Love your enemy as yourself” as Christianity’s greatest commandment.  Jesus upgraded the Old Testament’s “love your neighbor” with this greatest of spiritual challenges:

 “You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV)

This is the greatest spiritual genius that I have ever seen!  This strikes me as the most straightforward and simple way to encapsulate one of the most basic tensions in life: balancing self-interest with others’ interests.  By explicitly linking these two, Jesus harnesses, leverages, and even redeems, the powerfully dangerous psychological dynamics of egocentricity and selfishness.  No doubt, the trinity of hope, faith, and love is called upon to dare confront such a powerful challenge.  Of course, the genius and simplicity of this formulation doesn’t make it easy.  Though in it I find much hope, even infectious hope! 

POEM: Poetic License

One day I went to get my poetic license
I drove them crazy with their test
at the DMV
Perhaps next time I’ll try NASA

This poem reminds me of the scene in the movie, “Dead Poets Society,” where the teacher at an exclusive boy’s prep school, on the first day of class begins:

The teacher, Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) sits at his desk at the front of the classroom and opens up one of his books.

KEATING
Gentlemen, open your text to page
twenty-one of the introduction. Mr.
Perry, will you read the opening
paragraph of the preface, entitled
“Understanding Poetry”?

NEIL
Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans
Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand
poetry, we must first be fluent with
its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech.
Then ask two questions: One, how artfully
has the objective of the poem been
rendered, and two, how important is that
objective. Question one rates the poem’s
perfection, question two rates its
importance. And once these questions have
been answered, determining a poem’s
greatest becomes a relatively simple
matter.

Keating gets up from his desk and prepares to draw on the chalk board.

NEIL
If the poem’s score for perfection is
plotted along the horizontal of a graph,
and its importance is plotted on the
vertical, then calculating the total
area of the poem yields the measure of
its greatness.

Keating draws a corresponding graph on the board and the students
dutifully copy it down.

NEIL
A sonnet by Byron may score high on the
vertical, but only average on the
horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on
the other hand, would score high both
horizontally and vertically, yielding a
massive total area, thereby revealing the
poem to be truly great. As you proceed
through the poetry in this book, practice
this rating method. As your ability to
evaluate poems in this matter grows, so
will – so will your enjoyment and
understanding of poetry.

Neil sets the book down and takes off his glasses. The student sitting
across from him is discretely trying to eat. Keating turns away from
the chalkboard with a smile.

KEATING
Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J.
Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe,
we’re talking about poetry.

Mr. Keating then proceeds to instruct the students to tear the whole introductory chapter out of the book.  This peaks the interest of some of the students (and a little horror in others).

Of course, the heart of my poem pivots on the dual meaning and paradox of getting a “poetic license.”  A license is typically some form of certification or accreditation indicating that the applicant (they don’t just pass out licenses!) has successfully demonstrated adherence to prescribed rules based on the conventional wisdom of the era.  In contrast, “poetic license” refers to the freedom a poet takes in order create an artistic expression.

I view poetry as first art, and second science.  Now, to be fair, a fluency in linguistics can greatly aid one’s expression.  Nonetheless, if you put random words on a piece of paper and meditated upon them, strangely poetic relationships, phrases and themes would likely emerge (in the mind of someone).  In fact, this is one method to my madness.  Usually a poem is first born of a phrase or two that strikes me out of the ether of my life.  Then with a general theme, I associate related words, phrases and concepts.  Mining the infinite juxtapositions of puns, alliterations, metaphors and irony, characterizes my basic style of writing.  In my longer poems, I typically develop parallel narratives that are in tension, sometimes paradoxical.  Often there are several different ways to read a set of words or phrases, depending on punctuation and where one begins and/or ends the phrase/sentence.  This is why I often avoid punctuation and put short phrases or single words on a separate line.  This allows the reader to more freely experience the dance of associations and multiple meanings.  While my own basic point of view usually emerges with some clarity, sometimes by simply ending on a particular note, I definitely see truth as living in the neighborhood of paradox, and the struggle for and the balance of these tensions is at the heart of most of my poetry.  Poetry is less “laying pipe,” than flooding the reader with images and ideas, thoughts and feelings, that expand our consciousness and enrich our experience.  Of course, you are free to live by your own rules… 

POEM: Great Lawyer

Someone once told me
I’d make a good lawyer
Unfortunately
Even a great lawyer
Would raise their eyes
To a poet

As is the case with many of my poems, they are designed to have multiple interpretations, usually playing off one another or making a more robust point by addressing two facets in parallel.  This poem is no exception, though it may be exceptional.  The key phrase is “raise their eyes.”  This line could mean “look up to” in the sense of admiration or honor, or it could me “raise their eyebrows” to indicate disdain or disapproval.  The first meaning lifts up the poet; the second meaning brings disdain to the “great” lawyer.  Either way, the poet ends up in the higher position.  Of course, a poet courting someone is typically preferable to a lawyer courting someone.  Well, whatever suits you…