Monthly Archives: September 2011

Poetry Out in the Country

Monk at Mt. Athos in GreeceOn Cold Springs Road, the deer seem to lie in wait, ready to spring across the road at night. It was raining and misty on that road last night, not ideal driving conditions, as I came home with a friend from meeting a poetry group an hour south of here. It was worth the drive, to have spent two pleasant hours in an old farm house listening to people read and talk about death and dust and whether a line still needs a pronoun.

Since I moved to Pennsylvania six years ago, I’ve been connected with a group of poets that changes its makeup on a regular basis, as members of this casual group include students from the local college. The meetings themselves are casual, coming to life consistently but irregularly, in spite of efforts to herd these rhyming cats into a predictable schedule. (When I say “rhyming” cats I’m speaking symbolically. This is modern poetry and rarely rhymes.)

Last night we met in the parlor of the old farmhouse—it really is old— on a working farm, where 300 pounds of tomatoes were picked that day. Because that harvesting occurred on Sunday, the Lord’s day, we know that normally such labor would be wrong, but because the crop in question was tomatoes, we also know that God would have approved.

This same poetry group sometimes gives readings at the wonderful Standing Stone cafe, which appeared two years ago like a mystical urban vision suddenly arrived from a city, complete with art on the warm-painted walls. I’ve been to many of those readings, I’ve taken part in many, and I had one all to myself. When I’ve gotten up to the microphone I’ve joked more than once (so it is high time to retire the joke) that I’m the fiction mascot for the group. Though I have read poetry on occasion, I usually try to squeeze in two or three pages of fiction.

Last night at the farm I read a few pages from the new novel, but what was more interesting was what other people read, and the discussions we had. One of the most interesting poems for me was inspired by a story about monks at one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos, in Greece. I find Mt. Athos a fascinating place, but the poem was appealing even without knowing that. I wish now I had a copy of it to refer to, as my sieve-like memory already begins to lose all the words, retaining only an impression.

The poem also inspired a conversation there in the parlor where two dogs were reveling in the joy of their dogginess. On hearing of the inspiration for the monk poem, another poet suggested truthfully that we feel a strong affinity for the kind of life we assume monks have, the beautiful tranquility of contemplation and intellectual inquiry. I related strongly to that, and have often thought of what kind of monk I would have made (not a good one, actually, if they were going to be serious about that celibacy idea).

That conversation also moved into a discussion of the appeal of a simple life. Almost every life in reality is filled with clutter that is not needed for living and more importantly, filled with clutter that is not needed for a contented life. And yet we find it almost impossible to be so clearsighted as to know this, and then so bold as to act on it. Occasionally as we move our piles of belongings from place to place, we sometimes feel the weight of the invisible chain that attaches them to us. We were reminded last night of one of the examples of a simpler life that surround us here in Central Pennsylvania, the example of the Amish. But even the Amish are human, and some of them must also wish sometimes that life were simpler than it is.

Of the poems I heard from the group, I will also cite one written in response to a call for a poem on the topic of dust. The poem did concern dust, though one of the people present felt it might have evoked dust in a more truly dusty way. What made the poem surpass the inspiration for its origin is that while it referred to dust in multiple ways, each reference served as a symbol, and the real subject of the poem was the history of a house and some of the things that had happened there.

In all the years I have been listening to poets in this group, I have been struck repeatedly by how infinitely much more I like the poems of these writers who I sit with, than almost any poet who I see in magazines or books. I often wonder whether that is because none of the poets I hear have been harmed by creative writing programs, teaching them the “proper” way to write obscure poetry that is indifferent to readers.

In my own small experience, and it is small, I find poetry to be very alive in rural and small-town Pennsylvania.

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Making Progress. Slowly.

Cover page from Pilgrim's ProgressA few days ago we had a beautiful gray sky, and the wind was blowing so that the trees were moving against that sky. I sat outside reading a novel about the war of independence in Bangladesh, and then I looked up to watch those trees move. I was thinking about how much people torture and abuse one another, and—going beyond the book I was reading—some of the reasons they give for that: you’re Bengali, you’re a woman, you’re gay, you’re from another country. And the thought came to me “I wish I could live a thousand years from now”.

I don’t mean I want to meet George Jetson and ride in a flying car. If technological changes happen anything like they have for the past thousand years, surely that part of the future will be astounding to someone from 2011. But that’s no reason to go to the future. I have people I want to be with here and now, and no technological marvels would make up for that.

But I’m making a second assumption about the future. Just as I figure technology will change dramatically, I assume that social changes will result in enormous progress. So a thousand years from now, I’d like to see a world where it is clearly not acceptable for some people to be idiotically rich while other people don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it. I’d like to see a world where religion is a completely personal matter, not something to condemn or kill people for. Or a world where the appearance of the body is relevant only when you want to find someone cute, but not relevant otherwise, such as when you want to find an engineer.

That would be progress. But what does the word “progress” mean? By etymology, which is not a definition, but I’m ignoring that, the word consists of the prefix “pro” (forward) and the root “gress” (move). Thus progress is forward movement. Toward what? Will we know when we get there? At various times progress is defined in terms of social relationships, or complexity of society, or sophistication of technology, or state of knowledge.

I would suggest that in western society the idea of progress is so deeply planted we don’t even know that it is an idea. It just seems like the natural state of the world, what history does. In terms of language, we frequently use the synonyms “move” or “movement” to refer to social changes. “We’re moving toward a more just world.” But as I used to tell my students, the ancient Egyptians had no concept of progress, and although their society lasted, albeit with some changes, for around 3,000 years, that society was not going anywhere. They were just there. Watching the Nile flow by, thinking about fishing or drinking some beer.

I’ve read one proposal that the idea of progress can be traced to St. Augustine, with the book City of God, written in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Even though the Visigoths went away afterward, and even though by that point Rome was not the capital of the empire, citizens still emotionally considered the city the heart of the empire, and the wreck of the city by invading Germanic tribes left people from England to Africa feeling like the world was ending. (Actually, their world was ending.) Augustine wrote this book saying that even if this city of man was passing, the eternal City of God would be lasting. Among other things, Augustine was proposing that human history was moving toward something, toward an increase in belief in Christianity. That idea of movement was more or less our modern concept of progresss.

Some scholars have seen evidence of the idea of progress much earlier, in the Greek idea that human beings were steadily learning more, increasing their knowledge. This may not be progress in our modern sense, but it shows a concept of movement from ignorance to knowledge.

As we talk about it, the idea of progress is a metaphor, describing social changes with language of “movement forward” as if society were a single monolithic being that is walking. Of course prior to the metaphor, this is a philosophical matter. Because we all carry the idea of progress deep down, we are always looking at life through this filter. Does Russia finally have democracy? No, of course not. So that’s not progress. But Egypt is planning an election. That is progress. (There is still a buried enthymeme here about the value of democracy, but that’s another discussion.) Within 20 years Egypt will catch up with Russia and begin to pass them, leaving the Russians still cranky and making trouble. Language like “catch up” and “pass” are also metaphors arising from the “forward movement” concept. And we have adopted the language of progress even in small personal ways. Linda’s friends think she is making progress in getting over the breakup with Cory.

Just for the record, I’m not against riding in a flying car with George Jetson. I might even want to drive it.

The Jetsons in their car

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