Category Archives: What is literature for?

“Wistfulness”–A poem for “the one who got away” (so far!)

This is probably one of the shortest poems I’ve ever written, but sometimes, when saying is simple and enough, however justified or not, it’s enough.  The title is, of course, a key feature of this poem.

Wistfulness

You and I shall meet again, in the darkness
Or in the light, should by chance we see God’s face,
The surprise may be yours, mine the glory,
Still unknown to both of us the time, the place.

The things we say, the things we do leave our warrant
And our deed, and our habits, and our trace,
Still, I hope to enfold you in my welcome,
And to share with you in God’s most loving grace.

©9/28/2018 by Victoria Leigh Bennett

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Filed under commonplace "the vanity of human wishes", Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Purity, blankness, innocence, guilt, and knowledge–An attempt at philosophy in “The Blank Slate”

Occasionally, I make an attempt at a philosophical/rhetorical poem, though sad to say, it’s difficult to make it a truly “poetic” poem at the same time, at least for me.  But I hope, at least, that what this poem loses in meter, or rhyme, or word play (though there are a few paradoxes here and there), it gains in comprehensive, overall clarity in covering the subject.  I think the subject of purity is still a riddle for most of us, since we leave the safe confines of total ignorance and innocence from the moment we are born and steadily accumulating impressions and knowledge.  At any rate, here is an attempt to comment on the subject of purity from an adult’s perspective, after the fact:

The Blank Slate

Scholars, people of learning
Have spilled oceans of ink
Have typed, have dictated,
Have processed, have created
Countless words
About the tabula rasa.
Yet none were so innocent
As to simply shrug
Or keep silent.
And none of their words
Were so guilty
As to tell the real truth.
Purity, of a sort,
Is like their ignorance.

Purity’s feet stink
Because an honest person sweats;
Purity cries out
Because an injured person
Grieves aloud;
Purity is like that.
Purity stares at you, uncertain
What you mean
And waiting for you to explain.
Purity is like that.

Purity, like yin or yang
Paradoxically
Has an element of knowledge in it
Some slight awareness of the other
Or else how would you know
What to compare it to?

Purity
Gets tripped up easily
By its opposite,
Maybe knowing there’s something
To avoid,
But not sure of what, how, or why.
It is too unschooled.
Purity is like that.

Purity and existence are at odds most often–
Just as Sartre claimed we all have dirty hands,
And “existence precedes essence,”
So we always have to ask ourselves,
“What price purity?”
If someone is pure, who made them so?
Who kept them in the dark
About starving hordes, and ticks,
And malevolence?
What makes them so special,
That they are allowed to be ignorant
Of what hurts?
Yet, we are still wistful
For the days when we too were somewhat blank,
Even if guilty by birth.

Purity, in sum,
Is something that,
Whether we ever had it or not–
We had in our mind’s most fervent imagination
From the first time we were asked,
“Who did this?”
And we were able genuinely to answer,
“Not I.”
Yes, purity is like that.

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/10/18

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Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

The old-fashioned tendency to use a poem “to point a moral”–“Aggregates”

Sometimes, it’s fun to unearth an old-fashioned poetry book, one which has a lot of good poems, vital and essential and award-winning poems, but which in addition has a number of more average attempts to charm or woo our interests.  And among these more average poems, there are always a number of poems, even by major authors, which “point a moral and adorn a tale,” to quote a phrase.  They are collected as a form of offering comfort in addition to presuming to give guidance, because many people find reassurance in the mere fact that someone else thinks it possible to give guidance at all, with our poets (and poetasters, sometimes) becoming our spiritual parents, teachers, leaders.  So, with appreciation for all those poems I was forced to read in childhood by my teachers, poems which were usually of this ilk, and which reinforced their ideas with rhymes and other poetic devices, I offer this poem of my own, which came along as most poems do, mysteriously to some degree, deliberately to some degree:

Aggregates

Little pebbles gathered up
Make a mighty mountain

Little waters borne together
Gush a fulsome fountain

Little kisses, little hugs
Raise our expectations

Little lies and little slights
Douse our speculations.

Little moments, little days
Bear us slowly deathward

Little glories, little rays
Show our sun at westward.

Little hopes and little fears
Sum up our claim on heaven

Little sins and little graces
Weigh our scales down even.

When we must, we add things up
As well as we are able

So let us live by careful sums
Here ends my counting fable.

©6/21/18 by Victoria Leigh Bennett

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Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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Thoughts on synchronicity, Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open,” and a poem inspired by two near-autodidacts

Recently, I have been feeling out-of-sorts more than usual, and sunk in a sort of spiritual case of the doldrums.  So, I figured I needed to return once again to my old habits of reading more, crocheting less (though I’m backed way up with craft projects!), and writing poetry again.  As it so chanced, I got Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow off one of my library websites.

Now, when I read a self-help book, even a more spiritually-inclined one, it’s a rare day.  I automatically have my critical claws out for grammar and punctuation and style errors, since many such books are self-forgiving in their copy editing.  And as expected, I found a number of mistakes and one nearly unforgiveable error–to an English teacher, anyway–in which T. S. Eliot was quoted or referred to knowledgeably, apparently, but spelled T. S. Elliot.  These sorts of things always make me suspicious of the author, because I reason that if their message is so vital and earth-shaking, they could at least eliminate errors and distractions, somewhat in the way that the first steps of any spiritual routine that I am aware of first concentrates on accuracy and repetition of some chant or discipline or physical exercise done correctly, which them later morphs into a higher reality.  Maybe Lesser reasoned that she was already on a higher level and so didn’t need to be cautious about her basics, but that didn’t wash with me.  The book wasn’t done with me, however.

Sure enough, once I started reading, my old friend synchronicity gave me a visit.  As Lesser more or less quotes the prophet of synchronicity (that prophet being Carl Jung), what is not brought to consciousness returns to us as fate.  Thus, all the many things I’d been meaning to have another look at popped up at once in the references in her book.  There was Jung, Joseph Campbell (yes, the mythologizing Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell), Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I’d also checked out before opening her book, and various other not-new-but-surprisingly-recurring items.  So, I kept reading.  It was an uneven book, but helpful and except for what I believe she herself calls a few “hippy-dippy” moments, for which anyone can be forgiven who’s writing about such intangibles as spirit and its manifestations, a restorative read.  After reading her, I went back to the two-disc set of DVDs in which Joseph Campbell was interviewed before the end of his life by Bill Moyers.  Though their conversation is dense with reference and complicated points in storytelling, it’s an enlightening and provocative set of interviews, and well worth anyone’s time who wants to feel more in tune with humanity in general.

This morning, I was feeling disgruntled again, so I decided to try to put down my thoughts in a poem, and boy, did I!  It may not be the best poem in the world, may in fact be thought of by some as very prosaic, but it’s three pages long, and I think encapsulates the experience I’ve recently been having.  Though the mystic in the poem is a “she” (as a sort of indirect nod to Lesser, though I wasn’t consciously writing about her), the real figure I was thinking of was a sort of femininized Campbell, a spirit guide.  As well, I thought of Kenneth Burke, the great rhetorician of roughly the same time frame as Campbell, who had many illuminating thoughts about the human situation as well, though his most flagrantly spiritual thoughts were protectively couched in terms of how rhetoric functions.  These two men were both loosely or closely at different times associated with teaching and universities, but both were often autodidacts in the sheer amount of syncretic learning and thinking they did, on many issues.  So, here’s the poem, in all of its perhaps dubious glory.  I have to apologize for the length of this post, but without all its parts, I don’t think it would make sense.

The Only Road in Town
(To Kenneth Burke and Joseph Campbell)

Wayfarers
We all are,
The signposts irregular
  and confused.
As children,
Proud of new abilities
To scan and read,
We make fun 
Of the ancient spellings,
Pronounce them in the
  distorted fashions
They seem to suggest,
Ignorant we, ignorant-seeming they.
Seeming, in fact, is what we know,
How things seem to interpret
  themselves out,
Lazy children, letting things
  go their own ways.
We think we split into many myriad paths,
I a doctor, you a lawyer, he a merchant,
She a mystic,
And we all shrug at her especially,
For she keeps insisting
That there's only one road in town.
But when we need, in the middle
  of the night,
It's her words we try to recall,
And if we are shameless of our pain,
We dial her up,
Hold her on the phone for hours,
Not thinking about whether or not
She too has children, or a garden,
Or a husband who's leaving
Because he can no longer
Stand the mice roaming in the cupboard
Which she refuses to kill
Because she wants to drive them out gently.
We laugh at her when we gather,
Sometimes to her face,
Which she takes in good part
Even while saying "You'll see,"
And we do see sometimes,
Though we are always newly astonished
That someone could hold that askew-view
Perpetually, instead of only now and then.
When we think we need God,
We speak about it timidly to her,
And usually her only,
As if she were a purveyor of pornography
Or other specious wares,
And we not wanting to be known to be
  a customer.
She doesn't tell us we need God,
But only confirms that we have something
  like a soul, needing water like a plant,
Though which plant and body of water
She refuses to say, only nourishing us
  with a taste of it
Through her listening and her rare words.
Her words too are signs, reminiscent
Of the signposts of old, though more intriguing
Through being more abbreviated and scant.
She lets us be, and it seems so rare and refreshing
Just to be let be, to share her sun,
To live under the same stars
With someone who seems to breathe sun and stars,
And breezes and antelopes and gazelles and tigers,
All in one.
Her rare earth is ours, for a while,
And though she can't explain it to us,
And doesn't try with phrases and such,
We respond like heliotropes and sunflowers
To her being, and go away feeling refreshed.
There comes the time, though, when we lose her,
Whether through our mortal dereliction or her own,
And we reach to try to preserve the intangible,
To recover the spirit that even those lazy children
We once were seemed to recognize in themselves.
And when we ask, from our deathbed or hanging
  solicitously over her in her moment of departure,
"Tell us, which road shall the funeral cortège take?"
Seeking either her last advice or her last wish,
She says but "The only road in town."
And we are thrown into tactless confusion,
Scrambling to assign a coherent meaning
To words that seem much like the signposts of old,
Contradictory, sublime, but oxymoronic all the same.
It may be then at that moment that she restores us
To the common lot, the way of it all,
To our not being doctors, or lawyers, or merchants,
Or even mystics, but to a being we can rejoin
Now that we have completed this leg of our journey,
This fine spectacle of a wayfaring,
This conundrum of existence,
And we are she, and she is we, and then someone departs,
Via the only road in town.

©by Victoria Leigh Bennett, 4/28/18

 

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Autumn Days Revisited–“A Change of Seasons”

Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons.  There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough.  Here goes:

 

A Change of Seasons

The fall is come
And the days are doing what they call
"Drawing in."
And I too am drawing in,
Shutting down and pulling in
My seasonal feelers
Like a snail's antennae,
Because sounds will be different in winter,
When they are muted by the snowfall.
My aspirations too
Are becoming flat characters,
Losing their roundedness,
No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities
But now only signaling outlines of things
Which may or may not come.
We have no hope of escaping
Without leaving the temperate zone,
Though meteorologists are already disputing
Inches of white, feet of rain,
Days' light, Nights' dark,
While what will come will come
Whether they argue or not.
And it's not especially dread that I feel,
For I'm used to it by now.
The unsettling element is rather
That things are now topsy-turvy,
And for certain days of autumn, it's summer,
For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July,
For some days of spring too, it'll be
An early and undue warm season,
Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days
When we expect the sun to be smiling.
We are even getting used to climate change,
The adaptability of humans
Being apparently our biggest selling point.
But perhaps the question is due to Nature,
Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen
To believe in,
"How hard is it to change?"
What else should we be asking,
We, who are at least partly to blame
For this untoward state of affairs,
Given our ability to adapt,
Shouldn't we practice
Adapting our selfishness and greed,
Instead of trying to figure out how
To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction?
Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather--
Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical,
All things considered,
To learn to control ourselves?
That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17

This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic.  Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view.  There may be better poems for other days.

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A Poem for a Friend, Already Much Missed Though Still Present–“To a Departing Friend”

For the occasion of the publication of this poem, I don’t mind revealing that it is a poem based on fact, and is written for a friend whose presence will be sorely missed.  We’ve all lived through such an experience, when all the little debates and differences of opinion we go through with our friends are suddenly less important than the friend’s upcoming departure.  Debate is often a luxury of presence, and  later unity of mind and temper prevail, so that we can express what we deeply and truly feel, at the last possible moment, when absence will begin to be felt.

To a Departing Friend

Yes, I am full of commonplaces,
Conversational gambits,
Some not new, some all my own.
I say to you,
“‘…the feast of reason,
And the flow of soul.'”
And in search of some universal
(Or at least particular) truth,
You say in frustration,
“Defense mechanism.”
Considering my options,
And reviewing my mistakes,
I say,
“This is all I can do,
This makes me survive.”
In search of making myself and you
A little more perfect,
If such a thing could ever have degrees,
You point to this as my
“Comfort zone.”
Don’t chase your own tail, my friend,
That’s a ploy for kittens and puppies,
Who don’t yet recognize
The other end of themselves following.
The fact is,
That my life has been made so much better
By your intercession for me
With the storms and high winds
Of happenstance
Which precede
The visits of the gods,
And you have for a while
Kept me most divine company
In the space allotted us
Before the great dark.
Who knows if what heaven there is
Is not arranged and populated
By such conversations as ours,
And the sorrow and laughter
We have shared
Are not apportioned out
To all who would live on
Beyond their death?

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/29/17

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