Wheels within Wheels

Thomas Merton, in his preface to his collection of essays titled “Mystics and Zen Masters” (1961-1967, The Abbey of Gethsemani, 1967 FS&G), suggests a closeness in claims of those across cultures attempting contemplative lives:

The great contemplative traditions of East and West, while differing sometimes quite radically in their formulation of their aims and in their understanding of their methods, agree in thinking that by spiritual disciplines a man can radically change his life and attain a deeper meaning, a more perfect integration, a more complete fulfillment, a more total liberty of spirit than are possible in the routines of a purely active existence centered on money-making. There is more to human life than just ‘getting somewhere” in war, politics, business – or “The Church” (viii).

Entering the Church, apparently, does not guarantee a contemplative future. And when Merton asks, “What, exactly, is Zen?” (12), he already knows there can be no satisfactory answer. Writing in the 1960s, Merton was in tune with his Catholic audience under the influence of John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, which called for an aggiornamento, a modernization, bringing the church up to date.

Merton even suggests Zen, having lost, like Christianity, its Medieval “living power” (254), is in need of an updating. Today, we might ask, What, exactly, is Christianity?

In Christianity the revelation of a salvific will and grace is simple and clear. The insight implicit in faith, while being deepened and expanded by the mysticism of the Fathers and of a St. John of the Cross, remains obscure and difficult of access. It is, in fact, ignored by most Christians (254).

The Kids Are Alright

“When I wrote this song I was nothing but a kid, trying to work out right and wrong through all the things I did. I was kind of practising with my life. I was kind of taking chances in a marriage with my wife. I took some stuff and I drank some booze. There was almost nothing that I didn’t try to use. And somehow I’m alright.”

The Who, Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2000

Rock and roll has no doubt saved many a kid from an unjust boredom or dysfunctional unrest, just as it has probably toppled many more into an excess of abuse and waste or early use of hearing aids. But that’s an argument of causality, which is to say we need to determine what causes can be clearly traced in an unbroken chain of events from proximate cause to results and effects and distinguish those causes from correlations – connections that are more associate than causal – associated with the cause but not primary producer, if at all, of an effect. If we don’t clearly isolate the cause, we run the risk of treating a cause that doesn’t affect the negative effects we’re trying to cure. But The Kids Are Alright is also a moral argument: how should youth be spent?

Consider, for example, the current rise in legislative efforts to weaken or repeal child labor laws. What’s provoking these new but seemingly archaic and draconian measures? Child labor laws have been implemented over the years to protect children from low wage and excessive work-hour exploitation; workplace injury; and stunted emotional, intellectual, and physical growth. Who would want to repeal such protections for children, and why?

First, we note that violations of the laws have been increasing in recent years. If you’re a business found in violation of a law, one solution might be to try to get the law changed:

According to Pew, the root cause driving attempts to repeal child labor laws is workforce shortage. Business and industry can’t find enough workers. Workers that have historically filled the jobs in question (restaurant and hospitality; unskilled manual labor; assembly line work; industrial laundering, sanitation services) are staying in school longer. But that doesn’t account for the historically large number of missing workers. Where have all the workers gone?

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, there are several reasons for the current workforce shrinkage: increase in family savings fueled by the pandemic; early retirements; lack of access to childcare; and new business starts. And, we might add, the so-called gig economy – which has allowed greater freedoms, flexibility, and opportunity for entrepreneurs. In short, there are currently more jobs than workers, and the reasons are several and varied.

And some see the solution as allowing younger children to work more jobs. But take a look at the industries most affected by the workforce shortages (again, according to the US Chamber of Commerce). Food Service and Hospitality jobs have been hard hit. These are jobs that can’t be worked from home. But not all must-report-for-work jobs have seen high quit ratios.

Not all jobs are created equal, even if the pay might be equal. Who are the industry and business leaders and their pandering legislators trying to repeal child protections? According to Pew (citing EPI), supporters of repealing child labor laws include: “national and state branches of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, as well as lodging and tourism associations, homebuilders and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group.”

These are not necessarily guys and gals all wearing MAGA hats. If we oppose repealing child labor laws, and we find ourselves wanting to criticize the businesses mentioned above, we might ask ourselves how often we support these businesses by buying or using their products or services. As an example that illustrates the problem, consider this, from the same Pew study cited above:

“Arkansas and Tennessee enacted changes last month. A new Arkansas law removes a requirement that children under 16 provide proof of parental consent to work, while the Tennessee law scraps the prohibition on 16- and 17-year-olds working in restaurants that derive more than a quarter of their revenue from alcohol.

“We’re desperately needing some extra workers between the ages of 16 and 17 to work at some of these restaurants,” Tennessee Republican state Rep. Dale Carr said during a February hearing on the legislation, which he sponsored. Carr represents Sevierville, a tourist destination in east Tennessee.

“With Workers Scarce, Some States Seek to Loosen Child Labor Laws,” Pew, 17 April 2023.

Pour your own drinks. Tour your own backyard. Camp out instead of holding up in a hotel. Meantime, where there are labor shortages, businesses should consider how they can attract and retain workers. They need to offer adequate and equitable pay, benefits, job security, safety and protection, and flexibilities they have not previously considered. Business owners and managers need to treat their employees as persons, as humans, with dignity and respect, regardless of their age, yet according to their age. And users of their products and services should recognize their complicity in the economic interconnectedness and responsibilities throughout our consumer society. Then, just maybe, we’ll all be alright.

In My Easter Bonnet

A friend of mine writes he’s broken a rib. The circumstances (he doesn’t recall how it happened) remind me of Genesis:

The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

New Oxford Annotated Bible, Full Revised Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

A lot gets done in that first week of the Bible, at the end of which even God apparently needed a rest (and, in like miraculous manner, my friend with the broken rib somehow still got the tree pruned and the ladder put away). Readers might well question the facts of the matter. But in the introduction to Genesis in the Oxford, we get this:

In the modern era, Genesis has been an important battleground as communities have worked to live out ancient faiths in a modern world. For example, much discussion of Genesis, at least among Christians in the West, has focused on whether the stories of Genesis are historically true. Astronomers, biologists, and other scientists have offered accounts of the origins of the cosmos and humanity different from those in Gen 1-2. Some believers, however, insist on the importance of affirming the historical accuracy of every part of Genesis, and have come to see such belief as a defining characteristic of what it means to be truly faithful. This definition is relatively new: the historicity of Genesis was not a significant concern prior to the rise of modern science and the historical method; in fact, in premodern times, the stories of Genesis were often read metaphorically or allegorically. Moreover, many would argue that an ancient document such as Genesis is not ideally treated as scientific treatise or a modern-style historical source. Instead, its rich store of narratives offer nonscientific, narrative, and poetic perspectives on values and the meaning of the cosmos that pertain to other dimensions of human life.

page 10.

Yet one may still argue, as Mary Midgley does in “What is Philosophy For?” for a single dimension, a holistic approach that accepts one without discounting the other:

For instance, adding or removing the idea of God is not just changing an empirical detail, like adding or removing Australia from the map of the world. It is much more like changing the idea of that world as a whole. … In actual life, each of us has a world with a great background which our culture makes ready for us, including a whole population of human and non-human creatures, forces, atmospheres, opportunities, customs, tendencies, ideals, dangers and challenges. As Irish Murdoch has sharply pointed out, this ‘culture’ is not just a matter of a few recent films and fashions; it contains everything that we believe in, including our fashionable views about science itself:

It is totally misleading … to speak of two cultures, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if they were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part. But the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand situations. We are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words (Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 34).

Midgley, What is Philosophy For? Bloomsbury, 2018, 54-55.

While it might make modern sense (scientific or otherwise) to read Genesis as allegory, what are we to make of the Resurrection? If read as metaphor, of what? As allegory, with what hidden meaning, and why hide it to begin with? Does being born again free us from that “great background which our culture makes ready for us”?

One of the most interesting books I’ve read during the pandemic is Shusaku Endo’s “A Life of Jesus” (Paulist Press, 1973). At its close, having written about the life of Jesus as actual biography, Endo returns to metaphor and allegory:

Where Mark and Matthew have written that the whole earth shook when Jesus died, and that the high curtain split in two, the evangelists are not recording events which actually happened, but are rather expressing the lamentation of the disciples and their consternation at the death of Jesus….Did Jesus therefore accomplish nothing? Was Jesus simply helpless after all? Was God silent? Was the sky merely dull? In the end, was the death of Jesus really no more than the death of any other powerless ineffectual man?


And then Endo, when it comes to the Resurrection, puts the allegory to test:

Did these events actually take place? Are they historical facts, things that really happened? Or is this a fiction produced by the early Christian Church, perhaps an episode written to inculcate through symbols the undying memory of the Christ?


Endo questions how the disciples could have behaved so cowardly during the crucifixion but later turn about and emerge as courageous martyrs for the fledgling church. Was there some incredible but undeniable event that explains their conversion? Yet, Endo asks:

But the concept itself of resurrection – did the idea even exist in the age of Jesus and his disciples? And if it did exist, what did the concept actually involve?


But don’t go out and buy and read Endo’s book thinking he has the ultimate answer. Once one has proof, one no longer needs faith. And Endo, in his reflective conclusion, says:

For all I know, there may well be an analogy here between their [the disciples] inability to understand Jesus during his lifetime and our own inability to understand the whole mystery of human life. For Jesus represents all humanity. Furthermore, just as we, while we live in this world, cannot understand the ways of God, so Jesus himself was inscrutable for the disciples. His whole life embraced the simplicity of living only for love, and because he lived for love alone, in the eyes of his disciples he seemed to be ineffectual. His death was required before the disciples could raise the veil and see into what lay behind the weakness.


As for broken ribs, my father once broke seven at once, buried in a cave-in, where he was crushed against a huge underground concrete pipe, a project he’d been working on, the deep ditch he was down in inadequately shored. I sent my friend with the recent broken rib a copy of the newspaper account, as proof. How my father escaped further serious injury is one of the mysteries of his life. From Midgley again:

During the past century, philosophers have provided enquirers with one more alternative: mysterianism. This is the view that there are some questions which our minds are simply not fitted to resolve, and that free will is one them. In order to resolve this metaphysical puzzle Noam Chomsky adopted the name ‘mystery’ for these cases, apparently from a pop group called Question Mark and the Mysterians. He suggested that these unmanageable questions are not really problems at all but mysteries, situations in which scientists should stop saying (as they always do at present), ‘We do not have the answer to this yet,’ and should simply say instead, ‘This one is beyond us.’ He adds that this limitation is not surprising since the cognitive capacities of all organisms are limited, which indeed is true.

Will this do? It is surely a relief to hear the learned admitting that there are some kinds of things that they do not and cannot know. But we need to ask next, which ones are they? And why?


On Beauty

What is Beauty, that Beast in all caps?
The beauty of beauty is beauty
(“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”)
wants no thought, bears no meaning.

We may begin by stating what beauty
is not: beauty can not be purchased,
beauty is not style nor fashion,
beauty is not transitory nor fixed,
serves no function, is non-cultural.

Beauty is cosmopolitan, universal.
Beauty is humble, avoids museums.
Beauty is not needy, invites no convo.
Beauty is meaningless, for sense,
that human construct, usurps beauty
of its principal pleasure.

Meaning (definition, interpretation,
reveal, tell-tale) translates forms,
the essence of beauty, into human
terms, where it loses its native essence.

We can not paint the soul, nor post
a pic of it.

Beauty is not the opposite
of ugly, tho ugly walks hand in hand
with beauty, speaks with beauty,
but beauty has no answer,
no comment.

And yet, Eco says:
“…an orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.”
Which is to say, “Beauty! Get out of Dodge!”

Beauty is not a value, but a virtue.

We can of course get more involved:

But we grow weary of wearing
that same old tattered dress,
and find little tenderness
in your tries and stays.

We close our talk on beauty
with a beautiful poem
by e. e. cummings:

[O sweet spontaneous]


O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

             fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

        beauty      how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

             thou answerest

them only with


E. E. Cummings, “O sweet spontaneous” from Tulips & Chimneys. Copyright © 1923 by E. E. Cummings. Reprinted by permission of Public Domain. Copied from Poetry Foundation.

PS: We have been waiting
for your answer
this year.

Doubt and Drift

Faith is belief in what cannot be proven. If something can be proven, faith in it is no longer necessary. But most of us can’t prove anything. We spend most of our lives swimming around in a sea of faith – faith in people, places, things; faith in history, institutions, religions; faith in ideas, nature, love. We live by faith in these things, not just that they exist, but faith in that they work as designed, faith in how they should work, and faith in how they do work.

We no longer have faith in the news. “Popular distrust of the news media has been traced to the coverage of the stormy 1968 Democratic National Convention,” Louis Menand discusses in “Making the News: The press, the state, and the state of the press” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2023, 59-65). Underlying any loss of faith comes the realization that too much may have been invested in the building blocks of truth, facts, and how we think we do things the way we do because we’ve always done them that way. These blocks turn out to be soft and fuzzy and protean. What is true changes with the times, predicaments, what we want.

“As Michael Schudson pointed out in ‘Discovering the News’ (1978), the notion that good journalism is ‘objective’ – that is, nonpartisan and unopinionated – emerged only around the start of the twentieth century. Schudson thought that it arose as a response to growing skepticism about the whole idea of stable and reliable truths. The standard of objectivity, as he put it, ‘was not the final expression of a belief in facts but in the assertion of a method designed for a world in which even facts could not be trusted. … Journalists came to believe in objectivity, to the extent that they did, because they wanted to, needed to, were forced by ordinary human aspiration to seek escape from their own deep convictions of doubt and drift.’ In other words, objectivity was a problematic concept from the start” (p. 60).

We might find complementary or corollary application to other areas. Menand uses the 1968 convention to illustrate how the news is not reported but made, and that once the recipe for how it’s made is made manifest, and there follows general doubt and drift from the sources – from the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the story – the remaining mess makes for great leftover meals for anyone wanting to take advantage of that doubt and drift to further their own agenda, investment returns, popularity, hold of the reins. We might find corollary application of the argument in the doubt and drift in our times from religion, health care, higher education, police protection – all areas once strong with the faithful but we now look out and find empty pews. Damage control, by which is meant control of the news over the story, becomes paramount in restoring the faith.

But we reach a point where faith can’t be restored. The Jesus Movement becomes the Free Press of religion. Indie becomes the barbaric invasion of not traditional music, film, publication, art, but of the open-gate making, distribution, and profit (or not) of free expression. We can no longer die for our country, only for one another. We take medical advice with a grain of salt. The man wearing the badge, the clerical collar, the stethoscope, the suit and tie – might as well be wearing a newspaper. The homeless person is one of us. The Emperor wears no clothes. The Wizard is a humbug – and like he said, he might be a good guy, but he’s a bad wizard. We are out here on our own.

Wonder of the On-Line Literary World

This month, Berfrois, the small literary magazine, has closed its virtual doors. For the last 14 years, Berfrois, under intrepid editor Russell Bennetts, an economist out of England, has published daily writing, forming over time an eclectic list of contributors and an audience of intercultural competence. The end of active writing appearing in Berfrois comes 100 years after the closing of the modernist journals period, which ran, according to the Modernist Journals Project, from the 1890’s to the 1920’s, ending in 1922:

We end at 1922 for two reasons: first, that year has until recently been the public domain cutoff in the United States; second, most scholars consider modernism to be fully fledged in 1922 with the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. We believe the materials in the MJP will show how essential magazines were to the rise and maturation of modernism.

Modernist Journals Project, About page, retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

They were mostly referred to, and still are, as small literary magazines, little magazines. Most did not last long. Blast ran just two issues, 1914 and 1915. They were of course hard copy, printed magazines, small publication runs, small format. The most famous now might be The Egoist (1914-1919) and Little Review (1914-1922), which ran installments of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Harriet Monroe’s original Poetry ran from 1912 to 1922 (still alive today as a kind of First Wonder of the Corporate Literary World).

Is today’s on-line literary world, in 2022, now “fully fledged”? It might be, given the disastrous turn of events surrounding the social media platforms that create, sustain, and destroy – in situ. What can it possibly mean to be on Twitter, for example, with a million followers? Even 100 followers would be impossible to keep up with, even if managing your Twitter feed was all you did. Yet most tweets are never read by anyone. At most, they have the life span of a mosquito, and can be just as viral and vile. We shall be glad to see our current winter of discontent freeze them all in their tracks. For the tracks of tweets carry no real cargo.

Most poems are never read either, but that’s a different story. And I digress. Some of my own writing appeared in Berfrois. Mostly prose, discursive writing. Berfrois published the academic, the non-academic, and the anti-academic. Its editorial voice appeared often to be one of casual interest. In a sense, Berfrois was a general interest magazine, and sought to publish the best it could find of both the best and the worst – for what is often considered today’s worst of writing ends up being tomorrow’s best.

One of the most attractive features of Berfrois was the lack of advertising. It sought to be reader funded before its time. It might have found a good home at today’s Substack, where we find everybody that’s anybody cashing in their lotto tickets. “Thousands of paid subscribers.” Sounds lucrative, but a poor warrant to join a new fray.

A bit of money but a lot of time it takes to run these endeavors. And we run out of both, lose steam, wonder what all the fuss is about, what it might be like to go for a walk down Broadway unnoticed or dismissed, or to wander to and fro with no desire whatsoever to be followed. In the meantime, a heartfelt thanks to Russell Bennetts for his contributions via Berfrois to the life of modern journals.

On the Value of Art

We should think of art as an activity and not a product. The value of art to a culture comes from its work in illustrating and communicating symbolically the meaning and importance of a culture’s way of life. Art should be considered both literally and symbolically, as it works simultaneously by substantive representation and by implication and suggestion. What is suggested and therefore inferred is not comprehended literally but unconsciously, both in the individual and in the collective consciousness of the culture. Art provides thoughtful but also inconsiderate access to the unconscious and subconscious mind. It does this through pretending or pretention. All art is pretentious. Art begins with the childlike acting of let’s pretend.

The monetary value of a work of art, hundreds of millions now paid for a painting, does not speak to the value of art as it works in a culture. Anyone can engage in art, and everyone does. If we think of art as an activity (and not a product), we see the audience engaged in the work, not just watching or listening, but as part of its ongoing creation, and we see the work as a work in progress: vibrant, aging, deteriorating, fading. That is beauty.

To say that all art is pretentious works as follows. One year, I went to a local barber to get my hair cut. As Ring Lardner explained in his short story “Haircut” (1925), the participation in the activity of art makes the audience part of the work’s creation. (Sometimes, a visit to a barber can be as bad as having to go to a dentist.) In the barbershop at the time of my haircut, there happened to be three of us: the barber, myself, and an apparent friend of the barber. On the wall opposite the barber’s chair I sat in, hung a small, representational painting of a snow capped mountain. The barber proceeded to explain the painting’s merits. He said, “Put a photograph of that mountain next to that painting and I defy you to tell me which is which.” Of course, neither the painting nor the photograph was the mountain, but a pretension of the mountain. What the barber as art critic appeared to value in art was literalism. But in spite of his efforts, no mountain filled his barbershop.

Also implicit in my barber’s criticism is a theory of value and values. What we value, as individuals and as a culture, is simply what we want, what we desire, both consciously and unconsciously. But what we want is not always good for us. And by good here we mean healthy, life affirming, balanced, unpolluted, not harmful to ourselves, others, or to our environment. Cars, for example, in that context, are not good for us, yet most of us want one and can hardly imagine getting around without one. We might even say that all means of transportation are bad for us, even walking. Transportation is fraught with risk. We should sit at home and do nothing. But when the asteroid hits, it will hardly matter where we are or what we are doing. And what we value is transportation, and we work, ostensibly, to make the modes safer.

When we engage in activities that are not good for us we experience the irrational or nonrational. What the barber valued in art was more than simply representationalism, but rationality. He apparently felt that art that expressed or provided access to an irrational or nonrational experience was bad art. By the way, throughout the entire haircut, the barber enjoyed a cigarette that in between puffs sat in a green ceramic ashtray and emitted a wavering column of smoke that from my vantage point produced in the mountain a volcano effect.

We value looking inside of things. We want to see inside a mind. Thus we undergo psychoanalysis or some sort of therapy. We want to see inside our body. Thus we undergo a colonoscopy or get an MRI or an X-ray. We want to see inside our psyche – thus we read and write poetry. But notice the metaphor may not work there. The psyche is not inside, but outside. It’s all around us. And is it good to see inside of things? Are not these things closed up for good reasons? What happens when we intrude? Is that the purpose or effect of art – to look inside of things, to see what has been covered, hidden, kept secret?

There is no hierarchy of values. When we speak of family values, we point to what a unit of culture wants, and, again, that want is not necessarily synonymous with good. We value high school sports, football. Football is, at least arguably, not good for us – it’s not a healthful, balanced sport. It’s not a good investment. But football is a family value, of much importance economically and emotionally, of current US American experience. But we might think of football as an art form. As an art form, uncovering the irrational, we might find in football some of the hidden expressions and meanings of our culture.

When we speak of the value of art, we want to avoid a hierarchy of values. All values are equal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, often illustrated in pyramid illustration, as useful as it might be, underscores the culture’s competitive nature, which art undermines. For art is not competitive. And where there are art competitions – they have nothing to do with art.

A long married couple, having worked hard lifelong, now retired, would like to spend some leisure time in appreciation of a bit of what they think of as high culture. They buy tickets, from an ad received in the junk mail, to the local opera, where they experience the same family arguments they’ve live with these past 50 years, and hear the same folk songs they grew up with. They don’t understand a word of it, but they know someone is pissed off and another is beside themselves with grief and regret. Still another gloats, and another is mean and prods. And the couple, dressed to the nines for the experience, enjoy a glass of champagne in the lobby at intermission. They look around at the other opera goers and don’t recognize anyone. They each visit their respective lounges where they see someone in a full size mirror, a person they hardly recognize. And suddenly the value of art dawns on them, in the latrine at the opera.


All culture is pretentious, humans pretending to be something other than what they are, animals driven by instinct to live in groups, procreate, protect and edify their young and one another, and write poems about the experience.

Poetry is the most important aspect of culture. Through poems the great pretenders pass on the psyche of the tribe – the human social group. The tribe is always in motion, and its poetry moves with it, leaving fossils – preserved impressions. Poetry animates the culture’s pretentions by illustrating conflicts among tribal members and the tensions created by individual consciousness and the collective consciousness of the tribe.

Poetry then is the most pretentious of human acts, the most basic of masks. The poet is naked save the mask. Imagine sitting at home writing a poem while your father spends the day working in a coal mine. That is what D. H. Lawrence did. And in the film “Il Postino” (1994), Pablo Neruda is seen sublimating his desire for culture with a poetic tribute to a miner:

When I was a senator of the republic I went to visit the pampas, a region where it only rains once every fifty years, where life is unimaginably hard. I wanted to meet the people who had voted for me. One day at Lota there was a man who had come up from a coal mine. He was a mask of coal dust and sweat, his face contorted by terrible hardship, his eyes red from the dust. He stretched out his calloused hand and said: “Wherever you go, speak of this torment. Speak of your brother who lives underground in hell.” I felt I had to write something to help man in his struggle, to write the poetry of the mistreated. That’s how “Canto General” came about. Now my comrades tell me they have managed to get it published secretly in Chile and it’s selling like hot cakes. That makes me very happy.

from the film “Il Postino” (1994)

Much poetry does not fossilize. It’s not pretentious enough. The poet is a vagabond who strays from the tribe, or is exiled from the tribe for breaking cultural rules. Yet the poet is indispensable to the spirit of the human social group, even as that group ostracises and diminishes the poet through sarcasm and accusations.

Brazilian poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes wrote a poem titled “The Worker in Construction.” This poem reminds me of my father, a midcentury new construction journeyman plumber. And I am reminded not only of my father, but of my own poetic masks and other pretentions.

Size Matters

Nothing moves unless moved
yet every mote of dust
scintilla of whispered light
black crow in pine snow
still falling all falling.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.

Matthew 5:18 KJV

All things all thoughts
big and small
full and empty
macro and micro
one and all
universal and local
sacred and profane
church and tavern
zero and infinity
one and none
colossal and small
corporeal and paltry
carnal and spiritual
tittle-tattle and –

and so on and so on

For that which won’t be
seen or measured
is big
but anything you can take
a ruler to
is small.

If all you can
do is compare
one thing
to another
you are missing
size and matter
what is
and what is not.

The biggest is yet
to be seen
the smallest
to be measured:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.

Colossians 1:16 KJV


Inwait watching listening
to what he wants to hear
then to critique that lesson
passably betraying purpose
occasion audience intent
the critic in wait teases out
the objections passive
aggressively indirectly
disconnects the circuit
breaks the circle of care

the critic lies in wait
for pretentious chichi
affectation of what is
stretched thin to impress
takes a back seat alone
in the cynical corner
and enjoys the play

meanwhile the husband who hopes
the woman who kneels knows prayer
the child who tries to please and fails
drama takes place in an empty house

words linked absurdly together
like barbed wire avoid likes
but attract comments like flies
to sweet sticky paper

happens all the time
you who always
those who never
it argues thus
near dusk
all at once
it comes out
without revision
without a second

that’s ok it’s not easy
hitting a baseball
being social
attending holy mass
body and blood
sitting alone
writing a poem
being a critic

keeping the secret
watchdog beware
keeps it chained
to his heart barking
champing at the bit
coughing up crud
it’s not easy
being a critic
lying in wait
taking the bait

still the sun also
rises and climbs
and falls but too hot
too cold too close
too far away
too bright too long
too short a day
for the critic
on the hunt
for something to say

Subbing in Substack

I spent a few hours this week delving into Substack, the online self-publishing venue giving independent writers the opportunity to build a syndicated portfolio intended for a dedicated audience of subscribers who read for free or pay, often on sliding scales, the writer usually offering more content to paid subscribers. It’s a little like busking, where the musician sets up on a busy street corner and pulls out the axe and puts out the tip hat.

One great plus of Substack is that there are no ads, few distractions. The presentations I’ve seen are clear and clean. I was already a free subscriber to Caleb Crain’s “Leaflet,” a combo newsletter of his bird watching photography and his lit-culture-watching writing, and of Julian Gallo’s “Cazar Moscas” – wonderful title that, which means to catch flies, or to fish with a fly, apt metaphor for Substack. When Substack began, in 2017, not too long ago but maybe a long time in online years, the idea was to establish a newsletter, so that with every Substack post an email notification went automatically to subscribers. And that’s how I still read Caleb and Julian’s new pieces. And this week I discovered and subscribed to Patti Smith’s Substack. I had become aware of podcast capability at Substack, and when I found Patti there, I saw that she was also putting up short videos, which I immediately found attractive for their simplicity, honesty, clarity. They didn’t seem to be performances, but downhome one way conversations, personal, if you will, in of course an impersonal, voyeuristic way. For example, I saw her in her everyday place in Rockaway, and it looked exactly like a lived in beach house might look if it indeed was lived in.

Anyway, I had been interested in moving my “Live at 5” guitar gig from IGTV to some other venue, not really all that interested in seeing my seventy something selfie on the silver screen anymore, and growing tired of Instas addictive format, and I thought about podcasting, that is audio only, some guitar, song, story, poem, conversation. Then I became aware of Substack’s video capability and before I knew it, I was going live on Substack with a “Live at 5” show. Or so I thought. The whole enterprise ended in disaster. As near as I can tell, Substack does not enable live streaming. You have to upload either audio or video, and the videos are limited to, it appears, under 10 minutes. I had by Substack “Live at 5” showtime 16 free subscribers. I’m not sure what they ended up seeing or hearing, if anything. And then, late last evening, I discovered the “Live at 5” video I had made for Substack in the photo gallery of my Samsung device. It was just over 5 minutes long. I watched a bit of it, stopped it, and deleted it.

Interested viewers may check out another version recounting my subbing at Substack experience here. I’m reminded of Dylan’s famous words, “and I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” an admonition I’ve never paid much attention to, and also reminded of the Nobel Prize time Patti forgot the lyrics, which was no big deal, but of course everyone had to make a big deal of it, as if pros never get nervous or forget the words.

Where do I go from here? IDK. Real time with real people might be nice.