Carpe diem the light flight of the Frisbee!

GaviotaPoems are often compost piles mixed with eggshells broken by past poets, full of word scraps and shards decomposing. Themes leach toward the surface, riding on the juicy skin of earthworms, rising toward the light and warmth of now.

Speaking of now, one such theme is carpe diem, seize the day, or, as Janis Joplin sang, “Get it while you can.” Carpe diem is an argument, an attempt to persuade. Who’s the speaker? Who’s listening? What’s the occasion? What are they talking about? Or is only one talking, the other listening?

Sometimes, abandoned or unintended compost piles volunteer new versions of old, rotted plants, often now cross-fertilizing into new varieties of carrot, turnip, garlic, potato, pepper, pea, bean, tomato, melon, radish, corn; or you might get portmanteau words, or a cornpone cornpoem, or at least a cornponepost. Of course, you might want to dig it all back in and let it stew for another year.

But here is a poem-mix from the Toads poetry reading compost pile. The idea is to dig through the layers, reading as a dig, the poem an earth oven. Careful, some poems smolder for a long time – some are still smoldering, hundreds of years old:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (1647), Robert Herrick: the poet argues a proposal – don’t go coy, for one who goes coy risks going solo. Surely there’s a rebuttal to this argument, or the argument is a rebuttal, for going solo is better than going sour?

To His Coy Mistress” (1650), Andrew Marvell: There are some worms in this one, but embedded in a kind of taphephobic image, and what about those “amorous birds of prey”? Is the poem an appeal to love or to fear? The poet seems to be on the run from something that does not sound too fun.

Dover Beach” (1867), Mathew Arnold. A couple of hundred years closer to the top, but the poet is still talking to his girl, but coyness doesn’t sound like the problem, but fear has gripped the moment. Lovely evening, but our poet can’t seem to embrace the now; he’s built his compost pile over a cemetery, and that low tide has really got him spooked. Is this any way to talk to a woman? Notice how quiet her response; she doesn’t make a move.

The Dover Bitch” (1967), Anthony Hecht. Something has happened over the last 100 years, something to the poet, and to the woman, and to the tone. The Sea of Faith is now bone dry. But no one is kept waiting around anymore. The viewpoint has swiveled. Same room, same scene, same poetry garden, but someone has shoveled a lot more irony into the compost pile.

Dover Butch” (2006), David Biespiel. Another 40 years passes by, and coyness may no longer seem much of a crime, for the rate of exchange has changed, and the viewpoint has swiveled even more. We’re still up on the cliff, but something has changed in the economy, in the exchange. Who’s talking now? Does the woman finally have something to say and says it? Is she a mother now? Perhaps we’ve misheard, but we picture the speaker’s heart sailing off the cliff like a Frisbee.

Carpe diem the light flight of the Frisbee!

Sea Monsters in A. C. Grayling’s Secular Bible; or, Humanity’s Greatest Endeavor

The receding shorelines of the Sea of Faith betrayed not a spiritual drought but a thirst for knowledge when Matthew Arnold stood on the cliffs of Dover and declared his desperate love for his girl amid humanity’s confusing mission, for the beautiful sea, the moon coming to pieces on its surface, the calm English evening wanting amour, was full of sea monsters. It’s an easy poem to parody, Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Anthony Hecht certainly thought so, when, about a hundred years later, he refashioned it “The Dover Bitch,” thinking of the lot of Arnold’s girl, who, lured by the promise of a weekend tryst at the beach, is forced to listen to Arnold’s God’s not in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world speech. Not much has changed since Arnold’s moonlit vision of sadness. The Sea, though not yet empty, is still losing water to the thirsty scientists, whose promises, in turn, of certitude, progress, or peace, seem as empty as Arnold’s unfurling religious girdle.

If there is no spirit, then nothing is spiritual. The brain is simply a piece of meat, as Jonah Lehrer keeps repeating, and the universe is merely a long fly ball of exploding rock off the bat of a big bang Louisville Slugger. But the nature of the slugger remains unknown, and there’s reason to view with skepticism Dawkins’s and his disciples’ descents. The latest to echo Arnold’s theme appears to be A. C. Grayling, who has written a secular bible, in which he creates a collage from the world canon. Here’s a sample, from Grayling’s “Genesis”: “Thus nature by unseen bodies and forces works; thus the elements and seeds of nature lie far beneath the ordinary gaze of eyes, Needing instead the mind’s gaze, to penetrate and understand” (p. 5). But doesn’t this carry a whiff of dualism, from which the spirit was born? And does he mean “the ordinary gaze of eyes,” or the gaze of ordinary eyes? For just as the Church argues that we need the clergy to explain what we in our ordinary (not to mention fallen) state can’t understand, Grayling posits the scientist as the new high priest who will explain what we in our ordinary intelligence have no way of seeing or understanding: “It is nothing less than science, mankind’s greatest endeavour, greatest achievements, and greatest promise” (p. 11). In any case, Grayling’s secular bible hardly seems an improvement over the sacred Bible. Grayling suggests that his purpose is to get us to think independently, but that’s not as clear as that he wants us to think like him. Anyway, it would seem that much of the writing of the world canon writers he references (Dryden and Milton, for example) would never had been written were it not for the Bible. There are other seeming contradictions in Grayling’s purported purpose.

Grayling comments, in an interview with Matthew Adams, in The New Humanist, “If the sum total of positivity, in some way, outweighed the negativity, in that little moment in one corner of the universe, which was otherwise just a bland, neutral state, then the whole history of the universe is made good by it. But if the negativity outweighed the positivity, then the whole history of the universe is tainted by it. And for that reason, we have a universal responsibility to promote the good.” This sounds strangely religious, and thus contradictory, for it’s religious sentiment Grayling wants to eradicate. It also sounds like some sort of cosmic baseball game. And what is the mind that he refers to? Would that be Lehrer’s piece of meat? Grayling seems to continue the mind-body split, which is what gives rise to ideas of the spirit to begin with. And what is the universe, and why should we feel responsible to its indifference? And does the universe have a history? These seem metaphors and anthropomorphisms, inaccurate and irrelevant. It’s simply not clear why our promoting the good would make any difference in or to the universe. To better understand the universe, we could read again Garrett Lisi’s “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” except that the physics is surely beyond the ability of ordinary eyes. And we are again reminded of Robert B. Laughlin’s A Different Universe, which opens and ends on a theme suggested by Sir Arthur Eddington: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Grayling, in his introduction, which he calls an Epistle, reaches back to the ancient Greeks when he says that “…every action and pursuit, aims at some good….” But it’s not so easy knowing what’s good. What we value is simply what we want, and what we want is not always what’s good for us. In the end, Grayling’s purpose seems naïve, and worse, for he seems to trap much of the independent thinking in the world canon in a cage with a single purpose, and that can’t be good.

Is the universe free? “They’ll never ever reach the moon,” Leonard Cohen sang, “at least not the one we’re after.” Just so, the physicists attempt to explain the universe in a language most of us will never understand. But then what language are we to use to understand the moon we are after, or the ocean in which we wish to live? The neuroscientists exploring the brain are like the physicists exploring the universe. As Vonnegut illustrated in his short novel Cat’s Cradle, no cat, lots of string. There’s nothing more difficult than creating something from nothing. Science is not, as Grayling would have us believe, “mankind’s greatest endeavour.” Humanity’s greatest endeavor, to return to Mathew Arnold, is love.

Montaigne: The First Blogger; or, Nick Hornby’s Surprise

When my monthly Believer finally arrives, one of the first pieces I read is Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” Hornby’s polite sarcasm and gentle disdain of the academic suits the Believer’s editorial voice, a voice which, however, aging with success, must now search for ever new ways to seem avant-garde, if not anti-academic, such that now Nick, trying to sustain his pop-culture bias, must pretend that he’s never heard of Montaigne: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up Bakewell’s book. I knew only that he was a sixteenth-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.”

Nick distains blogs and amateur opinions – his going off on the Amazon reviewers suggests even an obsession with the problem – yet manages to credit this month “…that some blogs are better than others.” Still, it’s not clear why he must mention blogs in his review of Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days personal essays; they are good, he implies, because they are not merely “nicely written, light, amusing, and disposable,” not blogs, where the writing is, apparently, predictably jokey, imprecise, uncomplicated, and unoriginal. But that doesn’t describe blogs at all – some, ok, many, sure, but in the egalitarian atmosphere of the Internet, one must be ready to read cosmopolitan style, at the same table with others. It’s all a bit confusing, but we read on anyway, getting Nick’s point. And his point is this: “In some ways, my commitment to modernity stood me in good stead: those who cling to the cultural touchstones of an orthodox education are frequently smug, lazy, and intellectually timid – after all, someone else has made all their cultural decisions for them. And in any case, if you decide to consume only art made in the twentieth century…you’re going to end up familiar with a lot of good stuff, enough to last you a lifetime.”

The problem is that this voice is a cul-de-sac for two reasons: one, every age feels the same; and two, all writers make use of what’s been said before.

Consider, for example, Anthony Hecht’s 1968 “The Dover Bitch”: “So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl / With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, / And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, / And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad / All over, etc., etc.’” The lines growing like branches in the 20th Century sky, the poem is rooted far deeper. First, the reader must travel back 100 years to Arnold’s 1867 “Dover Beach,” where we find the hapless poet pining for what is not: “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Arnold’s answer for modern man stranded by the receding “Sea of Faith” is “let us be true / To one another!” The reader traveling back another 200 years, to Andrew Marvell’s 1681 “To His Coy Mistress,” will find Arnold’s deeper roots: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.” The theme that threads these poems together is the ancient Carpe Diem, or Seize the Day, or, as Janis Joplin put it, in terms that even Nick Hornby would understand, “Get it while you can.” But it didn’t start with Andrew Marvell, either, for the reader traveling back another 40 years, to Robert Herrick’s 1646 “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” will find the poet still arguing with his girl to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for “That age is best which is the first, / When youth and blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times still succeed the former.”

Imagine Nick Horby’s surprise upon discovering that “the postmortem life of Montaigne has been a rich one: he troubled Descartes and Pascal, got himself banned in France (until 1854), captivated and then disappointed the Romantics, inspired Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, made this column possible.” Yes, not only made it possible, but wrote the first draft; imagine Nick’s surprise upon discovering that Montaigne was the world’s first blogger.