Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring is "Sprung"


Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning

I’m reading Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins and getting drunk on words. That someone can swing language around like this, make it sing even, is too beautiful for words, and yet obviously it is not too beautiful for words.

“What is all this juice and all this Joy?” What is it but a man who is also drunk with words, drunk on spring, drunk on creation itself perhaps. As Saint Paul says, “Be not drunk with wine,…but be filled with the Spirit.” The miracle of poetry is that it can express things otherwise inexpressible. It is no accident that the largest collection of prayers in the Bible, the book of Psalms, is also a collection of poems.

Poetry, like prayer, has no real economic value. We don’t need it to survive, but one could make a case that we need it to be human. What if a society no longer felt any need to express the inexpressible? What if all of our feelings about the world were pinned down like bugs on a specimen board? The market wants to do this with everything of course. How much should we charge for awe?

Poetry, thankfully, deals mostly in the inexpressible. When Robert Frost was once asked by a reader to explain one of his poems, he famously replied, “What do you want me to do? Say it over again in worser English?”

Getting back to Hopkins, the poem is about spring of course, the blooming, birthing, and breeding that take place when the earth wakes up from winter. What gets me here is that the language itself tries to outdo the wonders it describes. It’s as if new sounds are being born and crashing into one another like the tiny thrushes that will soon hatch from the eggs. There is an opulence to the language in this poem that suggests a wealth apart from wealth. The things we keep in our heads, I think, are our true currency in this world. Money you can lose, but memorize a poem and it’s yours. Perhaps the use of language itself can be thought of as a kind of affluence.

I could say more about this poem and why it is wonderful, but I’m afraid I’ll slip into the kind of flowery, insipid language that the poet avoids. That’s the difficulty in describing the beautiful; how do you do it with a straight face? Somehow Hopkins manages to be opulent without being silly. There is a respect for the natural world in his writing that prevents him from becoming sentimental; he doesn’t anthropomorphize (not really). He doesn’t need to. Real beauty, when encountered, doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require us to make pandering gestures in its direction. It does require us, if we want to get anything out of the exchange, to pay attention.

The Urban Luddite

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Taking Our Time

Let’s face it; I’m a bad blogger. I don’t mean that I write badly, I just don’t blog very well. The act of blogging carries with it a sense of urgency. Bloggers blog frequently, constantly even. I, on the other hand, send the occasional, lazy essay out onto the digital playground to fend for itself, like a kid with un-cool sneakers and the wrong lunchbox. So be it. They’re my kids and I love them anyway.

I should be doing other things right now, work related things, but I’ve chosen to hack a tiny slice out of the evening to do this instead. Do I have the time for this? I must have the time because I had time to play that silly video game on the “i-pod Touch” an hour ago, and I had time to do the laundry, to eat an apple, to check my e-mail. The biggest impediment to creating anything is believing that you have the time. Making time is always possible, but believing it’s there requires faith.

One thing is certain: whether I am creative or not, whether or not I do anything useful with the day, the sun will set and the sun will rise, and time will continue on with its perpetual march into the future. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the computer age, but this simple fact never ceases to astonish me. There is no pause button; there is no playback, no rewind, no “command Z,” with which to manipulate the rate at which we zoom through life. You may not take back anything you have ever said or done, and you cannot reclaim wasted time. Of course we may be forgiven our sins, but the hours spent watching “Friends” or playing “Mafia Wars” on facebook are gone folks. You cannot get them back, not even for money. What is left for us I suppose is to take our time seriously. It is a gift.

There is a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Slaughterhouse-Five, who is abducted by aliens in the midst of WWII. The aliens, who are from a planet called Tralfamadore, experience time in a non-linear way. When a tralfamadorian looks at a human, “They see them as great millipedes—with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other.” 1 I think this is a helpful, if somewhat creepy, metaphor for time and our enslavement to it. We carry all our history with us, like snails whose shells keep getting bigger. The late Roman philosopher Boethius postulated a cosmic view of time that was not unlike that of Vonnegut’s aliens. He pictured God as looking “forth from the lofty watch-tower of His providence…,” 2 as the whole parade of human history passes by. We on the ground see only a little, but He from His vantage point can see it all from beginning to end. The philosopher hashed out this and other ideas, mostly about good and bad fortune, while in prison and awaiting a sentence for treason. Some traditions say that a rope was tightened around his head until “his eyes started,” after which he was clubbed to death.

We’ve arrived at the last paragraph now and the time is 8:14 PM, on Saturday Feb. 20, 2010. It will never be this time again, never. What does the future hold? Mostly it will be mundane. Mostly we will get up, greet our loved ones, go to work, eat lunch, and so on. Mostly it will be as it has been. The truth, of course, is that what it has really mostly been is changing. And it will continue to change. How our lives will change and what they will look like ten years from now is impossible to say. We must be patient while we live it. It’s all just a matter of time.

The Urban Luddite

1 The Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 110

2 The Consolation of Philosophy, Book IV, Ch. VI

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Around the Block

Sidewalks might seem an odd topic for an essay, but I find myself thinking about them a good deal as I walk the streets of my little city. I live in Providence, and like any old city, it is a layered place. In some neighborhoods the sidewalks shift mid-block, alternating between modern asphalt, depression-era concrete, and decorative brick. And then there is the cobblestone. The New World measures age differently than the rest, and here the cobblestone is ancient, a remnant from a world now remote and gone. We have no Roman roads or Neolithic monoliths in New England, but the cobblestone is a reminder that a different yet analogous society once functioned here.

There is a particular street, an alley by modern standards, which holds my imagination like almost no other in the city. It is tiny and hidden, just a lane connecting two side streets, but it contains centuries. As I write, its name escapes me, though I know exactly where to find it. The street is almost too old for sidewalks, but has a narrow, raised strip on either side. To my delight, it is paved entirely in cobblestone. Worn and cracked from endless years of foot, cart, hoof, and eventually auto traffic, it remains as a porthole to a past that is becoming increasingly obscured by less substantial things. If one stands at the end of this street and looks down, the sight is not that different from what a man or woman in the Eighteenth Century might have seen. The gulf of time and culture that separates me and my world from the Colonial Englishmen who once roamed my neighborhood is fairly large, but it’s somehow reassuring to know that before anyone had ever thought of “America” as a political entity, people were living and dying in this city, some in houses that are still occupied.

Before America had a highway system, or the world’s largest economy, or even a self-conscious political identity, it had cobblestone streets and horses, and a population that got around without the thought of automobiles, or even electricity. There is something special about a place that allows one to feel this in a tangible way. I cannot help but regard places like my little alley as treasures of a high order to be protected fiercely from the intruding forgetfulness of world that doesn’t want to know its own history.

The sidewalk is an endangered thing in car-crazy America. Entire subdivisions are sometimes built without them. Many people now live their lives without substantial use of their feet. The fact that this does not disturb us more than it does speaks volumes about our priorities. And yet sidewalks have a peculiar and important place in the world. Urban people live much of their lives on the sidewalk. Street performers make sidewalks their stage. The sidewalks of New York City are as busy as any highway; in fact you might say that sidewalks are a kind of human highway.

My own sidewalks may never be as well traveled as those of Manhattan, yet they have seen centuries of traffic and they reflect this sometimes beautifully, sometimes roughly as they carry me from block to block, through the city and around again to the place where I began. They are always waiting.

The Urban Luddite.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on Aging (or One-Third Life Crisis)

Is it normal for a basically young man to contemplate getting older? We are not supposed to think about aging until we are aged. That is, there is no hill until you are over it. And yet I think I have always imagined myself old as well as young. Barring an early death, I will one day be “old.” Oddly, it seems easier for me to imagine myself at seventy than to imagine myself at forty. Perhaps the clichés are more attractive. Old men can sometimes conjure images of grey-bearded wisdom and secret knowledge. One thinks of philosophers, prophets, wizards, and kung-fu masters. Middle age is often viewed as the un-romantic time of comfortable, pot-bellied respectability and unquestioned routine. One thinks of sit-com dads and office managers. All of this is, of course, nonsense, but nonsense has a way of asserting itself.

It seems that every generation has hopes of eternal youth, or at least youthfulness. We tell ourselves that we will be different somehow. We vow to avoid clichés of adult life such as careerism, boring practicality, and ill-fitting pants. Suddenly, we awake to find that we are homeowners, parents, bosses, and that our waistlines are growing slowly and inexorably outward in answer to some manifest destiny we were not told about. Somewhere, somehow, there is a shift.

When does being respectable become more important than being cool, and aren’t both of these things illusions anyway? There is a sense in which respectability is the “cool” of adult life. Like hipness, it cannot be grasped, but can really only be conferred by others. There are steps we must take, clothes we must wear, but we won’t know we are there until we get a nod or two from our peers. The terrible trick is that once you have mastered these things, it’s time to move on. Have you amassed the prefect indie-rock collection and assembled the most hip and exquisite thrift store wardrobe? That’s wonderful, but you’ll be needing a suit for that new job, and most of those bands will be forgotten in five years anyway. Likewise, at just the moment when you have become the most respectable, established, home-owning, salary-winning, secure lady or gent on the block, it dawns on you that there are much graver concerns ahead.

At the end of this aging process is death, both the starkest reality of our lives, and the one that we wish most not to contemplate. If a culture has no death narrative it must avoid imagining death, or at least create a new narrative. Our own culture is somewhere in the middle of this I think, toying with ideas involving “the circle of life” and the basic “greenness” of death (at least we’re biodegradable), and yet loath to relinquish theistically oriented ideas regarding the continuation of human conciseness after death.

Dylan Thomas once suggested that: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;” and admonished his readers to, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Philip Larkin, another Twentieth Century poet, took a less romantic view of aging and death: “Why aren’t they screaming?” he asks of the very aged in The Old Fools, a poem that goes on to parody old age as a “hideous inverted childhood.” I suppose our response to human frailty and finitude really does depend upon what we believe happens to us in the end. As Larkin concludes in the poem, “We shall find out.”

The Urban Luddite

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An elegy for Gourmet Magazine.

Every once in a while we have the melancholy privilege to witness the vanishing of something beautiful from the world. I had only just received the most recent issue of Gourmet in the mail when I learned from my wife that the magazine would be folding after sixty-eight years. My first response was denial: “That’s not possible!” I said. “October just came in the mail. Are you sure?” Anger was quick to follow: “Damn those Conde’ Nast bastards!" Bargaining: “What if we take out a few gift subscriptions?” The fourth stage of grief is, of course, depression. This post is my attempt to get from depression to the final stage, acceptance.

If you were not a reader of Gourmet you might find this all a bit hyperbolic. Surely the world can go on without a food magazine? It will certainly go on, but not in quite the same way. Gourmet was unique. Sure, there were plenty of beautiful photographs, some famously so, of abundant produce and picturesque agricultural landscapes, but what raised this above the level of so-called “food porn” was the content. Gourmet was meant to read as well as ogled. The folks who worked for Gourmet were writers and journalists as well as foodies, and this was the great difference. A typical Gourmet article delved deep into the history and culture surrounding a particular cuisine or dish. In an hour or so, one could learn the story and lore of any number of places and come away with some spectacular recipes to boot. The end of Gourmet is, I think, a small symptom of a growing American discomfort with complexity. There is not much patience out there these days for detail. So what if you don’t care to explore the intricacies of Calabrian sausage-making from the Twelfth Century to the present? That’s fine, but what about the intricacies of American foreign policy? What about the intricate realities of trying to prop up governments in countries whose social structures go back to way before the Twelfth Century? It’s complicated. Who has the time?

There was always a copy of Gourmet lying around the kitchen or office of my family’s small restaurant. It was there, as a child, among the food and the clatter that I first picked up the habit of flipping through Gourmet’s glossy pages. It began with the magazine’s many images but did not end there. Good writing does not require an education so much as it is an education, and that is the great problem with our present cultural moment. We are being quietly and constantly warned away from things that are difficult. We are being told every day that thirty-minute meals and thirty-second sound bites are all we busy people have time for.

The 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck resurrected Edward R. Murrow as a founding hero of broadcast journalism and held up his integrity and refusal to pander to his audience as an archetype for the present day. The more recent film Julie and Julia, serves as a similar reminder that America’s food renaissance began in much the same vein. Julia Child and Edward R. Murrow represent an old-fashioned adherence to truth despite difficulty. They didn’t back down in the face of pig-intestines or McCarthyism. America loved Julia Child in much the same way that we love our favorite schoolteacher. She was good to us, but not necessarily easy. She made us work hard and never suggested that difficulty was a good reason to stay away from anything. Gourmet was a sort of Julia in print, never pandering to our ignorance, and always encouraging us to new heights of understanding. Like many good things it was temporary.

The Urban Luddite

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Luddite Welcomes you.

Welcome to the Urban Luddite’s first post ever. I should probably explain the blog title and say that that I don’t roam about, smashing i-phones and laptops. The blog itself would be impossible without technology of course. It has been pointed out to me however, by several friends and loved ones, that I have a somewhat shaky relationship with modernity, or whatever term you would like to slap on our never ending drive towards “progress.” It’s not a word that gets used so often these days and yet I would submit that the attitudes of our positivistic past have not really left us.

If you are the sort of person who feels just a bit ill every time you enter a box store, or who cringes at the armies of chain “restaurants” laying siege to what used to be the countryside, you may feel a touch of commonality with me and my hopefully not too grumpy dispatches.

Looking forward to future posts,

The Urban Luddite.