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