Wednesday, November 13, 2013

no more malice than poetry


He has a mastery of equations which lead into infinities where we cannot follow.
--Tom Stoppard, Arcadia


If language is an equation, if a sentence is a function [ (meaning equals (subject over adjective) plus (verb times adverb) plus (object plus prepositional phrase) ]  into which you insert words for the variables, then the limit of that function is infinity.
Because meaning is not something you discover, label and set aside, like an entomological collection of tropical moths or oriental breeds of ants.
Meaning is infinity.
Meaning is to words as our soul is to our body.

We parse down meanings into definitions and those definitions into definitions, and on and on and on we could go, straight off the limits of the Cartesian graph.
Etymology is the attempt to express a single, infinite Word, by breaking it up into millions of other words.
It is an elusive Word, escaping the furthest reaches of our knowledge and defying all attempts to stuff it into a labeled bottle.
But as our language forever approaches the infinite Word, it turns into what we call poetry.
Poetry is not always a demented alphabet soup of rhyming ABABCDCD lines, or gorgeous iambic pentameter verses, cunningly arranged by the great classical masters.
Nor is it always the lush romantic swells of Hopkins or Blake or Keats.
Sometimes, just like beauty in train stations, poetry is simply an arrangement of words whose simple, unique, or solemn beauty pierces you to the core.

I'm a poet. I distrust anything that starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop because people don't think in full, clear sentences.
― Antjie Krog

If a man came to me and said: I desire to learn poetry, I would say: Take up Moby Dick, young man.
And that is not a flippant command; Moby Dick is not an easy task.
Melville forces you to wade through endless accounts about the anatomy of whales and the biological seascape of the globe's oceans. The poor man. I do believe Moby Dick is partially written out of Angsty Traveler's Syndrome. Every traveler arrives back home, having an entire new world living inside their chest.
Reality slaps them in the face when they realize that not everyone wants to hear about their adventures.
When he showed up to Mrs. Dalloway's dinner party, most of the guests (who were generally the polite-but-not-overly-interested-type) probably said: Herman! How was your trip?
And when dear Herman started to tell them all he now knew about sounding the case of the whale and collecting the precious oil from it, and the flurry of chasing down a whale, and the smell of a whaler after a successful catch, and the way the sun crests the Pacific horizon, they probably yawned and said: oh how droll! and sauntered off to the powder room, or if they were caught at the table, turned to their neighbor, begging to be rescued from this conversation.
Thus, Herman wrote a book. Because we, his readers are his captive audience. We are forced to read what he writes.
But when he finally retires his soapbox of expertise, he rewards you with the most stunning imagery, the boldest, most rugged, manliest, vital poetry to ever have been written.
It is woven through with threads of overweening hubris that sting and glisten like glided thorns.
He is a daring writer.
Although Melville claims his work is prose, it dances defiantly along the lines of poetic and prosaic.
He runs the gamut between breathtakingly irreverent insouciance, grand, redolent sentiment, and every biome in between. Always showing off his natural, virtuoso command over lush language to great effect.
He will write out silly little flirts of phrases, as if they just trilled off the tip of his pen:  mingling their mumblings with his own mastications.
Ex officio professors of Sabbath-breaking are all whalemen.
Govern your appetites then you shall be angels. For all angel is nothing more than shark well-governed.

I sat out on our rooftop porch, sheltered from the Kolkata monsoon by a roof of corrugated plastic, and I chuckled when I read these.
And as I sat inside, the fan brushing away the sweat of a sweltering, smelly June afternoon in the city, my breath was sucked out of my body by the lines:
I would strike the sun if it blasphemed me.
Would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight.

Would I could mount that whale, I repeated to myself.
Would I could.
I looked up at the single star that pierced through the Kolkata smog that night.
I looked into the topmost skies, and wondered if I could leap beyond them, beyond my sight.
I found great comfort in the words of Ishmael.
Ishmael, the bold explorer of Moby Dick, uncovered something very true I would not have found myself.
Travel is an aberration.
And aberrations--departures from our normal daily lives--bring with them perspective.
It is often in the aberrations that we find a bit of wisdom, or a vision God.
Each time we step into a chapel where the priest raises up the Eucharistic host we have entered an aberration.
Can aberrations, I wondered, ever become our routine.

Just like a whaling voyage, you must travel light on a pilgrimage.
You cannot bring the weight of the world with you.
But you must bring something.
Like a whaling voyage, you are journeying with a purpose.
You are not journeying alone.
You are going to do the cosmos in a week.
That is my understanding of a pilgrimage.
You go to seek that moment of what some might call transcendence, where you say to yourself: would I could leap the topmost skies.
Transcendence is here defined, perhaps, as when the part of yourself that wants comfort, consistency, familiarity, and ease vanishes, is vanquished by the real you, who looks to the skies and said:
there.
I am made for there.
I am made for the God found in the aberrations.
That moment is poetry; that moment is meaning; that moment is your soul.
Encountering a pure moment of poetry issues a challenge to incarnate the meaning in words and to incarnate the transformation of your soul each day you awake.

The soul without imagination is what an observatory would be without a telescope.
― Henry W. Beecher


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