Friday, December 31, 2010

A Timeless Story

The Final Word of 2010



Self at Trevi Fountain, Rome, some nights ago!
 We all instinctively hate the word “final.” How many parents or teachers say to younger or older children, “you’re not allowed to do that, and that’s final!”? We love the word “beginning” and all that it entails: the joy of setting out and all the various expectations of the journey and the almost paradise-like feeling of expectation of reaching our destination. And yet we know that there will be a final setting out and a final destination for each one of us. As Paul Gilbert re-iterates like a chorus in his recent book that I am currently reading, The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010): we were born into this world, neither with or against our will, just found ourselves here as we grew in consciousness of that rather random and chance act of the copulation of our parents (scientifically speaking) – random and chance insofar as any one of many millions of sperm could have fertilized the mother’s egg on any random number of occasions. Thinking about the chances of our arrival in this world could be infinitely deceased if we were to add other factors like the chances of this or that woman meeting one’s father, the chance encounter, the train taken, the job accepted or rejected, the health of either partner etc. Think about that extraordinary infinitesimally small number, one in literally billions when all parameters are added into the equation. Does this mean that we are significant or insignificant beings? I’ll leave the pondering of that question to the good reader of these lines.

Anyway, I am writing these few lines from my family apartment in Isca Marina, a very small seaside town some ten kilometres south of Soverato in Calabria, Southern Italy. Being many miles from my home in Dublin, Ireland gives me some little more objectivity, if not insight, into beginnings and endings this the final day of 2010, that is December 31st of that Annus Domini.

What comes to mind is a story I would like to share with the readers of this blog. It is a traditional American Indian story with not a little insight and wisdom into life. Again I owe the thought of placing this story here both to a pupil I had the privilege of teaching last year and to the author of the above mentioned book. Both used this story in order to get things straight in their minds. With this background given, I hereby offer this story as one suitable for all of us as we end one year and begin another or as we end one task and begin another. As I’ve pointed out in my opening paragraph, every beginning and every ending are always against the background of our mortality.
The Story:

One day an old American Indian chief was walking by the river with his grandson, thinking about what wisdom to impart to the boy, the living symbol of the future generations of his tribe. Finally he told the little boy that our human minds are similar to the river along whose bank they were walking: they were both ever-flowing. But within the water there were different currents, and likewise, said the old chief, there were different and contending currents within our human minds. Then, he used another image from nature to point out the complexity of the human mind – wolves. He continued that he himself, like all others, can sometimes feel two contending wolves in his mind – one is gentle and kind, and is a peace-seeker and a peace-maker, while the other one is angry and aggressive and is a hate-maker and a war-maker. The little boy listened and nodded his assent to these words from the old man’s mouth. Finally, as the story goes, the young grandson looked at the old chief and asked the obvious question: “Who will win, Grandfather?” The old man replied wisely: “The wolf that I feed!”

New Year’s Wish:

So my New Year’s wish for my readers is simple. May you have the strength of mind and the wisdom to feed the gentle and kind wolf within you over the coming year. Auguri tutti e felice anno nuovo da Isca Marina, Calabria, Italia.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Another Little Bit of Rilke

Before Setting Out:

My brother Pat conversing with my 93 year-old mother
The title is actual.  I am literally writing these words in a hurry before setting out for a two mile walk in the snow.  I am on my way, encumbered by the necessary seasonal presents needless to say, to the home of my brother where I have been invited for Christmas dinner.  I'll bring my camera to take some pictures along the way because the snow is only "deliciously" inviting like the dinner I shall be privileged to enjoy in good company in a few hours time.  And, yes, today, like all days, I am setting out once more.  That's life I suppose a series of consecutive settings out and thankfully a series of consecutive arrivals until... until, we all know, there will be a last setting out and a final arrival... our own very last stop on the line.  Now, I'm not particularly sad today at all, lest you might think so.  No, this is the Buddhist sentiment and feeling in my heart, because the very thought, contemplation and meditation on the transitoriness of life allows me to live in such great appreciation of the wonder that life is in itself.

I was taking some photographs of snow scenes earlier today in the neighbourhood and spotted a blackbird singing in a snow-laden tree eating some berries.  It even sang.  (Unfortunately I had no telephoto lens to capture it).  If such creatures can just rejoice in the actuality of now, then why cannot we?  I know, it's the weight of our consciousness and self-consciousness.  All those little and big creatures in the animal world suffer, and indeed suffer much, but it can be argued that we humans suffer even more because we know that we suffer, and even the thoughts of future, not alone imminent, suffering makes us suffer yet again.  And so humankind is an intriguing and altogether strange being because he/she is oftentimes too damn caught up in himself or herself.  As the Buddhists say, in a sense, the world of things is an illusion - maya, I believe they call it.  We poor humans get caught up in this world of illusion upon illusion and become dependent on things and indeed upon people to an alarmingly obsessive degree.  We begin to cling to our thoughts, cling to our possessions and, even, cling to those who are dear to us.  In this way we multiply our suffering.  The whole aim of Buddhist practice and indeed meditation is to go beyond this clinging, to learn to let go of suffocating attachments.  And, strangely, the way to do it is at once simple and oh so complex (paradoxical in a very clear sense), that is, to observe everything as it is, every circumstance as it is, every encounter, good, bad or indifferent, with another as it is, to let the world of appearances come and go as everything and everyone does, as just that - as thoughts and feelings that flit through  the mind as images on a virtual screen.  In this way, we learn to let go, to let go, to go beyond clinging.  As I said just above, this is in a way a very simple thing to say, and also in a strange way easy to understand, but oh so hard (and complex- that's what I meant by the word "complex" above) to do.  Today, the reader will get a sense that I am rushing these thoughts as my sentences are pouring from me as I am conscious that I am pressed for time before I set out.

Footprints in the snow - not mine!
Anyway, that's enough by way of introduction.  Today, this Christmas day, 2010, I should like to offer another of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems to my readers by way of a stiumulus to further meditation or contemplation.  Today's poem is called "Ignorant before the Heavens of My Life." 





Ignorant Before the Heavens of My Life


Ignorant before the heavens of my life,
I stand and gaze in wonder. Oh the vastness
of the stars. Their rising and descent. How still.
As if I didn't exist. Do I have any
share in this? Have I somehow dispensed with
their pure effect? Does my blood's ebb and flow
change with their changes? Let me put aside
every desire, every relationship
except this one, so that my heart grows used to
its farthest spaces. Better that it live
fully aware, in the terror of its stars, than
as if protected, soothed by what is near.


Brief and Rushed Commentary:

These thoughts are by way of connotation and resonance rather than by denotation and paraphrase, the latter two being rather too simplistic and reductionist for the art of poetry.  Let me repeat again here, even if the readers of this blog are tired of hearing it, the famous line from a poem by Archibald MacLeish: "A poem should not mean, but be."  Hence, what I am at here are merely thoughts and feelings that are sparked off by the above wee gem of a poem.  The scientists say that we only use a mere 10% of our brain power.  There is so much to the wonder of the human brain that the mind boggles at the sheer numbers of neurons therein and further at the sheer number of possible connections between these brain cells.  Considering these astronomical figures one wonders if saying that we use 10% is over-stating the percentage of the brain power we use.  Another thing that has always inspired and intrigued me me is the iceberg model or image of the human mind or psyche.  This model of the psyche suggests that like the iceberg only 10% of it lies above the water line - that represents the conscious mind.  Then, what's left, that is 90% of the mind lies below the water line - this, then, represents the unconscious mind. 

There is so much about ourselves that we do not know.  As they say in psychotherapy circles - we know very much more than we are aware of.  In like manner I think of the Johari Window which is a cognitive psychological tool created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 in the United States and is used widely to help people better understand their interpersonal communication and relationships. It is used primarily in self-help groups and corporate settings as a heuristic exercise.  It seeks to clarify how much we really know about ourselves and this famous window is another take on the iceberg model of the psyche. One can see clearly that the concept is related to the ideas propounded in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,  which in turn we may trace back to the theories about the personality first explored by psychiatrist Carl Jung and inevitably Sigmund Freud.   No wonder the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it thus: "Ignorant before the heavens of my life,//I stand and gaze in wonder.// Oh the vastness of the stars."  In other words my introductory words in this commentary were provoked and inspired by these poetic lines from Rilke. Freud stated that the goal of psychoanalysis was to make the unconscious conscious.  Another famous quotation from the great founding father of psychoanalysis is:  "Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious."  He and his followers and certainly Carl Gustave Jung sought to interpret the dreams of their patients/clients, though Jung did so in a less authoritarian and didactic fashion than his one time mentor.

In line with all of this, I have long subscribed to what the follwers of Freud and Jung would say, namely that we human beings know vastly more than we are aware of.  Why is that?  Well that 90% of the psyche, that unconscious part, is also constantly taking in information from our environment and from our experiences in life with others and with things and with situations.  The brain/mind/psyche/spirit/heart files all this information away, albeit in an unconscious or unaware form.  Many poets and philosophers and artists have seen the human psyche/soul/mind/spirit/heart (I do realise that these words may have different connotations, even denotations depending on whether one is a rigid atheistic scientist, a rigid religionist of any view or hue, but I wish to use them in their most general sense and as being synonyms for what is essentially human about the human animal) as an inner universe tantamount in its infinite depths and heights and expances as the outer physical one.  I have mentioned how the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal used these frightening infinite spaces in such a way as did the twentieth century American poet Robert FrostRilke, to my mind at least is on the same wavelength in his beautiful lyric above.

Another thought that occurs to me is the Buddhist one of clinging which I mentioned in my opening remarks above.  This can be seen so clearly and obviously in the lines: "Let me put aside //every desire, every relationship//except this one, so that my heart grows used to//its farthest spaces. Better that it live//fully aware, in the terror of its stars, than//as if protected, soothed by what is near."  That is, the poet's personal goal is to go beyond clinging to things (every desire) and obsessive dependence in all his relationships and plumb his own inner depths or inner spaces.  Also we have in these lines, I believe, the desire to get to know his real self more and more thoroughly, even if that means facing one's own inner abyss, one's own inner terror (like Robert Frost and like Blaise Pascal)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Timely Message from Rainer Maria Rilke

Phoenix Park again a few days ago
I suppose I have sung encomiums or encomia (if you are more fastidiously tied to purist Latinisms) to the nth power with respect to the great poet, writer and critic, Rainer Maria Rilke.  However, as we approach one of the greatest international festivals of humankind, namely Christmas, it is appropriate to slow down, meditate and contemplate or "take stock" of our lives.  Persistent and obstinate snow have appropriately and in a timely manner slowed us all down here in Ireland for most of the last month.  Such persistence by the elements have raised our minds to more important things than the depression that hangs over our little country, now bankrupted by greedy speculators, corrupt bankers and corrupt politicians who would seem to have been in league or in conspiracy with the former.  Such timely climatic input into our communal and individual psyches is good for our well being.  With this in mind, I will offer any readers of this blog a timely message from Rainer Maria Rilke on the Human Condition and its innate fears.  He is arguing in a very philosophical/spiritual/existential/psychological way that we have nothing to fear except fear itself - as F. D Roosevelt said in his first inaugural speech as President of the USA.  (see this link, where you can read his speech and also listen to a recording of it: FDR  )

Here below are the words of Rilke which in places on the web have been wrongly quoted as a poem.  It is, I believe, an edited version of one of his letters to the young aspiring poet, Mr. Kappus, which I have quoted from before in this blog.  Read, reflect, meditate and contemplate the following words, which I will comment on later when I return from having braved the elements to do my Christmas shopping:

But fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens.  For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.


But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence. For if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down.  Thus they have a certain security.  And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.


We, however, are not prisoners.  No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.  We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us.  We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. It has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.  And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.   How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.


Rainer Maria Rilke  (See this link here: Rilke's Wisdom )

Commentary:

Even the deer outside my mother's window know no fear!
As I said with respect to Rainer Maria Rilke's poems, a paraphrase is the ultimate insult.  Likewise, with regard to his letters or other writings.  The commentary I will give here is only by way of associations, connotations and resonances with my own thoughts and feelings on similar matters.  I seek to explore what he has said above not by explaining or elucidating, but by enlarging in the most expansive way possible, posing more questions and letting the piece speak for itself by stating that these comments were sparked off in my head and heart by this piece of writing.



It would seem to me that humankind drives itself crazy if it seeks to understand everything. In this regard, I am reminded of Albert Camus' introduction to his depressingly negative but serious philosophical book The Myth of Sisyphos wherein I remember he stated that he sought clarity, almost absolute clarity in anything he had ever done. Then I remember reading the great 19th century theologian and famous convert to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Cardinal Newman who believed that ultimately clarity could never exist on a rational level alone. On the one hand Newman, the nineteenth century Victorian, who was still intoxicated by the Romantic vision, while very much a rational being, also saw the importance of the non-rational side of humankind and he took refuge in the mystery and mystique of Religion. On the other hand, Camus became depressingly atheistic rather than positively agnostic, the lack of clarity just convincing him of the absolute absurdity of the enterprise we call human life.


I agree with Rilke, there is much in life that is inexplicable, and indeed, despite our best efforts, there will always be much in life that will remain so.  For a positive, spiritual and agnostic Buddhist that I am, I believe in the essentially mysterious nature of life, whether that can be explained with or even without the intervention of a being called God.  I rule nothing in and I rule nothing out.  Openness to all reasonable suggested answers is the order of the day to my mind, and indeeed to my heart.  Rilke's comments suggest no less, I feel. 

The inexplicable lies all around us.  Last night I had a wonderful dream where I was co-pilot of a small light aircraft and the captain said to me that we were about to approach the abyss or the vortex.  In fact, he called it the vortex in the dream.  He told me that we were going to guide our small light aircraft into the vortex and let ourselves be carried down, down, down into it.  He swithched off the engine and we were swallowed up in the vortex, but the sense of the dream was that we would be safely carried downward and inward into that "centre of centres," almost into what I have termed The Still Point at the very centre of existence.  The sense of the dream was quite like some of Edgar Allan Poe's stories of vortices and maelstroms, but without the absolute terror.  Somehow the terror was gone.  I must admit that I have been meditating on Rilke's piece above not long before I fell asleep, and I allude to my dream here by way of commenatry on his beautiful piece of writing.  That's why I believe that Rilke is right.  The fear of the inexplicable can become our ultimate nightmare like all those vortices in Poe, or it can become the energizing, exciting and ecstatic feeling of "sky-diving" into the abyss.  It is also interesting that Rilke refers directly to the sense of terror in Poe's gothic tales and stories.

Rilke is asking us to expand our horizons.  He asks us to consider our human experience as a larger or smaller room depending on our native openness to wonder, inspiration and imagination.  Indeed, he sees us as not even being open to knowing that room, big or small in any substantial way; as groping around in the dark of one corner of that room alone, never mind the full room; as being in a way prisoners of our very limited insight into our potential and very much captives of our own fears of the unknown.  No, he argues, oh so poetically in this letter to the would-be poet, Mr. Kappus, that we must look our fears in the eye and let ourselves fall into the abyss.  Hence, my mentioning my dream above, which I believe was sparked off by my meditating on the above piece of writing yesterday evening.

I especially love the following lines of insight from the magisterial Rilke above, and I'll repeat them here for emphasis:


We have no reason to mistrust our world,  for it is not against us.  It has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.  And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 7

Introduction

St Mary's Hospital where my mother resides
For some reason these slow snowy days I linger with the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke as they do catch my mood - reflective, contemplative and meditative - a mood tinged with a little regret for what remains unachieved in my life.  As an intense and philosophical sort of person I am drawn to equally intense and philosophical sorts and the works or writings thereof.  I pick up a depth and profundity of spirit in the words of Rilke, words a little heavy with his intensity and profundity.  Then there is always an existentialist twist to his words and to his themes.  One line might bring me on a romantic flight of fancy while the next one trips me up in my flight by no little realism tinged with a sadness and a regret.  To this extent he mirrors my feelings and sympathies.  This makes him a complex poet who is struggling to make sense of life.  That he makes some sense of it is beyond doubt, yet we are always in the presence of a searcher who has not found his "pot of gold" or in the presence of a weary traveller who has not as yet reached his destination.  Rilke's poems are not for those who lack courage.  He will always bring us deeper into more lonely corners of the soul, but on the way he will have shone a little light to guide our footsteps.  When I read him I find I am always in good company - with a strong and courageous soul ready to shoulder whatever pain or suffering life brings.  Also we will learn to see the Beauty and Truth at the heart of everything in Creation (or nature).  In his company we will learn to see anew but deeper into the very reality of things.  Today's poem which I offer you is called Heartbeat:

Heartbeat
Only mouths are we. Who sings the distant heart
which safely exists in the center of all things?
His giant heartbeat is diverted in us
into little pulses. And his giant grief
is, like his giant jubilation, far too
great for us. And so we tear ourselves away
from him time after time, remaining only
mouths. But unexepectedly and secretly
the giant heartbeat enters our being,
so that we scream ----,
and are transformed in being and in countenance.


Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming


Commentary:


I have quoted Archibald MacLeish's famous line: "A poem should not mean, but be" many times in these posts.  Ever since I was at school I have always dreaded so-called paraphrases of poems as we had a teacher in fifth year who insisted on paraphrasing poems so that we might understand what they were about.  He killed every poem dead for me, and I'm sure for most of the other young students.  As boys, however, we never ever discussed poetry.  We were more likely to discuss soccer or films or TV programmes.  Luckily we got a new more enlightened teacher when that poor sad gentleman passed away.  This new teacher opened up poems in a more profound and intriguing way as he never sought to explain them or give us his meaning.  No, he taught us to make our own of the poems and to let them speak to us as powerfully as they really should.  I gradually learned to let the poem reveal itself by reading it aloud, by letting the words tease my imagination by asssociations and resonances.  In short, poems became more real, more rooted in experience, more rooted in the senses, more alive in my imagination as one image sparked another and another and so on.  In other words, I was more content to let them be and do their work on me, rather than seeking to impose a meaning on them or to kill both them and me in strenuous efforts of unravelling.


I love Rilke opening sentence which comprises four words: "Only mouths are we."  I suppose we could substitute any part of the human body for the second word in this sentence according to what we might want to emphasize about the human condition.  Mouth is a metaphor for much in humankind's life: for all his oral and written culture, the second aspect of which may in turn may be read aloud.  It also has connotations of attempting to put order and meaning on things by giving them expression in either oral or written form.


Then what is the centre of things?  What is a thing in itself?  We have obvious hints of, if not allusions to the
philosophies of Kant and Schopenhauer here in this?  What is reality?  Who knows, but the question is worth asking philosophically and also poetically as it is here.  Then the poet in us gets deep resonances with the works of the Romantics, especially Coleridge and Keats who sought to hold opposites in a healthy tension - The Coleridgean theory of opposites and the Keatsian theory of Negative Capability, both of which I have discussed before in these pages.  Likewise, those of us who read poems will be reminded of Yeats' "centre that cannot hold," that "things fall apart" on us if we have no passion, no vision and no commitment to the Truth and Beauty at the heart of things.  I believe that this poem is about just that - the Truth and Beauty at the Heart of Things.   Without a doubt humankind has lost its way - and all because of the greed that lies at the heart of the growing minority of rapacious capitalists who seemingly cannot be sated in their desires for more and more wealth.


This Truth and Beauty at the Heart of Things, Rilke equates with God, whom he does not name, but calls "He" and so we assume that it is the great Christian deity that he has as subject of his next line:   "His giant heartbeat is diverted in us into little pulses."  We each of us, as it were, are the smaller beating hearts of the larger Heart which is the Godhead.  But this is no Romanticism at its most flighty, oh no, for our poet introduces the sobering thought that there is both "giant grief" and "giant jubilation" at the very heart of the Godhead or of the Deity, both of which feelings are far too great for our small spiritual and bodily vessels, our human Body-Soul.  Here we have Rilke at his best - a transitional poet caught between the more esoteric and ecstatic feelings associated with Romanticism and the many pains and sufferings expressed in more modernist terms.  That is what I mean by saying that at his best Rilke is very existentialist in tendency and sympathy.  He seasons his higher and deeper thoughts with the salt of the realism of everyday life.

Winter scene, Phoenix Park, Dec 2010
Like moths attracted to the burning flame we are attracted to the centre of centres, but realising that we cannot survive such heat we turn away.  There is a line somewhere in the Old Testament that goes: "We cannot look on the face of God and live," and hence we must needs fly away from His countenance:  "And so we tear ourselves away rom him time after time, remaining only mouths."  This last metaphor is once again very potent - we are only mouths - somehow disembodied.  I am reminded of a video made about some work that Samuel Beckett had written - I saw this some years back at a Beckett exhibition in the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris - which featured only moving lips - a disembodied mouth.  It would seem that Rilke is getting at something like that.

However, we cannot escape this "centre of centres", this "Heart of Hearts" because it pursues us almost ruthlessly and terrifyingly: 
"But unexepectedly and secretly the giant heartbeat enters our being, so that we scream ----," But this is a transformation or transfiguration beyond our human imagining.


All of the above is but a personal, indeed a very personal, teasing out of the possible connotations, implications, associations and resonances of this beautiful little lyric offered for our edification by Rainer Maria Rilke. That it is so good in translation only makes me more deeply regret that I cannot read his poems in German.

The Magic of Stars in Literature

Introduction


Not stars, but fuochi artificiali: Ferragosto 2009, Isca
 Stars have always intrigued humankind.  The ancients looked at them with wonder and used them for many purposes, especially religious and cultural ones.  To them they were objects of wonder and even magical power. Historically, stars have been important to all civilizations throughout the world. They have been part of religious practices and were used widely for celestial navigation and orientation. Many ancient astronomers believed that stars were permanently affixed to a heavenly sphere, and that they were literally unchangeable with respect to their positions. By convention, astronomers grouped stars into constellations and used them to track the motions of the planets and the inferred position of the Sun. The apparent motion of the Sun against the background stars (and the horizon) was used to create calendars, which could then be further used to regulate agricultural practices which were necessary for the survival of humankind quite recently gathered into early civilizations. It is interesting also to note that the Gregorian calendar, currently used nearly everywhere in the world, is a solar calendar based on the angle of the Earth's rotational axis relative to its local star, the Sun.

A Little Science:

 In his wonderfully clear scientific classic Stardust: The Cosmic Recycling of Stars, Planets and People (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press,  2000) John Gribbin writes poetically thus:


Life begins with the process of star formation. We are made of stardust. Every atom of every element in your body except for hydrogen has been manufactured inside stars, scattered across the Universe in great stellar explosions, and recycled to become part of you. The hydrogen is primordial material, produced in the Big Bang, along with helium (there is no helium in your body). Hydrogen and helium together formed the raw material for the first generation of stars, some 12 billion years ago, but everything else has been built up by nuclear fusion in stellar furnaces.  (Op. cit., p. 1)

I love reading anything by John Gribbin and his wife Mary as they are superb scientists with a gift of explanation.  They are popularizers of science and they have this present science neophyte hooked to say the least.  They also write beautifully and ever so clearly.  I always dip into their books if I wish to be inspired by good clear basic science.

A Little History




The Newgrange Tumulus or Passage Grave


We who have been made of stardust started early in this ancient land of Ireland to look at the stars.  For instance, our most visited national monument - our oldest indeed - is Newgrange (Irish: Sí an Bhrú) which is a prehistoric monument located in County Meath, on the eastern side of Ireland, about one kilometre north of the River Boyne.  This ancient monument even predates the Egyptian pyramids.  Newgrange is an example of a megalithic passage tomb mound and scholars believe it was built between circa 3100 and 2900 BC, during the Neolithic period, in order to house the remains of the dead. It has also been speculated that it had some form of religious significance, particularly in regards to an afterlife, because it is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, which floods the tomb with light. Now the wonder is how these ancient pre-Celtic Neolithic people knew so much about the position of the sun and could construct the burial chamber with an appropriate slit over the entrance to let the light in precisely at sunrise on the day of the Winter Solstice so that it could flood the burial chamber.  They were obviously good architects and engineers also! It is in fact just one monument within the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex, alongside the similar passage tomb mounds of Knowth and Dowth, and as such is a part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site. Newgrange also shares many similarities with other Neolithic constructions around Western Europe, such Maeshowe tomb in Orkney, Scotland and the Bryn Celli Ddu site in Wales.

Shakespeare:

The stars inspired many great writers and poets. Read again one of Shakespeare's famous love sonnets and wonder at the mystery, beauty and sheer power that the stars have had over humankind since time immemorial:
Sonnet 14
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Or yet again turn to Shakespeare's wonderful play Julius Caesar wherein the latter says to Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,//But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135)

Other Writers and Poets:

Then, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favourite poets, the great philosopher of the Romantic Movement in England tells us that as a child he used love to ramble forth with his father at night when he was a young boy.  The father used point out the various contellations and stars to the young boy, and Samuel Taylor in typical flowery language said that it was thus that his mind "had become habituated too the vast." 
Our own poet Patrick Kavanagh in a beautiful short lyric recounted that though his bedroom was very small indeed "its little window let in the stars."  Then our great national playwright Seán O'Casey wrote a brilliant play, still performed to large audiences, called Juno and the Paycock wherein we hear one of the characters called Joxer say:
Joxer: Ah, that's the question, that's the question -- what is the stars?

Boyle: An' then, I'd have another look, an' I'd ass meself -- what is the moon?
Joxer: Ah, that's the question -- what is the moon, what is the moon?
Nietzsche and Stars:
And, then, of course where would we be without a suitable quotation or two from the great Friedrich Nietzsche? :


1. As long as you still experience the stars as something above you, you still lack a viewpoint of knowledge.


2.  "The wreckage of stars – I built a world from this wreckage." (See this link here: Nietzsche and the Stars )
Rainer Maria Rilke:
I have quoted many others on the wonder of the stars from Blaise Pascal to Robert Frost, but here at last for your perusal, if not more importantly for your contemplation, is a further short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke on the subject of falling stars.  I shall say nothing about this short poem except to say that one can feel the existential tension between the opposites of integration and disintegration, between life and death, love and hate, and this all handed up to us on a plate of things transfigured, transformed and even embodied or incarnated right inside us - right inside the very hearts of the two lovers.  To live is to die and to love is to...  I'll let the reader finish that sentence himself or herself.
Falling Stars


Rainer Maria Rilke



Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes--do you recall? And we
did make so many! For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall.

Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 6

My mother playing with a teddy Christmas 2009 - her second Childhood
The Christmas season is undoubtedly a season where children loom large, and rightly so.  Who does not remember the sheer wonderment and surprise created by this wonderful season.  I will assume here the reader's knowledge of the Christian origins of Christmas and say a little of its pagan beginnings: In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honouring the god Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Needless to say this  festival season was marked by much merrymaking as it helped to "break the back" of the long winter season. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of carolling was born.

I do not wish to delay much here on this history, but I wish to point out the importance of celebrating the joy of life and the importance of the victory of the Sun (Good) over the Dark (Evil).  It is not so hard, then to see, why the early Christians sought to marry the feast-day of the birth of their Child Saviour with this ancient Pagan Feast.  So many of our Christmas cards traditionally show illustrations of the Virgin Mother with the Child Jesus.  He is, in a very special way, the Puer Eternus. (See these links here: P.E. 1, P.E. 2, Michael Jackson in this present blog).

There is the Puer Eternus in us all, that longing to return to the innocent days of our youth when we were cared for, nurtured and loved by our family, especially our mother.  Now, those of us who have had at least a tolerably good family life will have experienced this care, nurture and love I have mentioned here.  As a practising teacher of some thirty years standing I have met a growing minority of youngsters who have seldom if ever experienced the security of a relatively good family life.  (I say relatively because we are all to some extent damaged souls as our parents, no matter how good they were, are only human and they did make mistakes and they did at times fail to be always good, loving and caring towards us.  Here I am reminded of that all too realistic poem called This Be the Verse by the late great Philip Larkin which I have discussed in this post here some years back: PL Poem )

I have spoken about the fact that the human being grows or develops rather like an onion, to use a rather simplistic but useful simile.  We humans are fashioned as it were layer by layer.  Essentially, each successive period of our life lays another layer down on what has gone before.  In other words at our very core lies the baby/infant in us, then the toddler, then the young boy or girl, then the teenager, then the young adult, the middle-aged adult and so on.  Modern counsellors and psychotherapists speak about the importance of parenting the child within us, and I have personally used many visualizations of such parenting while doing meditation exercises with the students I teach at school.  I have written one such parenting visualization for the Christmas Season in a book I wrote, published by Veritas, Dublin, back in 2002 called Still Point Meditations: see this link here: SPMTQ.

Now back to Rilke who was both a luminously brilliant but suffering soul.  He was writing, as I have pointed out, possibly too often, in a transitional period between the Romantic and the Modernist era in the development of literature.  This added a deep realism to his more spiritual insights.  The soul in Rilke is always an embodied soul.  Indeed, one can argue that the soul in Rilke is very much an ecological soul insofar as our great German poet incarnates that soul very much in nature, in things, in animals and in all humans undoubtedly.  He is also a very psychological/spiritual writer who has deep insights into the nature of the human soul or psyche, and in so doing he gives us many insights into the nature of childhood.  And so, now that we are in the Advent season where we await the mythical coming of the Christ Child, the ultimate Puer Eternus for the Christian believer, I should like to offer the reader of this blog, Rilke's poem on childhood, translated here by Edward Snow.
     
Childhood

It would be good to give much thought, before
you try to find words for something so lost,
for those long childhood afternoons you knew
that vanished so completely --and why?


We're still reminded--: sometimes by a rain,
but we can no longer say what it means;
life was never again so filled with meeting,
with reunion and with passing on


as back then, when nothing happened to us
except what happens to things and creatures:
we lived their world as something human,
and became filled to the brim with figures.


And became as lonely as a shepherd
and as overburdened by vast distances,
and summoned and stirred as from far away,
and slowly, like a long new thread,
introduced into that picture-sequence
where now having to go on bewilders us.


I will offer here a very short commentary by way of illumination, though not explanation.  As I have always been at pains to point out in these pages, explanation is nothing short of a sheer travesty of the very meaning of poetry.  However, points of illumination by way of associations, resonances, chords struck, notes sounded, ideas sparked off one another, feelings moved, soul-depths plumbed, soul-heights scaled - all of these are allowed, but never to explain and say a final word - never.  They merely open up the mystery of the poem and expand it, never reducing it. 
 
Me on the left with my brothers, aged around 5
As we seek to become more fully human, more fully ourselves, we are often engaged in a work of reclamation.  Hence we are indeed in pursuit of what Rilke above aptly calls the "something so lost" within us.  Those of us familiar with St Augustine of Hippo who spoke so movingly about the emptiness within the huamn soul that he famously said in his Confessions:  "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts will never be at rest until they rest in Thee."  In other words, St Augustine believed that essentially the human heart was lost or abandoned, after the Fall of humankind in The Garden of Eden, that only its restoration or recovery could be effected by being united with the source of his being, namely God.  Now, even if you are not a believer, you can always interpret the great philosopher Augustine as referring to the lostness and abandonment of humankind or even anachronistically to the alientaion of the human being from its real essential nature.  I have already pointed out that much of Rilke's writing is existential in tone and effect, as he writes out of his own pain, his own suffering and his deep insights as a result.  
I have also said many times here that Rilke's poems are never ethereal.  Indeed they are so real that within his creative power and use of words, objects and things become transfigured, and in this sense are rendered Joycean ephiphanies as we find in these lines above: "We're still reminded--: sometimes by a rain,but we can no longer say what it means;" 
 
Then we have the pastoral image of the shepherd, but it is not a sentimental one as of the Good Shepherd finding his lost sheep.  No, no, no.  We are given a picture of a shepherd who is himself lost and lonely, abandoned somewhere on some hill:   "And became as lonely as a shepherd//and as overburdened by vast distances,//and summoned and stirred as from far away.." Once again here we have a very existential theme: the sheer insignificance of man viz-a-viz the infinite size of the universe.  This theme of humankind's sheer insignificance and lostness in comparison with the eternal silences of the universe also occur in the Pensées of Blaise Pascal and in the works of many other poems besides Rilke, e.g., Robert Frost.
 
And yet, there appears to be a mysterious thread that some surreal seller of picture cards (say God-the-Merchant) puts through the various pictures or images that occur spontaneously in our lonely minds that seek to create some meaning from them.  But this Surreal Picture Card Seller bewilders rather than comforts us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 5

What Makes a Good Poem


O Connell Street, Dublin, Christmas 2006
Writing or making poems is an ancient craft.  I should like to imagine that it is as ancient as the crafts of stone masonry and carpentry.  Before societies became literate,  people would listen to the makers of poems recite their compositions.  Hence the genesis of poetry is in the human voice which sought to give shape in sound to the feelings and thoughts of the authors.  In other words,  poems were originally oral and aural and not written.  So the magic and the wonder that lie in a good poem are somewhat akin to the magic and wonder of a good song.  Indeed, very often people put, and indeed still do put, music to the words of poems.   So poems are made primarily, though not completely, for the ear.  Some are made for the eye, while many engage as many of the senses as they possibly can through the magic of words.  That is why poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas appeal to this present writer because their poems were made to be read aloud, to plumb the depths and heights of the spoken human voice and through its natural rhythms and cadences attempt to hang some meaning on the frail boughs of human sound in words printed on a page.  This is also why Rainer Maria Rilke appeals to me, though I very much regret that I cannot enjoy his poems in the original German.  Some of my friends who can speak this language inform me that his poems in translation are in no way as good or as effective as his poems in his mother tongue.  I readily agree, because I speak, read and write Gaelic as fluently as I do English.  When I read, or indeed write a poem in Gaelic, I never wish to translate it because so much of its native cadences would be lost if I did so.  Therefore, when I offer here another poem from Rilke, I am only too aware that the translation, while good, must be a paler reflection of the original.  Still, we would be so much the poorer for not knowing the wisdom, mystery and wonder which this great poet expressed in his original written works.  For this, we must remain eternally grateful to that small band of able and passionate translaters worldwide who bring such gifts to the monoglotal world.
   
Evening


The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;


and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion of what becomes
a star each night, and rises;


and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.
           (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Evening Lamp, Phoenix Park, December 2008
Here I am transfixed by how Rilke manages to weave a sort of magic spell where things come alive and are spiritualized almost.  This is most certainly what he meant by writing what he called "Thing poems," poems which bring everyday things alive in a mysterious and haunting manner.  I have pointed out before that Rilke lies somewhere between the Romantics and the Modernists both in time and in mentality.  His Romanticism isn't that of a Coleridge or Wordsworth where all things in nature sing of the beauty and truth of the deity, that is, Rilke was no pantheist.  His world of nature is dark as well as bright and includes also so many shades of gray in a more modernist sense.  There is always something dark and threatening as well as spiritually sustaning in his poems.  It is this "dark and threatening something" that adds the appeal for this present writer here and that gives a strength and realism to what would otherwise be mawkish and schmaltzy rubbish or kitsch.  With this in mind let us re-read the last stanza aloud and I place it hereunder a second time so that we may let the "stone and star" in us hit home in a marvellous spiritual realism or in an equally marvellous realistic spirituality. 


and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 4


The Dalai Lama - one of the best known Buddhists
Buddha in Glory


Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet--
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,


a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.


Rainer Maria Rilke

This time I have begun this post with another poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.  On this occasion the poem has at its very centre a Buddhist theme.  If meditation is anything it is about getting to the Still Point of Existence - to use an appropriate metaphor.  That Still Point is another word for the central point or hub about which the wheel of life spins.  Yeats informs us in one of his poems that when the "centre cannot hold" the world become a place of anarchy and chaos without any semblance of order:


TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


(WB Yeats, The Second Coming)
If spirituality is about anything, it is about getting a centre of gravity for the Self, the Psyche or the Soul.  It is all about being centered, abound having an undisturbed and almost undisturbable equanimity.  Quite by chance as I was listening to some tracks from the late great and wonderful Jeff Buckley to relax before I wrote these lines here, I chanced to find his official site on the internet and also discovered this wonderful insight into his music and spirituality:

The truly centered one - The Buddha meditates!

"I don't have any allegiance to an organized religion; I have an allegiance to the gifts that I find for myself in those religions... I'd rather be non-denominational, except for music. I prefer to learn everything through music. If you want divinity, the music in every human being and their love for music is pretty much it. It's the big indication of their spirituality and their ability to love and make love, or feel pain or joy, and really manifest it, really be real. But I don't believe in a big guy with a beard on a throne, telling us that we're bad; I certainly don't believe in original sin. I believe in the opposite of that: you have an Eden immediately from the time you are born, but as you are conditioned by your caretakers and your surroundings, you may lose that original thing. Your task is to get back to it, to claim responsibility for your own perfection." (See this link here: jeffbuckley)

In my book Jeff Buckley's Eden is quite simply Rainer Maria Rilke's "centre of centres," and Yeats' centre that does not hold, the Still Point of our being which we may achieve through Buddhist meditation techniques.  If spirituality is about anything it is about connection and connectedness to that Still Point, to that Point of Equanimity, to that Centre of Centres.  It is also about the unity of things, the oneness of all reality about us, and the more one meditates the more the Ego disappears and the oneness of all things becomes foremost in the meditator's mind.  The Ego dies away and the Real Self comes to the fore, the Self as a conscious drop in the great ocean of consciousness or Truth.  And so, because the centre of centres or Still Point is so important for us, I repeat here  Rainer Maria Rilke's wonderful little Buddhist poem:

Buddha in Glory


Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet--
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.



Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,



a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.