Homage to Walt Whitman

I remember the first time I read Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in college. The poem plucked some invisible strings within my soul. I discovered that the right words in the right order changed things. They gave utterance to stones we carried in our hearts.

Solomon sounded similar thoughts in Proverbs, predating Whitman by millennia when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr 25:11a, ESV).

The English course was one of those introductory survey courses that non-literary type students dread–a multi-month burden to endure with as scant effort as possible and still pass. But when the instructor assigned the poem, and we later reread it in class, it opened to me musical language. Whitman conducted with a baton:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

As the teacher read aloud most students seemed as moved as molasses. But I looked at the teacher and saw the flame in his eyes, too, that drew light from Whiman’s light. This poem named the unnameable; it expressed how mystery unfurls into a soul. Mystery found relief in language.

Decades later I still go back to that poem, and picture the speaker in the poem trying to listen to pablum. He tried to act the part of dutiful acolyte. Perhaps he envied those who were satisfied with the trivial. But instead, he heard chords sound from outside him, and yet to him, as from the divine conductor. And then he discovered himself looking up at the firmament, almost daring to speak.

Post-truth: A Bridge to Folly

“Post-truth” is the 2016 word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Post means “after.” However, we are not to understand the post in post-truth in that sense. Rather post here is to be understood as indicating that social media and personal opinion carry more influence than facts. Stated another way, some people’s preferences influence them more than objective reality. Subjectivity trumps the objective/external.

The effects of pervasive social media are incalculable. No matter how loony one’s views are, there’s a website that’ll foster your opinions. People may gorge on the newsfeeds of their choice. Preoccupied with the instant, the traditional cannot compete.

Constant information (not wisdom, just information), injections of breaking news, and what’s “happening now” have dethroned the antiquated as monolithic. “Post-truth” indicates that “the establishment” (whatever that is) is tainted, that any meta-narrative is dead, and that our opinions are valid, simply by virtue of their existence. Objective reporting is gone with the wind, leaving tweets in the breeze. Why? Because thoughtful analysis does not get many “likes,” and research is whatever a Google search turns up.

But is this really so? Nothing quite concretizes ideas like literature. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” written in the 1800s (you know, old poetry), what some term one of the first modern poems, highlights what “post-truth” leads to—namely, a continued departure from reason and wisdom, an embrace of folly. It ushers in something, but not progress. On the cusp of the modern era, Arnold wrote:

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath,

Of the night-wind, down the vast edge drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Where’s the bright future? The “naked shingles of the world” are scant fare if the soul hungers for answers.

Lamenting what he envisions as a bleak world ahead, the narrator ends the poem thus:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Arnold was honest enough to admit that the best he could hope for was “be[ing] true to one another.” But why? And what does it mean to “be true” in a post-truth world? The “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night” are the result of jettisoning the author of life and of moral reasoning. When the creature purports to evict his maker, man’s folly is manifested, as is God’s judgment.

A degenerate culture is certainly post-truth, because it cannot appreciate the true, good, or beautiful. It forfeits the lens by which truth and falsehood are discerned. Beauty is discarded and dross is embraced. It exchanges truth for a lie and spirals into solipsism and despair.

If tweets are taken to be acumen, distraction wins. But facts are stubborn things, and just because post-truth garners much usage, objective truth nonetheless abides.

When Pilate summoned Jesus, he (Jesus) confronted Pilate with the fundamental issue: truth. Jesus said to Pilate: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b ESV)

Do you remember what Pilate did next? He mocked and walked out. He didn’t want truth, because he’d have to acknowledge himself as a sinner and Jesus as holy God incarnate. Rather than acknowledging God as the objective standard of truth, Pilate scoffed. When truth stood in front of him, Pilate hated it, and sought refuge in his own morality, where he purported to be the arbiter of right and wrong.

Pilate didn’t want truth. It was easier to let the mob rule. He played to the crowd. He had Jesus flogged, spat upon, crowned with thorns, crucified, and buried. But Jesus was not a post-truther.

Reality is like that. You can mock at it, deny it, and even murder it. But it rises again to meet you—even in your world of pretend post-truth.

“Could Small Things be Messengers?”

                    The Light that was There

August’s sun casts furrows of light upon the grass

Painting the lawn in tines of gold

Raking slumber, like fallen leaves, from my worldliness

Turning my soul to see the light that was there

To that which I was too busy to see.

 

                                 Glimpses

 Fall’s when God frames earth gold and red

And creatures may behold heaven’s art upon every bough.

 

                                  Reflection

 Had I known what it would mean later

As I peeled shale and limestone pebbles

From the pond’s edge as a boy and

Fitted them between thumb and forefinger and

Flung them sidearm skipping across the water’s surface

I’d have thrown more and stayed longer.

 

 

 

Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Beautiful Changes”

 

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One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides

The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies

On water; it glides

So from the walker, it turns

Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you

Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

 

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed

By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;

As a mantis, arranged

On a green leaf, grows

Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves

Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

 

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says

They are not only yours; the beautiful changes

In such kind ways,

Wishing ever to sunder

Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose

For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

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Certain poems I find I cannot shake. Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Beautiful Changes,” is such a poem. It continues to grip me. Perhaps it is because this past week, I visited the eye doctor and I received some news. I don’t need just reading glasses; I don’t need just driving glasses; I don’t need just work glasses. I need glasses—period. My eyes are fading. My years of being an avid reader have caught up with me. My eyes are fading. Yet in some ways, I think I see better. I’ve grown older and my eyes have lost some of their original power. Yet with the years, I understand that time brings some things into focus.glasses

“The Beautiful Changes,” is a three-stanza poem dealing with how beauty endures in spite of time’s effects. The reason people continually pursue beautiful things and moments is because we see how time robs and destroys much of life. The dominant image is of a person walking through a meadow of Queen Anne’s lace. As the character walks through the meadow, the Queen Anne’s lace divides, almost like rippling water. The character sees how his motion causes other motion. He sees a sea of movement. Time is captured in the image of motion.

The second stanza is perhaps the most overt in its expression of the poem’s meaning of how beauty is a bulwark, not just in spite of time, but in a way, because of time. Wilbur writes that a mantis’ presence is “arranged/On a green leaf, [and] grows/Into it, [and] makes the leaf leafier, and proves/Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.” The idea is that people would not notice the beauty unless time ravaged us.

We appreciate beautiful sights when we “see” that we don’t see as well as we used to. The dimness of physical limitations becomes a conduit to seeing the beauty that is there if we could see it. We experience the “second finding” (line 17) more wonderfully for knowing that beauty, not our experience of it, lasts.

As I don my new glasses next week, I will see better. In some ways, however, I already see better because of Wilbur’s poem, “The Beautiful Changes.”