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Archive for May, 2014

Stunned

Stunned

 

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A friend alerted me to this moving and thought-provoking video via Facebook. It is an honest sharing of one woman’s understanding of her NDE and what she has learnt from it. There is no showmanship, sermonising or dogmatism about it. Her life is rooted in three cultures and she is well aware of the need to present what she has learnt with humour and humility. The convincing account of the reality that her NDE disclosed to her with compelling clarity is the key stone of her presentation. We may not agree with all the conclusions she draws from her NDE or all the explanations she gives for it, but I am convinced that we should not dismiss the experience itself as some form of hallucination. What she experienced was real and her integrity is transparent in the way she conducts herself as she explains it, in my view. It is up to us how we understand what it means but I don’t think reducing it to the rubble of a brain disturbance is a valid option. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. I haven’t read her book yet but almost certainly will when it moves from my wish list to my shelves!

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Enkindlement 6

 

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Language is the medium of the poet. One has only to turn to the words of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to discover its purpose: “. . . the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key.”

(Roger White on Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 8)

This is the final post of this reblogged sequence, resurrected in the wake of my post on Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts.

Incredible as it may seem, there is a link that Fuller is able to make between the skeletal ‘Ties,’ discussed in the previous post, and a full-blooded poem by Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain. The link is the reference to ‘white storm birds.’ John Fuller, in his book Who is Ozymandias?, describes Hardy’s poem as (page 213) a ‘celebrated account of sacred family moments, seasonal change and death.’ Clearly the fact that we don’t know who precisely ‘He, she, all of them’ are does not diminish the human impact of the poem in the slightest. There is enough of the living tissue of human experience there to make what it describes come alive in the reader’s mind.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no ; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is not one of Hardy’ best poems but it clearly illustrates that anonymous pronouns need not confuse and putting some flesh on the bones, far from weakening its effects, adds to a poem’s power to convey an experience.

I’d like to end though on one of Hardy’s best and most popular lyrics to illustrate another important point for me which is that accessibility is not incompatible with depth.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In the end I have chickened out of tackling the two poets who challenge me the most – Bunting and Hill. I felt that it would be better to use poems where every reader of this post can easily find a brave attempt to bring them to life and judge for him or herself whether I have been unfair. In the end, Fuller, in spite of my liking for him as a poet and my respect for his having attempted what I regard as the impossible, fails to convince me I am wrong. I will continue to look with great suspicion at poets who, to huge adulation in some cases, parade before us as though it were a living poem what I see as a bag of bones. The Emperor in this case not only has no clothes: he does not even have any flesh.

If I am right this is a confidence trick which is seriously damaging the potential poetry has for stirring the hearts of the generality of readers to higher understandings of the human predicament, as I believe Hardy’s does in spite of his own bleak view of what to him is our pointless universe. Every failure to fulfil the potential of a poem is such a waste, such a betrayal, and I regret such failures deeply when I come across them and find reading them immensely frustrating, in case you hadn’t noticed.

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storm birds

For source of image see link

It remains the task of poetry to translate into words, with intensity and economy, the inexpressible with an immediacy that is not achieved in other art forms.

(Roger WhitePoetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle – 1989 – edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 2)

This is the next to last post of this reblogged sequence, resurrected in the wake of my post on Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts.

Several previous posts have been exploring the purpose of writing in general and poetry in particular (see the links at the bottom of this post to know more). Recently I have been trying to pin down exactly what my problem is with much of modern poetry. I wish to focus next on what might seem a relatively minor even petty problem – all too often I haven’t the faintest idea who the poet is talking about. The reason it matters to me is that this is a symptom of the same problem as I have been discussing already and it’s one all too often encountered in various forms in our reductionist culture. In attempting to be intense and economical the poet’s process of distillation leaves so much out it bleeds the poem dry.

To illustrate this, the other poem I wish to focus on from Fuller’s intriguing book Who Is Ozymandias? is discussed on pages 225-233. The section title is ‘Who Is You?’

Here is a late poem by Ian Hamilton, called ‘Ties’, unpublished until his posthumous Collected Poems (2009):

The cover of Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems.

You are harvesting dead leaves again
But don’t look up.
The trees aren’t your trees now
And anyway, white storm birds sing no song.
Inside the house
He’s playing genealogies again,
The usual curse:
His, yours, theirs, everyone’s. And hers.

To describe this poem as a skeleton would flatter it. It’s the fragment of a jawbone from which the reconstruction of a living poem is virtually impossible. Fuller goes a long way towards acknowledging this . . . (page 226)

It is an extreme example of the puzzle that readers frequently have when faced with naked pronouns: who are all these people, and above all, who is ‘you’? An extreme example, yes, but it is a puzzle commonly found in the starkly reduced lyric form favoured by Hamilton.

. . . but tries valiantly to resurrect the moment that produced these almost fossilised fragments of dentition. A blow by blow account of the exact nature of this struggle is given at length several pages later (pages 230-231):

Lowell . . . was a crucial influence on Hamilton’s conviction that the personal experience of the poet has an absolute value for the poem emotionally, as a biographical truth. Such a formula sounds like a commonplace of post-Romantic poetry, but after the impersonality of much modernism it became a distinct trait in the later twentieth century.

Hamilton’s ‘Ties’ relies entirely on this conviction, so that the reader is forced to construct a story. How would it go? The trees that ‘you’ are gathering dead leaves from beneath (perhaps in a photograph that the speaker has found) are no longer ‘your’ trees now. Whose are they? They must in a sense belong to the woman referred to in the dramatically crucial final sentence (And hers’). This woman has not only inherited the trees, but also the curse of the ‘genealogies’ that the ‘he’ is ‘playing’. In such a baleful context ‘playing genealogies’ can’t simply be the innocent tracing of family trees, but must have the metaphorical force of an obsessive preoccupation with the past, which the ‘curse’ turns into a matter for rebuke. To imply such a rebuke, Hamilton shifts from the first person of the first four lines to the third person of the last four. The implicit ‘I’ looking at the photograph is turned into the ‘he’ criticised for dwelling in the past. So we imagine two women, the one who used to gather the dead leaves, and the other, who appears to have displaced her, the one who resents the past. The dead leaves of the tree (compare the ‘family’ tree) imply that the first woman may also be dead.

So much is merely logical. The extension of the mysterious pronouns into ‘theirs’ and ‘everyone’s’ follows naturally from it: the ‘curse’ of the obsessive memory of the irrevocable past is not only a problem for these individuals as individuals, but it is a problem that they must share, and it is our problem, too . . . .

In the margin of page 226 I have growled, ‘Teasing at the puzzle doesn’t make a poem of this anymore than reading tea leaves tells us anything about the future.’ I respect Fuller’s learning and admire his tenacity but read his failure to make a poem of it into such expressions as ‘the reader is forced to construct a story,’ ‘perhaps in a photograph’ and ‘So much is merely logical.’ Logical it may be but sufficiently coherent and emotionally meaningful it most certainly is not. This is not the combination of creativity and empathy that successfully extends the compass of my compassion as I read, which is what I think I can fairly expect of a poem that purports to convey an important moment of this poet’s life.

Fortunately, Fuller points to a place where just such a combination can be found. But more about that on Wednesday.

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shutterstock_93038035-460x307I have only recently come across an excellent post from two years ago about near death experiences, my favourite obsession. How I missed it I don’t know as I have read with pleasure Mario Beauregard’s book, The Spiritual Brain. This account is an excellent coherent and clear overview of the field and would serve as a timely reminder for those already interested or a useful introduction for those new to this area of human experience. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

Tales of otherworldly experiences have been part of human cultures seemingly forever, but NDEs as such first came to broad public attention in 1975 by way of American psychiatrist and philosopher Raymond Moody’s popular book Life After Life. He presented more than 100 case studies of people who experienced vivid mental experiences close to death or during “clinical death” and were subsequently revived to tell the tale. Their experiences were remarkably similar, and Moody coined the term NDE to refer to this phenomenon. The book was popular and controversial, and scientific investigation of NDEs began soon after its publication with the founding, in 1978, of the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS)—the first organization in the world devoted to the scientific study of NDEs and their relationship to mind and consciousness.

NDEs are the vivid, realistic, and often deeply life-changing experiences of men, women, and children who have been physiologically or psychologically close to death. They can be evoked by cardiac arrest and coma caused by brain damage, intoxication, or asphyxia. They can also happen following such events as electrocution, complications from surgery, or severe blood loss during or after a delivery. They can even occur as the result of accidents or illnesses in which individuals genuinely fear they might die. Surveys conducted in the United States and Germany suggest that approximately 4.2 percent of the population has reported an NDE. It has also been estimated that more than 25 million individuals worldwide have had an NDE in the past 50 years.

People from all walks of life and belief systems have this experience. Studies indicate that the experience of an NDE is not influenced by gender, race, socioeconomic status, or level of education. Although NDEs are sometimes presented as religious experiences, this seems to be a matter of individual perception. Furthermore, researchers have found no relationship between religion and the experience of an NDE. That is, it did not matter whether the people recruited in those studies were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic.

Although the details differ, NDEs are characterized by a number of core features. Perhaps the most vivid is the OBE: the sense of having left one’s body and of watching events going on around one’s body or, occasionally, at some distant physical location. During OBEs, near-death experiencers (NDErs) are often astonished to discover that they have retained consciousness, perception, lucid thinking, memory, emotions, and their sense of personal identity. If anything, these processes are heightened: Thinking is vivid; hearing is sharp; and vision can extend to 360 degrees. NDErs claim that without physical bodies, they are able to penetrate through walls and doors and project themselves wherever they want. They frequently report the ability to read people’s thoughts.

The effects of NDEs on the experience are intense, overwhelming, and real. A number of studies conducted in United States, Western European countries, and Australia have shown that most NDErs are profoundly and positively transformed by the experience. One woman says, “I was completely altered after the accident. I was another person, according to those who lived near me. I was happy, laughing, appreciated little things, joked, smiled a lot, became friends with everyone … so completely different than I was before!”

However different their personalities before the NDE, experiencers tend to share a similar psychological profile after the NDE. Indeed, their beliefs, values, behaviors, and worldviews seem quite comparable afterward. Importantly, these psychological and behavioral changes are not the kind of changes one would expect if this experience were a hallucination. And, as noted NDE researcher Pim van Lommel and his colleagues have demonstrated, these changes become more apparent with the passage of time.

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Room in the House of the Báb

On the 22nd May the world will again start to be circled in celebration. About two hours after sunset, when the new day starts for us, Bahá’ís everywhere will come together to share prayers, readings and music in memory of a very special event. What’s it all about?

In this ordinary room in the picture, 170 years ago, an important meeting took place. It began a process that is still unfolding to this day.  For Bahá’ís this meeting has a very special meaning, the full significance of which would not be immediately obvious  to all those attending a typical Holy Day Celebration. This is a brief attempt to unpack its key significance in the words of the central figures of the Faith.

The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith opened his description of the event with these words:

May 23, 1844, signalizes the commencement of the most turbulent period of the Heroic Age of the Bahá’í Era, . . . . . No more than a span of nine short years marks the duration of this most spectacular, this most tragic, this most eventful period of the first Bahá’í century. . . . .

He continued:

The opening scene of the initial act of this great drama was laid in the upper chamber of the modest residence of the son of a mercer of Shiraz, in an obscure corner of that city. The time was the hour before sunset, on the 22nd day of May, 1844. The participants were the Báb, a twenty-five year old siyyid, of pure and holy lineage, and the young Mulla Husayn, the first to believe in Him. Their meeting immediately before that interview seemed to be purely fortuitous. The interview itself was protracted till the hour of dawn.

He quoted the words of Mulla Husayn:

“This Revelation,” Mulla Husayn has . . .  testified, “so suddenly and impetuously thrust upon me, came as a thunderbolt which, for a time, seemed to have benumbed my faculties. I was blinded by its dazzling splendor and overwhelmed by its crushing force. Excitement, joy, awe, and wonder stirred the depths of my soul. .  . . . .

And concludes:

With this historic Declaration the dawn of an Age that signalizes the consummation of all ages had broken.

Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, Pages: 3-8

(For a more detailed sense of what happened see this link.)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá shown here (at center) with Bahá’ís at Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1912.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá shown here (at centre) with Bahá’ís at Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1912 (for source see link).

`Abdu’l-Bahá, in His visit to America in 1912, spoke briefly of the day itself:

It is a blessed day and the dawn of manifestation, for the appearance of the Báb was the early light of the true morn, whereas the manifestation of the Blessed Beauty, Bahá’u’lláh, was the shining forth of the sun. . . . On this day in 1844 the Báb was sent forth heralding and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, announcing the glad tidings of the coming of Bahá’u’lláh and withstanding the opposition of the whole Persian nation.

He then gave a brief outline of the events that followed, detailing the ensuing persecution which was severe and persists, of course, until today in Iran:

Some of the Persians followed Him. For this they suffered the most grievous difficulties and severe ordeals. They withstood the tests with wonderful power and sublime heroism. Thousands were cast into prison, punished, persecuted and martyred. Their homes were pillaged and destroyed, their possessions confiscated. They sacrificed their lives most willingly and remained unshaken in their faith to the very end.

The Báb was subjected to bitter persecution in Shiraz, where He first proclaimed His mission and message. A period of famine afflicted that region, and the Báb journeyed to Isfahan. There the learned men rose against Him in great hostility. He was arrested and sent to Tabriz. From thence He was transferred to Maku and finally imprisoned in the strong castle of Chihriq. Afterward He was martyred in Tabriz.

He holds up the life and sacrifices of the Báb as an example:

We must follow His heavenly example; we must be self-sacrificing and aglow with the fire of the love of God. We must partake of the bounty and grace of the Lord, for the Báb has admonished us to arise in service to the Cause of God, to be absolutely severed from all else save God during the day of the Blessed Perfection, Bahá’u’lláh, to be completely attracted by the love of Bahá’u’lláh, to love all humanity for His sake, to be lenient and merciful to all for Him and to upbuild the oneness of the world of humanity. Therefore, this day, 23 May, is the anniversary of a blessed event.

`Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, Pages: 138-139

So, there are implications in these events, remote though they seem to most of us in both time and place,  for how we should conduct ourselves today. The Guardian unravelled some of these possibilities in the following passage.

The moment had now arrived for that undying, that world-vitalizing Spirit that was born in Shiraz, that had been rekindled in Tihran, that had been fanned into flame in Baghdad and Adrianople [i.e. the places to which Bahá’u’lláh was successively exiled], that had been carried to the West, and was now illuminating the fringes of five continents, to incarnate itself in institutions designed to canalize its outspreading energies and stimulate its growth. [My emphasis] The Age that had witnessed the birth and rise of the Faith had now closed.  . . . . .

The Formative Period, the Iron Age, of that Dispensation was now beginning, the Age in which the institutions, local, national and international, of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh were to take shape, develop and become fully consolidated, in anticipation of the third, the last, the Golden Age destined to witness the emergence of a world-embracing Order enshrining the ultimate fruit of God’s latest Revelation to mankind, a fruit whose maturity must signalize the establishment of a world civilization and the formal inauguration of the Kingdom of the Father upon earth as promised by Jesus Christ Himself.

(God Passes By, page 324)

Even such a powerful explanation as this does not convey the full impact of this Revelation on the lives of all Bahá’ís nor explain in terms which are easy for everyone to grasp why the core of the Bahá’í vision applies to everyone, Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í alike.

Shrine of the Báb at Night

In 2001 the central body of the Faith wrote a message to all those assembled in Haifa to witness the ceremony that marked the completion of the Terraces that climb above and descend below the Shrine of the Báb. The core paragraphs for our present purpose begin by explaining what the Faith and all our activities within it are for:

Reflection on what the Bahá’í community has accomplished throws into heartbreaking perspective the suffering and deprivation engulfing the great majority of our fellow human beings. It is necessary that it should do so, because the effect is to open our minds and souls to vital implications of the mission Bahá’u’lláh has laid on us. “Know thou of a truth,” He declares, “these great oppressions that have befallen the world are preparing it for the advent of the Most Great Justice.” . . . .  In the final analysis, it is this Divine purpose that all our activities are intended to serve, and we will advance this purpose to the degree that we understand what is at stake in the efforts we are making to teach the Faith, to establish and consolidate its institutions, and to intensify the influence it is exerting in the life of society.

They make completely explicit the change in our way of thinking that is required of us:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world. We demonstrate this commitment, Shoghi Effendi tells us, by our rectitude of conduct towards others, by the discipline of our own natures, and by our complete freedom from the prejudices that cripple collective action in the society around us and frustrate positive impulses towards change.

(From the 24 May 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel)

So, in short, the Báb surrendered His life to show us the way. Bahá’u’lláh endured roughly 50 years of imprisonment, torture and exile as He explained to us in detail what was required. The rest is up to us.

Flowers near the Shrine

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