Saturday, March 5, 2016

Like it is


I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating approaches to and construction of narrative. In that time I’ve grown suspicious of the concept that one might possibly tell it like it is. 

Language itself poses one of the tasks largest hurdles. Take, for instance, William Carlos Williams’ most anthologized poem XXII from Spring and All:

so much depends 
upon 

a red wheel 
barrow 

glazed with rain 
water 

beside the white 
chickens.

The poet claimed that inspiration “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

An image is emblazoned on the mind’s eye of anyone who’s ever read the words. Interpretation is where most readers get hung up.

"Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one's experience,” wrote critic Pete Baker. 

Is he?

I see four-word stanzas. Two lines each. And a metered organization—4-2, 3-2, 3-2, 4-2. Two clearly defined objects. Wheelbarrow. Chickens. I don’t know the time of day. I don’t know the temperature, although it’s recently rained. I don’t know the position of the wheelbarrow or the activity of the chickens. But my imagination has filled in every missing detail. Everything I haven’t been told is there.

I haven’t been told how it is, but I’m seeing it, as real as if I’d been there with Williams, himself. And what’s even better, I can smell it; maybe well enough that I have a sense of how the air might taste. And that, my readers, is a narrative all my own. My experience. Not Williams’ or any other reader’s. So perhaps the critic is correct. That narratives we create tell us more about ourselves than the language we employ ever could. And perhaps everything you read here looks, smells, and tastes like your own experience.

Words are no more than sounds assigned meaning in relation to a parallel object or action, a reference to perceived form and relevant observable motion between forms which exist wholly separate from and unconstrained by the language used to invoke them. Think of language this way: we need tendons to enable the mechanism of muscle and bone. Tendons, like language, articulate and lend purpose to two facets of anatomy which otherwise have no operative relationship to each another. Language facilitates teleologic connection in a broken, lonely world. Experience is valid. Even when our separate experiences of the same time and location are no more similar than soft tissue is to bone. Narrative works as a tendon to bridge the chasm between alien experience. It contextualizes the desert landscape we wander and binds us to a place we agree to call our world. 

Last week, a philosopher asked me to explain my understanding of the difference between Google and God in reference to the quote from Elder M. Russell Ballard—“James did not say, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask Google.’”

In order to speak to a philosopher about religious matters, you must understand that language in the narrative will fail you. But I gave it my college try:

“To begin, Google is the brand name of a leading Internet search engine, founded in 1998.


God, on the other hand…

In the wisdom of Lao Tzu— “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” In your request to compare and contrast Google and my perception of God I am required to define something that to me is ineffable—God, not Google. And so I'm fixed with the problem of pointing to and referencing something that is going to slip away from me as quickly as I find a way to gesture toward or encapsulate it. As if God were an "it". As if I thought an ontological argument would truly suffice. I think teleological relationship between humans and their god is far more relevant to the matter of definitive clarification.

Also, my perceptions of the existence of God are my own, and can easily be given psychological attribution rather than relying on divine origin. I think any good philosopher knows there is no satisfying argument for the existence of God.

And so, my experience seems to be reducible to the problem of free will. Am I free to chose to believe otherwise? My answer: I’ve tried. My efforts on the contrary seem ridiculous to me now; not because I know with empirical evidence one way or the other, but because in practicing my belief I continually make progress toward a deeper compassion and inclusiveness for humankind and a deeper wonder at our cosmos. It fulfills me, and I find value in that fulfillment. My experience with what I call “God” is an enfolding, a habitual arriving, a go-seek principle. Some days I proclaim “Eureka!” And just as quickly it is gone, and I must work for it again.

(Of course, I have friends and acquaintances who would argue that the same might be enjoyed without belief in the divine, and I must give them that because I find goodness and value in them and their lives as they stand without sharing my beliefs. Is my belief then superfluous? To them, perhaps, yes. To me, no. I keep it for the enrichment it provides, and I assign value to that enrichment, and yes, I possibly give that perceived enrichment ontological status which suffices for proof of the empirical source of my belief.)

I have other acquaintances who point at Mathematics. And what are these but symbols for something else not so easily contained and quantified? This is perhaps why I work in poetry, and why, unlike my husband, I am fond of Continental philosophy. God is the blossoming nuance of metaphor that conjoins two separate and concrete revelations belonging entirely to themselves and also to one another.

In the wise-beyond-years words of my 10-year-old autistic spectrum son, “When we spend time with each other, with our friends and our families, when we love people, that teaches us about God.”

How is that for answering and not answering? Plato would call me a sophist and turn me out of the Academy.”


And so it is only appropriate that on this Saturday I am again grappling with said philosopher’s unwritten doctrines contextualized within Parmenides, the mountain of commentary on the dialogue, and my own metaphysical cartwheels between The One and the dyad over breakfast and decaf at Cafe 300, the finest diner in South Provo; and rather than turning up philosophic analysis for the paper I’ve been struggling to write for three months, I am driven to craft lines and lines of poetry.

Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" returns to remind me:

It is difficult 
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

That, my friends, is how it is.

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