One must make a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, nor till the autocrats among us can be “literalists of the imagination”—above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have it.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Weekend Challenge: Approaching Father's Day

Marcantonio Raimondi, Father Time, late 1400s-early 1500s

For the past month I’ve been re-reading (slowly, slowly) James Hillman’s 1967 essay “Senex and Puer.” In it he examines the psychological, cultural and mythic split between father and son, old year king and insurgent, babycheeked New Year, brooding Saturn and quicksilver Mercury. The essay dates to a surgent time--carpet bombing in Vietnam and rioting in Detroit, the first human versus computer chess match and the Summer of Love on Haight-Ashbury. One side was training thermonuclear missiles on the end of history while the other sang gloriously of the dawn of Aquarius.

Time was of the essence, and the times were speeding fast away; without a way to name them, hold them, ensoul the split and find a way for psyche to hold the divides together, Hillman (echoing his great influence, Carl Jung) felt humanity risked the cataclysm of primal relapse:

To have no real contact with the forces that are shaping the future would be to fail the kairos (timing) of transition. To come to terms with the kairos would mean discovering a connection between past and future. For us, as individuals, makeweights that may tip the scales of history, our task is to discover the psychic connection between past and future, otherwise the unconscious man within us who is as well the primitive past will shape the historical future perhaps disastrously. (Puer Papers, 4)

Without that contact, that conversation, that conversion into puer-et-senex—some union of sames—King Lear mads England, Prospero locks Ariel in the tree and the Wizard of Oz remains a tipsy, zippered Hollywood trope with no real gizmo for futurity and no balloon back to Kansas.

I first read this essay back in 1990, early in my post-rock n roll adulthood, a personally flowering time of the mind. (I also started a daily work of writing poems.) Back then I found the passages on the brooding old senex most fascinating. I yearned so become my father’s son by becoming my own man, about a work as substantial as his.

I’ve reread the essay several times in the subsequent decades, and the physic offered by naming the problem of senex and puer and then suggesting a way to heal their split with mythic approaches to therapy has always been meaningful.

On this reading, I found the passages on the puer more compelling; I see the eternal youth in my father as his life winds down, an energy and vitality which is timeless, soaring, heady—not much fucking good in earthly affairs (like marriage and family) but ever-eager to walk with the stones.

More than that, however, the present moment yawns diabolically wide.  What is it when the sides get so far apart they are identical in mood of ferocious opposition? Like faces so close together, they stare in hostility at both future and past. How can we back down from our positions when we are so blindingly right? 

One great point HIllman makes is that while the alchemical union of male and female, spirit and soul is the royal work of our individual psychologies, there is also a union of sames, between the split ends of the spirit.

The union of opposites--male with female--is not the only union for which we long and is not the only union which redeems. There is also the union of sames, the re-union of the vertical axis which would heal the split spirt. Adam must re-unite with Eve, but there still remains his re-union with God. Still remains the union of the first Adam at the beginning with the second Adam at the end of history. This division, experienced as the ego-Self split and the chasm between consciousness and the unconscious, is in each of us the unhealed heart of the process of individuation. No wonder our theme is so charged, that we cannot take hold of the senex-puer problem anywhere without getting burnt; no wonder that it cannot be fully circumscribed or contained. It cannot become clarified, for we stand in the midst of its smoke. Its split is our pain. This split of spirit is reflected in the senescence and renewal of God and of civilization. (34)

Now, when divides in our culture are wider than ever—seemingly between an aging white male world and a vibrant multiculturalism much in its youth—I wonder if we’ve learned anything about the split spirit and its healing which may be useful for the tribe.

As we approach the American celebration of the father (a dubious and confusing and somewhat tepid holiday, compared to the maternal sobfest of Mother's Day), what does that figure say about the nature of our personal and collective self-division? How are father and son split? How is the father missing in our culture, what of his initiation and maturity and growth and wisdom has been lost? 

Who are the fatherless flying boys with their mother-complexes and addictive refusal touch the earth of the real love or experience the wounds of growing up? What is it when our ranks are filled with aged perpetual youths? 

Who are the senexes guarding the gates, spiteful of the young (remember, Saturn devoured his children) and locked in sterile rooms of melancholy and depression? What of the bad daddies with greedy, youth-devouring sexuality and unfettered #metoo! license? What of all the unfathered, ever-adolescent sons lost in a woman's fantasy image?

What of the white male patriarchy and its stubborn dominion? 

How does all this compare to the divide in the soul between mother and daughter? 

And heavens, where do we find evidence of a healing between generations? What does that mean for our world, and where to we go from here?

Tomorrow is Father's Day—let's foreground it on this Eve with all the paternal resonance we can summon. I look forward to your verses and excurses and speedy Pop hearses!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

What the?

A child said, What is the grass?

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the 
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

The above, which is part of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, is one of my favorite pieces of poetry. I thought of it in connection with this prompt because June 14 is Flag Day in the U.S.  I’ve always loved the line about the grass being "the flag of my disposition out of hopeful green stuff woven." 

However, this prompt is not about flags. It’s about whats!  As in,''[A] child said what is the grass" that opens Whitman’s pom.  Yes, it is very much about grass, but it also winds from and through grass to handkerchiefs to hints to the tongues of mothers and the mouths of graves. 

I invite you to pick something--anything--and to write its “what”.  As in, “what is the---?”  

"What is the non-grass?"

Your chosen "what" really can be anything. Ideally, it should speak to you, drop hints, loosens your tongue; serve  as jumping off or diving down point--where you can peer into depths or soar towards peaks. 

You do not have to begin your poem, with “what is the?”  or  “A child said what is the--” though you should feel free to use either of those phrases if one of them helps you get going.  

Also note that your poem does not have to be nearsly so long as Whitman’s and can take any form, even- dare I say it? -a haiku!  It also down’t need to be heavy or profound, comic is fine.

See you on the flip side.

ps, the pics are all mine, Karin Gustafson (ManicDdaily), and all rights are reserved.  Feel free to use one, but please give proper credit. Thanks