Monthly Archives: December 2011

Build Soil: a Political Pastoral

by Robert Frost, 1932

Why Tityrus! But you’ve forgotten me.
I’m Meliboeus the potato man,
The one you had the talk with, you remember,
Here on this very campus years ago.
Hard times have struck me and I’m on the move.
I’ve had to give my interval farm up
For interest, and I’ve bought a mountain farm
For nothing down, all-out-doors of a place,
All woods and pasture only fit for sheep.
But sheep is what I’m going into next.
I’m done forever with potato crops
At thirty cents a bushel. Give me sheep.
I know wool’s down to seven cents a pound.
But I don’t calculate to sell my wool.
I didn’t my potatoes. I consumed them.
I’ll dress up in sheep’s clothing and eat sheep.
The Muse takes care of you. You live by writing
Your poems on a farm and call that farming.
Oh I don’t blame you. I say take life easy.
I should myself, only I don’t know how.
But have some pity on us who have to work.
Why don’t you use your talents as a writer
To advertise our farms to city buyers,
Or else write something to improve food prices.
Get in a poem toward the next election.
Oh Meliboeus, I have half a mind
To take a writing hand in politics.
Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
I may be wrong, but Tityrus to me
The times seem revolutionary bad.

The question is whether they’ve reached a depth
Of desperation that would warrant poetry’s
Leaving love’s alternations, joy and grief,
The weather’s alternations, summer and winter,
Our age-long theme, for the uncertainty
Of judging who is a contemporary liar
Who in particular, when all alike
Get called as much in clashes of ambition.
Life may be tragically bad, and I
Make bold to sing it so, but do I dare
Name names and tell you who by name is wicked?
Whittier’s luck with Skipper Ireson awes me.
Many men’s luck with Greatest Washington
(Who sat for Stuart’s portrait, but who sat
Equally for the nation’s Constitution).
I prefer to sing safely in the realm
Of types, composite and imagined people:
To affirm there is such a thing as evil
Personified, but ask to be excused
From saying on a jury here’s the guilty.
I doubt it you’re convinced the times are bad.
I keep my eye on Congress, Meliboeus.
They’re in the best position of us all
To know if anything is very wrong.
1 mean they could be trusted to give the alarm
If earth were thought about to change its axis,
Or a star coming to dilate the sun.
As long as lightly all their live-long sessions,
Like a yard full of school boys out at recess
Before their plays and games were organized,
They yelling mix tag, hide-and-seek, hop-scotch,
And leap frog in each other’s way, all’s well.
Let newspapers profess to fear the worst!
Nothing’s portentous, I am reassured.

Is socialism needed, do you think?

We have it now. For socialism is
An element in any government.
There’s no such thing as socialism pure
Except as an abstraction of the mind.
There’s only democratic socialism
Monarchic socialism oligarchic,
The last being what they seem to have in Russia.
You often get it most in monarchy,
Least in democracy. In practice, pure,
I don’t know what it would be. No one knows.
I have no doubt like all the loves when
Philosophized together into one-
One sickness of the body and the soul.
Thank God our practice holds the loves apart
Beyond embarrassing self-consciousness
Where natural friends are met, where dogs are kept,
Where women pray with priests. There is no love.
There’s only love of men and women, love
Of children, love of friends, of men, of God,
Divine love, human love, parental love,
Roughly discriminated for the rough.

Poetry, itself once more, is back in love.

Pardon the analogy, my Meliboeus,
For sweeping me away. Let’s see, where was I?
But don’t you think more should be socialized
Than is?
What should you mean by socialized?

Made good for everyone things like inventions-
Made so we all should get the good of them
All, not just great exploiting businesses.

We sometimes only get the bad of them.
In your sense of the word ambition has
Been socialized the first propensity
To be attempted. Greed may well come next.
But the worst one of all to leave uncurbed,
Unsocialized, is ingenuity:
Which for no sordid self-aggrandizement,
For nothing but its own blind satisfaction
(In this it is as much like hate as love)
Works in the dark as much against as for us.
Even while we talk some chemist at Columbia
Is stealthily contriving wool from jute
That when let loose upon the grazing world
Will put ten thousand farmers out of sheep.
Everyone asks for freedom for himself,
The man free love, the business man free trade,
The writer and talker free speech and free press.
Political ambition has been taught,
By being punished back, it is not free:
It must at some point gracefully refrain.
Greed has been taught a little abnegation
And shall be more before we’re done with it.
It is just fool enough to think itself
Self-taught. But our brute snarling and lashing taught it.
None shall be as ambitious as he can.
None should be as ingenious as he could,
Not if I had my say. Bounds should be set
To ingenuity for being so cruel
In bringing change unheralded on the unready,

I elect you to put the curb on it.

Were I dictator, I’ll tell you what I’d do.

What should you do?
I’d let things take their course
And then I’d claim the credit for the outcome.

You’d make a sort of safety-first dictator.

Don’t let the things I say against myself
Betray you into taking sides against me,
Or it might get you into trouble with me.
I’m not afraid to prophesy the future,
And be judged by the outcome, Meliboeus.
Listen and I will take my dearest risk.
We’re always too much out or too much in.
At present from a cosmical dilation
We’re so much out that the odds are against
Our ever getting inside in again.
But inside in is where we’ve got to get.
My friends all know I’m interpersonal.
But long before I’m interpersonal
Away ‘way down inside I’m personal.
Just so before we’re international
We’re national and act as nationals.
The colors are kept unmixed on the palette,
Or better on dish plates all around the room,

So the effect when they are mixed on canvas
May seem almost exclusively designed.
Some minds are so confounded intermental
They remind me of pictures on a palette:
‘Look at what happened. Surely some God pinxit.
Come look at my significant mud pie.’
It’s hard to tell which is the worse abhorrence
Whether it’s persons pied or nations pied.

Don’t let me seem to say the exchange, the encounter,
May not be the important thing at last.
It well may be. We meet I don’t say when
But must bring to the meeting the maturest,
The longest-saved-up, raciest, localest
We have strength of reserve in us to bring.

Tityrus, sometimes I’m perplexed myself
To find the good of commerce. Why should I
Have to sell you my apples and buy yours?
It can’t be just to give the robber a chance
To catch them and take toll of them in transit.
Too mean a thought to get much comfort out of.
I figure that like any bandying
Of words or toys, it ministers to health.
It very likely quickens and refines us.

To market ’tis our destiny to go.
But much as in the end we bring for sale there
There is still more we never bring or should bring;
More that should be kept back the soil for instance
In my opinion, though we both know poets
Who fall all over each other to bring soil
And even subsoil and hardpan to market.
To sell the hay off, let alone the soil,
Is an unpardonable sin in farming.
The moral is, make a late start to market.
Let me preach to you, will you Meliboeus?
Preach on. I thought you were already preaching.
But preach and see if I can tell the difference.
Needless to say to you, my argument
Is not to lure the city to the country.
Let those possess the land and only those,
Who love it with a love so strong and stupid
That they may be abused and taken advantage of
And made fun of by business, law and art;
They still hang on. That so much of the earth’s
Unoccupied need not make us uneasy.
We don’t pretend to complete occupancy.
The world’s one globe, human society
Another softer globe that slightly flattened
Rests on the world, and clinging slowly rolls.
We have our own round shape to keep unbroken.
The world’s size has no more to do with us
Than has the universe’s. We are balls,
We are round from the same source of roundness.
We are both round because the mind is round,
Because all reasoning is in a circle.
At least that’s why the universe is round.

If what you’re preaching is a line of conduct,
Just what am I supposed to do about it?
Reason in circles?

No, refuse to be
Seduced back to the land by any claim
The land may seem to have on man to use it.
Let none assume to till the land but farmers.
I only speak to you as one of them.
You shall go to your run-out mountain farm,
Poor cast-away of commerce, and so live
That none shall ever see you come to market-
Not for a long long time. Plant, breed, produce,
But what you raise or grow, why feed it out,
Eat it or plow it under where it stands
To build the soil. For what is more accursed
Than an impoverished soil pale and metallic?
What cries more to our kind for sympathy?
I’ll make a compact with you, Meliboeus,
To match you deed for deed and plan for plan.
Friends crowd around me with their five year plans
That Soviet Russia has made fashionable.
You come to me and I’ll unfold to you
A five year plan I call so, not because
It takes ten years or so to carry out,
Rather because it took five years at least
To think it out. Come close, let us conspire-
In self-restraint, if in restraint of trade.
You will go to your run-out mountain farm
And do what I command you, I take care
To command only what you meant to do
Anyway. That is my style of dictator.
Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market— I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought—I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.
We are too much out, and if we won’t draw in
We shall be driven in. I was brought up
A state-rights free-trade Democrat. What’s that ?
An inconsistency. The state shall be
Laws to itself, it seems, and yet have no
Control of what it sells or what it buys.
Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
Thought product and food product are to me
Nothing compared to the producing of them
I sent you once a song with the refrain:

Let me be the one
To do what is done

My share at least lest I be empty-idle.
Keep off each other and keep each other off.
You see the beauty of my proposal is
It needn’t wait on general revolution.
I bid you to a one-man revolution
The only revolution that is coming.
We’re too unseparate out among each other
With goods to sell and notions to impart.

A youngster comes to me with half a quatrain
To ask me if I think it worth the pains
Of working out the rest, the other half.
I am brought guaranteed young prattle poems
Made publicly in school, above suspicion
Of plagiarism and help of cheating parents.
We congregate embracing from distrust
As much as love, and too close in to strike
And be so very striking. Steal away
The song says. Steal away and stay away.
Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family
But not much in between unless a college.
Is it a bargain, Shepherd Meliboeus?

Probably but you’re far too fast and strong
For my mind to keep working in your presence.
I can tell better after I get home,
Better a month from now when cutting posts
Or mending fence it all comes back to me
What I was thinking when you interrupted
My life-train logic. I agree with you
We’re too unseparate. And going home
From company means coming to our senses.

3 Comments

Filed under Economics, Poetry

In The Bleak Midwinter

A poem by Christina Rossetti, written circa 1872, later made into a Christmas carol.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother1
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

1 Comment

Filed under Christmas, Poetry

elegy

[Andrei Tarkovsky was a Russian filmmaker who, after making only seven films (mostly under a dissaproving Soviet system), died of cancer in 1986.  His mother was a painter and his father was a notable Russian poet.  Tarkovsky, little known by the American public, is considered to be among the most important artists of the twentieth century.]

a shadow shaking lightning bolts

I forget myself

the animated corpse looks like my reflection

guts smeared across the paper

in neatly printed rows

I think of you

the cover of your book ripped off

stripped away, digested

the body laid bare

resting in my hands

trembling with you

your complaints

your ruminations

your vocation

(a curse upon your house)

your painful open eyes

and the banality of turning pages

there is an image amongst the relics:

living beneath the surface

slender blades undulating

(such lovely serpents)

an abstracted shaman

of true things

(or talisman of desire)

is this image you?

veritas

verisimilitude

a framed soul breathing

fleeting

heart beating singular

and universal

(connotations thick as ashes)

you must have ached

hands and feet cut off

the collective soil waiting

darkness watching every move

you must have burned

in love and anger

(before the stamp of ignorance)

smoke and mist

indistinguishable

filling the screen

with supplications

pagan streams baptizing

the fears of the righteous

witches and soldiers giving utterance

and where were you?

writing with light

(the master praying for salvation)

and I see you clearly now

writing with light

a world of ghosts

(February 1999)

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Beauty and the Meaning of Life

This documentary offers a critique of the modern attack on beauty, and on some of the key modern ideologies about what is art and what it means to be an artist. It is provocative and well worth the watch.

I am not sure if I agree with every part of his critique or his tastes. His argument is well considered, certainly, but I find so much in Modern Art beautiful—though much ugliness too (and I can say something similar about art from all periods, though there is more beauty in the past). I love the best of modern architecture, experimental film, and music—much, I am sure, Roger Scruton would not like. I spent a lot of time studying Modern Art years ago at university and I am probably influenced a great deal by that period in my life.

His basic argument seems to be that ugliness is bad and beauty is good, that beauty is linked with something transcendent in humans, and that all this is self-evident, which makes it less an argument more a statement of fact (if you believe it, which I do). Nonetheless, I too advocate for beauty.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Philosophy, Truth, Video, World View

Prayer for Coco

The following is an Orthodox prayer for a child who has died:

O Lord who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Coco Madalena, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.

sisters

I am learning that to pray for those who have died is a good and wonderful privilege. Our daughter Coco Madalena was born on this day six years ago. May God, who created her and gave her to us in this world for only a brief but blessed time, sustain her and bring her into the glory of the age to come.

I long to see her again.

2 Comments

Filed under Family, Orthodox Church, Remembering

boys dream

remember
we ate apples with knives
and rope swings
and green gray dewy fields
and hay lofts
and gravel roads
and horsebacks
sullen in low skies
and we were boys together

remember
tangled woods
hot evaporating
and dark pools
inviting us
stripping us
to nothing
like there was
nothing else
and swimming
like primitives
i imagine
and the only direction
was east
and we
didn’t care

remember
our favorite trails
dividing among trees
without regrets
and our boots
stained from
the red clay
grew heavier with the day
and how we slept
like innocents

remember
the smell of kerosene
and campfires
and rifles
fresh with oil
and how we loved
this day
as if there were
no others
and wished
we lived
a hundred
years ago

remember
a boy’s dreams
like airplane wings
and waterfalls
and autumn forests
callings us to
cool mornings
and imaginations
with no limits
and how we
never
saw
tomorrow

(September 1998)

1 Comment

Filed under Poetry, Remembering

“All was contingent”

The end of Modernism: The demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, 1972.

The following quotes are from Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (1993). I have to say this is a great description of the modern “situation” and the context in which we swim. The questions I have are how much am I influenced, affected, and corrupted by these things, and how much is the Church also corrupted, etc. Do we truly live our lives as though all is contingent, or do we hold fast to permanent things?

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination,and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (p. 388)

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s acceleration advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament. (p. 388)

Man is condemned to be free. He faced the necessity of choice and thus knew the continual burden of error. He lived in constant ignorance of his future, thrown into a finite existence bounded at each end by nothingness. The infinity of human aspiration was defeated before the finitude of human possibility. Man possessed no determining essence; only his existence was given, and existence engulfed by mortality, risk, fear, ennui, contradiction, uncertainty. No transcendent Absolute guaranteed the fulfillment of human life or history. There was not eternal design or providential purpose. Things existed simply because they existed, and not for some “higher” or “deeper” reason. God was dead, and the universe was blind to human concerns, devoid of meaning or purpose. Man was abandoned, on his own. All was contingent. (p. 389)

Will our modern/postmodern Christianity crumble like the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, as a testimony to bad policy, poor planning, and ideologically driven innovations? Are we condemned to disregard the past, to live with a constant skepticism of that which came before, of that which we have been given, and imagine we can overcome it all through sheer will and rationality? Or is there a time for going back, to seeking the wisdom of others, to digging into the pre-modern soil of ideas, and searching the assumptions of a different age when all was not contingent? I think so.

1 Comment

Filed under Christian Life, Philosophy