Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Bevy of Blogs: The Delight of Unintended Outcomes

Life is full of unexpected delights. For example, I have been delighted by the many unintended outcomes of my simple New Year’s decision to post weekly on the theme of poetry. The most delightful surprises have come in the form of opportunities to contribute to the efforts of other bloggers that are tipping the balance toward goodness in the blogosphere.

It is my honor to introduce you to these portals of positivity:

Write Hook. Early on in this year’s poetry-themed blogging adventure, I blog-swapped with Scott Morgan of WriteHook. Scott is the best kind of pest, constantly nudging and cajoling his readers to stop with the lazy excuses, stop with the weak words, and duke it out on the page. His writing is refreshing, bold, and kind, and I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to contribute my bit to his blog on why The Muse is a Sloth.

Conspire Coaching & Consulting. My friend Jen Walper Roberts conspires with talented and energetic parents to succeed and thrive in their careers and lives. I have benefitted greatly from Jen’s conspiratorial coaching. Early last month I contributed to her blog as a way to give back with a few reflections on Rilke’s “I want a lot.” 

Hieropraxis. is the brain child of my friend and All Nine contributor Dr. Holly Ordway. I’m now a regular contributor to Hieropraxis, writing on the creative process alongside several brilliant apologists, authors, artists, and all-around awe-inspiring talent. I’m humbled to my boots. My first effort was a tip of the hat to the modern movie classic “Romancing the Stone,” in which I explored a tendency toward romancing the poem as a way of avoiding the hard work of actually writing.

12Most. is, in their own words, a mecca of “savvy smartitude for busy professionals,” and man-o-man am I chuffed to be writing in the same virtual room as some truly heavy hitters in the social media arena. My first post for them featured my cut at the 12 Most Practical Excuses for Reading Poetry Daily.

Given the unexpected (and truly unplanned) exposure I’ve been given over the past several months as a result of one simple step toward intentionality, I look forward with great anticipation to what the rest of 2012 holds. If you have a dream, my word for you from my own experience is to wake up from the dream and make a commitment that you can keep. Then keep it.

No big deal. No magic. Just keep your word to yourself, for yourself. You’ll be amazed at what delights await you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Brave: Regarding Yevtushenko's "Talk"

Yevgeny Yevtushenko unnerves me. Perhaps the less-than-sympathetic picture I get of him through his poem “Talk” puts me off, half-contemptuous of his contemporary readers who call him brave. What else unnerves me about approaching Yevtushenko is how little I know of Russian literature. So thick with culture and language, the words tie me in knots. It took me six months, nearly two decades ago, to read The Brothers Karamazov, and after the long slow slog to completing the book, I have never looked back.

Yet now I am drawn into “Talk,” in spite of my reluctance. The topic itself – courage – draws me in, and the respect with which the poet holds it. I have great admiration for risk-takers, mainly because, like Yevtushenko, “courage has never been my quality.” Mine is a low-risk personality, taking on what may look occasionally like a brave act out of sheer necessity to meet basic responsibilities. I am not the one who runs into a burning building to save a life. I’m the one who dials 9-1-1.
Such bravery astounds and mystifies me. I study what I can of courage, thinking one day I may learn what it takes to run in, not just dial out.

So I read Yevtushenko’s “Talk” as he tells us a few things about courage by saying what it is not:

1.       A courageous act causes foundations to tremble.  “No foundations trembled.”

A true act of bravery makes a real and lasting impact. It’s not extreme sport for the sake of adrenaline high. Courage is a game-changer.   

2.       Bravery requires an element of danger. “I did no more than write, never denounced” Denunciation implies risk. Yevtushenko was writing in the context of a totalitarian society in which denouncing someone in power was guaranteeing great risk to self. Bravery is dangerous.

3.       Courage is art, not a job description.(doing what anyhow had to be done)”

Yevtushenko says here that he did his job as a writer – he called 9-1-1 – nothing more, nothing less. Courage moves beyond the basic job description. As Seth Godin said (in Linchpin), “The job is what you do when you are told what to do… Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”  

4.       Bravery goes past basic human decency to self-sacrifice. “…common integrity could look like courage.”

The last line of this poem comes with a sting to the reader. The poet is basically saying, “If this looks like courage to you, you should get your moral glasses checked.” Kind of harsh, but wake-up calls can feel that way. Honesty and integrity feed the soul, sustain the self. They are good and necessary. But bravery launches itself from this strong foundation and offers self as sacrifice for a greater good, for another. Courage gives it all away.

Yevtushenko was addressing the pre-Khrushchev Soviet Union political and social situation, not 21st Century America, but these principles still work for me. The stakes may be different, but courage looks the same as it did back then: self-sacrificing, risk-taking, art-making, game-changing, “I can’t believe she did that” acts of goodness.

While Yevtushenko may have been more concerned about politics, I would argue that bravery of this sort is a very personal and individualized thing. What represents risk to one person may prove as undaunting as falling out of bed to another. Traveling to the heart of India might not require courage from a regular world traveler, but for someone suffering agoraphobia, walking out the front door poses a very real and present danger demanding extreme bravery.
At times, the most foundation-shaking acts occur in moments of quiet courage between two people. For some those might be the “I’m sorry” moments, the “you were right” admissions, that cost everything for the teller and turn worlds upside down. Or right side up.

I believe we all have it in us to rise to this level of courage. I believe it is part of our wiring, the stamp of a self-sacrificing foundation-shaking Creator. Most of the time, though, we forget about the Creator’s watermark. Most days we do our job and call 9-1-1 and tell almost all of the truth. Most days we stand fairly steady on unmoving floors.
Most days we are so busy meeting our responsibilities that we forget to look in the mirror. We forget our wiring. Until we have to remember. Until someone else helps us remember.

I would like to remember and reclaim courage as my own quality. Maybe instead of carrying contempt for ourselves, like Yevtushenko, we can help each other be brave. What do you say?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Admitting Impediments: Engaging Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Admitting Impediments: Engaging Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Andrew Lazo
Image by Lancia Smith

My favorite recent CD purchase came from listening to an NPR report about William Shakespeare’s original pronunciation (OP). The British Library has put forth a record of thirty passages, and the first track has grabbed me and has not let go: Sonnet 116. You probably know it; you might well have heard it recently at a wedding:

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

“Ahhh,” we all sigh prettily. Who doesn’t love this sonnet? I surely do, but it also sets me to thinking about these impediments Shakespeare speaks of. I have friends with great marriages; I know folk not so fortunate. And I wonder what this sonnet has to say to all of us. Let’s have a look.

First of all, please let me clarify the key phrase in line 2: “admit impediments.” On the surface, the premise of the poem appears to call for the speaker to practice denial when looking at the sober realities of “the marriage of true minds.” It seems to show the poet begging himself to turn a blind eye to all the unpleasant realities he faces in his relationship. But in fact I don’t believe that Shakespeare means this at all.

And here my immensely practical Latin minor comes in handy again. “Ad” means “to, toward.” “Mitto mittere missus sum” are the principle parts of the verb “to send.” “Admit” therefore mostly means, “send towards.” Think of a ticket that allows you admission—to be sent toward the action. And “impedimentum” literally means “something that snares the feet.”

So to not “admit impediments” in this sense surely doesn’t imply that I should deny the downfalls, but rather means, literally, “Don’t allow me to send toward my good relationship things that will trip us up.” I think Shakespeare means to marvel at the goodness of love and murmur a quiet prayer against jeopardizing it.

Surprisingly, for such a popular wedding selection, this poem has an alarmingly large number of negatives, of dire warnings about fearful fates. While of course the poem serves as a praise of steadfast love, the poet manages to do so dangerously, with statements and images that, taken by themselves, might alarm us.

“Love is not love,” the poet says (before of course qualifying it—but there those words stand, right at the end of the line). “O no!” he cries. The poet finds his beloved altered, finds some force trying to “remove” the best bits. Tempests come. Ships (that’s what a “bark” is—think “disembark”) wander, and who has any idea how much such steady love is really “worth”? The beloved with her rosy lips will breathe her last, felled by Time’s inexorable “sickle.” It flies all too fast, and in the end of its “brief hours and weeks,” it slips silently over “the edge of doom.”

And at the end, the uncertain poet even allows that his high view of love might be a provable error; and if that’s true, it means that all poetry and love itself unwinds and proves false. Dire prospects indeed.

Perhaps a measure of Shakespeare’s greatness surfaces when we see how deftly he manages to laud love while using such apparently negative language. In the fourteen lines, the poet uses “no,” “never”, and “not” eight times—or about once every other line. He paints in this poem a kind of negative-space picture, portraying the very height of love by all these nay-saying verbal brushstrokes, displaying how very fragile we sometimes find our love.

Wow. Gulp. Such a wedding blessing, this. Mazel tov.

But I think this quality of potential danger circles us back around to the beginning of the sonnet, and makes that first two lines, the lover’s admonition to himself, absolutely vital (and “vital,” you know, means “life-giving”). What can give life to love? What can make marriages last?

Although I’m surely no expert, I believe that the frank internal dialog, this self-exhortation the poet offers in lines one and two, just may hold the key.
When he urges “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” I think the poet means a number of things:

  • Oh, please oh please, don’t let me ruin this sweet thing we’re striving to assemble!
  • Keep me from my own choices that might sabotage this tiny limited company, this business we build in our home.
  • Keep my mouth shut when an unkind remark might swamp our small boat.
  • Help me let go of my obsessive need to keep score.
  • Help me take with good humor, with open-hearted laughter even, the very things that bug the living fire out of me about this person I chose. And while I’m at it, let me choose this same person again. Today. Right now.
  • And please let them find us equally ludicrous, and so let us laugh at each other, and help to choose each other again. 
  • Let me, each new day, soften my heart towards this one I have married, for how easily can these little hardnesses calcify until I’ve made my heart a stone? And how well we know that a stone in a shoe can cause the horse to throw the rider and, before almost any time has passed, the horse, the battle, the war, and thus the kingdom, are lost.
  • Maybe if I learn not to admit or let in anything that snags or tugs, that sin that so easily besets, maybe then I shall find myself dwelling in the kingdom in which I’ve always longed to live. Maybe Solomon had this in mind when he warned his beloved to “catch the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Songs 2:15). For sometimes foxes run through our blooming vines with their tails afire, ruining years of good wine with all of its attendant future joy.

A dear friend remarked to me not long ago that a good marriage absolutely requires “two very good forgivers.” I often say that anytime one has two perfectly good sinners under one roof, things can go downhill fairly fast. I’ve visited several friends this summer with great, solid, loving, and lifelong marriages, and they all have about them a kind of vigilance against impediments, impediments that usually come from their own foibles.

They have several things in common, these contented couples: selflessness, the profound sense in each of their own individual ridiculousness, and a deep-seated sense of humor about, and tenderness towards, one another’s failings—these mark the most successful marriages of true minds that I know. Not admitting impediments. Oh, they confess such things exist. They just decide vigilantly to keep them outside the door so that they starve and slink away.

This dear, sweet, difficult sonnet leaves us all with something. To the married, it offers a kind of primer on how to hold it together, an artful exhortation to watch the gates. To those who have lost love, it may offer an instructive and even actionable way to understand what went wrong. And to those who have never married, I think it offers both a heady warning and a hearty hope about what potential glories a marriage of true minds might offer.

I believe that this sonnet itself offers a star to all our wandering barks, which just might make navigable a dark night at sea.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Swing of Poetry: Musings on Stevenson

All Nine welcomes Rebeka Choat to share her musings on Robert Louis Stevenson. Becka is a reader, a writer, a lover of the printed word, dedicated to bringing people books to nourish mind, soul, and spirit.  Her website is

Image by Rebeka Choat

The Swing of Poetry: Musings on Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing" 

by Rebeka Choat 

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside ---

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown ---
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Early some mornings before it gets too hot, Baby Girl the Second and I walk to the small park near our house.  She heads straight for the swings.  I push, she pumps, we find our rhythm, and this rhyme always comes into my head.    

It’s such a summer poem:  light and carefree, flying effortlessly into the blue, a simple child-like invitation to be wholeheartedly in the moment.  But this moment, me standing here pushing my little girl on a swing, melts into other moments and it’s my seven-year-old self soaring, hair streaming, Daddy pushing me, Mama saying the words somewhere in the background.  That still-small Becka was chubby and slow and clumsy on the ground, already always the last to be picked for any team sport, but oh! on a swing I could fly!

I’ve only ever been thin during one brief, almost-anorexic period of my life.  I’m still invariably slower than whomever I’m walking with, and I’ve rarely been accused of being graceful.  But oh! words give me wings!  Poetry lifts me up in the air and over the wall/Till I can see so wide – see woods on a snowy evening, and Addison’s Walk, and Innisfree, and Camelot, and Hatley St. George.  And it shows me familiar things from a new perspective – Till I look down on the garden green, down on the roof so brown – a pitchfork, a certain slant of light on winter afternoons, an old tree growing in the place that is my own place.  It reminds me to take time to enjoy simple, pleasant things; and when I come back – up in the air and down – I’m relaxed and reinvigorated, ready to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Paradise Found: Reading Milton in the Company of Friends

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway shares her insights on the reading of (and listening to) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway

It’s been twenty years since I read any of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In 1992 I was a college sophomore in Major British Writers I, and selections from Paradise Lost were on the syllabus. I know that I did the reading; I also know that I neither understood nor enjoyed what I read, and the paper that I wrote was probably awful and certainly careless. When I got my essay back, I saw marginal notes from the professor pointing out where I’d misquoted Milton; I remember thinking “How could she have noticed? This poem is about a million lines long, and she notices that I get a word or two wrong?!”

I hadn’t yet fallen in love with poetry, because I had not yet learned how to read it. It was the following semester (in Major British Writers II) that poetry “happened” for me, because my professor read the poems out loud to us. Robert Browning, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins - the music of poetry sank in, deeply, and after that I continued to read poetry and find the ways in which it showed me the world in new ways, and showed me the truth of my own heart.

But apart from teaching the sonnet “On His Blindness,” I never returned to Milton. I’d filed Paradise Lost under the heading “Works of Literature That Are Somehow Important But Certainly Not Interesting.” With so many other things to read, why go back to a poem I’d found dull?

Then I started to get some inklings that the failure was mine, not Milton’s. C.S. Lewis, whose writing has been and is so important to my own life and work, intensely admired Paradise Lost and even wrote a book about it: A Preface to Paradise Lost. As I began to read and study Charles Williams, I realized that Milton was extremely important to him as well.

This past winter, I had a Miltonic paradigm shift. I was visiting my friend Malcolm Guite in Cambridge, and in the course of an afternoon’s conversation about poetry, he pulled out a copy of Milton’s poem “Comus” and proceeded to read aloud to me a long extract from the poem.

I was spellbound. Here was music, philosophy, wit, beauty - wow!

And so when I got home I read “Comus” for myself - and loved it. But it wasn’t just that I’d been encouraged to read what I’d formerly dismissed: what made all the difference in my encounter with the poem was that I had heard the poem being read with vitality and understanding; the words had been incarnated for me, given to me in all their richness as something to be savored and rejoiced in right now as a present experience -- the complete opposite of ‘studying’ an ‘important poem’ and ‘understanding its significance’ and the like. A quarter-hour of hearing Milton read aloud that way opened the door to understanding his poetry in a way that countless hours of reading books about Milton’s poetry never could.

I knew I needed to read Paradise Lost - and now I wanted to as well.

But this time, I also knew I needed a friend to help me engage with the poem. So I turned to Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost - because although Lewis is dead, through his writing he is almost as present to me as a living friend. He loves the poem; he tells me why, and he explains how I can best come to love the poem too: by understanding what it is. It’s an epic, not a lyric: to enjoy it, I should read it in long stretches, feeling the sweep of it, being caught up in it - not stopping to analyze or linger over particular lines or images. Each of the poem’s twelve books has its own arc from beginning to end, and within each book there are long scenes of description or action, and long speeches by various characters, all of which are much more powerful if read through steadily - a book or at least a half-book at a time.

And that is how I have been reading Paradise Lost - and oh, it is a delight.

Reading it in a steady flow gets me into the rhythm of the blank verse and the music of the language, so that Milton’s words call up vividly in my imagination the scenes he describes: war in heaven, with Michael the Archangel leading the heavenly hosts against the rebel angels; the creation of the world and all its creatures, with the animals bursting forth from the womb of the earth; the conclave of Satan and the other fallen angels, each in their own twisted way attempting to justify their place in hell as better than heaven.

Reading it steadily has also helped me see the spiritual depth of the poem. If one reads just short extracts, Satan seems to have a certain grandeur and dignity; “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” seems almost plausible. But the grand sweep of Paradise Lost builds up, layer by layer, a clear-eyed and vivid picture of Satan that shows us the enemy of God as a constant liar, a vindictive spirit who would rather destroy anything he cannot rule, a narcissist who constantly returns to his self-created grievances with pettish indignation. It is a powerful picture and a chilling one, because everything that Milton puts into his character of Satan can be found close to home, in the human heart.

Now that I’ve been swept up by this grand poem, I know I’ll be back again, many more times: this, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, is not a book to read once and then shelve for another twenty years. I look forward to those future readings: all the more so, because now I know that I am reading in the glad company of friends: past, present, and future.

Audio References

For your listening pleasure: