That This Was All Folly

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December

by Rebecca Hey

As human life begins and ends with woe,
So doth the year with darkness and with storm.
Mute is each sound, and vanish’d each fair form
That wont to cheer us; yet a sacred glow—
A moral beauty,—to which Autumn’s show,
Or Spring’s sweet blandishments, or Summer’s bloom,
Are but vain pageants,—mitigate the gloom,
What time December’s angry tempests blow.
‘Twas when the “Earth had doff’d her gaudy trim,
As if in awe,” that she received her Lord;
And angels jubilant attuned the hymn
Which the church echoes still in sweet accord,
And ever shall, while Time his course doth fill,
‘Glory to God on high! on earth, peace and good will!’


This Christmas was different, it wasn’t nostalgic to the same degree as years past, it was, for me a more visceral sense of loss.  I felt the pull of loved ones who have passed more strongly this year. Is Christmas a story of hope and birth or is it a story of loss and death?  I think that question is at the central core of why Christmas is unique for many of us, regardless of our spirituality or religion. Christmas is the backdrop to which so many of our memories are set, the props, the setting for joy and sadness that accumulate across our years. I went to church on Christmas Eve and tears kept welling in my eyes, memories of my Mother and I sitting together, listening to Silent Night, by candle light, her hand finding my hand, as a little boy and the last Christmas we shared, exactly the same.

Christmas is the story of love and love bridges both life and death.   We can’t have endings without beginnings and we can’t have beginnings without endings. The Vietnamese writer and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

There is an intimate connection between birth and death.  Without the one, we cannot have the other. As it says in the gospel, unless the seed dies, it could never bear fruit.

We have a tendency to think of death as something very negative, dark, and painful. But it’s not like that.  Death is essential to making life possib.e  Death is transformation. Death is continuation. When we die, something else is born, even if it takes time to reveal itself or for us to be able to recognize it.  There may be some pain at the moment of dying, just as there is pain at the moment of birth, or when the first bud bursts through the bark of a tree in spring.  But once we know that death is not possible without the birth of something else, we are able to bear the pain.  We need to look deeply to recognize the new that manifests when something else dies.

Thich Nhat Hanh

So is Christmas a birth story, a life story, a death story?  For me, it’s all of them.  The service ended and my friends and I wandered a bit about the church, looking at the collection of Christmas art and creche scenes from all over the world, when beautiful bells began ringing a Christmas tune in tinkly wonder.  It was the creche pictured above, cleverly wired so that the bells suspended in the outlines of the stable rafters had little actuated hammers tuned to play based on some brilliant computer setup hidden away with wiring that was invisible to the initial glance.  It was a like magic. It was a pronouncement that look at the world again, more closely, there is still wonder to behold and beauty to witness, beauty in birth, beauty in death, honor to all our loved ones that aren’t present to hear it with us, listen even more closely and remember.


Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

Unlearning How To Write

Gertrude-Stein
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

 

“Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.”

Ron Stillman – University of Iowa Press – 2010.

The House Was Just Twinkling In The Moon Light

by Gertrude Stein

The house was just twinkling in the moon light,
And inside it twinkling with delight,
Is my baby bright.
Twinkling with delight in the house twinkling
with the moonlight,
Bless my baby bless my baby bright,
Bless my baby twinkling with delight,
In the house twinkling in the moon light,
Her hubby dear loves to cheer when he thinks
and he always thinks when he knows and he always
knows that his blessed baby wifey is all here and he
is all hers, and sticks to her like burrs, blessed baby.

 


Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying “Why do something if it can be done, ” implying that taking risks in originality is a far more satisfying.  Stein is an inspiration in creativity; a blazing intellect whose circle of friends were the avant garde in poetry, literature and painting. Her New York Times obituary read in part:

Although Gertrude Stein could and did write intelligibly at times, her distinction rested on her use of words apart from their conventional meaning. Her emphasis on sound rather than sense is illustrated by her oft-quoted “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Devotees of her cult professed to find her restoring a pristine freshness and rhythm to language. Medical authorities compared her effusions to the rantings of the insane. The Hearst press inquired, “Is Gertrude Stein not Gertrude Stein but somebody else living and talking in the same body?” Sinclair Lewis concluded she was conducting a racket.

I think she would have been pleased to have so bold an accusation in print.  Personally, I don’t think that Stein’s poetry is very intriguing, and yet her passionate willingness to be different and to support other writers in their pursuit of originality was her real legacy in my opinion.

T. S. Elliot received heaps of praise and recognition during his lifetime among critics and readers, but silently many of his contemporaries, like William Carlos Williams, were discouraged that he dragged the poetry world backwards, for a short time, towards a more formal style, just as new voices were starting to emerge.

Why did Elliot’s poetry receive such widespread acclaim?  What about it made such an immediate impression on the public?  Very few poets of the past 100 years have achieved the critical and publishing success that Elliot achieved.  I wonder what would be the response to Elliot today?   Would there be an avenue for him to critical success or would he be lumped into the category of just another privileged Harvard educated pale, stale, male and find a limited audience for his poetry?

There are some poets whose originality and voice are timeless and others whose fame were only possible in the period in which they lived?  Elliot was a bridge from the old to the new. T. S. Elliot success was aided by Ezra Pound’s and Gertrude Stein’s influence and generous support.  I have read several places that Ezra Pound should be listed as a co-writer on nearly everything that Elliot published, so through was his editing and suggestions.  Unlike Whitman, whose brilliance is timeless, Elliot feels to me like a faded newspaper, whose even strongest prose is brittle and yellowing under the modern glare of more polished contemporary writers. But Elliot wrote poems that filled a need at the time and had the good fortune to be recognized generously for that creativity.


Excerpt from The Waste Land

by T. S. Elliot

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                      If there were water