Poetry Friday: The great things

My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.

From Kenneth Rexroth’s “GIC to HAR.” Read the rest here.

We don’t choose what we remember. Often we don’t know the great events till after they happen, but once in awhile we know in the moment that something permanently grand is occurring. In this case the memory is a good one, returning as a brilliant reminder of the existence of beauty and joy in the world at a time when the speaker needs it very much.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are frequent visitors at our feeder. We have several pairs in the vicinity, and though the male is usually the attention-grabber with his handsome coloration, I think the female is pretty too with her brown markings and flashes of yellow when she flies. Apparently it’s common that while the female is sitting on the nest, the male will sing quietly nearby. Handsome is as handsome does.

Poetry Friday is at The Writer’s Armchair today.

Early morning bike ride

I have two very happy memories of being on a bike as a child. In the first, I was about 4 years old, sitting on my tricycle on the front sidewalk. It had streamers. (The bike, not the sidewalk…) I wore a blue corduroy coat with a quarter in the pocket that I’d just earned helping rake leaves at Mrs Taylor’s house across the street, and I looked off across the river valley to the mist against the hills and felt supremely happy. In the second memory, I was about 11 and had been commissioned to ride down to Dandee Donuts for milk. Once again it was early morning. Once again I felt the joy of being out early, with all the promise of the day before me, and with a sense of special freedom and privilege. I zig-zagged down the middle of Main Street because it was too early for cars. Only the paperboys were out.

Little wonder that I still enjoy an early morning bike ride now and then.

This morning I admired the river as I headed for a country road with little traffic and few hills. I had grabbed my camera on the way out and captured a few of the picturesque sights along the way.

Phlox and pine woods

What are you lookin' at?

There have been some strong storms in our area recently, and though much of it had been cleaned up the road still bore signs of the damage.

As I turned around, I heard a pileated woodpecker in the woods along the river. It’s an unmistakable sound — kind of a hooty, mirthless laugh. “How I would love to see that!” I thought. A pileated woodpecker, a hawk sitting in a tree, a Baltimore oriole unobscured by leaves, and a good look at the tiny wrens I see flitting around my house are a few of the sights I’d consider prize pictures for my personal bird book.

I rode a little further and saw signs of where the woodpecker apparently dined on occasion.

Then over my head came the quiet flap of a large-bodied, dark bird. I knew it was my pileated. And I confess praying that I’d catch a glimpse.”I know it’s an unimportant thing,” I admitted to the Lord. “But I would so love to see that bird. And I would love to get a picture.”

I crept around the base of the tree, craning my neck and hearing it drum away, but I never did see it. Then I heard it call again a little further down the road, so I mounted up and rode on.

Then I saw it.

I rode home with gratitude in my heart.

Why do I care so much? The answer is simple: I have absolutely no idea.

On one hand, a bird picture is a ridiculous thing to have prayed for. But God apparently didn’t think so. I think he’s proud of his creation, and quite glad when it brings us pleasure. I have almost a sense of him chuckling: “That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Let me give you a better look. And let me show you something even better: I care about you.”

Just for good measure, he threw in the wren, too. As I was writing this post, my daughter spotted it and snapped a picture for me.

So they look like pictures of a birds. But they’re really pictures of something far greater.

“Drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled”: An Experiment in Criticism

“It was bound to happen,” I thought at some points as I read An Experiment in Criticism, “a C.S. Lewis work I don’t care for. I’m kind of relieved about it, actually; I’ve accumulated such a long list of raves that I was beginning to worry about being a mere Lewisolater.” This book seemed to break the pattern, making me both weary and a little miffed with Lewis for something I’ve always felt he was untarnished by: snobbery.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis proposes an alternative approach to literary criticism. Rather than judging the books, and then defining bad taste as a liking for bad books,

Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

At first glance this sounded good to me. It frees books from the stranglehold of literary fashion, whereby certain authors or styles are in vogue and others are pronounced inferior simply because they’re not in step with the current tastes. And we all know that it’s possible to give a good book a poor reading — inattentive or biased. Sometimes we read a review of a book we’ve loved and can see how the reviewer read with an agenda or, for some other reason, missed whole aspects of the book. At first glance it seemed Lewis was democratizing the reading process, freeing books from the domain of the present-day academics (of whatever era) to the whole of culture.

But my initial impression was that in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis simply transferred the snobbery from books to readers. His distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” readers is so heavy-handed one has to believe he was out to raise some hackles. “Literary readers,” he writes, suspend judgment in the act of reading, laying aside all critical preconceptions and all forms of imaginative neediness, enter into the book on its own terms, and “receive” it as such. “Unliterary readers” approach books in a more self-interested way, using them for “egoistic castle-building,” titillation, escape, or philosophical excavation. Their evaluation is thus cluttered, for Lewis, by all kinds of extra-literary considerations.

I agree with Lewis that books can be read in different ways. I agree that it’s fundamentally unfair to presume to evaluate a book if your reading of it has been hampered by distraction or by some other factor. But I dislike the idea of dividing the world into two kinds of readers. Different levels of reading, perhaps (and probably more than two). But two types of readers?

He seems to leave the book as the final arbiter, writing that if certain books “permit, invite, or compel” “literary reading,” they are fundamentally better. But unless a given reader is unfailingly “literary,” there is no way to test this hypothesis. I know I have met Lewis’s standards for “literary reading” with some books, but not unfailingly so, and of course this is not something I can ever say with certainty is the books’ fault.

This is part of Lewis’s point, and it’s here that I began to suspect that he is being tongue-in-cheek throughout Experiment. We can evaluate our reading, but it’s much more difficult to evaluate books. He points out that a positive statement is defensible: “There’s a spider in the room.” A negative statement is much harder to defend: “There are no spiders anywhere in the room.” The same is true for books. We can describe the positive qualities of a given book much more defensibly than we can pronounce a given book a failure on all counts. Evaluative criticism, Lewis remarks, can be fascinating to read, but it doesn’t in the end have much bearing on our own response to whatever work is being evaluated.

Ultimately An Experiment in Criticism is a subversive book, proposing a “new” method of criticism but in effect overturning what “criticism” had become: the reflexive branding of some books as good and others as bad based on fashion or transient academic tastes. “I remain, then, sceptical, not about the legitimacy or delightfulness, but about the necessity or utility of evaluative criticism,” Lewis explains toward the end.

And especially at the present. Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacles of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all-important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible…

Such a surfeit of criticism is so dangerous that it demands immediate treatment. Surfeit, we have been told, is the father of fast. I suggest that a ten to twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

In a way, Lewis is arguing there are no bad books, just bad readers. But he really doesn’t spend any energy condemning “unliterary readers.” His concern is not that people don’t always read carefully or neutrally; that’s a reality he can take with good humor as long as people are reading. His concern is that the penchant for evaluative criticism threatens “primary literary experience,” a worrisome turn of events for Lewis and for us because of the depth and importance of the act of reading in this “vale of soul-making.” He concludes Experiment with a passage that sets aside any possible condescension and simply inspires us to read, and to do it as wholeheartedly we can:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do.

The styles may have changed since 1961 when this book was written, but it remains a timely read as a corrective to over-reliance on the critics. Though it doesn’t make the list of my favorite Lewis reads, my first reaction was tempered on further reflection. An Experiment in Criticism is the kind of book that makes you think about your standards for good literature, and as a defense of reading it can hardly fail to inspire.

The Way of a Pilgrim

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?

No, really. Specifically. In practice.

How do you pray without ceasing? Do you discuss every little decision you face during the day? Do you give God status updates every minute? Do you shut yourself away from human society altogether, and interact only with God?

This Orthodox classic puts forth a different way, one that rang strangely in my evangelical ears, but which inspires a whole new conception of what continuous prayer means.

The Way of a Pilgrim is written by a narrator whose name we never learn, walking through Russia and Siberia with a knapsack containing his Bible, dry bread, and the Philokalia. The manuscript was preserved by a monk and was first published in 1884. The pilgrim wants to understand how the unceasing prayer recommended in Scripture is possible. Early on, he meets a “starets,” or spiritual father, who explains to him the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”  The starets assigns him to say the prayer, mantra-like, 3,000 times a day. Then 6,000 times. Then 12,000 times. Then without limit.

This is a very different conception of prayer than I’m used to, one that doesn’t center around communicating with God about ideas, events, people or interior states. Eventually it becomes merely a habit, something most evangelicals (and Americans in general) would shun because it’s so not about inventing something fresh and individual. But this pilgrim experiences deep results spiritually.

I should point out that he practices the types of prayer more familiar to me as well, as when he recommends to a maiden fleeing an unwanted marriage that she would be better off praying earnestly for God to change her circumstances than running away. This isn’t a rejection of more… cognizant? conscious?… prayer. But it is an introduction of another kind, one that becomes a training of body, mind and heart. Eventually, the pilgrim speaks of his amazement that he can live with two consciousnesses, one continually in prayer, the other conducting the business of daily life.

One thing that initially bothered me was the pilgrim’s desire to be alone. The Great Commission being what it is, I think that even those of us with a monastic impulse to retreat into solitude need to challenge that by living our faith in community. But this didn’t end up bothering me for long, because this pilgrim is given many opportunities to interact and minister among people, despite the transient nature of his relationships.

I’m still processing the book in my thoughts. There are several things I appreciate and feel challenged by. One is the concreteness of its interpretation of unceasing prayer. Is it really possible to keep one part of your mind in prayer at all times — not just frequently, but continually? When I think about it, it seems quite likely that it is possible. I seldom give my whole mind to anything. There are always several lines of mental activity going on, for all of us — an amazing human capacity that our technologies can exploit with destructive results, turning our God-given complexity into mere distractibility.

Another thing I like about this book is its insistence on the primacy of prayer — a theme being developed in our church these days as we seek to become a “house of prayer,” and an exhortation that I always need to hear. There is a sequel to this book, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, which I will probably read as well. But I’m going to close this review with one example of the pilgrim’s words on prayer. The book is filled with gems, but this is one of my favorite passages:

My late starets of blessed memory also used to say that the forces which are against prayer in the heart attack us from two sides, from the left hand and from the right. That is to say, if the enemy cannot turn us from prayer by means of vain thoughts and sinful ideas, then he brings back into our minds good things we have been taught, and fills us with beautiful ideas, so that one way or another he may lure us away from prayer, which is a thing he cannot bear. It is called ‘a theft from the right-hand side,’ and in it the soul, putting aside its converse with God, turns to the satisfaction of converse with self or with created things. He taught me, therefore, not to admit during times of prayer even the most lofty of spiritual thoughts. And if I saw that in the course of the day, time had been spent more in improving thought and talk than in the actual hidden prayer of the heart, then I was to think of it as a loss of the sense of proportion, or a sign of spiritual greed. This is above all true, he said, in the case of beginners, for whom it is most needful that time given to prayer should be very much more than that taken up by other sides of the devout life.

Wet world

On Sunday, the forecast was for rain all the way into next week. Now it’s looking like we may have a chance for sun on the weekend. But on Sunday the outlook was bleak, and I decided to go for a beauty hunt.

My dissertation director used to teach about the three categories of landscapes: picturesque, beautiful, and sublime. Most of what I see falls into the first two categories. But I’m glad to find it.

I question our certainty when it comes to things like forecasts. In science, I’ve noticed that almost none of our experiments turn out the way they’re supposed to. In math last week, we rolled dice to learn about probability, and there too it didn’t turn out as predicted by the text. There’s a book called The Black Swan that examines such things. (No relation to the movie that’s out.) One of these days, maybe, I’ll read it. (I checked it out of the library once, but got distracted by something else.)

I do find a camera in the hand to be a powerful aid to vision. Yesterday, I photographed a bird in the evergreen out back, thinking it was a chickadee. The picture revealed a black body, white wing bars, and a streaked yellow breast — a magnolia warbler, as I learned after searching through the bird book. I’ve never seen one before. I didn’t know I was seeing one yesterday till the camera captured it for me. Same with a bright red bird that I thought was a cardinal, but that turned out to be a scarlet tanager.

I’ve never thought of raindrops as pretty either, but once photographed they become lovely in my eyes.

I still prefer sun. But I enjoyed finding evidence of color that defies the clouds. And I do enjoy the little surprises the camera helps me see.