Posts tagged #Walt Whitman

Dead poets + Peace pilgrim + Bare Songs

(Pssssst! Whenever I send out a new letter I also post an old one here on this blog.  As you can see, I send out three marvelous gems culled from the oceanic interwebs with each letter, along with updates. If you want the gems hot and fresh, you have to join the list by clicking here.)  

Hello wanderer through the universe,

 

The end of October always has an ominous feel to it. I offer you a strategy for meeting that feeling of autumnal dread which involves listening to weird twentieth century poetry, trying to surrender all self-centeredness, and a handful of home-recorded songs.

 

The Gems

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGIr7fGdo6o

John Berryman reading from Dream Songs

 

With Dream Songs, John Berryman set out to write a series of poems that would rival Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (regarded by many as the greatest American poetry). Whitman's poems are written in the first-person-- they're expansive, and while they speak of mysteries, they are never obtuse. Berryman's Dream Songs are written in the third-person, about a character named "Henry" who seems in many ways identical to Berryman himself. The Dream Songs are cramped and often obtuse, as they range unpredictably through various registers of diction-- everything from Shakespearean epithets to black-face vaudeville slang.

 

This video features the wild-looking Berryman himself reading reading "There Sat, Once, a Thing on Henry's Heart." For all the strangeness of the language and the jarring pace of Berryman's delivery, I find the performance to be immensely comforting-- and the final line to be revelatory.

 

Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words

 

While researching gift economies, I came across this book by Peace Pilgrim. Peace Pilgrim was an ordinary woman living in New England who one day left her home and began walking across the country with very little money and only the clothes on her body. She sought to carry the message that we could create outer peace in the world through first creating inner peace in ourselves, as she herself had done.

 

On her walk, she often received hospitality from kind people, but she often also slept out in the cold and rain, and ate only berries that she found in the woods. She delighted, though, in this life and said she felt very loved and protected by God.

 

Peace, as her friends affectionately called her, spoke often wherever she went to share her message. After her death her friends collected her writing into a book-length volume, which is available for free online.

 

This week I've been feeling especially inspired by Peace and her principled decision to release all attachment to her own comfort in order to call attention to truth. I'm hungry for the kind of inner peace she speaks of having.

 

Bare Songs - a petit album from yours truly

 

I don't play any musical instruments. But I do sing and make up songs. I couldn't seem to work out a collaboration with my music- playing friends. So I went ahead and just recorded myself singing my songs. And now I offer them to you.

 

Update

 

I had the rich pleasure of talking on the phone to Matthew Stillman of Stillman Says the other day. He creatively solved a few problems for me (which is at least one of his talents) without even trying. Now I'm reading his eye-opening book on the spiritual dimensions of improv comedy, A Funny Thing Happened at Mt. Sinai.

 

 

I recommend for your own rich pleasure that you check out Mr. Stillman and his book.

 

If you'd like to talk with me about any old thing, please don't hesitate to send me an email.

Love! Carolyn

In Defense of Dirty Hippies

The soul of this country has always been nurtured by people more interested in freedom than in regular baths: revolutionaries, pioneers, cowboys, Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman all lived in sweat and dirt.  

 

Yet in mainstream media I see a sentiment expressed time and time again: the Occupy movement would be great if it wasn't just a bunch of dirty hippies.  The implied notion is that to be dirty (presumably to be relatively unwashed- clothes muddied, hair greasy) and to be a hippy (someone committed to ideals of peace, equality, justice-- someone more interested in love than in profit) are cardinal, unforgivable sins.

 

This attitude, popular as it is, is itself a sign of the incredible mental and moral distortion that our country is suffering.

 

The notion that dirty hippies are wrong and bad for the fact of being dirty and being hippies is a weird, dislocated and perverse remnant of the protestant-puritan work ethic ideal. It's a notion that pretends to defend the dignity of clean, hard-working, upright people who live by the rules and produce the goods.  These clean, decent people (we are meant to imagine) are being harassed and put-upon by folks who are so lazy and good-for-nothing that they refuse to even take a bath. The image of the dirty hippy is raised up as a resented foil--- how dare someone relax their mandated hygiene schedule? How dare someone adopt principles that aren't supportive of the existing paradigm when I have to shave and shower and get up for work in the morning?"

 

In a bizarre manipulative twist, people learn to hate and revile those individuals who are doing their best to live outside the oppressive system (those damn dirty hippies) rather than the oppressive, corrupt system itself.

 

Here's something to consider, America: dirty hippies aren't stealing your money; dirty hippies aren't bleeding you dry with debt; dirty hippies didn't get billion dollar bail-outs from the federal government.  Who does that? Oh, that's right-- all those squeaky-clean, ultra-respectable bankers, that's who.  Out-of-control banks and corporations are the real threat to American decency and prosperity, not people who like to listen to Bob Marley and beat on drums.

 

Also, I'd like to advance a notion which may seem radical: the dirty hippies in my acquaintance are the hardest working people I know. They just don't work for corporations.  Instead they work doing things directly for the people immediately around them: caring for children, cooking donated food for free distribution to big groups, waitressing at small restaurants, building sacred art installations, teaching yoga, organizing community groups, skillfully repairing cars and musical instruments and clothing that others have discarded.  All of those things take intense amounts of work.

 

That's why I find it powerfully ironic when folks shout "Get a job!" at the Occupy Pittsburgh protesters standing with signs on the corner of 6th Avenue and Grant. As if a job was in itself an unassailable value.  As if the vast majority of jobs weren't repetitive, alienating, soul-deleting. No one needs a job. But we all need meaningful work and support to live.

 

Work is important. Work is tremendously valuable.  Work is labor directed in such a way that the whole community benefits.  That's the kind of work that the puritan forefathers valued: work that kept the village alive and prospering.  Labor done in the service of a gigantic corporation is not work in this sense.  It doesn't put value into the community so much as it extracts it.  All those laboring in these kids of jobs are left feeling depleted, drained, purposeless.  Their work has no obvious benefit to their community aside from the pay check it brings, and that is ever-shrinking. The value of their work floats off into the hands of their corporate overlords rather than extending to their children, their friends, their neighbors.

 

So then what happens? People become filled with ennui.  They turn to pornography, drugs (both psychiatric and recreational-- the distinction is perhaps not that substantial), alcohol, over-eating (witness the obesity epidemic), inane television.  Anything to numb the pain of not being free, of not being allowed to live as their souls dictate.  D.H. Lawrence said that people think freedom means being able to do whatever you want-- but it doesn't really mean that. Freedom means the ability to obey your own soul rather than an external authority, and it's an ability that can be cultivated and exercised even in the most adverse conditions, even in conditions that mean it might be hard for you to wash your clothes and get a bath if you chose to obey your soul.

 

But that's just the kind of freedom that dirty hippies are exercising, and they're doing it on behalf of all of us.  They deserve our gratitude much more than our scorn.

 

 

 

 

3 gifts of radical transparency + Poems rewired my brain

 

I have a philosophy of radical transparency which sometimes gets me into HOT hot water.  But painful as the scalding is, I keep doing it.  I keep trying to tell as much of the truth about myself as loudly as I can to the people around me because I've become constitutionally averse to the practice of hiding anything about myself and my true nature.

 

Sometimes I overstep bounds and end up oversharing-- which sucks, and I'm learning to have more finesse with that-- but in my heart I know I would rather err on the side of too-much-truth than too-much-hiding.  In fact, I highly recommend it to all geniuses.

 

Here are some of the rich benefits of not hiding:

 

1. More space on my dance card - The folks who can't cope with what I have to say and the truth I have to tell leave.  This is really scary-- but also really freeing. Because once they're gone I no longer have to spend time persuading or appeasing them. I've lost a few friends this way-- and I'm glad I did.

 

2. More energy -- When I'm transparent, I let go of my control over other people's opinion of me.  Since I'm just being who I am as honestly as I can, I'm not manipulating or managing anything. This frees up my creative and emotional energy.

 

3. I find more people to collaborate with. The people who genuinely like who I am and what I have to offer can find me and know me because I'm letting my freak flag fly. They can walk right up and say "Hi!" and feel confident that we're on the same page-- because I'm being really open about what page I'm on -- even though that page is rather weird and far-out.  It's my page, damnit, and I'm on it.

 

4) Less stress -- I don't have to jump through the mechanical performance of trying to be someone I'm not--  when I'm truthful about my real limitations and my real beliefs right from the get-go I don't let people peg me with false expectations and I therefore don't unconsciously try to meet their expectations.  I just show up and I give what I can as freely as I can.

 

Because I enjoy the benefits of radical transparency so much, I've decided to be radically transparent with my students in my Reading Poetry class this semester about who I am and what I really think.  I'm not selling the university's agenda or any notion of academic literary studies any more.  I'm offering the real way that I allow poetry on the page and in life to read and change me.

 

So I put this little list of things about myself and my views on the syllabus for this term, and I'm kinda proud of it, so I'd figured I'd share it here:

  1. Poems are like hits of acid and can massively alter your consciousness. This means they need to be treated with respect and ingested properly.
  2. I think our entire educational system is corrupt; I expect most of the things you’re offered in college won’t actually help you in life at all; I’m trying to make this class an exception to that.
  3. I haz a blog which you are welcome to read: www.awesomeyourlife.com.
  4. I haz a Facebook and a twitter, too: @carolynhoney.  You’re welcome to friend me.
  5. I don’t really read new poetry unless it’s by a friend of mine. I think most contemporary publishing poets are bores and charlatans. (And yes, I know that’s mean and I’m working on letting that go, but there it is—that’s what’s true today.)
  6. Poems completely rewired my brain (see point #1) making it impossible for me to write a conventional doctoral dissertation, which means I won’t get a degree and that has made me sad a lot but also might be kind of a good thing because conventional doctoral dissertations in English kind of suck and also I like my rewired brain better than the old one I had.
  7. My book is on ending suffering genius but somedays I still suffer, a lot.  I think that’s because not suffering as a genius is sort of a day-by-day , moment-by-moment thing like not smoking cigarettes as a former smoker.
  8. I’m part of a group which throws big conscious art parties and hosts other rad events, called Evolver Pittsburgh.  Perhaps you would like to check our stuff out on Facebook.  I’ve been thinking maybe I should start a chapter of Evolver right here at Pitt—what do you think?
  9. I really love parties—but not beer-soaked ones— I like strange and mysterious ones, preferably with costumes and fire-spinning.
  10. I sometimes pray to the spirits of Emerson, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  Emerson and Dickinson have stained glass windows in Heinz Chapel so that makes it easy.

Shift to Poetic Perception

Dear Reader, Today, let's continue to consider what it takes to be honest with ourselves and ditch our kitsch.

The Eye Altering, Alters All: Poetic Perception

It can be difficult, if not entirely impossible, to ditch our kitsch when we are in the midst of it, because it doesn’t look like kitsch to us—it looks like the unassailable way things need to be in order for us to be okay.

This is true even if that dubious “okay” is really miserable.  Our calculating minds would still like to call that misery “okay” because at least it’s known, and what we know we think we can control.  Actually, we can’t, but the illusion that we can is hypnotic.  In order to break out of it, we have to be willing to alter our perception.

One of my favorite mad poet-prophets, William Blake, observed that “the eye altering, alters all.”  In other words, when we change our perception, the whole world around us changes.

Abandon the Brain that Divides

I suggest that our ability to cling to shit and live in kitsch arises from the fact that we’ve learned to use the opposite of poetic perception: fragmented perception.  We all come into the world as perfectly honest and expressive young poets, but school and society beat that out of us right quick.

Our culture is dominated by “the brain that divides.” We learn to see ourselves as isolated little egos who have to fight and scrap and scrape in order to hold on to our little drops of comfort or pleasure or power.

We feel threatened by the other isolated little egos outside of us who might try to take these things away. We have to push ourselves harder and harder to continue to win, to protect what we have, to get more.

Within this perception of fragmentation, we see everything, including our own bodies and talents and the natural world, as objects to be manipulated in order to attain some end.

It’s only in this fragmented perception that a life of kitsch can spring up, because kitsch seeks to manipulate the vast and messy unfolding of our lives into a neat and pretty picture that we’re confident will gain the approval of others and thus secure us our comfort, pleasure and power.

Poetic Perception Sees Wholeness

In order to end the reign of kitsch in our lives and see our shit for what it is, we need to begin cultivating poetic perception, a mode of seeing from the heart which acknowledges connectedness and interrelation amongst ourselves and everything in existence.

When we are able to see ourselves and life from the poetic perspective of wholeness, we are better able to recognize our shit, to stop telling ourselves and the world that it’s gold, and instead allow it to be simple fertilizer for awesomeness.

This recognition is enabled by the wholeness of poetic perception because we create our shit in the first place in an attempt to deal with the fragmentation and alienation we perceive.

I clung to my lousy boyfriend and my socially respectable position as an academic because I felt lacking, estranged from the flow of life.  I didn’t trust that the world might have better things in store for me because I felt as if the world and me were two separate things, and why should the world care what happened to me?

As long as I saw myself primarily as an isolated little ego and not as an integral part of life’s unfolding who could be uplifted and blossomed by the same force that blossoms flowers, I was unwilling to ditch my kitsch; I still felt I needed it to survive.

A Very High Sort of Seeing

In his essay “The Poet” Emerson describes in great detail someone who has a solid grasp on poetic perception—namely, the ideal poet. According to Emerson, the ideal poet has an intuition of unity which is so total that it constitutes a kind of dramatic enlightenment, a state of higher realization. Emerson refers to this unitive insight as Imagination. He tells us that Imagination is

a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.

Yet in order to start on a project of poetic inquiry, I don’t think it’s necessary to be fully possessed of this realization of underlying oneness, and certainly not necessary to “believe” in it—I think it’s only necessary to be willing to move towards it.

In other words, I think it's necessary to soften one’s sense of oneself as a limited, isolated entity, as a thinking subject for whom the world (including your talents and your body) is merely a mess of objects to be manipulated for socially approved ends.

Dwell in Possibility

The shift to poetic perception requires the willingness to enter, at least temporarily, the condition which I call “Possibility," after a poem by Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson wrote:

I dwell in Possibility—

A fairer House than Prose—

More numerous of Windows—

Superior—for Doors—

 

Of Chambers as the Cedars—

Impregnable of eye—

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky—

 

Of Visitors—the fairest—

For Occupation—This—

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise—

The house of Possibility is a symbol of a  condition of profound openness: it’s a  a house which abounds in thresholds (More numerous of Windows-- / Superior for Doors—“) and it’s also a house which declines to provide shelter from the elements (“And for an everlasting Roof-- / The Gambrels of the Sky”).

Yet for the very reason that the house of Possibility gives so little shelter, it leaves its inhabitant open to receive the fairest visitors and to practice the gathering of Paradise. And that's what we do in poetic perception.

It’s of course significant also that the house of Possibility is one which Dickinson compares to the house of Prose—implying that Possibility is identified with Prose’s opposite—poetry.

Possibility vs. Imagination

I find the term “Possibility” to be a useful word to describe the condition which it’s necessary to enter in order to begin seeking and creatively expressing truth, even more useful than Emerson's term, Imagination.

Possibility, perhaps because Dickinson figures it as a house, suggests to me a state which one can readily enter or depart without undergoing a complete transcendental enlightenment-- which is a connotation that Imagination carries for Emerson and his friends, the British romantic poets and German idealists.

This distinction is important to me, given that complete transcendental enlightenment is notoriously tough to come by.

I envision my work as a teacher of awesoming not as a project of leading you into the life of  a realized sage but rather as one of inviting you to experiment with an alternative mode of being, perceiving, and expressing truth.

The ultimate end of such experimentation could be that you decide to commit to “dwell[ing]” full-time in Possibility as Dickinson herself did, but I’m pleased if it simply lets you admit your shit, to live more compassionately and bravely.

Though I envision Possibility as a state which can be easily entered or exited, to enter it at all nonetheless requires accepting a risk, because it is a condition not only of enlarged receptivity but also of increased vulnerability.

It's a condition of increased vulnerability because when we open ourselves wide to the fairest of visitors -- truth and beauty -- we are simultaneously loosening our grip on our defenses-- namely, our kitsch.

Stay tuned for our next post, in which I discuss explicit instructions for entering Possibility.

Love, Carolyn