Posts filed under Poetic Inquiry

Innocence amid the Zombie Apocalypse

Dear Reader, In a post on The Absent Narrative from way back in December, my deep-thinking friend Tait McKenzie Johnson reflects upon his life-long sense that there's something amiss in our modern world.

Johnson considers that this something amiss is a set of actions and values which colludes to either steal our souls or, if we ascribe to the romantic Coleridgean / Keatsian idea that individual souls are not inborn but rather made as we go through life, that these actions and values collude to prevent our souls from taking shape.

I do, by the way, ascribe to romantic notion that individual souls are made rather than born.  As Keats suggested in his letters, I think we're all born with sparks of divinity, and then by means of poetic inquiry (aka alchemy) we learn to read the world through our hearts and thus forge our own individual souls as distinct aspects of the divine.

And I think that Johnson is on to something when he offers that there are anti-soul actions and values at work in the world.  He writes:

Granted, I’m not entirely sure what a soul is or where it resides – this has been contended for centuries – but I do know from experience that there is some part of ourselves that, if intact or developed, enables the only honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life beyond our most immediate animal interests. Without this, life grows meaningless and absurd, and we bury our heads in the sand avoiding anything beyond the struggle to pleasurably survive from day to day, and even that with far less pleasure than we would like.

Johnson is right to suggest that the soul is the part of ourselves which "enables the only honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life beyond our most immediate animal interests." I never thought of it that way before, but it sure rings true. It's a definition that also coincides with my experience about how the soul is made through a process of contemplative truth-seeking and the subsequent creative expression of those truths discovered-- a process which might likewise be described as the "honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life."

Wherein Zombies Devour Our Brains

Johnson goes on to offer that the symbolic weight of the soul is made legible in our culture through the representation of its absence in images of zombie apocalypse, images which continue to grow in popularity. And of course, he's right: what better depicts soul-lessness than a glassy-eyed ghoul trying to eat your brains? Heck, what's a better metaphor for our American consumerism than a ghoul trying to eat your brains?

Finally, Johnson offers what is for me a very thought-provoking list of the actions and values present in the world which deny or suppress the soul. Here I offer just a selection of items that resonate especially powerfully with me from the full list:

- The objectification of our own bodies and desires

- The quantatative monetization of all ideas/values/objects

- The exploitation of the natural material world as something corrupt and given to our dominion

- The dogmatic demand for a literal and singular Truth

- The glorification of violence as a problem solver and form of entertainment

- The embarrassment of sincerity and engagement leading to an ironic, belittling emotional detachment

- The giving away of personal choice to corporations whose options for us don’t fill our best interests

- The denial of imagination and myth as having real world validity and effect

- The insistence that the way the world is now is the way it will always be, despite all evidence otherwise

- And if the world does change, it can only do so through an outside cataclysm rather than by our choice toward a new positive future

Yes, we've got soul-threatening problems, and Johnson sums it up very well.

So what can we do to defend ourselves against the soulless zombie apocalypse?

I suggest practicing innocence.

Cultivating Innocence

Innocence, like optimism, gets a bad rap these days.  We tend to think of it as something exclusively belonging to children or to the developmentally different.  For an adult in full possession of all her faculties to cultivate innocence sounds like a weird notion.

I went to pre-school at a Roman Catholic elementary called Holy Innocents. Lovely title for an elementary school, right? Yeah, it was named after the hundreds of infants whom King Herod had slaughtered in his efforts to prevent the prophesied birth of Jesus.

The day they told me this I started crying and wouldn't stop until my mother came to pick me up.

I got the idea pretty well that day that innocence is a liability-- it means you're vulnerable and unprotected, available to be slaughtered by any unscrupulous authority that comes along.

We tend to not value innocence as a virtue because we associate it with the extreme vulnerability of childhood.  In the process of becoming adults, we all suffered various blows to our innocence which woke us up to the fact that the world isn't always kind, and we ourselves can harbor motives and desires which are significantly less than pure. Within this process, we learn to value sophistication above innocence.

The Problem with Sophistication

There's a bit of a problem with loving sophistication-- namely, that "sophistication" is word which describes the process of becoming sophistic -- i.e., like a sophist. Let's consider for a few minutes if we want to be like sophists.  The sophists were travelling teachers of rhetoric in Ancient Greece who charged students lots of money in order to learn the art of rhetoric, namely,  persuasion.  Rhetorical persuasion is, of course, a perennially valuable skill, useful in the market place, in law, and in politics-- in pretty much everything.

The philosopher Socrates had a major problem with the sophists: why? Because the sophists weren't interested in teaching their students to discern truth through their arguments-- just in teaching their students to sound really great.  The sophists offered that it wasn't their concern whether their students used their rhetorical skills for good or for ill, for truth or for falsehood-- rhetoric was just a skill like any other, able to be used for any ends.

Socrates insisted that the art of rhetoric, of argumentation and persuasion, should be used to direct people toward the true and the beautiful.

So how did things play out? Well, the sophists got richer and the people of Athens forced Socrates to drink hemlock and die.

Hmmmm. Maybe I'm not yet offering a very convincing case for innocence.

Why Socrates Rocked

My point, though, is this.  Probably all of you dear readers recognize the name Socrates. Probably very few of you recognize the name Gorgias, who was the most famous sophist in Socrates' time.

In the short term, the world rewards sophistry because it's an efficient means of achieving results which society already thinks useful (start a war, win a law suit) or producing complex arguments which make you look super-smart. Sophistry can be incredibly subtle and fascinating. Most all of modern humanities study, for example, is sophistic.

But over time, the world celebrates radical innocence because it's a means of arriving at truly new thoughts -- ideas which reveal something genuinely fresh and valuable, which don't just achieve an already-known and desired end within the socially established game of life but which alter the whole game itself by revealing new facets of the imaginative and spiritual principles which underlie reality.

The new thoughts which emerge from radical innocence are valued across time and throughout the world because they're genuinely liberating, and there is nothing so exhilarating as liberation.

Genuine new thought is always threatening to the social world in which it immediately emerges, because it's not bound by that social game.  Therefore, the radically innocent people who bring forth liberating new thoughts can be seen as villains and dangers by the societies in which they live.  This is what happened to Socrates.

Socrates was said to have claimed that the only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't know-- a statement of radical innocence if there ever was one. Some folks have suggested that that claim was just a wily fake-out on Socrates' part, and that he actually thought himself quite clever.

I'm inclined to think that Plato, Socrates' student who wrote dialogues depicting Socrates at work  (dialogues which constitute most of our lore about Socrates) was indeed a wily guy who thought himself quite clever-- but that Socrates, the historical figure who was Plato's actual teacher and not just the character depicted in Plato's dialogues, was genuinely a radical innocent. If he wasn't, I don't think he could have elicited so much fresh new thought among the youth of Athens that the authorities would have seen the need to put him to death.

Why Only Innocence Can Defeat the Zombie Apocalypse

Okay, so there are all these zombies.  They're intent on eating human brains, so the general human impulse is to fight back: blow off the zombies' heads with double-barrel shotguns, for example. Trouble is, that's not really a long-term solution, is it? There are far more zombies than bullets.  And building better anti-zombie weapons won't really help either. Zombies are a kind of self-renewing violent parasite: they can reproduce by attacking humans as long as humans continue to reproduce.

Furthermore, they're very single-minded in their goal. Unlike human opponents, zombies don't get demoralized and just give up when they feel outnumbered.  They already are dead, so they don't mourn their dead.  They're going to come after our brains indefinitely. Regular ingenuity, the kind which produces more and more sophisticated weapons and strategies is not going to solve this problem.

In other words, shooting zombies is a video-game type activity that can go on endlessly. It's no way to live.

In order to halt the onslaught of soulless brain-eaters, we need a new game altogether.  We need to see things from a completely different point of view, and change the field of play. We don't need sophisticated weapons and fighting strategies-- we need a truly new thought, a fresh perception of the nature of reality that will alter what we know to be possible.

The zombies are our own dead, our own past which has risen up from where we buried it and become poisonous, aggressive and malignant.  Zombies are the legacy of our old paradigms, a relentless hoard bent on consumption.

In order to defeat them, we need radical innocence.  Zombies don't really just want to eat our brains. They want us to truly use them.

So what's the new insight? What's the new game? Man, I don't quite know.  But we'll continue to see representations of zombies in our popular culture and we'll continue to be assaulted by all the troubling actions and values that Johnson lists until we're able to stretch ourselves wide open and find another way.




How to Dwell in Possibility

Dear Reader, Yesterday I discussed the importance of shifting to poetic perception in order to clearly see where in our lives we're holding on to kitschy denial that keeps us in patterns that no longer serve us.

Today I want to offer a specific suggestion for moving into poetic perception-- or dwelling in Possibility, as I like to call it.

Dwelling in Possibility, we should note, has a lot in common with the practice that the poet John Keats called "negative capability." Negative capability, according to Keats, was the distinguishing trait of geniuses like Shakespeare, and it consists in the ability to remain in "uncertainties, Mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

So try this:

1. Sit somewhere comfortable. Take a few deep breaths.

2. Decide to agree with reality for the next five minutes. Whatever it is, you'll offer no argument, no resistance, and no attempt to control it.

3. Let yourself soften.

4. Admit to yourself and to the universe that you don't really know exactly what's up with the world or exactly what you should do today with your life.

5. Allow that not-knowing to just be there with you. Allow yourself to not demand an answer or a solution to all the things you feel like you should fix and resolve.

6. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I find that when I do this for five minutes and then go about my business-- especially in the midst of times that I'm feeling frantic and crazed -- big, real solutions will pop into my head at weird moments, like when I'm climbing the stairs to get to the gym.

Also, when I do this on a regular basis I develop a greater and greater sensitivity to my own kitsch.  Since my shit solutions are all arise from a desire to control what's not mine to control and a refusal to trust that the universe has a real and great solution in store for me, surrendering my management for just a few moments allows more sane and honest perception to drip into my murky mind.

Over time, these little drips of sanity expand into a pool that's great for splashing about.

In other words, the poetic perception of dwelling in Possibility slowly lets me stop seeing myself as an isolated little fragment at war with the whole and allows me to feel the way in which I contain and am contained by everything that is.

Which feels pretty darn great.



Image Credit: Photo by Lawrence OP from flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

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



How to Say it Straight

Dear Reader, This past week we've been working with the power of optimism. Now I want to move us into thinking about and working with the power of honesty.

Admit Your Shit

Please excuse my French. I know the title of this section has an earthy tang, and there was a time when such terms offended my own delicate sensibility—but I had to get over it. Because, you see, I love my mother.

My mother swears—not all the time, not at work—but with her family she uses the phrases she requires to drive home her points. Liberally. For much of my life, I passionately wished that I could halt the colorful flow of my mother’s mouth.  Somewhere along the line I developed a desire for our family to be classy—and my mother’s swearing, along with her habit of lighting her Menthol Ligget Lights directly in the gas flames of our kitchen stove assaulted and undermined the aristocratic aspirations I cherished for the Elliott clan.

Out of love for my mother, I came to forgive her—and my father, and my brother, and all the rest of our relatives—to dooming us to less-than-lordly status.  I tolerated her linguistic stylings. Yet it wasn’t until one revelatory day that I came to actually embrace and celebrate them.

I called my mother crying, bemoaning the hard fact that I had just been done wrong yet again, by another boyfriend. Why? I wanted to know. Why had this happened? What had I done?

The Colorful Truth

“Carolyn,” my mother said, speaking slowly so I would understand, “he’s an asshole.”

I stopped crying for a moment. I had really heard her. The words brought about a kind of open spaciousness and clarity.  It began to dawn on me: that young man had treated me poorly not because I deserved it, not because there was anything wrong with me, but because he was – ontologically speaking—an asshole—meaning that he would have treated me that way no matter how beautiful or fun or cool I was—none of my part even mattered, because the way he acted was just his method of operation: assholery. For him to have behaved otherwise would have violated his very nature.

Since attaining this liberating insight from the sage woman who birthed me, I’ve developed an increasing fondness for telling it like it is, a fondness which means I have worse and worse foul mouth, and a more and more awesome life.

By referring to my erstwhile boyfriend as an asshole, my mother did me the service of waking me out of a delusion within which I’d been suffering.  The nature of my delusion? That my boyfriend was not an asshole and therefore his actions were some kind of reflection upon my merit and worth.  When in the grips of this delusion, I wanted to defend him, idolize him, romanticize him.

The Pain of Delusion

For months I had rationalized his behavior and had stayed in denial about how bad things were because my mind had its laser-focus grip on the notion that that relationship was a solution to something.  This meant my mind was fully loathe to let that “solution” go, to see that it was doing me more harm than the perceived problem I had intended it to fix: namely, me and my feelings about life.

For months the dude treated me badly and for months I didn’t wish to allow that he was, indeed, an asshole. I preferred to torture myself, because to recognize the bare facts of the situation would have meant having to let go of my solution, you see.

Letting go of one of my pretend solutions is always incredibly hard because there’s a part of me that resolutely will not trust that a real solution can be found—a solution that would address the actual underlying problem: my distorted negative perception of myself and of the world.

Ditch Your Kitsch

The author Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being writes about the phenomenon of kitsch, a mode of art in the Soviet Union which was all sweet and saccharine.

Kundera defined kitsch as the denial of shit, and said it was an aesthetic mode which was false because it refused to acknowledge an essential dimension of human experience and to deal with it.  The Soviet Union needed kitsch, of course, because it was clinging to a very untenable solution to its problems—Stalinism.

What I don’t realize when I’m in the midst of my clinging to a delusional solution is that I am busily perpetrating my own version of kitsch.  I make my life into a glossy work of very bad art. It looks good on the surface—hey, check me out, I’m normal! I’ve got a boyfriend! See? Smile! – but it lacks depth, and if you look at it for more than a second you feel annoyed.

When I’m doing this, I’m acting in what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call “bad faith”—pretending as if I have no choice, as if the only solution is the one I’m currently clinging to.  I can end my reign of kitschy terror by ceasing to claim that my false solution has any merit to it at all, by no longer rationalizing my use of it.  In other words, I have to admit that it’s shit.

Admitting the presence of shit in my life has the tremendously frightening and useful effect of freeing space for the awesoming process to begin.  As long as I stay in the realm of kitsch, as long as I cling to my shit while calling it gold, there’s no room for the awesome to grow.

Shit as Wondrous Fertilizer

This isn’t to say that all shit must be absent from your life in order for the awesoming to start. It just means that as much shit as possible must be admitted, and clearly seen for what it is.  Shit, once discovered in its real and undenied glory, is actually excellent ground in which the roses of awesome may grow.

For example, I struggled for a long time to admit to myself that my initial choice of career path – university English professor – was actually shit.

I began noticing early on in my graduate school career that I thought an alarmingly high number of my professors were pompous ego monstrosities, that the academic journal articles I was supposed to be reading and admiring looked like sophistic exercises in rigorously avoiding truth, and that my peers in the program used their mighty intellects to systematically quash all errant interferences of joy and love in their lives and mine.

Despite these disturbing observations, I pressed ahead, submitting papers to academic conferences that I dreaded attending, trying to contort my writing into a shape that would be acceptable to the establishment.

Why was I doing this? Because I had hypnotized myself into believing that academia, though sucky and abusive to my spirit, was the only place that would welcome my high-octane intellect—so I needed to endure the pain of jumping through all the hoops laid before me and groveling for all the shreds of approval I might be able to eke out. This philosophy, the dear reader might notice, bore strong resemblances to my pattern of thought about my romantic relationships.

Yet on the day I finally admitted to myself that an academic career, for all the prestige and respectability it afforded, was actually a shit solution to the problem of being me, I did not immediately leave graduate school.

The Value of Remaining in One's Shit

I instead began the process of letting that shit become fertile ground for awesomeness. I decided to stay in the doctoral program, on my own terms. I let go of the idea of ever getting hired as a professor, so I stopped worrying about whether or not my dissertation would be viable on the academic market and let go of my relationship with a dissertation advisor who was very concerned that it should be so.

Since I realized that my choice to let my freak flag fly in my dissertation meant that my last year in graduate school might be my last opportunity to ever teach at a university, I decided to go all-out and teach my Reading Poetry courses in the weird, experimental way that I felt would best serve me and my students—rather than in the conventional way that I knew would get me the most approval from the professors above me.

As a result of admitting my shit and turning it into fertilizer, I was able to write my dissertation and teach my classes on poetic inquiry, the very process of awesoming on which this blog is based.

My classes gave me an opportunity to see that the far-out ideas which worked so well to awesome my life also worked for my students.

Some students wrote to me thanking me for completely changing their perspective on their lives and their dreams, for giving them a course which respected them as genius souls, opened them up to the poetry all around them and in them, and helped them to awaken creatively. When I told these students I was on my way out of the university and that I had no idea what I would do next, they begged me not to stop teaching.

It was only through this feedback from my students that I realized that I indeed needed to keep teaching— as a self-help author and life coach.  In the eyes of my grad school friends, the profession of “self-help author” ranks in prestige and respectability just a few notches below crack-addicted street prostitute, so I knew I was on to something good.

If I had left graduate school the first day I admitted that yes—indeed, it was shit that I was smelling— I may have eventually discovered my true calling as a street prostitute– er, I mean, self-help author—but I’m so grateful that I stayed right in the midst of my shit.  Because it’s blossomed up into such an amazing garden.

In Conclusion

All of this is to say—just because you realize that you’re clinging to a false solution—mine was the notion of becoming a university professor—doesn’t mean that you must immediately dismantle the framework of your whole life, even if that life has been built upon a shit premise.

In fact, the scary—and false—idea that owning up to the truth of your situation would demand that you immediately and decisively change everything about it might prevent you from ever confronting that truth.  So take heart—the very edifice you’ve built as a false solution to the difficult problem of existence may turn out to be an excellent ground upon which to commence allowing an authentic solution to emerge. You can risk admitting your shit.


Posted on March 8, 2011 and filed under Life Adventure, Poetic Inquiry.

On Transmuting Life Into Truth

Emerson had this to say in "The American Scholar" (one of my all-time favorite essays along with... all of Emerson's other essays): The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing. Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process had gone, of transmuting life into truth.

Posted on February 28, 2011 and filed under Life Adventure, Optimism, Poetic Inquiry.

Poetic Inquiry - from my diss

Dear Reader, What follows is an exciting preview-- the first two pages of my in-progress dissertation!



Poetic Inquiry

Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the polestar for a thousand years?Emerson, “The American Scholar”

The long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically. – Heidegger commenting on Rilke, “What Are Poets For?”

By Way of Introduction

Very simply, poetic inquiry is a process of contemplative truth-seeking followed by creative expression of the truth discovered. This dissertation explores poetic inquiry as a potential avenue of literary education.

Like philosophic and scientific inquiry, poetic inquiry seeks to discover and communicate truth. But while both philosophic and scientific inquiry deploy systematic and rational approaches to their projects and largely emphasize objectivity, poetic inquiry is nonsystematic and intuitive in its approach and  emphasizes subjectivity rather than objectivity. In other words, poetic inquiry attends primarily to the existential and subjective dimension of truth.[1]

Expression in poetic inquiry is “creative” in that through the use of poetic strategies it creates for the reader or audience an extra-rational experience of the author-inquirer’s discovered truth (i.e., it does not communicate the discovered truth via rational argument or proof.  Somewhat perplexingly and confusingly, there is also a sense in which the actual act of expressing truth via poetic strategies creates such truth or brings it into being – as in the case of an intuition which is at first only dimly realized by the author-inquirer but becomes clear as she articulates it. In this sense we might say that poetic inquiry can not only discover but can also “make” truths. “Making” is of course the original meaning of the Greek word “poiesis” from which our English word “poetry” derives.  In the context of poetic inquiry we would say that what poetry “makes” is the experience of extra-rational truth.

Because poetic inquiry is an essentially intuitive and extra-rational process, it resists being articulated in any systematic way.  There are very many fantastic examples of the fruit of poetic inquiry. There are far fewer fantastic explanations of the process.  I have attempted to articulate and champion the process of poetic inquiry in this prosaic dissertation form because I have desired to teach it to myself and to others, and because many people (including myself) resist doing something when they cannot understand just why and how it should be done. Thus the following work attempts to reasonably explain the detailed application and essential value of an endeavor which exceeds reason. I have sought to do this rather difficult task because I believe poetic inquiry to be very important work indeed, work which we have perhaps been neglecting for the very reason that it is difficult to rationally or systematically explain and justify.

[1] There are figures who are hailed as philosophers—Nietzsche, Emerson, and Kierkegaard come prominently to mind—whose work may be said to rely more heavily on poetic strategy (gesture, fiction, drama, trope—see the discussion of these later in this dissertation) than on rational argument and who value existential and subjective truth. I would count these figures as poetic inquirers rather than philosophers.

Posted on February 28, 2011 and filed under Poetic Inquiry.

4 Tools to Awesome Your Life

Dear Reader, A few of my friends and I are having an adventure this March. I hope you’ll join us. We’re having an adventure in our own lives. We’re going to turn up the heat in our existence and fling off some brighter sparks. This is what we’ll do:

1. Truth and Beauty Pages

Each morning, first thing, we’ll write four pages in response to the question: “What’s true in my life? And what’s beautiful?”  I’ve been writing Truth and Beauty Pages on and off for years now. Whenever I do it, things go better— I’m more in touch with my life, with who I am, and with what I need to do (that’s the truth part) and I’m more sensitive to the glorious glories all around me (that’s the beauty part).  I’ve been doing it for the past two weeks and I can feel myself coming alive in a thousand surprising ways— I can’t believe I had stopped for so long!

Actually, let revise what I said in the first paragraph— it’s not just that things get better when I write my Truth and Beauty pages— it’s that Truth and Beauty pages have literally kept me alive at some points in my life. When I was young and in a really bleak situation, living with an older guy who lied to me and abused me on a daily basis, writing Truth and Beauty pages was the only thing that kept me sane and connected with my soul.

Writing each day about the reality of my situation (it sucked SO much) and about the beauty that I saw in myself, others, and the world served the dual purpose of both making me face the facts without denial, minimization, or

rationalization (three ugly devils who like to keep me stuck!) and also letting me dream about what could be possible. This gave me enough strength to eventually leave that man and build the awesome existence I currently enjoy.

Now that I’m quite a bit saner and about seventy trillion times happier, writing Truth and Beauty Pages continues to serve me because… as it turns out, there’s always more to discover when it comes to these primary spiritual principles. They’re no longer dramatically rescuing me from abusive scenarios, but they are bringing the much needed oxygen of consciousness to my experience— thus stoking the flames.

2. Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism

As every life-coach new-agey metaphysical finger lickin’ person out there will tell you (and I, friends, am no exception) you have to vividly imagine your life working out in a way that will utterly rock your socks if you want your socks to end up rocked. The reason everyone will tell you this is because they are kind and good and it, ladies and gentlemen, is true.

How do I know it’s true? Well, that’s a good story. I was once in a completely yucky state with my dating life.  I could only seem to get interested in and attracted to guys who would lie to me and or harm me in some fashion (see above instance) and every “romantic” interaction I had was actually a disaster.  I overcame this situation in part by practicing the brilliant, exceptionally well-written instructions in Amy Spencer’s life-altering book, Meeting Your Half Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match. If you have any trouble finding the right person at all, I highly beg you (notice: I am not highly recommending and I am not begging— I am highly begging) that you purchase and read and practice this book.

I practiced the kind of optimism that Spencer so wittily describes— and that optimism gave me the power to fearlessly examine my previous patterns and change my fundamental false beliefs about who I am and what I deserve… which resulted in me cosmically attracting to myself my now-boyfriend, Dey, who I will put up against any dude you got in the “most phenomenally awesome lover and friend and human being” contest that we will organize and hold next year.

This experience— of going from a situation being so awful for such a long time (my romantic sorrows, oh, they were manifold!) to being so flippin’ great that I gush at every one endlessly about it— has taught me that yes, Amy Spencer and everyone else is right. Optimism works.

And not lazy optimism. Not, “Oh, whatever, yeah, that could happen” optimism.  I mean balls-to-the-wall, hoping-with-all-my-heart, completely exposed and vulnerable optimism.

I call it throbbing optimism, because when you’re really doing it (and more about how-to soon) your whole body pulses. It feels great.

I call it extra-rational optimism because it rationality and reason are way over-rated. The reasoning mind (at least mine) only knows what was true in the past, and makes deductions out of that.  It says that any hope that something truly different and way more better could happen is “irrational.” Well, I say it is NOT “irrational” — it is extra-rational.  It exceeds reason. It exceeds the known. It’s willing to accept the unknown— and that unknown is super-neat.

3. Hops

Hops are “hopeful optimistic practices.”  Yes, you’re right. That’s redundant.  It is so redundant because guess what? Our habitual negativity and existential dread is incredibly redundant.  So the stuff that combats it has got to be the same way. Hops are kind of like leaps of faith. Except they’re not leaps— because leaps are big and really really hard.  Hops are— you know, just hops. They’re fun. Less like soaring across a rocky gulch and more like bouncing— as bunnies bounce.  So you see, cadbury candy eggs.  No, wait. Cadbury candy eggs was not my point.

My point is this— we need each day to take little actions that are in line with the dreams of our Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism.  These little actions must also be fun.  I don’t mean big actions. I don’t mean stuff that feels like a drag. I just mean little hip hops that are on the trail.

Hops are much, much easier to do, by the way, when you are indeed practicing your Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism— because that stuff has some oomph in it, and provides inspirational energy that we might otherwise lack.

When I was practicing my dating optimism a la Amy Spencer, my hops were these: sifting through okcupid profiles, looking for guys I liked; getting dressed up all fancy and going to parties that sounded cool.  That’s it. So you see, these hops were not only not tough— they were also fun.

Here’s the thing though: had I not been practicing my Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism, I totally would have talked myself out of those hops. “What’s the point at looking at okcupid? I’ve been on that stupid site for years and I haven’t met anyone I really liked who really liked me.” “Go to the Beaux Arts Ball? But

getting a costume together would take so much energy. Better to just stay home and look at LOLcats.”

So what happened due to my hops? Well, at the Beaux Arts Ball I dressed as my true self, Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, and this hot French guy asked me out while we were standing in a glorious topiary garden. He took me out on fancy dates to the theater and classy restaurants— which was a great time.  Stuff with the French dude did not ultimately work out, but it sure did help bolster my self-esteem which had been trampled by my years of misadventures— and weeks later, while trolling okcupid, I came across the profile of an astoundingly gorgeous Indian man who looked just like the astoundingly gorgeous Indian man I’d been seeing repeatedly in my (romantic, tender, luscious) night-time dreams. Hmmmmmm.  Well, that was Dey and that DID work out.

So yeah man— hops.

Currently, my Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimistic dream is to become an internationally-known speaker, spiritual self-help author, workshop-leader, and life advisor (I would say “life coach” but I really just hate the word “coach”… it makes me think of coaches).

It occurred to me that writing a blog in which I share with the world what I know about making life richer would be a fun, not-difficult action that would align with my dream. So. Here I am. Hop! Hop! Hop!

4. 5 Minutes Towards Beauty

Every day we’ll spend five minutes making something beautiful. A painting, a story, a song, a poem, a cake, a comedy routine, a comic strip.  What you make doesn’t need to be “beautiful” in the “wow, that’s pretty” sense. It’s more that it’s beautiful in that it’s revealing something real through your craft— whatever that craft is. Remember, truth IS beauty. Honesty— even difficult to look-at-stuff— is also beautiful.  What I’m saying is, just because your comic strip is a vividly rendered piece about university professors who melt into nauseating, hairy gremlins when deprived of coffee doesn’t mean it can’t count as your “something beautiful”— because it’s true, so true, you see.

Devoting 5 minutes a day to making something beautiful has the powerful effect of putting you in alignment with the creative force of the universe— which, as you may notice, makes something (or, arguably, everything) beautiful every day.

Also, if you don’t yet have enough skills in a particular area to sit down and “make something beautiful” right then and there— that’s absolutely fine. Practicing and playing around counts too, as long as that practice is towardsthe beautiful.  For example— I’m just learning to play guitar right now (through the good grace of my friends who are so generous with their time!) and I can’t yet just sit down and write “Hallelujah.” Heck, I can’t even play “Hallelujah.” I’m working on making the transition from the C chord to the G chord. But that counts!

Okay, so that’s what we’ll be up to for the month of March.  So I hope you’ll join in! Feel free to write in questions to me under the “Ask me anything” tab up top.