No Life Without Poetry

armchair in library

 I vividly recall my late father-in-law, a businessman, and great reader, who used to spend his evenings sitting in an armchair reading poetry - especially the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

 Comfortably situated, my father-in-law would sit regularly in the midst of a library of hundreds of books. In his bliss there, he was a member of a dying breed of classically oriented, high-minded gentlemen - the antithesis of the half-wits who squander their time in front of video games. 

 It was clear for any visitor to this library sanctuary that before their eyes was an impressive class act, someone who truly had a life

 When I married his daughter, it was plain that I was marrying her father’s daughter. For example, on our second date, (after a philosophy lecture the night before), this blonde with brains arrived at my family’s home with an armload of books.

 To the marriage she brought shelves full of English literature and an ambition (not to be denied) to teach literature and poetry. 

 As my father-in-law was distinctive, so is his daughter.

 An example of my father-in-law's distinctiveness was his proclivity to make resounding one-line declarations that would effectively close the case on any subject. One of these was: "There is no life without poetry.” 

 He made the point as if stating the obvious, expecting no dissent or discussion. The implication was that only a dullard would disagree. It was implied that you'd have to be really stupid not to get such a self-evident point.

 When he would deliver one of his one-line zingers, it was always with a power packed punch of authority. Those of us standing around him were expected to realize that the final word on some matter had been spoken. It was a fait de complet. As he used also to say: "No argument. No discussion.” The case was now closed.

 He was setting forth some unarguable fact - in this case the plain truth that, there is no life without poetry, indicating therefore his understanding that life is somehow incomplete - is missing something - when the poetic dimension is ignored.

 Now, he never explained why a life without poetry has no meaning. He never spelled it out for anyone, as far as I am aware. For it was not his way to talk about poetry directly. Instead he read, memorized and recited poetry. 

 It was perhaps all too personal for him. Perhaps he felt that nobody would understand what he cared most about. And so, sequestered in his armchair, he kept it all to himself - privately tucked away.

 That has always been my wife’s understanding of her father’s way, which was never to hear directly about what he loved in a conversation.

 Instead, he communicated non-verbally, as my wife has often said, through his eyes. She always felt that theirs was a shared understanding of the supreme value of the poetric dimension.

 She could therefore relax in his presence, feeling known, loved and understood - the assurance of those immeasurable gifts coming from the tenderness and understanding in his eyes. 

 It has been left for this father's daughter to give a public expression of the power of poetry in her high school Literature classes and for me, his son-in-law, to probe its meaning through my writings, podcasts and videos.

 And thus it is that my wife’s aim as an English teacher, and mine as a writer, is to awaken the poetic dimension in our students.  

 Which is to be in accord with the great American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that the test of the poet is the "power to take the passing day, with its news, its cares, its fears, and to "hold it up to Divine reason," until the day is seen “to have a purpose and a beauty," and also to see its relation to "the eternal order of the world.” 

 The task the poet is, in other words, to facilitate an ascension into higher realms of meaning and experience. 

 Which is to participate in that felt understanding of things that has traditionally been the perspective of the mind of India - the understanding of "a universe permeated with immense purpose.” (Jacob Needleman, I am not I)

 And, most critically and personally, to find that reality within you as your own true identity, your own higher consciousness.

 And then, upon awakening into that poetic realm, to become increasingly drenched with an awareness of that Divine dimension to the point of saturation. 

 Now, someone who has felt this poetic dimension intensely told me once (with some anguish), that she had tried to describe her spiritual quest to her mother, but was immediately shut-down.

 For the dear Mom did not understand her daughter’s searching ways and was baffled and confused by the intensity.

 Like not a few, the dear mother simply did not want to go there, and was full of fear about any kind of emphasis upon inner exploration.

 It is not this woman’s way to inquire in such a way as to enter new vistas that could open her up to truth and understanding.

 The mother's way, as described by her daughter, is that her Mom gets up and gets going, but rarely, if ever, pauses to reflect on the meaning of it all. She seems never to ask what it’s all about. 

 But then, of course, life goes on happening, but the mother is not in it with any kind of significant level of comprehension or understanding.

 My sense is that not a few in our world live their lives in just this kind of unreflective, unexamined, way. They do a bunch of things. Go a lot of places. Make make a lot of noise. And then fade away into oblivion.

 The way of not a few appears to be that various noises are made - all kinds of grunts and sounds - like the discordant sounds of pots and pans being banged together, all amounting to but 'a sound and a fury, signifiying nothing.' 

 I used actually to hear such disturbing sounds at a nursing home where I served as a Chaplain. It was when the kitchen band performed.

 There, the elderly were encouraged to bash pots and pans together while someone thumped on the piano the World War One soldiers' song: "It’s a Long way to Tipperary.”

 I tell you, it was a foretaste of hell. The most deploring of sights. And I shudder to think of it now.

 I used to think: 'Is this the culminating point of a life well-lived, to end up a member of the kitchen band?' 

 For myself, I have dared to hope of a gentler, quieter exit from the planet.

 I entertain the wild hope that I will never be led shuffling down the hall of a nursing home to take my place in some kitchen band ensemble.

 I’d prefer rather to be taken out early by a drone than to suffer such a fate. I’d like a quick death, rather than ever to join the ranks of some hell-bound kitchen band.

 Perhaps if I enter the poetic realm enough, I will build up enough inner strength so that, however frail my condition, I will have the strength to scream at some kitchen band recruiter: "Get away from me!” 

 And therefore, concerned about my fate, my practice now is to enter that poetic, deeper dimension of things and to remain established there.

 Which Jacob Needleman describes in his latest book as the appearance of 'I am' in one's life. 

 He describes the experience of 'I am' as unique: "Here, now, I exist - a feeling like no other emotion in our lives." 

 Needleman writes of "those moments, when we are touched by the appearance in ourselves of a very fine presence that seems a mysterious homecoming. I am here. I am home.” 

 This is a felt shift from an ordinary, everyday level of awareness to a felt sense of the Divine presence.

 Most deeply, says Needleman, the experience of 'I am' is a breakthrough into a sense that I am seen, loved and understood.

 As he puts it: "I am being seen by something higher than myself. Of being seen by the Higher. Known by the Higher. Being loved.”

 This is poetry at its highest level.

 Now, this sense of 'I am' is the result of a struggle for true being.

 That level of true being is the experience of when my "thoughts, desires and sensations are inhabited” by the embrace of the spiritual dimension.

 Such a level of experience and the quality of struggle required to find it is, says Needleman, "unknown in the loud world.” 

 It is “completely unknown in almost all the religion, art and science of the blind world.”

 Which does not mean, however, that you can’t find this poetry! For as the meditation master, Gurumayi, says: ‘When you’re searching for the Highest, when you’re searching for God, the intensity of your yearning is everything."

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 Calling Drip, Apple & Stone