Perhaps because I am older, or perhaps because I am now a playwright and a recovering lawyer, I decided I would make a commitment to a more spiritual Christmas this year.
I committed to finding a passage out of the comfortable consumerism, “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the hula hoop, and into a less self-deceptive and more spiritually aware holiday.
My problem is I excel at self-deception.
In the past, I have always believed that I was sufficiently into the festivities to fool myself, and I would let the transformative spiritual moment gently pass.
No, in truth I am a wizard of self-deception.
I fool myself in little ways all year long as I artfully keep my “spirituality” — like my “modesty“ — at bay.
For example, I have a room right next to my study that contains the framed memorials of the important accomplishments (of which I am so very proud) from my life as a lawyer and playwright.
When I enter this room, I am reminded that I don’t take myself too seriously, because it also contains a sink, a toilet and extra toilet paper. But of course, it is not a private bathroom. If nature calls, our guests are forced to see what I am proud to believe I have made of myself, framed and on the walls when they lock the bathroom door behind them.
I have employed this same gift of willfulness and self-deception when I have prepared myself to let the holidays gently pass by each year.
But as I have said, I think things have changed now that I’m a playwright and recovering lawyer.
I have been forced to see things less as an advocate and more as an observer.
A judge or jury renders a verdict, but there is no redemptive celebration thereafter. Rectifying and resolving social wrongs, if that happens at all, offers no thought of spirituality and in my case, may regrettably explain the bathroom.
But as a playwright, I have come to observe that my plays are meaningless unless the actors commit to giving them life and the audience commits to embracing the performance and the work.
So I have observed that some ethereal things do not come to pass at all unless there is belief, commitment, and then action.
This year, I will find the time for that individual commitment and action on Christmas Day. After I celebrate the joy of being with my family, I will take a walk — perhaps just a little walk — out by myself alone and consider the universe, which I do not understand. I’ll stop for a moment and realize that even if I have no belief in a heaven or a hell, I accept that cold hand of “grace,” which is what so much of religion and spiritual faith is about. And then when I return back home, I’ll try not to see if anyone is locked and reading in the bathroom.
Working on the libretto for the operetta, Vox Populi, has brought me back to my love of poetry.
My favorite poems create a universe with a few words. Two good poems with a similar subject, put side by side, can introduce the creator of the other.
Like a painter organizes color and shape with his or her brushstrokes, the poet organizes a vision with the sound and rhythm of words:
“Whose woods these are I think I know./
His house is in the village though;/“
The brushstrokes? The sound and rhythm of these two lines? Speak them out loud. They are like the rocking of a hammock they are so smooth and quiet.
In complete contrast however:
“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/
I sought it daily for six weeks or so./“
Brush strokes? This is not like the rocking of a hammock, it is like riding a three-legged horse.
Those are the opening two lines of two completely different poems by two completely different people. Now let’s look at the last two lines of these two poems.
“And miles to go before I sleep./
And miles to go before I sleep./“
Brush strokes? The same rocking hammock. Compared to:
“I must lie down where all the ladders start,/
In the foul rag-and- bone shop of the heart./“
That must’ve been a hell of a rough ride? You are correct.
They are both about the end of life. The first by Robert Frost is entitled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the second by WB Yeats is in titled “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”
Both are about “acceptance,” it seems to me, but that acceptance comes in completely different, very personal forms. Frost’s, in a late evening snowy New Hampshire woods, and Yates’, with the casting off his “Circus Animals” (his life’s work of Irish themes).
The libretto for the operetta is meant to be baudy and entertaining. My poetry, on the other hand, is a personal statement that is directed from me to the reader. It’s from my heart.
I have placed links to both poems below for your review and your own contrasts and conclusions. Feel compassion for these two people. They are writing because they are reaching out to you.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” by W.B. Yeats
As I turned away from Degas’ statuette of a dancer at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last week, I almost missed the imitators. The imitators were lining up, looking at the statuette and striking a pose. The reaction was not mocking and somehow not disrespectful. The imitators were reacting to a man-made object created out of his imagination. The interaction is what mattered.
When I was in high school, I read a line from W. H. Auden that said “poetry makes nothing happen.” It stopped me in my tracks. It was the late ’60s. I wanted to do things that made things happen. I became a lawyer. I made things happen.
Now I know I misread the line. Auden was making fun of all those things that appear to make things happen but really don’t. Art makes things happen in that it offers the chance to interact with a created object from another person’s imagination.
But why does that matter? It seems that at the center of our existence we travel a number of years in the mundane pursuit of what we need to survive, but art offers a conversation with another who is, or has been, on that same journey. It offers, but does not demand, this conversation.
In the same gallery, hordes of people were moving from picture to picture, cell phones out, photographing the exhibit as they hurried by. They had not accepted the offer. They were just capturing the object.
The imitators had accepted the offer. They were interacting with the Degas’ statuette.
The conversation can happen in many forums but it is always between the artist and the self. It can come through some or all the senses. It can be theoretical. It can come with an artist’s demand for your attention, as with Andy Warhol asking you to notice common objects, but for me it is always a very personal person-to-person communication.
It can also be environmental. On my way home, I noticed the statues in the park and the park in the city as I walk through. The art of the statue inside the art of the park surrounded by the mundane existence of the traffic and commerce of the city.
I found Auden’s quote:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
In Memory of W.B.Yeats
(d. Jan. 1939)
He says all this better than I but I had to learn it for myself.
As a lawyer I was your advocate, but now as a Poet my job is to help you see all things differently. For example:
I have a silver gray antique BMW Z3 convertible. It looks like a ridiculous self important go-cart. It has five gears and a stick shift. It is loud. It is very low to the ground and only my head sticks out of the top.
When I drive this car I am publicly on display as a self-confessed idiot. Sort of a clown. Young boys with fresh learner’s permits pull up to me at stop lights, rev their engines, and laugh at me. I should be embarrassed.
But if I tell you, “I know I look like an old man driving a roller skate…” you laugh — but once you’ve imagined me in this car, you look at the car and the old man differently. It may be funny or it may be sad, but as a poet I have that ability to make you see things differently .
It is the ability to break the mold that we all live in and take for granted, again and again and again. The cement truck pours and we instantly take for granted that hardening cement and live with those forms forever. Poetry has the ability to break what is permanent and make it new by presenting it differently.
When I write a poem or a play I am asking you to hear my voice, look through my eyes, and see the “flash” vision that I create out of what we live in and take for granted together. I am driving the same roads, obeying the same traffic lights, and stalled in the same rush-hour traffic as you are. I’m using the same language and your words but I am aware of the sound of the words and the rhythm of our shared language in order to create that “flash” of the vision I want to create: “The old man driving a roller skate.”
That is the poet’s work. I must jackhammer out of existence something you have seen in your imagination, perhaps forever.
Let me give you two “flash” examples. Two quick comic examples from the best Poet of the English language: Shakespeare describes a drunkard who is upchucking on the street as, “Speaking with a full flowing stomach,“ or snidely describes a couple in an illicit affair as, ”being a beast with two backs.” In a “flash,” he can help you imagine what you expect, differently.
The job of the Poet is to bring you back to before the cement truck came into your life.
My Little Stone Buddha
Like a glass eye looks into the abyss,
My little stone Buddha, on the bookshelf top,
Sits as a “symbol” of “inner peace” and “bliss”;
But as “symbol” is he what he is not?
Is he not just my sculpted end of pain?
The mirror looks back into my wild eyes,
And my old eyes look back at me insane.
Tonight, the pain is deep. Can’t the glass eye cry?
Is everything just a symbolic meaning?
Sure, why not? Probably even for him:
Crosses, numbers, alphabets for reading.
Is he not made from me and my dark within?
Does not the self, not the Buddha, hold the bliss?
We make much of nothing, which is all of this.
Father and Daughter
I swam, back then, with some father’s daughters,
Back stroking only slightly out of touch,
Out to the raft in the starry waters
And never thought of their fathers all that much.
Alice, don’t judge me till you’re fifty-five
But there were midnight visits to “Ice House Pond,”
In my misspent youth, when I was still alive,
Where couples would strip, and swim and then bond.
And Alice, this I know for sure is true:
At seventeen we both were born to be free
But ’cause I’m your father and I love you
Please consider this seasoned advice from me:
As you lust for life avoid the crudity
But don’t miss occasional sponti-nudity.