Category Archives: philosophy

He made comely poems.

I was so sorry to hear a couple of weeks after the event that the poet Richard Wilbur had fallen asleep in death. It’s interesting to read about the ambivalence within the community of literary critics regarding his work throughout his career and now at his passing.

The New York Times quotes its own reviewer David Orr who mused that “Mr. Wilbur had ‘spent most of his career being alternately praised and condemned for the same three things’ — for his formal virtuosity; for his being, ‘depending on your preference, courtly or cautious, civilized or old-fashioned, reasonable or kind of dull’; and finally for his resisting a tendency in American poetry toward ‘conspicuous self-dramatization.’”

Might it be that one’s opinion about Wilbur’s poetry has something to do with whether you appreciate his perspective on things? If when you read his poems you find they quicken your own love for life and the cosmos? In another quote from the New York Times: “’I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,’ he said in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.'” My favorite not-so-recent article on Wilbur draws attention to his Christian vision and is found in First Things.

Over the life of my blog many of Wilbur’s poems have shown up here — which you might find by putting his name in the search box on the right —  and I’ve been wanting to post his poem “Worlds” for a year or more now. I first read it when David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God was fresher in my mind, and I had some brilliant idea that linked the two philosophers… that thought has dimmed to the vanishing point. Now I offer the poem as a picture of two ways of looking at the world, represented by Alexander the Great and Isaac Newton. If Richard Wilbur imagined himself in this poem, I’m sure he would hope to be found serenely playing alongside Newton, another man of faith and great vision. May God grant him the Kingdom.

WORLDS

For Alexander there was no Far East,
because he thought the Asian continent
ended with India.
Free Cathay at least
did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more serene.
To him it seemed that he’d but played
With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
Of that profundity he had not made.

– Richard Wilbur

 

A Breath of Wings

This poem at albits seems to me to describe the ways of a butterfly better than anything I’ve ever read. I used the word capture instead of describe at first, but that word sounds too violent for what the poet has accomplished, in engaging respectfully with such an otherworldly and mysterious fellow creature.

Recently I listened to Antonio López talk about what it means to have a technological perspective on our world. He self-consciously follows the thought of George P. Grant in noting that just by being inhabitants of this culture we live in, we tend to absorb and display a somewhat fragmented and fragmenting attitude toward the people and things around us, failing to see them as whole beings, seeing everything as “piles of stuff” that we may use or manipulate or control at will. He wants us to see the connectedness of everything, and to respect the interiority of each creature, and “let be.”

Some have said that for a writer, “everything is material,” meaning, everything we see, whatever happens to us throughout our days, appears to us as something to write about, something we long to distill into words so that we can know it better and share it with other humans.

It occurs to me that to have this attitude as my first impulse may be an example of this less than fully human, technological perspective; I immediately impose my thoughts and presuppositions on the thing or person before me. But that habit works against my deeper and purer self. If I want to be fully present with the world, with the people and things in it, I need to restrain my mind’s impulsive and constant forming of sentences, at least long enough to let my heart meet the heart of the “other,” and know communion.

Perhaps that is what this poet was able to do when he met a butterfly. It would explain how he was able to catch, not just the first thoughts that came to mind, but this divine vision to share with us.

A BREATH OF WINGS

Walking out with the trash
I saw a butterfly flash by

In a wink and a bright splash
Of light. It made me wish

The yard were lined in rich
Leafy plants that might catch

Her eye in the search for a place
To settle. How could I guess

That she’d choose a blank wedge
Of sidewalk next to my garage

Where grey concrete met brick
And no perch seemed attractive

To a breath from delicate wings.
That’s how I saw her, as a trick

Of nature: two fans of gauze
Waving crazily in the evening air,

Nothing more, nothing else there
But color that seemed to disappear

As she lit. What remained was a stick
On the ground with a flat brown flag:

The wings had closed up tight.
Was she taking a nap, I thought,

Or holding her breath in fear
Of me standing there, a sag

In my face, the blank mind caught,
Transfixed in a magical nowhere

Between this–and the next–flight.

-Albert Salsich

I like the way the sentences sometimes don’t match the lines of the couplets exactly, so that the rhythm of the poem mimics the way a butterfly swoops and flutters, “waving crazily,” and then surprises you when it comes to an abrupt stop on a flower or a sidewalk. It is a good one to read aloud.

The beholding of a butterfly was a gift of grace to the poet, and through his labor of love I’ve been doubly blessed: Through this vicarious meeting I have an expanded appreciation of butterflies, and also the joy of encountering an uplifting poem. I’m afraid to say much more about all the words — I did once write on words for this insect — and the form of the poem because I will get carried away in enthusiastic speculation and wonder, and never make it outside to look at more butterflies.

I hope you all might see a butterfly today!

butterfly-9-16-16

mythology of floating logic

It’s been a while since I picked up David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, and I was pleased to see that I’m a third of the way through the book, nearing the end of the first part, on Being. I wasn’t pleased to find myself struggling to follow his train of thought as he picked apart what is known as Anselm’s argument, and was relieved when he moved on after a few pages, saying that he didn’t want to get “entangled in needless complications on this matter.”

Though I am philosophical by nature, I’m woefully unschooled in the discipline and its fundamentals. How many times have I looked up words like phenomenology, ontology,  and epistemology? Whatever I read on the subject is an attempt to correct that lack, and I appreciate Hart’s clarity and organization; he does seem to be writing for someone like me.

When we say that God is Being or “the source and ground of all reality,” following in the tradition of centuries of philosophers and theologians, many contemporary thinkers say it is because we are “mired in sheer nonsense.” Hart tells what he considers an important source of this lack of agreement:

…The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably its greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

I enjoy learning about particular people of the past and of their contributions to the wealth of humanity’s philosophical legacy. Hart mentions Meister Eckhart and his idea of “Is-ness,” and that takes me back to when I was a college freshman and privileged to be in a tutorial course that was an introduction to Meister Eckhart. I certainly had no intellectual grid prepared to fit him into then! How nice to have him come around again when I can appreciate his place in history.

Hart’s book was on the table with my bowl of stew this morning, but now the breakfast philosophy session has come to an end and other tasks are calling; I will go forward with the prayer that the presence of Him Who Is will sustain me. Given my ignorance of that floating kind of logic, I shouldn’t have any trouble keeping my feet on the ground and my self in the flow of history, soon to close out the year twenty-fifteen.

Enjoy it while it lasts! Let’s be here, now.