Humanity and Its Insanity

Sometimes I wonder why humans are the way we are, and how such small, insignificant creatures can do the incredible (albeit often horrendous) things we’ve done. Many of us aren’t even the weight of an average black bear, but how much more have we done to the planet? Black bears don’t build palaces or nuclear weapons, and they don’t have religious services or bake cookies or keep pets or write blogs. I think of all the crazy, amazing things humans do, and it seems insane that we’re capable of doing them, let alone that we do them every single day and barely ever think twice.

This is one reason I believe in a God. I simply find it impossible to believe that humans are yet another animal on a self-created planet. And this is not arrogance about how great the human race is; humans are horrible. We traffic each other and shoot each other and chop down the trees that we depend on for oxygen and melt plastics that destroy the atmosphere and abuse the beautiful, intricate animals that surround us. But we are certainly different from those animals. And it seems to me we must have been created from some different, higher pattern than gorillas were. A pattern, such as the image of God.

Christianity is the only place where I find a compelling explanation for humanity, with both its beauty and complexity and its stupidity and evil. If you think about the way we’ve been able to use the resources in this universe for the things we’ve done–like, I’m pressing down pieces of plastic (my laptop keys) with my fingers, and at the same time I’m translating complete thoughts into a written language that will show up on the light display of another piece of plastic (your own laptop), and you will be able to read it and understand my thoughts in exactly the way I thought them, maybe from some entirely different part of the world–human intelligence is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, we have wreaked an insane amount of havoc on this world and each other. Every human relationship I find is broken in some way; our wasteful manufacturing processes and pesticide use are broken; our treatment of animals is broken; and in many ways it seems like the world would be better off without us.

So, that’s one reason I believe in a God who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5) and in a man and a woman who, though they were made with everything they needed, rebelled and broke God’s order and beauty. Humans are kind of insane things. No use denying that.

To Be: As Poetry

Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish have both written poems on the nature of poetry: Moore’s conclusion, in her “Poetry,” is that

…nor till the poets among us can be
    ‘literalists of
    the imagination’–above
        insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
            shall we have
    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
    the raw material of poetry in
        all its rawness and
        that which is on the other hand
            genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

In other words, the things of poetry are “important not because a//high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are/useful.” Poetry is not about large words and fancy interpretations, but about being useful to us. It is meant to show us “real toads”–true reflections of life–in all their rawness and genuineness, even if the poem itself is only an “imaginary garden.”

MacLeish concludes something similar in “Ars Poetica.” A series of rhyming couplets begins with “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit” and ends with

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

He, too, rejects the idea of poetry as something to be interpreted. It should sit silent, “Palpable and mute.” It’s something to touch. To taste. Not to explain.

I think these are ideas that should resonate in all art, not only poetry. I mentioned in my last post that art is something we make in order to cry out with others, a vehicle to share our humanness; and I think that’s what Moore and MacLeish are getting at, that if you’re so busy incorporating large words and sophisticated philosophies into a piece of art, nobody else can breathe it in, can taste the juice from the globed fruit. It’s a hard line to walk. For me, a girl who defines herself by intellectualism, it’s difficult to stop asking what things mean and start tasting them. But I think it’s important.

I also think that sometimes a poem actually means more simply by “being.” The more I read the Bible, the more I come to see how meaningful it is through its very nature as a work of art. We evangelicals tend to read poems like Psalm 133 and think, now this shows us we need to be nice to each other and “dwell in unity.” We rarely stop to soak in the image of precious oil and robes, of Aaron the priest in his anointing, of how satisfying and cleansing it is for members of the Church to live in love. We are always moralizing; but the Bible is really not meant to be a book of rules as much as it is a picture of them. There are rules, yes, but there is also a story of a Man who saw a woman drawing water whom He should culturally have ignored and loved her. There is a song by someone who is wounded, mocked, and parched with thirst, who knows in his head God will save him but still cries out for the pain. There is a vision of a dragon who is hurled forever into a lake of fire and sulfur for the deceptions and torment he has wreaked.

To me, these images convey a world more about God’s greatest command–love–than any fancily-worded moralistic rule book can. The Bible does, obviously, have meaning, and it can be interpreted and exegeted and hermeneutically examined, but it can also be mute as a globed fruit. Psalm 44 doesn’t have answers, it’s just some people who need help begging a God who made a promise to follow through. The meaning in that is not something we can explain adequately with scientific interpretations. It is, however, a feeling we’ve felt before, and it means a whole lot simply by being the way it is.

That’s the way true art should convey meaning. It’s the way humans experience our humanness, by biting straight into the globed fruit. Art should show you a real toad. It shouldn’t need to tell you what to do with it.

To Be: And To Make Art

I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question.  Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”

And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.

If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.

I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.

That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,

sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.

sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and sourness
and spiciness
and everything you needed,
with everythingness.

sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
for poetry
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.

–Slake

A Book

Five years’ worth of poems

is enough to fill a book.

It’s enough

to take a journey; it’s enough

to climb a mountain and come down the other side, to

want and rant and vent but also

to slake of the living waters you always needed.

I am in the process of compiling that book, and will hopefully have it completed (and self-published) by

August.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting writing tips,

book updates, and other miscellany

here on my blog.

Join me for the hike?