I’m Leaving on a Trip Today Reply

I am heading out from where I am, to a new place for a few days. Its not home, though I will see friends and enjoy nice drinks around a different table of sort. Here is a poem that will tell you where I’ll be. I have omitted the title and the author — props to the person that can figure it out.

What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow, stem thee!
What curious questioning glances–glints of love!
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal–thou arena–thou of the myriad long-drawn lines and groups!
(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades, tell their inimitable tales;
Thy windows rich, and huge hotels–thy side-walks wide;)
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself–like infinite, teeming,
mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

Avoid the temptation to use google, if you can! I’ll post the title and props to the first.

Organ Donation, Taboo Trades, and Good Country People Reply

Over the last several months, there have been several posts around the blogosphere on trades in human material. At the Faculty Lounge, Kimberly Krawiec has been discussing her seminar Taboo Trades and Forbidden Markets, here, here, and here. Paul Caron has links relating to the characteristics of donor commodification traits and the potential tax treatment on the sale of human parts.

Which have all lead me to think about what is the role of the sacred and the profane in the money markets of body parts. Flannery O’Connor also thought of these things, and in her wonderful short story Good Country People illustrates that body parts exist in a trade on the eternal — in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, “the characters… typically flail in semicomic, semitragic misery as they strive to break free from their religious pasts and remake the world in their own images, but find themselves pinned like butterflies by a God who will not leave them alone.”1.

In Good Country People, the person pinned is Joy (renamed by herself as Hulga) an atheist who sports a Ph.D., glasses, and a wooden leg. She is seduced in the story by a Bible salesman, who cripples Hulga in the top of a barn loft by removing her glasses and then removing her leg. In Good Country People the market in body parts is a dualism. For Hulga, it is not the embarrassment of the condition that moves her but the exalting of the appendage — the wooden leg is sacred, and something that must be cared for as being undefiled. So when the Bible Salesman asks her where her leg attaches, the narrator states:
“The girl uttered a sharp little cry and her face instantly drained of color. The obscenity of the suggestion was not what shocker her. As a child she had sometimes been subject to feelings of shame but education had removed the last traces of that as a good surgeon scrapes for cancer; she would no more have felt it over what he was asking than she would have believed in his Bible. But she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.”

Of course, Hulga misreads the Bible Salesman’s innocence. She allows him into the sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies if you will, and allows him to remove the leg, for which he will keep as a prize, rather than a sacred object. We learn in the story that the salesman does this quite often, having absconded with another girl’s glass eye, and also leaving Hulga visually impaired by taking her glasses.

The irony is deep — the bible selling nihilist and the educated dupe…. Ah, the sacred and the profane. How they live so comfortably together….

There is much more to Good Country People and to Flannery O’Connor, one of the great southern writers.

1 Charlotte Allen, Grace and the Grotesque, Wilson Quarterly p. 114-115 (Winter 2005).

Islam & Poetry (Part 2) 1

The preferred poetic form of the jāhiliyya was the qasīda (ode), one of the three principal types of lyric poetry, the others being the ghazal (short lyric love poem) and the rubā‘ī (or quatrain), each of which underwent the spiritual transformation of secular topics and themes typified by the qasīda:

“The classic genre begins with a section (nasīb [the amatory prologue of this polythematic ode]) in which the lover expresses a longing for the departed beloved…. Then the poet describes the subject’s quest and concludes with the lover boasting ironically of how he has succeeded in exiling her from his memory. Muslim poets transformed both the themes and the three-part structure of the qasīda form, adapting the genre to specifically religious and mystical purposes.” (Renard, 1996: 110)

Islam is emphatic that Muhammad, as God’s Messenger and Seal of the Prophets, was no tribal bard moved by the jinn (s. jinnī, intelligent, usually invisible beings), those fiery spirits thought to have inspired, in the manner of the Greek muse, pre-Islamic Bedouin poets. And Muslims rightly argue the Qur’ān’s literary qualities transcend those of even the best poetry. The need for the Qur’ān to distance itself from pagan poetry was quickened by the fact the Arabic word for poetry (shi‘r) comes from a verb that means ‘to know’ and ‘to perceive.’ So while we might interpret this to imply that all knowledge is, in some sense, poetry, for Muslim authorities this meant rather that the knowledge revealed in the Qur’ān was in direct and urgent competition with the poetic articulation of the Bedouin worldview. And it hardly helped matters that poets were often the most dangerous and implacable foes of the Prophet. Still, and strictly speaking, poetry is not forbidden in Islam, although ‘as a patterned mode of discourse where pattern is a vehicle of art and art can militate for autonomy and for control of content, poetry is clearly suspect’ (Goodman: 34).

From a sūra in the Qur’ān titled ‘The Poets,’ we learn that ‘only those who are lost in error follow the poets’ (26: 224), and elsewhere that ‘We have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet’ (36: 69), hence in spite of the transparent and eloquent poetic qualities of the Qur’ān, its words are unequivocally ‘not the words of a poet’ (69: 40-41). Yet, and importantly, the Qur’ān also refers to those poets ‘who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often’ (26: 227). Hadīth (pl. ahādīth, reports or traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) literature is less nuanced, tending to view poetry with prima facie suspicion or questionable acceptability. Muhammad himself was not above finding wisdom in poetry, nor immune from enchantment by its aesthetic elegance. What is more, the Qur’ān effects a transition from the poet’s oral culture of inexplicable intuition and improvisation to a literary culture that privileges study and contemplation, a reasoned scrutiny of culture’s contents (as Oliver Leaman reminds us, ‘There are many references to the importance of reason in the Qur’ān, and Islam seems to take pride, at least in its early years, in presenting itself as highly rational.’). This transition might also be seen as a change ‘from a point of view which made contact with the pagan surface of existence to one which reached into its metaphysical depths’ (Adonis: 37). It’s no small irony that Qur’ānic exegesis and studies gave birth to a vigorous literary criticism and incipient science of religious aesthetics, all the while indirectly stimulating poetic production and opening up new vistas in poetry.

Poetry finds philosophical sanction in the work of the first truly systematic thinker in Islamic philosophy (falsafa), Abū Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī (c. 256-7/870—339/950). Al-Fārābī’s Peripatetic and Neoplatonic infused Islamic philosophy understands the music of poetic speech as ‘superior to all other music in its evocative powers and the effects it produces’ (Adonis: 24). The philosopher’s views on this score have family resemblance to a Confucian perspective on The Odes, and Plato’s rationale, in the Laws, for making music an integral component of education (padeia) in the widest sense, insofar as its pleasurable nature is essential in the training of children to become habituated to virtue (aretē). Specifically, in The Great Treatise on Music (Kitāb al-Mūsīqā al-Kabir), al-Fārābī argues that

“Because many moral stances and actions are the result of the emotions and of the visions conjured up by the imagination, these perfect tunes have a beneficial effect on attitudes and morals and encourage listeners to acquire all the mental attributes,  such as wisdom and knowledge of the sciences.” (Qtd. In Adonis: 25)

Al-Fārābī proceeds to accord poetry a unique epistemological end: takhyīl, or calling to mind the imaginative depiction of an object:

“This theory of imaginative evocation was to become the cornerstone of subsequent Islamic interpretations of poetic imitation, and through it psychological…underpinnings it became the means whereby the emotive and cognitive appeal of poetry and poetic discourse could be explained, and its role in philosophy and religion established.” (Black in Nasr and Leaman: 182-183)

In short, poetry is, like prophecy, and for the philosopher, a product of the interplay between intellect and the mimetic capacities of imagination, although only philosophy provides the syllogistic (logical) demonstration of truths that prophecy and poetry communicate by symbolic and figurative means. What’s compelling about this theory is that it permits what are otherwise rarefied truths known with “certainty” by the philosopher to be communicated to masses possessing neither the taste nor the talent for philosophy. The intuitive reason and vision of the heart central to the poetic enterprise is now blessed with Islamic philosophical vindication, whatever a democratic epistemic sensibility may conclude about the possible condescending or patronizing character of such an approach.

Islam & Poetry (Part 1) 2

As Grace should be said before meals, many thanks to WE for inviting folks to share in the banquet at the Literary Table. In addition to posting poetry from the traditions mentioned in the warm welcome to the Table, I hope to offer contributions from such literary luminaries as Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Matthiesson, Gary Snyder, Iris Murdoch, Pico Iyer and Simone de Beauvoir (well, they come quickest to mind, so there’ll be others too).

Before posting a few poems by Sufis in the Islamic tradition I’d like to introduce the role of poetry in Islam generally. This is the first of three posts that will constitute our introduction. The last post will include the references.

Any discussion of the role of poetry (shi‘r) in Islam must perforce treat the importance of poetry during the jāhiliyya (the pre-Islamic period of ethical and spiritual ignorance), the Arabic word used by Muslims to designate their history prior to the advent of the Qur’ānic revelations. In the jargon of social science, the meaning and function of poetry was, and to some extent still is, contested. This accounts for its apparent ambiguous status in Islamic history, such ambiguity in turn traceable to poetry’s exalted standing during the jāhiliyya.

Pre-Islamic poetry is animated by the Bedouin ethos of the desert in which the tribal poet (shā‘ir) is a ‘singing witness’ to the collective’s customs and traditions, to its wars and heroic exploits. The poet provides the tribe with a somewhat idealized mirror image of itself. The poet’s inventiveness therefore is concentrated in the manner and diversity of expression, as the poem’s subject matter remains constant and predictable:

“In the earliest stages of the literary tradition the emergence within a tribe of the Arabian peninsula of a truly gifted poet was a cause for great rejoicing, as ibn Rashīq notes; the presence of such a figure was a matter of supreme importance, in that words were the most effective of weapons. The poet would rouse the tribe with eulogies (madīh) extolling the chivalry and generosity of its leaders and men; would remind them of the fallen heroes in elegies (marthiya), a category in which women poets seem to have played a prominent role; and, deadliest of verbal weapons, would cast aspersions on the qualities of many tribes, their leaders and womenfolk, in vicious lampoons (hijā’).” (Allen: 109)

Eulogies during the jāhiliyya celebrated such virtues as valor, endurance, patience, loyalty and generosity, as well as the preeminent tribal virtue: solidarity (‘asabiyya). The panegyric to tribal leaders was often peppered with aphorisms (hikma, s. hikam) that reflected the largely secular worldview of tribal life. So-called vagabond poets (su‘luk) performed on the periphery of tribal society, expressing preferences for antinomian if not misanthropic beliefs and behavior, including the privations of solitary life in an unforgiving desert environment. Lastly, we find itinerant court poets whose number and importance increased as Islam flourished in cultural centers beyond the Arabian peninsula: in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Qayrawān, Fez, and Cordoba, for example.

For some Muslims, however, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was emblematic of ‘the days and ways of barbarism’ (Goodman). Whatever degree of truth in this characterization, it should not preclude an appreciation of continuity in poetic expression and themes after the jāhiliyya, even if the Bedouin poetry of the Arabian desert was subject to an Islamic transformation and transvaluation that belies whatever Muslim animus was aimed at poetry as such. For instance, pre-Islamic poetry was born in song and its fundamental orality was nurtured within a predominantly audio-visual culture (for an explanation, see Adonis). Poetic recitation is frequently compared to singing birds, and its meter, rhythm and melody to birdsong. Thus it is not surprising the Khūrāsanī poet and hagiographer, Farīd ad-Dīn ‘Attār, uses birds as metaphors for spiritual experience and the mystical quest in his delightfully didactic and allegorical mathnawī (lit. ‘doubled,’ rhyming couplets), The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-tayr). After ‘Attār, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (604/1207—672/1273) writes of the falcon as a symbol of the soul; the equation soul=bird is, however, hardly unique to Islam.

A transvaluation of the vagabond poets’ ‘truest friends,’ namely the wolf and the hyena, might be inferred from Indian and Persian miniatures that show the Muslim saint or mystic sleeping or sitting among (now) tamed wild animals. More conspicuously, the language of profane or erotic love was used by poets like Muhammad Shams ad-Dīn Hāfiz (726/1325—791/1389) and Rūmī, and before them, by Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya  (95 [or 99]/714 [or 717-8]—185/801), to poetically convey the relationship of love between human beings and God, between lover and the Beloved. Rabi`a represents the pinnacle of the Basran tradition of women’s ascetic spirituality within Islam and within Sufism she is considered one of the (if not the) earliest exponents and dramatic exemplars of ‘love-mysticism’ (for a succinct analysis, see Leaman: 99-104).

Mark Twain on the writings of Melville Langdon, or “The Droolings of an Idiot” Reply

In case you missed the New York Times a few weekends back included a newly discovered section of Mark Twain’s writings as a critic — namely, the scribbled notes on the margins of books he wrote. The comments are funny at times and reveal the depth of Twain’s intellect. Well worth a few minutes of time browsing the interactive images.

For the article on the selections click here.

For the interactive images of works found in Twain’s library, click here


The Literary Table Welcomes Patrick O’Donnell Reply

Please join me in welcoming to the Table Patrick O’Donnell. Patrick also contributes at Ratio Juris and Religious Left Law. Amongst the things we can look forward to are Patrick’s fond descriptions of Chinese and Japanese poetry, contemporary Vietnamese poetry, haiku, and classical Sufi poetry. WOW!

Patrick, Please have a seat at the table!

The Art of the Pseudonym Reply

How do you create a good pseudonym? I’m not sure, but lets pay homage to perhaps the best collection of pseudonyms on television — Seinfeld. Props to those that can place the character with the correct pseudonym.

Martin Van Nostrand
H.E. Pennypacker
Art Vandelay
Kel Varnson
Dylan Murphy

Speaking of Van Nostrand, I found today in flipping through an old copy of Rayford Logan and Michael Winston’s The Negro in the United States Volume II an order card for D. Van Nostrand company the publisher. Was Seinfeld paying homage to a past publisher?

Pseudonyms enjoy the time of mystery. Without mystery, wouldn’t life be less than complete. Here is a poem by W.h. Auden.

If I could tell you
By W.H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

There’s a Seat at the Table… and A Semi-Revolution Reply

Please join us at the Literary Table! The conversation is good and the requirements are none. Send me an email at warren[dot]emerson[at]gmail[dot]com. You may blog out in the open or under pseudonym. I only ask that you identify the persons sitting around your literary table in your first post. You may post critique and commentary, works of fiction, works of poetry, etc…  Have a short story that you want to post, do it here.  I am looking forward to reading your contributions.

A Semi-Revolution
By Robert Frost

I advocate a semi-revolution.
The trouble with a total revolution
(Ask any reputable Rosicrucian)
Is that it brings the same class up on top.
Executives of skillful execution
Will therefore plan to go halfway and stop.
Yes, revolutions are the only salves,
But they’re one thing that should be done by halves.

Published in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.

Weekend Poet Reply

Prairie Harvest
by Robert Penn Warren

Look westward over forever miles of wheat stubble
The road of the red machines is gone, they are gone.
Their roar has left the heartbeat of silence. The bubble,
Enormous, red, molten, of sun, above the horizon.

Apparently motionless, hangs. Meanwhile, blue mist
For uncountable miles of the shaven earth’s rondure arises,
And in last high light, the bullbats gyre and twist,
Though in the world’s emptiness the sound of their cries is

Nothing. Your heart is the only sound. The sun,
It is gone. Can it be that you, for an instant, forget
And blink your eyes as it goes? Another day done,
And the star the Kiowa once stared at will requite

Man’s effort by lust, and lust by the lead-weighted eyes.
So you stand in the infinite circle, star after star,
And standing alone in starlight, can you devise
An adequate definition of self, whatever you are?

Published in the Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Ed. John Burt).