A Poetic Life
“What I am I am, and say not. Being is the great explainer.” — Henry David Thoreau
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.” — Henry David Thoreau
Statistically speaking, as a Southern Californian I’ve lived precisely 50% of my expected lifespan. One foot in the coming and the other in the going. According to census data, I’m literally a walking embodiment of the duality of the human condition which I have spent so many of my adult years contemplating. As a statistically half-dead person, I’m naturally inspired to take inventory of the people and activities that consume my precious time. This has encouraged me more than ever before to consider how I have lived and how I intend to continue living as long as the world will have me in it.
One thing that has become clear is that I mistake metaphors for real life all too often. Metaphors are powerful and oftentimes useful expressions of very abstract ideas and human constructs. By assigning monetary value to rectangular slips of paper we make something like “the economy” graspable. The films I make too are at best honest representations of a truth. Much like I have come to realize that my role as a non-fiction filmmaker is to simply give expression to a particular experience of real life situations or ideas, there is always more truth than what we grasp with our metaphors. Yet we live and die by them, language perhaps being one of the most influential of them all. It is language, at least for those of us in English-speaking parts of the world, that teaches us that there is a distinction between creative work and non-creative work, productive work and non-productive work, pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Dualism in our metaphors has given rise to dualism in our living.
One of my greatest challenges of the last decade has been reconciling one of these dualities: my life as an artist with head perpetually in the clouds and that of say, a responsible adult with feet firmly planted on the ground. I’ve come to see that it has not been a challenge of identity, who I am when I’m making art versus when I’m changing my 2 year-old’s diaper. Who I am when I’m gazing at the world through a viewfinder versus gazing at the faces of my beautiful wife and kids across the dinner table. It is a battle of concept that is far removed from actuality. After all, there is only the life I am living, not two separate and opposing lives which our narrow metaphors might have me to believe. Perhaps all work is creative work. Perhaps I am to be an artist in all areas of my life. Perhaps there is poetry in all of it.
A few Thursdays ago while she bravely positioned herself between me and my son and a parade of minivans, the crossing guard at my kid’s school shouted at me with much enthusiasm “Two more days! We’re almost there!” What, I wondered, was I supposed to make of those two days? Were they somehow insignificant, something to be discarded and just endured? Are our days of rest supposed to be celebrated and worshipped to the point that all other days are rendered meaningless? How has it become the norm that we are expected to “go through the motions” or “keep our heads down” in order to focus on the drudgery of meaningless activity until we are freed from the confines of “what we must do” in order to do “what we love to do.”
This is not a rambling about poetry per se — I’m grossly under-qualified for that — but more so about how engaging with poetry has affected the very rhythms of my life. How it encourages me to allow space for things that our metaphors are insufficient in expressing. Like the clock on my wall for example which divides my day into hours, minutes and seconds. If my concept of time leaves no room for the ideas and realities that are time-less, I wonder how that shapes my relationship with those parts of myself, of my reality.
“If there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
As a kid I always secretly wondered if those who claimed to know poetry were lying about it to appear more sophisticated. But as I got older and began to look inward, as brooding teenagers tend to do, I found myself drawn to the work of writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Henry David Thoreau. What seemed to me before to be an exotic, coded language took on a new shape. It seemed that many great thinkers often turned to poetry or adopting a more poetic sensibility in their writing where traditional scholarly prose might have failed them. I think what I noticed most of all was that there was something more intense and intimate about their writing than say my history text book. There was something about this aesthetic, the rhythms, the simplicity that seemed more appropriate for giving expression to matters which were unspeakable or timeless.
“We who are poets know that the reason for a poem is not discovered until the poem itself exists. The reason for a living act is realized only in the act itself.” — Thomas Merton
I’m not necessarily suggesting that one read more poetry, although I highly recommend it. It’s not suited for everyone and I imagine there are many entry points through which one can begin living a more poetic life. Ultimately what a poetic life offers I believe is the capacity to fall in love with things again, that childlike beholding that the journey of growing up in this world seems to beat into total submission by the time we reach adulthood. A poetic life gives us a connection with the mundane like Van Gogh had with a pot of sunflowers; like Mary Oliver had with a grasshopper when she wrote The Summer Day. If we are asked to make our lives a masterpiece as Ernest Becker suggests at the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Denial of Death, then why not look to the artists for insight. Why not borrow from poets, painters, musicians, and writers in crafting a more meaningful relationship with the world around us. Why not become artists. Why not approach each day much like a painter to her canvas, a sacred space she will navigate with steady movements and intentionality. What she paints is unimportant, it’s the act itself that gives life to the process. It is the act itself that draws the painter to her canvas.
“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
My yearning for more poetry in life is partly inspired by what has become an almost puritanical attitude about what I consider to be meaningful or profound. It’s as though in order to gain access to the club it must be extraordinary, pure, or otherworldly. The problem with such exclusivity is that those grand experiences don’t happen every day which necessarily relegates the remainder of my life to the “other” category where perhaps the crossing guard at my son’s school might expect me to file them. When we spend most of our days so disengaged, it becomes oppressive, unsatisfying, and energy-sucking. As Philip Kapleau writes in the preface of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Keys the tiredness many of us feel at the end of each workday is “not a natural tiredness, but a product of a day filled with wasted thought.” If all we have experienced in a day is “dull” and “uninteresting”, I wonder if we have lived at all.
“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” — St. Augustine of Hippo
It’s clear we thirst for more. Like that gorgeous scenic point on your drive up the mountain, that vacation home in the woods, that beautiful woman who would eventually become your wife, we gravitate toward beautiful things; grand peak experiences. We have an insatiable thirst for beauty, for the profound, for our lives to matter. To thirst is human. Yet, I wonder if we’re missing opportunities while we’re making plans to seek out that meaning to transform those moments into, as poet Edward Hirsch writes of reading poetry, “an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.” Perhaps it is as Rumi might say, the thirsting is the return message.
For John Cage, the celebrated avant-garde music composer, making music was an exercise in becoming “fluent with the life we are living.” So strongly did he feel about this need to live with “the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams” he began composing music using a technique known as chance operations which mimicked “nature in her manner of operation.” For Cage, every sound that the world made — be it natural or human-made — was music.
“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” — John Cage
I’m surrounded by things I’m constantly having to ignore or tolerate. Leaf blowers. Deafeningly loud toy laser guns. Bills. Emails. Ignoring things requires energy and it’s tiring. I’m tired of being tired. I want to feel like Thoreau did during his two-and-half year experiment living in the woods “when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.” I want to feel as though I have lived at the end of each day, when my body collapses into my bed, my head onto my pillow, exhausted not from enduring “non-creative” work but from an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I want to exist in the world where metaphors are just metaphors.