Level of Difficulty

Poetry contest winners are frequently about violent, traumatic, scary circumstances. I could imagine or make up such, but the result probably wouldn’t ring true. Why spend time and money pursuing something that’s unlikely?

My wife and I recently sponsored a contest in the local poetry society’s annual contest. It was partly a reaction to too many perennial winners that live elsewhere. We called it the “Poetry of Presence” contest and restricted it to the greater metro counties, hoping for poems like those in the anthology of the same name.

All entries were on the topic as stated, not necessarily as we expected. Several poems in the anthology are about grief, but none are really dark. One of our entries was quite dark, major depression. One fit the wonderful subtitle of Gathering Storm Magazine, “the Dark, the Light, and Everything In Between”. The darkest poem was skillfully written, but hard to like.

It is a challenge to write authentically about dark experiences. Horror stories are a different category. Judging a poetry contest, like judging gymnastic and diving contests, difficulty has to be taken into account. We chose to declare a tie for first place, the dark and the light. Everything in between took second. Another light poem third.

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Krister Stendahl on Religous Pluralism

Krister Stendahl, Harvard Divinity School professor, later Bishop of Stockholm, while famous among theologians for his writings on the Apostle Paul, is more widely known for his three rules of religious understanding:

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith. (from Wikipedia)

In the eyes of God, we are all minorities. That’s a rude awakening for many Christians, who have never come to grips with the pluralism of the world.

Krister Stendahl

Holy Envy is the title of Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book. It is excerpted in the Christian Century in My holy envy of other faith traditions.

Holy envy alerted me to things in another religion that were neglected in my own.

Barbara Brown Taylor
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LeGuin on Dystopia

Earlier I wrote about several of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books in Dystopias with Light Visible. In Words Are My Matter (an excellent collection of her essays about writing, book reviews, etc.) she says:

Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that still fills their descriptions, keeping them fresh and powerful–E. M. Forester’s “The Machine Stops,” Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But for the last thirty years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everyone goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and it nature is monotonous.

Ursula K. LeGuin

She admits that she doesn’t do negative book reviews for first-time/beginning writers. Established writers coasting on their reputation are fair game. Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is such a book. He is a professor of creative writing at Stanford. In her review she skewers it for all writing style and no substance/content.

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Hazards of Self-Education

For the relentlessly curious and those moving faster than the speed of communication (a metaphorical sound barrier), self-education is a necessity. As someone with an education in programming and who often worked just behind the cutting/bleeding edge I’ve experienced both sides. Formal education, at least up to the graduate level, is largely Just In Case education. No one knows the future, so here are a lot of things that might be useful. After we leave school, learning is largely Just In Time, what programmers call Page Fault Learning: work until you hit something you don’t know, stop, take it into memory from wherever you find it, and continue.

In a conversation with the son of a friend, he complained about having to learn biology in high school. He didn’t need to know that. He was going to be a bicycle mechanic. He is now a doctoratal level computer scientist across town. We both are 1800 miles from where that conversation took place.

The down side of self-education is that our education has holes in it, sometimes serious holes. At best it means “re-inventing the wheel”, except of course we aren’t the original inventor and may have a false sense of ownership.

Indeed, one of my major complaints about the computer field is that whereas Newton could say, “If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” I am forced to say, “Today we stand on each other’s feet.” Perhaps the central problem we face in all of computer science is how we are to get to the situation where we build on top of the work of others rather than redoing so much of it in a trivially different way. Science is supposed to be cumulative, not almost endless duplication of the same kind of things.

Richard Hamming
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The Third Self: Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She has also written many essays on poetry and the artist’s task. Maria Popov’s Brain Pickings is an excellent way to learn about writers and their writings. The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life is marvelous advice for the working writer: beginner, aspiring, or fully engaged.

As a latecomer to writing and poetry, I know I need education and an MFA is not it. Essays like in The Third Self, Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing, and The Effortless Effort by Jane Hirshfield are helpful. They are reminders or articulations of what I already know about the writer’s/artist’s path.

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The Hits Keep Coming

The next thing I read after You’ve got to be kind popped up in my RSS reader was Hating People is Easy. Loving Them Isn’t. Read to the end. Genesis B. is taking kindness into radical territory.

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You’ve got to be kind

The headline writers for MarketWatch have to be humble or have strong egos. The market moves after they write often falsifying what they wrote. Writing anything in a public place can be like that. The day after I wrote Kindness Forward, Austin Kleon, a local writer, did the subject better. I will be kind and gracious and link to his post, You’ve got to be kind.

Or I suppose, we can all write without looking in the rear view mirror.

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Grooks are haiku for scientists and engineers written in runes instead of ideo- or picto-grams. The term was coined by Piet Hein, a Danish poet, inventor, and scientist. My description is about as helpful as describing a haiku as a three line poem with a certain syllable count about nature and seasons. Both descriptions are mostly useful in the rearview mirror, “Oh, that was a haiku/grook.” Both grooks and haiku are short, though grooks are more fluid in form. Humor is often a part. Both unfold on close reading into more depth than first apparent.

Piet Hein wrote over 7000 grooks that are collected into 20 volumes, all of which are out of print. My favorite is:

Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

This grook with its illustration by Piet Hein and four others is available here. A more extensive collection is at Archimedes’ Lab. Hein started writing grooks are getting them published as part of the Danish Resistance to the Nazis, a form of activism or resistance, I find playing more to my strengths and avoiding my weaknesses. So maybe I should add activists and resistors to the audience in the first sentence. His first published grook is:

Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding
the first one again.

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Kindness Forward

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

The Dalai Lama

For those not as enlightened as the Dalai Lama and unwilling to wait for the results of thousands of hours of meditation, David Brooks has some suggestions in his latest column in the New York Times, Kindness Is a Skill – Practical tips for fighting a culture of savagery. I find his commentary on events in America at right angles to the usual left-right divide. It’s refreshing to get a new look from a different angle instead of the same old party lines and talking point.

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Dystopias with Light Visible

Most of the Ursula LeGuin books I’ve read are dystopias, not unescapable darkness, but unsettling visions of possible futures or scenarios. The Word for World is Forest is a disturbing portrait of evil even more relevant in these days of #meToo. The Earthsea Trilogy is another mix of light and dark and one of my favorite series.

My most recent LeGuin reads, The Telling and the Left Hand of Darkness, are definitely dystopias, but with a difference. There is some light visible, some way, difficult perhaps, out of the darkness and toward the light. They are both critiques and messages of hope.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

To read more of LeGuin’s thoughts on writing, and writing for change, see Words are My Matter and Maria Popov’s Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification.

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