Thursday, June 15, 2006

Gazing on the whole world

"After all, it doesn't matter where you watch life from if your gaze takes in the whole world." Verlyn Klinkenborg writing today in the NY Times about Donald Hall the new poet laureate of the United States.

Can you see the whole world from rural New Hampshire? That's where Donald Hall lives and writes. Is his home up on a hill, with a less obstructed view of the horizon than I see from my window overlooking backyards in suburban Chicago? How can one man's gaze take in the whole world? How does one connect the inner world of the mind, where sentences are formed and experience is questioned, with how the big world works?

Artists, writers, and performers both specify and generalize. Anne Lamott, in Plan B and her other collections of essays, skids across the page, veering wildly from her own quirky, narcissistic existence to statements summing up how God works in the world. There's a whole genre out there that I'd call "And isn't that a lot like life?" Fill in pretty much whatever you want--knitting, quilting, daily walks, childrearing, schooling. Sewing together little bits of cloth or ripping out six inches of lacework is supposed to reflect some larger pattern, or steel the soul for encounters with Big Issues.

Does anyone write down observations about banking and life, or playing the stock market and life? Or do the people who do those things take it for granted that what they do is real life? Does the poetic urge in some of us--the urge to organize the material of experience into an object or a performance or a blog--live alongside the assumption that what we do day in and day out somehow must hook up with a larger purpose?

Glory. Why can't I just write about recipes or something? Of course, I couldn't type up my chocolate chip cookie recipe without commenting that it comes from my sainted Aunt Clara who clipped the original from the Chicago Tribune and then tested and refined it before passing it on. It is a recipe held in reverence by me and my sisters, and no matter how deep a ditch I might try to dig around it, some observation about family, food, and childhood memory would leap out from the list of ingredients and start a little brush fire somewhere else, one that would crackle away with "Isn't that a lot like life?"

A gaze that takes in the entire world, of course, processes data from many more sources than one life or one family's traditions--almost an infinite number of sources. There are worlds of politics, economics, development in Africa, art installations in Paris, and censorship in China. There's the world you would see swimming with the fishes on a coral reef northwest of Kauai and another one to be found in the human genome. That variety of topics and more can be found just in one day's headlines (today's).

What protects a poet from being overwhelmed by the many specific stories that crowd his gaze, each with its own unique details? Drawing a little lesson from each one would produce a surfeit of shallow truths. Zooming in to let the subject speak its own truth might be more in line with the aesthetic of a 20th or 21st century poet. Giving up, living one's own small life, unchallenged by a wide-world gaze, is another option.

Those neurons in our brains, however, insist on hooking up. The wide world we gaze on may be no more than an illusion constructed by those neurons and neurotransmitters, in response to sensory stimuli. Oh, cripes, was my real calling philosophy? I am getting all weirded out, like when I was a child and would lie in bed at night wondering if I was really a robot, experiencing things that were not real at all.

Words on paper, or on a computer screen, seem real. The struggle I am having with them this morning is real enough. My neighbor's fence and bushes and the blue and white garage beyond her yard don't offer much in terms of gazing at the world, but they remind me to look beyond the mess of papers and bills on my desk. Maybe I need a birdfeeder, too, on this corner of the house. Then I could contemplate the consciousness of little brown sparrows.God's eye is on them.

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