Quotations: September 2008 Archives

On Billy Collins (again)


I have previously expressed my disdain for the poetry of Mr. Collins--but my subsequent reading and the patina of time coupled with a decoupling from the critical establishment, both internal and external, has forced a reevaluation of the poet in light of his newest collection Ballistics.

Making a judgment as to whether Mr. Collins is a poet for the ages or another of the many who will be forgotten long before people think to remember him, is something that is far beyond my capabilities as a poet, a thinker, a would-be aesthete, one who savors great and not-so-great writing and literature. What's more, it isn't particularly useful to you who read these words. The modern world is flooded with print and other means of conveying the written word in ways that the ancient and even recent-past could not even begin to imagine. So to predict the fate of one writer in this tsunami of paper and information is foolishness.

That said, I have been too hard on Mr. Collins. I wanted Keats, Shelley, Eliot, and Yeats. And yet, Mr. Collins is Mr. Collins and must be read on that basis alone--not against these others as though there is some agreed upon instrument to measure and classify each poet. In short, I have been depriving myself of the pleasure of Mr. Collins's company while I waited for the poet who would come along and knock my socks off.

I have missed out on the humor, implicit and explicit, in poems such as "Tension" which uses the word "suddenly" to such great effect:

from "Tension"
Billy Collins

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh

When suddenly, wihtout warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,

It doesn't seem like much, but the poem goes on to reflect upon the "suddenness" of quotidian life and how much we ignore that everything happening happens suddenly. In the mirror of this light-hearted reflection, we suddenly see everything anew. It's as if, suddenly, the fruit of years of Buddhist practice were dished up for our delectation and delight.

In the title poem of the collection, "Ballistics" Mr. Collins regales us with a vision of a book of poetry by a rival poet. You must read the whole for the humor to come through, but here are some salient lines,

from "Ballistics"
Billy Collins

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance

Remind me not to get on the bad side of one who wields the pen for a living.

These delights and other similar await the reader who opens this book of Mr. Collins's poetry. As though the scales have fallen from my eyes, I find myself once again forced back through all that I have written and decided, in the cycle of perpetual reevaluation.

Perhaps it is better not to decide at all, but rather to enjoy where enjoyment is to be had and to keep silence where it is not. But then, what of reviewing? To what purpose, to effect what end? Perhaps its only purpose is to open the doors to those who have not already read and enjoyed to something they might find enjoyable and rewarding. Perhaps it is better not to spend one's time deciding what is not worthy, but instead extolling what has come to one's attention as of interest.

This does not mean we cannot carp and wail--after all, that is, at times, a goodly part of the enjoyment of a work--our conversations with it, for good or for ill. But perhaps, except for works of sheer moral recklessness, the work of a critic is better confined to outlining what exactly was enjoyable in the work at hand. And so share it with all.

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To JTH on his Birthday


A good friend for a long time, remaining loyal and patient and true through all of his dealings with me--and believe me, I gave him little reason for loyalty or patience. Happy Birthday!

from The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
Tr. David Hinton

9/9, Thinking of My Brothers East of the Mountains

Each year on this auspicious day, alone and foreign
here in a foreign place, my thoughts of you sharpen:

far away, I can almost see you reaching the summit,
dogwood berries woven into sashes, short one person.

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An Amusing Analogy

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from How to Read a Novel
John Sutherland

There was something dehumanizing about the whole population of China reading Mao's Little Red Book publicly, simultaneously, and in the same 'correct' way during the late 1960s. It was dehumanizing int he same way as are the futuristic serfs in Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, who do everything, from walking, to eating, to copulating, to sleeping, en masse. Regimented reading is a contradiction in terms. And in the case of fiction, there is something faintly unsettling about the Da Vinci phenomenon. Did those twenty-five-million-and-rising punters freely choose to read the novel? Or were they merely drifting with some bestselling tide, as helpless as literate jellyfish to choose their course?

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Jubliee of St. Paul Romans 1:27- 2:1


from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (DRC)

27 And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error. 28 And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, malignity, whisperers, 30 Detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy. 32 Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them.

Romans 2

1 Wherefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest. For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself. For thou dost the same things which thou judgest.

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (KJV)

27And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

28And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

29Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

30Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

31Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

32Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

Romans 2

1Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

In Greek

I have lingered over commenting on this passage not because I am particularly afraid of it, nor because it is difficult to understand. It is certainly controversial, but I think that is more because people from varying agendas attempt to wrench it out of its perfectly clear form into an argument for their agenda.

There is a single sentence here regarding homosexuality in which Paul says simply, men abandoned their natural ways (not all men, but some) in such a way that the penalty therefore was made evident. Some have interpreted this as the folly of self-castration that was one of the hallmarks of the priesthood of Cybele--and certainly such an act would be readily evident in its occurrence and in the subsequent consequences as the eunuchs would tend to softness of muscle and robustness of corporation.

Here Paul's condemnation of homosexuality is very clearly and cleverly stated. In Greek the first half of the sentence roles out in thunderous masculine terms, nearly every word of masculine gender, strong and forthright, whereas the second half of the sentence completely succumbs to feminine terminology and words. Men abandon natural use and become women and it becomes apparent to all. There is about this condemnation less of hell-fire than of logical, present consequence--a present consequence that leads straight to hell-fire, but one which now is more than a little ludicrous and more than a little obvious. To go against nature is, in this life in some things, a punishment in itself.

But it is less this aspect of things--the sexual--than the concomitant aspect--not only have men surrendered themselves and become women, but by ignoring God's grace and goodness, they become worse than animals. Because they choose not to think about God, God does not force them and the result is that they are given their own way--a way that is both reprobate and eventually evil.

As we stop thinking about God, God does not abandon us (as this passage, read out of context, might suggest) but rather, we build around ourselves an impenetrable shell--a thickness and a hardness that completely encases us and succeeds in cutting us off from God. God "allows" this ("gives them over to the reprobate mind") only in the sense that it is the inevitable consequence of refusing to look at Him and worship Him. He does not desire it, nor does he brush off his hands and say, "So much for that lot." Indeed, the Holy Spirit and the natural world and the people all around the reprobate conspire to bring him back into the fold. This is not a knowing conspiracy, but a cooperation with God's love that woos the sinner--and so, it is so much worse not to turn our attention to God. because we lose not only ourselves and sense of self, but all those God would have used us to help set free.

Instead with the reprobate mind, the sinner gives himself over to death and the dealings of death. Not only does he delight in doing them himself, he delights when he sees his action proliferate. As a sinner he revels in the spreading of sin and in the works of chaos--and if he goes far enough along, the only end he has in sight is chaos. This is not merely dementia--this is the final work of evil--to cast everything into chaos and to undo the order that has bound creation together. Of course, we know that evil will not win, but in our confined and earthbound view, we see the intimations of victory. Even the psalmist asks, "Why do the wicked rejoice?" They do so because they have no view nor sense of eternity.

But notice here, it is not God who causes the sin or is author of sin nor who supports and causes sin to expand. Rather sin is an entirely human work caused when the greatest of God's creation, the very light of reason, chooses to dim itself and follow in the ways of his animal neighbors--abandoning love for darkness and peace for pleasure.

Also notice how Paul dramatically pulls us to a stop. We read along, the righteous pharisees that we are and say, "Oh, that doesn't describe me. No, rather it describes those who are bound for Hell and who richly deserve it--may they reap the rewards of their harvest." This is how too many view the whole debate about homosexuality (for one instance). If we look at the ugliness of some "Christian" groups that march with signs that say, "God hates F***" and other such patent nonsense, we are seeing precisely what Paul here condemns. And in condemning such, he is following his Master who told us in several ways that our own judgment becomes our condemnation. Think about it--surely the judgment of those who carry such signs shows up in the concept of a God who is capable of hating any person. Certainly God hates sin--the terrible introduction of flaw into the human state. He hates it unto eternal condemnation--but He hates it because of its potential to deprive Him of His children. It offends His dignity because it threatens to rob Him of His rightful heirs and offspring.

So we get through this thoroughgoing condemnation of all evil, cheering Paul on and saying, "You get 'em Paul. Give those sinners what-for. Give 'em Hell!" And find ourselves, cheering on the sidelines, as Paul whips around and points his finger at us. "You, " he says, "you who delight in your righteousness and condemn your brother--you are in even more trouble than they are because you know the rules." I can see the flashing eyes and hear in this even more the heart of love which despises sin, but loves each person unto eternity. His anger is not at the reprobate sinner--God already has them in hand, but in those who would judge them, dismiss them, and leave them to a life worthy of hell. For in our judgment, we do not tend to be like God--we can't seem to contain judgment and love in the same breath--rather, in our judgment we desire temporal justice--the extermination of what has been judged and found unworthy.

One of the great problems with judgment is that we too often abandon those we have judged. We excuse ourselves from love and move on to justice. Again, not always, not everyone--but it is certainly a human trait--judgment is rendered, justice is dispensed, the condemned is cast away from society as a whole. What a judgment we bring upon ourselves when our justice is of this sort. And so Paul tells us, wheeling around from the foreigners he was pointing out to us and bringing the point home. "You know better and so you are judged twice in your judgment--both your own conscience convicts you and God knows your sin."

Wow. Is it any wonder that this remarkable Saint has drawn out for us the foundations of the faith? Jesus started his teaching, but on the road to Damascus, he chose this man, this brilliant theologian and true lover-of-God to continue working out the implications of His words. We hear almost the continuation of the voice of Jesus as Paul speaks, so close is Paul to Jesus.

We have the special grace and privilege this years of a Jubilee in honor of this great Saint. Pope Benedict has given us a great example to ponder and a year of grace in which to do it. I am going far too slow in doing this--I'll never get through all the letters--but that doesn't get you all off the hook, because you could read them two, three, four, six, ten, fifteen times in so long a span. Think of the wonders that could occur were we each to read them once attentively--really listening and really trying to hear what Paul has to say to us.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Quotations category from September 2008.

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