Sunday, February 23, 2014

Humbled by Hopkins

Every day I read an extract from the diary of my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I invariably find that his diary entries are more linguistically sophisticated and more beautifully phrased than most writers' polished prose. I have been a professional writer for thirty-five years and have written millions of words, hundreds of thousands of sentences in several different forms and genres. Sometimes I allow myself to think that I am a pretty good writer, and that I possess a broad and deep knowledge of the English language. And then I read Hopkins' diaries -- not even his poetry -- and I am humbled. Let me quote here a passage I read this morning, from March 12, 1870:

The next morning a heavy fall of snow. It tufted and toed the firs and yews and went on to load them till they were taxed beyond their spring. The limes, elms, and Turkey-oaks it crisped beautifully as with young leaf. Looking at the elms from underneath you saw every wave in every twig (become by this the wire-like stem to a finger of snow) and to the hangers and flying sprays it restored, to the eye, the inscapes they had lost. They were beautifully brought out against the sky, which was on one side dead blue, on the other washed with gold.

Now, I submit that if any other writer had managed that after three or four drafts, he would be proud. But Hopkins does it almost unconsciously, instinctually, on every page of his diary. This is a vision of Nature that no longer exists; it is an idiom of insight that has been lost. Hopkins saw everything in Nature in spontaneous poetic terms, and the reservoir of language upon which he drew was bottomless. His work has shown me possibilities of English that no other writer, including Shakespeare, has done, both in his poetry and in his prose. I always read his musings on poetics with awe -- I think he knew more about the structure and movement of poetry than anyone who ever wrote in English. 

Hopkins collected words from everyday speech in the rural parishes to which he, a Jesuit priest, was assigned. He records them, savors them, delights in them, and then he uses them in his poems, which gives a variety and liveliness and freshness and curiousness to his verse that few others achieve. His poetry, to my mind, is all about rhythm, sound and meaning, and, above all, intensity of language. And these, I think, are the qualities that mark great poetry. His verse tumbles like freshets and rings like stones in wells and lilts and lofts like hawks on thermals. Take these lines from one of his poems:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same...

Now this poem, with which I struggled for many years, I finally concluded was one of the best arguments for the existence of God I had ever found. Brilliant, sonorous, beautiful and utterly persuasive. But it is the intensity of the language that makes it unique and marks it as Hopkins. Also, of course, the sentiment. Hopkins, being a convert to Catholicism and a Jesuit, felt a stranger to his own family, his birth religion, and, since he was often stationed far from home, to his native soil. Desperately he sought solace, and answers to his most pressing queries: Where is God, Who is God, How is God manifest, How may I know Him? Always he found the answers in an outpouring of his soul into Nature. He was a poetic naturalist in very much the same way that Darwin was a material naturalist, each looking for the truth in and of the world.

That he often despaired of finding it is painfully apparent in some of his sonnets. Consider this:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep….

Again it is not only the depth of the emotion and intellectual torment that is striking, but also the breathless intensity of the language and the outre quality of the images. Hopkins sees cliffs inside the mind, dizzying, deadly, that those who never hung at their lips might dismiss, but not those, who, like him, lived at that dreadful edge.

But that he did find comfort and consolation is unmistakable in the later works, and, characteristically, he found it in Nature. In the poem “My own heart more have pity on,” he bemoans the lack of spiritual peace and the impossibility of achieving it:

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in a world of wet.

But then he takes pity on himself, urges his “poor Jackself” to “call off thoughts awhile/Elsewhere…” and finds consolation in the imminence of God in Nature

…whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you, unforeseen times rather – as skies
Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile.

Only Hopkins would have split the word “smile’s” between two lines, and made of a single word his oft-used invocation of the piebald quality of sunlight on the aspects of the Earth. For me, this is one of Hopkins’ most beautiful and reassuring images: The clouds part and sunlight (God’s smile) dapples down the valley illuminating the traveler’s next mile.

Hopkins did find peace, in Nature and the poetic harmony of his soul with Nature, expressed in a language so intricate yet so moving that, like the gears and springs and levers of a fine watch, the product of the movement is an awareness of the abstract but urgent truth of time.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Night and Day

I have been listening throughout the day to reaction to the Congressional Budget Office's report that 2.3 million jobs will be lost because of Obamacare. When I first heard this announcement I was not in the least surprised, and I assumed, as any reasonable person would, that this was a stake in the heart of this disastrous neo-socialist experiment. However, as soon as the report was issued, the Obama Administration went into full spin mode, dispatching spokesmen, not to deny the report, but to insist that the loss of 2.3 million jobs is good for the economy. This is in the spirit of such other recent absurdities as Nancy Pelosi declaring that Congress had to pass the Affordable Care Act to find out what was in it, or her assertion that continuing unemployment payments is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, or Obama's monumental whopper: If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance; if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor; which even the Washington Post admitted was the biggest lie of the year, thus branding Obamacare a fraud upon the public.

(We now know that Obama's decision to tell this bald-faced lie was a deliberate political calculation. There were discussions inside the White House about whether it might be expedient to tell the American people the truth - that chances were they would lose both their insurance policies and their doctors. But the political calculation was made that, if the president told the American people the truth, his bill could not be passed. And so he was instructed to lie, and did lie over fifteen times. {I am reminded of the rationale of the Nixon Administration bureaucrats: "I was not authorized to tell the truth."} And then, when his lie was exposed, what did the president do? He compounded the lie by insisting that he never said what he said over fifteen times; but instead he said something quite more nuanced and verifiable.)

The loss of 2.3 million jobs is good for the economy. Congratulations, America - we have now arrived at 1984 (albeit thirty years late): day is now night, black is now white, four legs are bad and two legs are good, the sow's ear has now officially become a silk purse. I actually watched Jay Carney, the official liar for the Obama Administration, insist that the fact that the Affordable Care Act's elimination of over two million jobs is a good thing for the economy, at a time when over twenty million Americans are out of work, real unemployment is over 13% (despite the Administration's persistent 7% lie), and workplace participation is at its lowest point in my lifetime. Watching Obama's spokesmen try to rationalize this point was a carnival in sophistry. While tens of millions of Americans are trying to find good paying jobs (or any jobs at all), the Administration, supported by the New York Times editorial board, is actually arguing that government mandated loss of gainful work is a good thing; that giving millions of Americans an incentive not to work is "liberating". Yes, the New York Times, in unison with the Administration's press releases, has trumpeted that millions of Americans who now are "trapped" in ill-paying jobs will be "liberated" by government subsidies to pursue their dreams to realize their full potential... in the arts. Therefore, I assume, burger-flippers will begin composing piano concertos, janitors will turn to their true vocation as abstract artists, and hotel maids will write lyric poetry.

This is insanity. An insanity inspired by Obama's incompetence and undergraduate obsession with pseudo-socialism. America is not and was never intended to be a socialist country. Nonetheless, Barack Obama, ignorant of the laws of economics and disregarding the intent of the Founding Fathers, is determined to make it so. That is why, despite the demonstrable disaster which is Obamacare, he will not admit its failure. Now, let me put this in quotidian terms: If your child had made a serious mistake, and continued to defend that mistake and attempted futilely to prop it up, and lied and rationalized it to you, and asked you to wait to see the eventual result, would you, as a parent, simply acquiesce? Of course you would not. You would demand that the child stop lying, admit the error, and undo the damage he or she had done. But the Obama Administration cannot do this. Instead, it continues to lie and equivocate exactly as it did on the Benghazi raid, the IRS scandal, the AP scandal, the Fast and Furious scandal, and on and on.

And the mainstream media, zombie-like, nods their hollow heads and absorbs these absurd rationalizations as if they were dum-dum bullets being fired at their undead carcasses. You say that Obamacare will kill 2.3 million jobs? That is good for the economy! You say that Benghazi was a spontaneous demonstration? Of course it was! You say that the IRS was not targeting conservative groups? Certainly!

In face of Obamacare's ongoing, monumental failure, I have come to agree with those commentators who have suggested that it was always intended to fail. And that, on the heels of that embarrassing failure, the federal government was always meant to race in and rescue the American health care industry with... universal, government-provided health care - the single payer system, of which Teddy Kennedy and Barney Frank and Harry Reid and other leftist politicians spoke in unguarded moments on open microphones. In short, that Obamacare is an elaborate charade being played out by the far left to guarantee that socialized medicine will become an inevitability in American life. That, it seems to me, was their intention from the beginning. Look at the numbers: the Administration boasts that six million Americans will obtain health insurance by March first (while claiming that 45 million had none - another lie); meanwhile six million  people who had it have lost it (a net wash), and, when the employer mandate kicks in later this year, as many as sixty-seven million more will lose their policies, for a net loss of sixty-one million people. And so we will end up with ten times more people without health insurance than with it, as a result of a law that was intended, ostensibly, to ensure that no American would be without it. This is madness.

My fear is that the same electorate that would submissively nod its head when lied to on this monumental scale will meekly submit when the federal government declares that It, and only It, can save us from the overwhelming disaster which It inflicted on us in the first place, by assuming absolute control over the most intimate part of our lives - the quality of our health.