Poetry: The Language of the Spirit

In everyday conversation, and in most situations requiring a verbal response, we take for granted that the simple expression of words in the appropriate order will suffice to communicate the basic information that will satisfy the immediate question at hand. If someone asks you what kind of day you are having, your first inclination is probably not to speak in rhyming couplets.

On the other hand, when you are deeply saddened by the departure of someone you love, or wish to express a complex notion or describe a profound experience, you may feel particularly strong emotions or wish to express thoughts that are especially important or moving, that the full expression of them simply cannot be accomplished in everyday conversation.

William Wordsworth addressed this idea in this excerpt from “Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey…July 13, 1798”

…For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things.

Wordsworth confirms for us, in the most eloquent way, that our human lives are “interfused” with a “motion and spirit” that impels us through the many difficult and joyful moments of our lives, and can be found in ALL things, regardless of how we view them or struggle with them.

Struggling with the departure of someone dear some years ago, the poetic expression of the sonnet attempted to express the difficulty:


In Dreams of What Could Be

By John J. Hyland, III

Longing for you has left a heavy mark,
I’ve dragged my heart and mind through thorns and vines.
Most every heartening thought grows dark,
And halts attempts to speak with hopeful lines.

And yet the hope for love could live again,
Your considered words could cancel all doubt,
Deepened over the years of turmoil when
In dark despair, the light of hope went out.

A glimmer of that special light still burns,
Like candles beckon in windows at night.
Every hope in darkness lost still earns
A chance to be the harbinger of light.

Until the dawn of hope appears for me,
I’ll search for you in dreams of what could be.

© 2000 by JJHIII

From the Cummings Study Guide:

A sonnet is a 14-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and meter (usually iambic pentameter). This poetry format–which forces the poet to wrap his thoughts in a small, neat package–originated in Sicily, Italy, in the 13th Century with the sonnetto (meaning little song), which could be read or sung to the accompaniment of a lute. When English poets began writing poems in imitation of these Italian poems, they called them sonnets, a term coined from sonnetto. Frequently, the theme of a sonnet was love, or a theme related to love.”

http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/

If we can see the world of possibility in poetry, if we can realize a point of view through poetry that we never considered before, then our own poetry, the expression that begs to be released from within us, can attain a level we never imagined it could.

John H.

Echoes of the Moment

Before I was able to relinquish my tenuous grasp on consciousness
after working through the night,
The irresistible call of the spring morning sun
pulled my heart and mind to delay fitful sleep
for a moment of blissful, temperate contemplation
of the season’s gifts; waves of sunlight,
gentle breaths of wind, tranquil murmur of memories–

Echoes of the moment.

The sun’s radiant beauty streaked across the void
to reach for my face like the hand of a dear friend,
whose warm and comfortable touch soothed my
most troublesome aches with loving thoughts.
This day, the whispering breeze persuaded my hair
to allow my face to experience its whispered touch,
to sense the eddies in the flow of air, and to tickle my neck.

Echoes of the moment

Birds click and coo pleasingly in the distance as I close my eyes;
Inside me, staring contentedly at the blazing red surface of
closed eyelids, I enjoy the passing refrain of a distant train,
competing with a buzzing lawn mower down the street,
And the echoes of the moment in my consciousness.
The cat wants to have my attention, but I’m not ready,
So he finally lays at my feet like he’s always been there.

Echoes of the moment.

© April 2011 by JJHIII

Spiritual Information

Recent criticism of the Templeton Organization by science writer John Horgan in his blog on Scientific American, “Cross Check” asked the question,

Is there such a thing as a spiritual fact? This question is brought to mind by the Templeton Prize, which was given last week to the British astrophysicist Martin Rees.

Horgan states his objections in this way:

What bothers me most about the Templeton Foundation is that it promotes a view of science and religion—or “spirituality,” to use the term it favors—as roughly equivalent.

Moreover, the claim that ‘progress in spiritual information is just as feasible as progress in the sciences’ is absurd, because there is no such thing as ‘spiritual information’.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=prize-in-the-sky-the-templeton-foun-2011-04-08

The Templeton Foundation’s goal is “…the stimulation of progress in humanity’s spiritual journey and quest… (and) to bring together the dynamism of the sciences and that of the spiritual quests…

Whether or not an individual is primarily an advocate of either science or spirituality, the effort to enhance both by advocating a broader understanding of how the two support each other in important ways is a noble endeavor. In any contentious or controversial subject area, there is much benefit in considering the merits of alternative viewpoints when seeking a greater understanding generally.

In an article by David Pratt in Sunrise magazine, June/July 1995 entitled, “John Eccles on Mind and Brain,” he quotes the distinguished neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the synapse:

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. “–Evolution of the Brain, Creation of the Self, p. 241

Pratt also reminds us of Eccles view of the problem in reconciling the scientific and spiritual views:

…materialists believe that the problems will be resolved when we have a more complete scientific understanding of the brain, perhaps in hundreds of years, a belief which Eccles ironically terms “promissory materialism.” Eccles feels that this “impoverished and empty” theory fails to account for “the wonder and mystery of the human self with its spiritual values, with its creativity, and with its uniqueness for each of us.” (How the Self Controls Its Brain, pp. 33, 176.)

Examination of specific data and employing empirical methodology is central to the nature of scientific inquiry. The methods and process of discovery in science have produced results enormously beneficial to humanity, many times incidentally to the intended aim of a particular scientific study. At the same time, less empirically rigorous approaches to complex problems, like intuition and speculation, do sometimes serve as a means to open pathways to discovery that would not otherwise be considered.

B. Alan Wallace, in “The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness,” writes that:

While consciousness lies in the no man’s land between religion and science, claimed by both yet understood by neither, it may also hold a key to the apparent conflict between these two great human institutions.

Even as 21st century humans, we can still experience a sense of awe when we turn our gaze to the panorama of stars on a crisp, clear winter night, but unlike our ancient ancestors, most of us are fully aware of what we see when we observe the night sky. In spite of our more comprehensive awareness of the world, and our place in the expanding universe, we still have a sense of something beyond what we can discern with our senses.

In many ways, it is precisely because we have a greater comprehension of our temporal existence that the persistent sense of “something more” behind it all continues to engage us. A strictly materialist view of existence may be as comforting to the empiricist as this sense of “something more” can be to those who embrace the idea of the “human spirit,” but to deny its existence completely in the face of the extraordinary history and literature of humanity through the millennia, and in consideration of every possible avenue of exploration we currently possess seems, at best, short-sighted.

John H.

Image is the center third of “Education” (1890), a stained glass window by Charles Louis Tiffany and Tiffany Studios, located in Linsley-Chittenden Hall at Yale University. It depicts Science (personified by Devotion, Labor, Truth, Research and Intuition)

Keeping Myself Going

After work tonight, exhausted but grateful for the opportunity to work, I slipped a classical music CD into the player and slowly pulled out of the parking lot. Since I have only recently begun working on the overnight shift, I have struggled to adjust to the hours which have me traveling to work when most people are getting ready for bed, and getting ready for bed when most people are just getting ready to travel to work. It’s an odd reverse-juxtaposition of several key components of a daily routine that most people take for granted.

As I entered the main highway, the Ninth Variation of Elgar’s epic work, VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME (Enigma), op 36 – entitled “Nimrod” began to reverberate through the stillness of a nearly empty late-night highway run. As the music swirled around me and built momentum toward the climax, for some reason, I was reminded of the moment when I first saw my son as he stepped onto American soil at Pope AFB in Fayetteville, NC after his second tour as a soldier in Iraq.

With about three hundred other people waiting to greet their own returning soldier, I stood out on the tarmac as the military transport’s wheels touched the ground, and a deafening cheer rose from the crowd. Through a blur of tears, we all watched and cheered as the soldiers started down the steps, once again setting foot in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

When the soldiers were dismissed, we scrambled through the maze of armed men, struggling to be polite as we nudged past the swarming friends and families, all on the same mission.

When I finally reached my son, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and a flood of joy, love, and relief flowed out of me like a tidal wave. I grabbed him and held him so tightly, that the contours of his weapon, slung across the front of his body, left an impression on us both.

I found it impossible to let go of him for several minutes. My heart had ached for that moment for so long, that it took a few minutes to convince myself I was actually holding him in my arms! After some nervous laughter and gathering of wits, we both walked around meeting some of the other men from his unit, and posed out in front for the family.

The connection to Elgar’s music escaped me until I did an internet search about the Enigma Variations.

The story is told of how Elgar, returning home from giving violin lessons, sat down at the piano and, to unwind, began improvising. . Out of that spontaneous exchange grew the idea of the Enigma Variations, the work that finally secured Elgar’s reputation as a composer of national, even international, standing. It remains one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire.

http://www.elgar.org/3enigma.htm

In particular, the Ninth Variation, called “Nimrod,” was described as follows:

A J Jaeger, Elgar’s great friend whose encouragement did much to keep Elgar going during the period when he was struggling to secure a lasting reputation – the variation allegedly captures a discussion between them on Beethoven’s slow movements.”

Later that night, standing out on the balcony at his apartment, I once again held my son in my arms, and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving, thinking with profound sadness of the thousands of parents who lost their loved ones in the war, realizing that it was a very thin line separating me from all of those parents who could no longer have that experience.

Each life brought forth into the world as a result of our love for each other, like the ripples which result when you cast a stone into still waters, produces waves of love through the years that follow, and is an affirmation of the love which produced each of us.

As any parent who loves their children knows, each new generation is not simply a continuation of our love, but a magnification and an altered extension of our love, into a future which we, ourselves, may only catch a glimpse, before we return to the source of all life.

My love for my son, and the enormous encouragement I received from my family and friends during his three deployments, helped me to “keep myself going” during those difficult years.

Human Intelligence, Computers, and Consciousness

Vitruvian Man

Conventional wisdom these days isn’t much help when we look ahead to the future of life on earth, since life is fairly unconventional these days by most reckonings, and even what might previously have been described as common sense hardly seems common at all anymore. If there is any consolation to the currently prevailing uncertainty of it all, it is that with so much uncertainty there’s still a chance it might all turn out okay. That doesn’t sound like much of a chance until you consider the alternatives which include a clearly downward spiral toward the abyss.

Life itself arose in our little corner of a minor galaxy in an astonishing confluence of matter and energy and environment in our solar system, but took billions of years to produce significant results of the sort that permitted intelligent life to unfold. Once established, intelligent life progressed rapidly by comparison, and we see human progress increasing exponentially as the years pass.

When you consider the unlikely way in which life itself sprang into existence on Earth, our own uncertainty in the 21st century starts to look far less daunting. In the earliest epoch of humanity, the first truly useful and meaningful awareness of human consciousness in our ancient ancestors could only have appeared once the hominid brain finally possessed the necessary prerequisites for cognition and awareness. No matter when the architecture of the brain and the physiological structures within the body finally became mature enough to allow heightened sense perception and cognition, possession of these talents alone could not have produced significant results right away, and consciousness must have taken an enormous amount of time to develop into a recognizable phenomenon.

One can see in the parallel of our modern development from human babies to functional adults, that the ability to utilize the brains’ miraculous capacities requires an accumulation of knowledge and experience over many years before becoming notably useful beyond basic skills. Modern children normally have the advantage of being surrounded by already functional and accomplished human beings with a fully developed language and plenty of knowledge and experience from which to learn. For our ancient ancestors, who were starting from scratch, there was no such advantage. Of course, increased intelligence isn’t necessarily a harbinger of good news for humanity.

A recent article in Time magazine expresses this idea well. Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of what has been described as the “singularity” (Time magazine, February 21,2011, pg. 42), “n: The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” points to a sort of tipping point in the progress of artificial intelligence. According to this theory, by 2023 computers will surpass human brainpower, and by 2045 they will possess “super intelligence,” or brainpower “…equivalent to that of all human brains combined.

While the author of this article, Lev Grossman, admits that such a “Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, he also believes that “…it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.” The problem for me, aside from equating artificial intelligence with the human variety, is his assertion that when “All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is that our brains are doing when they create consciousness…then all bets are off.

It always intrigues me when so-called “experts” attempt to simplify “human consciousness” as being some sort of evolutionary adaptation easily explained by brain physiology or cognitive functioning. It’s a “no-brainer” that our development of a complex and integrative cerebral cortex gave us access to a level of cognitive function (as yet unmatched by any other species to our knowledge) that permits an exceptionally keen awareness of BEING conscious, but consciousness itself is a much larger and expansive subject than brain physiology or cognitive science and any attempt to explain consciousness in a comprehensive sense clearly requires a much broader understanding.

I recently encountered the writings of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton professor who wrote extensively about the origins of consciousness in humans, and his theory posits that humans did not immediately develop into conscious creatures fully until around 2 B.C. when a fully developed “metaphorical language” provided the necessary requisites for the achievement of a fully functional human consciousness.

There can be no doubt that our awareness required the development of metaphorical language for our apprehension of consciousness to be expressed, and for meaningful thought to formulate ideas and concepts necessary for recognition of the existence of consciousness, but it seems much more likely that consciousness exists as a “fundamental feature” (Chalmers) of existence and that, as consciously aware creatures, we are “aware” of consciousness in the same way that we are aware of electromagnetism.

Whatever sort of result comes from technological progress in artificial intelligence, what we will no doubt find, as we look toward the uncertain future, is that no matter how intelligent we or our machines become, no amount of fiddling or advanced technology will change the fundamental features of existence.

Pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, showing how a man’s body fits into a circle and a square by adjusting the position of his arms and legs, called Vitruvian Man.

“Vitruvius was an ancient Roman architect who wrote a series of ten books on architecture – one of the few collections of books of its type that survived into the Renaissance. In the third volume, which is on the proportions of temples, he states that these buildings should be based on the proportions of man, because the human body is the model of perfection. He justifies this by stating that the human body with arms and legs extended fits into the perfect geometric forms, the circle, and the square. “– excerpt from article © Robert M. Place 2000

http://thealchemicalegg.com/leotaroN.html

The Spirit of Poetry

Ever since the invention of languages and the realization of a deeper meaning to our existence, human beings have felt the need to express what they find within. Our inner worlds, far richer and profoundly more expansive than the world without, permit the creative expression of that world, but in terms that must attempt to communicate its ineffable nature. We can compose clever rhymes, and speak of frivolous things, or we can reach into the depths of our emotions and our inner worlds to reveal an idea, a feeling, an image, or a thought that resonates for us, bursting forth through metaphor, which releases the sheer power of the idea or emotion.

A well executed and pleasing piece of poetry invites us to appreciate the many assets we all might find within ourselves if we would only look. I find much encouragement in gentle words and heart-felt lines, rich in the poetic. For me, poetry has always been a release or a letting go or a spilling out. Many times, I am surprised by what arrives on the page when I set the poetry wheels in motion.

When poetry erupts and breaks the smooth surface of conscious awareness, it can feel like an intrusion, even though it is a welcomed one. The ripples are often felt long after the words arrive, and I feel compelled to return to the poem for another look.

I have had the urge to write down my thoughts as poems ever since being introduced to poetry as a schoolboy. I recall vividly the experience of my mother reading poetry to us from a volume of children’s rhymes, and the first time that poetry was introduced in the classroom. We began with a small anthology of classic works, with each poem accompanied by a famous painting to illustrate the theme.

Over the years, I have accumulated many thoughts, memories, and reflections which inspired a poetic response, and during poetry month, I hope to post a few that evoked a particularly vivid aspect of my inner world. To begin, I offer the following poem entitled, “My Waking Dream.”

My Waking Dream
By John J. Hyland, III

In the silences of
My waking dream,
I fly to the sunlit meadow
Of contemplation,
Deep within the solitude of
My inner realm.

Through the tall grass of memory,
I trod the path to home,
Near the summer sun of joy.
You are always there waiting,
Lingering like the dew that
Clings to every morning thing.

Smiling as I arrive,
Arrayed only in the glow of affection,
I greet you with unencumbered joy,
Casting myself freely
Into the deepest sweetness
I have ever known.

We stroll amongst the rising tides
Of deeply heartfelt glances,
And the ebbing of desire.
Swiftly fading light signals
The return of the temporal world as
I reluctantly release your hand from mine.

© August 2003 by JJHIII