Surrender to the sky

Selected Poems of James K Baxter; Paul Millar (cover)

Selected Poems of James K Baxter, edited by Paul Millar (cover)

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Baxter ambushed me again
today. (Yes, okay, I’ll explain.)

I’m in the New Zealand Reference Collection, Wellington City Library, and making my way to one of my habitual reading spots. Having already picked up the latest issue of Sculpture, and a Vidar Sundstøl novel, I have plenty to occupy my afternoon … but some library staff member has set up this book of Baxter’s poems on the end of a shelf.

Opening the slim volume at random, I smile my way through some familiar verses, but eventually turn back to the first in Millar’s selection – the iconic High Country Weather, which Baxter had penned in 1945 at 19 years of age:

Alone we are born
…… And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
…… Over snow mountain shine.

Along the upland road
…… Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
…… Your heart of anger.

The opening lines seem like a contrary echo of “Thee, God, I come from, to thee go” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–89). And the supercharged description, “red-gold cirrus”, takes me straight to the final cadence of The Windhover, in which the poet gazes not up at wind-winnowed clouds but into the glowing coals of a camp-fire:

… shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

From the first, I suspected I might be reading too much into Baxter’s lines – would the adolescent poet have (as I had) read Hopkins? At school, he had certainly read Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and Day-Lewis – and also, later, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, and Hart Crane (Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). We know he had been turning out poems since the age of seven, “and completed six hundred between the ages of sixteen and twenty” (Paul Stanley Ward).

Whereas Hopkins revelled in the arcane, characteristically seeking out “All things counter, original, spare, strange” (from G M Hopkins, Pied Beauty), Baxter delighted in a beguiling simplicity, an almost facile fluidity. We do well to remember, though, that “Baxter was a compelling mix of high and low culture, sacred and profane” (Paul Stanley Ward).

Some see existentialism in High Country Weather – it certainly carries little trace of the Catholicism that was later to infuse the poet’s work. To me, it seems more Buddhist than existentialist. In Sexual Personae [p5], Camille Paglia asserts that “Buddhist meditation seeks the unity and harmony of reality,” but later on the same page adds that “Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.”

James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause”

James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause”

I cannot avoid pointing to another James: James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause – although, of course, High Country Weather predates the 1955 film by a decade. Baxter described his adolescence as “a testing time”, and his university experience as a “long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning” (Paul Stanley Ward).

Hopkins and Baxter, each with very different sensibilities, both tap into something of how the human mind makes sense of things. Camille Paglia argues that “Poetry is the connecting link between body and mind” (Paglia, 1990), elsewhere contending that “Poetry is the way into a spiritual vision of society and the universe.”

Perhaps I’d have been closer to the mark had I connected High Country Weather with words from Be Happy in Bed (1958-9, 1979, also included in Millar’s selection):

The self so persecuted by enigmas
prefers a mountain to a nagging mother.


NOTES:

The “today” in my opening couplet refers not to the date of publication, but to the day (a week or more ago) on which I started writing this piece.

Paul Stanley Ward’s story, James K Baxter: On the Razor’s Edge, appears on http://www.nzedge.com/james-keir-baxter/

Article on life and poetry of James K Baxter is found on Poet Seers, a web-site developed by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre.

Analysis of The Windhover: https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/deciphering-hopkins-the-windhover/

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press; Penguin (paperback, 1990). See: http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300043969

Profile of Camille Paglia: http://www.uarts.edu/users/cpaglia

IMAGES:

The cover image for Selected Poems of James K Baxter, edited by Paul Millar shows Baxter outside “Canterbury University” in 1947.  Image credit: Hocken Library.

James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” appears in a piece titled “100th Anniversary Of The T shirt” on the web-site, http://www.designbyhumans.com/forum/dbh-news/1153137/100th-anniversary-of-the-t-shirt/

 

Justice: rough, and getting rougher

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato's <i>Republic</i>.

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century document containing fragments of Plato’s Republic.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” I read on Facebook recently. And whose words were they? I wasn’t surprised to find they’d come from the Dalai Lama, who elsewhere goes so far as to assert that compassion provides the basis of human survival.

Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is a radical, too. He’s certainly saying some of the things espoused by that other high-profile radical, Jesus.

Occupying my thoughts lately: the relationship between justice and compassion; I’ve been trying to break through the innumerable cognitive impasses that loom up every time I try to come to some understanding of the chaos that is our world. But I find myself shaking my head and parroting Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

The myriad issues around crime and punishment, original sin, human nature – and whatever else might have just come to your mind – are all well beyond the scope of this post. Or are they?

In Plato’s Republic, the cynic Glaucon posits that justice is a social contract between people who are roughly equal in power. According to that theory, justice operates on the basis that “no one is able to oppress the others, since the pain of suffering injustice outweighs the benefit of committing it.” (Wikipedia: Glaucon) But there’s a hollow ring to all such claims. In matters of justice, the “roughly” far outweighs the “equal”.

Glaucon told Socrates that “people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched,” explains William Saletan, reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 title, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “No man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity,” says Glaucon, arguing that the just man would do the same as the unjust man if both had the power to get away with injustice exempt from punishment. (The story Glaucon tells to illustrate his reasoning has to do with an invisibility ring (see Wikipedia: Republic (Dialogue)).

In my view, justice is a creation of human societies and cultures, not the outworking of some universal harmony, divine command, or natural law. Furthermore, I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, not the creation of all humans (see Wikipedia: Justice). Thrasymachus, another of Plato’s characters, argues that “justice is the interest of the strong – merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people” (Wikipedia: Justice).

Jonathan Haidt’s book has, as Saletan says, made a significant effort to “[challenge] conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.” Amazon.com describes Haidt as the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org , adding that his research aims “to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.” Beyond understanding and respect, however, what can we do?

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different intuitions about right and wrong, Haidt says. And he makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning debate by “[showing] how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings” (see Amazon blurb). And, cutting short another long story, our gut feelings have been trained by what another reviewer calls “brute evolution” (see Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013).

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells me that “Western philosophers generally regard justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.”  But then, stirring a dash of Schopenhauer into the stew, I call to mind his assertion that “Compassion is the basis of morality.”

What I am interested in – and, to me, this is crucial – is not how to reason, argue, or persuade someone to vouchsafe “justice as a right” for this or that disadvantaged or disenfranchised group. That simply isn’t about to happen, as far as I can see. Rather, I’m seeing “justice as a possibility”, arising not out of gut feelings or sentiments, knowledge of right and wrong, or anything moral, but out of the same source from which Jesus pulled the Sermon on the Mount.

That is possibly what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “I say more, the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / …” (see “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame“,  undated poem, c. March–April 1877)

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)

In the end only kindness matters.

Wellington Spring

kōwhai flowers (31 August 2013)

kōwhai flowers (31 August 2013)

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Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in Spring (Poems 1918)

At the end of our warmest winter on record, New Zealanders have been treated to an early spring.

The leaf-buds on roses pruned only a week ago are already bursting with new life, and the magnolias in local gardens are quite spectacular.

Spring is seen as a time of growth, renewal, of new life (both plant and animal) being born. The term is also used more generally as a metaphor for the start of better times, as in the Prague Spring. … In South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, spring begins on 1 September, and has no relation to the vernal equinox. (Wikipedia)

Throughout the region, the golden flowers of kōwhai are in evidence – although not all of the eight species bloom at the same time. A grand old tree in a friend’s garden is showing its first flowers for the season (see image).  Before long, though, it will be a glowing mass of colour, and a magnet for tui (more correctly, tūī), which like kōwhai nectar in spring as much as they do flax flowers in summer.

Despite having no official status as such, the blooms of the kōwhai are widely regarded as being New Zealand’s national flower. (Wikipedia)

Somewhere in the back of my mind is the idea that the kōwhai flower has been utilised as an emblem of reconciliation, but I can find no relevant inter-web reference.

Perhaps it connects with Māori medicinal practice (rongoā). In traditional Māori healing, diagnosis involved a holistic approach that included mind, body and spirit – mauri (spark or life force), wairua (spirit), and tapu (natural law). Whakapapa or genealogy was also considered. (from www.newzealand.com) All parts of the tree contain toxic alkaloids, so careful preparation of kōwhai rongoā is crucial.

Winter in my little pansy- and violet-sprinkled courtyard hasn’t required much of me, but the surge in spring growth has the weeds flourishing and the fragrant mint spreading.

I’m busy tomorrow. Maybe Tuesday …