SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Stay cool! Winter poem. Gogol on art and transformation.


I got up at 7:00 a.m., coolest hour of the day, to pull the fans and shut the windows and curtains... 

Here's an image of this week's hot-weather picnic. Spanish tapas followed by homemade ice cream hiding little morsels of fresh cherries and dark chocolate.

If somebody has a secret weapon against Japanese knotweed (that green stuff in the background), let me know! Losing every battle here...

The weather was around 90F yesterday--not bad compared to what's happening elsewhere, but disturbing for many a Yankee villager. I'm rather glad to get hot out-of-doors, though I like to preserve the coolness in the house.


Brainchild of poet and publisher Karen Kelsay, The Orchards Poetry Journal popped up online today. Find it HERE

I see writers I e-know--Dan Sheehan, David Landrum, Katherine Hoerth, etc.--and one of my poems can be found on pp. 82-83. "Midnight Between the Water and the Air." It is set in winter, so good for mental cooling. You may take a vicarious walk on Lake Otsego aka James Fenimore Cooper's Glimmerglass.


Art reconciles us with life. Art is the introduction of order and harmony into the soul, not of trouble and disorder... If an artist does not accomplish the miracle of transforming the soul of the spectator into an attitude of love and forgiveness, then his art is only an ephemeral passion. --Nicholas Gogol

This is not how post-post-moderns think of art.

Gogol believed that art and life should fit together, that they must achieve a kind of friendship. In his view, art gifts us with the opposite of chaos--with order and resolution and consolation. But that's not always what the past century of art has sought to give us. Nor is it what most of our academies teach today, not after having passed through the wringer of the French critics. Many of our "best schools" show a marked disdain for works that sought after beauty and the harmony that comes with resolution of narrative or form. It's very old news that we can send a son or daughter to college for an English major and have them leave school without reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Lear or Jane Eyre or many another work of beauty and power.

And of course it is difficult to talk of what beauty can do for the human soul when so many think there is no element in us that could be named as soul. Dissect us, and the soul proves invisible, impossible to capture. We're materialists! Why not get rid of the past when its beauties can do nothing for a non-existent thing? And so if people never pick up Emily Dickinson's poems or Fielding's Tom Jones, well, there's just no finding out that perhaps works of arts do something strange and potent and stirring to an incorporeal, hard-to-pin part of them. 

Meanwhile, in a time of chaos and lack of unity between peoples, Gogol goes on telling us to reach for the highest possible thing in the realm of art. Imagine a making so strong and beautiful and full of energies that it leads to the transformation of all those who encounter it.


Picnic with no dessert? It took a while to freeze. But here's a 67-year-old woman with a bowl of homemade ice cream studded with fresh cherries and dark chocolate. 

Was it fantabulous? Yes. Made her a child again.


  1. It is difficult to converse across this gulf, isn't it? And yet we both treasure Dickinson and Fielding. I wonder if I really have any grasp of what you mean by "soul": possibly not. For me to maintain belief in my soul would be to sustain everything that impedes my reception of beauty: it would be to assert my own importance, centrality, and permanence; and -- implicitly -- to refuse any perception that challenged those things. But you must mean something very different: almost the inverse of that.

  2. Hah, yes, I'm quite clear that I am a mote, a jot, a wee little creature set against the mystery of the universe. Not particularly important, not needed for the world to wheel on... But even such a being can thrill to beauty, as if a human being could be an Aeolian harp left on a windowsill. And like you, I can strive to make beauty and, in doing so, make my self a tiny bit more than it was before. And sometimes for flashing moments I can harbor or hold or temple something larger than myself...

  3. I too worry about souls. Having one seems to represent membership of a tiny percentage of the world's population. Obviously I don't deserve a Christian afterlife since I don't subscribe to the Christian before-life. On the other hand I don't deserve punishment for this. Or if I do, I'll be one of a huge majority..

    I worry too about art being exalted. Response to art surely doesn't differ in principle to response to everything else we encounter. Capable of billions of interreactions our brain - which is something that really deserves exaltation - gradually builds up collections of responses which we may call templates and which enable us to recognise, judge and file away both new and old experiences. For possible application to whatever happens next. Our templates will rarely duplicate those of anyone else and may constitute a significant part of what we are wont to call our character.

    Three people see a car: one designates it as a curse on humanity, another a convenient way of getting from A to B, another as a symbol of man's inventiveness. All these "visions" are perfectly legitimate.

    Three people read an Emily Dickinson poem: one is uneasily disturbed by the apparent childishness of the language, another wonders why it is necessary to complicate a perfectly simple - even humdrum - event in a human being's life, one hears echoes of his/her own life in the poem and finds this remarkable. Again these are all legitimate responses.

    There is no definitive reaction to the poem. Interesting, since no one has ever written a "perfect" poem, it's quite conceivable that even the person who heard "echoes" feels that there are lines less satisfactory than others.

    We may exalt a poem but we must admit this is our own exaltation and not necessarily anyone else's. In fact it is even possible to exalt a car even if few others share this reaction. Admittedly art lasts longer than a car, but then art usage is less destructive than car usage. Poetry may be more important than a car to an eng. lit. academic but not when he discovers he is out of booze and the State Liquor Store closes in five minutes.

    In short, I like to think all my reactions are important since they are proof that my brain is doing what it was designed to do so. Would you like a sonnet on the Lamborghini Countach? As usual I jest.

  4. My small two cents: there's no merit in being ecstatic. The very word "ecstatic" conjures saints, but even the early church fathers warn against putting too much trust in being carried away. Feelings are often a substitute for genuine knowing. But it's pretty compelling when you have both.

    Whether we're talking about poetry or visual art or religion or cars or many another subject, the deepest knowing comes to prepared ground. The reader who has read widely is able to "enter in" to a variety of modes but understands what he loves best and why. The museum-goer may have more understanding about a work if she has a stockpile of images in her head already. Saul had the Damascus Road experience, the seed of everything after, in part because he was prepared ground and had been seeking God all his life. A lover of cars can appreciate beauty in a different way than I can--sure, I might have an eye for good lines, but I don't go beyond that to the building blocks of a machine. It's the seekers who find--those who choose not to seek after a certain thing, whatever it is, are less likely to find it.

    I think the three people responding to Dickinson you imagine could possibly all be the same person. In different years or simply on different days or different hours of the very same day.

  5. I was wrong to suggest that soul-owners (a part definition of a Christian believer) represent only a small percentage of the world's population; they are a healthy slice of it.

    That was a shrewd observation about the Emily Dickinson readers; all three versions could, at different times and in different states of mind, be the same person. It is as well to remind ourselves that our beliefs and convictions are often far from concrete.

    1. I'm midway in cleaning a bathroom given over to cats for two decades and have zero thoughts of any import except a huge desire to be done scraping sand-silt out of weird little cracks under the baseboard, etc.

      A person is many things in the course of a day!

      A friend just mentioned on the facebook link that she was somewhat shaped by Gogol-reading as a teen... but what she really wants right this minute is some cherry ice cream.

      Yes, a person is many things in the course of a day, and sometimes that is my fault!

    2. P. S. to RR: Technically speaking (as opposed to the casual things people often mean by words), you may easily admit that you have a soul. That is, human beings are made of three parts: 1. body (material aspect); 2. soul (psyche, life force that enlivens you and lets you grow. Also true of animals. Maybe plants too. But humans have a rational soul that can manage abstractions, philosophical speculation, scientific questioning, complex argument, etc.); 3. spirit (pneuma, Genesis 2:7 the "breath" of God, "nous," or spiritual intellect.) So there, RR!

    3. Descartes was rather more concise: Cogito ergo sum. And that I will subscribe to.

    4. Waving... I am doing little thinking myself--off seeing to a 92-year-old woman! More anon.

  6. Possibly of interest ... some believe the soul weighs 21 grams. If it is true, and there is such a thing as a soul, even with this slightest of weight, why is it that only we human creatures should be so singled out to have this ..., this aspect of our existence, this understanding of being alive and here on this earth?

    1. If we are meaning-seeking beings who have a story that explains such a thing (i.e. Genesis), we do find out the answer to that question. Genesis says that men and women are made in the "image" of God. Rabbits, hedgehogs, tigers, whales, centipedes, and eagles are not given that identity, though they are meant to be named and stewarded. And a later portion of that long, complicated library of books we call the bible makes it clear that Christ is the "icon" of God--the living image of what has no image.

      That's one way of being alive and answering that question--to live and be a part of that enormous story.

      We live in a time when it's hard for many people to live in that story--to care about handed-down early church tradition and about scripture. In that case, it certainly is a puzzle.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.