This and That: Self-Help Books, William Blake, and Landscapes

Seagulls, Sky, Bird, Flight, Flying, Escape, Clouds

Here’s a little poem by William Blake, which my father sent me in response to my piece on detachment, that says it all:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

I think that’s exactly what I was groping my way towards.  Of course, it still doesn’t answer the question of what it means to bind yourself to a joy, or how exactly to kiss it as it flies!  I hope to write a few more thoughts on this later.

Speaking of that post, I feel bad using Metcalf’s painting, The White Veil, as a quick illustration.  It really deserves a post of its own.  Take a look:

File:Willard Leroy Metcalf - The White Veil (1909).jpg

I don’t know enough about art to understand how this can be so beautiful while being so realistic (isn’t that exactly the way the world looks through a veil of snow?).  I never get tired of looking at this, even in the middle of a New England winter.  I’ve always loved landscapes, even the more boring, extra-realistic ones.  I’d rather look at a landscape than a portrait any day.  I could look at this one all day:

File:Claude Monet - Branch of the Seine near Giverny.JPG

Branch of the Seine near Giverny, Claude Monet

I guess it’s the composition that’s so pleasing in both of these paintings.  Gauguin’s wonderful at this, too:

L’Aven en contre bas de la Montagne Sainte-Marguerite

Les Alyscamps

In the next week or so I hope to be posting reviews of a few books, including a fascinating new theological fantasy, some thoughtful and clever historical science fiction, and the first of a small series on self-help books that I’ve found to be truly helpful.  In the past I had a dismissive attitude toward self-help books, but I’ve come to realize that even the silliest books have a core of truth, if you’re willing to see it.  They’re like cliches; if you can get past the corniness, you’ll realize that they’ve become cliche for a reason: they’re true.


Hozier and T. S. Eliot

Have you heard “Take Me To Church”?  I can’t get over the fantastic sound of this song.  It’s one of the very few recent hits that I listen to all the way through every time I come across it on the radio.  Here’s the problem: when I first heard it, I thought it was a metaphor for a cruel lover–someone who demands worship and sacrifice, but who’s so alluring that he can’t leave her.  Then I saw the music video.  The relationship in it is not depicted as twisted at all–it’s loving and mutual.  But it’s homosexual, and the video ends with a gang hunting down and viciously beating one of the gay men.  Oh well.  Apparently the “church” Hozier is referring to isn’t the singer’s unnatural obsession with his lover, but the Catholic Church.

Hozier is a well-spoken and intelligent-sounding guy, and I can surely understand his bitterness against the Church, because he grew up in the mess that is Ireland.  I don’t think it’s worth getting into a long refutation here, other than to say that his basic premise–that “an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God”–is obviously wrong.  (The quote is from his interview here.)  The Church’s actual teaching is that homosexual orientation is not chosen, and not sinful.  It is engaging in homosexual acts that the Church considers disordered, though she demands love and respect for homosexuals in any situation.  (Please see the Church’s teaching in the Catechism at the end of the post.)  It’s a sad fact that there are many Catholics who don’t understand this themselves, and who engage in acts of hate against gays; but that doesn’t justify attacking the Church herself.

Anyway!  What I’d really like to talk about is the way Hozier conveys his message.  I don’t think it’s my fault that I misinterpreted the lyrics at first.  They’re very ambiguous!  He seems to use “her” and “church” to refer both to the homophobic people who tell him he was “born sick,” and to the lover he “should’ve worshipped…sooner.”  “My Church offers no absolutes. / She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.'”  Is this a protestation against the Catholic Church getting involved with what people do in the bedroom?  Or is it referring to his private religion of true love?  (“The only heaven I’ll be sent to / Is when I’m alone with you.”)  If so, why use “she,” when the video depicts a male relationship?  I’m having a hard time pulling out lines to analyze, because the themes are so interwoven.   (Here are the lyrics; what do you think?)  So I don’t think it’s really fair for him to pull out the blatant music video and explain “here, this is what the song is about!”  (Watch the video here, but be prepared for some disturbing content.)

If you want your song to be considered a form of art, the essential meaning should be accessible through the lyrics, even if it’s subtle and you have to dig pretty deep.  I’m pretty sure it’s just cheating to cram it all into the video.  It reminds me of T.S. Eliot, writing footnotes to his own poetry.

Ooh, I’m sorry, you’re soooo deep we couldn’t possibly understand you without footnotes?

It’s one thing to be esoteric, as a natural result of the profundity of your art; but it’s another thing to purposely be ambiguous, just so you can hit people over the head with the explanation.  Personally, I enjoy “Take Me to Church” a lot more than “The Wasteland.”  At least Hozier didn’t include any ancient Greek.


From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Finding Proof in the Storm

I have always wanted to write about the poetry in Bruce Springsteen’s work!  Thank you for giving me the opportunity.  Let’s start with the beautiful “Living Proof,” written after the birth of his first son.

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord’s undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof.

The spare imagery and description in the first verse is so effective: you can picture the light from heaven, embodied in the moon-filled boy, breaking through the dusk. I remember as a teenager drawing a Christmas card with this lyric and a picture of a ray from heaven breaking into the darkness of the stable. The image of the “fiery” moon is so interesting. To me, it evokes a memory of high school, when I was pretty depressed, staring up at the cold, beautiful, aloof moon and feeling wounded by it. “It was all the beauty I could take.”

…Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been a long, long drought baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

I love how Springsteen doesn’t go overboard and act as if all his existential problems are solved with the birth of the baby.  Life is still “fragile,” and he still feels like a “thief” who hasn’t really earned this blessing.  In other songs, Springsteen talks about a tentative hope or a belief in redemption and God’s love that keeps him going, but it’s never enough to take away the feeling of “dancing in the dark;” stumbling through the pain of life without despair, but without certitude and peace either.  In “Atlantic City:” “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”  Maybe.  But to stop searching for the meaning in life is unthinkable–Springsteen often references the living death of an unexamined life.  In “The Promised Land:”

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning, go to work each day
but your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometime I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart.

The only way for him to live with himself is by leaving the town and going out into the wilderness:

I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the deams that tear you apart….

He rejects the false “dreams” that kept him pacified, but there is nothing except blind “faith” to replace them.  This reminds me of what I remember from reading Camus in college: even if you’re not sure that there is any transcendence in the world, the most noble thing you can do is to live as if there is.  [I am aware that this may be a totally inaccurate description of Camus!  It’s been a long time.]  The speaker in “Born to Run” doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s got to escape the “death trap” of the town.  Because he’s unsatisfied with his false life, he’s “born to run,” just like the speaker in “Hungry Heart;” “like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing,” he’s compelled to keep running until he finds his true home.  Like Aeneas, he has to go down into the underworld before he can discern the path to his true destiny.

After re-reading this post, I realize how unusual “Living Proof” is; it begins with the same theme of being lost in the “drought,” but goes one step further by recognizing actual proof of God’s love–not just some nameless hope.  He may be missing the words to the prayer he needs to make, but the innocence of his son completes it for him.  One final quote from “Living Proof:”

You shot through my anger and my rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys, no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.

Next time I write about Springsteen, I’d like to continue talking about this theme in the song “Tunnel of Love.”  I’d better stop for now because I could do this all day.

Langston Hughes is Better than Ever

Langston Hughes’ birthday was the other day.  It’s been a long time since I had the patience for poetry but Hughes is so lovely and so accessible that I was able to pick him right up again.  I find his work charmingly uneven.  It ranges from the sweet, if not terribly profound:

Feet O’ Jesus

At the feet o’ Jesus
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.

(I’d pray this!  Except I’d feel a little awkward speaking that dialect.)

to the deceptively simple:


Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

(I think this poem is fully aware that there’s nothing “only” about heaven as a reward for a lifetime of suffering; but it doesn’t shrink away from the fact that sometimes that doesn’t make us feel better!  I wonder if he’s also alluding to the attempt to pacify oppressed people and keep them from claiming their rights by making them focus on the afterlife instead of this one.  This reminds me of Bob Marley’s “Get up, Stand up:” “Preacher man, don’t tell me heaven is under the earth…If you knew what life is worth, / you would look for yours on earth.”)

to the really devastating:

Song for a Dark Girl

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

(The sing-song rhythm and the quote from “I Wish I was in Dixie-Land” bring the irony to a heart-breaking level. Hughes imagines what it’s like for a persecuted black girl to hear a white nostalgia song about Dixie, when the Dixie she knew was no paradise. I’m blown over by the way he simultaneously expresses the girl’s distrust in the “white” God of Christianity and identifies her lover as a Christ-figure. The final image of the poem confirms the paradox–Love (her frustrated love, and the love of Christ) are defeated and stripped naked; but her lover’s solidarity with the Christ of Calvary may earn him a place with the Christ of the Resurrection.)


And then there’s Langston Hughes, the good old ball of cheese, when his earnestness gets the best of him:

Well.  I was going to quote one of his rambling, un-rhythmic, patriotic poems (“FREEDOM! / BROTHERHOOD! / DEMOCRACY! / To all the enemies of these great words: / We say, NO!”), but the more I read, the more depth and poetry I see in them, after all. Maybe I’m in a cheesy mood. So I’ll leave you with something we all need to remember these days (from the poem “In Explanation of Our Times):

…the radio, too, foggy with propaganda
that says a mouthful
and don’t mean half it says–
but is true anyhow:
True anyhow no matter how many
Liars use those words.

I had intended to move on to another poet, Bruce Springsteen, who I think has a lot in common with Hughes, but I think I better leave that for tomorrow. Time to go cook supper.