Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

Obstructive Mystery in Poetry

Below is a quote of Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, when he was interview by the Paris review in the Fall of 2001.

A common problem I find with much poetry is when the poet is attempting to be mysterious, as if being mysterious is a prerequisite for poetry.  In the same way, many poets feel that capitalizing lines in their stanzas, or leaving off definite articles, or using flowery language, or making obscure academic allusions, or using difficult vocabulary may be a qualifier for good poetry.

Another poet laureate and favorite poet of mine is Ted Kooser who, in his The Poetry Home Repair Manual, said “I favor poems that keep the obstacles between you and [the reader] to a minimum “.  And so, with that in mind, below is Billy Collins addressing how mystery in poetry can be an obstruction to its readers.

I feel there’s a time to be clear and a time to be mysterious in a poem. Poems that fail for me are often poems in which the poet is being mysterious about something that should be clear, or simplifying something that should be left mysterious. It’s a matter of knowing what cards should be turned over and what cards should be kept face down. Poems that turn too many cards over don’t respect the mysteriousness of life, and poems that turn over no cards are a game not really worth playing. My advice to poets is: Turn more cards over, or, Don’t turn so many cards over. I don’t want to know about that. I don’t want to see that card. If you’ve written a poem about your brother who is in the hospital undergoing surgery, well, tell us that. Why should that be a secret? Tell us the circumstances of the poem. But how you feel about this brother you’ve always felt competitive with, angry with, how you feel about him being close to death now—should remain mysterious. You can’t do that justice in twenty lines.

Let me describe a typical scenario in a workshop where a poem gets passed around the table. Everyone has a copy of the poem; the poet reads it, and there’s a polite silence. Then someone says, Well, it’s an interesting title. More silence. Someone says, That ending’s weird. Anyway, ten minutes later we conclude that no one knows what’s going on. No one has a clue, right? So you turn to the poet for help, and she says, Well, I wrote this poem when my brother was in the hospital undergoing surgery. All of a sudden the poem becomes seventy-three percent clearer. She kept that a secret. She wanted to make that mysterious. That shouldn’t be a mystery! Call the poem “Poem Written in the Hours When My Brother Was Undergoing Surgery,” and then tell us what’s going on. How you feel about your brother can be couched in imagery, fraught with uncertainty. You must remain ambivalent about such matters.

It’s like in shopping malls you have that arrow that says, You are here. The beginning of the poem should at least give you that kind of information. The romantic lyrics are so good about that because the poet always starts off by telling you where he is. You know, I’m sitting in my backyard in a lime-tree bower, or, I’m sitting up on a hill, or, I’m lying in a field, or, I’m three miles above Tintern Abbey. Location. The poem always starts with a geographical grounding wire, then moves off into areas of amazing speculation and fanciful imaginative realms.


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Conversation Topics

Generic Conversations
In this earlier post, I lamented how most conversations are superficial, with no participant exposing their opinions or experiences which could be revealing or controversial.  Superficial conversations are what grease society and useful, of course, but when that is all we do and opportunity for deep or personal conversations are reflexively avoided, I think we error.

In this post I made another complaint about those who steel conversation.  There I note that most conversations are not dialogues but instead, merely coordinated monologues with each person just waiting to steal the conversation to start up their monologue again – only pretending to listen (though they’d never want to imagine themselves that way).

In this post, I have experimented  with a diagram to illustrate the common topics of conversation.   These are neither bad or good topics, but the common one.  If people are having conversations about these topics where they can be personal, exploring the statements of others, instead of stealing and try to be open, they can be wonderful.  But they are often just mechanical monologues of sorts.

Note that in my diagram I have divided topics by both age and gender.  You will notices that topics change as we get older (kids talk about music, old folks about their grandchildren), and gender (though we all share many topics, each sex has its tendency toward specialties: women like clothes and shopping talks, men like sports).

In my next post I will give an example of a conversation I had this week that illustrates several of these issues: monologues, conversation stealing and topic by age (which is what inspired this post).  But meanwhile, let me know what you think I have forgotten or gotten wrong in my diagram. Thank you to Anna and Paul’s comments that have helped me in updating this post so far.


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Jingoistic Populism: A New Fiction

Identity Anchors

Reading The Guardian today, I saw a review of Harari’s 2015 best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“. The reviewer states that the center of the book’s contention is that “what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organization on a massive scale.”

In 2013 I wrote a post about how we create reifications (the packaging of abstractions).  Perhaps Harari would agree that these reifications are our “shared fictions”.

One of the greatest fictions our minds is always desperately creating is “Identity”, a sense of self.  Identity is an inevitable cognitive illusion. We use various anchors to secure our identity in our tumultuous world (thus the waves in my above diagram). Our minds use these anchors as manipulative signals to both ourselves and others that we have good-status, are trustworthy, have power, are committed, know true meaning,  have hope and more.

This takes me to a recent Peter Beinart article in The Atlantic: “Breaking Faith: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.

Beinart states the fact that participation in organized religion has hugely declined in the USA.  He contends that as people see through [my words] the fictions of religion, they need something else to serve the purposes of religion. They need some other anchor in reality – another method to signaling to themselves and others.


As the allure of religions fades, people experience an emptiness.  To replace the “God” reification, other reifications such as jingoistic nationalism or materialistic secularism come to fill the gap. Is this a “God Gap”? — no, it is a mental gap — a craving for a new fiction — an attempt to anchor down one’s identity.


Note: Also see my post on “Your Modular God” to see how the spackle used to fill the God Gap really plays a minimal role in most modern religion due to the various functions of religion.


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Clocks: Impeach or Boom!

Time til Doomsday

Remembering the nuclear doomsday clock clouding my youth, I decided to make this graphic today. What do you think?

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Turkish Oil & JC Superstar

mary-anoints-jesusJesus Christ Superstar is a 1970’s rock opera about the last days of Jesus. I listened to the record album over and over when I was in my last year of High School. The Opera is interpretive, but then so are the gospels, and thus controversial. Yet it is hugely accurate to much of the orthodox gospels. Thanks to Spotify, I recently downloaded the album to take a trip down memory lane. My sweetheart and myself listen to the album this weekend in a car trip but her background in the Bible is rather weak, so we would stop the songs occasionally so I could explain to her the various stories of Jesus.

In the Opera’s catchy tune “Everything’s Alright“, Judas chastises Mary Magdalene (and Jesus) when Mary anoints Jesus in oil.  Wiki quotes the various Gospel versions here.

In the opera, Judas’s chastisement goes as follows:

Woman your fine ointment – brand new and expensive
could have been saved for the poor
Why has it been wasted, we could have raise maybe
three hundred silver pieces or more.
People who are hungry, people who are starving,
matter more than your feet and hair.

My sweetheart wanted to know what this “oil” thing was all about, so to help explain, I told this story from my Asian travels in the mid-seventies:

When I was 19 years-old I hitchhiked from Europe to India. My first long stop was in Istanbul Turkey where I looked up the family of a Turkish friend I made in German. My friend had told me that if I ever made it to Turkey (as he’d stayed in Germany), I should look up his family. The father was a taxi driver and no English was spoken in the house, but the 14 year-old younger son of my friend did speak fair German, so we could communicate.

Soon after arriving in their house, I had to go to the bathroom where I was shocked to find there was no toilet paper.  I opened the door and asked the boy what I should do and he instructed me how they wiped with their hands using a pot of water.  Well, that would be the method I used for the rest of that year as I crossed Asia.  But it was clean, I washed my hands well and then again joined the family.  In the living room, on meeting the rest of the family the mother came up to me and told me to put my cupped hands out to receive something  from a jar.  The son looked at my puzzled face and nodded to signal it was OK. The mother then poured an oil into my hands and told me to wipe it all over my face and hair.  Again the son coached me that it was OK.  I was then drenched in a heavy perfumed oil.  It was actually rather pleasant.  And apparently such a habit of treating honored guests this way has existed for millennia in the MidEast.

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shaytanIn the 1990’s I was the Medical Officer for the Peace Corps in China.  During the orientation of a new batch of volunteers, I was teaching about vaccine requirements when one nervous volunteer asked me if the vaccines would hurt.  In a mischievous joking way I said, “I think so.”  The rest of the volunteers laughed, but apparently that volunteer wrote his mother that evening saying, “I think our doctor is Satan.”  Thereafter, the other volunteers jokingly nicknamed me “Shaytan” (Arabic for “Satan”) — a name I enthusiastically embraced with good humor as a counter strategy for the ways we take ourselves too seriously.

My son just turned me on to Spotify where I looked up a childhood favorite: Cat Stevens.  There I found his Islamic record with the song “Shaytan”.  In light of the above story, perhaps this should be my new theme song?  I imagine many of my detractors would agree.


Pic credit:  Logo for French death metal band here

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An Idiot I will Remain

sumo_matchToday, in the YMCA locker room, a man tried to strike up conversation with me with the universal male subject of sports.  Our city’s football team had won and he happily wanted to share this saying “We won!”  I asked, “Who won what?”  And the man looked at me like I had a third head.

I remember one night 30 years ago in Japan when I met a similar surprised face.  It was late at night and I stopped in a pub-restaurant and ordered my favorite combo of Skiokara (squid guts) and Karaguchi Onigoroshi (demon-killer dry sake) and Natto (fermented soybeans).  These are bitter, strong foods usually prefered by old Japanese men or yakuza (Mafia) types.

My Japanese was very good and I was talking to the cook and the other late night diners sitting at the counter around me.  We talked about several topics for a half-an-hour when the pub’s TV started showing Sumo review clips for the day.  One of the customers asked me what I thought about a certain Sumo player but when I said I didn’t know who he was, he looked at me with shocked and asked why I don’t know.

Geez, fluent in food, culture, language and more was not enough — I had to know their sports?  Men are often like this when it comes to sports (and heck, women can be too).  In Pakistan, I met astonished faces when I did not know cricket player’s names.  I guess that I will always remain an idiot!  Smile.


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