Marshlands

A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim,
And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.

The pools low lying, dank with moss and mould,
Glint through their mildews like large cups of gold.

Among the wild rice in the still lagoon,
In monotone the lizard shrills his tune.

The wild goose, homing, seeks a sheltering,
Where rushes grow, and oozing lichens cling.

Late cranes with heavy wing, and lazy flight,
Sail up the silence with the nearing night.

And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil,
Steals twilight and its shadows o’er the swale.

Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.

“Marshlands,” Emily Pauline Johnson

Aristotle’s Ethics in the Poetry of Joy Harjo

I like serendipity, especially serendipity in ideas. Today I was reading Prufrock, an email newsletter of sorts on arts and letters (I look forward to seeing it land in my inbox every morning – highly recommend subscribing.) The author, Micah Mattix, was talking about how he has finished a series of lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I tend to frame the world as Aristotle did, so I will probably listen to the lectures too when I can find the time.

Anyhow, it was Mattix’s take on friendship in Aristotle’s ethics that intrigued me:

The final two [lectures] treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.  

This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I was talking to my brother yesterday about how shocking the brawl at a Little League game in Lakewood, Colorado – not far at all from where I used to live when I lived in Colorado – was. Suburban Denver has become something of a poster child for a specific sort of violence, and it’s ultimately a collective undoing of friendship in the Aristotelian sense. (Though this malaise is wrecking havoc on our country and world in general.)

Aristotle would be intrigued by how often this undoing is centered around educational institutions and ordinary family life. These are what he identifies as the foundation, or building blocks, of society. Dysfunction in them necessarily scales.

Anyhow, I moved on to reading poems by the absolutely sublime Joy Harjo, who is the first Native American poet laureate. (Though some might argue that honor belongs to William Jay Smith. Harjo is a member of the Creek.) It had never occurred to me how Aristotelian in spirit some Native American tribes are, but that sense of things shines in Harjo’s poetry.

On the topic of friendship, consider this poem, Once the World Was Perfect:

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.

One of the central themes in Aristotle’s ethics is that the flourishing of a society begins at the household/family level, builds to the community, and then to the nation. Thus, it is impossible to have a sound democratic society without first having stable and flourishing families.

Now consider this poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here:

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

I love that so much: “It is here” – at the kitchen table – “that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.” Have you ever seen someone summarize so neatly why people behave like monsters in the age of social media, smart phones, and binge-watching dystopian garbage on Netflix? We’ve stopped making families, stopped gathering in love and goodwill, and thus have stopped teaching future generations what it means to be fully human.

And this poem, Remember, on the importance of family and friendship, also very Aristotelian:

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

High Tea, Sherlock Sports a Bow Tie

I have encountered other homeschoolers who have a ritual of enjoying afternoon tea and reading poetry aloud for their children. We prefer to read novels and nonfiction books as a family in the evenings (when we aren’t playing board games or Dungeons and Dragons). It has evolved into a sort of family literary society, where we take turns reading and discussing what we’ve covered. It’s amazing how quickly this builds both literacy and critical thinking skills in children.

This afternoon we decided to give tea and poetry a chance. We went all out, however. We set the table with E’s great-grandmother’s bone china and silver. We made parfaits in her great-great-grandmother’s crystal. It was an opportunity to explain to her how to arrange a formal table setting and to talk about traditions. The first rule of pulling out the fine china and crystal: Be gentle and respectful, because it ultimately belongs to future generations.

The table set for tea.

And we put a bow tie on our rough coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock.

A proper English dog. Yes, he will sit politely at the table.

I think reading poetry is a fantastic way to help young children build an aesthetic sense. E is very similar to me in her reading habits – she loves nonfiction, and particularly books about nature, science, and history. But there’s something about poetry that just works for our personalities. The poet loves detail as much as the scientist.

Excellent collections of poems for young children include: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, Eloise Wilkin’s Poems to Read to the Very Young, Gyo Fujikawa’s A Child’s Book of Poems, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (with gorgeous illustrations by Tasha Tudor), Eric Carle’s Animals Animals, Margaret Wise Brown’s Give Yourself to the Rain, Arnold Lobel’s The Frogs and Toads All Sang, Emily Dickinson’s Poetry for Young People, Mary O’Neill’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones, and of course, everything by Shel Silverstein. Michael Bedard wrote an excellent book, Emily, which covers the life and quirks of Emily Dickinson.

E having a good afternoon.

What’s the difference between afternoon tea and high tea?

Advice on getting along, from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of Merlin wise I learned a song,—
Sing it low or sing it loud,
It is mightier than the strong,
And punishes the proud.
I sing it to the surging crowd,—
Good men it will calm and cheer,
Bad men it will chain and cage—
In the heart of the music peals a strain
Which only angels hear;
Whether it waken joy or rage
Hushed myriads hark in vain,
Yet they who hear it shed their age,
And take their youth again.

II

Hear what British Merlin sung,
Of keenest eye and truest tongue.
Say not, the chiefs who first arrive
Usurp the seats for which all strive;
The forefathers this land who found
Failed to plant the vantage-ground;
Ever from one who comes to-morrow
Men wait their good and truth to borrow.
But wilt thou measure all thy road,
See thou lift the lightest load.
Who has little, to him who has less, can spare,
And thou, Cyndyllan’s son! beware
Ponderous gold and stuffs to bear,
To falter ere thou thy task fulfil,—
Only the light-armed climb the hill.
The richest of all lords is Use,
And ruddy Health the loftiest Muse.
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air’s salubrity:
When the star Canope shines in May,
Shepherds are thankful and nations gay.
The music that can deepest reach,
And cure all ill, is cordial speech:
Mask thy wisdom with delight,
Toy with the bow, yet hit the white.
Of all wit’s uses, the main one
Is to live well with who has none.