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by Zettel 

Posted: 25 January 2015
Word Count: 151

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I am mystery
I am yesterday, today, tomorrow
I am warmth and cold
dark and light
I am a child-time sunny day
a man-old troubled night
I am passion I am love
dreams lost and won
I am sadness I am joy
I am fun
I am wonder
hidden truths that out
I am certainty dissent
I am doubt
I am blood
sinew nerve and cell
I am heartbeat lungbreath
ill and well
I am victory
undeserved and fair
I am cowardly and brave
indifference and care
I am reason thought idea
feeling laughter tears
trusting child adult-wise
prey to mortal fears
I am resolve will intent
I am choice
as I sow I reap
my words my acts my voice
I am struggle I am strife
Peace and War
storm and calm
husband wife
I am transient and beautiful
a gift a grace so fragile
I am life

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 21:06 on 27 January 2015  Report this post
We're having quite a busy spell in the group! I'll comment on your new poem soon. At first reading it looks very interesting and there will be a lot to say about it.


James Graham at 21:18 on 28 January 2015  Report this post
This is merely a personal inclination, but I tend to be discouraged by very abstract poems without – or almost without – evocation of concrete experience or sensual imagery. Still, I found myself reading this poem over and over. It deals with the fundamentals of human life , often (perhaps always) contradictory and paradoxical, and I think its strength is that it does it so comprehensively that nothing seems left out.
To choose only a few, the poem contains our quest for understanding:
I am wonder
hidden truths that out
I am certainty dissent
I am doubt
This suggests the intellectual quest for an understanding of, say, the nature of matter, or human history. I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, which explains European dominance in terms of geography and environmental factors and demolishes in the same terms all notions of innate superiority of Europeans (‘whites’) and ‘backwardness’ of such people as Native Americans or Australians. My responses to this book are neatly summed up in the above stanza: there’s wonder certainly; ‘hidden truths’ too – hidden from all of us until recent archaeological discoveries revealed them; there’s a small amount of doubt but mostly certainty.
The poem includes the aspect of struggle and conflict:
I am victory
undeserved and fair
I am cowardly and brave
indifference and care
Reminded as we are just now of the two World Wars, again this is a neat summing-up. I’m especially struck by ‘indifference and care’, and reminded of the indifference to human life shown by so many during the German invasion of Eastern Europe, but also the compassion of soldiers, including German soldiers, for suffering comrades and even sometimes towards their enemies.
The poem covers a range of emotion too, both positive and negative, in several stanzas.
All this is only one kind of comment, on the ‘thought-provoking’ aspect rather than technical aspects of the writing. I’m still not sure whether anything could be left out without damaging the poem. Perhaps the second and third lines, leaving the one-line opening ‘I am mystery’ corresponding to the one-line close ‘I am life’. I’ll give this more thought.

Zettel at 01:57 on 30 January 2015  Report this post

As ever. thank for such a thoughtful and comprehensive response.

I don't start with an intellectual idea and then try to find a way to express it poetically. I think technically I have gradually distilled ideas and poems more and more to try to avoid the pitfall of didacticism. I suppose this is the most sigjnificant effect of Wittgenstein's way of doing philosophy on my efforts at poetry. Ideas as 'pebbles' dropping into the still waters of the mind - to resonate, spread out in all directions, having form and shape ( thus meaning or sense) but without boundary or limit. Poems dealing with emotion distil feeeling and experience mostly to intensify them. From the particularity, uniqueness of this or that feeling in response to others and the world, great poems achieve what has been called an element of sub specie aeternitatis, capturing and extending the particularity of the emotions in the poems to something universal and eternal about human emotion as such: for example our sense of shared mortality.

My poems or elements of them fail when they seem to be trying to 'say' what they are meant to express. One of Wittgenstein's most profound observations about language is that that which cannot be said must be shown. The method of this poem is to juxtapose contradictory qualities human beings have and share, in order to try to 'show', create a sense say humility, expressed by conditioning our need for certainty in many contexts with a sense of doubt; for it is mitigating the arrogance of our knowledge and certainty with the humility of realising for all we know, how much that we do not. For all that is certain, verifiable and provable; much that is most precious to us is found through uncertainty and doubt which generates our most vital human qualities of curiosity and imagination; pradoxically the milestones on our journey to more knowledge and certainty.

I think there were 2 main ideas I wanted to gesture towards:

First: the resurgence of a profound attachement to irrationailty and unreason notably but not only, to be found in the frightening prevalence of bigoted religious fervour and literally blind faith. And of course the most acute expression of this insanity is an implacable hatred of dissent.

Second: we are encouraged to think of ourselves and others with black hat/white hat, heroes/villains distortion, even evasion, of the truth that we are both hero and villain; peaceable and violent; capable of great empathy and humanity and prone to the worst excesses of hatred of the unknown and capacity to see other human beings as 'things'.  There is no better week for this idea to be uppermost in our minds. All the heartrending pleas and testimonies in Auschwitz this week are wasted if they do not induce us not to think of the Nazis as uniquely cruel monsters; but as human beings demostrating the depths of depravity of which human beings, and that must include us, are capable given certain extreme, cumulative conditions and clothed in ideas and words which eschew dissent, demand blind adherence.

Gentiles can never say it but great-hearted Jews like e.g. Arthur Miller did: that for of all nations, for Israel, to behave they way they often have in the last 70 years, has at times dishonoured their very own Holocaust survivors.

Inhumanity isn't ethnic, or religious, or racial. The appalling fact is that it is human. And the hardest lesson to take is that of Existentialists like Camus: we always have a choice - however hard. To believe otherwise is to miss the fundamental horror that spawned Nazism, Fundmentalist Islam, Grand Inquisition Catholicism and bigoted Chistianity which variously gave is Auschwitz; 9/ll and the illegal invasion of Iraq; Darfur and Kosovo; and the genocide of the indigenous Native American people upon whose desstruction and systematic denia of justice, the United States of America was born.

This was said by a most eloquent extraordinary Auschwitz survivor this week. I took it down as it is pretty much a peom in its own right:

"I am often asked
how long I was in Auschwitz
my answer is
I do not know
What I do know
is that one minute in Auschwitz
was like an entire day
a day was like a year
a month an eternity
How many eternities
can a person have
in a single lifetime
I don't kow the answer
to that either"

An eloquence that far surpasses the feeble offorts of my little poem I fear.

His final thought.

"We must teach our children that hatred is never right: and love is never wrong."

We can only try. We owe him and the millions who did not return, nothing less.
To paraphrase: to fail can be honourable: not to try can never be.



James Graham at 15:14 on 01 February 2015  Report this post
Thank you for these insightful observations. It’s good to have such a thorough commentary on the thinking behind and around a poem. I said I would think about suggesting revisions or cuts, but now I think that’s unnecessary.
You make so many good points, not least one that is widespread in the modern world but perhaps not always fully recognised for what it is: ‘implacable hatred of dissent’. Obvious locations include China and Saudi Arabia, but it’s a tendency found in most individuals who either follow any religion, or have any kind of power. It varies in degree from mild intolerance to the desire to kill. The flagrant inhumanity of Saudi politicians who enacted the penalty of 1000 lashes for public dissent, and of those who are presently carrying out this punishment on Raif Badawi for blogging his views on freedom of speech, is something potentially shared by many others, perhaps all of us. It’s the extreme end of a spectrum; most of us find ourselves towards the more humane end, but we are on a continuum and given other circumstances and life experiences we might move along it in the wrong direction.
Your main point is that inhumanity is human. Humanity is not divided into monsters or grotesques on the one hand and the rest of us on the other. Those who committed atrocious crimes against humanity in the Third Reich – often spontaneously, not always ‘obeying orders’- are not another species.
I doubt you would want to experiment with this poem by adding to it, but I thought I’d just give this idea an airing. It might be possible to insert into the poem one or two brief passages depicting real acts of cruelty – and compassion, since that too is human – taken from history.
For example – this is recorded in Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust – a crowd of Jews are gathered in a Polish town square, waiting to be told to go to the railway station. The old and sick are put on carts, then taken not to the station but to the graveyard, where a mass grave has been prepared for them. Some women have got on to the carts with their children; they are shot, but the children are thrown alive into the grave. All this is too much, of course, to make a brief additional passage in the poem. But perhaps this detail: a man picks up a two-year-old child and throws him alive into a grave. Then he does the same again, and again.
The poem would then be saying ‘I am...(potentially, this man)’. Another passage might be about, say, one of the many WW1 incidents in which a soldier cared for a wounded ‘enemy’as if he were his own brother. ‘I am...(potentially, this man)’.
The words of the Holocaust survivor (was it Freddie Knoller?) could become the closing lines of your poem.
As I say, I doubt that you would want to take the poem in this direction – or that the poem needs any such additions. But there it is anyway. It might lead to another poem.

Zettel at 16:32 on 01 February 2015  Report this post
Thanks James. Again so many thoughts prompted by your reply. I think the structure of my poem would have to be differerent to accommodate your very good idea: e.g if I had longer lines and stanzas, inserts of the kind of case you mention could be brief punchy inserts. An alternative in spirit of what you suggest might be some way of inserting just place names eg 'Wounded Knee' 'Auschwitz Birkenau'. worth a thought but I am wary of the sheer power of these names overwhelming the piece.

I have a long cherished project to create a 'musical' piece about the history of the experience of the Native American peoples which would open with:

'Everything here depicted - happened'
'Every act shown - took place'
'Every word heard - was spoken'

Each of a series of about 12 scenes of different aspects of Native American history would be introduced and closed out with one of the very many Buffy Sainte Marie 'protest' songs 'Now that The Buffalo's Gone', 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' etc etc. Speaking the actual words from history would be 3 shrouded figures - Custer, Jesus, and Red Cloud. One scene would have a group of 'Soldier Blues surrounded by piles of pieces from childrens' dolls - legs in one pile; arms in another; heads etc etc. The soldiers would be casually wrenching dolls to pieces and throwing the parts on the appropriate pile - while laughing and joking.

When we realise that 'good Christian' men docorated their hats with the labia of dead Native Americans we realise only too well that inhumanity long precedes the Holocaust: perhaps the Nazis' simply industrialised evil.

Can't remember the name of the man who said the words I quote - he had many other powerful things to say and he was prominent in drawing parallels with Darfur, Kosovo etc.

But as he pointed out there were 'good' gentiles who risked not only their own lives but those of their families (the ultimate acid test) to save Jews. That's where the stregnth of the Existentialist thought comes in - all, including evil is a choice. And we can choose not to make it - though the price is sometimes terrifyingly high. If only life, this life, is sacred, then 'next world' religions e.g. all 3 Abrahamic religions of the books, totally distort the concept of morality.


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