Sunday, May 2, 2010


It's easy to find praise of solitude. Here are a few quotations, on this quiet, overcast Sunday morning (I love "overcast"; nothing like living in Southern California to make you loathe the semi-eternal sunshine).

I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity ~ Albert Einstein, 1879 - 1955

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. ~ May Sarton, 1912 - 1995

The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil. ~ Thomas Alva Edison, 1847 - 1931

Solitude is such a potential thing. We hear voices in solitude, we never hear in the hurry and turmoil of life; we receive counsels and comforts we get under no other condition. ~ Amelia Barr, 1831 - 1919

Great men are like eagles, and build their nest on some lofty solitude. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788 - 1860

If you can't stand solitude, perhaps others find you boring as well. ~ Mark Twain, 1835 – 1910

I agree with all of the above. Being intense and easily overstimulated, I need a lot of “down time” to process experience. What I love is a quiet life, with plenty of time for the soul – or, to use a more secular language, time to process experiences.

And yet the fine line between the richness of solitude and the pain of loneliness sometimes gets blurred. For me America has always been the synonym of loneliness. Was it Mother Teresa who called America the loneliest country in the world, one where millions of people feel alone, abandoned and unwanted? Where popular hits can have titles such as, "Smile, though your heart is breaking" (the first song I heard after arriving in the U.S.), or "What about all the broken-hearted."

All around me, I see a hunger for community, for groups that can function as one’s true family, a family of choice based on common interests, taking delight in the same things. I would love to find more kindred minds, to feel a part of a caring community. I find it interesting that both Swedenborg and Jung (in his account of his near-death-experience) imagine the afterlife in terms of being with those of like mind – those “in the same soul group.”

Speaking of the afterlife: in the modern age, it’s easiest to imagine heaven and hell as states of mind. Pope John Paul II astonished me by declaring that hell is not a place, but a state of mind. Oddly (and significantly), he didn’t quite dare say the same about heaven, preferring to say that heaven is the person of God and the state of union with God – the latter possible already in earthly life.

Poets have had this understanding for centuries. Milton’s Satan says, “Why, I myself am Hell, nor am I out of it.”

Here is a typical "state of mind" understanding of both heaven and hell:

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of the Afterlife to spell;
And by and by my Soul returned to me,
And answered,” I Myself am Heaven and Hell”

~ Edward Fitzgerald, Rubaiyat


And here is Emily Dickinson’s claim:

Some keep the Sabbath going to the Church —
I keep it staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going all along.     



On the other hand, those influenced by Jung and Rumi manage to cling to the idea of a disembodied “spirit world,” or possibly many lifetimes. Here is one of Bly’s minor poems, with apologies for posting such a prosy piece – I think what it says is interesting, and the hope that we taste heaven many times, and not just in this life, but at some "larger party," is difficult to dismiss completely. At this point I do dismiss it, but I am open to wonderful surprises. 

I find the lines I highlighted in bold to be the most delightful part of the poem.  


Some people say that every poem should have
God in it somewhere. But of course Wallace Stevens
Wasn't one of those. We live, he said, "in a world
Without heaven to follow." Shall we agree

That we taste heaven only once, when we see
Her at fifteen walking among falling leaves?
It's possible. And yet as Stevens lay dying
He invited the priest in. There, I've said it.

The priest is not an argument, only an instance.
But our gusty emotions say to me that we have
Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies
Are left over from some larger party.

  ~ Robert Bly


Perhaps, perhaps -- though I doubt it. Isn't our earthly life a large-enough party? I heard a New-Age woman remark about her New-Age friends, “Most people I know can’t wait to disincarnate.” By contrast, most people I know, including myself, see this life as both heaven and hell. When Jack Gilbert imagines his own death in one of his best poems, “The End of Paradise” (in Refusing Heaven), I instantly understand the title. Even though he has known a lot of suffering, Jack Gilbert does not see himself as being dragged from one hell to another. For all the sorrows, this life contains enough beauty to be called paradise. Then, in Gilbert's vision, the paradise comes to an end – perhaps making even the smallest joys incredibly precious, to be enjoyed while there still is a chance.

And then there is another vision of heaven, or call it the spirit world – and it’s not one filled with bliss. Una sends us this poem:


The cemetery sits on a hill. Crosses

stamped on the sky, round shouldered

clouds shuddering in the chill Santa Ana wind.

I lean against the harsh pillow of your headstone

wondering if you know your son is back on drugs.

You’re beating your wings against the cage

of heaven, though I doubt you can die another

death. I pray you are in happy ignorance

of what’s happening here on earth. Hell

would be knowing, or again living through

something you cannot live through, or die from.

I rise. The willow combs a few dead leaves

from my hair, and ducks on the pond,

quacking softly, swim in tight circles.

~ Una Hynum © 2010



This poem reminds me of O’Keefe’s painting of the black cross in New Mexico. The cross has a huge symbolic meaning. As Jung says, “He who speaks with archetypes speaks with a thousand mouths.”

I asked Una for this poem back when we just had “Easter Sunday Morning” by Ammons. I mention this only in order to point out a certain similarity between the two poems. Una accomplishes a similar effect as Ammons does, but in a much more compressed way.

Here the speaker is in greater distress than Ammons is in his poem. She wonders if the dead know what happens here in earth, in which case her dead love would know that his son back on drugs. Realizing that such knowledge would be hell to him, she prays that he stay “in happy ignorance.”

But look at what happens next. Just as the poem by Ammons, nature brings some solace, though that solace remains ambiguous. The willows combs dead leaves out of the woman’s hair, and the ducks quack softly. However, we come up against the fact of death again because it’s dead leaves, and the ducks swim in tight circles – so we are left with some tension. The tension is less so with the leaves, since the act of combing is so tender, and it might be that the dead leaves fall off, and the speaker’s gaze is now on live creatures, the ducks with their soft quacking, an endearing sound.

Yet the tension of “tight” circles can’t quite be disposed of. Nevertheless, the lyricism of nature works its magic. It’s almost as if the dead beloved combed those leaves out of the speaker’s hair, and spoke softly, “There, there,” through the ducks.

There are great lines here. I like the way “crosses” is the last word of the first line, already “stamped on the sky” by being highlighted. “Round-shouldered clouds,” “I lean against the harsh pillow of your headstone,” “You’re beating your wings against the cage / of heaven” – that last phrase is absolutely marvelous.

Of course everyone will love the image of the willow combing out dead leaves out of the woman’s hair. “Willow” is one of the most beautiful words in English. It reminded me of the first stanza of Pasternak’s “English Lessons”

When it was Desdemona’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
she wept, not over love, her star,
but over willow, willow, willow.

Why is Una’s work so lyrical? She has the closeness to nature that marks lyrical poets, and she knows how to use imagery to convey her meaning without having to explain it. And her poems are charged with feeling – with tears and love. These days, there seems to be a fear of feeling, and plenty of aloof, heartless poems. Not from Una. 

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