Thursday, October 13, 2011


interior, Norwich Cathedral

Romanesque Arches

Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
Blind with tears
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.

~ Tomas Tranströmer


I particularly love this passage:

An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”

We will never be complete because we are a part of a larger whole and of the on-going process of constant evolution of human culture. It takes a village; it takes a city; it takes humanity. Ancient cathedrals have those stunning ceilings, “vault after vault.” And yet that architectural marvel is simple compared to the complexity of a single human being. That complexity is heightened by our being a part of a larger organism, our minds part of the collective psyche. Poets remind us of that.

But let’s not ignore the fact that the insight presented in “Romanesque Arches” is related not just to church architecture, but, I dare say, to Christianity. One positive thing about Christianity is that it recognizes and values the individual. It says to a person: “Your life is sacred and of infinite value to God.” That Christian practice has often contradicted this message is another matter. For the moment, I want to concentrate on the ideal.

This ideal meant a lot to Milosz. In a poem about one of his lovers, he lamented that she gave herself to men too easily, forgetting she was the daughter of the King. Most notably in “Late Ripeness,” he tried to remind us that we are all royalty – the children of the King.

That’s wonderful, we may say, but now that Christianity is in decline, can we still say to someone in suicidal depression, for instance, “Your life is sacred and of infinite value” – and just leave out “God” out of it? Can we insert “humanity” in its place? Given all the atrocities of the past and present, and those yet to come (is there any doubt?), can we be proud to be human? 

In spite of the atrocities, I think the answer is yes. For me, the greatness of the accomplishments prevails. But there is so much to be done to better this world, once we start from the framework of respect for human beings. The sooner we transfer reverence from deity or deities to humanity, the better.

Someone may ask, “But what about the afterlife? If we revere this life, on earth, what about all those who live hoping for another existence, in heaven?” It’s been pointed out that there are virtually no atheists in sub-Saharan Africa; atheism seems to be the luxury of people who live in relative security and comfort. Thus the prevalence of secularism in Western Europe, in countries with a social security net. The yearning for heaven seems to be related to the hardship of earthly life. In fact, already Karl Marx, endlessly quoted as having called religion “the opium of the people,” also remarked that it is the “sigh of the oppressed creature.”

The sociological explanation may explain averages – yes, the poor and uneducated are more likely to be religious – but not individual cases. Some people seem to have a natural tendency to mysticism, regardless of education (I see that among poets all the time). The yearning that something of us continue after bodily death is understandable.

No one can speak of the afterlife with absolute certainty. I've been trying to “live the question” for many years now, with little benefit. What changed my life was rather accepting this answer: The only paradise we will experience is here now.

Only moments of paradise, of course, just glimpses. But to miss those moments is to lose everything. That insight (not original to me – it’s the message of countless poems) was not the one that closed the door on depression, but it reinforced it.

Can there be a non-theistic sense of the sacred? Even when we see the universe as self-evolving and self-organizing without any need for a supreme being, the “king of kings,” we can still be in awe of its beauty and mystery. Neither the “starry sky above me” nor the “moral law within me” requires a theistic foundation. And we can also be awed by the amazing feats accomplished by the human brain, especially when people co-operate. Nor do we need to invoke antibiotics, the cell-phone, or the Moon landing; the accomplishment evident in medieval cathedrals is already a stunning testimony to what humans can achieve (when not engaged in killing one another, a contrarian voice adds – and that voice has to be acknowledged; moral progress is happening, but it has been slow).

Reims Cathedral 


At a poetry reading I recently attended, soon after the announcement that Tomas Tranströmer won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, someone remarked, “American poets have no chance of winning the Nobel Prize because they are always gazing at their navels.”

But I don’t think the reason that an American poet has practically no chance for the Nobel Prize is self-centeredness. It’s rather that European judges/literary critics see poetry as a genre of wisdom literature, a kind of philosophy with imagery and metaphors thrown in. They do not recognize that "the personal is philosophical," to use a twist on an old saying. The tradition of poetry as wisdom makes it harder for European critics to recognize wisdom when it’s implicit in a personal narrative. But Robert Cording, for instance, is actually pretty explicit (“grief is endless, delight is inevitable”). He’s still probably too personal for European standards, misguided as those are in my opinion. Just telling a true story is incredibly demanding, no matter how narrow the slice (and it’s precisely the “narrow slice” approach that can yield huge truths).

Now, the skeptic in me asks, “Are you sure that the personal is philosophical? Does Sharon Olds have an underlying philosophy that you find nourishing?” I think it’s safe to say that she does cherish the body and love at all levels, and now and then we can get some psychological insight from her poems, but no one would call her a philosophical poet. Her excellence lies in providing vivid details. And I am forced to admit that the personal, when not illuminated by insight, can remain on the level of gossip, of a colorful story that we don’t know what to do with other than maybe say, “That’s life. Those things happen.” As Olds said, “I am not a thinker.” Maybe a little more thinking would be a good thing.

But ultimately it’s pointless to speak about European poetry versus American poetry. There are great poems, and those rise above any categories. Great poems are both personal and philosophical, both lyrical and narrative (though it may be only a tiny wisp of a narrative). Po-Chu-i’s gems delight us not solely because they are illuminated by the wisdom of Zen, but because PCI’s personality is so evident in them, and always, always, he brings in the mysterious beauty of nature.

That mysterious beauty of nature includes the beauty of a human being. When we look at others with the eyes of tenderness, how beautiful a human face is, a human body! In his poem "At Baths at Esalen," Stephen MacDonald writes:

This evening, in the baths at Esalen, I open
my eyes to find light creeping like resurrection

under the pall covering my face. I lift
my oiled and massaged flesh from the table
to find myself in a world of naked human bodies,

silent in the mist, slick with the waters
of the baths, the beauty of each limb, each wrist
and ankle, almost more than I can bear.

Perhaps a factor other than the presence of overt philosophy is even more important. Poets who win the Nobel Prize tend to have a humanitarian attitude. They show reverence for the human. They say each life is sacred and of infinite value, and we are all a family. Milosz had that attitude. He loved people and could never really get over what he witnessed and experienced during WWII. And for all his religious struggles, there was one thing he could admit: that he knew a statue in a church would never nod at him, never give him what he constantly prayed for: a sign confirming the existence of God. In the end he became reconciled to the thought that the only trace of something we might call sacred or divine could be found in the human community: in a kind gesture or smile.

But wait: shouldn’t it be “something we might call sacred and human”? Human, that is, in the best sense of the word, as in “the human spirit.” That spirit, the human spirit, has manifested itself in deeds of magnificent courage, heroism and endurance. We can feel proud that we as humanity are capable of what first seemed impossible.

Philip Levine is a humanitarian with a special focus: he insists that we respect the working man and woman. I remember, in one of the articles about him (I think in the New York Times), the author exclaiming that there are people in Levine’s poems! There are people in Tony Hoagland’s poems too. With some effort, we could come up with other names of poets whose poems are “populated.” But is that a typical contemporary American poem? Now, there is nothing wrong with introspection; without introspection, there would hardly be the kind of poetry we call lyrical. I think the charge of self-centeredness comes from the sense that there isn’t enough sense of connection with others. Obviously, there needs to be a balance: solidaire/solitaire. It’s not easy because the digital age makes us interact with computer monitors rather than have face-to-face encounters.

It is a challenge. Before that post-Tranströmer/Nobel Prize news poetry reading, I was thinking of a dog I met on my little walk the day before, and how delightfully affectionate the dog was toward me, a total stranger. If only people could be so affectionate! But we aren’t at that level of enlightenment. Great poets help us enlarge our empathy.

Tomas Tranströmer and his wife Monica. Note the odd way he holds his right hand – this is characteristic of stroke victims. But I don’t want this to be the last statement in this post. Note, above all, the love that one can sense looking at the photo of this couple.


I'm pleased that you commented on the importance of the beauty of the human. The image of the human as a portal to an endless opening of vaults – always growing, never complete – is stunning, and completely congruent with my own perception of who/what we really are.

And here is the truth of truths: "The statement 'Your life is sacred and of infinite value' is sufficient unto itself simply in the context of humanity – because being human is such a grand thing." What a powerful realization that is – and what significance it holds for a way of living life that brings peace, acceptance, and joy – even amidst the inevitable sorrow and suffering that are also a part of being human. Very powerful!


Ginette Paris commented that it’s still very soon after the death of god; it will take several generations to formulate a life philosophy that fully affirms the human, without denial or wishful thinking  including mortality, suffering, and our capacity for evil as well as for affection, altruism, and immense achievement. I think we are slowly moving toward the position that human life is sacred and war is unacceptable, famine and torture are unacceptable. Obviously we are not there yet, but I see the “writing on the wall.”

Instead of an invisible being somewhere out there (or everywhere, which is just as nebulous), we can gain a sense of pride when we remember that we are part of humanity. Instead of the “holy spirit,” we will speak about the “human spirit.” That’s the spirit we saw in action when the astronauts landed on the moon – an act of incredible courage – and also whenever we hear yet another report of someone risking his life to save a stranger. 

While I favor the translation of “sacred” as “human in the highest sense,” I also favor taking what is best from each religious tradition. Parables teaching compassion – no, we don’t want these stories to be lost. Buddhist wisdom of detachment and serenity – of course we can use it. But that will happen automatically, I think: the chaff will fall away, and what is nourishing will remain.


The photo is sort of like the vault goes on and on. The blog is delicious. I'm beginning to like Tranströmer more and more, and I like the idea of the human in poetry being is as important or more important than the sacred.

The picture of him is charming and I saw several others all like in that he has a twinkle in his eye.


I think the word "sacred" need not and should not be confined to religion. It can and should be used in reference to nature and human beings (we are of course part of nature). We can indeed say to someone, "Your life is sacred." It's sacred because it's a human being, with all the fantastic human abilities. My mother used to say, "The most wonderful thing in the universe is the human brain."

I'm particularly against the idea that we receive "divine love." The love we receive is human love and canine love -- there is no doubt about those two kinds, and I'm including dogs because sometimes, sadly, that's the only love that a person living alone receives.

Now, perhaps there is some sort of caring from the universe -- so many people want to believe that. But let's face it, there is no proof of it, while tsunamis and other natural disasters that used to be called "an act of God" certainly do happen. So let's give credit where credit is due: human love, canine companions. Maybe dolphins, but how many of us get to establish a relationship with a dolphin (or an elephant etc -- social animals with large brains can be said to be capable of the kind of attachment we'd call love). Any other love is conjectural.


Love the symmetry and light of the photograph.

Re: divine love, I always feel better when I consider that god is a verb.


I could call myself a church junkie. I’ve always loved the cavernous twilight of old churches, and have spent hours sitting in a pew (what happened to wonderful old pews?), just soaking in the quiet and that special architecture, arches upon arches. In Warsaw especially, it felt so soothing to step out from a noisy street into that other realm. We need all the paradise we can get.

I don’t mind it if people claim to sense the presence of something divine. As long as we drop the archaic image of the Bully in the Sky who tosses people into hell, and get closer to the Sufi idea of an accepting Friend, even Lover, mental health may well benefit from some feel-good prayer and/or meditation. Recovering addicts in particular need a “sinners welcome,” unconditionally loving Someone. This Friend is also constantly developing, maturing (in Rilke’s words, “we are building God” – this certainly applies to any concept of God). Furthermore, as for the god-is-a-verb, the actions of feeding the hungry and being kind to the stranger mean so much more than ritual and keeping a special diet. If it’s helpful to a person to see Christ in the homeless man they help, then I say, “Whatever works.”


Once again you have introduced me to an interesting poet, have now 
read several of his poems. And his life is fascinating as well; 
doctor, poet and recovering stroke victim....thankfully it did not 
silence his pen. The biographies of poets are as intriguing as the 
poems themselves; your blog is a great education in the art of verse 
and I never fail to take away a great deal. Currently at the bedside 
of my 90 year old father-in-law, hope he can go home soon from the 
hospital, he's had a blood infection. He's been Dad, Father in law and 
Grandfather all in one.


My best wishes of speedy recovery to your father-in-law.

One interesting thing about Tranströmer is that he used to work as a therapist with juvenile delinquents. He said that he got always asked if his work as a therapist influenced his poetry, and never if his poetry influenced his therapy practice.  This made me aware that it’s a two-way street: it’s not only that our experiences influences our writing; our writing can also influence our experiences.


Your blog on the Romanesque Arches was wonderful....I will ponder it a long time.

About the recent death of Steve Jobs, there was a quotation from him about how knowing he was going to die freed him to realize he had nothing to lose. Heaven on earth, so to speak. I've been absorbing everything I can find about this amazing human, including everything I hadn't known about him before.

Thanks again for all your blogs.


Steve Jobs was one of the people who make us proud to be human. But many outstanding individuals never get famous. If we look around, we see greatness and quiet heroism all around.

Full acceptance of death, without kidding ourselves that paradise is somewhere else, and can be experienced only after dying, means a fuller embrace of life. Hey, we better stop wasting time! All kinds of nonsense falls away, just as Steve Jobs said. True priorities remain.

As Keats said, this is not the Vale of Tears, but of Soul-Making – what Jung would call “individuation.” We are always creating ourselves: that’s why it matters how we live, even what we read and watch. Life is sacred and not to be wasted. It is to be maximized and enjoyed. I think more and more people are accepting this (though it’s harder for the young; experiencing the progress of aging “wonderfully concentrates the mind”). 


  1. Beautiful synthesis as always Oriana. "we are all royalty – the children of the King" accords such a truth to each of us -- the right to fully be. Something in this touches a very deep place in me as both human being and a poet.

    I've thought about the relationship between American and European poetry. The point you make about the philosophical is thought provoking. We like to think of good poetry as having -- among other attributes -- a timeless quality. If American poets are in too much of a hurry for a fast poetic fix perhaps the European poets have the patience and endurance to speak to the ages. The redeemable qualities that endure, that we hope will endure when we return to their writing in ten years or twenty. Poetry like any art serves so many purposes. Do we want to be entertained, amused, educated, inspired? The Sufis, as well as a number of the Asian poets offer even more philosophy per square mile than do the Europeans though some might find the abrasive, confrontational, self-indulgent poetry of Bukowski to be philosphical if that's your brew at the moment (and I do love Bukowski). Anyway, your wonderful post, as always has me examining my ideas about what I really want from words and why despite the many contemporary poets I enjoy, it's always the few that continue to "bring home the bacon" for lack of a bettery poetic vernacular of the moment :) Lois

  2. I love Bukowski too. One feels a deep honesty in him, a “nothing to lose” attitude. And perhaps that’s when we are finally wise enough to write: when we really know that we are going to die anyway, so we might as well tell the truth rather than continue with positive thinking and other lies.

    So, in the spirit of truth-seeking: “we are all royalty – we are the children of the King” for me transforms into “we are all royalty – we are human, the children of the Universe.” We have one another, and no need for a “king” – an outdated concept. That makes the self-organizing Universe only all the more awe-inspiring. Let’s admit that it’s magnificent to be human, to participate in the collective human psyche – whether we look at the achievements of modern science or medieval cathedrals.

    I love the concept of the Great Work. Such work is necessarily collective. Even work that seems the outcome of individuality and loneliness, such as a body of poetry, is ultimately collective in that it draws on the collective psyche, on the work of poets, writers, and philosophers both living and long dead. On a remark that a neighbor made in passing. On what grandmother used to say. It’s the solitaire/solidaire phenomenon. We are more interconnected than we dare think.