larch cones by Ann E. Michael

I am almost finished reading Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and I think his conclusions about the self (person) in society and as individual are valid; I have long questioned the self-interest theory of philosophy but only on an intuitive basis as I am no philosopher, merely a student of the discipline.

What strikes me after having read this lengthy and rationally-argued book is that there are so many ways philosophical reasoning does actually intersect with that “most irrational” of impulses, art.

Here is a lovely excerpt from poet David Ignatow, from an essay he wrote in 1971:
“There is no contravening another person’s sense of himself and his world. We must accept it on his terms, though we need not accept it for ourselves…men and women have discovered themselves as individuals, and that this sense of individuality is something among them…In affirming themselves, they affirm all others.”

He later adds that poetry “is formed by the terms with which the person sees himself.”

It seems to me that Ignatow possessed an excellent understanding of the psychological and emotional as well as the rhetorical aspects of poetry–indeed, of any art.


For about as long as I can remember, my favorite Christmas carol has been “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Today, as I listened to an instrumental version scored in a baroque style, I had an insight as to why I have such fondness for the piece. Partly, the appeal is the antiquity of the tone: the carol is quite old, veni veni featuring in sacred songs as far back as 8th-century antiphons, though most sources I’ve checked cite the version we know as dating from the 12th-15th c.

Hence its minor key and simple “sing-ability.” I’m not a good singer myself, but I can sing this carol. The range works for most of us.

But that wasn’t what struck me this morning as the music surrounded me in my car en route to work. What I noticed—felt, in my marrow—is the sense of yearning in this carol. There is something particularly human in the minor-key longing for release, relief, joy, escape, liberty, union with a beloved other, desire that is both physical and spiritual, the yearning for renewal. Not hope but the desire, the longing for hope.

This sense resides in the tune itself, not just in the words of the carol whether Latin or French or English. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” in the text I know best is translated by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin, yet the heart-breaking anticipation this carol captures for me has less to do with the rephrasing of Isaiah than with the poignancy of the musical prayer it evokes in me. A sigh, a wisp of possible exultation that is not exactly a promise I can understand but which stays inside me waiting to be awakened.

For various reasons, that yearning for hope resonates with me this year. And always.

Ann E. Michael


My brain still hurts, so I have decided to publish a radio commentary I did quite a few years back (for WDIY). If I can locate the mp3 file, I’ll post that, too.

I’ve chosen to post this essay for a number of reasons. The concept of having the time and the motivation to read, recall, and recite poetry seems like heaven to me at the moment. Then there’s the connection to rhythm, to pulse, that operates so fruitfully in metrical poetry. Finally, for sentimental reasons: it’s been ten years since my grandmother’s death, and now my parents have moved into an independent living community, and these events tend to lead to review, reflection, and—in my case—the desire to connect with poetry.

to the memory of Lucille Bohnstedt

My grandmother was born in 1909. As a child, she lived on a small farm in the Midwest, rising early to do chores, after which she’d study her homework by kerosene lamp. I once asked her what subjects she most enjoyed in school, and her answers surprised me. “I liked doing sums,” she told me, “And Latin, and poetry—I always liked poetry.”

This was a revelation. My grandma always seemed such a practical person; I wondered what it was she liked about Latin and poetry. I was aware of her devotion to crossword puzzles—caught up in the crossword craze during the 1920s, she never gave up her love of solving word challenges. I’m sure her Latin helped her decipher many an obscure word. But puzzles involve a different part of the brain than poetry.

I love poetry, so I had to probe more, curious about what my grandmother had studied and learned in verse. Did she recall which poets she liked? No, she had pretty well forgotten, but she liked rhyme and recitation. She had been good at memorizing lines—she liked the rhythms. And those old poems, they told such good stories, some of them sad…

Recitations! Such an old-fashioned concept, but still very popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Schoolchildren stood at the head of the class reciting their pieces, and poetic ballads were popular recitations at community gatherings and amateur nights; heart-rending tragedies like Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” (1906) were extremely popular. While most of these poems rhymed, their defining feature is the strong rhythm in the lines which carried listeners —who had never experienced the constant blare of television—into the powerful surge of words. Poems such as Wordsworth’s “Lines”:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs…

Or Sir Henry Wotton’s ecstatic poem “On a Bank as I sat Fishing:”

And now all Nature seemed in love;
The lusty sap began to move;
New juice did stir the embracing vines;
And birds had drawn their Valentines…”

Many a schoolchild recited Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” the fourth line of which has become so famous that few of today’s Americans could tell you its origin—

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The ballads of Edgar Allen Poe—Annabelle Lee was a favorite—and Phoebe Cary’s ballad of the Dutch boy whose finger stemmed a breach in the dike, and Longfellow’s classic poetic stories— “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”—these were my grandmother’s texts, her introduction into poetry. I like to imagine my young grandmother milking cows in the darkness and murmuring “By the shores of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis…” the sound of milk in the bucket echoing the rhythm of her hands as she milks. She earned an A in recitation from this practice. Maybe those resounding rhythms played some part in her steady endurance through a long lifetime that was not always easy.

My grandmother died in March of 2001, one less poetry-lover in the world. At her funeral I read Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell.”  This is the poem’s last verse—

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go.

~Here is a photo that shows Grandma’s less-practical side. She’s on the right (with her sister Faye), dressed in “flapper” style and riding side-saddle on a draft horse! I really ought to write a poem about this image.

Reasons and felines

“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.”

This sentence begins Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons, a lengthy series of philosophical arguments examining the validity of the self-interest theory, examinations of hedonistic and altruistic behavior, among others,  as rational responses to life, and why people choose to do what is against their own or their community’s best interests (i.e., behave “irrationally”)–as well as whether irrational behavior is ever justified and why.

At right, my favorite cat, Topsy. He does what he wants to do.

Parfit’s book has been a good refresher course for me in how philosophers actually work, devise their analogies, create and endeavor to solve dilemmas, clarify and limit their claims, etc.

But frankly, my brain hurts. (See Monty Python skit, below).

There are times one simply wants to think less about the things that matter, and that desire may not be rational but is certainly human. So while humans do have the opportunity to be reasoning creatures, they also have the opportunity to be like cats: to do what they want to do.

Or not to do, as the case may be.

At present, I’m assessing student work for final grades. This work is rational and should be carried out as objectively as possible against specific criteria. This work is one of the jobs teachers do, besides the job of endeavoring to impart information and to encourage critical thinking on the part of the students. It’s my job, I get paid to do it, and I take it seriously. Nevertheless, today I find myself tired of being the reasoning person.

And so, because I cannot slink over to the sofa and curl up on a pile of blankets, I am posting this:



Lewis, Buber, Dickinson

“Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world. All revelation is summons and sending.”   –Martin Buber, I and Thou

I suppose I ought to know this, but I cannot recall reading about whether C.S. Lewis was influenced by Martin Buber’s work, specifically I and Thou. Some of Lewis’ writing seems to suggest that he agrees with the concept of relation: as Buber describes it, the stepping out to meet Thou as Thou, and the insistence that “Man’s [sic] desire to possess God” keeps said man from true relation with God (a point described in The Great Divorce through the allegorical character of the Episcopal Ghost). God has become an “It” rather than a Thou for the Bishop, though he feels he is a true believer, an error made in lesser ways by other characters such as the Big Man.

Many of the students I tutor are writing their final papers for a Theology class that uses Lewis’ texts as a foundation for the course, which is why I’m feeling a bit conversant with Lewis lately, many long years after reading his fiction and his theological writings. And a random quote (above) that I read on a colleague’s email put me in mind of Buber, whose I and Thou reads, often, like poetry….which got me thinking about Emily Dickinson.

How’s that for a train of thought? Perhaps I need to examine the concatenation step by step.

1) Buber, I and Thou, a work deeply influenced by the author’s immersion in non-Western and Cabbalistic “mysteries” (the idea of the radii and the Centre closely parallels the Hindi conceptualization of Indra’s Net, just to name one example). Buber returns to the Western religious traditions throughout, though he mentions the way of Buddha and others as he examines the ever-present confrontation with the Thou of relational experience.

2) Lewis, The Great Divorce. Students interpret this work as one in which the author outlines his agreements and differences with, among other things, ideas about free will stemming from Socratic/Platonic through Augustinian and more modern concepts of Heaven/Hell. They tend to miss the concepts of what makes union/relation significant in the choice to unite with God, but they “get” the gist of the allegory.

3) Emily Dickinson, who more informally and more frequently uses “you” and “I” to explore these depths, but whose contrarian views on soul and spirituality knit the religious with the genuine in complex and exciting ways through the art of language.

An example, in which she does employ the King James Bible diction:


Where Thou art—that—is Home—
Cashmere—or Calvary—the same—
Degree—or Shame—
I scarce esteem Location’s Name—
So I may Come—

What Thou dost—is Delight—
Bondage as Play—be sweet—
And Sentence—Sacrament—
Just We two—meet—

Where Thou art not—is Woe—
Tho’ Bands of Spices—row—
What Thou dost not—Despair—
Tho’ Gabriel—praise me—Sire—

How similar to Buber, those lines “And Sentence—Sacrament—/Just We two—meet—”

and the idea that “Where Thou art not—is Woe—”

Poetry precedes philosophy more often than not, though philosophy may object.

Lawn vs. meadow, and a doe

I was outdoors this morning, raking leaves and silently cussing the grass. Spouse and I hold different viewpoints about the necessity and maintenance of a lawn, and while I gave into his desire for a lawn many years ago, my argument has proven correct over time: we live in a meadow, and lawn-grass is not happy here. Now, as I rake leaves from the spotty, weedy, too-long ryegrass, I get exhilarated by the exercise and the crisp autumn air but steamed at the need to rake at all.

We don’t rake the meadow; it takes care of itself. This is what “low-maintenance lawn” means, that nature takes care of things without human intervention.

Besides, I have never harbored a yen for the classic British lawn—acres of clipped greensward don’t appeal to me. I always feel the great lawn is missing something: trees, a bed of flowers, a crescent of blooming shrubbery. Great lawns’ main appeal for me is that there are edges all along them. Edges are interesting. Large, plain, even swaths work mostly to draw my eye elsewhere. While our meadow acts like an open space, it is ever-changing and often full of movement. Lawns, by contrast, are static. We mow the meadow once a year; the lawn requires considerably more time and gasoline consumption to stay in bounds because it is meant to be more-or-less unchanging.

Except that we live in a meadow. The expensive grass seed loses out to plantain and dandelion, chickweed, henbit, ivies, wild onion, queen-anne’s-lace, cinquefoil and other invaders that thrive on acidic soils that go dry in summer and turn to mud for months, circumstances that the thin-rooted, superficial, stoloniferous lawn-grasses cannot abide for long. I don’t relish the fight against nature, and my suggestion is to “naturalize” our lawn, even though—of course—the majority of these weeds are non-native species. But then, so are the lawn grasses.

I should mention the grazers, as well. Rabbits. Mice and voles that tear  up the root systems of lawn grasses. Deer:

A digression on the subject of deer—

This morning, I was startled by the sight of a large doe skirting the frost-covered goldenrod stalks quite close to the house. It’s deer-hunting season here, and there’s often an increase in the herd activity around our property as individuals and small herds lie low or avoid areas where there are hunters. This is one individual with whom I have long been familiar, a three-legged doe whose territory has included our yard for at least five years.

(In the photo, she is third from the left, the largest one; her right foreleg is missing)

She has borne a fawn every year but this past spring (the year before, she had twins—a male and a female). Some years back, I watched as she delivered her offspring in the meadow, which elicited a poem. In fact, she’s inspired several of my poems, so I owe her a debt of gratitude.

She was back-lighted by the early sun and, as usual, a bit graceless as she ascended the hill on her three good legs. The sun behind her outlined her in white, just as the  dry weeds were also rimmed with white, and she didn’t seem to mind that I had joined her. She just kept going until she vanished into the woodlot. I walked to the bottom of the hill and looked for her tracks in the soft lawn, followed them along the edge of the meadow, three hoof prints instead of four, one a bit deeper in the soil.

Well, we make our compromises, we do what we can with what we have, we choose our battles. My spouse has his lawn, I have my meadow, the doe treads her uneven path through survival at the edge of the suburbs.

I may as well pick up my rake and stop cussing the grass.