July 3, 2011

The Umbrella and the Piano

Story telling is critical for every culture.  It links person to person, group to group, culture to culture.  It links seemingly disparate things.  Stories can heal us.   According to Judith Herrmann in her book Trauma and Recovery, telling the story to the community and having the community hear the story helps people cope.

Poetry not only tells a story, but also wields image, metaphor and pattern in the telling.  This creates a very powerful tool of transformation. D.H. Lawrence, in an introduction to Harry Crosby's Chariot of the Sun, writes:

"The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers' a new world within the known world. Man, and the animals, and the flower, all live within a strange and forever surging chaos. The chaos which we have got used to, we call a cosmos. The unspeakable inner chaos of which we are composed we call consciousness, and mind, and even civilization. But it is, ultimately, chaos, lit up by visions. Just as the rainbow may or may not light up the storm. And, like the rainbow, the vision perisheth."

He goes on to say, "Man must wrap himself in a vision, make a house of apparent form and stability, fixity. In his terror of chaos, he begins by putting up an umbrella between himself and the everlasting chaos."

Lawrence gives the reader an image: an umbrella, our vision.  A version of reality.  So flimsy, a hard wind will turn it inside out and break its spines.  We can turn it into shelter, plaster its ceiling, paint it, use it as architecture, a space to live in. So circumscribed, we eventually mistake it for the universe, until somebody damages the fragile thing. 

"Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun."

Even a little research does indicate that many poets are the enemy of convention.  Convention can be positive; but it is artificial and eventually oppressive.  It's a made thing that is imposed on life.  As a genre, poetry embraces both chaos and order.  Loss and love.  Maybe poets remind us there is not one thing without the other.  

Perhaps the sun, a swirling orb of burning gases destructive and essential, is an apt image of chaos.  It blinds us with its harsh brilliance and makes things grow. An umbrella offers protection, some shade, a story we tell ourselves.  The umbrella reminded me of this poem he wrote:

by D.H. Lawrence
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;   
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see   
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings   
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.   
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong   
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside   
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.   
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour   
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast   
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. 

Lawrence sat beneath the piano as his mother played, and later as an older man yearns for that beautiful ceiling of sound, the splendor and thunder. It is a magnificent umbrella.

One moment suddenly cracks open flood of loss.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "There is a crack in everything God has made." A crack in everything, Leonard Cohen said, is how the light gets in.  Lawrence refers to poets themselves as people who will break convention, make a slit in the umbrella, break illusions.  Of course, not just poets do this.  Damage is done in many ways, by many people.  Poets recreate another vision, offer a new umbrella.

Story-telling is one of the best responses we have to the chaos of the universe.  One story won't explain it; I believe it is a joint and communal task to tell stories.  It makes sense that one story can not carry us, that the story needs to change each time we catch a glimpse of what's out there, in that moment between when our ceiling cracks and falls and we rebuild it, when the chaos inside us sees the one outside.

Between those two things, maybe it is wise to focus attention on the beautiful fresco.  Build a fine instrument, have a beautiful song, make a new world.  Let's make a lot of umbrellas, even though they won't last.   Nothing does.  

Read Lawrence's Introduction here

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