Conducting: Outside & Inside


2015 Celebration of a gentle conductor, Martha Burford

Conducting: Outside & Inside

A meditation during election season

            Preparing to perform at the birthday of a dear friend has led me to think that my life has been made of performances. When I write or compose, I want to compress into performances such understandings, favorite words, beloved faces, and lifelong talks with the vocal dead as have meant the most to me. I move from expressions of cadence to words, from words to music, from music to narrative line, and then, going back over everything, from narrative to form and production values. I seem to sink more securely into what I’m suited to do as the expression becomes complete. And of course, what one is suited to do is a calling.

Teaching was once  my calling. It required daily preparation—a script, a role, and props. Improvisation was always needed because the audience was always changing. I found that I learned more through performance than I had through academic training. This did not come as a surprise because whenever I’d had difficulty learning something, I could learn it by portraying and performing it to myself. (This was my key to organic chemistry.) But I did not understand what I was doing until I became a teacher. One of the first books I read at that time was Stanislavki’s An Actor Prepares, a text familiar to young actors. For me, it was about my own way of learning and producing.

Even as early as 1948, I sang and danced to “I’m looking over a four-leaf clover” for the customers gathered in a diner from a cold, snowy night in Rome, New York. For me, performance, learning, and production are the same process. Call it rehearsal—or call it worship. It is through performance that one shows what matters, whatever the calling may be.

Related to this is conduct. All the thinking and effort of production and performance is a conduct of moderation. One moderates between faculties of sensation, action, and cognition. Moderations are little agreements under the guidance of an honest broker or conductor. (Sometimes this is called metacognition. ) Production, learning, and performance also moderate and modulate transactions between ideas, actions, hopes, and achievements. Such moderation is a rehearsal-process fundamental to ethical conduct. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1) because it is the firm and dutiful kind of conduct we must have in order to realize our aspirations—to turn hopes into substance and things not seen into things in good evidence—matters that we have “seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and touched with our hands.” (I John 1:1)

The sustained attention, creative engagement, and compassion in this conduct result in invention, understanding, artistic expressions of all kinds, and mutually compassionate relationships. Again, I am reminded of my generous friend and of my father, whose life was a sustained performance of generosity and devotion.

The moderating, modulating, and transformative processes of rehearsal are exemplified by the give-and-take of performers in a small ensemble. Rehearsal requires the acceptance of limitations and an understanding of context. Whether the performers are other people or the agents of one’s own mind, the role of the conductor is the same. She listens to the whole sound.  If I try to evaluate feelings or other thoughts without a conductor, moderation is not possible. Instead, I will accept only my own experience as valid. I will exaggerate my own perspective and preferences. I will forget that knowledge is provisional and, whether between people, fields, or cultures, not easily translated. Permit the conductor to work and transformations can begin.

Different voicings and thematic emphases can emerge. New patterns of understanding can appear. Then the search is on again for ways to bind hearts to human fundamentals. I’d have to say that I prefer the path of creative engagement and expression to the path of groupthink, self-promotion, and self-confirming assertions, by the way. The way of conducted rehearsals and moderation differs from reducing other views to a version of our own. Just as an actor allows herself to feel and become the person she portrays—just as one who tries to help a learner or another person must do so in a heart-felt, non-manipulative way—so also, one who seeks to moderate the dialogue between different concepts, political views, systems, and cultures must work to grasp and understand all of the voices in the ensemble.  This kind of conducting, whether external or internal, begins with an acceptance of limitations.           

            All of the true conductors in us and among us follow the path to help, to foster life, and to promote growth, learning, and creative imagination. This is the path of moderation: the work that we do by strengthening conductors in our inner worlds and by finding good conductors for the ensembles in our social world. Conductors persist in making little agreements between their struggling performers in order to lead them away from what they have always done to a new work that they can do together, a work of wisdom.  As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible, and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”



Earth Day 2016

April 25, 2016

Earth Day 2016 sermon preview

(From my guest sermon on Sunday 4/24/2016.  A recorded version is on Facebook at )

 Stayed on Jesus

“Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind. Amen.” 

            This is a centering prayer which Hilary taught us. Centering prayers quiet us in God’s presence; that is, they direct us to attend to how things are, not how we want or imagine them to be.

            Mary C. Richards, the artist, compared centering to making a clay pot. You work the ball of clay until it is warm and soft. You work around it and push into the top of it and as the wheel spins, a column rises between your hands. One hand shapes the outside while the other explores the inside. The outward and inward journeys are both on the same infolded surface. It’s also the way an embryo develops. A single cell becomes a berry of many cells, then hollows itself, lengthens into a tube, and wraps around the environment. The outside becomes the inside. This is how things are. Humans develop in the same way as other animals. We share the ancient evolutionary inward and outward journeys of all creatures.  But when the clay pot goes off the center of the wheel, it collapses. Any vase is the result of many transformations on the wheel of creation and destruction. So is any species.

            In worship, we use liturgy, hymns, readings and prayers to nudge ourselves back into the quiet center of the spinning wheel of creation and destruction. 

            The centering prayer begins, “Lord, grant us  pardon . . .” The word “grant” is peculiar. Are we asking God for a favor? It’s like other words we use:  “Incline thine ear,” “Hear us, O Lord,” “Look down upon thy servant,” “Kum bay yah.”  These words seem to be addressed to someone who is inattentive and frequently absent, but this is not what we believe about God. We sing, “thou are giving and forgiving, ever-blessing, ever-blessed/ Well-spring of the joy of living . . .”  So why would we be asking for a gift that we have already received ? I think that the word “grant” is a centering word. It is we who are inattentive and frequently absent from relationships. We seek to be nudged back into the right relationship with creator and creation.

            And we ask for pardon because Christ taught us to petition God. He said to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” And in those few words he provided the right orientation for us. If humans spoke differential equations to each other, Jesus would have given a different kind of prayer. But what humans know is the family. They understand family relationships. So Jesus tells us to pray as if we were infants crying for a parent. The infant does not know the meaning of the universe or of existence; it does not understand suffering or what is in the parent’s mind or even know a language. What it does understand is its helplessness and dependence on the parent. And this is our centered framework of relationship with the unnameable, holy ground of being and deep integrity of all that is: We are in a family relationship with the creator and the creation, dependent on the creator and interdependent with the creation. Pope Francis has recently said that we are not stewards of the Earth but brothers and sisters with the Earth. We are not lords and masters of creation, but elder brothers and sisters. Ray Bradbury once referred to us as “the emissaries of consciousness in the universe.”

            So when we ask for pardon we are centering ourselves on the pardon that has already been given, the eternal resurrection that releases all creation for abundant life. Pardon is all that frees and releases the creatures to praise God by their full existence, the “sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost,” the hawk rising on a thermal, the tree spreading its crown of leaves in the sun, the cloud of marine larvae of oysters, clams, crabs and copepods riding a wedge of ocean water into the Bay to begin their journeys to adulthood. Pardon is the release of joy we feel in creative engagement and sustained attention when we do the work we are suited to do.  This is the abundant life of how things are. 

            “Lord grant us pardon and peace . . .” After the resurrection, the disciples went upstairs to a familiar room, shut the door, and locked themselves in. We like to lock ourselves away from fear, risk, threat, the other, and from strange challenges.  Once locked in, we pursue our personal journeys without concern for consequences, costs and externalities. In these gated communities of the heart we can believe whatever we want, but our world is off-center and collapsing because it’s not how things are. It’s just something we built. Our locked door hangs in the last standing wall of a demolished building. Paul said that Christ’s peace forever changed the divisions of humanity. He made a new humanity, unified in his body.

            Just as the members of a loving family work through problems together, reciprocate, and avoid violence, so the family of creation is sustained by reverence for life, life-fostering concern, and giving without expectation of reward. However much we trap ourselves behind negligence, violence, grudges, and greed, Christ comes through locked doors bringing peace. It’s how things are. 

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we may be cleansed of our sins. . .” Sin is separation from the creator and creation. It’s not how things are because we know that the Christ who was, and is, and is to come showed us a different way. After Peter’s dream of the unclean foods, he undoubtedly recalled how many lepers, foreigners, beggars, thieves, and assorted other unsavory characters Jesus had touched. “What God has called clean, do not call unclean.” Peter was not separate.  Neither are we. We imagine ourselves as free agents unbeholden to any, but we are interdependent with all creation, sharing the inward and outward journeys of all living things and of the Earth itself. All are transformed together on the wheel of creation and destruction. We align with the center of how things are or we collapse and fly off the wheel.  “Cleansing” is a centering word. It directs us to Christ’s forgiveness that is always available. Repentance is turning away from delusion to forgiveness. Albert Einstein once said that humans’ belief that they were separate from nature was the great “self-delusion” that religions must change. It’s simply not how things are. We are not separate.  What is done to the least of us–the crowds in Bangladesh, the forests of Brazil, the Great Barrier reef of Australia, or the fisheries of our continental shelves–is done to Christ.           

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee . . .” In today’s gospel, Christ commands the disciples to love each other as he loved them. In the family of creation this is mutual compassion, avoiding what Albert Schweitzer called “gratuitous destruction,” and it means working in cooperation and collaboration with other people and creatures. This means having different values than profit, progress, market share, convenience, comfort, and recreation. To work for the abundant life of all creation is to realize that “in pardoning we are pardoned, in consoling we are consoled, in giving we receive, in understanding we are understood, and in loving we are loved,” as St. Francis said. In other words, compassion and life-fostering concern transform our experience into a “new heaven and Earth” in right relationship with how things are by giving pardon, making peace, and helping in the work of salvation. 

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind.”  This new heaven and earth will be quietly centered on our dependence on the creator and our interdependence with other creatures. It will not be the kind of life we have now. We live in a noisy and confusing time. I could have added to the noise by telling you about the alarming threats to the future of our planet. Rocketing population growth will fill the Earth with 9 to 12 Billion people within the next 30 years. These people will want more cars, fuel, grain, meat, electronics, houses, water, cities, jobs, pets, amusements, weapons, and products of all kinds. These wants will make deserts, famines, plagues, wars, shortages, extinctions, vast migrations, more  injustices coming to people who are already suffering from disease and deprivation, and irreversible changes in climate, coastlands, and habitats. This is truly how things are. Pursuing our inward journeys as if they were not shared with outward journeys of all other living things is locking the door of denial. It is, in fact, a kind of violence. To open our hearts to cooperation with each other and with the natural geochemical cycles of our planet is to act as elder brothers and sisters of creation and emissaries of consciousness and conscience to the universe. In the words of the old hymn, let us “stay our minds on Jesus.”

 Let us pray. O God, whose love is greater than the measure of our minds and who make even our wrath and violence to serve thee, we give thanks for this island Earth, “in a starry ocean/ Poetry in motion/ this island Earth./ A beautiful oasis/ for all human races,/ the only home that we know,/ this island Earth.” Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we may be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind, a mind stayed on Jesus.  AMEN


“This Island Earth” is a song by Jonathan Edwards. Other quotations come fromPsalm 148  (Let all creation praise thee.), Acts 11:1-18 (Peter’s Vision), Rev 21:1-6 (New heavens & earth), and  Jn 13: 31-35 (A new commandment), and the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee.”



Of spring, trees, grass and wounds

As a poet, I should probably be thinking of the spring, particularly since few springs lie ahead. Maybe re-read Leaves of Grass.  Maybe think about trees–like the one I saw today. A tree-cutter hung from the side of an oak eighty feet from the ground as the branch snapped free, swung behind him to the notch where the rope was anchored, and calmly settled to the ground like a conclusion reached with finality.


Not loose yet

The arborist shins down and writes,

“Dead from the top, but you could wait a year.”

Wait for knots to loosen,

roots to lose their pulse;

witness to the latest light

braying for her brand

to wrap her spot and bum a light;

the flame past names out or in

fallible and ever malleable,

its light that salves all wounds

rising at high meridian

salvation, untiringly entire

in deep integrity a palliative fire

unfaceable, unborn, untraceable

to warm the bundled branches of our hearts

in ways surprisingly quotidien.

Wait. Wait. Wait.


**  ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Given that you and I have little time—only a few springs left, perhaps—what about salving some wounds as we wait at the exit? Let spring guide us.  As a step on my daily divine path, I walk through the neighborhood and discover that spring means it’s time for lawn treatment. This is a hard wound to heal, but let’s have a tussle on the turf.




Commercial  lawn treatments typically contain herbicides like Pre-emergents like Halts Pro (prodiamine) against grasses like crabgrass, and broadleaf weed herbicides like Defendor (Florasulam) &  general weed killers like Ortho Weed-B-Gone (2,4-D MCPP Dicamba) against plants like plantain, milkweed, clover and dandelions, and treatment with fertilizers (Nitrogen 17: Phosphate 0: Potash 5) enhanced with additives like Water Smart (a Scotts formulation) to increase absorption.  Quantities used for a 3000 square foot lawn would typically be in 6 gallon batches (3 gallons for Weed-B-Gone), combined and brought up to 3000 gallons of solution with water, and sprayed over the entire lawn. As the growing goes on, it is also customary for homeowners to hire yet other contractors to spray Roundup (Glyphosphate) on every pavement crack.


And what about the persistent organic pollutants?  For example 2,4-D and organophosphates  pass  from lawn to storm drain to Jordan’s Branch to the James River and on to the Bay, continental shelf and and on to the ocean—entering thousands of lives on their way. The 2,4-D is also a persistent air pollutant in and around your home (and the homes of neighbors who don’t have commercial lawn care.) There is ample information available about the issues , as well as many good suggestions. (See, for example: ).  We are connected to all life by what we do and fail to do. PLEASE GIVE IT A THOUGHT.


Note, written June 30, 2018: The link to Rodale’s Organic Life no longer connects to Rodale. Instead, you’ll find yourself in the Good Housekeeping magazine.  Not sure why.


Two new books

Just an update on two books. First, I’ve posted my book of poems Coming Around to the Works section of this blog. Second, I’m reading Rajan Jaisinghani’s “Homo Sapiens: An Appraisal of Modern Humans,” a personal but thorough assessment of the many aspects of the Great Predicament of our generation. Chapters: H. sapiens and the environment, Collective behavior, risk analysis and long-term problems, Population, Politics, government, and economic systems, Prerequisites for solutions. The last chapter is a description of life in 2050. I told Mr. Jaisinghani that he is a Dispeller of Trances. I’ll say more about the book in a future blog. See


Richmond Scenes–past and present


RICHMOND SCENES:  Poetry by Richard L. Rose

Perhaps you haven’t made it yet to the exhibition at the Library of Museum. Neither have I, in fact.  But I was surprised to see the title:  “TO BE SOLD” because it corresponds to my current research for the opera Monte & Pinky, which we hope to perform next year. This research, plus a prompt from the Poetry Society of Virginia and some time to work while traveling on a train have resulted in a small book of poems, RICHMOND SCENES.   Below are the first lines of some of the poems. For the complete poems and other notes, see Richmond Scenes. (Note: this book was later incorporated into Coming Around. See blog for December 14, 2015.)

Sophie’s Alley

The peloton passed into Sophie’s Alley

racing crumbling stables, whoosh of flame

from tipped pail of kerosene igniting . . . .

Walker’s Negro Organization Society

To tell you plain, I never will be done

with praising you. Not pain, my giant size,

nor “hinge of midnight” ere the moon arise–

my blackness . . . .

Lumpkin’s Wife

 He had a tall stump for the block

and had to help me up.

That’s when I caught his eye.

He said, Step down. Wait in the back.

Later he helped himself.

And so I came to stay.

Mined Out

We grew tobacco in a flower pot

below the sill from seeds like sanding grit.

Above the sill, it flowered over cosmos.

A horned caterpillar gnawed it down. . . .

The Catcher

Not far below us moves a spring

feeding abandoned fields

and toppled trees, departed going

concerns and lost yields. . . .

Two Veterans

Ginter’s novelties began with toys,

wind-up china dolls, gimcracks and slides

for stereopticons. His switching sides

came when the men he later led were boys. . . .

The Painter, 1960

Picked up for walking west of Boulevard,

a painter on his way back home had proof–

the check that he’d received instead of cash.

King Prosser, Nat, and insurrectionists, . . .

Thoughts on Collaboration


Thoughts on Collaboration

                Yesterday the performance of “In Sweet Surrender” was produced successfully at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond. Biopics of the performers in the photo are currently on the “In Sweet Surrender” site on Facebook.

Completion of any artistic endeavor is both satisfying and discouraging. Typically, one has sustained attention and is creatively engaged in the work over an extended period. Coming to the end brings mixed feelings of exhilaration, exhaustion, and surprise that it’s all suddenly over. One has rehearsed for weeks and now there’s no need to rehearse. In a way, the role that you have learned is like the ghost limb sensed by an amputee. You know it so well that it must be there.

Of course, when you began to learn the role or instrumental part, it was external–someone else’s bright idea. But over many rehearsals, it became your own. Perhaps you even defended your role or part  against the composer’s limitations. Some call this transformation “interpretation.” My teacher, Martin Berkofsky, gently scoffed at that notion. When he played one of Liszt’s etudes, he was not simply reading it off. He was the embodiment, maker, and creator of it. This is the performer’s secret. Without it, the composer’s work and the poet’s words stay on the page. It’s also the secret of a good audience, because they are also performers. Their performance is a matter of habit, attention, and inner recitation. Without them, the work dies.

So, whenever I complete a production like “In Sweet Surrender,” I think about all of the kinds of collaboration involved in making it happen: performers and composer,  professionals and amateurs, funders and givers, technicians and intuitives, church and community, music and words, art and service, creation and creation care. A good collaboration is a little perfect community of clear communication, commitment, and communion with a common vision. I  wrote about it in the closing words of “The People’s Voice,” an opera about ethnic cleansing, which was produced in 2001:

“When voices blend, each bending to the other, freedom comes . . .”

Three months after these words were sung in an Alexandria church, a plane flew over the same building and burst  the walls of the Pentagon. The little bubble of collaboration vanishes so quickly after a production ends. The world comes back. We return to our fragmented lives, habits, and habitats–our separate selves.

We exist in relationship but conduct our lives autonomously. The results can be humorous and distressing. A distracted driver doesn’t know how the old man got onto his hood. A coastal community is amazed when the sea reclaims the beach.

Albert Einstein once said that humans’ great delusion is the belief that they are separate from each other. Perhaps it is a necessary delusion. We need distance from the refugees, wastelands, endangered species and misbegotten organizations of our fragmented inner and outer environments. The island of the ego is attractive compared to the daily news.

Nonetheless, there are bits of all of us in each of us. Our work and daily existence compel us to work together, and we are often disturbed by the misbegotten organizations we have created. Gifted as we are as builders, makers, and organizers, the result of our work is often an unjust, disrespectful, and inflexible structure which brings neither peace nor reconciliation,.

Respect for ourselves, other species, and our shared world is the beginning of understanding our existence in a more artful relationship. We exist in our relationships. As performers generously take on and embody a composer’s way of thinking and feeling, they model the community’s deference to individuals; as composers and other makers accept criticism and change to present their work to best advantage, they model the individual’s respect for collaborators.

Rabbi David Wolpe, wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

“We all know, deep down, that most of what we have is a product of good fortune. No matter how hard we work, we did not earn our functioning brain or the families into which we were born. We live in cities others created for us, organized by a government and protected by a military shaped by our predecessors. Yet we still point to our accomplishments and proudly proclaim, ‘I did this!’ The well-off salve their consciences by assuring themselves that it is hard work and merit that brought them success, which also leads them to conclude that it is a lack of merit that keeps others from succeeding.”

As performers in the daily rehearsals of life we can choose to see ourselves as collaborators and look for ways to extend the sustained attention and creative engagement of artistic effort into the care we give to each other and our planet.

Shantih. La Paix. Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

Musical conversations

See the poster:  La Rinuncia_Fin

” IN SWEET SURRENDER” is under way. Join us on September 20!


Cut & paste to see on FB:

A worship service followed yesterday’s rehearsal for In Sweet Surrender at the Church of the Holy Comforter.  As I sat on the step waiting for a ride, the church music director, Martha Burford, joined me. We talked about how music brings people together. Sometimes  music only comforts the tribe, but left on its own, music  even brings tribes together. My musical education consists of such conversations. When I was nine, Lois Bell told me that music was the universal language. About the same time, George Sakalas took our accordion band to play for the inmates of an asylum in Dayton. They actually wanted to hear us try to speak this language. I even played my own composition, a 12 measure polka. Without encouraging listeners like my mother and Aunt Monte, I never would have learned the language of music. Miss Bradflute introduced me to opera and put me on a stage. Mr. Smeltzer encouraged me to sing. Years later, in the Warrenton Chorale, Barbara Stinson showed how to bring a whole community together in song. The Missa brevis, part of Sweet Surrender, was first performed by the Warrenton Chorale, accompanied by organist Isabelle Jones. Isabelle once told me that for her a performance was simply another rehearsal. As you may have learned from my previous blogs, this insight began a life-long meditation for me on rehearsal as a life-practice.  And many late night conversations over tea with Martin Berkofsky convinced me, if I needed any more persuasion, that music is not only a language but a culture.  Martin repeatedly recovered from life-threatening injuries and disease with undiminished resolve to continue giving concerts to help those in need–whether they were cancer victims or a “disappeared” Central-European musician . He grasped the gift at the heart of music. Like prayer, it is not a twist inwards but a push outwards. Even with a busy concert schedule he encouraged my composition of Amber and The People’s Voice  and attended the concerts. Following his example, all of my concerts are charity benefits. The great river of musical culture, diverted into streams and runnels, monetized and branded as a commodity sold in digital packages, is too powerful a flood to be contained.

As Martha, Lois, George, Barbara, Isabelle, and Martin taught me, the wordless conversations of music can make peace, build community, and evoke life-fostering engagement. They can open hearts. As philosopher Alain put it,

“There is a way of singing which shows that one is not afraid and which reassures the world of men.”

More information:

About Martha Burford

Have a look at what Martha has to say about our tribal comfort zones.

About Barbara Stinson

About Martin Berkofsky

About my recent YouTube promotion for FRAMESHIFTS:

Works cited in this promotion: Frameshifts, Stephen Dinan’s Shift Network and Radical Spirit, Roger Butterfield’s comments (1983) on folk art, Aldo Leopold’s comments on not losing the pieces as we tinker with nature, Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village about the early effects of industrialism, Aeschylus on wisdom, Rousseau on kindness,  Einstein on compassion. And this, from Adam Miciewicz, if you need a rationale for sharing, giving, and service: “The nectar of life is sweet only when shared.”

About Alain: See Le propos sur le bonheur by Emile Chartier (aka Alain), in which he suggests that humans must avoid two kinds of madness–believing that they can do everything and believing that they can do nothing.

Unsociable poems and other rehearsals

Brian Smith Mural RVa

Welcome to newcomers! We are all artful beings and websites provide a means to give or sell our work to others as well as to announce live performances. On FRAMESHIFTS, I share my work and invite you to converse  about your work. We work on ourselves first. Poetry, stories, pictures, music and other arts ensue. The work on ourselves is the continuing center of the conversation.  To SIGN UP for occasional notices from this site, click on

Brian Smith’s Murals, Unsociable Poems, and In Sweet Surrender.

In today’s blog, find some more observations on “rehearsals,” including the art of Brian Smith, an essay on Unsociable Poems, and the upcoming production of In Sweet Surrender at the Church of the Holy Comforter.

Mural artist Brian Smith has been transforming a building along Broad Avenue in Richmond. Many muralists are at work on the face of Richmond. The monuments they leave behind are questions and challenges rather than testimonials. As a mural weathers and peels over time, it’s easy to believe it was a try-out, rehearsal, or sketch only for showing what mattered to the artist when it was made. Stone monuments, however, seem to solidify truths rather than to represent a rehearsal of the artist’s ideas. Even the word “rehearsal” doesn’t seem to apply to edifices of such apparent finality. And yet all ideas are in continual rehearsal and revision. All definitive works are subject to reflection, reassessment, and, yes, redefinition.

Brian Smith's Mural RVA

Speaking of the sun & other luminaries,

Faint star, to catch you I must look away.

Such indirection you would have me learn,

perhaps, because to near you is to burn

and yet I want to know what you convey.

Would staring breach some stellar etiquette?

Do indiscretions make you fade away?

May you not speak to one you’ve never met?

You sidle off from every look you get.

Sweet Earth, you beckon yet you bind and prod.

In hissing sleet on bogs that shine and sour

your ferns raise fiddleheads and sundews flower

but bones like mine will sink where lilies nod

and eyes be steeped like thatching reeds to ret

and float like lily seeds within their pod.

What sees and thinks and sinks you’ve never met.

My thoughts are stars too low to rise or set.

My Soul, like Sol, if I avert my gaze

because you blaze with incandescent glare

and if I interpose this weft of air

that moves contrarily by jumps, and plays

bulging between us like a parsing net

determined to enclose you in a phrase

and bring you up that I may not forget:

Will you with stings not blind me closer yet?

Faint star, to see you I must look away

and yet look back again, accommodate

to your frail light by swinging on the gate

between us –to and fro, move and stay,

part and whole, unfettered dream and fret—

and hold you by release –by must and may

by stand and sway, contentment and regret:

Still far and dim, you gain upon my debt.

From collected poems, Work On Yourself

Rehearsals have begun for the concert, “In Sweet Surrender.” As I mentioned in the blog on “Healing Breaths,” (May 1, 2014):

P1020744 P1020745

As raking prepares soil by scraping tracks and grids for seed and lifting out twigs and other obstacles to growth, so rehearsal lays tracks and grids for smooth performance unimpeded by self-consciousness. So it is with performance both on stage and page.  Rehearsal links bodily memory to intention. Whether the result is a convincing performance in a stage role or the shifting away from self by what Brother Lawrence called the “practice of the presence of God,” I have found that both are matters of rehearsal.

P1020746 P1020747


Unsociable Poems

            Social media demand disclosures, but I won’t routinely send you my poem of the moment. If you look through the “Works” section of this website, you’ll find what I have written and composed, not late-breaking news. Unlike Wikileaks, my poems convey experiences but do not reveal secrets.  They seek to offer, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “the place of the other.” This is unlike confessions and other self-exposures, which seem to me to supply both the experience and its explanation.

            Say that I had a traffic accident. I could provide details from the incident report. I could tell a story about it or explain it. Any of these renderings could be artfully done. But to put you in “the place of the other,” I would find the details, story, and explanation to be secondary materials. Instead, I would have you imagine the experience so that you feel slightly displaced. This displacement is more important than whether the event happened or was explained by reference or self-reference. It is an unsocial effect.

            Unlike gossip and other attempts to discover what others approve, such poetry is an unsocial medium. In The Way Things Are (1959), Percy Bridgman wrote that:

Most people apparently take the objective, impersonal, unitary nature of the world so much as a matter of course that they cannot see that there is even a problem in getting the private and the public onto a common basis . .                                                                                                    (p. 214)

and then spoke of:

one of the essential visions, namely, that the world of introspection is a different sort of world than the noonday public world of common experience .                                                                                      (p. 218)

Ogden Nash put it differently in his poem “Listen” (in The Face is Familiar ):

There is a knocking in the skull,

An endless silent shout

Of something beating on a wall,

And crying, Let me out.


That solitary prisoner

Will never hear reply,

No comrade in eternity

Can hear the frantic cry . . .


     Both Bridgman and Nash referred to the facts that we cannot get away from ourselves, from seeing others with respect to ourselves, and from the clumsiness of using a public language to express private experience. Nash expresses desperation, but in a later passage, Bridgman goes further:

The individual has remained the forgotten man, in spite of the pious slogans of democracy or our repeated assertions that society exists for the individual. On the contrary, up to the present society has in fact almost completely dominated the scene, particularly the intellectual scene, at the expense of the individual. As the individual stands today he is a creature of society. This is coming to be increasingly recognized and talked about—not only is it recognized as a fact, but there seems to be a growing sentiment that this is the way it ought to be, and many profess that they are glad to accept it . . .

                                                                                                     (p. 315)

     Or, in our time, fifty-six years later,  to “like” it on FB because others like it. In our era of social media and crowd-sourcing, the individual sometimes seems to be simply another app—a fancy if unreliable tool.

     The unsocial poem is not a tool; it is a trapdoor dropping you out of your social designations. The little displacements or frame-shifts which I look for in reading and writing poetry or in studying other arts are unsocial effects–not antisocial effects—because they suggest or, in Bridgman’s terms, “project” a private experience that I can tentatively imagine to be my own. The values of the poetic medium—diction, connotation, association, form, voice—not only convey details but entangle me in the experience. However briefly, they put me in “the place of the other.” With the support of the poem, I embody the experience.

            Leon Wieseltier began Kaddish (1998), his meditation in memory of his father, with the following reflection:

Many years ago, in an essay by Coomaraswamy on the aesthetics of Buddhism, I read about the Pali word samvaga, which was ‘often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience.’ The aim of Coomaraswamy’s essay was to establish the legitimacy of a form of contemplation that is not disinterested. In the Buddhist sources that he cited, the artistic object is described as a ‘support for contemplation.’

                                                                                                            (p. viii)

     A poem that gives me a small displacement or frame-shift is a “support for contemplation.” What I look for both in reading and writing poetry is support for contemplation on the singular, individual experience of being. Many poems have other work to do, of course, such as bearing greetings, comfort, assurance of affiliation, confessional explanation, commercial promotion and self-promotion. In them we seek agreements, approval, consensus on what we should think, and so on. Knowing what others agree on or agree to is needed to guide marketing, commerce, political action and cultural trends. A poem can even sample and sum up such a consensus more deftly than operations research, e.g. “Sugar pops are tops.” (A million dollar poem).  But such poems do not support contemplation on being. They do not shift you briefly out of your own way. For that you need an unsocial poem.

            I won’t guarantee that the five poems below, selected from Work On Yourself (in “Works”) will perform for you as described above. All I can say is that, like most of my work, they are rehearsals. Perhaps you would like to share some unsociable poems you have discovered or written.

   A singularity,

 than which there is no whicher,

from nothing special,

performing exactly

as never imagined,

in a burst of revealing


reminds us

of the individual.

Morning Find

Going to nowhere

faster than usual—

only a day since

grackle departed

feathers (as usual,

left on the doorstep),

gone to the where none

fares any well from—

still among breathers,

sweeping the carnage,

I wake in plumage.


No speed that I could go would be enough.

Anticipation overtakes the chase.

The prize precedes the game; the goal, the race;

the mystery, the search; the smooth, the rough;

the thought, the slow peripatetic pace.

The struggling steps between are left behind,

the hardships undertaken for a cause

and yes, also the last sweet clinging pause

delaying grief or parting.

This does not find,

as lawyers say. For those who wait on laws

within themselves and make a thorough search

before capturing the obvious:

In their defense (and mine) I say, “For us

the obvious is mystery enough.

No race will make it more mysterious.”

Cruise Control

Cruise control is a state of mind.

Lock the speed in.  Insert a pause.

Find within any urgent drive

cause to hesitate.  After using

live explosives–each charged with shock–

taking pressures till power exhausts–

detonating precious plans to costs

day by day; after watching  what

jam why to gassy nought:  Why then,

shut down, drift in a cloudy thought;

cruise and troll in a lake of mind;

drift past deadlines and then notice Death

slam his brake in the other lane.

Cruise control is a state to mind

borders of–a long dotted line

showing history where to cut.

Monument Avenue

I turn left where the massive oak

lifts walk and roadbed. I’m alone.

From every bush and branch come quick

sharp warnings: Not here! Go on!

I reach the crossing with its choice.

Crepe myrtles shade the median.

Where I come to comes from this,

this pause to turn right or go on.

The windshield twisted left, a hiss

escapes. My ribs rebound. I tilt

to left, watch the silver fumes,

recall the myrtles’ dive, the halt.

Turned left and halted, made to see

where my going comes, I stop.

The steering wheel no longer moves.

Nor do I move, content to be.

Ferguson, Workplace, and Making Soup

The choice between engagement and supervision

I prefer to work with words, count syllables, crack phrases, set lines to tunes, find etymologies, and hide rhymes. Without making a poem, it’s difficult to opine on recent events in Ferguson or to draw the relationship I see to the use of the Workplace software by their data-driven employers :


Of our first disobedience now the fruit
has ripened in a thing against our nature,
a growth that rules us we have bred from rules,
a coded being, supreme appliance, image
and appendage overgrown: a cyst
like an ovarian anomaly
with true eyes, hair, eleven misplaced teeth,
and six or twenty fingers on a hand—or more—
made to assist.
With or without poetry, however, writer Robert Solomon would perhaps not have bought the poem’s implication of a cultural aberration. As he put it:

Our so-called depravity is nothing but the deficit side of our chosen form of life, and I for one would want no other . . . But ‘narcissism’ is a nasty and unnecessary word. Ever since the early days when the diagnosis was damnation instead of disease, our desire to promote a decent society has been undermined by those bitter voices demanding nothing less than total change, and thereby making change impossible. The most tiresome depravity of our age is all this talk about the depravity of our age.

And even W.H. Auden put in a good word for our depraved age, however anxious it might seem:

“. . . I may escape notice
                                   but never
on roads I dream of
                     what Eden is there for the lapsed
but hot water
                     snug in its caul
                  exiles may feel as self-important
as an only child
               and a sage
                           be silly without shame . . .”
(From “Encomium Balnei”)

Indeed, whatever our gripes against the hurry, technology, commodifications, and depravity of our age, we like our plumbing and hot baths! So I’ll try to deliver an opinion rather than a poem.
But maybe there’s no need. Maybe body cameras have already solved public relations problems for law enforcement and maybe the erratic schedules generated by Workplace software will be simply fixed by coding more sensitively?

Well, in a first stab at being an opinion-leader, I’d say no. Here’s where the soup comes in.

You see, I often watch Kathleen make soup. She talks with the farmer about the cuts and bones, decides whether it’s to be lamb, turkey or beef, brings them home with assorted vegetables and greens, and sets up her pot. First, the bones are soaked in a little vinegar to begin the demineralization and softening of collagen. A long warm soak of the bones “snug in their caul” is interrupted by the addition of celery, onions, and garlic–the holy trinity. Six hours later, the starchy vegetables arrive–maybe sweet potatoes or butternut squash cut in large chunks. The stock cooks down for six or seven more hours, the lid happily bobbling atop. Salt and a few herbs enter an hour or so before serving. Then, as the bowls are taken down twelve to fifteen hours after the ingredients began their path of transformation, minced collard greens or arugula is stirred in and steamed just enough to soften them but not enough to destroy enzymes. The nutrient-rich, gelatinous, arthritis-healing, anti-inflammatory, savory broth is poured into large shallow bowls so that we won’t have to wait too long after inhaling the aroma before it’s cool enough to eat. The extra is set aside and frozen for later in the week for soup, stock, and warm drinks on winter mornings.

Please notice that the cook did not add the preserved contents of a soup can to water and microwave it for 3.5 minutes. Here’s the distinction: the long slow method required personal, creative engagement; the quick, automated method requires what I call “supervision.” The supervisor of distant, outsourced preparations passively removes the unknown product from the microwave and quickly feeds.
After about 20 years of teaching, I became a supervisor. When this happened, I couldn’t help thinking about the word. It literally means “looking over.” The stately definition implies a lofty perspective on the workplace. Diagrams and management theories emblazon the standards fluttering over the towers of Higher Management. For the workers, however, it means that the Suits are always looking over their shoulders. Or that a manager “overlooks” certain deficiencies out of what? Largesse? Noblesse oblige? Certainly, Management prefers the idea of a stately “supervisor” to that of the ruffian “overseer.” Whatever the merits of middle management, I always knew that “supervising instruction” was an abstraction while “teaching” was a personal and creative engagement. Abstractions omit more light than they emit.
So, what about the body camera and the improved program code to eliminate employees’ downtime? Abstractions. Exercises in supervision. Nothing new about them. When humans began to write, the headmen of the tribe knew that personal engagement in accurately memorizing the genealogy and Story of the People was on its way out. Once all the different Homers had their creative improvs recorded, there was no going back. Anyone who could look over the text could recite the story. Automatically. Granted, the appliance was not a cell phone, body camera, telegraph key, or software package to optimize workers’ labor. It was only a book. One could even overlook all the dull parts by skipping ahead. But an appliance had replaced a kind of personal and creative engagement. The community was no longer embodied and unified in the poet’s performance. A book was a disappointment to the jobless shaman but good news to the litigant who wanted to see where it was written that he owed a fifth of all his grain and chickens to the chief.
The choice is ours. Some things are so important that only personal and creative engagement will do. Other matters are better supervised. Here’s where we may disagree, so I invite your responses.
My opinion is that we are animals with limited understanding and scale who are rooted in our natural world. Care for each other and the natural world–what my teacher, Elwyn Tilden, called “life-fostering concern“–are precisely the matters requiring sustained attention and personal and creative engagement. These matters include education, the arts and sciences, the production and preparation of food, and the inclusion of all members of the community in significant creative work that embodies what is best about the culture—whether it is well crafted plumbing or a compassionate social code. Two counter-examples conclude my argument, such as it is:
• Underpaid part-time employment that does not allow the worker to know her schedule from one week to the next fails to be personal, engaging, or creative for either worker or employer.
• Trying to solve a problem of social dynamics with a device merely creates another problem of social dynamics. David Campbell’s “law” from 1976 says that “the more any quantitative factor is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (The Week 5/11/2015, p6) Turn the issue between police and community into a supervision technology and the monitors will be gamed.

As we are increasingly tracked, monitored, and profiled, we are encouraged to believe that all of this supervision is needed. But in fact, on a personal level, we need more experiences like making soup for ourselves. Productivity is not socially meaningful work. Low crime incidence is not a blessed community in which employers, workers, owners, renters, enforcers, and citizens live together equitably, treat each other fairly, and know each other by name. No, measurable indicators like productivity and crime incidence are abstractions. Useful in limited ways, as books, microwaves and cans of preserved soup are useful, our abstractions do not replace the social nutrient-system of relationships.

Obviously, it is desirable that all members of society should shine in their own ways and be meaningfully engaged in the works of society. Social indicators, apps, clever inferences from big data and even heavy-handed corporate solutions in the forms of brand-name packages are certainly useful from time to time, but massive societal disengagement and inattention are unlikely to keep us all in hot baths.
Even a blog like this is useful in dissemination of ideas and opinions. All artful work begins in sustained attention and personal creative engagement and ends in products like blogs, microwaves, poems, and telegraph keys. These products may be immediately useful or may even evoke responses from others. They do not, however, replace the mutually attentive relationships which nourish our existence and evoke our energy and desire for personal and societal transformation. This energy and desire, called ganas in Spanish, comes from personally tending to the soup of relationships with each other and the natural world. In Margaret Mead’s memorable words,

Never doubt that a small group
of committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

    This is truly as much opinion as I care to deliver. Your comments appreciated. For other perspectives, see Robert Solomon’s Living With Nietzsche and The Passions, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, James Gleick’s The Information, Plato’s Phaedrus (Socrates’ comments on writing), and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft and The World Beyond Your Head.