Monday, December 5, 2011

Neither Here Nor There

The title and heading for this blog is taken from one of my favorite poems by the Nobel Prize winning poet from Ireland, Seamus Heaney.  I learned to appreciate his poetry, and especially this poem, while travelling through the mountains of Scotland.  It can be hard to find words for the kind of beautiful, transcendent, sublime moments when you encounter such places.  This poem, “Postscript,” is about an experience with a natural landscape in Ireland, and it evokes the feeling of what such moments of encounter can be like, particularly the last five lines or so.


Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

I really like the last few lines of this poem, because they give a sense of what it feels like to see and encounter places which overwhelm us with transcendent beauty and leave us speechless. Heaney says of the moment when driving upon a stirring scene of nature:  "Useless to think you'll park and capture it more thoroughly." In other words, there's no way to "capture" this experience, to stop and take it apart, to analyze it in order to distill some essence, to package it and take it home with you. It is what it is in that moment.  And in that moment, "you are neither here nor there."  Your sense of self gets lost or pushed aside as you try to take it all in.  You are no longer absorbed in your own self-preoccupations; you are drawn out into something large and wonderful.  The sense of self, which dominates too much of our thinking, gets marginalized, if only for a few moments.  We lose our self, to borrow a phrase from the gospels, and I think it is this kind of experience which gives us the capability to put ourselves aside in relational and ethical considerations as well.  

At any rate, something strange happens to the self in this experience.  It becomes something else.  What?  "A hurry through which known and strange things pass."  Isn't this poetic description amazing?  In that moment, we become "a hurry." Heaney uses a word here to describe us which is usually thought of as a verb, but in this case, it becomes a kind of noun.  In that moment of experience, we become a hurry, a commotion, a passageway, as things pass through us--sights, images, feelings, beauty.  In that moment, our self is no longer the center of the world around which everything else revolves. Instead, we are only a holding station through which all this is passing.  We don't make it happen. We can't create the experience directly.  It comes at us "sideways." We have been sideswiped by an experience, "buffeted" by an overwhelming moment, overtaken with a reality that will "catch the heart off guard and blow it open."  We try to take it all in even though it is too much for us and leaves us shaken with amazement.  Such experiences cannot be dictated or calculated or predicted in advance.  They can only be spoken about after the fact, a kind of "postscript."

Well, this unusual situation says something about us all as individuals which is more generally true.  We are never simply here or there, never simply one particular fixed thing.  Our sense of self is fluid, “a hurry through which known and strange things pass.”  I don’t want to be too programmatic about this blog at the beginning, setting a kind of agenda for where it will go.  Such a move would fly against the very point of this poem and blog entry.  I do, however, like the idea of exploring the fluid, ever-changing sense of self that we all carry, and of encountering our beautifully ordinary and meaningfully absurd world.

Here's a reading of this poem and some video of County Clare, Ireland.  Enjoy:

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