I’m not in Ireland today, but the grey sky in West Texas has been pouring steady water for over twenty-four hours. When I went running down the flooded little streets in the drippy dusk earlier, I lingered over my memories of wet days in the Aran Islands back in March.
And I decided to post this little poem that I wrote earlier this week in Dr. Bob Fink’s creative writing workshop. The poem was an attempt to distill the essence of my experience at Kilmurvey House, a lovely historic stone home that serves as a lodging-place for island visitors.
The photo included here is not my own, but it is just how I remember Kilmurvey House. The lighted window on the right side of the picture is the window into the “rose tea-room” mentioned in the poem – a room where my now-fiancé and I read a little book of W.B. Yeats’ poetry on a wet, wet day much like this one.
The poem I most clearly recall reading was “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” because we discussed it at some length and questioned whether cynicism is a natural accompaniment for age and, if so, whether it must be?
Yeats famously visited the Aran Islands in 1896 and told J.M. Synge: “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Kilmurvey House was standing when Yeats was on the island, but no one in our group was certain whether he ever went there specifically.
When I first set out to write this poem, I wanted to know for sure – I thought it was important to the poem. But as I began to think about it more deeply, I realized that this small fact is immaterial in the scheme of things. What matter is that I was there, reading Yeats and wrestling with what he said and I wanted to give words to that experience. So this is my best attempt.
KILMURVEY HOUSE “No single story would they find Of an unbroken happy mind, A finish worthy of the start.” (W.B. Yeats, Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?) I don’t know if Yeats ever came here or not on a pitching ferry passing the wild atlantic way the saltgrass air in his nose the gulls wheeling. There are always red coals in the rose tea room the kettle about to bubble and the little warm milk pods in the bowl on the ancient piano.
Why should not old men be mad? Even the ocean is white with rage throwing beaten egg stones up on the beach howling in the boulders.
Yet will you sit with me here in the circle of bodhran thunder and light? Sometimes the mind breaks and spills birdlike solos.
This is just a little unobtrusive announcement that my Etsy shop has been recently overhauled and restocked with an assortment of new cards, bookmarks and hand-written calligraphy encouragement notes. I’ll be steadily adding more artwork to the shop over the next few weeks, so come back and visit again if you like!
There was a thing, as I’ve said before, called Christianity… All the crosses had their tops cut and became T’s. There was also a thing called God. We have the World State now and Ford’s Day
celebrations and Community Sings and Solidarity
Services. There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same
they used to drink enormous quantities of
alcohol… There was a thing called the soul and a thing called
immortality… But they used to take morphia and cocaine.
Aldous Huxley puts these words in the mouth of the director of his dystopian society in a scene where the collapse of the world as we know it is narrated with an eery nonchalance.
Huxley’s classic novel has been on my list to read for quite some time and when a friend wanted to read it with me over the summer, I finally got down to it. Based on what I’d heard about the book, I was expecting to find some remarkable parallels between Huxley’s society and our own technological age. However, I wasn’t prepared for just how many powerful ways I would see the Spirit of the Age foreshadowed in this book.
In Huxley’s Brave New World, the old order of struggling for survival and working to achieve your goals has been replaced by a new society where scientific advancement has removed the need for pain, suffering, frustrated desires and social instability. People are genetically engineered to serve the specific needs of society and conditioned from infancy through hypnopaedic sleep training to embrace their lot in life. There is no disease and the effects of aging have been obliterated. There are no longer any causes for dissatisfaction or discontentment. And if anyone should find themselves experiencing strong emotions, there’s always soma, the feel-good drug that provides a euphoric escape from any unpleasantness.
The catch? In order to do away with the strong negative emotions that threaten the stability of the social order, the Brave New World has done away with marriage, family, and all strong and meaningful connections that bind humans to one another. They’ve done away with love. Everyone is trained in uninhibited promiscuous sexuality from childhood and words like fidelity, parents, and God have become indecent expressions. The high arts have been replaced by synthetic music and sensory experiences. Television and soma are ever-present as a constant distraction against any serious contemplation. Pleasure flows through the culture like a steadily dripping intravenous solution, deadening feeling.
Huxley paints a picture of an existence that most of us would no doubt categorize as no way to live. We don’t live in a society where Shakespeare and the Bible are forbidden and marriage is a dirty word. The high arts are still held in high regard by educated people and housed in museums that can be visited free of charge all over the country. We can still listen to opera and classical music radio stations in every major city in this country. Unfortunately, I think these ways in which our culture isn’t like Huxley’s can be a dangerous distraction from a myriad of ways in which it is.
Technology in our time has ushered in an era that is unprecedented in history. Mechanization has drastically reduced the need for quantitative manpower and a few people can easily complete work that once required thousands of laborers. Whereas humanity used to be engaged in a constant struggle for survival, the means of production are rapidly evolving to a point where this struggle is no longer necessary. In order to accommodate the resulting leisure opportunities, virtual and passive entertainment forms have become increasingly central in the lives of millennials.
Gaming provides opportunities for activating the brain’s rewards system and giving users the illusion of accomplishment. Smartphone technology provides instant access to many forms of mindless entertainment or pleasure simulations, from Candy Crush Saga to pornography. Apps like Snapchat allow smartphone users to feel informed about world events and trends with daily news and fashion feeds but all of these news outlets look more and more like tabloids every year. Rather than promoting serious observations, research or deep thought, they stimulate users on a shallow level with short articles centered on pop culture figures, gossip tidbits and useless trivia. They promote a hook-up culture in which meaningful, committed, long-term sexual relationships are replaced by cheap one-night stands and love and friendship are divorced from sexuality.
Are we happier for all this? Are we happier now that we live at a level of physical and material comfort that none of our ancestors ever experienced?
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that this influx of consumer media has resulted in the loss of many important elements of the human experience. There’s no longer any need for boredom or contemplation or pondering the hard facts of reality and the questions of existence that enhance our humanity. There’s little motivation to expend effort towards achieving long-term goals when so many short-term goals are instantly attainable.
What is it that’s missing? What is it that the human heart hungers for so desperately and that can’t be fulfilled by ending world hunger or unemployment, by giving people everything they want? Why is it that what we think we want is never really what we want after all?
“God, you have made us for yourself,” St. Augustine wrote, exposing the emptiness of all the pleasures in the world, “and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”
Summer with my family has been a time full of changes and green and very little internet. We’ve moved to a new property, wide with acres, and spend a lot of time swimming in the deep and narrow lake and blazing trails through the forests.
One thing I have managed to get done as I’ve been away from the worldwide web is some additions to my Etsy store here, including more Tolkien art, a Reepicheep bookmark, and some other things like this card based on Coventry Patmore’s whimsical Victorian poem, The Azalea.
If you’ve been having troubles getting in touch with me, I should be back online soon! In the meantime, here’s a thought-provoking little poem I picked up from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems.
Each summer the last summer, Levertov says.
LIVING The fire in leaf and grass so green it seems each summer the last summer.
The wind blowing the leaves shivering in the sun, each day the last day.
A red salamander so cold and so easy to catch,
dreamily moves his delicate feet and long tail. I hold my hand open for him to go.