On Poetry & the Inner Ear


"The sound of your voice is like a touch from a distance," mixed-media installation (2013) by Ryan Wade Ruehlen



Dear Everybody,

Before wandering faithfully into a new thought-experiment, I must make mention of Ryan Wade Ruehlen's Jack Angel, this month's issue of The Lune. A multimedia artist specializing in performance and collaboration (see: Flinching Eye Collective), Ruehlen has infused Jack Angel with visual, visceral, and spiritual clout. It is a remarkable document, and it is our first issue to feature content both in print and online, re: Out-of-Body Observatory. I'd also like to invoke three poets whose works are forthcoming: Olga Broumas & T Begley (October), W. Scott Howard (November), and David Mutschlecner (December). It is an honor to know their wakeful names. On that note...

I woke up the other day unable to hear out of my left ear (don't worry, hearing has returned), and it affected my sense of balance. Rooms felt smaller or larger than they "actually" were, and walking felt more like sailing. I did a very small amount of research and learned that deep inside our ears is an organ called the labyrinth. The labyrinth interacts — via the brain — with our eyes, bones and joints to indicate the body's position. Inside the labyrinth there are semicircular canals filled with fluid that tells us if we're moving. This is a major aspect of how our bodies achieve and maintain balance.

Connections abound to the labyrinth as maze, trap, deity, pilgrimage, metaphor, and so on. A wikipedia segment mentions the mystic's relationship to labyrinths: "Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind." Before a recent reading, Indigo and I walked the labyrinth outside St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder. There are entire organizations dedicated to the labyrinth as a spiritual tool. And there's this: "Incline the ear of your heart" (Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, ~529 C.E.).

So, knowing how the ear's labyrinth holds fluid, I am thinking about how to hold things: relationships, tools, gatherings, possessions, ideas, opportunities, regrets, mysteries. Holding seems to suggest a certain space between oneself and the "object" of one's attention, whereas having seems to absolve the subject somewhat… But that distinction may be irrelevant. Today, it feels entirely too easy to hold things without care, without flexibility. Is holding a contemplative gesture? How does poetry help us hold multiple realities? Who is Jack Angel?

A number of beautiful ideas emerged in the wake of "On Poetry and Friendship" (14 Aug. 2016). I'd like to share a few of the thoughts people sent my way to continue thinking about specialization and relatability, and to tangentially address the cultural implications of holding things with care.

"Poetry, to me, calls on an ability to discern patterns that are more universal than unique. Integration, to me, calls on an ability to anticipate indirect effects and take the opportunity to make them positive when they might otherwise be ignored or negative… specialization in the context of human communities is a 'good' thing, to the extent it enables people to do what they love and love what they do. It is a 'bad' thing when group expectations are enforced on the unlucky person who happens to love something unexpected." (Gerry Braun, IRESN)

Braun's notions of discernment and anticipation work hand-in-hand to create the circumstances for careful attention (i.e. holding). As he suggests, "[discerning] patterns" has a unifying effect. Braun's idea of "[anticipating] indirect effects" is another way of preparing to make compassionate decisions. I don't think it's a stretch to say that engaging poetry prepares us to act out of compassion instead of reverting to strictly competitive impulses. And sociocultural competitions (perhaps especially the Olympics) do not contradict this response: Our rivals make us stronger, and specialization has powers of integration. Rugby and golf were again included in the games, which is wonderful, because both sports highlight completely different approaches to landscape, territory/terrain, cooperation, preparation, etc. 

There is no way to adequately celebrate victory without acknowledging (and ideally admiring) the defeated party. The hunter (gives) thanks (for) the prey. Specialized abilities are embodied. Here is a remarkable example of the immanent (embodied) care of naming — a human specialization — and how it transcends the individual:

"On a bike ride one when ago, I was chanting names of deities… 'Ganesh, Shiva, Kali, Moses, Muhammad, Jesus,' etc. Then I thought, I don't know these people. I will chant my friends names instead, whom I do know. And so I did: 'DJ, DJ, DJ, DJ, Joey Kelly, Joey Kelly, Joey Kelly, Joey Kelly, Greg DiBella, Greg DiBella, Greg DiBella,' etc., invoking the holiness that the most essential purity of their beings represent, as well as the mires and twists and turns theirs, and all, our lives take. It felt nice. I knew these qualities and proclivities and gifts of these friends. I know them firsthand." (Daniel Aaron Halpern)

Halpern's practice speaks for itself. According to tradition, I suppose it could be seen as a "lowering" of the divine practice. But Dan brings the spirit of worship — gratitude, care — close enough to see, to recognize. His friends, themselves having names, are good examples of divinity, thus perfect conduits for the sacred, and close enough to hold, being known "firsthand."  Ted Garrison touches on this same idea of "lowering" and brings it into the context of poetics and community:

"Maybe it is a good thing that the so-called 'quality' of poetry has been lowered these days, in the sense that as poetry reaches more into the lives of ordinary people — who just want to write and find in poetry a practice to sustain a sense of meaning and depth in life — it would loose some of the forms that 'poetry' has tended to emphasize. In my approach to poetry as something more like spiritual practice, my concern is less with what constitutes a 'good' poem than what it means for a writer to approach poetry as a way to be in the world in a posture of query — as an existential awareness. If publishing and standards are all that’s emphasized, I think that represents a retardation of what poetry can mean for individuals today."

Another one of Braun's ideas feels like a condensation of Garrison's theory: "Perhaps a key to reconciling specialization and relatability is to know when to sacrifice our natural desire for boundaries." Yes. Books are not automatic agents of intellectual transference; they engage boundaries to varying degrees of cultural success and failure. In the case of the Olympics, national boundaries help us both respect and criticize one another. Beyond the Olympics, national boundaries help us both recognize rights and propagate violence.

The sciences continue their increasingly relatable approach to the musical space between body and mind, Earth and identitymotion and emotion, and poetry (as discipline and industry) has adopted many scientific standards. How to recall the roots of relatability? Where is the human perspective grounded? Where do our ideas come from, and why is it important to trust the point-of-emergence? Who is willing to love the impossible crossover between body and mind (and more)? Who is willing to practice this love, to fail and fall in it? This stunning poem by Sam Reed in Orion Magazine comes to mind. The poet Akilah Oliver left us with incredible evidence of just how difficult and powerful this kind of work is.

Yours in the whorled eye of a willowing sun,

- Joseph Braun