Dialogue # 14: Vocation, Synchronicity and Timelessness

January 22, 2013

[In this dialogue Steven and I talk the powerful energy that’s at our disposal when we have the luck to find and accept our calling, our innate vocation.  We all know the difference between a  prose-like life that is not our calling and the poetic life of  spirit and flesh melded into one unstoppable force.]

The Synchronous Vision of the Awakened Mind

M: What’s interesting to me is the way discoveries keep coming into focus. Remember I told you Mary (Rutherford) Canizzaro–who lives two doors up from us in our new place–and I discovered she had been a high school student of mine back in 1963? We were chatting casually, and then these things started to fall into place. I could feel them falling into place, I could almost anticipate it happening. You could feel something was on its way here. The questions back and forth, in retrospect, were very pointed, but neither of us knew we were pointing them that way.  Again, it’s this same process, almost like a magnet drawing two minds to a point of connection. They keep going. And there were about three more of these coincidences recently. This is the sort of thing I think we should talk about in terms of your area of expertise. Here’s the thing of it. One might say, “Well, those things happen.” They come together, and the information that’s desired is acquired. I don’t think that’s unusual at  all. We just don’t realize it. Many, many times I’m in the right place at the right time. I think that’s part of this synchronous world we live in. By synchronous I don’t mean in the conventional sense of time. I mean a universal time, or rather timelessness.

H: Those things are so baffling that they jog the mind.  It creates a certain kind of Aha! I was at the gym last night, and there’s something about this number, 44. I don’t think I’ve told you this. When Manny was a little boy, we used to see this recurrence of the number 44. It  was  all a build-up to the year 2000. I was born in 1956, and I knew I would be 44 in the year 2000.  So  I began noticing the number 44 in random places. I’d be driving on the freeway with Manny, and I’d say, “Forty-four on that license plate.” Then going to pump gas and looking at the numbers on the meter, and it’s registering $44.44–something like that. Both of us paying attention to it and laughing, him shooting me an email, saying, “Look, Dad!”  We  had  this thing, and then when I met Lori, we brought her into it. We all started to talk about this, and it became a kind of family joke. But not really a joke. It was one of those things that just kept happening.

Sometimes it was mind-boggling. I didn’t keep a list of every time  it happened.  But I did write a number of these coincidences in my poetry journal. Then we brought Marina, Manny’s fiancée, into it, too. So we all had this thing going. So after the year 2000 it continued right up through my early fifties. I’ve let it fade out, though, since Manny’s on the East Coast, and  we are absorbed in other things now. But interestingly,  I told Lori  yesterday that I’d  be going to the gym before coming home. I didn’t look at my emails, but I got two referrals between the time I went to the gym and came back, and one was at 6:44. I thought I’d tell you that. But it happens to me a lot, so much so that I can’t say there’s any possibility of a doubt that this isn’t meaningful.

“If your  belief system is such that intuition and synchronicity are real and significant, you will notice them. If your belief system is that they are hogwash, you won’t.” If you go  through life thinking that stuff is hogwash, if you aren’t alert to these things going on around you, it won’t happen.

Street-Corner Research

M: That’s the main point I want to make here. Remind me that I want to mention W. C. Williams’ and Charles Demuth’s “The Figure Five in Gold” and numerology. But right now I want to say that I’m certain that this is not just stuff that happens. Here’s a quote: “If your  belief system is such that intuition and synchronicity are real and significant, you will notice them. If your belief system is that they are hogwash, you won’t.” If you go  through life thinking that stuff is hogwash, if you aren’t alert to these things going on around you, it won’t happen. It’s about research, too. I’m not a researcher. You are  much better at this  than I am, and Karl Staubach is way up there. You and he can gather your data and remember it. I find it remarkable that you can. I don’t do it that way. That’s not my process. My vocation is to get  the feel of something or other. That’s how I understand things.  You can do research by going to the library. Or you can do as Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, did. He said you could look up things in the library, or you could stand on a street corner in San Francisco, and it will come to you. And that is true. That’s how I do my research.

Once you begin to realize the environment is full of data available to your interest, you can begin to make use of it. But you do have to know that this can and will happen. But your senses have to be tuned up.

Beyond Vivacity

I just posted on my website something about Jane Goodall from her book Reason for Hope about chimpanzees. She cites two incidences in which she went beyond the  ordinary, the realms of gold as I would call then, or the ecstasy that Emily Dickinson talks about. People, who get into that  realm, use similar  metaphors, quite often golden.  Goodall talks about such an experience in Gombe after she’s been in the forest about six or eight months. She senses it coming on. Now, she has these vivid experiences in nature, and it’s wonderful for her. She thinks that’s heaven, but then she  can feel this  mystical sort of thing coming on, coming on, and then she’s in it. It’s  that timeless now where  everything is really, really vivid. Then she’s in Notre Dame in Paris years later, when she’s  in Europe for her doctorate, and there’s the organ playing, and it’s reverberating in the soaring arches of the cathedral, and the  music is like it’s alive. Those are two experiences in which she steps over the threshold, through the crack between the worlds. Or you could call it the right hemisphere being brought to the fore. My point is that it’s possible  for all of us  to elevate our senses. Jane Goodall couldn’t  have had that experience in Gombe, she couldn’t have had that experience in Notre Dame, if she hadn’t built up a sensorium that was able to receive that information. She got it by nature, by vocation. Even as a little girl she was  fascinated with the  minutia  of nature.  Her family  told her that when she was four or so she spent four hours in the hen house. She wanted to see how an egg was made. She stayed there long enough to see it being laid. When she was one-year- old, she was given a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee. It was  named  after the  first chimpanzee in the London zoo. She still has it.

Jane Goodall and Juibilee

Using What Comes Our Way

So you see how this intensity can build. She’s the one who broke open the notion that humans are the tool-making animal. There were cover articles in National Geographic at the time [First Jane Goodall cover article: 1963]. This was a woman who had no academic background for this work–except her own eyes . . . and no prejudices. She was actually able to communicate with wild animals. So the point I’m making is that if you will allow coincidence into your life, then it can function in your life. You can use it. I’m rather pragmatic about my thoughts. I don’t want to be ruminating about something if it’s not useful to me somehow or other. It has to have value in my day-to-day activities. This could be part of our educational system. You have to know this about yourself, that you can make use of what’s brought to you–if your sensorium is set up for it.

H: Well, I think that’s good, Clark. For that to happen, the students would have to be educated. And the problem is that we don’t have an educational system that focuses on that.

M: I know.

The Nuclear Symbol and Vocation Dreams

H: Getting back to research, my aptitude for research, I’m not sure if I told you my master’s thesis research was on vocational dreams in early adulthood. Ten individuals who had a vocational dream in early adulthood. They were interviews I transcribed and then analyzed the data, the stories. How is it that this interest developed? Well, sure enough, every story, all ten, had the exact same theme that you  just talked about, with Jane Goodall. And  that is  the variable that I call the nuclear symbol. You could say of Jane Goodall, that looking into the henhouse and watching the egg being laid was  the  first  impression of the  nuclear symbol on her little psyche. Something in her got  switched  on through evocation, like  an instinct, or Innate Releasing Mechanism (IRM) paired with an outer sign stimulus, something was evoked from the outside which was the archetype of her vocation. The nuclear symbol, I would say, is the chimpanzee.

M:    Yes,    yes.

The Self’s Pole Star

H: The chimpanzee would represent everything she is motivated to champion as an adult. You could say her whole life and vocation revolve around that nuclear symbol, like planets around the sun. That is the magnet, the North Star toward which her destiny points.

M: It goes even further. As a young girl in England she was supposed to go learn something useful for making a living. So she was sent off to become a secretary. But, almost like an  arrow, she wanted to go to Africa. She hadn’t gone  there  to study chimpanzees; she  just wanted to go to Africa.  Maybe it seemed to her kind of like a nature preserve. So, what happens? She applies for a secretarial job  with Lewis  Leaky–who  is studying fossil remains of human-like creatures. He makes her his secretary on the spot, this twenty-two-year-old girl, who had not any background for that work. A year later he says to her, “Hey, you want to go study some chimpanzees in Gombe? I think that would be  interesting.  Why  don’t  you  go down there and look at these hairy chimpanzees?” She says, “OK.” And zoom, zoom, zoom, like an arrow.

The path with a heart

H: From the outside it would look like a zigzag course, but you can step back and see the trajectory.

M: Right. I wrote a poem once about the zigzag course–which really was a straight trajectory. You think, Oh, I’m taking a detour.

H: The symbols left on rock paintings of the Native Americans often have a snake in the shape of a lightning bolt, a zigzag shape.

M: Oh, that’s right. They do a lot of that.

H: But to get back to what we were talking about, the nuclear symbol is charged with a certain kind of energy–you could say, a field energy–and it radiates outward from within. It can activate centers in other individuals that are vocationally attuned and thereby create a resonance, a fertile bed for synchronicity.

The Merging of Spirit and Flesh

M: Let me interrupt you there, because if I don’t I’m going to forget some things. I think the other person doesn’t have to be tuned up. You can tune him up. Take him up in the mountains, sit by a campfire, and you can soften his reserves, and  that  aspect  comes forward. You can take someone who’s  pretty hard-nosed about life and says that nothing matters about anything.  I think this is what happened in our classes.  Everybody comes  in, as  you  well know, living their own individual lives, and then the atmosphere becomes resonate and people  tune  in and all this data begins pouring out. That happens because you get people fiddling around and something opens, and this world we’re talking about becomes accessible.

H: Well, that does bring up this whole point about nature. Nature is the perfect medium in which the unconscious can emerge into consciousness. I think that’s where these memories come from. Jane Goodall probably didn’t have a linear course she was following when she went to Africa, as you were saying, but she carried in her unconscious all her interaction with the stuffed chimpanzee. I wrote a chapter about this in my dissertation. There is not much good vocational education in the elementary school or even in middle school. High schools sometimes get career counselors. But usually it’s about their ideals, not really their vocation, probably something instilled in them that they should be, a doctor or maybe a lawyer. And they should not be an artist or a poet. God forbid that you would be a poet.

M: Yeah. [Laughter]

Vocare in the Curriculum

H: You’ll never make money at that. The key is to tune the teachers in at a very early level so that they can begin to see the  motivational interests of these students. I know for my  son Manny, it was computers, and now he’s working with computers at Move On. He’s an online organizer. They complained at school that he had an organizational  problem.  I said, “Well, what are you doing to help him around his computer interests?” Sure enough, when they focused in on that, his grades shot up, and he started to excel. Now, he’s a computer organizer. He’s doing great work. I think if more educators were trained and taught how to recognize vocational interests at a young age, it would definitely create a transformation in society.

M: Here’s what I think is wrong in schools. They get this  good idea about recognizing vocation, as you just said. They have courses for teachers so that they recognize that. But first we have to take a step back and train them to recognize it in themselves.

H: Of course. That’s the first step.

The Necessary Feel

M: I think institutions start at the second step and  unleash these mechanical  monsters who think, “Well, I read the book. I know how we’re supposed to do this. Hey, kid, come in here. I’ll fix you up.” Instead of listening. Instead of looking. Instead of feeling. I suggest that one way is to get a person up in the mountains sitting around a campfire. Another way is to take advantage of cocktail talk and shift it into the direction you and I are talking about. Sunday night we  were  at a party with about twelve people, and a younger middle-school teacher said in passing, “You know, we’re supposed to get the kids to memorize the names of all the states and their capitols. What good is  that?” Someone  else said, “Well, they have to know about their country.” So I threw in a bit of a tilt: “I think maybe what you want is a combination.  You want people to have the facts, but you want them to have the feel of the facts.” You want them to have the feel of the facts. And that’s what we’re talking about.

H: I want to talk a bit about the feel of the facts and thinking about thinking. You started in mathematics, a field that involves thinking, but intuitive thinking. Either you’re becoming more feeling oriented as you mature, like a tree . . .

M: That’s true!

H: Or you always were that way. I never really considered that. But that does make sense about you.

The Soul’s GPS: The Feel of the Facts

M: I think that is true, but I never had a lucid awareness of that about myself till recently. I began to stand back and look at how I had been going about it. Using the feel of the facts as my GPS so to speak. Now, I consider it a pretty powerful tool of mine–to know this about myself. If I’m looking at a pile of data that make my eyes glaze over, I say, “Oh, wait a minute. Let me back up here and come at this from the feeling approach.”

H: I was never the kind of student in high school who could memorize the fifty states, for example, and just rattle them off. That wasn’t the way my mind works. I had a much more feeling-of-the-facts way of thinking. Is that what you’re saying?

M: Yes. You have to get the feel. You have to feel one  plus  one.  You can’t  just memorize. You have to sense how that works. This is why I didn’t stay with math. I didn’t realize how central to understanding the feel of a concept is. Now I know. But that’s how they grade math students. They don’t care about the way a student is going about catching on to the idea of one plus one, the feel of relativity. That’s all they care about. This kind of mathematical thinking was all over Gleick’s book on Richard Feynman. For the really great mathematicians and physicists, it’s like sex. It just simply feels so good to them. They love to mess around in their equalities–their metaphors, really. What you’ve been doing with 44, one of them might stop everything and really start exploring coincidence and synchronicity and simultaneity. In high school, Feynman could “get” the answer without doing the calculations. He was great in the
math contests New York used to sponsor. That’s what the feel really comes down to. He could see how this would work. That’s the concept. Very important.

H: If you look at it from a vocational angle, the reason Feynman was able to feel that is because of the fact that he had located the source of his motivation. That’s what you’ve been doing, too.

You know what your nuclear symbol is.

 M: What is it!?

H: It’s the teacher.

M: OK!

H: Look at your life, its trajectory. In your profession and even in the writing of your books, you’ve been teaching.

M: Hmm. Even in high school and on into college, I was always helping other students with their math or writing their essays.

H: It’s interesting how it’s taken shape. You specialized in the area of language. You didn’t become a math teacher.

M: No. I gravitated toward something that was fun, a lot of fun.  Math would have  been fun, but I didn’t have one clue from my math teachers about the fun aspects. Algebra was  presented as a little puzzle you could solve if you did certain things. I got one glimpse in analytic geometry. All of a sudden I thought, “Oh, this is fun.” But just that one little glimpse. This idea of how you could find your way into the heart of something and have such a joy I experienced one time in grad school. Again, it happened only one time. A teacher named Jack Wheatcroft spent a whole  session with us exploring a very short poem, “On My First Daughter,” by Ben Johnson, a writer in Shakespeare’s era. I still remember most of the words of that poem.

Jack Wheatcroft in 1978

Wheatcroft came in and illuminated that poem. Well, those two incidents must have planted a powerful idea back in my mind somewhere. Eventually, my teaching, when it exploded, was really that sort of thing.

The Explosive Force of an Atomic Speck

The basis of that way of being with students wasn’t that I was going to teach something. It was that I’m going to have a great time along with the students having a good look at this poem–or painting or metaphor.

H: You listened to your feelings.

M: Yes.

H: That’s a very strong indicator of a function of the psyche, the feeling function that helps in identifying vocational choice. If you tune in to how you feel, that’s a contributing factor in the vocational choice process. Do you feel like switching subjects?

M: Sure.

H: What you said about your interest in the figure five in gold.

M: Yes. It’s in Image all over the place. There’s a full color page (p. 193) of the painting by Charles Demuth (It’s in the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and I put in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure” that inspired Demuth’s painting.

I was trying to make the point in the book that the more you fiddle around with something the richer it becomes. I seeded 5 throughout the book. The  idea is that you can take any  speck and if you play with it, you can explode it. It’s like a pot with an amaryllis bulb poking up that Ruth’s nephew sent us. It’s on our kitchen, and it’s  exploded in three  or four huge  gorgeous red blooms. You can watch an idea come alive like that, too, like the figure 5 or 44. That’s because it you let things like this occur, then it’s like  a magnet  drawing metal pickup sticks into the center. Discovering that someone sitting next to you at a dinner party was your high school sweetheart forty years ago is, again, like a magnet. You begin bringing those fields of information into proximity. You can actually feel it. You know before you get there that it’s going to connect. It’s like in these matchstick puzzles I use with groups of people. You know before you get there that you’ve already solved it. I want people I work with to realize why we do things isn’t the result but the pleasure that develops along the way. It builds to a climax.

H: Yes.

M: You can see it coming.

H: That’s intuition.

M: Isn’t that very similar to the sexual climax? You can feel it coming on. You know it, and you know there is nothing to stop it.

H: That’s a good point. Yes. There’s a certain point at which it breaks through. You know, you’re talking about coincidences, so I have to throw this in. I was thinking about you this weekend. This was before the water heater went out on Sunday and we were cleaning up. If this had happened on a weekday it would have been a disaster. We would have had to cancel all our patients. I’ll get to my point. And then we can segue  back to the number 5, which as you know in alchemy stands for quintessence.

M: That’s right.

H: In alchemy they were searching for alchemical gold. The aim of alchemy is the quintessence and its gold.

M: Nicely put. I’ll add that to my figure 5 bundle!

A Volcano in the Oakland Hills

H: OK. Back to Saturday. I got this idea that I shared with Lori. I had heard that up here at Sibley Park there’s an actual volcano, and I didn’t know this. I lived in the Orinda hills, as you know, for I think twelve years. And then we moved here. Between the Orinda hills and where we’re sitting right here, between those hills and these  hills, there’s an extinct  volcano.  It erupted nine million seven hundred thousand years ago. It blew its lid and created these wonderful rock formations. We were able to descend into the volcano.

Labyrinth in Sibleiy Park crater

M: That’s amazing.

H: They’ve cleared out the crater, and there’s a labyrinth you can walk. You and I can go up there when it’s warmer. The point I’m getting to is that I was having a casual chat with friend who asked if I knew there was a park up here. I did know about it but I’d never explored it.

Then I Googled it, and sure enough there’s this volcanic park. So we went up there. It’s quite extraordinary.

M: Can you back up? You were just chatting casually with a friend. So how did it come about that you got to that subject?

H: Oh, yes. Someone challenged me  to go  up there to Round Top. That’s the  volcano  that blew its lid. So this person challenged me to go up, because he had. It was a chat about losing weight and exercising. You know, when you get  into  your fifties–it was a challenge  to do some vigorous exercise. These hills are a great place to  hike. Anyway, the  point  is  that  this was very important for me in that moment because I had been immersed, since our last talk, in volcano symbolism. Remember the Emily Dickinson poem?

M: Oh, my god!

Dickinson’s Volcano

H: How the volcano became for her the symbol for her vocation. Vesuvius. Yes. She has a wonderful poem in which the last line is “Vesuvius at Home.”

So she really sees herself as Vesuvius at Home, in Amherst. She doesn’t have to go to Naples. She’s actually sitting on it. She is there, and she is writing out of that energy field.

M: That energy. Exactly.

How to Recognize a Poem

H: She’s talking about the little force within her that explodes. So when I went up there with Lori, suddenly these poems  that I had  been sitting with for years, over seventeen years, emerge again. In 1995 I wrote my first essay on Dickinson. Two of them in particular came to me up there. I knew exactly what she was talking about. In the first one she says, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the  only way I know it. Is there any other way?”

M: That’s beautifully put.

H: The top of her head is taken off. I had thought it was being scalped by lightning–which she has is another poem. So the lightning symbol comes through there. But that wasn’t quite it.

Then I remembered another line. “God forbid it lift its lid unto its ecstasy.”

She’s talking about the lid being lifted. She is talking about what Goodall is talking about but with more explosive force, because perhaps the poet is closer to the origins of language itself–which is the word. She was able to craft words and syllables like nobody else.

So she’s talking about this explosive force.

M: Very good.

Volcanic Gems

H: Just to circle back to what we were talking about earlier, 5 and the alchemical gold, in 1847 when Emily was studying at Holyoke Female Seminary, she heard a famous geologist, actually the first president of the American Geological Society, who later became president of Amherst College. This was the one year she actually went somewhere and before she returned to live at her father’s house. She didn’t finish her education. It just so happened she was there in the fall quarter, 1847, the same year Whitman  was  writing  his  Notebook and discovering the  origins of his calling, his vocation. She heard this sermon by this geologist, Reverend Hitchcock, and talked about the 21st chapter of Revelations, which Emily calls the “gem chapter,” because as you know gems come from volcanoes–explosive force. Sure enough, the city that would come in the future was the city of gold.  So here she  is hearing, at the  source of her vocational call, the chapter which would play such a pivotal part for the rest of her life in her work as a poet. And it’s all based on this gem chapter in Revelations, the gold. And gold symbolism is found throughout her poetry.

M: Here’s what I want to get back to, the vocation aspect of her experience. In that same classroom there were probably fifteen or twenty other girls, and she’s the one who’s not hearing prose. This is poetry she’s hearing. Why is she able to hear poetry? Because her entire childhood, I would presume, had opened her senses to experience those words as not just placeholders but meaningful language, the feel of the facts. Actually, I think those words were considered metaphors by thinkers  of that era in New England, probably by the  minister himself. But to her they were messages from the volcano itself.

The Feel of the Unity of the Whole Cosmos

H: She got a feel for the unity of the whole cosmos from listening to this.

M: Yes. She was able to do it that way.

“They Shut Me Up in Prose.”

H: I know she did, because she wrote in her letters that she had this feel. She said, “They shut me up in prose, as when a little girl they put me in a closet because they liked me still.”

“Because they liked me “still” –You know what she called herself? The still volcano.

M: [Laughs]

H: And when the little force exploded, that was poetry. She knew that was poetry because the top of her head was taken off. And that’s ecstasy. As we know, that’s the crown chakra, the chakra of illumination.

M: I’ll take your word for it. I know of it, the sequence, but I’ve never spent much time with it.

Illumination: The Seventh Chakra

The crown of illumination

H: The crown of illumination, Ananda, bliss, the cobra is over the Buddha’s head. The two kundalini serpents wind from muladhara up the spine to the thousand petaled lotus on the top of the yogi’s head. That’s the seventh chakra of illumination.  She  basically talks about how her consciousness explodes when she sees the void. It’s very Buddhist.

M: Well, it’s phenomenal that you could have this little girl in very straight-laced New England letting loose like a wild woman.

H: She said, “Wild nights, wild nights, wild nights–were I with thee–wild nights would be our luxury.” She was a wild force.

M: I’m imagining her sitting down at the breakfast table, this nice prim girl. Whew!

H: Pretty fierce. If you look at some of the letters she wrote to her brother and Austin, she’s feisty. She doesn’t mess around with language. Every word is selected.

M: This is the thing of it. I think of the goings and comings, to the grocery store, over the back fence–everybody wants to talk in prose.

H: Yes.

Too Intent on Going Somewhere

M: We don’t even want to touch that other stuff. It’s too electrical; you could get a shock. So if someone says, “Have a nice day,” and may even mean it in a superficial way, you could respond, “You have a nice life.” [Both laugh.] I like to see what kind of response I get when

I’m out on my bike. Everyone goes by as if you aren’t there. They just go straight ahead. So, just for fun, I say, “Good morning.” Nine tenths of the time, they just keep right on going.

Often they’ve got something plugged into their ears, so probably lots of them can’t even hear! But I’m guessing a lot of them are too intent on going somewhere, and acknowledging another person is not on the agenda. So we’re talking prose and poetry here and what the difference is. Poetry is nothing more than the feel of the  facts.  Walking or riding your bike could be prosaic or poetic. Facts are wonderful, but you have to let them explode. You have to let your steps along the trail explode. Words are little packets of energy, aren’t they? Like Dickinson’s “A word is dead / When it is said / Some say. / I say / It just begins to live that day.” You know, from our dialogues about Dickinson and your reading some of her poems, I’ve gotten much better at understanding how she uses dashes. Remember “because they liked me ‘still”? That’s the prose approach.

H: This is what teachers do in schools. They want the children still. All that excitable energy, all that powerful energy gets…

In the Prose Closet

M: It gets twisted. Put little boys in that prose closet and you get remedial reading classes that are mostly all filled with boys. They put a lid on all that energy when it ought to be outside exploding.

H: Well, an interesting thing about Dickinson’s history is that her grandfather, her paternal grandfather, was a visionary. Amherst College  was very  much indebted to his vision. Her father was the treasurer of Amherst College. He was a lawyer. So this was an educated family. She grew up in that environment.

[A short break]

M: So where are we now?

H: We covered a lot of ground. The idea of feeling the facts speaks to me. That’s a good way to put it. The feel of the facts.

An American Soldier in a Zendo in Japan

M: There are lots of ways to put it. William Carlos Williams called an intense vision of the facts. I like that. It’s what Yeats meant, too, I think when he wrote, “One has a vision. One would like another.” My friend Jim Doerter that I’ve mentioned in our talks has such an experience in Japan when he was and eighteen-year-old soldier during the occupation. He gravitated toward a Zen-like park and was sitting on a bench and noticed two men in an enclosure talking, and they’re talking in English. One of them was Japanese. He was D. T. Suzuki, the person who introduced Zen Buddhism to the United States.

H: Jung wrote an introduction to his book.

M: Oh, more connections! Anyway, they invited this kid to come up and talk with them. He was  shy and nervous, so he didn’t follow through. But there he was, touched by this powerful teacher, and it changed the trajectory of his life, that one event.

In Eternity’s Sunrise

H: We brushed by it a bit when our class went up to Tassajara. There was a Zen monastery near there. There was that Zen feel to the area, I think. There’s something in Blake . . . What do you think of him?

M: Oh, I love him.

H: Well, if anyone had an intense vision of the facts, it’s Blake, don’t you think?

M: Oh, my, yes!

H: His were internal facts as well as those outside his body.

M: You know what annoys me is when people talk about someone like Blake in a prose-like way. Blake is not prose.

H: Blake has that marvelous little poem:

That’s living in the moment. What do you  think  about that  last  line,  “eternity’s sunrise”? What would it be like for someone to live in eternity’s sunrise? Wouldn’t that be the realms of gold?

M: It absolutely is. If you moved in there, you’d be considered a nut case, the way people around Blake thought of him. By that I mean that you no longer care if school keeps or not. Everyone’s thinking, “What are we going to do with Blake?!” Blake’s wife was fine with it. She’d say, “We don’t see him much, he’s so much in paradise.” Some of these loved ones would just put up with it.

The Divinest Sense

H: Emily Dickinson’s family would put up with her eccentric nature. But you know what she said about this, “Madness is divinest sense.”

M: … madness!

H: But to someone who knows poetic madness, that is actually sanity. Divinest sense. When one can live in that kind of awareness and not care about the majority…

M: That’s something I understand completely. I know that’s a choice I could make–and absolutely refuse to make, to take that step. Because I know what it would mean. Actually, it’s very nice over there, but I don’t go.

The Trouble with Teaching Poetically

H: Oh, I think there were times when you were teaching when some of the administration wanted to get you out because they thought your teaching was a little too eccentric!

M: True. When I was  interviewed, the  English Department thought I would fit in because I used the same words they  did about how our subject should be approached. The  difference was that they had the words but not the poetry of the words. When  I started doing it poetically, it was too strong for their blood. They literally thought, “We gotta get rid of McKowen. He’s eccentric.” I was doing what they said they were doing. By that time, though, I was so self- confident that I could defend myself.

H: Did you have the union behind you.

M: No. It didn’t have anything to do with the union. In the first three years they could have fired me. They didn’t have to have a cause. But, I must say, the college at the time had a fine president, Karl Drexel. He let us know that once you were hired, as far as he was concerned, you already had tenure. Still, some really did try to make a case that McKowen ought to go. But they really didn’t have a chance. I was far too clear in what I was doing and why, and it was backed up by the best research. Later on, though, I did become a union president, sometimes defending people who should have been fired. I just didn’t like the way they were firing people. They would just get together in a little room and decide  what to do with this guy. We broke a hole in that wall. No, you have to discuss in the open what  the  charges are. So I’d be going in and be defending people I didn’t even like.

H: You know, I’d like to have a platform to teach what we’ve been talking about.

The Artist as Showman

M: You can create your own platform. You don’t have to make it merely commercial, but you must find a way to make sure that your audience opens its senses to, say, some little poem you’re reciting. You have to get them prepared for that. And that’s showmanship. So what I’m suggesting is that you work on showmanship. In a good  way, in a nice  way, in a  generous way. If you know your audience is already tuned in, or certainly receptive and can use your information, then you can simply present a paper. If you want to talk to a general audience, which I think you need to do, you need to become the kind of performer that people come  to and ask to talk. You’d start having to keep a book of your engagements!

H: My talks around the Bay Area have been surprisingly well received, particularly the one on

Melville at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Kensington, “Melville’s Myth for Our Time.” That was very well received. What I’m thinking is that  I want  to get  a book out there  with good distribution behind it before I take the next step. Meanwhile, to continue to set up talks. But to reach a more general audience, I need someone who can really get the book out.

M: Right. You need the power of some major publisher’s advertising department.

H: Yes.

M: That’s the key to it. I do think you’re doing very well in your lectures. But if you wanted to reach a more general audience, you can begin toying with the view of a lecture as a performance, like a stage show–which it is.

H: Everson was a master at that.

M: Yes, as you’ve described him, I think he was a showman.

H: His father was a band master. So he grew up with a father who was out on stage all the time.

Lecturing as a Performance Art

M: Arthur Fiedler, the director of The Boston Pops for decades, was  the consummate showman. When he came on stage, he was essentially acting a role. He even had his uniforms tailored so that no pockets bulged out to spoil the lines of the outfit. When he was an old man, he’d do this marvelous concert and then go backstage and fall apart. But that role kept him going into his eighties. A showman. It doesn’t cost anything to dress up one’s performance. I published an article once called “Lecturing Is  Not Teaching.”  A lecture has to be understood to be a performance. It’s not an educational situation. So what you’re doing in a lecture is giving people the feel of something, so that they can run home and  continue  experiencing it. It’s not an intellectual thing. For what it’s worth, that’s what I’m getting at. One keeps saying, “How can I engage this audience so that they’re just hanging on every word?” So that they’re experiencing it poetically. I would say people in your circle that I’ve heard talking are far too academic in their talks. I guess maybe they think their audience is smart enough to translate it into poetry. But the way they present it is prose.

H: That’s a good point, Clark.

The Smell of Death in Academic Prose

M: It’s like the faculty in the English department at the college. They had the right words, but they didn’t have the music. Oh, there’s one more thing I want to add. You know, when I wrote Realms of Gold I thought, “This is really good.” Then I started thinking of cutting it up into postings on the web. I just re-wrote a chapter on Goodall, and I changed the style and sentence structure as I went along. I made it much more accessible and much, much less academic. I could see clearly how artificial that way of writing is. There’s the smell of death about it, dry and empty of feeling–even when the writer is talking about feeling.  Ugh.  I was  a  little ashamed of myself. This is really a great education, even at my age. I want this to be  just like our dialogues. I want my own voice in there, couched not with fancy language, which I call academic language. They’ll put an adjective after a noun, or have some stilted way of putting something, not the natural flow of English. Sorry, I know you had some topics you wanted to talk about.

When the Top of Your Head Is Taken Off

H: Just to finish up. You know, when Dickinson says, “If I feel the top of my head is  taken off, I know that is poetry,” she’s using feeling language there–for a fact. That is an  experience. And when the top of her head is taken off, something has so altered her consciousness that she knows she is at the center of the cosmos. Not only is she at the center, she is at the circumference. Now, this is a mathematical problem, but she takes it on in her poetry, the relationship between the center and the circumference.

M: Right.

H: And her flood subject is immortality, a synonym for circumference. She says to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “My business is about circumference.” She got that from a poem by Shelley called “Epipsychidon”. He uses the metaphor of circumference. It’s the idea that there’s an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

Joseph Campbell was fond of quoting this.

M: Yes.

A Stuffed Chimpanzee from Childhood

H: She had the alchemical metaphor at the tip of her fingers when she was writing about this. What’s so interesting to me right now, Clark, is this idea that there is a nuclear symbol–like Jane Goodall’s stuffed chimpanzee from her early childhood.

M: Oh, right.

H: The nuclear symbol–that’s  the center. But the  circumference  is everything that she is able to do out on the periphery. You know, that’s there from the start. So Dickinson not only has Hitchcock who’s introducing her into the realms of gold in Revelations. Hitchcock was a geologist who was studying Alexander von Humboldt, whom Whitman was studying and Emerson was studying. Hunboldt’s book Kosmos had opened up the minds of these American poets to something that was so transcendent, what Keats was writing about and what Shelley was able to write about from Montblanc, which was his mountain. Humboldt had been to the Andes. He had been to Chimborazo, and he had become famous for having scaled what was thought at that time to be the highest mountain in the world, 20,000 feet in the Andes, right outside of Quito, Ecuador. Dickinson has a poem about Chimborazo, one about Popocatépetl, outside of Mexico City–volcanos. They become symbolic about a place of vista from which the poet sees and has visions. That’s where she’s writing from, that place of visionary consciousness that Whitman called spiritual democracy, or democratic vistas. She’s actually seeing from that point. That is the place where  the  realms of gold are seen, as eternity’s sunrise. There’s a place where the poet can dwell through this kind of movement from prose down into the poetic, the mythopoetic. Something had so opened the mind of the  poet that the top of her head was taken off. Something was lifted. The lid was lifted.

M: Yes, yes.

H: And she could see up at the celestial sphere what no romantic poets could before then.

Humboldt had made this possible. The “Age of Humboldt” –that’s what Emerson called it. Humboldt had opened up the mind of poetry to the vastness of the cosmos that had never been appreciated in quite the same way. So this was speaking to me, this metaphor that she can feel the top of her head being taken off. That’s what you’re talking about, a feeling for facts, the facts of experience.

M: That’s a great connection.

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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