Posted in Plays

A Burnished Throne For All

How exciting can a simple poetic phrase be?

During the past few months, I’ve rested my blog in the pursuit of an answer to that question, spending my time studying and experimenting with the craft of poetry, reading here and writing there. The process did not leave me a lot of time to muse and write about the works of others. Still, something caught my attention in my workbook, and I had to explore the idea on Our Literary Lives.

In the section that spoke of where poets can get their inspiration, one of the places was, of course, other poets. As I read on to the examples, a Shakespearian line arrested my attention: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water.” In the midst of reading simple prose, a how-to passage, suddenly my multiple senses were engaged upon a single scene. It took my breath away. And I thought, “That’s what poetry should be.” Unfortunately or no, I also thought, “That’s what life should be.”

Recently, I hit an annoying snag when I became addicted to personality profiles (or as I now call them, the pseudo-science version of horoscopes). You know, they divide humanity up by a series of behaviors, sometimes they give you a title or a list of letters, then they declare that you act a certain a way because of that. Consistently, I tested as a personality type that is overly-idealistic, dismissing the real world, real people, and their quite real imperfections. Not to say this isn’t true of me (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”), yet I couldn’t see the huge problem with this, if it was. Why couldn’t life be extraordinary?

After all, this is what we expect of poetry, of art, of most things we choose to spend our time on. Yet, why is it such a problem to expect our lives to be so? The problem is, so many people click their tongues on idealism, especially in love. They are quick to claim that we shouldn’t expect people or situations to be 100% perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with that. Yet, the same argument could be used as an excuse for underachievement, a lowering of expectations and performances. By making the extraordinary impossible, they discountenance any attempt at excellence.

This is not the poetry of the greats. It shouldn’t be our lives.

We’re not saying that iambic pentameter should spew out of everyone’s mouths all the time and that everyone should be good, noble, and kind with each other twenty-four hours of the day. Not only is that impossible, it would also be irritating. Most of us live quite normal lives. We go to work or school every day. We come home, watch TV, clean the house, clean our cars, go shopping for groceries, and battle with the significant others in our lives. It’s a very prosaic existence, with a faint interspersing of drama every now and then. No, the point is not to dismiss those aspects of living. In fact, much poetry, literature, even visual art and movies are the greater for portraying those avenues of our lives. It’s their familiarity that makes them shine to us.

No, it is the magic, the sense of specialness, the idealism that is brought to the ordinary. It’s the innate sense of the artist, the writer, the actor that the world around us is both everyday and a miracle at the same time! It’s the conclusion that everything else should be to: relationships, work, exercise…I could go on. With writing, especially, it is all about swimming in the ordinary and making out of it the extraordinary. How many poems have we read about seemingly mundane things: onions, birds, fish, factory work, baseball games, et cetera? Even the most realistic writing has some elements of style, flavor, tone….effort, work.

For that reason, there is no excuse for making the ordinary a substandard. We should go about our lives not settling for the mediocre, the unsatisfactory, by calling it reality. We can look for creativity, spontaneity in everyday occurrences. We can be better, we can do better, we can act better. We can go about our lives on our burnished thrones, like kings and queens, just living out our ordinary days, but loving every minute of it because we’ve worked so hard at it, just as a writer works so hard on his craft, that it becomes magic.

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Posted in Essays

Montaigne Would Probably Kick Me

“My trade and art is to live.”–Michel de Montaigne

Good for him! How many of us do everything else but live?

It has been the purpose of this blog to promote, not only the gems of classical and modern literature, but also to discover ourselves through them so that we can go out there in the world and actually live our lives.

It’s an attractive sentiment, of course, but the reality is much harder to come by. Scores of obstacles lie between us and the rich, fulfilling lives we are meant to live. The toughest of which is ourselves.

My own journey to self-actuatation has revealed to me this great irony of my existence. Since my late teens, I’ve basked in the idealism of the individual. Something about the subjectivity of the person, the integrity to oneself, and the respect for one’s own thoughts and feelings appealed to my shy sensitivities. Intellectually, I was brave. Yet, (and here comes the important point), I was anything but brave in the real world. Being what people call “painfully shy,” I hardly ever expressed myself. I barely interacted with people, and when I did, what came out was not a strong individualist. Even when I knew I was right, I constantly deferred to other people. I hid what I knew, afraid of standing out, being seen as a snob, weathering criticism, you name it. In my deepest self, I made amends by saying that I could only be myself when I was alone and safe.

I came home. I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. I read Montaigne’s….well, anything, and I felt the weight of their mild disdain. Talk about literary peer pressure. (Cue the kicking of Montaigne). My mind couldn’t handle the discrepancy between how I felt when alone and how I acted when I was surrounded by society. I thought I was a failure.

And it wasn’t only their essays. Our whole culture seems bent on the individual, “being yourself,” “following your heart.” No room is found for human nature, which is to be a part of a group, to be a team player, giving in to save the whole. To care what your loved ones think about you and whether they accept you, love you as you are (even though you might already accept and love yourself)…

“I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself. I will be rich by myself, and not by borrowing.” —Michel de Montaigne

To be fair, I took it overboard. Entering the social world is one of the most psychologically terrifying things one could experience, but one most not enter it as I did, losing identity to ward off pain and isolation. Yet, what I did was human. We’ve all been there.

I didn’t learn my lessons from Emerson and Montaigne, though. I read, enjoyed, and berated myself with their writings. I lived my life. Then, I read them again, and I finally understood what they meant because life had taught me.

When I did leave myself behind and deferred to others for big decisions, finding that their choices were completely detrimental to my well-being and everything else, I learned the ultimate lesson: It is up to me to determine what is right for me and be brave enough to go after it, no matter how anyone else thinks, even people I love. And I have to speak up about it.

So, while Montaigne tells us that we should be true to ourselves, he also tells us that we need to live. It’s our mistakes that teach us far more than his idealistic scribbling. At the end of the day, literature gives us wisdom. We can study it to learn about ourselves, but the primary source of our wisdom should come from ourselves, our experiences, our thoughts, our feelings.

As the great Montaigne says, “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics and my physics.”