A Deep but Dazzling Darkness:
The Inner and Outer Frontiers of a Human Life
To human eyes and the human imagination, a brilliant night sky, dotted from end to end with stars, has always helped us keep our very ancient friendship with the very distant unknown alive and well. The darkness filled by other worlds of light has always been an invitation to the far horizon, and perhaps more importantly, with what lies beyond our horizon and beyond our everyday imaginings. It is one of the great difficulties of our time that the night sky has become invisible to so many, not only because of the surrounding manufactured light of our cities, but because, lifting our eyes from our small screens toward those icy, impossibly far, pinprick invitations, we find the sheer enormity and spaciousness of that expanse disturbing to our busy, preoccupied personalities. We have engineered, overly-lit, outlined identities through our small screens that are increasingly corroborated by numbers and metrics that cannot ever measure or fulfill our deeper, more un-nameable night-longings and desires.
The night sky has always represented unspeakable desire, and just as importantly the spaciousness in which to feel those desires: the desire to know, to join, to get beyond ourselves. To look at the night sky and the stars for any length of time is to enter a completely different, more ancient, more emboldening and less fearful identity than the one corroborated by the tiny dopamine hits of any of our growing numbers or likes.
We are creatures of desire, large and small, it is the necessity to get beyond our smaller desires into the greater ones that shape the larger identity of a human life. Even those deeply desired, desire-less states we seek in times of contemplation seem to require enormous amounts of wanting, discipline and energy to achieve. We are built to want and to follow our wants to their end, sometimes to our satisfaction but also, many times, to our mutual destruction. Little wonder then, that our effect on this planet through the accumulated wants of almost eight billion individual lives are providing a reflection not only of humanity as a whole but on the very nature of human wants and necessities. Innocent individual desires such as a particular kind of meal or a plane journey need now to be seen in their magnified multiplied effects; this, at a time when many feel besieged by post-modern life and want simply to be able to arrange a life where we are, just for a fleeting moment, let alone.
Almost all of us have an intuition that we live at an absolute break point in history, from the warming of the planet to the increased severity of weather and the correspondingly large movements of people that planetary change is beginning to set in motion; that many understandings we have about ourselves will not survive the coming years, and that we are on the edge of some kind of proving ground. We intuit a threshold, a line beyond which everything about ourselves will be revealed to ourselves, and that there is an unspoken but ever-present fear we might not like what we find. Thankfully there is a merciful parallel – that through this trial we may be forced to unearth inner resources we have previously neglected. Strangely, we find it difficult to look hard in either direction, positive or negative, because we are justly afraid of discovering how individually and collectively selfish we may be. The beautifully disturbing underlying question is: will the evolutionary identity that has enabled us to survive and prosper up to this point have the necessary qualities, imagination, compassion and measure of selflessness necessary to enable us to survive the very world we helped to create?
But it is not just the sense of helplessness before the real possibility of runaway climate change, nor the rise of powerful, democratically unaccountable and technologically manipulative states such as China or Russia, nor the unbelievable Humpty Dumpty narcissism of a sitting United States President, or everywhere the disappearance of old certainties. No, the sense of helplessness is far closer to home and has to do with the way we are vulnerable to being captured and then imprisoned by our own wants, and further, by the technologies that manipulate those wants to grant us illusory narrow freedoms, while robbing us of a larger home in the world.
We live in a time of the dissected soul, when many of the direct human sensibilities that developed over our long evolution have become snares and prisons through the omnipresence of new technologies and the interests and forces that lie behind them.
Firstly, we find that our eyes, which for millennia saved our lives by tracking swift-moving predators, make us vulnerable to every flickering screen, no matter the emptiness of the images they contain.
Secondly, we see, in the ancient human need to be wanted, how helpless we are before the smart phone saying there is a message especially for us: how our deeply engrained storytelling past is now captured by the avalanche of streaming entertainment wanting us to subscribe, and that with our head down in the dramatic non-events on the screen, we forgo not only our friendship with the sky and the clouds, but many of those chance human encounters that have transformed human destiny since the beginning of time.
Thirdly, in the very old human wish to be confirmed in our beliefs, we find ourselves only at those on-line forums where those who agree with us naturally gather. Lastly, the need for a larger, mythological context and a real battle to fight has an enormous percentage of young men sinking their ambitions and hopes into virtual games which feed them endless false triumphs and a sense of almost otherworldly accomplishment that bears no relation to the world they actually inhabit. Without discipline and artfulness, it is hard to break out of the increasingly narrow contexts that these technologies so conveniently provide.
What is astonishing about our contemporary world is how few people are present to what is physically occurring around them. Going the rounds of a museum in Paris last year, I was astonished to find that though there was every representation of human body language from every epoch of human history, there was no one from any previous epoch with their heads bent looking intensely into their own palm. Today’s familiar body language of a bent head looking at distracted thumbs on phone keys is a brilliant, iconic image of the need to be busy and remain undisturbed by a larger night horizon before which we might feel overawed and inadequate.
There is an unconscious hope for many that if we refuse to be present to the physical world around us, we will be held harmless from any of the greater physical patterns that might disturb and destroy the protected, often virtual worlds we have taken so much effort to construct.
One artful discipline, among many of our inherited ways of shaping the human mind for the better, is the art of writing, reciting, reading or listening to good poetry. Good poetry is speech that holds together the far inward and outward night-sky horizons of the human imagination, but importantly, tempered and grounded by the details and necessities of the physical world.
Good poetry not only looks at the far horizon beyond us, but also the far inner horizon from where we intuit we have our origins, what Henry Vaughan called ‘A deep but dazzling darkness.’ Deep because it is foundational; dazzling because it is difficult to get below its surface. To begin with, it seems to reflect only our awkward surface personality with all its distracting needs, but upon closer understanding, and through the radical undoing involved in the practice of the poetic imagination, we can get below the line of the familiar, into new territory.
The ability to open up a pathway between this inner world of origin and the outer world of the yet-to-be-discovered, from my experience, is found in creating our identities as more of a frontier conversation, a conversational identity, living at an edge where we can practice seeing as if for the first time, while recognizing what is irredeemably ancient in the world. Exactly the feeling evoked as we stand beneath a night sky. This kind of experience itself is very ancient and has long had a language to represent it, a language that can firmly hold both our mighty revelations and our grounded transfigurations: Poetry.
The art of creating the physical experience of this frontier in poetry is the art to which I have dedicated my life; not alone but as part of a long lineage of poets, never fully by myself but as part of a broad community of readers and listeners, and never without hope, knowing there is so much invisible help beyond the line of any outer or inner horizon we can perceive.
I wish you all very well as 2019 turns into 2020. I welcome those who are new to my work or irrespective of my own work, newly come to the radically simple but far reaching powers of the poetic tradition, and I extend, most especially, a deep thank you to those of you who have given me a close readership and listenership over the years, and who, if I stay with the run of the tide, and in awe of the night sky, might still be good companions on the journey into the great unknown, for a good few years to come.