Chapter 1 OnLooking Into John Keats and This Book

 

Clark McKowen, Site Author

Clark McKowen, Site Author

On the Person in the Mirror

[ These posts can be read separately, but they are sequential, too,  each continuing from where the previous one left off.  So if you would like to follow the thought process, start with the first posting.  There’s a list of recent posts to the left of each page.]

 

 

 

 

It’s about time to post the John Keats sonnet that provided the title of this site.  It’s in the first line: “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.”  Sounds poetic, doesn’t it, pretty words, hyperbole – not to be taken literally.  But what if those words could be taken literally, what if Keats really did mean that

 There are realms so vivid and so intense that they flood the senses with   brilliant golden light?

What I can safely say is that:

We all live in those realms quite literally all the time. 

The manuscript for this web site is full of  reports of people who have traveled in the realms of gold.  In fact, one such person is in your mirror every morning, as you well know, though you may forget from time to time and even long stretches of time.  Those realms are imprinted on your nervous system and flow in the blood pulsing in your veins.  And I do mean that quite literally.

Here’s the poem, written in 1816, almost 200 years ago:

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
–John Keats

 

My nerve endings are hibernating

I’m sure that poem isn’t imprinted on the nerve endings of many readers these days.  It wasn’t particularly meaningful to my wife when I asked her take on it.  “My nerve endings are hibernating,” she said.  My students and I discovered a way to fix that, though.  When our senses were hibernating, we would do the surface-features game.  It worked every time.

If we happened on a poem lying around in some dusty book, or maybe an oil slick on the wet driveway or some petals from a cherry tree – things that didn’t seem to have anything to do with our own realms of gold – we would start in ticking off surface features.
We would go around the room, and each person would point out one detail, anything at all, even as in this poem something as simple as the spelling of travelled  or that the poet’s name is John Keats.  As best we could, we avoided interpretations and stabs at meaning.  We wanted to get a good look at what was right there on the surface,  just the facts.  This put us all on the same footing.

We had all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds in our classes, and in the surface-features game everyone got to play.  Someone might notice the rhyming, and someone else  might say  that seen doesn’t rhyme with been – unless the poet  happens to be English, as some student was bound to point out.  Someone might say there are fourteen lines, someone else might say that that’s a sonnet, and another would figure out the rhyme pattern (abba abba cdcdcd).  Apollo, Homer, Chapman?  These days, someone would probably google those – and Darien and Cortez, and so on.

As though a light had been turned on

But then,  as we continued,  something remarkable began to happen. I remember doing this with Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Children’s Games. I had thought it would be fun to see what all Bruegel had painted into it.  To our surprise and delight, every time someone pointed to something, it was over that detail.  The painting (it could have been this Keats poem or a spider web) got more and more vivid with each new discovery (dis-covery).  There was an uncanny sensation of the lighting being turned up; the painting kept getting brighter.  And our senses started coming out of hibernation.  We illuminated the Bruegel painting quite literally by concentrating our beam of attention on it.   It’s a matter of seeing what’s there.

The Surface-Features Game
The surface-features game turned out to have many applications.  You can use it to look at a clump of grass, a Robert Frost poem, an argument, a photograph, and just about anything.  It disciplines the conscious mind to pay attention long enough for insight to kick in, and you begin to find your way back to the realms of gold.   It could also be described as tuning your body and mind for a melodic day.

I’ll tell more about my own experience with “On Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” in the next post, but I’ll finish this one with how to go about the surface-features process:

●    Look around for a piece of art – a painting, a sculpture, a cigarette butt, something you hate, something you like, it doesn’t matter – and jot down surface features till you run out or get bored.  (I’d be surprised if you got bored.)
Try to keep your observations as emotion-neutral and as non-judgmental as you can. This is your poem, after all, so I can’t be certain of your findings, butOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

●    Typically sometime during the process your experience of this image is going to shift into the all-at-once mode, and you will click over from the facts to an intense vision of them (some few of us – geniuses, the great poets and saints–are always there).  You will see this image in a way you never did before.  You will begin to see as its creator saw – sometimes seeing even more than its creator saw.

The Depth and Breadth of Meaning
When you first look at the image, you get a sort of snapshot.  Then you do the surface-features game.  Then you step back and you see the image again as whole but this time you really see it.  Or at least you get a toe-hold.   There is no end to what’s there, right on the surface – which, of course, is everything, including all the depth and breadth of meaning you create in relation to it.

Pointing the Cart Where It Wants to Go


Clark McKowen, Site Author

Clark McKowen, Site Author

 

 Smart Entities Don’t Exist in Isolation

[These posts can be read separately, but they’re sequential, too.   If you’d like to follow the thought process, start with the first posting.  There is a list of latest posts on the left.]

Here’s  a little about how this website is set up.  It started out as a book about a  resort for dogs in south-western Pennsylvania, and I wasn’t far into that till I realized the book wanted to be not just about those amazing creatures but about how smart all creatures are.  So I started pointing my cart in that direction.

What a Dog Is

Then I realized, for heaven’s sake, all living things are tremendously intelligent, relatively speaking, so the book took a turn that way.  But then it came to mind that these smart entities don’t exist in isolation; any pinpoint of intelligence is part of, indeed is, the whole intelligence network.

                                                                                                           The Universe Masquerading as a Fox Terrier

The Universe Masquerading as a Fox Terrier

So there it is.  If you want to talk about dogs and do it properly, you have to talk about sub-atomic stuff, and the golden apples of the sun.  Nothing less will give you a good sense of what a dog is.

 

 

This continual shifting bothered me a little bit. I had structured other books with satisfying patterns that emerged early.  One decided to flow chapter by chapter through the stages of life, from nothingness to infancy to old age to death and back to no-thing.  Another decided to be structured like a symphony, themes rising and falling, prelude to coda.  Another sectioned itself off subject by subject.  And so on.  It seemed to me, working on what was now my intelligence book, there ought to be a  logical way to arrange the material.  But the material refused to be reasonable.  It did not want to be put together in a logical way, and it refused my efforts to make it fit a conventional framework.

A Star or Nose Hairs?

Then one day I was working on a segment when I ran across the quote of the zen poet Ryokan in which he asks, ” If you point your  cart north when you want to go south, how will you arrive?” Ah!  My cart did not want to go north.  Then I remembered the kinds of conversations I love and the beautiful classes I had had with my students over many years when we discovered which way our cart wanted to go.  There was never a logical structure, never a logical beginning, and in the end we had gone no-where.  We began right in the middle of everything, in media res, and we ended up there – illuminated.  What seemed an insurmountable difficulty in my intelligence book was the crazy certainty that everything is everything, but as my students and I learned, that’s not such a terrible situation. Whether we were looking at a star or nose hairs we soon found ourselves looking every which way.  The star was in the nucleus of the atom in my big toe.  And the spirit of the universe was there for all to see in a cup of cold coffee with a cockroach floating around in it.  As a student years ago wrote,

                           There’s more to anything when you think about it.

Our How-Things-Are Painting

As I thought about how this new  book wanted to be arranged, I realized it wanted to go the way the classes had gone, the way my conversations with good friends usually go: We always start in the middle.  It’s the same with us all.

self-portrait.jpg!Blog

HOW THINGS ARE

 

We human beings start, whether we’re aware of it or not, with a picture in our heads of how things are.  What we’re all doing is working on that picture,  our how-things-are painting. 

 

In Medias Res

                 In Medias Res

 

You can see this easily when you watch a baby going at it.  The kid is trying to get a handle on this mess he or she’s  been thrust into, not dismayed or upset but joyously checking things out, having a fine time.

The Heartbreakingly Beautiful Moment.

It was the same with college students. They didn’t give a damn what we explored.  They realized, perhaps not really articulating it – I don’t recall anyone every mentioning it – that they were working on their painting.

 

Whatever we were messing with, however far afield we went – and we did indeed go into the fields sometimes – they would be happily painting in a bit of their picture or stepping back a pace or two and seeing how much clearer it was becoming, how much more vivid.  So of course there it was: My intelligence  book wanted to start anywhere – for it was always the same picture becoming more lucid with each visit.  Start with a wild parrot, you come back to the life force manifesting.

Start with a grand symphony – or a cable car clattering on Powell Street – you always come back to the blood coursing through the veins, the heartbreakingly beautiful moment.

The heartbreakingly beautiful moment

It’s All About a Rain-Glazed Wheelbarrow

And  when we run across a poem we encountered last March, since it’s always the same picture we’re all working on, we’ve traveled realms of gold since then, and now that red wheelbarrow  is intense, glistening with sunlit rain drops.  We do not leave beautiful things  to gather dust.  When we come back, we’ve traveled some.  It doesn’t matter that we’ve been looking at wild mustangs; it’s all about a red wheelbarrow.  We all know that.

So that’s the way my intelligence book wanted to go.  And now it wants to be a website, and it wants to be called Realms of Gold.  Who am I to argue? That’s the way the cart wants to go.

                                                           REALMS OF GOLD

REALMS OF GOLD