Saturday, July 4, 2009

This morning I am thinking about the Protestant Work Ethic. It is a long way from the dense surround of scholarship about this way of thinking to our actual life as creatures that feel, live, and die. It calls to my mind a poem I wrote several years ago. I liked the original, but lost it in revisions, playing with meter and rhyme, which is an ironic footnote to the project.

By way of explanation, the Beineke is a library at Yale. Its walls are made of thin marble that casts a certain pale underwater light. It's hard to tell in the photo; those are stacks on the left and marble "windows" on the right.

The Beinecke displays a Gutenberg Bible, which is not that old, but is precious - why? Partly because of our thoughts - we assign a historic value to it. Partly because, like us, it is fragile. I am often aware of how fragile the word is, printed or stored as a collection of electronic impulses somewhere. I know this image is not correct, yet it seems to me there is a bitstream floating now around the earth.

The building's rare book library contains various collections of papers thought to be important, such as those of the poet H.D. When I visited, copy machines were not as widely used as they are now - to think, it was even before the internet! One sat and copied by hand from the handwritten miscellany of someone who is dead and forgotten except by a handfull of scholars. It was the very image of the quiet isolation of scholarship.

Scholarship at the Beinecke Library

Precious papers settle unseen at night
in acid-free boxes. Submerged in the light
that falls through marble here, by day
scholars chronicle poets.
You cannot write

sprung rhythm on their index cards.
You need huge white
boards covering every wall,
hasty scrawls,
dazzled eyes.

I see that in this poem, written before I got seriously absorbed in Buddhist thought and imagery, I was considering the difference between the world of thought and the reality that words do not capture, but poetry tries to.

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