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Thursday, December 30, 2010

The plants on the forest floor have an outline of frost this afternoon-

Peter Crnokrak from The Luxury of Protest has recently released a great visualization called Real Magick in Theory and Practise.


PROCESS / FORMAT—Silk screen print matte black ink on GFSmith Plasma Polycoat 700 micron Glass Clear plastic. Hand-applied 23 carat rouge gold foil and gold powder gilding. Screen print by K2 Screen, London.

SIZE—650mm X 1000mm
DATE—11 / 2010

DESCRIPTION—Believed to be the most geometrically complex and aesthetically beautiful structure in mathematics, the 4_21 polytope is the algebraic form at the centre
of a universal theory of everything. Originally described in the late 19th century, 4_21 models all interactions and transformations between known and postulated sub-atomic particles. It is the 21st century equivalent of the proto-scientific art of alchemy – where the transmutation of elements was the most elusive mystery of the universe. The theory is an attempt to reconcile one of the fundamental unsolved problems in physics: unify quantum physics and gravitation in hopes of ultimately explaining the fabric of the universe.

4_21, commonly referred to as E8 since the vectors of its root system lie in eight-dimensional Euclidean space, models field dynamics and elementary particle transformations through pure geometry. As such, the method of its elucidation and comprehension is decidedly form-oriented in nature – one has to visualise the math to understand how it functions. Its subsumed dimension within dimension, within dimension structure creates a staggeringly complex 248 symmetry lattice that predicts all known particles and forces in the universe as it twists and folds in spacetime.

The rendering presented here is the most geometrically accurate visualisation of the 4_21 polytope to date. Previous attempts to render the structure were limited by the inability of graphics engines to construct even simple shapes

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Rumi of One’s Own

Poetry Foundation


A Rumi of One’s Own

What’s lost in translation doesn’t hurt this poet’s popularity.
by Rachel Aviv

Illustration by Marianne Goldin. Several years ago Kabir Helminski, a sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, received a call from Madonna’s producer, who wanted to hire his troupe of whirling dervishes for a music video inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Helminski read the script, learned that a guy would be lying on top of Madonna while she sang “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” and wrote a polite letter declining the request. He also sent a package of books so that the singer might get a better sense of Rumi’s teachings.

Like many Persian literary scholars, Helminski, who runs the Threshold Society, a Sufi study center in California, has had little success in convincing Americans that Rumi is about more than transcendent sex. (Madonna later recited Rumi’s poems on a CD, A Gift of Love, along with Goldie Hawn and Martin Sheen.) One of the five best-selling poets in America, Rumi, who was born 800 years ago in what is now part of Afghanistan, has become famous for his ability to convey mystical passion: his lovers are frequently merging into one, forgetting who they are, and crying out in pain. Yet his religious work—one book is popularly called the “Koran in Persian”—is often ignored.

To uncover and celebrate his heritage, UNESCO has declared 2007 the Year of Rumi; conferences about his work are being held in Istanbul, Kabul, Tehran, Dushanbe, and Ann Arbor. One of the featured speakers in Ann Arbor this fall will be Coleman Barks, an American poet who is largely responsible for Rumi’s American popularity as well as his reputation as an erotic soul-healer. Born in Tennessee, Barks freely admits to not knowing Persian (scholars call his best-selling works from the translations of others “re-Englishings”). While his poems are far more elegant and accessible than any previous English renditions, they tend to turn holy scenes into moments of sexual passion. Sometimes he takes out references to God and replaces them with “love.” As he explained in the introduction to his 2001 collection of poems, The Soul of Rumi, “I avoid God-words, not altogether, but wherever I can, because they seem to take away the freshness of experience and put it inside a specific system.”

But Rumi, who spent most of his adult life in Konya, Turkey, based his life and poetry around that system. The son of an Islamic preacher, he prayed five times a day, made pilgrimages to Mecca, and memorized the Koran. Under the influence of an older dervish, Shams of Tabriz, he devoted his life to Sufism, an ancient, mystical branch of Islam. Sufis are less concerned with the codes and rituals of Islam than with making direct contact with God; as one scholar puts it, “Sufism is the core of the religion, the nut without the shell.” Still, the traditional Islamic texts are central to the faith. “I am the slave of the Qur’an and dust under the feet of Muhammad,” Rumi writes. “Anyone who claims otherwise is no friend of mine.”

Rumi put forth an alarming quantity of writing—about 70,000 verses in 25 years—which affords translators the luxury of leaving out poems that might alienate the average American reader. In the introduction to his 2003 Rumi: The Book of Love, Barks jokes that his previous book of translations “achieved the cultural status of an empty Diet Coke can.” He gives the language a Southern hominess and an almost childlike simplicity:

Love comes sailing through and I scream. Love sits beside me like a private supply of itself. Love puts away the instruments
and takes off the silk robes. Our nakedness
together changes me completely.

Starting with 50-year-old prose translations by the British scholar A.J. Arberry, Barks takes liberties to make Rumi’s language more accessible and universal. Occasionally this results in more than subtle changes in meaning. In one mistake, documented by the independent scholar Ibrahim Gamard, Barks mistranslates the word “blind” as “blond” due to a typo in Arberry’s version—inadvertently turning a scene about the abandonment of those who don’t know God (“Bright-hearted companions, haste, despite all the blind ones, to home, to home!”) into a part about resisting sexual lures (“I know it’s tempting to stay and meet these blonde women”). In Rumi’s time, it’s hard to imagine that there were many women with yellow hair; there wasn’t even a word for it. Barks’s wholesome soulfulness should be credited for bringing Rumi’s work to popularity, but in the process he leaves behind perhaps the most important part of the poems. “Rumi is not a great poet in spite of Islam,” says William Chittick, a Sufi literature scholar at Stony Brook University. “He’s a great poet because of Islam. It’s because he lived his religion fully that he became this great expositor on beauty and love.”

There’s a sense in Rumi’s poems that he is at his emotional limits, simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted. His faith seems desperate, and almost tangible. Such devotion is striking because it’s inspired by God, not by the promise of sex as it sometimes appears in the translations. “He was the most important religious figure of his day,” says Jawid Mojaddedi, an Afghan-born Rumi scholar at Rutgers, whose translation of Book Two of Rumi’s Masnavi came out this month. “And yet people are shocked to find out Rumi was Muslim; they assume he must have spent his life persecuted for his beliefs, hiding in some cave in Afghanistan. We talk of clash of civilizations, and yet there’s this link that needs to be spelled out.” (Rumi’s success in America has actually boosted his popularity, Mojaddedi says, in parts of the Middle East.) But for many readers, Rumi’s Persian background has little bearing on the force of his poems. He has come to embody a kind of free-for-all American spirituality that has as much to do with Walt Whitman as Muhammad. Rumi’s work has become so universal that it can mean anything; readers use the poems for recreational self-discovery, finding in the lines whatever they wish. “It’s impossible to take Rumi out of context,” says Shahram Shiva, a Rumi translator and performance poet who regularly gives readings of Rumi’s poems, often in yoga studios. “Great art doesn’t need context,” he says. “The best thing for Beethoven’s popularity was when they put a disco beat behind Symphony no. 5.” Shiva recites Rumi to the accompaniment of flute, piccolo, piano, conch shell, and harmonica and belts out the lines in a deep, sultry Broadway voice. “Rumi’s one of the great creative beings on this planet,” he says, “a mixture of Mozart and Francis [of] Assisi, with a little Galileo thrown in, and maybe some Shakespeare and Dante.”

In his most anthologized poems Rumi comes off as a saintly Tony Robbins, urging people to break barriers, stop worrying, touch the sky, make love, never surrender. It’s as if publishers worry that reading poetry is such a fragile enterprise that too much weight and context and not enough sex will scare everyone away. Helminski, who used to run a publishing company that put out Barks’s early books, noticed a consistent sensibility in the lines readers were requesting permission to quote: those suggesting that there’s no conventional morality, no such thing as ethical failure. The number one requested line was “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” “Our culture is so shame-ridden that when someone comes along and says, ‘You’re OK,’ it’s a great relief,” says Helminski. “Americans still have an adolescent relationship with Rumi. It will take some maturing before we move beyond the clichés.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

The growing sound of silence

“In the Middle Ages,” Sara Maitland writes in her brilliant “A Book of Silence,” “Christian scholastics argued that the devil’s basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being.” Hence our Faustian pact with Facebook, with cellphones, with virtual everything.

Overstimulation is one outcome of social media and the sheer intrusiveness of modern life, the noise of it all. But in 2010, the backlash began in earnest. This is the movement to take back our connection to each other and the physical world we live in, not the one we cyber surf in.

Silence is being hailed as the solution. John Cage’s 1952 silent piece, “4’33”,” is the theme song. The Brits are calling it “Cage Against the Machine,” and the movement for a silent night this Christmas, or Cagemas, has gone viral. In London, Cage’s picture is showing up on fake million-pound notes and the slogan is on posters with clenched fists and Che Guevara’s image.

This movement, moreover, is being bolstered by a small library of new books, books with real pages (Cage against the iPad?). Besides Maitland’s profound meditations on silence, I have before me more than a dozen recent tomes on noise and its alternative.

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Some are quixotic pursuits by lovable noise cranks, decibel meters always in geeky hand (George Prochnik’s “In Pursuit of Silence,” Gordon Hempton’s “One Square Inch of Silence” and George Michelsen Foy’s “Zero Decibels”). These authors scream against noise, reminding us of its health hazards — hypertension, aggression, stress, learning disorders, hearing loss, heart disease. Foy notes that “bad noise” is rated the No. 1 occupational disease in the country by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are New Age noise books about “the transformative power of silence” (such as Anne D. LeClaire’s “Listening Below the Noise”) and two frightening but terrific books on sinister noise (Steve Goodman’s “Sonic Warfare” and David Toop’s “Sinister Resonance”). Brandon LaBelle (“Acoustic Territories”), Garret Keizer (“The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want”) and Salomé Voegelin (“Listening to Noise and Silence”) find ways to come to terms, at least theoretically, with the soundscape we cannot hope to escape.

What all the writers are forced to acknowledge is that there is no such thing as silence. Even our ears make noise in the process of listening. It is imperative that we reduce noise pollution for the survival of the human race. But sound is also essential to existence, and being attuned to that is a quality-of-life issue as well.

And that is precisely the point of “4’33”,” in which a performer sits without playing for four minutes 33 seconds. Cage’s seminal score directs us to listen to everything that we miss when we hear music, and it also gently accommodates us to our concert hall environment. “4’33”” is the subject of another new book, Kyle Gann’s “No Such Thing as Silence,” an excellent short introduction to Cage and the concept of coping with noise. And since Gann’s study is part of the Yale University Press’ “Icons of America” series, a silent piece has even become an icon, in company now with the Empire State Building, the hamburger, the Hollywood sign, Wall Street, striptease and “Gone With the Wind.”

More remarkable still, “4’33”” has a reasonable chance of becoming the Christmas No. 1 — Britain’s bestselling single of Christmas week and a big deal on the BBC. For the new recording, some 60 reverential rockers — the Kooks, Billy Bragg, Imogen Heap and Orbital, among them — went into a London recording studio on Dec. 6 with their guitars and drum kits and did their best to shut up, although they did begin swaying to a silent beat after a minute or two. The single (available on YouTube was released Monday, its proceeds will benefit charities.

This “Cage Against the Machine” (last Christmas, Rage Against Machine was the chart topper) will compete in Britain with Simon Cowell and the X-Factor and as I write the odds are about even. Almost 70,000 already have signed on to a silent night and the welcome prospect of four-minute 33-second gaps of blessed radio silence during the holiday season. Alas, FCC regulations against extended periods of silence would forbid this “American Icon” single to be played on U.S. airwaves.

Where can you find out more or join the campaign? On the “Cage Against the Machine” Facebook page, of course.

But Cage always counseled a friendly and uplifting acceptance of life’s contradictions, like the enjoyable sounds of silence. Maybe the Rolling Stones could be enticed to make a “Sympathy for the Devil” remix, say, ‘6’66”” sans Mick et. al. Here’s hoping the year doesn’t end with a bang.


Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

Doodling in Math Class: Snakes + Graphs

Eli is enjoying visiting old haunts but-

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How about a hand for the hog...

How about a hand for the hog


Well they tell me, but I can’t be sure
that a man’s best friend is a mangy cur.
I kinda favor the hog myself;
how about a hand for the hog.
Ya say a hog ain’t nothin’ but a porky thing,
little forked feet with a nosey ring,
Pickle them feet, folks,
how about a hand for the hog.

From Big River written by Roger Miller

“Okay,” said the lady with the soft Teutonic accent. “Who’s going to kill the next one?”

“I guess I will,” I volunteered. I grabbed the captive bolt pistol, loaded it with a 9 mm round, and headed to the hog enclosure where a couple of farm hands were already isolating my victim from the rest of the herd.

It was a damp, drizzly, cold, foggy late November morning in Branchville, NJ. MD and I were attending a course in hog slaughter, butchery and meat curing at Mosefund Farm. We had flown in from sunny Santa Barbara the night before, driven to our hotel in Newton, NJ and made the 20 minute drive to Branchville, arriving for our 7 AM introduction to the other participants (11 in all) in a tent set up to provide some minimal protection from the elements.

After introductions, we all proceeded to the hog enclosure where some 15 or so Mangalitsa hogs were penned. These hogs had been fed out and readied for slaughter while another 150 or so Mangalitsa were roaming freely outside, rooting for acorns and wallowing in the mud.

Christophe and Isabell Weisner, the husband/wife team from Austria who led the course, are the driving force behind the resurgence of the Mangalitsa breed of hogs. Mangalitsa were developed via selective breeding in Austria/Hungary in the early 1800s and have been around since, but dwindling in numbers because they are extreme lard-type hogs instead of meat hogs. (Heath Putnam, who met the Weisners in Austria several years ago brought the breed to the US.) Whereas meat-type hogs produce lean meat, lard-type hogs produce much fattier meat, well marbled, juicy and flavorful. But with the tendency in the last few decades to move away from fat and toward leanness in hogs, the Mangalitsa fell out of favor. Remember, pork has been advertised as the other white meat. Hogs have been bread to be leaner and leaner over the past twenty or so years, and the taste of pork reflects that intent. Tasting a bite of Mangalitsa pork, which is advertised as the other red meat – is a world different than the dry, tasteless pork most of us are used to. Take a look at these Mangalitsa chops and compare them to what you find in your local market.

As we got with the days work, Christophe downed the first hog and took us all through the process from slaughter to dressing out the carcass. I was amazed at how little things had changed since we slaughtered hogs when I was a kid on the farm many years ago. The only real difference was that back then we shot the hogs with a rifle from afar whereas now the killing is done with a captive bolt pistol held to the hog’s forehead, which stuns the animal, allowing it to bleed out properly.

Before I get on with the rest of the story, I’ve got to say I learned a lot during my first day at Mosefund Farms. First, I learned why they call New Jersey the Garden State. It’s because it’s beautiful. Having never been outside Newark or Camden in my previous visits to New Jersey, I had always assumed the entire state to be as presented on The Sopranos. Believe me, it’s not. Just 30 minutes from the Newark airport will find you in wooded rolling hills dotted with picturesque farm houses. It looked to me more like New England than New England, where I have spent some time.

Second, I learned that hogs are as dumb as I remember them. Having spent a lot of time on a farm and around farming as a kid, I had a hard time reconciling the notion that pigs were as smart as dogs, which is something I’ve heard from numerous sources. The pigs with which I was familiar didn’t even come close, but, I thought, maybe I wasn’t that careful an observer as a youth. Watching the pigs on Mosefund Farm, I can tell you, they aren’t particularly bright. And there’s a reason for that. As near as I can figure hogs are interested in four things: looking for food, eating, sleeping and getting pissed at other hogs. (There’s also rutting but none were so engaged during my observations.) That’s about it. They don’t even notice when one of their pen mates is slaughtered before their eyes. One time MD and I sailed to Santa Cruz, one of the islands off the coast from Santa Barbara. We were anchored in a cove with a couple of other boats and about a million seagulls roosting up in the cliffs, when someone from one of the other sailboats shot one of the seagulls with a pellet gun. The rest of the gulls went absolutely berserk and created a noise like nothing I’ve ever heard. Obviously they – with their bird brains – knew something bad had happened to one of their flock and let the world know about it. A hog gets killed about six feet away from a dozen others, all of which snuffle along totally unconcerned.

Why? Because their brains are so small they don’t have the capacity for much of anything but the four activities listed above. A certain amount of brain size is used for driving and regulating all of the physiological functions of living – anything left over can be used for thought. The hogs we were slaughtering weighed between 250 and 350 pounds – about the same as a large human – yet their brains would fit in your hand. Given the size of their brains as compared to their body size (and in comparison to our brains and body size), I can’t see how they have the excess brain capacity to even get pissed at other hogs, but they do. But it does explain why they don’t really apprehend what’s happening to their fellow hogs and why they, themselves, go willingly when it’s their turn.

Third, it dawned on me that I might need to rethink the idea of free range. Mosefund Farm is in a beautiful rural setting with a lot of room for hogs to roam. The pen containing the most of the pigs was open to a large tree-studded hill where the animals were free to roam and snout around to their hearts’ content, but few of them chose to do so. To be sure, there were a few roaming around, but the vast majority were crowded around the small enclosure with a concrete base that contained their feeding apparatus. Others were lying in the mud right at the edge of the concrete. And this when they could have been rooting for acorns on the hillside and lying in the deep leaves.

It made me realize that we humans are a lot like these hogs. We, too, by choice live in houses or apartments when we could be free ranging it. We do occasionally go out into the woods, but only for short periods of time, and we almost always come home to sleep. Unless, of course, we’re camping, in which case we usually carry a smaller version of our home with us in the form of tents, campers or trailers. The animals are no different – we imagine they appreciate the great outdoors and would much prefer to spend their time trundling about the hills. But the reality may well be that they, like we, may prefer to be in their own version of a snug home.

Finally, I learned that the Austrian way of dealing with these hogs is truly the Paleo way. From snout to tail there wasn’t but about two large handfuls of hog that wasn’t used for something edible. It’s truly amazing how delicious many of the parts are that you wouldn’t normally think about eating. And we ate them all, and there wasn’t a one that I didn’t enjoy. I’ll post about the various tidbits in future posts.

The three-day course was divided into a day of slaughter and dressing out, a day of butchering and a day of curing and sausage and lard making. The latter is an event I really got into and will explain in much detail in a post to follow.

As I describe the slaughter and dressing process, I will include photos of the process. These may seem somewhat grisly to those without a farming or surgical background, so if you’re squeamish, be forewarned. If you’re going to eat meat, however, you should perhaps take a look at where it comes from.

I stepped into the enclosure as two farm hands used large red plastic shields that looked much like large cutting boards to pen my hog, who seemed to be pretty much unconcerned at the events taking place, against the fence. I straddled him, pressed the device against his forehead, and pulled the trigger. He dropped instantly without a sound.

Another participant stuck a knife in the hog’s throat; a third held a large stainless-steel bowl to catch the bright red blood, stirring it with his hand all the while to prevent coagulation. This blood would be used to make delicious blood pudding.

After the hog had been exsanguinated, we grabbed him by the legs and carted him to the tub to be scalded. During this procedure, the hog is rolled over continuously by hand using chains for leverage. The almost boiling water loosens the hair, which needs to be removed in the next step.

The hair removal – and there is a ton of hair on a Mangalitsa (they’re not called Wooly Pigs for nothing) – is the most difficult and tedious part of the entire operation. It requires a ton of elbow grease. Every inch of the hog has to be scraped clean of hair with little funnel-shaped metal contraptions. (We always used butcher knives on the farm, but our hogs weren’t anywhere near as hairy as these.) As I was scraping away, all I could do was imagine my Paleolithic ancestors doing the same thing – and probably a lot better – with flint knives.

Once the hog was dehaired, we hung him by his feet for dressing, a process involving opening the hog’s belly and removing his GI tract from anus to stomach without spilling the contents. This is more of a precision job than you might imagine, and one requiring a bit of a delicate touch at times. Thank God my surgical training wasn’t all a waste.

Once the GI tract is removed en block you extract the lacy, weblike caul fat and separate the liver from the rest of the viscera and the gall bladder from the liver. You throw the liver in a pan along with the kidneys and spleen, all of which will be consumed later. Unbelievably, even the spleen is edible. We had it as spleen on toast. And the kidneys… I couldn’t look at the kidneys without thinking of Joyce’sUlysses and the main character Leopold Bloom, who heads out early in the book to Dlugacz’s, the pork butcher, to get kidneys for breakfast.

Bloom has just taken a fried pork kidney up to his wife, Molly, when she smells something burning. She asks if he left something on the fire, and he remembers the other kidney.

–The kidney! he cried suddenly.

He fitted the book roughly into his inner pocket [he had been looking at a book when Molly noticed the burning smell] and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from the side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scanty brown gravy trickle over it.

Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf. He shore away the burnt flesh and flung it to the cat. Then he put a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat. Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth.

Next came the heart and lungs, which required reaching deep into the carcass with the left hand to feel and identify the trachea while using the knife in the right hand to sever it, blind. Once the heart and lungs were extracted, it was time to split the carcass in two. (The heart and lungs were used for an absolutely delicious soup called, logically enough, heart and lung soup, which we made and devoured hungrily a couple of days later. I’ll have photos and the recipe in a future post.)

After splitting the carcass into its two halves with a hacksaw – another arduous task – we set about removing the fat from the insides of the hog, the leaf lard. This fat, which you can see glistening in the photo, is the inner body fat that pads the organs. It is almost pure white and soft.

You separate the leaf lard from the carcass with your hands as MD is doing below and save it for rendering later. Because of its delicateness and lack of taste, the leaf lard is primarily used for baking.

In true Paleo fashion, throughout the dressing process we cut off small parts of the hog and ate them raw. The leaf lard was evanescent in that it kind of dissolved in your mouth like cotton candy. The meat was delicious even raw.

Once the carcass was split and the leaf lard removed, the dressing process was pretty much finished. We cut the heads off some of the carcasses and not on the others. Ultimately, the heads were removed from all, but for whatever reason some were remove on the day of slaughter while others were removed on the day the hogs were butchered.

A tired and greasy MD preps liver under the glow of the vapor lights.

It was long after dark by the time we had prepped all the organs and hung the last carcass in a refrigerated truck and repaired to the tent where it had all begun early that morning. We had a dinner of what else? Mangalitsa. We debriefed and prepared for the next day.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the butchering process, and in the final post about how the various parts are cooked and/or cured.

I’ll leave you with a video of Michael Clampfer, the executive chef at Mosefund Farm who put on our course, talking about Mangalitsa and how they’re raised, where they come from and how they’re different. In this video you can see the beauty of New Jersey that so surprised me.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On the eighth night Abby lit the candles

Allen Ginsberg A Supermarket In California

Allen Ginsberg A Supermarket In California
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Do you understand “Om Namah Shivaya” or “Baruch ata Adonai”?


The complete text of this selection is available in our print edition.

ALISON LUTERMAN likes to dance with friends until the sweat pours, then feed her guests chili made from her friend Laurie’s [formerly] secret recipe (black olives, Dijon mustard, red wine, fresh dill). She lives in Oakland, California, and has published two award-winning books of poetry, The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University Press) and See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions).


In the early eighties I was part of a production called Crooked Eclipses: A Theatrical Meditation on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, put on by the Boston Theatre Group. We didn’t just recite the sonnets; we learned dozens of them by heart and moved, sang, wept, and wrestled with them. In the six months leading up to the show, lines of Shakespeare would arise in me unbidden as I waited for a bus or shopped for groceries. I count it as one of the best times of my life.

Almost thirty years later, after becoming a poet and teacher of poetry, I discovered Kim Rosen’s Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words (Hay House). In an era when creative-writing programs and workshops have proliferated like dandelions and it seems everyone wants to be a writer, Rosen asserts the value of becoming a “disciple” to a poem written by someone else. She claims that a poem can be powerful medicine not only for the mind but for the body and soul as well, and she has learned more than a hundred poems by heart, carrying them inside her as teachers, healers, and guides.

Rosen, who has a ba from Yale University and an mfa in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, shares her method of learning poems with students and audiences all over the world: in cathedrals, juvenile-detention centers, school auditoriums, and even the Louisiana Superdome. She grew up in New England and as a child wanted to be a poet, but the dry, analytical approach to poetry taught in high school discouraged her. She turned her attention to theater and, later, spirituality, becoming a teacher of self-inquiry. She was leading workshops on creativity when depression and her parents’ failing health led her to begin learning poems by heart as a healing path. Poet David Whyte was her initial inspiration, but her ultimate teachers, she says, are the poems themselves.

Rosen and I met to talk about poetry, memory, healing, and the origins of language in her cozy home in northern California. It was a gray day, and the rhythmic patter of rain on the skylight provided background for our conversation. As we talked, stanzas from poems wove themselves into the discussion: one of us would begin to recite, and the other would join in, laughing as we groped for lines, honoring the source that feeds both our lives.

Luterman: What do you say to a person who tells you, “Poetry makes me feel dumb, like it’s some puzzle that I can’t figure out. I don’t see that it has any relevance to my life”?

Rosen: [Laughs.] I love to talk to those people. I feel exactly the same way about so much of the poetry I read. For most of my life I was afraid of poetry. It was like this elitist club I hadn’t been invited to join. In fact, many Americans seem to have a fear of poetry. Part of my motivation in writing Saved by a Poem was to help turn that around, to wake Americans up to poetry’s power to heal and enrich us. In fact, my work is not as much about poetry as it is about nurturing the interior life. Poetry can be a lantern that shines into dark places within us. Poems can be powerful medicine for personal transformation.

One thing I might say to someone who can’t relate to poetry is: You don’t have to love allpoetry. Do you love all music? Do you love every piece of art you see? Find just one poem you love, and speak it out loud. Your body, feelings, voice, and thoughts will come into harmony when you speak a poem that matters to you, and that can be incredibly healing.

Even people who supposedly don’t like poetry have it all around them, but they don’t realize it, because they don’t call it “poetry.” Every breakup I’ve ever gone through has a song connected to it. I remember John Lennon’s song “Woman.” Oh, my God. [Laughs.] I’d be dead if it weren’t for those lyrics. Those words became the stepping stones that got me across the rushing river of my relationship’s demise.

Find the poetry in the song you sing in the shower, or in the serenity prayer you recite under your breath after your kids trash the living room again. Most, if not all, scriptures were originally written as poetry. Look at the Psalms: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .” That’s poetry. Why? There is music and imagery in the words. It’s not just the words’ meanings that speak to us; it’s their rhythms, their sounds.

We complain that we don’t understand poetry, but a lot of us recite prayers in other languages, such as Hebrew, Sanskrit, or Latin. Do you understand “Om Namah Shivaya” or “Baruch ata Adonai”? But in those cases there’s a willingness to let it sweep into you and affect you. The same is true of music and art. When you attend a symphony, you lean back, close your eyes, and go for the ride. You’re not thinking to yourself, Now, what was Beethoven trying to say with that particular chord? Most of us don’t analyze a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. We stand in front of it and observe what happens in our own bodies and minds.

But with poetry, because it’s words on a page, we think we’re supposed to understand it the way we understand a newspaper article. The left brain says, Aha! This is my domain. It wants a literal meaning to the poem. But poetry is the stuff of the right brain — the ineffable, the emotional, the relational — arriving dressed up in the costume of the left brain: words. Billy Collins has a great poem called “Introduction to Poetry.” He invites people to “take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide,” but all they want to do, he says, is beat it with a hose to “find out what it really means.”

Luterman: But isn’t it also important to understand the meaning of the words?

Rosen: I think we have to expand our idea of what the word understand means. It’s not just the kind of understanding that comes with the solution of a riddle or a math problem. It can include a kind of revelation that comes through the whole body. Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever 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 ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Dickinson is talking about a kind of understanding through feeling and sensation, not through the accumulation of information.

To me a good poem is like a sacred mind-altering substance: you take it into your system, and it carries you beyond your ordinary ways of understanding. I call the nonconceptual elements of a poem — the rhythm, the sound, the images — the “shamanic anatomy.” Like a shaman’s drum, the beat of a poem can literally entrain the rhythms of your body: your heartbeat, your breath, even your brain waves, altering consciousness. Most poems are working on all these levels at once, not just through the rational mind.

When I was in school, I was taught about the meter of the poem — iambic pentameter, dactylic tetrameter, and so on. I was taught the definitions of simile and metaphor, and I remember being quizzed on the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet. But no one told me these were consciousness-altering substances! No one told me rhythm could free my mind, a rhyme or simile could crack open my thought patterns, and assonance and alliteration could allow my feelings to flow in new ways.

A man named Christopher in one of my workshops was working with Rumi’s poem “Love Dogs” in a rendering by Coleman Barks. Christopher had been sent to me by his singing teacher, who felt I might be able to help him bring more spontaneity and emotion into his voice. Even in ordinary conversations, his speaking voice sounded as if every inflection had been composed ahead of time.

“Love Dogs” challenges the reader to cry out with longing, as a dog does for its master. It was a perfect poem for Christopher, because that unselfconscious flow of feeling was exactly what was missing in his singing. He learned the poem quickly and easily, but one line always tripped him up: Barks’s version goes, “The grief you cry out from / draws you toward union.” But every single time, Christopher said, “The grief from which you cry / draws you toward union.”

It seems like a small difference, doesn’t it? And the meaning is basically the same either way. When I asked him about it, Christopher said he liked his version better because it was grammatically correct, and Barks’s wasn’t. Never end a phrase with a preposition, right?

Barks could have chosen to be grammatically correct, but he didn’t. There is something more compelling than grammar moving his line: the momentum, the way the energy travels through the body as it is spoken. Say the line both ways, and feel the difference in the sensations in your body and the movement of your breath: “The grief from which you cry”; “The grief you cry out from.”

Luterman: The first version seems neat and predictable, and the second is kind of a wonderful mess, falling over itself and open-ended.

Rosen: Exactly! Christopher’s version shuts tight at the end: “The grief from which you cry.” Barks’s meter is irregular and ends on a weak beat, leaving the energy open and vulnerable: “The grief you cry out from.”

The amazing thing is that when Christopher finally spoke the line the way Barks had written it, his voice broke, and this huge sob came bursting out. He was scared and embarrassed at first. He hadn’t let himself cry in public since he was a kid, so it was quite a stretch for him, but he did it. And that release freed his voice and his spontaneity.

Luterman: At the risk of sounding elitist, isn’t it important that a poem be good?

Rosen: What is “good”? Sometimes I cringe because a poem seems trite to me, only to find out that those words saved my friend’s life when she was going through her divorce. Think about art or music: You love Aretha Franklin; I love Beethoven. You love Rothko; I love Rembrandt. Maybe a certain poem doesn’t sing to me, but if it opens someone’s mind and heart, who cares whether I find it good or bad?

Luterman: You recently wrote a blog in the Huffington Post about this country’s “metrophobia,” or fear of poetry. Why is American culture so poetry-phobic, whereas other cultures revere poetry and poets?

Rosen: Only a few generations ago in the U.S., poetry was much more popular than it is now. My father, who is ninety, still remembers the John Donne sonnet he memorized in grammar school. Poetry recitation used to be a fixture of small-town American entertainment. But over the last few generations we have managed to marginalize the art form. And it’s not just about the rise of tv, radio, and other technologies taking the place of poetry. Did you know that the most popular tv show in the Middle East is Million’s Poet? It’s like American Idol, but the contestants recite poetry. The show has even inspired a tvchannel completely dedicated to poetry, an idea that seems unimaginable in the U.S.

So what happened here? I have lots of ideas, but no definitive answer. Writer Eve Ensler says that we live in a country where people have forgotten to think in metaphor. With the loss of metaphor comes a lack of imagination, ritual, mystery, and discovery.

I also suspect that the qualities of openness and humility that the best poetry encourages may have been lost in Americans’ drive for upward mobility. Many poems look behind the superficial masks we wear to the vulnerable self underneath. John F. Kennedy said it beautifully in his eulogy of Robert Frost: “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Maybe the U.S. — and please forgive me the audacity of this sweeping generalization — doesn’t want to be reminded of its limitations, its kinship with all life. It doesn’t want to look into poetry’s truthful mirror. As a country the U.S. has been identified with a strong will. We’ve “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Maybe poetry, real poetry, requires a healthy surrender of willfulness. Maybe it demands a willingness to be changed, to be affected, to reveal our wounds without denial or muscling through.

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