Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eye of the Beholder

I'm sure you've heard the expression "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Beauty, yes. And so much more. I think meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Nowadays, poets such as Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and others prefer to consider and portray ordinary experiences and ordinary things in their poems in extraordinary ways. For instance, here is a poem by Ted Kooser titled "Tattoo":


What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

Or consider this splendid little gem by Billy Collins:

Some Days

Some days I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.
All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.

But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs,
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.

Very funny,
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next
if you were going to spend it

striding around like a vivid god,
your shoulders in the clouds,
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

Poetry is so great, isn't it? Here's one more. This one's by Mary Oliver:


I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Such eyes they have. Such capacity to see beauty. And how nice of them to take the time to put their vision into such clever little things for us.

Of course, beauty may be other than what is easy to observe. For instance, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. It's been nearly 30 years since they've been on TV. But, if you watch the 2004 Disney production titled "Miracle", you may see beauty in the determination of the coach to prepare the team to beat the Soviets who had dominated Olympic hockey since the 60s.

Or consider the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Initially, the Court was weak when compared to Congress and the President. The Justices first met in an official capacity early in 1790, and it wasn't until 1792 that they heard and decided their first case. Until 1801 or so, Congress and the President had nothing to fear when it came to having limits imposed on their powers by the judicial branch. That changed after President John Adams
appointed John Marshall to the position of Chief Justice in 1801. At least one judicial scholar regards Marshall as the Babe Ruth of Supreme Court justices. No other Chief Justice has served longer than Marshall's 34 years. During his tenure, the U.S. Supreme Court became much stronger than it had been - some would even say that today it is the strongest branch of U.S. government - chiefly by claiming for itself the powers to A) interpret the Constitution and B) determine the constitutionality of laws passed by the U.S. Congress and by the state legislatures. I think there is great beauty in the growth of power seen in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. I think this beauty constitutes reason for existentialists, among others, to rejoice: men are capable of living within legal limits imposed by themselves.
I've got to change the subject a bit before I begin to sound too naive or optimistic. Who trusts an optimist? Anyway, in recent decades, some people regard the American experiment to be in its death throes. Men seek office not to serve a constituency but to see if they can achieve their vision or some portion of it. Such men want to win at any cost. Of course, when they embrace such an ambition they have already lost themselves. They are then in the service of an ideal they neither created nor control, perhaps confusing their commitment with that of a happy, successful marriage. In addition, some people regard the so-called "fourth estate" - the media - as impotent, toothless, incapable of effecting any meaningful change. I beg to differ.
The way I see it, the media create for citizens something like George Orwell's "Big Brother"; however, the ones being monitored are not the general population but the people elected and appointed to office. I mean, people in Czechoslovakia, for instance, could not believe it when "Dr. Strangelove" was produced and shown in the U.S. Likewise, what a tribute to the media that A) the Watergate break-in could be exposed and that B) David Frost could interview President Nixon and ascertain for viewers everywhere the arrogance that otherwise may have escaped history books. Fast-forward to 16 October 2007 when the PBS series "Frontline" aired an episode titled "Cheney's Law" and featured the Vice-President's collusion with attorneys. According to the program, Cheney wanted to restore to the Presidency what he saw as the beautiful, dignified importance of the power of the office of the President of the United States which, according to Cheney, had been lost after Nixon's resignation. Viewers need not have a law degree or pass the bar exam to recognize arrogance.
By keeping your heart and mind open, you can find beauty all around you.

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