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Joe Paddock

Not Reason But Song



Poetry is the house of soul.

—I. A. Richards

What we are really, and the reality we live, is our psychic reality, which is nothing but...the poetic imagination going on day and night.

—James Hillman

And as imagination bodies forthThe forms of things unknown, the poet’s penTurns them into shapes, and gives the airy nothingA local habitation and a name.

—William Shakespeare

Inherent in prose is a problem to which poetry (all art) is the answer. Communicating in prose, as we do, trapped in the prosaic levels of life, we can only intuit wholeness. We yearn, but we cannot break from the linear ruts of the rational, and modern life, hungering for the soul, withers on its vine. When writing poetry, we allow in the wholeness, we welcome it. We work with images and rhythms capable of conveying, of carrying, wholeness. The reader or listener is in turn given an experience of wholeness, a moment in time that is complete, one in which he or she does not feel the need to change or control the world. (1)

At its best, poetry exists on the edge of what is formless and boundless. The writing of poetry—again at its best—is a spiritual discipline. This even when the poet’s work isn’t overtly spiritual and he or she does not think of what they are doing as spiritual. The poet nevertheless works at the service of those living archetypes that are the gods within. When we read a good poem with undivided attention, we go lost in it for a bit, enter into a moment outside time, a surprise experience of the eternal even as we breathe in and out here in the present.

Whether conscious of it or not, the serious poet has answered a calling and is discovering, connecting with, his or her spiritual source and sending it outward. Of course the spirit of such a calling is ever in danger of being damaged by excessive ambition and careerism. In terms of this, an important advantage of poetry is that it earns so little money. Better far that the poet’s reward be the depth of fulfillment given in the writing (and sharing) of the poem that the philosopher Martin Heidegger has described as “the principal return home.”(2) Home, that is, to the deeps of ourselves in the unconscious, or as Heidegger would have it, to that source from which the creative emerges, that resonant and ever-abundant emptiness that is the Tao.

I once heard my poet friend Michael Kincaid say, “The poem is an invocation of a sacred order.” And my poet friend Thomas McGrath, suggesting a return to that order, once wrote the following hopeful lines:

The warm and radiant Goddess who once held all our hands! . . .

Is again to be born and burn with that flame the world once was

Before the abstract light of the Father’s Heavenly Power

Put out the eyes of the stars and drained the life from the moon. . . . (3)

We, most of us, are a disenchanted people. Indeed, it has been argued that disenchantment is the major characteristic of the modern world. Today we encourage the brightest of our children to focus on math and science, perhaps to learn Mandarin, so that they (and we) might be “globally competitive.” The “abstract light” of these disciplines leaves us wanting. If we do not sense the infinite within the particulars of our lives, we are forever dissatisfied. And so, the search for the Holy Grail continues with us. Be certain that what it contains is not material wealth. Like the white spaces between the lines of a poem, the Grail’s emptiness might hold a clue as to the possible re-enchantment of our time (4):


The ancient Chinese critic,

Yen Yu, told us that when

Tao enters the poem

it becomes an “antelope hanging

by its horns from a tree,

leaving no traces to be found.”

The white spaces between

the lines in such poetry abound

with shifting herds of possibility.

Venturing into them, we are lifted

on the vast wings of emptiness

and carried away for a time. (5)

There is of course room for all sorts of poetry, but I’ll share here a personal preference I hold having to do with the making of a poem: Lao Tzu reminded us that “On tiptoe our stance is unsteady.” (6) And so, the poet would do well to heed what I remember from somewhere to be a Taoist request for “Simple sincerity to the highest degree.”

Jung once wrote that “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” (7) And the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Daag Hammarskjold, believed that those who would do good work in their lives should become a channel for the light: “You are merely the lens in the beam,” he wrote. “You can only receive, give, and possess the light as the lens does. If you seek yourself, you rob the lens of its transparency. You will know life and be acknowledged by it according to your degree of transparency—your capacity, that is, to vanish as an end and remain purely as a means.” (8) The poem itself is such a lens, an access point for the light. Guided from the unconscious deeps even more than the poet knows, poetry has a way of leading us to that edge where

the light shines through

each blade of prairie grass,

each mite, mole, mushroom,

running killdeer. Each

is wondrous. And the human face

when lit

will be a beacon

for galactic travel.

The light shines through!

We belch over pork,

worry about weeds

while we drift amidst galaxies


infinite song of the infinite universe....(9)



In dream, I caught her

at the eastern lip

of my father’s garden, to our armpits

in nourishing green. I reached down

around her flesh which was my music,

and she whispered in my ear:

“Sing, that I may feed and grow

to fill the hollow in you.”


I’ve seen it in dreams, a circle

of rough-barked, ancient

cottonwood trees, trunks thick

as old rowing ships afloat

on the blue Aegean.

And a poet sitting there,

back to a tree.

A sacred grove here, yes,

at the center

of North America.

And within this circle, the flaring

imagination must voyage until

these trunks have been polished

by the weather of love and adventure

into the gleaming pillars of

that very temple within

which ancient bards

at the deep root of us sing.


When we write poems, free

of excessive self, we create

for ourselves and others

who enter a sacred place

of words, windows stained

by the blood of our lives

that allow in the radiance.

This place exists outside time

for the time we are in it.

It is a sanctuary

in which our burdens go lost

in the white spaces

between the lines.

Within its resonant interior,

we often discover,

however briefly, even in

times such as these, happiness.


May Day morning, awakening,

struggling up through liminal mind,

I first see

my Crow River Poet cap, hanging

from the extended wooden neck

of a goose,

then hear, strange,

in some deep

auditory region of the brain,

words, as if from the throat

of migration:

“Not reason, but song

is the proof of our life.”

And I,

as if some wayward gander,

finally hearing goose gabble

coming from the home pond,

think to spread wings and begin

a hopeful yelping

toward melody.


We sang.

Kids, age nine to fourteen

or so, two or three at a time,

on foot, heading out

along gravel roads

for the here and there remaining

stretches of the old green magic:

oak groves, copses and dells still alive

with the singing.

The hard part was getting there,

and we sang

better than you might imagine.

Without thought on it, rhapsodic,

we sang to ease the boredom,

went lost within the rhythm

of our rapid footfalls, abandoned

to risen joyous sound.

Like native peoples

before us here, singing songs

given by the Creator

in the beginning, we sang

to lift us from the profane

world we traveled through

toward our sacred places.

In this slight trance

of imagination, I hear yet

the light crunching drumbeat

of our footfalls

on gravel roads and

our singing, feel again

the bliss of it. O, singing

is great sensation in the flesh.

We sang the snatches we knew

of “Wonderful Copenhagen,”

“The Drinking Song,”

“Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,” and

“My Ass Is.” Most anything that rhymed.

“Onward Christian Soldiers” and

Christmas carols. On top of old Nelly

instead of “Old Smokey,” an endless

stream of pretty murky quatrains

flowed from us like water

from a fiercely surging spring,

life itself rising, unhindered.

We sang

with a relish that silenced birds

and burned the air.

We made it there.


Other’s still nourishing

in pillow regions,

I’m alone in the scatter

of this radiant room:

purple socks, sandals

with straps dangling

like the tongues

of dead mammals.


in the flight pattern,

jets scream

down long slopes of air.

Cardinals, jays,

crows, they wake


within their cries.

I feel a greatness

starting in the flesh:

first cup of coffee

taking effect.

It’s good

to be here, contained,

secure, the breathing so pure

in and out, as if forever.

It’s good to feel good

about one’s life,

rolling out

from its center.

I am hovering yet

at the fringes of a dream

in which serious students

from small country towns

rode their work ethic

hard to my home.

Given the luxury

to be teacher, I told them:

“We are caught flies,

buzzing and jumping

in Indra’s awesome net, jewels,

each reflecting each, effortlessly.

Our work here, you see,

is simply to let go

and glow.”


There is a bird, right here

in these trees, local, native

to south-central Minnesota

and, in truth, everywhere else.

It’s called the yellow hornbill,

black and yellow, larger than a crow,

with a curved bill, longer, heavier

than an index finger, evolved

over aeons to crush

the husk from souls.

The yellow hornbill resides

only in deepest green foliage,

and is seldom embodied.

You may never see one,

though there could come,

just possibly, a moment

when leaves part . . . .

Your heart will stop.

It will take at least

a score of years

of most careful listening

to hear the deep rich warble

of the yellow hornbill.

That song, some say,

will suffuse the flesh

with a sweet agony of love

for this painful life.

Others, perhaps wiser, say

without first that love,

the yellow hornbill will never

feather full and sing for you.


The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego,

the second half is going forward and letting go of it.

—Carl Jung

Time now, yes, to let go

such a lot of it.

And time to allow

our inner selves

to emerge more fully.

Give in to them.

They are the archetypes,

the gods within who

on Olympus and

in the sacred sites

of our personal lives

guide and sing.

Time, yes, to allow

our gods to guide

and sing

through us,

and to allow,

even within the pain of being,

our increasing ripeness

to sweeten.


This blanket of new snow

is joy and rest.

I somehow know

the drifting breath

and wet mittens

of childhood.

I have no need

to open the door.

I am only this breathing.

A cup of tea, a flame,

even as, tusks popping,

the hogs snuffle at my feet.

I know, I know,

I too am food.

I can let go.

This blanket of new snow

brings joy and rest, and

it’s a time to dream,

a time to tell the story,

a time to turn

souring old fruit

to wine.


Each day one thousand orioles

fly through my eyes,

and finches, grosbeaks, buntings....

Each day,

wide-throated from the foliage

of my brows, young birds cry

and mothers with flare,

flutter and worms enter

my spaces,

pick insects from my hair

(my rib cage streaked with white!)

and I am filled

with spiraling.

Birds in flight

turn and dip to alight,

line my lip

(sharp little toes!) singing,

till the body’s first stars

turn bright.


Soft golden bees, filled with fire,

storm round the hive, and helpless

in our dream of the sweet,

we are stung again and again.

The world will take

our measure. If our days

are not hard enough

on their own, our desire

will rise to sting us.

Yes, we suffer here

and purify and ripen,

and a sort of honey grows

in the wax of our dying cells.


In my dreams, a dark woman

haunts what is gone, and yes,

even abandoned farm houses

have abandoned us now, risen

in smoke and joined with old

abandoned dreams turning

among planetary rings.

A detached, lovely singing there.

He splashed gasoline, scratched a Lucifer.

Flame-spurt touched dry tinder

of old labor, old dream. Brief inferno

swirling with shades and shrieks.

He’d mine the soil beneath.

Hibernating raccoons asleep

between joists, snoring

into almost-hands.

Hives of honeybees droning softly

in walls. Risen as smoke. The woman-presence

in the abandoned continues

persistent in dreams. Dark woman,

ephemeral, alone, her footsteps sound

on old cold wood along vast hallways

of time, the sleeping mind.

Anxious, she peers through

cracked dusty windows, waiting, expecting

return of voices, the warm blood and honey

she’d known. Somehow gone wrong, gone

urban, suburban, the daily commute....

She turns then suddenly from the window

to me. In lamplight, the loss of everything

etched into her aged beauty, impacts

my entire tree of nerves. Am I accused?

Was I too slumbering, warm enough

for years, within her walls?

Is my singing already no more

than smoke, gone lost

and adrift in the spheres.

In the novel Finnegans Wake, that grand literary partnering of an awakened mind with abundance from the unconscious deeps, James Joyce chose not to include the apostrophe in “Finnegan’s.” In doing so he turned the name into the plural, and “wake” from a noun to a verb, and the title became a command. The old ballad “Finnegan’s Wake” was important to Joyce’s great work, but it wasn’t just one fellow named Finnegan that he hoped to wake to life again—“Finn again, Finn-begin again.” The missing apostrophe gives us to know that it was the whole of us he hoped to wake from our slumbers, from this dream that all the world is. Joyce was calling on all of humanity to awaken. Finnegans all. Wake, you Finnegans! “Here comes everybody”!


T’was whiskey

brought the tipplin’ Tim Finnegan

alive again. Believe that

if you will.

Here in the life I lead,

now and again hiking aisles

of the stones that hold down

those gone, I’m doubting.


the stones in their rows

bear each a name

with its numbers

and a buried story,

tinder to kindle in me

a whiskey-sweet fire,

similar enough, I say,

to that which

lifted Tim Finnegan

from the bed of his wake—

stuff to tell that will

I dearly hope

wake them again

from their slumbers

in the deeps

of the all of us.


In dream last night, there was work

I was called to, bound to do

for a dead man:

I was carrying Hiram home, limp

in the arms, somehow, of song.

He had the life all of us breathe

in and out of our bodies,

more or less, the same train

of passing moments, too seldom boarded,

and in this it may be he did better

than most of the rest,

most of whom agree:

“Hiram didn’t amount to much.”

Day work on farms did for him.

Lifting bails, pitching bundles,

and such. Winter was a time

for sleeping with the good wife,

a woman who later went bitter

and left with the last of the kids, all

friends of mine back then.

I never saw him out of blue

work shirt and worn bib overalls.

Shining black hair and eyes

bright as anthracite were linked hot

to an easy low humor that

caused the kid I was, hanging around,

to kick the ground, grinning.

Owning outright a small house

was key to Hiram’s life. And a big

garden and a small

flock of chickens

and now and then a pig.

The garden fed with chicken droppings

filled his winter bin with fists of fine

red potatoes, and late summer sweet corn sold

for a quarter a dozen. Popcorn filled

the family’s winter nights with munching.

Melvin said,

“Dad’s teeth got worn down like that

from chewing old maids.”

I ate popcorn with them and sunfish, twice,

great golden piles on every plate, free

and fresh from the lake, took nourishment

at Hiram’s table and insight

of a primal kind.

Hiram went to the hospital once

in his life: “My blood is good,”

he told me, but with all

the rest around him gone

more or less modern,

his old house, too,

with its rusting pump out back,

was smashed to the ground.

Before it went,

on a cold November day,

I clumped around within

a shifting surround of ghosts

one last time.

Such a vast echoing emptiness!

There on the bare-wood

second floor, I grew fearful

I might break through

into painful memory of life

once loud around

a now-barren table.

Though the house that was key

is gone, and the garden

and Hiram, too,

in dream last night

I carried him home

in the arms of song.



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