Monday, February 28, 2011


To say your Shakespeare sonnet winningly
There’s more than merely memory entailed:
Above all else, you’ll speak with clarity
So every sonorous syllable is nailed.

Then confidence is needed, perfect poise,
That puts your anxious audience at ease.
Then let emotion show—not that which cloys,
Is overdone, but subtle, if you please.

More than all else, you need to understand
Exactly what you’re saying, phrase by phrase,
So what flows from your tongue shows such command
The words seem yours, and that will win our praise.

     One thing remains: if to your words we’ll cleave,
     Then everything you say, you must believe.


Sunday, February 27, 2011


Our being here at all and knowing it
Then knowing that we know, is that which makes
Us human, thus presumably more fit
Than other kinds in whom awareness wakes.

And yet this extra knowing seems a curse,
For we alone must wonder why we’re here,
While others just endure their lives, immerse
Themselves in presentness, in joy or fear.

But we, compelled to contemplate and dwell
On purpose, meaning and the worth of all,
Have conjured images of heaven and hell
And dream of our ascension or our fall.

     Our double knowing seems a double cross
     To bear: to know our having and our loss.


Saturday, February 26, 2011


What trait best indicates the eminence of your education?

Your facility with language.

Your mastery of your mother tongue.

There is no more important ability for you to build and refine than reading well, writing well, listening well, and speaking well.

Such literacy is the foremost trait of a well-educated person because language is our principal medium of thought and communication.

While numeracy is also vital, it may be regarded as another kind of language skill—likewise music, dance and the other expressive arts.

Though all of these skills enhance human capabilities and creativity, nonetheless, verbal language skills stand foremost and should be the central mission of schools and colleges to develop.  How?

1.    You must read much: many kinds of writing, read both silently and aloud.

2.    You must write often, for writing facilitates your thinking; it articulates and clarifies what is inchoate and incoherent in your mind; it allows you to expand and expatiate; it lets you preserve and transmit your thoughts over time and space.

3.    Finally, you must speak impressively, an ability born largely of your prior reading and writing, but also of your attentive exposure to eloquence in others.  As in all things, you learn by following good examples, by imitation and emulation.

In thus asserting the primacy of reading, writing and speaking skills in education, I do not mean to diminish the importance in the various disciplines of the content of their studies, which is what you will read, write and talk about.

But whether you study literature or economics, history or philosophy, physics or psychology, language will always be the medium of your learning, language specialized to the subject, but still language.

Master it.


Friday, February 25, 2011


Here’s a major human dilemma.

We think it good to excel, to rise to the top, to gain mastery and supremacy, as in sports or in business.

And yet we are morally wary or ethically dubious about those who exercise force or violence in sanctioned and regulated combat, for even armies are expected to obey “rules of war” and not commit “war crimes” (which sounds to some like an oxymoron).

How may it be possible to develop mastery and excellence without win-lose competition, without victors and vanquished?  Can all human enterprises be ordered by the principle of win-win, where the goal is to help all to succeed to the best of their potentials?

Although the “laws of nature” operate to cull the weak and exalt the strong, which serves to preserve the hardiest and best-adapted members of each species; those rules need not apply to human beings.

Even though dominance has prevailed through most of our recorded history (a male-dominated history of conflict and warfare, of invasion and colonization, of applying advancing technologies as weapons, turning plowshares into swords), even so, cooperation may prove to be superior to competition by putting fellowship above rivalry and association over aggression.

Competitive rivalry is still so engrained in our customs and institutions that it is hard to think outside of that box.  Nonetheless, how might we imagine and then move toward a society that is not essentially aggressive and conflictual, where self-interest and self-aggrandizement—looking out for Number One—is not primary? 

How might we conceive of a viable society in which cooperation prevails over competition, partnership over rivalry, mutual benefit over monopoly?

Is that our next frontier?


Thursday, February 24, 2011


I reckon that living matter manifests three innate imperatives not evident in inorganic matter.  If you are a life-form of any kind, from microbium to human, then

1.    you must sustain your life or be sustained by others: food and protection from harm are fundamental;

2.    you must perpetuate life, either by procreation or protection of your kind;

3.    you must enjoy your life, in however rudimentary a way, so as to sustain the will to live and the struggle to survive.

Life as a whole expresses one other imperative: to grow and proliferate, that is, to become more complex and manifold in form.  Individuals are impelled to mature and species to evolve, producing adaptive and promising variations.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011


For all our double knowing, we forget
Over and again the miracle
Of life: how inert elements beget
Organic being, making bright of dull.

And soon we take for granted these our lives,
Careless of how precarious they are,
Forgetting it’s the fittest who survives
Or luckiest, protected by some star.

The real wisdom that our name implies
Is more than knowing our true circumstance,
But knowing in advance that each life dies
And using to its fullest our sole chance.

     How we can plan and shape our precious lives
     To some good ends, wisdom alone contrives.


Sunday, February 20, 2011


Just sit with this awhile.  Take time to think
Till everything you ponder comes in sync.

Before you act too hastily, less rash
A way can help you to avert a crash.

“Calm, cool, collected” is the tested way
To weigh your options till you make your play.

Before you start to run, be sure you’ve sat:
“Consideration” means exactly that.


Friday, February 18, 2011


A skipper, tiller in his hand,
   Sailed accurately,
But navigating on the land
Was all at sea.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011


     for Robert W. Fuller

A Dignitarian is one who sees
In all of us our worthy qualities.

Though every human being is made of earth,
Each one of us contains inherent worth.

To be a Dignitarian means you dig it
That pulling rank on others makes a bigot.

That you may rank above me in some order
Gives you no right to trespass cross my border.

My sanctuary is my dignity,
A blessing born of my humanity.

Though I myself may trespass against laws,
I’m worthy nonetheless, for all my flaws;

While my bad actions rightly should be blamed,
I should not be disparaged but reclaimed.

Let a new era be proclaimed by clarion
When each of us grows truly Dignitarian.


Sunday, February 13, 2011


The magic spell of music swells my heart
As songs from yesteryear evoke those times
Of which my generation was a part,
Folk songs with touching melodies and rhymes:

Bellefonte, Dylan, Peter, Paul
And Mary, Joan Baez and Johnny Cash,
The Kingston Trio and the best of all—
No, I won’t judge—all better than the trash

That fills the charts and airways of today,
That who can even hear the lyrics of?
So smothered and occluded, what they say
No drum-dinned ear can tell or, much less, love.

     The good old songs were lyrical and dear—
     If only such a Muse might reappear.


Saturday, February 12, 2011


Suppose this: that much of what you do and believe that you do voluntarily, you actually do reflexively, because you have been programmed to do so by others.

That is to say, much of the time you are more a robot than a free agent.  You live conditionally, not deliberately.

Instead of making your autonomous way, by your own reckoning and deciding, you rely on others’ opinions and decisions to guide and direct you.

In your childhood and youth, such dependent behavior was necessary for your wholesome development, provided that those guiding and directing you were caring, intelligent and wise.

But comes the time of self-determination that rightly marks adulthood.  In our affluent society (for those fortunate enough) college is the gateway out of adolescent dependencies into self-determined adulthood on the road toward wisdom.

The liberal education that traditional colleges provide intends to liberate you from the vestiges of thoughtless social and mental conditioning by directing you to think for yourself, to examine all the assumptions implanted in you by the various conditioning forces of your previous upbringing.  College is your opportunity to follow Socrates’ famous maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  You rightly go to college to examine life more closely and thoroughly.

Although you may feel that it is you being examined—exam after exam, test after test, paper after paper—the true goal of college (often overlooked) is for you to acquire the various kinds of thinking skills that will let you discover for yourself how best to view the world and invest your life.  Those are the big questions: What is true, and what’s to do?

But college only initiates you into that great human quest.  The rest of your life continues this journey of world and self-discovery, moving you toward greater clarity of understanding and wisdom of decision.  Only that way may you live liberally as Homo sapiens sapiens.



To write a villanelle you need to scan;
That’s first among the many things you do.
Pentameters in iambs is my plan.

Now how to fill this long six-stanza span
With something that moves on yet circles too?
To write a villanelle you need to scan,

Scan more than meter, scan your mind now wan
But soon to brighten as new thoughts ensue.
Pentameters in iambs is my plan

Because I’ll do the kind that I best can,
And centuries have shown how well they do.
To write a villanelle you need to scan

The future and then all of history’s span
And, while about it, hell and heaven, too.
Pentameters in iambs is my plan

Because that’s where our poetry began:
What Chaucer did is what I’m bound to do.
To write a villanelle you need to scan
Pentameters in iambs, by my plan.


Thursday, February 10, 2011


Old man, you’re ailing and you’ve not a lot
Of time remaining on your journey’s way.
Your memory’s become a narrow slot
That views some blissful past, not yesterday.

Your many decades of self-centered life,
Your gambling, bullying, philandering,
As you’ve steamrollered through wife after wife,
Now leaves you loveless.  Do you feel a sting?

Has conscience finally opened up in you?
Does looking at your life bring you regret
And make you think of deeds you would redo
If now you could?  Or do you just forget?

     The blindfold of dementia saves you from
     A final reckoning of your sinful sum.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Cold-bloodedly I sat to write,
While it was still the black of night,
A verse that might be dark or light.

Since passion had not entered in,
With just mechanics I’d begin
And set this three-spoked verse a-spin

To let it roll on where it will
And watch it either end in thrill
Or calamitously take a spill—

Momentum gathered as it rolled
And all too soon I lost my hold—
The verse sped headlong, growing bolder
Zipping past the margin’s shoulder
Then crashed and burned where it would molder.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011


for Oscar, who asked

What is my religion?

What is a religion?

A religion is—etymologically—that which ties one fast; or—metaphorically—it is one’s binding principles, the premises of value one holds most dear, most exalted, most noble, most sacred.

By that reckoning, my religion is kindness, rooted in the idea of kinship.  To the extent that all living creatures are kin, they deserve to be treated kindly, as we would wish them to treat us in kind.

Hence the Golden Rule, declared sacred by religious teachings around the world, enunciates the prime principle of reciprocal respect and care, of mutual loving-kindness.

That is my religious ideal, when I remember it.  Trouble always follows my forgetting or ignoring it.  When sometimes I force my way on others, disrespecting their needs or their good, preferring what suits me over what serves them, then I fail to practice what I’m preaching here.

To respect and tend to others’ vital needs as well as to my own, to care for others’ well-being as I do for my own—that would be my binding ideal, that which I commit and continually recommit myself to act upon, always imperfectly.


Monday, February 7, 2011


Assume this: that the assumptions you make about human nature make all the difference in how you will experience your life, negatively or positively.

You might assume, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, that human life is nasty, brutish and cruel, if not always short.  Given that glum predisposition, you will readily find evidence and instances to substantiate your negative case, perhaps even citing the Old Testament tale of Eve and Adam’s fall from grace as divine testimony to our innately wayward nature.

More sunnily, however, you might, like Jean Jacques Rousseau and his fellow Romantics, assume the opposite: that we are born good, blessed with a disposition toward love and kindness, if only it is nurtured and encouraged from the start.

Unfortunately, the assumptions you have made may have been conditioned early on by the ways you and those near you were treated, either kindly or harshly; and therefore your early assumptions may be difficult to uproot and alter.  Such is the power of behavioral conditioning, particularly on the impressionable young.

Consider this, though (as the most revered and honored of the world’s wisdom teachings urge): that a life dedicated to loving-kindness, to the assumption of our natural goodness of will, is happiest, and that humanity’s professed “pursuit of happiness” can be satisfied only by exhibitions and demonstrations of humane, not harmful, behaviors.

While evidence abounds of manunkind’s atrociousness at our worst and the prevalence of mortal sins; the evident counter instances of charity, reconciliation, forgiveness and self-sacrifice attest to a nobility and godliness potential in our natures that, given opportunity and nurture, can redefine our nature fundamentally in ways that sanity prefers.

We are happy when we’re good.


Sunday, February 6, 2011


     for Duane Elgin

The universe is living, some now say,
Not only mystics but those scientists
Who study quantum physics’ disarray,
Where certainty recedes in cosmic mists,

Where only probability suggests
Where particles may be, and surety
Eludes the calculus of Newton’s tests,
Though space is made of thoughtful energy.

Just as each body’s microcosm lives
Informed by subtle energies throughout,
So something—call it pulse or spirit—gives
Aliveness to the cosmos round about.

Not only does our universe expand;
We see that it evolves, and feel it’s planned.


Saturday, February 5, 2011


I am coming to realize that my fascination with the topic of “human frontiers” has led me to overlook important implications and limitations of the frontier metaphor I am using.

What I have meant to suggest by studying “human frontiers” has been the idea of progress figured as a journey into unexplored and promising territories—on the model of America’s history of westward expansion and settlement, a movement symbolizing the increase of property and power for human exploits and exploitation, an exercise of human dominion and domination—literally the making of new homes (domi) for us to inhabit.

While Americans are most famous (or notorious) for our frontier spirit of adventure and advancement, of forward movement and progress—and our national history is imagined as an ongoing journey, even extending to the Moon and to planets beyond our solar system—that is a skewed view of reality.  That is only half the human truth.

Besides the human motive to journey onward like our pioneer predecessors, we also feel a motive to journey inward.  Human beings seek not only advancement but fulfillment, not only going but being, not just conquest but concord—being centered, stable, home.

T. S. Eliot’s famous sentence,

          You shall not cease from exploration,
          And the end of all our journeying,
          Will be to arrive where we started,
          And know the place for the first time.

is a sentence I now see as pointing us beyond the youthful, Western urge to make progress, toward the ancient Eastern sagacity of sitting still, peering inward, and meditating—passing beyond the immediate to the Ultimate and finding communion in Eternity.

This dual perspective of Yang and Yin is one that we human beings have long known and often forgotten until, over and again, we re-cognize what is wise.


Friday, February 4, 2011


One budding poet had a knack
That boded more than just a hack:
His metrics were impeccable,
His music sonorous and full,
His sense of rhyming was spot on,
As if led by a deft baton.

Predictably, he did aspire
To penning memorable satire,
To skewering dullness, folly, vice
In hopes his verses might entice
At least a few down Wisdom’s road
Where Reason, Care and Kindness strode.

But at the last he sadly found
That satire was itself unsound,
For all its savvy, wit and charm,
That making fun itself caused harm.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Call it the Fall, but somehow we are bent
To play the role of Earth’s chief malcontent;
We seem to be Earth’s cutting edge of change
While ruthlessly we rape and rearrange,
Shaping the planet to our fond desires
As envy, lust or greediness aspires.

Of all the changes we might hope to see
Affecting suffering Earth’s posterity,
The greatest effort and the one most kind
Would be an alteration in our mind,
For evolution on this planet means
More than the alteration of our genes:

Although to err is human, what’s more sane
Would be for us at last to grow humane.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


To write heroic couplets just like Pope’s
Lies far beyond the scope of mortal hopes;
Should anyone’s fond dreams today incline
That way, he must invoke some power divine,
Some sylph-like Muse to whisper in his ear
The rhythms and the rhymes blest poets hear,
For nothing less than supernatural aid
Can make sounds march like Pope’s august parade.
Each two-line unit strides with easy force
Or prances with the cadence of a horse:
The first line sets you up for the surprise
Of how the second rhymes, which then complies,
And his whole frame is crafted sound and tight
For both the ear’s and eye’s amazed delight.