Grandma’s Thoughts on Poetry and the Self

My grandmother sent me this excerpt from Robert Johnson's Owning Your Own Shadow:

To reconcile so great a span as heaven and earth is beyond our ordinary way of seeing: generally, two irreconcilable opposites (guilt and need) make neurotic structures in us. It takes a poet [underlined in pen]--or the poet in us--to overlap such a pair and make a sublime whole of them. Who but Shakespeare could bring the airy nothing of heaven into consonance with the heavy reality of earth and give it a form that ordinary humans can understand? Who but the Shakespeare in yourself?

Take this and take that--and make a mandorla of them.

In your own poetic struggles you may make only the tiniest sliver of a mandorla that will vanish a few minutes later. Where is the inspiration of yesterday that was so thrilling? But if you repeat this often enough it will become the permanent base of your functioning. It can be hoped that by the end of your life the two circles will be entirely overlapped. When one is truly a citizen of both worlds, heaven and earth are no longer antagonistic to each other. Finally one sees that there was only one circle all the time. This is the true fulfillment of the Christian goal, the beatific vision so prized in medieval theology. The two circles were only the optical illusion of our capacity--and need--to see things double.

The accompanying note says the opening lines of my poem, Berkeley Hills Exodus, exemplified this to her. The poem is, indeed, all about liminal space, but the symbol of the mandorla was entirely new to me. It is a rare privilege for me to be part of a family that thinks deeply about poetry and life in this way--and has been doing so for generations.

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