Ramon Sunico on AGAM

by Ramon Sunico
June 30, 2017 | Mt Cloud Book Shop

A long time ago I had a very good teacher, his name was Fr. Tom Green. He taught three subjects: Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Science and Prayer. We had good discussions, and in one of them, he asked “What does it mean for you to become a well-educated citizen?” (We’d like to think that’s what we are.)

It struck me what he said. He said “A well-educated citizen during this time” — and that was just the 20th century, a century ago — “should be as comfortable reading Scientific American as Shakespeare. And I’ve looked back and realized that our education system doesn’t do that.

So, that’s why when Red came to me with this project, I said “Oh good!”. School is great, we need school, but for you to be able to teach in school, you need to be able to break reality up into little boxes and then put people into those boxes. But when you graduate, you realize there are no boxes. Every time you use boxes you dehumanize. It’s not always wrong, you dehumanize for efficiency. Marx talks about how the division of labor emerged to create civilization. It’s important, but the point is that we should have the ability to recapitulate; to realize that these are just tools and we shouldn’t be overcome by the tools. We should use them. They shouldn’t use us. And that’s why when Red first talked to me about Agam I was very excited, because (1) It wasn’t made by school people, (2) it wasn’t interested in boxes, and (3) it wasn’t interested in jargon. As you know, once you’re in school, unfortunately the way school has evolved, (and I think wrongly) is, — success in school means mastery of jargon. The more jargon you know… in fact the jargon in literary criticism now is full of bullshit. It’s just crap. And it’s the same for science. One of the things Fr. Green taught me was this book—a classic—The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. If you like the word paradigm, this was the book that helped make it famnous. He basically says, the problem—well not the problem—the reality of science is that science is just a construct of the world. A scientific system is just a construct.

When people thought, the world was flat, it worked! They were not dumb people. These were people who discovered other countries. They had their great writers. They weren’t idiots. But their view of the world was that it was flat. All the truth they saw reinforced the “fact” that the world was flat.

It’s the same thing in literature. There are all these ways of looking at literature. There are all these tools of criticism, when mostly these just provide careers for the academics. At any rate, what I liked was that Red was proposing a book that brought us back to where we stand. We weren’t invited to be there as advocates. We weren’t invited to be there as academics. We were invited to be there as people. I think that was the purpose of the photo we were asked to write about. It was to remind the poets that the book wasn’t about the science; it wasn’t about the humanities; it was about life.

So, okay, I agreed. I am proud that Agam is the first anthology of literature on climate change, but in another sense, it’s also very old. And this is good. I want to show that this is one strain of nature poetry and writing-about-nature that has just developed because our lives have developed, have changed with nature as well. One of the greatest treatises on ancient science was written in verse, De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. This is also one of the earliest written accounts of atomic theory. Poetry and science were not separate. One of the great poetesses just before the Enlightenment was also a scientist, Duchess Margaret Cavendish . I blame schools for creating—well, there really is a fight now between the humanities and the sciences—for forcing people to choose from between the two. You know the “Gago ako sa science, kaya magaling ako sa art” or “Gago ako sa art, kaya magaling ako sa science.” It’s a false choice. All we can say is that we have bad math teachers and bad art teachers. A good teacher teaches you life, they don’t teach you just a subject.

So, what I’m going to do now is share with you just some poems to show how a good nature poem doesn’t separate the poet from nature. In fact, it affirms the poet’s rootedness in nature. I’ll give you an example just to show you the great tradition that Agam belongs to.

I’ll start with something as early as the 19th century. I was surprised when I took it up in class again because I realized how modern his point of view was. The other thing you should realize, of course, is that both poets and scientists have been accused of madness; the stereotype of the mad scientist. (Of course, we all know that poets are mad.) There is something about their being outliers that I found really exciting when they were put together in a book and you separate the extraneous and the jargon of it all, and just talk about the engagement with life.

It’s a hard poem because he was a great tinkerer with the English language. It’s also a prayer. It’s called “God’s Grandeur” (by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

This was before reinforced concrete, before a great concrete road system was made/envisioned by Le Corbusier.

Second stanza:

“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

See, this is “the job of a poet,” to speak of the world. This is Agam in the 19th century! “[T]he ooze of oil” was mentioned way before our oil crisis. We sometimes think of nature poetry as something out of The Sound of Music, all romantic and bucolic. But Hopkins’ poem is very aggressive. It breaks how we stereotype nature.

I’ll show you another poem by Bimboy Peñaranda, who’s one of the better nature poets around. It’s called “Meeting the Pacific.” I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sure what the poem means, but I like how it sounds. (Outside of school you can say that.)

Meeting the Pacific

After taking one good look at the Pacific
The traveler started walking towards invisible barrier
Where the waves kept rushing and crashing with great relief.
He walked across the beach: plots of sand and jagged rocks,
Tidal pools engrossed with creation in microcosm.
He just walked on and on towards inviting barrier
While egrets gleaned the flats, plovers skimmed sky from sea;
He moved closer and closer to the Pacific he hardly knew
Closer to the roar of ocean, the beginning of immensity.
His body knifed just below crest of oncoming wave;
He was lost for some time to successive rolls of blue thunder.
Octopus hunters with long spear-guns
Saw him swimming and frolicking at breakwater.
He stayed surf-bound about half an hour
Then walked back to shore, gathering stray feathers
Some birds might have lost at the shallows.
A hunter crossed his path near mounds of broken shells.
They exchanged greetings, shared meat of black urchins.
The traveler said that he came to listen closely to the Pacific.
The hunter answered: no one can fathom the sadness
Of beached whales or grasp wind-voices lashed to driftwood.
They talked about the burning of ironwood forests
In islands being mined for precious metals,
About the sanctuary for giant clams, the raid on pearl farms.
Speech acquired rhythm and poise.
Their presence quickened to touch of fire corals,
Spellbinding a Pacific without frontiers.

–Victor Peñaranda
Guiuan, Western Samar
September 1998

It’s so nice how he uses the Pacific as a setting for people who are discussing great human problems – of humans destroying nature for example. I love the irony he puts in it. Again, the great druidic ability to make the world one, to have a vision of integrity in a fragmented work. The ability to juggle many things at the same time is one of the reasons why I’m interested in poetry.

And, finally this last poem, it’s by Wendell Berry, it’s called the “The Peace of Wild Things.” Here, of course, he points to both poetry and nature as the true source of consolation.

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Thank you.