Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Philosophy, Time & Poetry

Time is a tricky thing to grasp.

Intellectually, I mean. It is easily measured in objective terms, but hard to nail down philosophically. A simple example is how tricky it is to define the present, because time, as the hymn says, "like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away". That is, it moves forward so that there is, in a sense, never any "now" that can be pinpointed.

Experientially, time is trickier still.

A philosophy professor of mine noted how time "slows down" when an athlete is in the zone. That's an experience most athletes have experienced, how the intensity of the sport (particularly competition) puts a focus on that time. I think I remember the six minutes of rowing races more than the sixty hours of practice that preceded those.

People remember their wedding day, the birth of a child, intense experiences of joy as well as grief (particularly violence) in a special way. So while we know time is linear, we don't quite experience that way. Wasn't it Poe who called sleep "little slices of death"?

Another poet, the subject of recent postings, has some great insights to offer. Again, here is Richard Wilbur, this time in the recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, a subscription of which my most excellent sister gave as a welcome to Manhattan gift:


by Richard Wilbur (New Yorker, January 5, 2009)

Out of the snowdrift

Which covered it, this pillared

Sundial starts to lift,

Able now at last

To let its frozen hours

Melt into the past

In bright, ticking drops.

Time so often hastens by,

Time so often stops—

Still, it strains belief

How an instant can dilate,

Or long years be brief.

Dreams, which interweave

All our times and tenses, are

What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,

Coming to us now as if

Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,

All the living and the dead

Meet without surprise.

What has your experience been -- has an instant ever dilated for you? Or long years been brief?

Maybe we'll look again at this poem from another angle. But what he says about time has a lot of truth. On the theme of heaven and infinite time (or eternity beyond linear time), I have always been amazed to ponder the last verse of Amazing Grace: "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise, then when we first begun."

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