Wednesday, May 02, 2012


A whimsical observation by the poet Howard Nemerov: "God loves the liberal thrice better than the conservative, for at the beginning he gave the liberal the three realms of water, air, and fire, while to the conservative he gave only the earth."

And old liberal like me might take a certain smug satisfaction from this epigram. I mean, who would not like to see himself as the apple of God's eye, even if God is only being evoked (as here) figuratively. And it is certainly true that I tend to drift with things impermanent -- the purling water in the stream, the "dapple-dawn drawn" falcon on rushing wing, the falling "blue-bleak embers" of the turf fire. The liberal is not unsatisfied with the ephemeral, with flux and finesse, with the smooth unfolding of a fluid future.

Water, air and fire figure often in Nemerov's work, as in the poem I wrote about here . "Things and ideas ripple together" he says in another poem, and that's what liberals prefer -- the rippling, the stirring, the brewing and the making. "Study this rhythm," the poet says, "not this thing."

But of course Heraclitus cannot exist without Democritus. I pick up a polished pebble from the path and turn it in my hand, taking reassurance from its solidity, its apparent permanence, its earthy isness. One might not be able to step into the same river twice, but the river bed endures. Nemerov says as much in the essay I quoted from above:
In this brief account I have stressed the liberal virtues and neglected the conservative ones, scorning the solids of this world to praise its liquids. That is not the whole truth, for how could you tell the stream but by its rocky bed, the rocks directing the water how to flow, the water -- much more slowly -- shaping the rocks according to its flow: But maybe I put the accent where I do against this world which so consistently in politics, religion, even in art, even in science, worships the rocky monument achieved and scorns the spring, the rain cloud, and the spark fallen among the leaves.
It is not, I suppose, an accident that we speak of the "liberal" arts. Every museum has a conservator, and rightly so, but without the arts there would be nothing to conserve. Creativity is a fluid thing. Flood, wind and flame are the creator's tools.