Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden
Roger Housden chose 10 poems and wrote interpretations/meditations about how the message of those poems could change someone’s life, or their perspective. I like this idea and I like the poems he chose, especially the Whitman. The strength of the book is its explication of the poems, applying them to life and demonstrating how their ideas are life-affirming and empowering. The weakness is in over-repetition of the poems’ quality and obfuscating mystical language.
I often don’t understand mystical language. It makes me feel inadequate as a reader, first of all, but the sense of failure and inadequacy isn’t limited to that. It makes me feel like I have some sort of spiritual deficiency when I can’t quite grasp what is meant by this esoteric, unconventionally capitalized lingo. There’s a proverb that’s not in this book, but which encapsulates my frustration with mystical language: “Let go and let God.” Let go of what? Where exactly is the muscle I need to release in order to let go of this mysterious thing? And what is it I’m supposed to allow God to do? If I step aside to let God do something, where do I step to? The non-specific nature of the language is supposed to make it applicable to any situation, but it just leads me to confusion.
Sometimes this language makes me feel discontented with my life, with my relationships, with my spiritual practice. It makes me think I must be living a surface-level life, if I don’t recognize myself in this writing. That’s a scary thought: I never wanted to live that kind of life and be that kind of person. It makes me worry that I have “settled”–something I spent most of my teens desperate to avoid, mostly because it felt so inevitable.
Some of this talk seems perfectionistic, but instead of focusing on perfect possessions and accomplishments, it’s about having perfect feelings and perfect connections with others, perfect enlightenment, perfect oneness-with-the-universe, and even perfect messiness. I learned from APW and from therapy that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and of happiness. Outsmarting and yelling down my tendency to pursue perfection at all costs is probably the only reason I’m as happy as I am today. Focusing that perfectionism on such intimate matters as my deepest feelings toward myself and my closest friends is a really bad idea.
It frustrates me to hear people talk about “Pauline” conversions that seem to come from outside stimuli of some kind, sudden, unexplicable visions and dreams that come only to those who are properly open to them, ie. everyone but me. Housden describes at least two such moments in this book. These stories make me feel like all you can do is wait around for that perfect moment, and there’s nothing you can do to make it happen, no other way to cause profound inner change in yourself. This makes me feel helpless.
And the thing is, that I don’t think Housden and writers like him want to make people feel helpless. They want to empower and awaken. Maybe they need to dumb themselves down a lot if they are to do that. Some of the poetry of their writing might be lost in breaking it all down for us spiritually-disabled. But, after all, aren’t we the ones who need it the most?
I don’t know if it’s fair to call this a review. I’m generalizing beyond this book to fit it into a pattern of lots of different motivational and spiritual speakers and writers I’ve come into contact with over the years. There are passages in the book that explicitly say things against perfectionism, but I’m reading it in the opposite way because I’m so perverse today. This is more about me and my (hopefully temporary) spiritual malaise than about this book.