imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Graeme asked what I thought about Levertov's political poetry, and her commitment to addressing public issues in the public square. I think she answers the questions in this poem. As a committed poet she wrote out of her experience and when she became a political and peace activist then it was inevitable, and essential that her poetry would reflect that experience if it was to continue to be the authentic voice of the poet. And what this poem celebrates and demonstrates is the power of words to transform and renew, to articulate and to interrogate, to be instuments of justice and the building blocks of peace.
I read this poem yesterday, just after reading online the revelations about children being deliberately targeted by snipers in Syria. See here. Such egregious behaviour appals and outrages; more than that it encourages that most lethal of responses, despair. However. The image in my mind of a human being, staring intently through a telescopic sight, focusing clearly on the face of a child, and believing that by pulling the trigger he is doing something meaningful and praiseworthy for some morally insane master, is so revolting that despair is the last emotion I am likely to feel.
Against such images of the hidden sniper looking at a closeup of a childs face, and ending that child's life by moving his finger one inch, let poets write, artists paint, singers sing. The evil and irony that the word 'sight' can mean to look closely and see, and also to center a target for destruction, is precisely the ambiguity and tragedy of human life and language that perhaps the poet captures best.
Levertov's famous essay, and her book of the title, 'The Poet in the World' is a manifesto for engagement, involvement, commitment and an existential even visceral protest against all such inhumane practices. But, however inhumane, it is nevertheless a human being who pulls the trigger - and that is the tragedy of evil that has to be addressed, and by human beings who will not despair, will not be silent, and will not respond to such atrocity in kind.
The photo is of a burn running off Glen Dye, filled with melted snow water, and peaty brown. Had I taken time I'd probably have seen some small fish in it, but standing on the bridge looking down I was simply captivated by the play of light on water, the sound of water on stones, and the wild freedom of tumbling water as a sacrament of life and the extravagant brilliance of grace.
Which brings me to Denise Levertov once more. It's always presumptuous to say more than we know, even if we are getting carried away with our admiration and enthusiasm. I wouldn't dare suggest this is Denise Levetov's best poem, nor that it is the one which captures most faithfully her own search for that elusive inner acknowledgement we might call faith. But it is a poem she chose to begin her essay exploration of poetry as 'Work that Enfaiths'. And it is the poem that her biographer suggests has a clear autobiographical reference to her own faith journey. (Dana Greene, p 185).
In any case it is a poem which gives words to those recurring moments of fleeting uncertainty, that follow on the occasional encounter with God, and in which recognition, awareness and captured attention come as a gift for which we are unprepared. Second thoughts and rationalisations, the onward push of life's circumstances and the busyness of our inner lives, and the sheer elusiveness of the transcendent when we seek to recapture it, make such heightened joy hard to maintain over time. Perhaps because olrdinary experience tells us such extraordinary joy is too good to be true, whatever true means.
Few poets I have read combine Levertov's honest searching, persistent longing and determined doubting as a complex intersection of themes as Levertov does in her later poetry. And this poem, speaks to that condition when, in our most honest moments we confess, "Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief". The question which ends the poem, in its poignancy and possibility, is Levertov's version of what the author of The Colud of Unknowing meant by 'the dart of longing love.'
This is a beautiful poem.
Lord, not you, it is I who am absent. At first belief was a joy I kept in secret, stealing alone into sacred places: a quick glance, and away -- and back, circling. I have long since uttered your name but now I elude your presence. I stop to think about you, and my mind at once like a minnow darts away, darts into the shadows, into gleams that fret unceasing over the river's purling and passing. Not for one second will my self hold still, but wanders anywhere, everywhere it can turn. Not you, it is I am absent. You are the stream, the fish, the light, the pulsing shadow, you the unchanging presence, in whom all moves and changes. How can I focus my flickering, perceive at the fountain's heart the sapphire I know is there?
Dana Greene's biography of Denise Levertov is both a labour of love and a significant work of contextual literary criticism. For the first time I've found that some of Levertov's poetry is dated and placed exactly in the life circumstances she was facing, which makes the biographical details at times harshly revealing of her vulnerability, relational crises, insecurity and yet; which also show us the slow, even late maturing of one whose late poetry became expansive towards that in ordinary life which gives life its mystery, and that which is transcendent which gives that mystery teleological significance.
This was a woman searching for meaning. All her life also a woman hungry for approval yet determinedly independent, disinterested in the claims of traditional faith expressions but moving, perhaps drawn inexorably, towards a vision of God and the world in which her primary concerns for justice and peace, wholeness and purpose, human brokenness as a given and human wholeness as a journey towards rather than a destination reached, all came together in a fusion of horizons. Out of that fusion comes some of her very finest poetry.
Readers of this blog know Levertov is in my canon of writers whose words take with utmost seriousness the role of the poet as the one who enables to see, and as one who believes the imagination is one of the most powerful moral forces of the human mind.
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing He's made Sing his being simply by being The thing it is: Stone and tree and sky, Man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing He's made, Means a storm of peace. Think of the atoms inside the stone. Think of the man who sits alone Trying to will himself into the stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing He's made There is given one shade Shaped exactly to the thing itself: Under the tree a darker tree; Under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made The things that bring Him near, Made the mind that makes Him go. A part of what man knows, Apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing He's made.
I've been reading Wiman for a few years now. This is a poem that needs little comment other than to hear the author read it here.
This comes from an astonishing interview with Wiman recalling his life growing up in Texas. If you want to hear the full interview with Krista Tippett it's over here.
As a taster of how this remarkable man's mind works, here's just one quote:
I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at
one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when
I think of all of this energy that's going on, all of these different
people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I
think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order
that faith can take new forms.
The photo above was taken on Inverbervie beach - those smooth, sea shaped stones are amongst my favourite things in Scotland. I can happily meander along that rocky beach taking pleasure in the coulours, shapes, arrangement and sound of those stones being pushed and pulled by the waves. The phot below is of another of God's creatures who likes the same beach.
Time for a mary Oliver poem. In fact this week I'll post a poem a day from my favourite poets. Hard to reduce them to seven, and I wouldn't want to say that these this week are the top seven - but they are seven I read often, sometimes deeply, and seldom disappointingly. I'll indulge myself by combining the poems with a photo - not because the photo holds a candle to the poem, just because I...well, just because!
This first poem is like the flip side of a Psalm of Lament. Often enough I'm a sharp eyed observer of life's apparent negatives; a conscientious barometer of my own inner climate; an alert listener to the background noise of life to hear the rumbling bass more clearly than the melody. And this poem, like many of Mary Oliver's, is a perspective changing poem, an equilibrium restoring poem, a rhythm of words and syntax of lightness that awakens gratitude.
Mindful, Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
On a different note entirely, well maybe not entirely different - see here
And there the poem ends. And this unfinished poem is the beginning of a remarkably moving, wise and luminous book. Christian Wiman is a poet critic and a poet whose writing sometimes sounds as if each word is melded onto metal like arc welding. The image is deliberate; in his latest collection, Every Riven Thing, Wiman's poetry flashes with quite remarkable intensity, urgency and honesty in the face of human mortality.
This is Wiman's first published collection since he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and given a future with just enough hope to make each day a gift, and each tomorrow precariously uncertain.
There comes a time when time is not enough: a hand takes hold or a hand lets go; cells swarm, cease; high and cryless a white bird blazes beyond
itself, to be itself, burning unconsumed.
Poem after poem, Wiman looks straight into the ambiguity of things and the contingency and givenness of circumstance, the fragility and tenacity of our hold on life, and tells what is seen, or not seen. What gives these poems their unsettling potency, also ironically makes them vehicles of hope and future possibility. Wiman believes in God. But forget faith as panacea, or God as postulated rescuer. This is faith rooted in a willed agnosticism about the providence and purposes of God. God is not the answer, but the question; God is not the solution, neither the problem. God simply is, but is to be trusted. There is a 'though he slay me yet will I trust him' defiance in some of these poems that carries far more authentic currency than thick volumes of so called Christian poetry. Here's a sample:
This Mind of Dying
God let me give you now this mind of dying
fevering me back
into consciousness of all I lack
and of that consciousness becoming proud:
There are keener griefs than God.
They come quietly, and in plain daylight,
leaving us with nothing, and the means to feel it.
My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language
to a fear that I can bear.
Make of my anguish
more than I can make. Lord, hear my prayer.
Rarely have I read 21st century poetry that comes so close to the best metaphysical poetry of the 17th Century. George Herbert would have been proud to write that, except I doubt there was an ounce of pride in that country parson. But here is a poem that is complaint and prayer, lament and petition, human voice and words seeking divine understanding and help. It is hard to imagine a more luminous darkness than is contained in those 11 lines of a heart's suffering, having had enough.
I've always argued that the finest poetry takes us nearer the pastoral realities of Christian ministry than most any other literature. Reading that poem we are allowed to look inside a heart afraid to trust and afraid not to, anguished at the thought of death and holding on to hope in the God who accompanies the grief - an d we rightly take of our shoes, and kneel. This is poetic truth distilled from a courageous soul. Another poem, 'Hammer is the Prayer', which begins, 'There is no consolation in the thought of God', then works towards precisely what consolation there kight yet be, and finishes with the couplet:
peace came to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.
If I were to attempt any summary of these diamond cut poems, these two lines would have to do. They are the poet's own words, and as he goes on living, writing, fighting and working, may he know 'peace nonetheless'.
( This book is not reviewed for the publisher or any Journal - it's reviewed here simply because I think his work deserves to be better known.)
One of the great blessings of reading is knowing where to find those writers who speak to our condition. And within the work of a favourite writer one or two lines which say more in few words than we could say in an entire volume. Mary Oliver is a good companion just now. And the poem below speaks of many things, but particularly the risk and cost of love; the temptation to play safe; the fear of commitment; and then the reckless rushing towards joy that may only come once in your life.
And the command, for that's what it is, to row towards the waterfall, is one of the most telling metaphors I know for the precarious risks of life's ultimate commitments. Risk aversion is the way to loneliness and diminishment in human relationships; even risk assessment betrays a caution that avoids the white water rapids in favour of drifting with the safer currents. When it comes to following Jesus, I could well hear him say, when you hear the roar and rumble and taste the mist, "Row, row for your life towards it!"
West Wind #2
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
George Herbert's hymns are so old fashioned they are almost forgotten, not just out of favour but out of sync with
current taste and preference. His poem King of Glory, King of Peace recalls a spiritual atmosphere and
intensity of devotion requiring more of us than our usual contemporary
attempts at dumbed down intimacy and informal conversation with One who is Holy
Love, both transcendent and immediate.
It's a hymn best sung in a cathedral, a place where beauty and light, architecture and acoustics, give visual and aural expression to the same sentiments of devotion. And it should be sung with that restrained politeness that in Anglican spirituality comes near
to the spiritual quality of courtesy and quiet gratefulness, not
spiritually greedy or emotionally ambitious, but showing that quality of
balance that makes Herbert's poetry such a fine example of what he
himself called "my utmost art".
The structure of the poem is both simple and flawless; the rhythm is as easy as breathing; the only word of more than two syllables is 'eternity's', and it's always reckless to assume such conceits are unintended in Herbert - the longest word for the vastest concept; Praise, thankgiving, petition, confession and dedication are forms of prayer represented in lines that are brief arrows of devotion; and the encounter is intimate without being familiar, the personal pronouns of address showing the fusion of humility and confidence, which together make up trust. It is a beautiful hymn, a technically brilliant poem, and one of my favourite personal prayers:
King of glory, King of peace,
I will love thee;
and that love may never cease,
I will move thee.
Thou hast granted my request,
thou hast heard me;
thou didst note my working breast,
thou hast spared me.
Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.
Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee;
in my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort
to enroll thee:
e'en eternity's too short
to extol thee.
Amongst the more amusing forms of serendipity is to do a search on Amazon. A search for the more recent books published on George Herbert is a case in point. As well as the 17th Century priest poet there are works by the American social philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead, himself an influential thinker around areas of pragmatism and social behaviour. The juxtaposition of Anglican country parson and a philospher contemporary with Tiffany Glass and Art Nouveau is odd enough. But then a few items further down come books about George Herbert Walker Bush, previous President of the United States, and father of the other George W Bush who was also U S President, and the inevitable collision of ideas that happen when world views are a couple of universes away from each other.
I'll get to the point in a minute. Amongst my favourite books on the Bible and Art is Painting the Word by John Drury. That is a fine book which opened up a lot of windows when I was trying to get a handle on the role of Art as a form of biblical exegesis and as evidence of how biblical texts were received and interpreted through the centuries. So when I put in George Herbert and came across the social philosopher and the two previous Presidents, I also discovered that John Drury has a full length monograph coming on the poetry of George Herbert. The description on Amazon says:
For the first time, John Drury convincingly integrates the life and poetry of George Herbert, giving us in Music at Midnight the definitive biography of the man behind some of the most famous poems in the English Language.
That I think is saying too much too soon. Others have convincingly integrated the life and poetry of Herbert, including Amy Charles, Helen Vendler and my favourite by James Boyd White, "This Booke of Starres". Still, a New Testament scholar who is immersed in Christian Art and Christian text, and who has spent decades reading and working through Herebrt's "The Temple", is a good choice of critic and expositor. So I'm looking forward to reading this latest addition to some of the more thoughtful and accessible treatments of Herbert's "utmost art".
Here's another of the better known poems, familiar to those who still sing old hymns, and for whom daily holiness is found in the ordinary services and courtesies of human exchange:
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, "for thy sake,"
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
The quaint complexity, spiritual inensity and metaphysical reach of George Herbert's poetry have made him one of the most popular devotional poets in the English tradition of religious poetry. In the 19th Century he was printed and re-printed in all kinds of editions, from the leatherbound deluxe to the small popular fit in your pocket devotionals. I have several copies, of various ages and values, and I try to resist the temptation to pick up others as they are published, or older ones with their copper plate illustrations, extravagant fonts and decorated pages.
The critical edition by Helen Wilcox, published by Cambridge a few years ago, and costing an arm and a leg in hardback ( in my case a gift from Sheila) but mercifully now available at an affordable paperback, is definitive. The introduction, critical notes and comments demonstrate the editor's easy expertise in the history, culture and religious thought of the 17th Century, and as a reader who loves the poetry enough to be a true critic - wise, informed, erudite and generous in the rich flow of information and comment.
The Everyman Edition is a lovely volume, as the new Everyman volumes are - clothbound, high quality paper, clear print in a good sized font, and again good introduction and notes full of information. And in hardback at £12.99 almost one tenth!! of the cost of the hardback Cambridge Edition.
The Editor is Ann Pasternak Slater - her middle name one of the celebrated names of Russian literature - she is Boris Pasternak's niece. Describing Herbert's capacity to take ordinary things and discern eternal significance, and commenting on his phrase 'heaven in ordinarie', she says, "The commonplace is not merely capable of sanctity; it is what can most easily explain the transcendent to us".
Only a few of Herbert's poems are anthologised these days; understandable for a writer whose every line is resonant with biblical words, ideas and associations, and whose every other line alludes to Christian experience, or classical reference, or theological or liturgical connections. Take the poem below; replete with suggestion yet no active verb - he never says what prayer IS. But every clause is a facet glinting with possibility and hesitant insight. If you know it, enjoy it. If you haven't come across it before, enjoy it. Maybe, when all is said and done, the most we should hope for in our prayers is that there is "something understood."
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.