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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hayden’

In 2010 I published this post which attempted to define the appeal of poetry for me. It probably reflects my deepest feelings on the subject more accurately than the rants republished earlier this week on brick-wall poetry.  

Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.

This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.

W. H. Auden

Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’

Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.

McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary, deals well with this issue of what great poetry does that’s different. He quotes Scheler (pages 341-342):

[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.

He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.

Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.

Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

What exactly are we to make of this?

At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken)  as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.

How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.

And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?

Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.

Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace.

The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)

On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.

Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game
: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.

Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.

Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.

It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.

George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.

But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens near Acre, Israel – a haven for Bahá’u’lláh in His last years

 

A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.

One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :

Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.

And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.

Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does I have scanned as the layout will be lost if I typed it in. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.

Scanned from 'Robert Hayden: Collected Poems - edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

Scanned from ‘Robert Hayden: Collected Poems – edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

hayden

Robert Hayden (Photo from John Hatcher, The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.)

Here he is attempting to capture the turning point in a garden in Baghdad when Bahá’u’lláh had arrived at the moment when He would make fully public the exact nature of His Station and Revelation. You can sense Hayden’s struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.

Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.

So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.

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[Poets] provide the images by which man moves into the future. (From Poetry and the Arts in Rebuilding Society by Duane L. Herrman – page 185 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

In January 2012 I published a sequence of posts in response to having read Matthew Hollis’s excellent biography of Edward Thomas. Given my having posted on Armistice Day his moving lyric Lights Out and given that this year is the centenary of the start of the First World War, it seemed fitting to republish the sequence now. This is the second of three posts: the first was published yesterday and the last will be published tomorrow. 

In the previous post, drawing on Matthew Hollis‘s absorbing account of Thomas’s last years, we looked at the blind wall Edward felt he was staring at in the dead end his life had become: hack work undertaken with gritted teeth between bouts of depression to support a family he could hardly bear to be with. Hollis goes on to look at the dramatic changes that took place in the less than a handful of years that remained to him. The story that unfolds has intriguing implications for me about the complex relationship between creativity, compassion and mental health and what better place to start my exploration than with the nature of poetry and the importance of friendship.

The nature of poetry and his relationship with Frost

Robert Frost (circa 1910). For source of image see link.

Robert Frost (circa 1910). For source of image see link.

When Frost came to England he was virtually unknown though he had been writing poetry for years. America didn’t seem interested so he came to England. It took some time for the two men to meet up but when they did one of the things that drew them powerfully to each other was a shared sense of what poetry is about: for both men the essence of a poem was in its music (page 73):

So when, in Frost’s favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear.  We can detect anger, affection, happiness and so forth because the cadence gives us a kind of sonic blueprint for the meaning and carries a communicative charge all of its own, This is the basis of ‘the sound of sense’ and its importance to poetry lies in the understanding that a line of verse can communicate tonally as well as through the literal definition of words. Patterns of sound and rhythm establish a tone or mood that the poem must work towards – or against – but to which it must never be indifferent.

It is important to understand that this did not mean the kind of hypnotic music of a Swinburne lyric:

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between wind-ward and lee,
Wall’d round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.

(From A Forsaken Garden)

Frost was after something altogether different. He related to (page 75) ‘Carlyle’s instruction to poets from 1840: ‘See deep enough, and you see musically.’

[But w]hat made Frost’s approach different was that he believed that it was the rhythms of speech – as opposed to music or traditional metre – that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense. It was a view  entirely counter to the times in England – counter to the ornate Victorians and the minimalist Imagists, counter also to the musical Georgians – and was born out of a trenchant belief that ‘words exist in the mouth, not in books’.

(ibid)

Robert Hayden

There was also something else that Frost valued (page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown’:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that be never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

Thomas was already convinced of most of this even before meeting Frost and before the countless hours they spent together debating the matter (page 84):

[Gibson’s] failure to deliver memorable speech in writing, his failure to fix an irresistible rhythm, his inability, to communicate tonally, was to Thomas an unconscionable breach of his promise as a poet: without cadence, a poem could only act upon the intellect and could therefore only ever be partially successful. Gibson was an example of the noble failure that Thomas perceived in his own prose and would seek to rectify when given his chance in verse.

Those familiar with this blog will readily recognise a theme close to my heart here. In the modern world, as Iain McGilchrist so convincingly describes it, we have sold our souls to the left hemisphere’s addiction to prose, which simplifies reality while making it seem reassuringly predictable. Thomas is having none of that when, as now, he is approaching his epiphany. He has been forced for too long already to be an unwilling dealer in prose, at great cost to his sanity and his family. He has been very close to suicide at least once. The force of economic necessity had played a powerful part in preventing his realising that he was really a gifted poet. He was soon to express in action his sense of what poetry could do to make his priceless but till then ineffable experience of the world more fully accessible in words.

His becoming a poet and the effect on his depression

The effect of Thomas’s recognition of his calling cannot be overestimated (pages 181-182):

A moment of gigantic personal significance was underway. It had been surfacing before he met Frost, but it had taken the year’s friendship for it to boil over. It would lift his spirits, deepen his tolerance, satisfy his life-long need to find self-worth. Never again would his chronic depression overwhelm him so utterly, never again would he think of himself as a mere hack. Not a different man, said Eleanor [Farjeon], but the same man in another key.

Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.

This calls into question any simplistic idea that his depression was the source of his creativity. It seems more likely that it was the result of ‘foiled creative fire.’ It also dents the notion two previous posts were exploring that being a great artist might in our culture inevitably entail high levels of self-centredness and low levels of compassion. Clearly this was not the case once Thomas found his true metier.

His realisation of this reality was not plain sailing though it was unbelievably rapid by any customary standards. Hollis shows us how important Frost was in kick-starting this process (page 190):

The draft [of ‘November’] had included phrasings that seemed either too precious or too trivial to the American, and Thomas was grateful for the ‘kick’ [from Frost] to set him straight. ‘The foot’s seal and the wing’s light word’, Thomas had written frothily until Frost advised against it, and helped him settle upon a phrasing that was altogether sturdier.

The lesson he had learned concerned more than the correction of that particular phrase: it showed that he had grasped an important principle behind the change (ibid.):

‘I am glad that you spotted “wing’s light word”,’ wrote Thomas appreciatively. ‘I knew it was wrong and also that many would like it.’ Knowing that many would like it and yet that it was wrong: in only his second poem, Thomas had tackled a challenge that all poets must address some time in their development ‑ namely, that popularity may need to be conceded for the sake of a better poem. It can take years for a young poet to learn the importance of that sacrifice, but it had taken Thomas just two poems in two days.

Is that fast, or what? He didn’t rest on those laurels for long though. Almost  immediately he made giant strides towards finding his own voice (page 191):

‘What did the thrushes know?’ . . . . There, in those five words, is a phrasing that is already and entirely Thomas’s own. The questioning, doubtful tone, the restless enquiry, the fallibility of a poet’s voice: these were already instinctively, distinctively, the voice of Edward Thomas.

And by the time he was writing ‘Old Man’ we hear  that (page 194), ‘It had taken a mere four poems for Thomas to find his voice.’

Even his tendency towards corrosive self-criticism was coming more under his control by the end (page 231):

‘I can’t help it,’ had been Thomas’s response, ‘but I can help personally-conducted tours to the recesses.’ It was a new realisation from Thomas: that he might now be able to control his descent into the worst areas of his depression.

The upshot is that that in the space of two short years Thomas had become a major poet as well as a kinder man. After his death (page 331):

[a] review in the Times Literary Supplement had singled out his contribution. ‘He is a real poet, with the truth in him.’ A second, in the New Statesman, claimed to know (but did not reveal) the author’s true identity: ‘His poems are better than his prose, good though some of this has been.’

In the next and final post we will have to deal with the implications of another process unfolding at the same time as this one: how Edward Thomas became a soldier and met his death. Was it that underneath it all he still wished to die, and rather than take his own life he enlisted? I think we will find it is all a bit more complicated than that. It is not easy though to be sure that it is the poetry alone that eased his depression.

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[Poets] provide the images by which man moves into the future. (From Poetry and the Arts in Rebuilding Society by Duane L. Herrman – page 185 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

In the previous post, drawing on Matthew Hollis‘s absorbing account of Thomas’s last years, we looked at the blind wall Edward felt he was staring at in the dead end his life had become: hack work undertaken with gritted teeth between bouts of depression to support a family he could hardly bear to be with. Hollis goes on to look at the dramatic changes that took place in the less than a handful of years that remained to him. The story that unfolds has intriguing implications for me about the complex relationship between creativity, compassion and mental health and what better place to start my exploration than with the nature of poetry and the importance of friendship.

The nature of poetry and his relationship with Frost

When Frost came to England he was virtually unknown though he had been writing poetry for years. America didn’t seem interested so he came to England. It took some time for the two men to meet up but when they did one of the things that drew them powerfully to each other was a shared sense of what poetry is about: for both men the essence of a poem was in its music (page 73):

So when, in Frost’s favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear.  We can detect anger, affection, happiness and so forth because the cadence gives us a kind of sonic blueprint for the meaning and carries a communicative charge all of its own, This is the basis of ‘the sound of sense’ and its importance to poetry lies in the understanding that a line of verse can communicate tonally as well as through the literal definition of words. Patterns of sound and rhythm establish a tone or mood that the poem must work towards – or against – but to which it must never be indifferent.

It is important to understand that this did not mean the kind of hypnotic music of a Swinburne lyric:

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between wind-ward and lee,
Wall’d round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.

(From A Forsaken Garden)

Frost was after something altogether different. He related to (page 75) ‘Carlyle’s instruction to poets from 1840: ‘See deep enough, and you see musically.’

[But w]hat made Frost’s approach different was that he believed that it was the rhythms of speech – as opposed to music or traditional metre – that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense. It was a view  entirely counter to the times in England – counter to the ornate Victorians and the minimalist Imagists, counter also to the musical Georgians – and was born out of a trenchant belief that ‘words exist in the mouth, not in books’.

(ibid)

Robert Hayden

There was also something else that Frost valued (page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown’:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that be never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

Thomas was already convinced of most of this even before meeting Frost and before the countless hours they spent together debating the matter (page 84):

[Gibson’s] failure to deliver memorable speech in writing, his failure to fix an irresistible rhythm, his inability, to communicate tonally, was to Thomas an unconscionable breach of his promise as a poet: without cadence, a poem could only act upon the intellect and could therefore only ever be partially successful. Gibson was an example of the noble failure that Thomas perceived in his own prose and would seek to rectify when given his chance in verse.

Those familiar with this blog will readily recognise a theme close to my heart here. In the modern world, as Iain McGilchrist so convincingly describes it, we have sold our souls to the left hemisphere’s addiction to prose, which simplifies reality while making it seem reassuringly predictable. Thomas is having none of that when, as now, he is approaching his epiphany. He has been forced for too long already to be an unwilling dealer in prose, at great cost to his sanity and his family. He has been very close to suicide at least once. The force of economic necessity had played a powerful part in preventing his realising that he was really a gifted poet. He was soon to express in action his sense of what poetry could do to make his priceless but till then ineffable experience of the world more fully accessible in words.

His becoming a poet and the effect on his depression

The effect of Thomas’s recognition of his calling cannot be overestimated (pages 181-182):

A moment of gigantic personal significance was underway. It had been surfacing before he met Frost, but it had taken the year’s friendship for it to boil over. It would lift his spirits, deepen his tolerance, satisfy his life-long need to find self-worth. Never again would his chronic depression overwhelm him so utterly, never again would he think of himself as a mere hack. Not a different man, said Eleanor [Farjeon], but the same man in another key.

Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.

This calls into question any simplistic idea that his depression was the source of his creativity. It seems more likely that it was the result of ‘foiled creative fire.’ It also dents the notion two previous posts were exploring that being a great artist might in our culture inevitably entail high levels of self-centredness and low levels of compassion. Clearly this was not the case once Thomas found his true metier.

His realisation of this reality was not plain sailing though it was unbelievably rapid by any customary standards. Hollis shows us how important Frost was in kick-starting this process (page 190):

The draft [of ‘November’] had included phrasings that seemed either too precious or too trivial to the American, and Thomas was grateful for the ‘kick’ [from Frost] to set him straight. ‘The foot’s seal and the wing’s light word’, Thomas had written frothily until Frost advised against it, and helped him settle upon a phrasing that was altogether sturdier.

The lesson he had learned concerned more than the correction of that particular phrase: it showed that he had grasped an important principle behind the change (ibid.):

‘I am glad that you spotted “wing’s light word”,’ wrote Thomas appreciatively. ‘I knew it was wrong and also that many would like it.’ Knowing that many would like it and yet that it was wrong: in only his second poem, Thomas had tackled a challenge that all poets must address some time in their development ‑ namely, that popularity may need to be conceded for the sake of a better poem. It can take years for a young poet to learn the importance of that sacrifice, but it had taken Thomas just two poems in two days.

Is that fast, or what? He didn’t rest on those laurels for long though. Almost  immediately he made giant strides towards finding his own voice (page 191):

‘What did the thrushes know?’ . . . . There, in those five words, is a phrasing that is already and entirely Thomas’s own. The questioning, doubtful tone, the restless enquiry, the fallibility of a poet’s voice: these were already instinctively, distinctively, the voice of Edward Thomas.

And by the time he was writing ‘Old Man’ we hear  that (page 194), ‘It had taken a mere four poems for Thomas to find his voice.’

Even his tendency towards corrosive self-criticism was coming more under his control by the end (page 231):

‘I can’t help it,’ had been Thomas’s response, ‘but I can help personally-conducted tours to the recesses.’ It was a new realisation from Thomas: that he might now be able to control his descent into the worst areas of his depression.

The upshot is that that in the space of two short years Thomas had become a major poet as well as a kinder man. After his death (page 331):

[a] review in the Times Literary Supplement had singled out his contribution. ‘He is a real poet, with the truth in him.’ A second, in the New Statesman, claimed to know (but did not reveal) the author’s true identity: ‘His poems are better than his prose, good though some of this has been.’

In the next and final post we will have to deal with the implications of another process unfolding at the same time as this one: how Edward Thomas became a soldier and met his death. Was it that underneath it all he still wished to die, and rather than take his own life he enlisted? I think we will find it is all a bit more complicated than that. It is not easy though to be sure that it is the poetry alone that eased his depression.

Read Full Post »

Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.

This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.

W. H. Auden

Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’

Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.

McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary, deals well with this issue of what great poetry does that’s different. He quotes Scheler (pages 341-342):

[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.

He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.

Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.

Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

What exactly are we to make of this?

At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken)  as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.

How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.

And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?

Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.

Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace, in fact the one worked on in prose in the previous post that grapples with an experience which speaks for the close relationship between poetry and song.

The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)

On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.

Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game
: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.

Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.

Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.

It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.

George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.

But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.

ridvan-garden-baghdad

Garden of Ridván, Baghdad

A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.

One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :

Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.

And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.

Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does cannot be laid out on the screen in exactly the same as it can be laid out on the page and it therefore loses something in the process. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.

Bahá’u’lláh in the Garden of Ridwan

Agonies confirm His hour,
and swords like compass-needles turn
toward His heart.

The midnight air is forested
with presences that shelter Him
and sheltering praise

The auroral darkness which is God
and sing the word made flesh again
in Him,

Eternal exile whose return
epiphanies repeatedly
foretell.

He watches in a borrowed garden,
prays. And sleepers toss upon
their armored beds,

Half-roused by golden knocking at
the doors of conciousness. Energies
like angels dance

Glorias of recognition.
Within the rock the undiscovered suns
release their light.

You can sense his struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.

Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.

So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.

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