Religious Poetry

I’ve been reading John Donne this week & consequently thinking about religious poetry. It took several years of Zen practice to enable me to go back to the Christian tradition of religious poetry. I’m writing a longer piece about these matters, but thought I’d post this song by rock & roller John Hiatt as an example of good religious poetry. One doesn’t expect to find a religious on a rock album, but there you have it.

Through Your Hands

You were dreaming on a park bench
‘Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat

[Chorus:]
And you ask, “What am I not doing?”
She says “Your voice cannot command.
In time, you will move mountains,
And it will come through your hands.”

Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts

[Chorus]

So whatever your hands find to do
You must do with all your heart
There are thoughts enough
To blow men’s minds and tear great worlds apart
There’s a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel’s hair.

[Chorus]

Moon Rise / Full Moon

I could see the full moon at 10:42 tonight through the tangle of maple branches heavy with leaves. It will be at least another hour before the moon clears the top of the tallest maple, by which time I hope to be asleep, though perhaps a little awake inside my sleep. That’s how I experienced the huge thunderstorm that passed through last night about 1:00 in the morning, & the robins’ dawn chorus as well.

Two Lucid Sleep Haiku

The robins began at four-thirty but did not
wake me up with their dawn singing.
How do I know the time?
They woke me inside of sleep.

Before the birds there was a violent
thunderstorm that woke me briefly—
it crashed & blasted inches from my face
on the other side of my window.

A Deceptive Lyric by Robert Hass

You thought it was just going to be about flowers. You thought it was going to veer into the dark that way. You didn’t know there would be history & geography. You didn’t think it would be a poem about poetry–or maybe you did. You love the way it slips sideways just slightly to deliver, not a punch, but the blow of a feather.

 

A Good Day (& A List of Four)

I wrote more lines of poetry today in two sittings that I have probably written in the last decade. A long set of “cantos” is just pouring out of me, assisted by some randomizing methods of composition. I had been tearing pages out of a first-draft notebook I use to jot down anything from grocery lists to lines of poems or to-do lists. The pages are perforated to make this easy & this notebook is not intended to be an archive–when something is no longer current or relevant, I rip it out, Some of these pages had diary-like passages that I wanted to preserve, but not where they lay in the notebook. (One of my great pleasures is starting a new notebook, which may be why I have six or seven half-finished notebooks lying around.) I tore them out & stuck them in an envelope, then I remembered those surrealist games in which poems are constructed by randomly collocating lines from different sources, which in turn reminded me of my teacher Donald Justice’s experiments with “chance procedures.” I pulled the pages out of the envelope, cut them up into more or less equal strips, then shook these up & put them in three enveloped marked A, B, C.

rhodia-2

I next opened a blank document on my laptop & began pulling strips out of each envelope in turn, transcribing & improvising freely, wadding up the strip & throwing it in the trash when I had gotten what I wanted from it, which was mostly a jog sideways into another diction or realm of discourse. I wrote for a little over two hours pretty much non-stop. I have never written this way, though when I was younger I used to write & revise three or four poems over the course of an afternoon. When I ran out of steam I had four pages of irregular three-line stanzas with enough material yet to digest to fill another page or two. Is all this talk of quantity unseemly? Could be, but I make note of it here because my writing valves have been so restricted over the last decade–never shut off completely, but often slowed to a thin trickle. As for quality, I know when I have written well & today I wrote well.

I think what prompted this outpouring today was:

  1. Lots more time on my hands to read & write,
  2. a desperate situation.
  3. Last night I spent an hour making some notes on poems my friend A. had sent me for comment. A. is one of my oldest poetry friends–one of my oldest friends of any sort–and though she lives on the west coast, we had renewed our friendship a couple of years ago at a meeting in Seattle. Reading & responding to her poems put me back in our old undergraduate poetry workshop’s frame of mind: Write a lot & share fiercely. I have become much less fierce in subsequent decades, but what joy to just dig into a poem to see what you find.
  4. A new sense of optimism about my cancer–not a miracle cure, just some new insights on how to manage it, both mentally & physically. (More about this in a subsequent post.)

Making Art (A List of Six)

What’s the point of making the collages, the drawings, or the poems I work on sitting up in bed beside the window overlooking the river? Well, I have been making poems my entire adult life, even making a profession of it, though I would prefer that word be taken in the sense of profession of faith. (Full disclosure: I have made my living as a teacher of poetry.) And I have made little visual things almost as consistently. So, even though I am now limited by my disease, why shouldn’t I continue?

And yet, reader, you know what I mean–Now that the end of my life sooner rather than later is a real possibility, why bother with these trivialities? This is the question, in a bleak mood, with which I began the first draft of this post last week. Here is how I answer the question, as of the middle of June, 2016:

  1. It is what I have always done.
  2. It distracts me from the bleaker aspects of my situation.
  3. Other people have found them pleasing.
  4. For the poems: I have been working on a book for more than ten years that I should have finished long ago & I now feel a particular pressure to bring that project to a close.
  5. Who knows? Perhaps there will be another book after that–I’m writing fast these days.
  6. For the collages & drawings: I couldn’t really stop if there were a reason to.

A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight–small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.1

 

title-m_brown_bk_sm-1

 

The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children’s poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title’s question–Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.

 

little cat_sm-1

little mole-sm-1

 

Little Old Cat
Little Old Cat
Where have you been?
To see this and that
Said the Little Old Cat
That’s where I’ve been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish
Little Old Fish
Where do you swim?
Wherever I wish
Said the Little Old Fish
That’s where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse
Little Old Mouse
Why run down the clock?
To see if the tick
Comes after the tock
I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical–from where to why–that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown’s poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man
Why do you run?
I’m just about done
You can put down the phone
Said the Little Old Man
That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat
Little Old Rat
Where have you been?
I’ve been under my hat
Said the Little Old Rat
That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where were you
When the shit hit the fan?
I was right here with you
When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea
Little Old Flea
What do you see?
I have been out to sea
Said the Little Old Flea
To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where have you been?
Why do you flee?
I have been out with the flea
Sailing over the sea.

I don’t make any great claims for this little piece. I’ve always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children’s language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.2 Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy–though that only dawned on me gradually–making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn’t magical, is it?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.
  2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”