Poetry as Memory of God

Blogging should sound like talking to myself. But it’s not journaling becasue, while talking to myself, I’m also talking to you. The most “virtuous” (because I’m a virtue ethicist of my own behavior) thing I can do is help you, others, pay attention…to my own words, which I hope hold value for their thoughtfulness and to the Word of God. It’s what the poet, G.M. Hopkins invites himself and others to do: pay attention to the Kingfisher and the dragonfly, consider what they say. “Pay attnetion to what you pay attention to,” says, Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Well, If you’ve found yourslef here, in my clouster of the internet, you might have noticed…I pay attention to poetry. Why is that? I grew up with my mom reading it aloud. I studied it in university. etc (on my past experience). Most of all—and this is thanks to re-reading Hopkins just now— I hear Christ “lovely in [voice] not his.” I swim upstream of poets to the scripture they read. I remember God. Usually in by body. Today, it was with tears while reading Hopkins aloud. I get that I’m weird for crying at poetry, I accept it and you’re free to as well.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Beowulf, bro.

Robin Sloan:

The classic poem Beowulf begins with the Old English word “hwæt,” which has proven tricky to translate; it’s a call to attention, something like “hark!” or “behold!” Tolkien chose the musty “Lo!” Seamus Heaney, in his translation published twenty years ago—the first Beowulf I encountered—brought it up to date, opening with a winning “So!” Now, Maria Dahvana Headley, in a bracingly contemporary translation, does Heaney one better. Her Beowulf begins with—wait for it—“Bro!” Beowulf always was a little bro-y, wasn’t it? I love the way these translations speak to one another; neither Heaney nor Headley’s choices would be as appealing without the knowledge of what came before. Lo/So/Bro: a perfect progression.

Sloan’s commentary of casual Beowulf translation reminded me of John Gardner’s book Grendel. I read it for the first time last year and really enjoyed the rhapsodized re-telling of the Beowulf story from the point-of-view of the monster. Seems to me on the first reading to stand in the tradition of the unsettling groteesque characteristic of Flannery O’Connor.

After reading the book, I stumbled on some insightful commentary from Gardner in a letter he wrote to a group of young students. I appreciate when authors help readers understand their stories without nuetering the story.

Narrow Scope Anxiety

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Language Caught Alive

"Poetry is language caught alive"

Then just call me Joe Exotic and my verse cagey tigers.

Netflix jokes aside, I really dig this poetry resource. Poetry as 'performance', I think, serves to bring it out of the learned towers of academia and, in that way, breath life and longevity into it.

Some time ago, I was lucky enough to catch Dana Gioia at a poetry reading hosted by the Dallas Institute. That evening, I witnessed firsthand a master 'performative' poet recite his work to his guest. He looked down only once to his written material. Otherwise he spoke his lines as the living drama that they are. I can't help but think that poetry can act like a thin spot between something like Aristotelian particulars of people in a room (with one man's voice) and Platonic forms of heavenly, language flowers dropping their petals to the here-and-now.

Dana Gioia on what first drew him to W.H. Auden’s poetry: “Its music, its intelligence, and its great sense of fun.”

Lament vs Dispair

"No Time for Despair"

There's an interesting juxtaposition between

  1. Toni Morrison's "chaos contains...wisdom" idea of growth in despair
  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins poetic line, "Wisdom is early to despair."

Hopkins line comes from his poem "The Leaden Echo And The Golden Echo." In which, he seems to borrow heavily from the Hebrew poet Qohelet, who says this about his work of philosophizing and writing (making art you might say):

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun.

We have to recognize that this very act of Qohelet writing his despair is artful. As a product of his salty lament, a book was birthed titled ‌Ecclesiastes.

Toni Morrison, of course, had a very different lived experience from Hopkins (white, Victorian, priest (SJ)) and Qohelet (10th or 3rd C BCE, Hebrew, poet)1 for that matter. And yet, her case for finding wisdom in the midst of despair, harmonizes with the poetic tradition of lament.

Morrison seems to possess a righteous anger that keeps her from strict despair. Instead, she is thrust into lament—dispair with a vocabulary; hurt articulate in wail, "We do language." She gives voice to a primeval wisdom that speaks despair in the midst of chaos and rises on wings of hope into lament that sings. Wisdom rejoices in lament.

The ancient literature of Proverbs tells the story of wisdom in the midst of primordial chaos, in the beginning, at the birth of the world. Here Hokma is personified as the creator's first offspring. Like a protege marveling in the virtuosity of her master teacher, lady wisdom "rejoices" in the work!.

Prov 8, selected: 2

The Lord fathered/created (LXX) me at the beginning of his work the first of his acts of old...When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above...when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command...then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the children of man.

Here is a charge for the artists who weep for injustice and cry for the mercy of justice: In lament and despair, love beauty, make beauty, live and eventually die for beauty.

Like Neil Gaiman says:

Make good art.

I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

  1. 1 (Longman and Dillard, Intro to OT 280 ↩︎

  2. 2 (English translation from Hebrew by ESV Bible, using the alternative gloss for v22's "possessed.") ↩︎


By Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

The Visitation

by Malcolm Guite

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

The Spirit as...

“The Thought Fox”

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

—Ted Hughes

Prayer as Raid and Surrender

“Learning to Think”

There is the inner life of thought which is our world of final reality. The world of memory, emotion, feeling, imagination, intelligence and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time consciously or unconsciously like the heartbeat.

There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it.

And that process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn, and if we don’t somehow learn it, then our minds line us like the fish in the pond of a man who can’t fish.

-Ted Hughes, Poetry in The Making: An anthology

Sound of Sunlight

From Futility Closet:

Alexander Graham Bell believed that his greatest achievement was the photophone, a device that could transmit speech on a beam of light. The speaker’s voice would strike the back of a mirror, modulating a reflected ray. When the ray reached the receiver the process was reversed, producing sound waves.

“I have heard articulate speech by sunlight!” Bell wrote to his father in 1880. “I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing! … I have been able to hear a shadow and I have even perceived by ear the passage of a cloud across the sun’s disk. You are the grandfather of the Photophone and I want to share my delight at my success.”

That idea interested me to the point that I had to shake some of the imagined, unscientific particulars out of my head. Consequently, a poem fell out:

Laundry Day

In the sun’s setting shaft, lighted
dust and my mother’s voice I hear. My living
room full of it, which is skin, and it smells like soot
sweat, burned-out in glowing effigy. I fold. Her
voice: minivan ArmorAll and Twizzlers tasted
with Dolly Parton. Her Voice: heard over yellow
linoleum in the kitchen, greased black and scuffed. So
also, here and now it travels, as it did with car, dinner
steam, and curled plastic floor, she rolls into my ear
marbles into a black velvet bag, kept with a cinch. Leapt on
the sun stream while skating on the black
frozen pond of space’s pool, she phoned
me with light. The light and she
spoke in harmony; thus
they traveled well. Diamond-taught dance she
rasps from smoky lungs. Voice plods with camel
strength, breathed at speed, leaping
particles like lily pads
in order to sound, four
simple words, we know them well. “I love you, child,
so I’ll tell you what I just heard her
say, “Put away your socks.” Her
voice: A moth with lighting for wings
thundered thru the deep, one arc at a time.

What's in a name?

Their Lonely Betters by W.H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.