Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Poets: PJ Kavanagh

Educated in a monastery, poet, author and journalist P J Kavanagh’s early thoughts of becoming a monk were thwarted because he 'liked girls too much'. The Catholic influence though remains (he once appeared in Father Ted).

Kavangh said in an interview: ‘I want to express, without frightening the horses, that there is something about. It would be treason to deny it. Not something religious, that is a slippery word. Or spiritual. There is joy or hope. I think it's joy.’

The death of Kavanagh’s first wife, Sally, forms the backdrop to this poem’s description of finding grief mysteriously contained – and yet not removed. It is a wonderful, funny, poignant, but also hopeful piece about being met by this ‘something’.

Beyond Decoration

Stalled, in the middle of a rented room,
The couple who own it quarrelling in the yard
Outside, about which shade of Snowcem
They should use. (From the bed I'd heard
Her say she liked me in my dressing-gown
And heard her husband's grunt of irritation.
Some ladies like sad men who are alone.)
But I am stalled, and sad is not the word.
Go out I cannot, nor can I stay in,
Becalmed mid carpet, breathless, on the road
To nowhere and the road has petered out.
This was twenty years ago, and bad as that.
I must have moved at last, for I knelt down,
Which I had not done before, nor thought I should.
It would not be exact to say I prayed;
What for? The one I wanted there was dead.
All I could do was kneel and so I did.
At once I entered dark so vast and warm
I wondered it could fit inside the room
When I looked round. The road I had to walk down
Was still there. From that moment it was mean
Beyond my strength to doubt what I had seen:
A heat at the heart of dark, so plainly shown,
A bowl, of two cupped hands, in which a pain
That filled a room could be engulfed and drown
And yet, for the truth is in the bowl, remain.
Today I thought it time to write this down,
Beyond decoration, humble, in plain rhyme,
As clear as I could, and as truthful, which I have done.

(From Collected Poems, Carcanet Press 2001, and reproduced from here)

Summer Poets: Mary Oliver

I have no idea of the religious adherence of this week’s contemporary American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver (b. 1935), but the first time I read her poem The Journey I was deeply impressed.

I particularly enjoy the imagery of adverse climate, terrain and time (wind, earthquake, night…). This powerfully re-imagines in natural ways what the Desert Fathers would have called ‘the demons’. These are the adverse voices that attempt to sway us off our decisions, to prevent us from making any progress in our journey of discipleship.

In particular, one of the most powerful of these voices - and the most subtle - is the one which apparently calls on our compassionate desire to make others ‘whole’.

Oliver instead reminds us – as many others have, too – that Christ did not say ‘love your neighbour before yourself’, but ‘as’ yourself. While some of us have no problem focusing on our ‘selves’, others of us devote little attention at all to the most precious gift we personally have: our lives.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer poets: George Herbert

After an abortive career in what we would now call PR, and a short time as an MP, Herbert (1593-1632) left the heady world of politics for the role of rector in the countryside near Salisbury. During the three years before his death from TB he was known as a devoted pastor.

Here in one of his most famous poems, and climax of his work The Temple, Herbert combines the Old Testament story of Moses eating with God on Mount Sinai, and Jesus' hospitality to sinners, with the imagery of seventeenth-century courtly romance. Most strikingly, and in somewhat erotic imagery, God seems to be described in female terms encouraging a timid lover to take his given place and receive the intimacy offered.

Herbert gives voice to all those who feel unworthy of receiving divine love:

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

(This post is part of a series or weekly thoughts over the Summer)

Summer poets: Bono

The songs of U2 have reached millions of people, and Bono’s own faith permeates much that he writes. Here in ‘Miracle Drug’ he recalls a school classmate, Christopher Nolan, who had been deprived of oxygen for two hours when he was born, and so was born paraplegic.

In Bono’s own words 'his mother believed he could understand what was going on and used to teach him at home. Eventually, they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck. So they attached this unicorn device to his forehead and he learned to type. And out of him came all these poems that he'd been storing up in his head which won a load of awards and he went off to university and became a genius. All because of a mother's love and a medical breakthrough'.

Sometimes religious thinking confines God to the supernatural, or to the so-called ‘spiritual’. Bono reminds us that Christians ought to remember that God is active in every act of goodness – from medicine to a mother’s love. Everything which is good is a miracle. And so everything in our lives – at work, at home, at rest or in play -which is good, is of God. And nothing which is good should be overlooked.

Miracle Drug

I want to trip inside your head
Spend the day there…

To hear the things you haven’t said
And see what you might see

I want to hear you when you call
Do you feel anything at all?
I want to see your thoughts take shape
And walk right out.

Freedom has a scent
Like the top of a new born baby’s head

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough I’m not giving up
On a miracle drug

Of science and the human heart
There is no limit
There is no failure here sweetheart
Just when you quit…

I am you and you are mine
Love makes nonsense of space
And time… will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love…

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough of romantic love
I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, a miracle drug, a miracle drug

God I need your help tonight

Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear a voice
It’s whispering
In science and in medicine
“I was a stranger
You took me in”

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough of romantic love
I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, miracle drug

(Miracle Drug comes from the album How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb [2004]).

(This post is part of a series or weekly thoughts over the Summer)

Summer poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins (1844-1889), an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, wrestled with his sexuality, depression and physical ill-health, and burnt all his early poems on entering the Jesuit order. Only later did he have the confidence to explore poetry again, rediscovering a pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon ‘sprung rhythm’ and employing an idiosyncratic vocabulary.

Hopkins’ poetry can be hard to enter. Here, in one of his most famous poems, he explores the concept of ‘inscape’ – the idea that there is a profound revelation of God’s immanent presence in the un-forced self-awareness of each living thing: 'each mortal thing … / [cries] What I do is me: for that I came. … / … - for Christ plays in ten thousand places … / … through the features of men’s faces.'

The poem encourages us to attend gently to God’s presence: in nature (dragonflies and wells), in human craft (church bells) in our fellows, and in our own selve. When we do this in awe and gratitude we live gracefully (i.e. full of Grace).

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dr
áw fláme;
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 Wh
át I do is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
éeps gráce: 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.

(Poems. 1918).

(This post is part of a series or weekly thoughts over the Summer)

Summer poets: William Blake

William Blake (1757-1927) was a self-taught poet and artist, a revolutionary, visionary and eccentric whose work was largely ignored in his own day.

Like the man, Blake’s religion could be fairly strange, too. He was viciously critical of the corruptions of major institutions of his time including the Church, the State, marriage, slavery and urban capitalism. He also evolved his own (not always orthodox) view of Christianity.

Here in two short poems, Blake reflects on losing faith and finding it again. In the first poem a child loses sight of a ‘Father’ figure who turns out to be non-existent anyway (‘vapour’). In the second, the child is found again by a renewed sense of a God who is instead ‘ever nigh’.

In these little poems Blake speaks to us about how we grow as people of faith. Often we find we have to move on (by choice, or forced by circumstances) to leave the earlier forms of our faith behind, and to discover God afresh. Blake assures us that though we may leave ‘God’ behind (and feel lost), God is in fact really present and in a new and more intimate way.

The Little Boy lost

Father, father, where are you going
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
Or else I shall be lost,

The night was dark no father was there
The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
And away the vapour flew.

The Little Boy found

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
Led by the wand’ring light,
Began to cry, but God ever nigh,
Appeared like his father in white.

He kissed the child & by the hand led
And to his mother brought,
Who in sorrow pale, thro’ the lonely dale
Her little boy weeping sought.

(This post is part of a series or weekly thoughts over the Summer)

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