Sarah of dVerse asks us to choose a poem we’ve read over the last year and write a response to it in conversation, as it were, with its preoccupations. I’ve chosen John Updike’s “Fine Point,” written just weeks before his death in January 2009. His consciousness of our tainted public and personal history, and faith’s endurance as he alludes to Psalm 23, is what engages me most. And so my response, “En Pointe.”
What divinity is this that tempers our clay
with hammers of wrath expended on temple,
church, in our uneasy play with pagan tunes
of lust? Even as we covet our neighbor’s lamb
we would sing tuneful papyrus songs in our Babylon
with lyres hung under willows, calling out as children
“Abba, Father,” knowing we are heard by the Name
of One who bore the curse of our sinful rebellions.
O Son of David, thou whose lips have tendered infinity –
“It is finished” — mercy and justice united — blood
spilled and body spent on the cross so that Surely—
yes, “surely”— and all the days of my life wilt thou
pursue — not merely “follow”— poor substitute
for the ancient tongue which reaches out in mercy
as unbounded as a lover’s song of songs to me
now to dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. Selah.
Since my last poem, “October Fire,” I encountered “The Bright Field” by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest of the last century. It’s theme of illumination is so allied to mine (though its poetic genius far eclipses mine) that I’d like to share it with you, that it might enflame and brighten your heart with hope. We are living in times that make us distrust the very leaders and experts that vie for our trust, and suspect the motives of those who claim to speak for the general welfare, for the sick, the poor and the oppressed. Our hopes have been misplaced if they have been placed on men and women. In the days leading up to our national election, let us pray that many will turn to the only true source of hope, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and reach out again to their neighbor on every street and every corner with grace and love.
There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.
Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.
Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.
And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.
Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.
Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.
It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.
Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)
I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, Eyes — I wonder if It weighs like Mine — Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long — Or did it just begin — I could not tell the Date of Mine — It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live — And if They have to try — And whether — could They choose between — It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long — At length, renew their smile — An imitation of a Light That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled — Some Thousands — on the Harm — That hurt them early — such a lapse Could give them any Balm —
Or would they go on aching still Through Centuries of Nerve — Enlightened to a larger Pain – In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told — There is the various Cause — Death — is but one — and comes but once — And only nails the eyes —
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold — A sort they call “Despair” — There’s Banishment from native Eyes — In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind — Correctly — yet to me A piercing Comfort it affords In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross — And how they’re mostly worn — Still fascinated to presume That Some — are like My Own —
Isaiah 53: 2-5
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
A well-crafted poem, if I may borrow from a most famous one, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Yet a heart of stone can melt from one ill-composed, written in a child’s hand or a lover’s, with clichés and popular idioms. The eyes of love give flight to crippled syntax as it is read, and it is treasured beyond its worth.
But it’s risky business. An ill-timed laugh or a careless reception and it’s more than paper that’s shred apart. So what is it about writing poetry, particularly love poetry, that drives us to actually take the risk and make the effort to do it? Why commit such expressiveness of emotion to printed paper or screen and endow it with longevity far beyond its expiration date when beloved eyes can no longer see and it lies discarded, bequeathed to disinterested strangers?
Every prisoner who can look outside his prison bars and see a bird in flight, or on waking hears its song, feels his heart drawn upwards in hope. So do those on beds of pain or suffering. The simple sight or music of birds accomplishes what songs and sermons cannot at times, wordlessly drawing our thought to heaven, to consider the power, the wonder, the love of God for His creation, even the least of us. “Consider the ravens,” said Jesus, pointing out the most common of birds. “They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24)
After my half year of blogging, my fellow bloggers have made me appreciate anew how many words are “set free” to reveal inner worlds, many of which have enhanced mine. Thanks to those like WalliesWentletrap.com who have made 2014 a memorable year with their “words” – pressed or wrinkled! And a Happy New Year of blogging!
Wallie on Words
If words go in one ear and out
With all the meaning left without
How sad it is for little words
To know they are not ever heard.
How sad for letters black on white
To know their only hope is sight
And yet it’s lovely too, that we
Can speak the words, and set them free.
I know October hasn’t gone yet but the nostalgia, the sentimental overload of years gone by has settled itself in my thoughts like that old Johnny Mercer song …
And when October goes The snow begins to fly Above the smoky roofs I watch the planes go by The children running home Beneath a twilight sky –
… and I have to shake my head to clear out the old mists and let the chill winds blow through me and bring me back to the present, new days, new breezes, new moments which go by too fast but will be savored in later years.
Yet as October goes, I can’t help but linger in it just a little longer, because there have been mornings when I’ve walked with someone “through the parables of the sunlight and the legends of the green chapels,” when the presence of that person beside me – in that moment, in that time – has impressed itself upon me because of the added presence of Another, an unseen Presence, all-encompassing and immediate, who in His infinite grace, mercy, and inscrutable wisdom had ordained that moment from all eternity, and there is nothing like the autumn sunlight to cloak it all in golden mystery. Relived, it becomes a golden moment once again, lost only to be recaptured as a foretaste of what yet awaits in that promised golden time still to come, and I think Dylan Thomas, for one, would understand.
Poem In October
It was my thirtieth year to heaven Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood And the mussel pooled and the heron Priested shore The morning beckon With water praying and call of seagull and rook And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall Myself to set foot That second In the still sleeping town and set forth.
My birthday began with the water- Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name Above the farms and the white horses And I rose In rainy autumn And walked abroad in a shower of all my days. High tide and the heron dived when I took the road Over the border And the gates Of the town closed as the town awoke.
A springful of larks in a rolling Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling Blackbirds and the sun of October Summery On the hill’s shoulder, Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly Come in the morning where I wandered and listened To the rain wringing Wind blow cold In the wood faraway under me.
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour And over the sea wet church the size of a snail With its horns through mist and the castle Brown as owls But all the gardens Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud. There could I marvel My birthday Away but the weather turned around.
It turned away from the blithe country And down the other air and the blue altered sky Streamed again a wonder of summer With apples Pears and red currants And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother Through the parables Of sun light And the legends of the green chapels
And the twice told fields of infancy That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine. These were the woods the river and sea Where a boy In the listening Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide. And the mystery Sang alive Still in the water and singingbirds.
And there could I marvel my birthday Away but the weather turned around. And the true Joy of the long dead child sang burning In the sun. It was my thirtieth Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon Though the town below lay leaved with October blood. O may my heart’s truth Still be sung On this high hill in a year’s turning.
—-Dylan Thomas (1914)
(On this his 100th birthday, listen to Dylan Thomas read his poem and be sure to check out an accompanying slideshow of what the poet saw.)
William Blake, writing in the eighteenth century, was an unusual fellow (take a close gander at his drawing above), a printer by trade and a great poet by vocation. He quite unaffectedly combined in his person and poetry a certain childlikeness that can catch you off guard with its pointedness, like a child’s penetrating stare, a sharp goad to the smug and self-righteous. The above poem is an instance of this.
For starters, “The Clod and the Pebble” makes you wonder at the order of the stanzas, whether they weren’t inverted accidentally in the printer’s press. Why, after all, let the Pebble have the last word? Why not the inglorious Clod? But that wouldn’t be Blakean at all! Imagine a child fed at Sunday School the sweet word of God by one in the robe of authority who sees that same one later in the week intemperately cursing the day an incorrigible brother was born. Which impression is the lasting one? Which would it be to you? It was hardly random that Blake chose to include this poem in his Songs of Innocence and Experience collection under Songs of Experience.
The deceptively simple verse leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, like the world usually does, like worldliness in ourselves when we catch ourselves at it.
It makes me wonder too, as I walk the road of sanctification as we all must as Christians, how far down the road have I come? Am I still more of the Pebble than the Clod?
And one last thought. Doesn’t the last word of the poem resonate with a particularly fine invocation of Satan’s response to God’s creation of Eden?