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)