The first poetry I heard was in church.
I was baptized at St. Thomas Aquinas in the Austin neighborhood on the Far West Side of Chicago. I was twenty days old. It was the end of 1949, and I heard the words of the Catholic ceremony, those in Latin and English. Although I could not understand them, I heard their ritual rhythm, and I could see and feel the space in which the ceremony took place with its gleaming gold, its small burning candle flames, the art of Bible scenes, the brown wood pews, the blue and other colors of sun-struck stained-glass windows, the great width of the walls, the great height of the ceiling, the enclosed emptiness that was nonetheless full in some way.
For eighteen of the first nineteen years of my life, my family lived in a two-flat on the same block as that church. I spent every Sunday there and many weekdays as a schoolboy at the parish grade school, also on the same block. Later, I was there seemingly daily as an altar boy.
There was a poetry to the Latin ritual as there is to any ritual. The flow of foreign words also had the feeling of a mysterious kind of literary song. Soon enough, I came to hear and understand the words of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Those were my first and deepest lessons in poetry:
In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
And the earth was void and empty,
and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
and the spirit of God moved over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1:46-47)
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
I titled my second poetry collection Darkness on the Face on the Deep.
How I learned literature, how I learned art
The tone and rhythm and word magic that I heard in the biblical and ritual language is how I learned literature, just as it was through the church building that I learned art.
I could hear the biblical music underneath the words of the radio and television news readers, and, at twenty-two, I was able to write my own news words without training in my first job as a reporter at the local neighborhood paper, The Austinite/Northwest Passage. This continued throughout my journalism career, including thirty-two years with the Chicago Tribune.
Editors would routinely comment about how smooth flowing my stories were, carrying the reader along in a sprightly and engaging way through facts and interpretations that made clear sense. My lessons in biblical poetry, as well as in news diction and the poetics of prose, were responsible for that — those lessons, plus an unaccountable talent I was born with. Words usually fell easily into place for me.
Many other writers, many great writers, were shaped by biblical poetry, and, in my sixties, when I read with deep attention Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, I could see and feel his debt to the King James Version, and I could see how poetic his prose was. I took ten excerpts from the novel and put them in lines like free verse, such as this one about the death of a whale:
It was far down the afternoon;
and when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done:
and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky,
sun and whale both stilly died together;
then, such a sweetness and such plaintiveness,
such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air,
that it almost seemed as if
far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manilla isles,
the Spanish land-breeze,
wantonly turned sailor,
had gone to sea,
freighted with these vesper hymns.
Such “a sweetness and such plaintiveness” — this is the sort of poetry that I have always responded to, the poetry of great prose writers, such as Melville and Saul Bellow and Jane Austen; and the poetry of great poets.
Profound works of huge ambition
I don’t read a lot of poetry in the course of a week or month, but I do dive deep into profound works of huge ambition. I have lost myself, for instance, many times inside William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
There are great riches in the play, one of which is the attractive honesty of the dishonest Edmund who, after tricking his father Glouchester, turns to the audience to disparage the man’s belief in the influence of celestial bodies:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeit
of our own behavior — we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.
Ah, what a phrase: “the maidenliest star in the firmament,” contrasted with “goatish disposition.”
Moved far beyond constraints
I wrote a constrained sort of poetry in my twenties. When I returned to poetry-writing in my sixties, I was moved far beyond constraints by the suicide of my brother, one year younger. I found great inspiration in works such as King Lear, and others like it in their enormity.
For instance, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Footnote to Howl. The start of that second work fills me with joy, its ecstatic celebration of all and everything human, and all and every human being, is forever breathtaking for me:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
Holy Ginsberg! Holy poetry!
Poetry uninfluenced by the Bible
My luck has been to find, in my later years, these great works. Earlier in my life, especially during the years when I was working as a reporter and raising with my wife a son and a daughter, I lacked the energy and inclination to deeply examine these treasures.
Now, though, I have the time to look deeply into Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example. To look into many translations of each, and to listen to recordings of them.
This is poetry uninfluenced by the works of the Bible, a poetry that, like the Bible, has influenced millenniums of Western writers and continues to do so. It is a poetry that is rich and fruitful and delightful and mysterious at every turn. Such as these lines from the climax of the Odyssey (Book 22, 1-7) as translated by Emily Wilson:
Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,
he leapt upon the threshold with his bow
and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped
out in a rush before his feet, and spoke,
“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,
towards another mark no man has hit.
Apollo, may I manage it!”
I’m not sure that I like “Playtime” in this context. Yet, the imagery and rhythm of the lines, such as the “quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped/out in a rush before his feet,” are enthralling.
“You are not here to verify”
T. S. Eliot tapped into a wide range of literature in his poetry, as I’m learning, having only lately taken it upon myself to look deeply into his work. In his Four Quartets, there is a repeated phrase in the first part of the “Little Gidding” section that has inspired my own recent poetry:
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone….
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
“If you came this way.” If I came this way. If I come this way.
“All shall be well”
There is much here that I do not understand, and I think that is what I want in a poem, that which is not understood, that which, after thought and pondering, may offer some glimpse of meaning, yet will always be at heart inexplicable.
The third part of the “Little Gidding” section has two versions of these lines:
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
These I recognized immediately because they come from the great English mystic Julian of Norwich and have inspired me and my poetry in recent years. These are words that Julian reports were said to her by Jesus in a vision. “Behovely” is a Middle English word often translated as “necessary” or “appropriate.”
It is a conundrum since sin is to go against God and yet, here, seems to be accepted as part of the unfolding of God’s plan. Also, in a world in which the innocent are slaughtered and the evil find wealth, in a world of great pain and sorrow, how is it possible to say, “All shall be well, and/all manner of thing shall be well”?
This, I think, is part of why Eliot includes it in his Four Quartets. It is strange and murky and, nonetheless, resonant. The Catholic Church — and Christianity in general — has embraced this odd idea. The Exsultet, a song from the fifth century A.D. sung in the Easter Vigil, exults:
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
Happy fault. Happy sin.
What can’t be said
The conundrum of poetry, I have found, is to try to say what can’t be said. The same is true for anyone talking about God and religious faith. A poem that is crystal-clear isn’t a poem. Statements about God and the meaning of life and what happens at death and everything under the sky of theology are attempts to say the unsayable, to know the unknowable.
Over the past fifteen years, my poetry and my religious faith and my life have been enriched by translators and critics like Robert Alter who have written about the Bible as literature. They write about the Bible as a collection of works that were written by human beings, each of whom was trying to create something, a work of meaning and art.
Writing in the context of their times and their circumstances, they were trying to say something about God and the meaning of human life. Each writer — I know this because I am a writer myself — completed the work, knowing that it was incomplete, that it failed to say as much and as deeply as the writer wanted. Each writer knew that the work was only an approximation of what the writer understood which, itself, was only an approximation of what was true and real.
I am indebted to those translators and critics who have examined the Bible as literature, particularly those who have studied the book of Job. Job, a righteous man, is on top of the world, but, then, as a test, God sends the devil to destroy Job’s wealth, to kill his children and their families and to leave him sitting on a dung hill.
Job, although he has a reputation in modern society for patience, is far from patient. He complains to God over and over again that what has happened to him isn’t fair since he hasn’t sinned — at least, not much.
“Where were you?”
This goes on for a while, and then God steps back and, speaking out of a whirlwind, basically bullies Job into submission with two spectacular speeches that don’t explain Job’s suffering or divine justice or anything directly.
Instead, God tells Job essentially that he is too puny and limited to understand anything about God — that God is too great and beyond human experience that Job (and every other human being) has to just accept the mystery. Here are some of the lines from those speeches:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?…
“Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who gives the ibis wisdom
or gives the rooster understanding?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard
and the clods of earth stick together?” (Job 38: 4-11, 34-38)
When I was a child in church for my Baptism, the world and life were a mystery. Later, as I grew in strength and knowledge, I learned more about myself and my world, enough to make my way through the day among other human beings making their ways through the day.
I heard much in the Catholic schools about the meaning of life and about what I should do to live a good life. Later, in other schools and in human culture, I was told many ideas about the meaning of life and what I should do to live a good life.
But it is in the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of Shakespeare and Ginsberg and Eliot and Melville and other great writers — and the music of Bach and Mozart and other great composers, and the art of Michelangelo and Vermeer and Manet — that I have come closest to the mystery at the heart of everything.
And, yet, not very close.
Reason and logic are needed for life, but, for me, to seek the deepest meaning of things, they are useless. The meaning is only to be found in glimpses, as if with peripheral vision.
That’s what I find in great poetry. And that’s what I’m trying to create with my own.