Here is a cartoon for the literarti. Since Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels, I am amused by the therapeutic intervention for the Raskolnikov-figure below.
Source: The New Yorker (November 12, 2018)
Here is a cartoon for the literarti. Since Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels, I am amused by the therapeutic intervention for the Raskolnikov-figure below.
Source: The New Yorker (November 12, 2018)
In The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson memorably writes about his vocation, which combines the pastoral ministry and poetic office. Mindfulness about the conditions of space (topo) and time (kairos) are just as important, he says, as mindfulness about the holy mysteries:
I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.
Place. But not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map — with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall. I do all my work on this ground. I do not levitate. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Get to know this place.
Time. But not just time in general, abstracted to a geometric grid on a calendar or numbers on a clock face, but what the Greeks named kairos, pregnancy time, being present to the Presence. I never know what is coming next; “Watch therefore.”
I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready: “The time [kairos] is fulfilled . . . ” Repent. Believe.
Staying alert to these place and time conditions — this topo, this kairos — of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding that I thought it would be. But Montana gave a grounding for taking in the terrain and texture of the topo. And John of Patmos showed up in New York City at the right time; the city was a midwife to assist in the birthing, at my come-to-term pregnancy, my kairos, as pastor.
I am sad. One of our great contemporary Christian writers has died. Eugene Peterson (1932-2018) served as the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (Bel Air, Maryland) and wrote over 30 books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, The Pastor: A Memoir, and five volumes of “conversations” in spiritual theology, notably Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology and Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Consider the ministry lessons from his life.
To remember the man, I watched a 10-minute documentary featuring Pastor Peterson and U2 lead singer, Bono, and listened to an excellent interview by Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, a public radio show and podcast. This excerpt is worth highlighting:
MS. TIPPETT: Once you wrote, “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And you said the one thing you do is you eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.
MR. PETERSON: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But the word “spiritual,” much more than when you first became a pastor, is everywhere now.
MR. PETERSON: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I want to know how you hear that, respond to it, what you think of it.
MR. PETERSON: I think it’s cheap. You’re taking something, and putting a name on it, “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual and it’s — and the word “spirit” is wind. It’s breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place. They’re all spiritual beings, but they — if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wrecks havoc with the whole thing. Spirituality is — and that’s why I don’t like the word, because it’s so easy to just say, “Well, he’s such a spiritual person, she’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense. You are too.
And I guess that’s where I think the church has a place, which is maybe more important than it’s ever been. But it’s — done well, there’s no spirituality that you can define.
MS. TIPPETT: Because it is in everything you do?
MR. PETERSON: That’s right. And if you don’t recognize that that’s possible, you just subtract a whole part of your life. And so, I think that’s — those of us who are teachers, preachers, pastors, we don’t do people any good by trying to make them more spiritual.
As a literature teacher, I have been reflecting on my neglect of memorized and recited poetry. Why own “poetical real estate” in the mind? What is the good of “mental husbandry”? With the convenience of technology, why fix any verse in “the architecture of the brain”?
Molly Worthen, a scholar of North American religious and intellectual history, wrote an article in The New York Times, “Memorize That Poem!“, that accounts for the rise and fall of this practice in homes and schools. Here are the salient excerpts:
Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.
Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?
In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.
For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.
Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.
Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”
Is it difficult to learn a poem by heart? Of course. But it is mainly a matter of diligent practice, with many pathways to success. Do you struggle with the printed page? The Poetry Foundation’s website will recite poems to you over and over again, and YouTube is packed with fearless souls declaiming to the internet. Do you dread the thought of speaking up spontaneously? You might find a memorized text empowering — as Ms. Huggins, the Poetry Out Loud winner, did. “That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had,” she said.
The challenge is partly the point. When Jason Jones told students in his survey of British literature at Central Connecticut State University that they would have to memorize three poems of at least 20 lines each, he was prepared for groans and cries of outrage. “I was interested in messing around a little with the mutual nonaggression pact between teachers and students, the one that says, ‘As long as you don’t expect too much from us beyond a couple of papers, a midterm and a final, we’ll perform for you and we’ll all get through this,’ ” he told me. “I was interested in things that will bring students into closer contact with the material in the class.”
Colleagues teased Mr. Jones about “how there’d be lines outside my door of students quietly weeping or looking like they were about to vomit,” he said. “I’d stare at a copy of the poem to prompt them, or turn and look away if they wanted.” In the end, he said, “their worst fears were typically not confirmed.”
Mr. Jones didn’t try to sell his students on a profound spiritual experience or practice in public speaking. Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.
In his New Yorker article, “Why We Should Memorize Poetry,” Brad Leithauer, a poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher, posits:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Writer Jim Holt addresses the process of memorization in his New York Times article, “Got Poetry?“:
A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading. Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, had a similar mnemonic gift. Christopher Hitchens — who carries around in his head a small anthology of verse, all of which, as his friend Ian McEwan says, is “instantly neurologically available” — also seems to absorb poems by osmosis. (Or maybe he swots them up late at night after his dinner-party guests have all passed out.) Richard Howard once told me that he eased into the memorization habit as a child, when his parents rewarded him with a dime for each poem he learned.
For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.
The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.
Last month I came across an arresting passage on memorized poetry in He Held Radical Light, a memoir of the contemporary poet Christian Wiman:
I met Seamus Heaney in person only once, at a dinner in Chicago after a reading he did for Poetry during my last year in the magazine. A few months later he would be dead. Meeting him was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me, so unmediated that I flinched whenever he got the cadence “wrong” in one of my particular favorites.
As soon as I read it, I realized that I do not know an author’s work “simply by heart,” let alone “by bone and nerve.” Accepting the challenge for poems to “become authorless inside me,” I have joined my students in memorizing the most beautiful speech that occurs in Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part 1. Already, I am discovering things that may go unnoticed if only reading the poem: the rhythms are internalized, the images are alive, and the diction is felt.
In conclusion, hanging a poem in the gallery of our mind helps us —
For several years, I have read and taught Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterpiece of German Romantic drama, Faust: Part I. We use David Luke’s acclaimed English translation that was awarded the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1989. My favorite passage comes from Scene 5, “Outside the Town Wall,” when Faust and his companion, Wagner, experience the rapture of nature on an Easter Sunday walk. Escaping the “stifling prison-hole” of his study and the “paper world” of scholarship, Faust feels resurrected by the sun, longing to remain in its light as the day fades into night. Like that “long-legged grasshopper / Which hops and flies, and sings it silly songs / And flies, and drops straight back to grass where it belongs,” as Mephistopheles characterizes human beings, Faust aspires for wings but his flight to celestial heights is maddeningly ephemeral; he returns to the earth humbled, if not humiliated. Faust, like the rest of us, is riven by two souls: lifted in a transcendental direction as a god, then pulled in an imminent direction as a worm. The challenge is to embrace our true self rather than its abject distortions, as Faust recalls but is apt to forget, “I, God’s own image! Ah, how close it shone, / The mirror of eternal verity!”
Look how they gleam in the last light of day,
Those little huts with green all round them!
Evening has come, our sun is westering now—
But it speeds on to bring new life elsewhere.
Oh if some wings would raise me, if somehow
I could follow its circuit through the air!
For then as I strove onwards I should see
A silent sunset world forever under me,
The hills aglow, the valleys lost in dreams,
The silver brooks poured into golden streams;
No mountain-range would stop me, not with all
Its rugged chasms; at divine speed I fly,
The sea already greets my wondering eye
With its warm gulfs where now the sun’s rays fall.
Now the god seems at last to sink and set,
But a new impulse drives me yet:
I hasten on to drink his endless light,
The day ahead, behind my back the night,
The sky above me and the waves below . . .
A pleasing dream; but the sun vanishes
And it is over. Wings, alas, may grow
Upon our soul, but still our body is
Earthbound. And yet, by inborn instinct given
To each of us, our hearts rise up and soar
For ever onwards, when we hear the lark outpour
Its warbling song, lost in the blue of heaven,
Or when we see the wing-spread eagle hover
Above wild cliffs which pine-trees cover,
Or across marsh and lakeland watch the crane
Fly homeward to its native haunts again. (lines 1070-1099)
* * *
In me there are two souls, alas, and their
Division tears my life in two.
One loves the world, it clutches her, it binds
Itself to her, clinging with furious lust;
The other longs to soar beyond the dust
Into the realms of high ancestral minds.
Are there no spirits moving in the air,
Ruling the region between earth and sky?
Come down then to me from your golden mists on high,
And to new, many-coloured life, oh take me there!
Give me a magic cloak to carry me
Away to some far place, some land untold,
And I’d not part with it for silk or gold
Or a king’s crown, so precious it would be! (lines 1112-1125)
I grew up hearing the formula “once saved, always saved,” which originates from either Free Grace theology or the Calvinist doctrine on the perseverance of the saints. Does this view bear the weight of scripture and experience? Are we converted once and for all—or always converting, backsliding, and reverting? Salvation, as I understand it from the Bible, involves three tenses: I trust that I am saved (Eph. 2:8-9), I trust that I am being saved (Phil. 2:12), and I trust that I will be saved (Rom. 13:11; cf. 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5).
C. S. Lewis describes a view that seems more Lutheran than Calvinist in Mere Christianity, which maintains that salvation can be lost at any time before death when our fate is sealed for eternity (see “Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration,” article xi, paragraph 42). To make this point, Lewis compares the natural life and the Christ-life:
Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it. You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide. You have to feed it and look after it: but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else. In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts. And that has practical consequences. As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body. Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not. A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.
Christian Wiman is a gifted poet who formerly edited Poetry and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. Over Labor Day Weekend, I read his new memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (2018). Entitled after A. R. Ammon’s poem of the same name, the subtitle provides a greater clue about its subject, which Wiman formulates as a question in the book: “Is the question ‘What does an authentic life in poetry look like?’ the same as asking ‘What does an authentic faith look like?'” (93).
I first became acquainted with Wiman when my friend, Sean, gifted me with a signed and dated copy of his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (2013). I doubt that this work is “destined to become a spiritual classic,” as the publisher wagers, and I disagree with Ilya Kaminsky’s effusive endorsement: “In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text.” Nevertheless, Wiman’s fierce honesty, searching faith, and—at times—luminous writing earn my respect.
When I gave a copy of My Bright Abyss to Joey, a former student, I could never have predicted that Wiman would become a resonant voice for him. “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” I am grateful that Joey has come to share my professional and personal enthusiasm for literature. We travel in the same direction, even when our taste in writers are not always shared. Our friendship involves an exchange of literary riches. Just as I have encouraged some of Joey’s reading endeavors, he has encouraged mine, including some poems from Wiman’s Hammer is the Prayer, a volume that brings together three decades of work selected by the poet.
It is difficult to explain why one person befriends a writer and another does not. Temperament, aesthetic, enculturation, mimesis, and education all influence taste. While I recognize the merits of Wiman’s prose and poetry, I have not experienced “the rescuing effect” of his art because, it seems, I am not his target audience, which he identified in an interview:
I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.
With an education in the great books of the Western canon, a vocation in classical Christian schooling, and an adherence to creedal Christianity, I am not an “unbelieving believer,” nor is my consciousness “completely modern.” In a review of My Bright Abyss, Reformed theologian Peter Leithart speaks to his ambivalent experience of reading Wiman, which consists of admiration and frustration “to the point of irritation.” He writes:
Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)
Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”
I am ambivalent about Wiman’s ambivalence on matters of faith: on the one hand, it avoids hackneyed pieties and expresses honest doubt; on the other hand, it may inadvertently blunt pious devotion and enshrine doubt. A good example of this equivocation, which occurs repeatedly in his writing, can be found in He Held Radical Light: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means” (7-8). Wiman thinks both answers may be “equally accurate,” which may comfort the unbelieving believer but discomforts the believing believer, who can reasonably maintain that God is the only correct answer. Is Wiman accounting for different points of view, or betraying his own relativism? Does equivocation reveal defiant or timorous disbelief?
There is benefit to reading an author that leaves you deeply ambivalent because the tensions provokes a desire to clarify your thinking and feeling. For that reason, I am grateful to engage Wiman’s latest book. He Held Radical Light deserves attention for its central paradox, which can be regarded as a needful reproach to Percy Bysshe Shelley and all who believe that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: like a wide-eyed watchman, Christian Wiman is alert where others are drowsy to the element of overweening that sneaks into his guild and takes hold, resulting in the fancy that poetry saves; he fights this pretentious enemy, insisting that “poetry is not enough,” and yet everything must be given to crafting words that will not survive the poet or the reader. This understanding of the artist, which does not forfeit dedication or passion for humility, recognizes that the deepest hungers of the human being are satisfied outside of art, while art gives those hungers their force and vividness.
Here are a few salient passages that rattle around in my head after reading the book:
What is it that we want when we can’t stop wanting? “Lord,” prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, “give us what you have already given.” (42)
I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make. (66-67)
I don’t really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. (83)
What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting? Form? Order? Yes, certainly those things, something to both speak and spare the turmoil of my own consciousness, something to protect and preserve me from the ramifying reality of impersonal space and matter long before I had science to confirm these things, and long before I had my own malevolent cells to ram that fact into my heart. But after all this, what I know is that poetry is not enough, and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one. “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.”
Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, you must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you. “If you don’t believe in poetry,” said Stevens, “you cannot write it.” He might have added (and perhaps, implicitly, he did): If you cannot believe in what poetry—in all of its forms, even the wordless ones—has revealed to you, you cannot survive it.
And of all those revelations, a certain “sacred weakness,” as Maritain calls it, is key. (Thank you for my losses is the prayer that a friend of mine—also a poet, also a patient—found herself bafflingly but joyfully praying recently.) To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, like the missing stitch that certain master craftsmen weave into their rugs as an act of piety meant both to imply and appease the original Maker, but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that we cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure. (112-113)
NOTE: I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for sending me a courtesy review copy of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light.
I delivered a message at our all-school retreat. Because our chapel theme is “choices,” I interpreted the Book of Jonah through that lens. This “whale of a story” is short enough that I recruited my colleagues to read all four chapters while I interspersed commentary between each one. The message began with a question and ended with an answer. My objective was to innumerate the choices made by the Hebrew prophet, giving the illusion that we have innumerable choices when there is really only one choice confronting us.
Leland Ryken’s Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible helped me understand that Jonah, though classified with the Minor Prophets, is “not a book of prophecy.” It is about a prophet. He also helped me to appreciate its genre of satire. Jonah should be viewed as a ridiculous figure from beginning to end. “The fact that we laugh at Jonah (or least should laugh at him) does not minimize the utter seriousness of the book,” writes Roland M. Fyre. “For in recognizing that Jonah is ridiculous we can see the ridiculous aspect of all human pretensions, including our own.”
Speaking from notes rather than a manuscript, here are the main points I shared.
QUESTION: What choices do we have to make?
Jonah’s flight: Chapter 1
Jonah’s rescue: Chapter 2
Jonah’s sermon: Chapter 3
Jonah’s complaint: Chapter 4
ANSWER: There is only one choice that each of us makes, day after day, hour after hour. We can formulate that choice in two ways. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple delivers a sermon on Jonah to the shipmates:
Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. [emphasis mine]
Here is the first formulation of our only choice: Am I obeying God and disobeying myself?
Psalm 139 can be regarded as Jonah’s deferred answer since we are not given his reply to God’s question:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Here is the second formulation of our only choice: Am I facing God and fleeing from myself?
CONCLUSION: Since we are always already in relationship with God, whether believer, make-believer, or unbeliever, there is only one choice before us, presented over and over again because divine mercy patiently waits for us to choose rightly — and not once, twice, or thrice, but repeatedly until our character befits our vocation, until our desire befits our destiny.
For those of us who love poetry, I recommend a new article by Dana Gioia, an award-winning poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for Arts, “The State of Poetry: Loud and Live” (Los Angeles Times). He begins:
AMERICAN POETRY IS thriving. American poetry is in decline. The poetry audience has never been bigger. The audience has dropped to historic lows. The mass media ignores poetry. The media has rediscovered it. There have never been so many opportunities for poets. American poets find fewer options each year. The university provides a vibrant environment for poets. Academic culture has become stagnant and remote. Literary bohemias have been destroyed by gentrification and rising real estate prices. New bohemias have emerged across the nation. All of these contradictory statements are true, and all of them are false, depending on your point of view. The state of American poetry is a tale of two cities.
Gioia examines poetry’s current audience (print versus performance), its new media presence, its following in elite culture and popular culture, its role in the university, and its promises and perils in the “new bohemia.” He concludes:
The situation of poetry is impossible to describe but easy to summarize. No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places. There is considerable continuity with the past. The traditional ways in which poetry has been written, read, and evaluated still have relevance, but those methods don’t always seem very useful in understanding new developments. Old theories (including postmodern ones) are incommensurate with the present realities. There is no emerging mainstream replacing a dying old order. There is no mainstream at all — only more alternatives. The best metaphor is not death but birth. The poetry scene isn’t a cemetery; it’s a crowded, noisy maternity ward.
So don’t panic. Poetry is not in danger, at least no more than usual. New forms of poetry don’t eliminate established forms, though they do influence and modify them. Culture is not binary but dialectical. A new generation of poets and readers drawn from every segment of society is expanding the art to meet new needs and seize new opportunities. Poetry now has as many categories as popular music. What plays at Harvard won’t get anyone on the dance floor in East Los Angeles, and that’s just fine. All styles are possible, all approaches open, and everyone is invited.
POST SCRIPT: In Gioia’s article, he mentions televised evocations of poetry. Naturally, I hunted down the sources, which are now linked in his paragraph below in case you want to watch them. I really like the Volvo and Apple commercials featuring Walt Whitman.
If anyone doubts poetry’s new media presence, they should turn on the television. In recent years, poetry has become a code for sophistication. Sometimes entire poems are quoted. More often lines are quoted at critical junctures of the plot — sometimes with acknowledgment, sometimes without. Occasionally, a poem appears throughout an entire series as a thematic signal. Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The Mentalist employed William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Poetry is now even used in commercials. Volvo adapted Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” Apple iPad presented Robin Williams crooning the Good Gray Bard’s “O Me! O Life!”
Curtis Fox, host of Poetry Off the Shelf, addressed commercial poetry on his podcast. He interviews Karen Karbiener, who teaches on the legacy of Walt Whitman at New York University. They explore how Whitman has been the subject of use in advertising agencies, including Levi’s commercial with a recording of Whitman reading “America” and Apple’s commercial mentioned above. Karbiener says Whitman would have welcomed the commercial exposure. I appreciated her explication of “O Me! O Life!”.
Those who know me well know that I am, for the most part, disinterested in sports. When quizzed about which sporting events I watch on TV, the answer often surprises the hearer: “The Grand Slam tournaments of tennis and the Olympics.” My love of tennis owes to personal history. I played the game five days a week in high school, earning a place on the varsity tennis team. Although I have retired the racket, I still find tennis enthralling. It is for this reason that I decided to watch a well-crafted new movie on the 1980 Wimbledon championship match between the famous rivals, “Borg vs. McEnroe (2018).
The movie opens with a very perceptive epigraph from Open, a book by American tennis player Andre Agassi:
It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.
Although it is not about tennis per se, Woody Allen’s movie “Match Point” (2005) features tennis in its title and lead character, who is a tennis instructor. Incidentally, this movie invokes Sophocles and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Watch the trailer.