With eyeliner defining his eyes, his head part-shaven and part-dreadlocked, no one looks like Duke Special. No one sounds like him either. He made his name as a singer-songwriter with a modern vaudeville twist, but he has constantly developed and his latest album Look Out Machines! has taken his melodic style and added an almost […]
There is no doubt that Jeanne Lohmann, Quaker poet, is a remarkable woman who in her elder years (almost 90) has a warmth and charm that makes talking to her by phone a pleasure. I spoke with her in interview on a number of occasions spending more than an hour developing this conversation about her work and even her life. We started talking, she in her Washington State home in the Great Northwest of the United States, and I just north of San Francisco by about 11 miles in my home located in the small town of Mill Valley near San Francisco. She lives in Olympia, Washington. We began about December 31, 2013 and ended February 8, 2014. It was a friendly conversation and at one time I interrupted her watching the beginning of the Olympics and so had to call back the next day. Another time, before that, the phones didn’t work—hers, we thought.
There is more to this interview than one conversation with the poet. There is also a conversation, brief, with the editor of her publisher Daniel & Daniel, located in California. More on that in a minute. Let me offer this statement on poetry from a packet sent to me by Jeanne Lohmann of her notes and diary material. This Religion Writer wants to set a tone about poetry more than about the article to come, important as that is in this introduction.
The statement on poetry from one of Jeanne Lohmann’s diaries (circa 1978 and beyond):
What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates…vocal chords and song, imagination and word, story and story-teller.
Making use of poetry, adopting the habit of poetry, I write and revise, perform poems…learn how. Practicing poetry: I’m open to invitations from anywhere. I create my own rhythms, plod when I must, fly when I can. Maintaining the habit, I work to forego the habitual, the trite and easy.
Learning poems for my life, they save me over and over. Poetry swings my arms when I walk, spills around me in specific details, insights. Word-music shaping answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask, teaching me to re-think answers I thought I had: how to honor the awkward, the homely, and the broken.
On about December 5, 2013 John Daniel of Daniel & Daniel is noted in my pages as responding by email to questions about the publishing house he started and where he is editor. You will find more of that interview at the end of this conversation below with Jeanne Lohmann. To the first question John Daniel answers:
Yes, we (Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, which includes Fithian Press), do publish poetry. We also publish memoir and fiction, and our most successful line of books consists of mystery novels, which we publish under our Perseverance Press imprint. As for the state of poetry publishing, I observe that it’s becoming more and more a cottage industry. Judging from the number of submissions we receive, compared with the number of books we sell, I get the feeling more people write poetry than read poetry. But we soldier on, publishing books we like, by poets we like. We’re proud of what we do and want to stay that way, which is why we’re so choosy. We reject most of the manuscripts we receive.
But let me tell you more about Jeanne Lohmann. Her most recent poetry book is, “Home Ground” and it has much of her previous work in it. Published by Daniel & Daniel, it is found on Amazon.com here. Much of her work sells, and this over the years. She strikes a chord with people, especially with moving themes of death…death of her husband and love between a man and a woman. Here is an early remark by one reviewer of one poetry book, “Gathering a Life.”
“Lohmann does not wish her husband’s life to be forever fixed in time and place, but to remember him with some charity of truth so that he might return and be the person she loved. This is a diamond, cutting hard.” Written by Sally Bryan, University Meeting/ San Juan Worship Group Society of Friends. (Date unknown).
This Religion Writer’s earnest
Interview: 90 year old poet of the Northwest USA William Matchett talks of his new work, ‘Airplants’
Interview and article By Peter Menkin
Quakers do not have a set of beliefs they adopt when they become Quakers. We have four testimonies we try to live out: Community, simplicity, equality, and peace. In poems you would find a number of things referring to (the testimony). We try to live for it. We believe in continuing revelation. Which means we feel there are new truths emerging in the Universe all the time and we need to use discernment and the help of each other to find these truths. To find if they are truly true.
–Judy Brown, Quaker
She introduced me to Poet Matchett and is an editor of poetry (Friends Journal)
An interview with poet William H. Matchett, Quaker, done by phone, but mostly answers typed on his typewriter from the 90 year old’s home in the remote area of Seabeck, Washington in the United States’ great Northwest where he lives with his wife in the Summer (this done 2013 from September 12, 2013 through the end of October, 2013). Correspondence by U.S. Mail was our method of sending manuscripts. This took a few days as poet Matchett has neither computer nor internet for one. He retired as a teacher from The University of Washington in 1982 (Shakespeare).
In this interview we focus somewhat on his new book described by W.S. Merwin as poems gathered over a lifetime and published by Antrim House in Simsbury, Connecticut, “Airplants: Selected Poems.” There is a short interview by Antrim House publisher Robert Rennie McQuilkin following the interview with poet William H. Matchett.
An older statement by The University of Washington on the internet says of him, in part:
William Matchett, professor emeritus of English and former longtime editor of the journal Modern Language Quarterly…Matchett retired from the UW in 1982 but continued teaching and writing after that. He is the author of two other books of poetry, Water Ouzel and Fireweed as well as the work Shakespeare and Forgiveness. He also has written stories, articles and other criticism, and his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, include The New Yorker, Saturday Review of Literature, Harper’s and The New Republic.
Antrim House says this of the poet: “William Matchett was born in Chicago and educated in its public schools until his final two years of high school at Westtown, a Quaker boarding school, where his commencement essay was a long poem. During World War II he was assigned, as a conscientious objector, first to a Civilian Public Service camp and then, as a guinea pig, to the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. After graduating from Swarthmore with highest honors in 1949, he married and returned to Cambridge to pursue a PhD at Harvard. While there, he had a teaching assistantship in Archibald MacLeish’s popular poetry course, and was one of the founders of the Poets’ Theatre, remaining active with it until 1954. Matchett’s entire teaching career since then has been at the University of Washington, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.”
INTERVIEW WITH POET WILLIAM MATCHETT WITH RELIGION WRITER PETER MENKIN
1.Of your poems, many give a taste of being close to the land. Which of those speak to you of God, if you will, and give an example of one that is special to you–if only a few lines. Has your Quaker faith influenced you in your appreciation of the land and its environment?
I think it is true that the only time the word ‘God’ appears in these poems is in the third section of the Accademia poem where it clearly refers to the Old Testament God of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis as he appears in those glorious tapestries. I don’t use the word otherwise since it means so many different things to different people and would get in the way of the experiences I am trying to create. I don’t think of poems as sermons but as creating experiences for others to consider.
After I completed “Water Ouzel,” I recognized that it was one-sided, only part of the story. The poem ends most dangerously with the word “sweet”—dangerous because, as Shakespeare makes clear in a scene in Troilus and Cressida, it easily cloys. I didn’t know Troilus and Cressida that well when I wrote it. I did realize that it was a poem expressing a very optimistic view of the world, and I knew there was another side to the picture. So I wrote “The Petrel” to indicate a darker side of the balance. Still, I let “Water Oruzel” have the last word in that volume.
Many Quakers differ in the language they use to express their deepest convictions. But we are tolerant of each other and try to hear what the others are saying even though their words may not be ones we would use.
I don’t think of myself as a “Quaker Poet.” Though I am a Quaker who writes poetry, I don’t speak for Quakers. Many of my earliest poems were about birds. I then consciously ruled them out as a subject, not wanting to be thought of as a Bird Poet, wanting to avoid such cataloguing. Only two poems in this collection are Quaker in subject matter, “Quaker Funeral” and “Jordans Meeting.” However, a friend did once say she thought of Antinightmare” as a quintessential Quaker poem since (mistakenly as it turned out) I gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt, seeing that of God in him.
Yes, I think becoming aware of the incredible balances in the environment, and our need to protect them, has increased my Quaker faith, though I suppose it is circular and my Quaker faith has increased by sense of balances. I want to be on the side of protecting the land, yet I still drive a car. It is a Prius, but still uses gas. Our son will only use public transportation or his bicycle, but there is none of the former where we live and I am too old for the latter, so I remain inconsistent. Yet my Quaker faith is me. As you said, wherever I go, there I am.
I wrote “Fjord Afternoon” some years ago.
Our weeks of sun have come to an end, all the colors subdued under a mat grey sky, the surface calm, the maples along the shore patches of dull orange among the yellowing alders, the mountains flat planes of dissolving blues, the still warm air already beginning to turn.
No sound but the paddles stirring slow circles and the occasional loon laughing across the water, yet the fjord is restless with congregations of grebes and scoters extending into the mist; five cormorants crenellating a floating log take off one by one as we drift too close.
What an autumn this has been! A seal, slipping beneath the canoe, comes up on the other side, trying to understand us, keeping its soft periscope aimed in our direction. Its paler-than-usual face magnifies its eyes, its round black eyes, looking through and beyond us.
We face that fjord and the Olympic Mountains beyond it, as we have now for more than fifty years. But the fjord is dying. In winter there used to be rafts of many kinds of ducks. Not now. There are no longer the fish to support them. The ecological balance has gone awry. Even then I thought of the seal as looking through and beyond us.
Numbers of poems in this book end with unresolved observations, like “Clearing the View”:
Marjorie Maddox, the pen name for Marjorie Maddox Hafer, a poet from Pennsylvania, is a woman of faith. In this lengthy introduction she spends time in corresponding by email with this Religion Writer. The first subject is Eucharist, that tender subject that sets the relationship with Christ in motion through worship. But let her speak to it through her email and some short quotes from her poems.
The following is what she wrote in her email in September, 2013 to this Religion Writer in Mill Valley, California:
THE FIRST OF MARJORIE MADDOX’S EMAIL’S TO PETER MENKIN.
Driving to work today, I was thinking some about the article you sent and also your comments about the “moral” poetic voice. Certainly the voice of the poet or short story writer—like a good painting or piece of music—has the potential to become that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” It needs to be experienced, though, that voice; the painting, the music, the poem can’t really be paraphrased or condensed and must avoid the didactic. (And sometimes the didactic is misinterpreted as the moral.) But there is that potential for the work to point toward God and there is, indeed, something spiritual or akin to the spiritual in the process of creation. (We are, after all, made in the likeness of the Creator. The work gains its life from the spirit/breath of the artist.)
But, finally, words are not The Word. Period. I think it would be arrogant to think otherwise.
Off to classes. I’m teaching all day. These are getting long, so use what suits you. I hope they are
helpful. I will have less time during the school week, but wanted to get you something today.
Comments on poems
“Eucharist” (Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, 83-84)
Many of my faith poems center on and around what I see as one of
life’s most intimate experiences, the Eucharist. In part, this speaks
to a shifting of focus—both in my poetry and in my spiritual life.
The actual poem titled “Eucharist” appeared in an early issue of
Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion and also in the chapbook
Ecclesia, which is my poetic examination of the Anglican Theological
Exam. For a time, my husband considered ordination and so, while he
dutifully answered questions in prose, I explored the theological
concepts of Penance, Consubstantiation, Substantiation, Concomitance,
Reservation, and the like through metaphor and image. Some of this
series later found itself in the book Transplant, Transport,
Transubstantiation, which focuses on my father’s unsuccessful heart
transplant. (For a radio interview on this book, click on WPSU Take
Note Interview Show: For Father’s Day, Poets Todd Davis and Marjorie
Maddox Write About Their
The rest took up residence in my third full-length book, Weeknights at
the Cathedral, the collection which most overtly chronicles my spiritual journey.
Surely, on one level or another though, my faith informs all my
poetry. It is, along with writing, most central to who I am. My core
beliefs have not changed that drastically. I grew up in a protestant
denomination and am grateful for the strong fellowship, values, and
Biblical education I received there. However, I knew nothing about
liturgy, the Church Fathers, or the Church calendar. Over the
years—and perhaps first at an Episcopal Church I attended while at
Wheaton College—I found myself increasingly drawn to liturgy and
image. And so, too, the Eucharist. Whereas in my early church
tradition we celebrated Communion four times a year with a meal and foot washing, I now celebrate it in weekly Catholic Mass.
Again, I see this as a shift in focus. Where and how am I able to most
fully worship the Living Christ?
Focus also is my greatest struggle. How to be truly present in
worship? In relationship? In writing? How to best battle all life’s distractions?
Through my first full-length book, Perpendicular As I, does not center
on faith, such images and struggles appear there as well, as in
“Invitational Hymn” (17).
Everywhere white and stained glass.
Here, on this page,
notes dip like a child learning to swim.
In these sounds, I feel her
drop to her knees, sink till eyes touch water,
till she blows all air from her lungs.
Or, on the next page,
bells humming on a summer night
in circles: louder, softer, farther.
On this pew alone, a girl
twisting her hair like a chain, a man,
his voice a groan, a woman,
pushing half-notes past the stone walls, out, over the hills.
The boy beside me breathes in, out, loud,
migrates toward the aisle, leaves me
alone with a hymnbook,
words I’ve known too long,
trying hard not to breathe you in,
not to breathe at all.
Always, the choice, it seems to me, is whether or not to breathe God in.
(Interestingly enough, a poet from another state who has now become a
close friend, read this book, recognized the spiritual throughout the
collection, and began our now 10-year friendship. Poetry does
that—brings together seekers across states, countries, and, yes,
I am thinking now of an excerpt from John Donne’s “Satire III,” which
I used as epigraph for Weeknights at the Cathedral.
. . . doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go..”
I was taking an undergraduate class in the 17th Century Metaphysical
Poets from the great Dr. Beatrice Batson, dutifully reading my
homework, when I ran smack into epiphany. It is OK to question, to
doubt—just keep moving forward. Even the Biblical men and women I grew
up studying knew this, but to my teenage self, this was a huge revelation.
And so thirty + years later, I keep reading and writing, and, in the
process, discovering. I try, as often as I can, to breathe in. Deeply.
THE SECOND EMAIL. IN A SUBSEQUENT EMAIL THAT MAKES A PART OF THIS INTRODUCTION TO THE INTERVIEW. THE SUBJECT IS THE BUSINESS OF POETRY. MORE NOTES AND THOUGHTS BY MARJORIE MADDOX.
Poetry as a business
I think it has become that, and this is something that I’ve learned rather late.
I’ve always been able to switch between the business-of-submitting-writing-hat and the more important actual-writing-the-writing hat. (More often than I care to admit, the submission process occurs when I am procrastinating and unable to face the harder task of composing.) I am even good at teaching these necessary “business” skills to my students.
But now there’s the added hat of marketing. I am not a cocktail party conversationalist. I am not good at hobnobbing. It’s not part of my personality. Walking into a large room where I know absolutely no one still terrifies me. At heart, I am an introvert.
And yet, I am very comfortable (and animated) as a teacher. I love to give readings and interact with others. I am an email (but not Facebook) junkie; I like the one-on-one correspondence. (Some of my closest friends are poets of faith who live more than a few hours away.) It has to do with rapport and connection, I think.
I am delighted to direct three reading series and build relationships with visiting authors. I very much enjoy marketing and promoting these writers.
These days, though, writers also need to market and promote themselves. I prefer to first build the relationships and let the rest follow. That’s not always, though, how the world works. And so, I’m becoming braver. And so, with this new book, I’m learning to put on the marketing hat, too. I’m even having fun.
P. S. Here’s a poem that’s the epigraph for my circulating short story collection entitled What She Was Saying. The poem speaks, I think, to the same ideas that I mention above:
I’m not; all fine-toed thought
tip-tripping on this gang-plank of tongue,
clumsy and cumbersome in the outside air
of others’ ears and expectations,
all incubation of consonants off-limits,
sounds’ syllables looking silly,
without a line to dry on.
What a mess of metaphors the mouth makes!
It’s the pen that injects
tap dance, the click-clack of keys
that decodes the meaning.
Outside the letters, I’m incognito:
A suburbanite. Two toddlers.
A mouthful of stumbling practicality.
You won’t see me
till I write.
Interview: Priest-in-Charge at ‘Jazz Church’ in New Haven, CT offers a sketch of his Parish (Episcopal)
Alex Dyer is Priest in Charge at the “Jazz Church” in New Haven, The Episcopal Church of St. James and St. Paul where Father Dyer in a background conversation says, “The good things about Jazz are it draws on a lot of traditions. When we say we’re a Jazz service, what we are saying here is we draw from these traditions. Not every piece we play is jazz. We do a jazz mindset. The first piece could be a traditional hymn on the pipe organ. The next one could be a traditional African American spiritual. The next one a hymn in Spanish. A lot of people call it blended worship.”
In the heart of this article is an interview with the Church’s Priest and what he says makes a character sketch of a Parish. It does this in a way that at the same time speaks to us of a part of the life of the Episcopal Church USA. But still, the basics of worship come with this statement: Eucharist as central part of the worship and its long appeal to the people of God.
There are eight Episcopal Churches in New Haven. Regarding the appeal of our Parish, it’s hard to say what brings them into Church; I think people are looking for a lot of things. We are an active Church that is engaged in a sense of social Gospel that is re-inventing of that very thing in our day, the social Gospel. We are a Church that has its doors open. We try to live out we practice what we preach. That is also what brings worshipers to the Church, this writer observes.
An example of social gospel from the Church webpage: Every Saturday morning from 9:00-10:30 hundreds of people gather outside the Church of St. Paul & St. James for our Loaves & Fishes ministry. This ministry began with a food pantry, but it much more than a food pantry. Each person is valued and we do all we can to extend radical hospitality to all who enter through our doors.
We serve the working poor, unemployed, and all those in need by providing a bag of groceries to each person who comes through our doors on Saturday mornings.
No one is turned away and by the grace of God we now serve 150 to 250 people each Saturday. Our hospitality extends way beyond providing food.
This interview was made by telephone in more than one call from religion writer Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley to Reverend Alex Dryer’s office at his Church in New Haven.
INTERVIEW WITH PRIEST IN CHARGE OF THE JAZZ CHURCH, NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT ALEX DRYER BY PETER MENKIN
A QUOTE: I have served in Anglo-Catholic churches that rival the best medieval mass and a church with Morning Prayer sung by a Men and Boys Choir. I have helped start an outdoor church, primarily for people who are homeless. Never did I ever think that I would give up a full-time salary to serve halftime at church with a jazz band. If all we do is focus on death or fear then we do not truly live.
1. Please tell us something of the choices made for the pieces of Jazz played during Church services? As part of this liturgy, how does it jibe with The Book of Common Prayer service, the worship service used in Episcopal Churches? Do you find criticism for using this music, and if so, where does it come from?
The way we usually choose music is we get together with my music director. I’ve thought about the sermon and the direction we want to go. Usually weekly, but sometimes we get ahead. Then we look through sources of music, pulling from five or six authorized hymnals by the Episcopal Church. We are willing to go outside of those. Hymnal 1982, Lift Every Voice and Sing, II; Wonder, Love, and Praise; and, Voices Found (women composers); and My Heart Sings Out…are hymnals we use. You can see there are even a large number of Episcopal resources. The Episcopal Church as a whole is recognizing the diverse choices of music we have in the Church.
I would say, most Episcopal Churches, the Hymnal 1982 is the steady diet. That’s not quite as true for us. There are the old chestnuts you want to play that match the readings or the service. Even the way we play those is quite different. The Jazz Ensemble is very good at taking the traditional hymn and rearranging it.
Many people think of all things when we say we are a jazz church. I question them on what they think jazz is; people much smarter than I am having been defining Jazz. If you’re talking about Jazz standards we usually play those as a postlude or prelude or an offertory. But jazz standards don’t really lend themselves to congregational participation. What we’ve done is taken Jazz influenced music into participate when we are at our best.
I told my Jazz Ensemble a few weeks after we started, if the congregation isn’t singing, then you have failed as musicians. It is a key to any good liturgy, it is the work of the people, and then you have the people participate in it. Like with any style of music, whether it is jazz or a traditional men and boys’ choir, a musician must walk a very fine line. It is fine to have the music wash over you, but at some point you need to be invited to participate. Even if it detracts from the purity of the music, says a non-musician. It is my job as a priest to work between my musicians and the people (congregation). Ultimately, it is me who is responsible for making all the worship come together. I kind of see myself as a conductor in a symphony in some ways.
Blending many different styles of worship is easier than one might think. Worship in the Episcopal Church has changed dramatically in a generation. When people think of “The Episcopal Church,” it depends on which Episcopal Church you are talking about. There are Episcopal Churches who every Sunday sways back and forth to Gospel Music, Episcopal Churches who use Mariachi music. I think it’s very dangerous to say one church is more Episcopal than the other. The Episcopal Church is one of the roomiest in Christendom, and is learning how to fully express the diverse world in which we now live.
Interview: New Dean, Duke University Chapel in North Carolina speaks about his plans: Luke Powery, a Reverend Doctor is the man
It is almost trite to say Christians enjoy a good sermon. But those who go to worship at Duke University Chapel have the pleasure and good fortune of having strong preachers with a Christian message. The new Dean of the Chapel is in this line of quality preachers, and his administrative skills are not only sound, but up to the task as the months that have passed from his entry in 2012 to this 2013 demonstrate. This Religion Writer has heard of no complaint.
This big job in what is really a large building serves the larger community around the school as well as the University. The new Dean Luke Powery is part of that line of pastors serving both communities. The interview with him done by phone, starting October, 2012 and stretching to this day in April, 2013, tells us much of his ability to pastor and his plans for the Chapel. These segments of conversation in interview were done with Dean Powery from this Religion Writer’s home office in Mill Valley, California, but 11 miles north of San Francisco, to the Dean at his office in the Chapel located in Durham, North Carolina.
One thing noted by the American Press in general of the new Dean Luke Powery is that he is an African-American. Apparently such public information still merits notice, and this is good for he is the first African-American Dean at the University. Times change. There is an African-American in charge who was chosen for his fine work as a Pastor, his administrative skills, and because of his ability to give a Sunday sermon or not.
Not only is his language contemporary in his sermons, sometimes enriching, but his very presence as Dean contemporary as a statement of the times. This Religion Writer thought his background and that he is an African-American brought not only a uniqueness to his importance, but more so, his brilliant grasp of affairs and his meaningful sermons so unique in some ways, yet contemporary and traditional in matters of substance and ways.
Interview: Christian poet Philip Kolin of Mississippi, USA lives his faith, telling readers here of his work–everything you ever wanted to know
For some time I have thought about and even meditated on the work of poetry recent to the body of this interview series, as created by the excellent Roman Catholic Christian poet Philip Kolin, of Mississippi, USA. His recent collection is titled Reading God’s Handwriting: Poems as published by Kaufmann Publishing. That pretty little small house owned by the lovely and charming woman Leslie Kaufmann is located in St. Simons Island, Georgia. A short interview with her is included in the Addendum to this interview with the poet Philip Kolin. Note the work is appealing to Roman Catholics, but as well to others of the Christian faith, including Protestants and what I am going to call evangelicals and those in their independent suite where they are non-affiliated with a denomination. This is referred to as, “Called.” I mention this non-affiliated group of Christians because it seems by observation through the seat of this Religion Writer’s pants that they’re a larger and more growing group than thought previously here in the United States. No hard data to support this anecdotal measurement, but I think it lets the reader know that Philip C. Kolin, though markedly Roman Catholic with an intelligent and perceived educated view of faith in Christ, appeals to a wide swath. So be it. For is that not one criterion for meeting this collection of ongoing interviews with American Christian poets? Hence his appearance in this group that is now more than four years of interviews in the making. A book as a collection of the interviews is scheduled for 2013 with the working title, Interviews with American Christian Poets by Peter Menkin.
This interview was begun by phone in February, 2013 and through a series of mishaps and mostly miseries delayed in its posting, despite the fact that poet Kolin, an esteemed professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in this writer’s estimation, was available. Philip Kolin bore these events in a spirit of full cooperation.
His official title is University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters, The University of Southern Mississippi. The University of Southern Mississippi is not to be confused with Ole Miss, please.
Poet Kolin wrote out responses to the questions in a timely manner. Public apology is due for the unforeseen delay in finishing this work, and thanks for a job particularly done with care in his usual meticulous and intellectual manner. Philip Kolin’s answers, so I have learned about the poet and his habits, in fact his way of working, have a studied way in discipline and refinement. This is a noteworthy trait of years of work in the area of scholarship and editing as well as of poetry. Keep in mind that the poet is well known, even famous, for scholarly writings. But as you’ll see, poet he most certainly is—thanks be to God.
The following comments about Reading God’s Handwriting come from Abbot Cletus of St. Bernard Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. It was sent to this Religion Writer by Kaufmann Publishing and is a complete statement, though also appears on the back cover of the book in truncated version—a work of poetry published 2012:
In his new volume Reading God s Handwriting Philip Kolin has once again heard the whisper of God’s word with the ear of his heart and given poetic expression to the timeless value of that word. His writing reflects a sense of reverence that seeks to distill the Divine Word of God and assimilate it into his very being. In the monastic tradition this process is called lectio divina. Such words take up their dwelling and have meaning only in the repetitive process of a hearing that leads to a listening, a pondering, and then, after assimilation, is given expression in the life and activity of the individual. As if praying, Philip has taken it one step farther and given expression in poetic words of profound insight and readability. One who has familiarity with the Bible, the Word of God, will read his poems with delight and will relish the sense of oneness between the writer and the word he has written. His poems offer a treasure of insight and could easily be used as a resource for personal prayer and lectio.
Interview: Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, an American in Jerusalem talks of teaching for www.Torah.org
In this interview the writer hopes to elicit from Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, teacher of matters Orthodox Jewish much about the internet teaching website and organization www.torah.org . Through this interview, the final in a three part series on Religious Education, we begin a three part number of interviews with different Orthodox Rabbi’s who teach and write for that website. Each has a slightly different perspective of religious education and what they teach. More, it is their subject that is the primary object of their difference. But all three are Orthodox, and all three are Rabbis—all three are both writer and teacher. So without much ado more, here is the first of the interviews in this final of the three part series on Religious Education. The first two in the series had as subject a Southern Baptist, and an Episcopalian from the USA.
INTERVIEW WITH RABBI DOVID ROSENFELD
1.1. Question by Peter Menkin: As a writer and teacher at Torah.org you receive a lot of inquiries, questions and answers from your many students. What of your subjects covered have proved to receive the more thoughtful answers from students. Will you share one or two of those answers and also tell us something of your students in general? About students you have in a month or a year, you’ve said, “Counts grow slowly but steadily – more a function of how long-standing a class is. Pirkei Avos (started in late 1998) has over 11,000 students. Maimonides (begun 2008) has >4500.” Talk to us about the attraction of “Pirkei Avos” and its subject.
I’ll mention first of all that a big fraction of the correspondence I receive is not all that relevant to the material I teach. Some people just write to say thank you. Others come with their own issues and problems. I suppose they turn to me because they have no one else in their lives they feel can advise them, and they feel based on my writings that I would be an appropriate person. Lastly, a few correspond regularly with me and we develop a relationship – and there too our correspondence doesn’t necessarily have much to do with my classes.
Of the relevant questions and comments I receive – perhaps averaging one every other class, it’s of course hard to generalize with such a large audience. My students can range from non-Jewish, totally uninitiated, to advanced Talmudists. I guess as a rule the beginners do not feel equipped to challenge me. The questions more generally come from my most advanced readers. One general observation I would say is that the material itself generally does not put my readers off. Strongly moralistic or not politically correct statements – say such subjects as the Jewish view on the separation of the sexes or the specialness of the Children of Israel – do not seem to elicit much flack. Look, for the most part my readers are coming seeking spirituality. They want guidance and absolutes, not wishy-washy politically-correct sweet nothings.
More often it’s not the actual material I teach but my passing comments that generate the flack – sometimes a careless wisecrack, at times disparaging remarks about Christianity or less-religious denominations of Judaism. (Criticisms of Islam have never elicited negative reactions.) As a writer, I’m actually often surprised how my readers pick up on the careless side comments which I hardly paid attention to myself. Over the years I’ve learned to become attuned to and avoid the types of remarks which folks object to.
In terms of the course material I teach, one aspect which I find enormously refreshing is the fact that I teach classic material in its original. (Pirkei Avos is a section of the Mishna, which was put into final form in the 3rd century C.E.; Maimonides lived and authored his works in the 12th century.) The students see the writings of great scholars in their original (translated from the Hebrew as accurately as I can – although important nuances will always be lost). They are not reading some modern doctored up writings – the world according to Dovid Rosenfeld. They can view and see the wisdom of the words of the Sages themselves. There is nothing to hide or to whitewash. Their words are timeless, as relevant today as they were when they were written.
There are a few types of responses. First of all, I get a steady stream of feedback. There are questions that are not relevant or all. A good part of the correspondence is not relevant at all. People come to me because they are familiar with my writing and so come to me. There are questions and comments on my writing. People who are not as learned will swallow anything. Everything sounds fine to them. People who are beginners accept anything. The more learned not. To the other issue, the types of things that generate comment. Things which receive a lot of comment are things that are not politically correct: men and women, things between the sexes, when I speak about Christianity—I guess an example that doesn’t usually get negative feedback is the Middle East and politics. Usually people…generally are not bothered by the material I write. For the most part I find it is a very receptive argument. Usually they are interested in Religion and spirituality. They are not opposed to my talking about things Jewish or about Israel, and things.
This is neither advertisement nor opinion piece, but a report on Episcopal Franciscans who as Friars may be married as well as single…married man to man, or man to woman.
INTERVIEW WITH BROTHER ZANE YOUNG
1. I have for a long time liked and admired the Franciscan Order, so when I learned that my friend Brother Rich had become a full Brother of the Franciscans, no longer a Third Order Member, I became curious. I became curious because Brother Rich is married. I thought monastics–as Franciscan Brothers are considered–were unmarried. In our phone conversation made to you in Washington State from my home office in Mill Valley, California (north of San Francisco), you said your Order started in 2005, allowed married brothers. Please tell us about this new phenomenon in monasticism, and a little about how men may partner with men, or marry, and that married men with spouses who-are-female may also become married. Do you find this unusual, and why this “new” monastic value?
I don’t find it unusual in the fact that we do it. It is probably unusual because it has not been done by the Church in Franciscan orders. Basically, the Franciscan tradition we have today in the Church is here from the Catholics, handed down from the Anglo-Catholic tradition. When it came from the Anglican, especially the Episcopalians in this country. Since we are Anglicans, we had to be a little different because of the war [American war of Revolution from the British]. The tradition of Franciscan friars and fathers came down from England and Scotland. It came down from SSF (Society of Saint Francis); it came down from the Catholic Church: their friars, they are celibate.
2. Speak with us a little about the Franciscan work in the world, what the brothers in your order are doing with people, and something of where they live and practice their Episcopal faith. Are they all Episcopalians, and is everyone who is engaged with the running of your Franciscan order and its membership Episcopalian?
Yes. All of guys right now are Episcopalian. One is Anglican and he is living in England. We are open to anyone in the community: Lutheran, Australian, etc. as long as they are in Communion with the See of Canterbury. That’s another caveat that makes us a little bit different from the SSF (Society of Saint Francis), and even the Third Order.
We have one brother in particular who ministers to military families who are in crisis. [The brother ministers to]…military men who are returning from Afghanistan or other areas of war… or military installations in ongoing situations of conflict. The brother counsels military personnel themselves and their families. This includes post-traumatic stress. Brother Rich is involved with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Francisco’s Marin County. Other brothers are involved with homeless shelters. Myself, I used to work with battered women in their shelters.
[Franciscan theology] I think that the theology comes from ministry to the poor, the disadvantaged and those [who are] lesser in society. Where it seems to manifest itself today are people who are in a crisis. It seems to come from–this poverty sense– that was Francis’ plan to [be an] Order of the poor, the sick–that’s what Francis would do. We approach our vow of poverty to cast off our clothes as Francis did. We try to live simply, within our means, and give within our means to others. We provide for our families and our churches, and we give to those who depend on us. Poverty is a tricky word. We’ve had guys in the Order who have trouble struggling with that word. The word itself is important, for it takes us back to the vows of Francis. How we live and understand that word poverty is how we live that question.
3. I’d like to hear something of what is special about this 2012 for you and the Franciscans of your Order: practice and spirituality. If it is as observance and practice similar to that of other Christians, speak to us about some of the practices of the brothers, including some examples of specific and personable, not personal-private, practices of members of the Order or even you as Provincial Minister.
In private practice, it doesn’t change, that is they are required to do the Daily Offices. Most of these guys have been doing the Daily Offices for years. We all follow those Offices as stated in the Book of Common Prayer. Several will use different sources for these things. We like to use new technologies. We utilize the web site for Mission St. Clare. There are a lot of different websites. In Lent I will use the COE (Church of England), use the Prayer Book of 1612.
It doesn’t really matter the source. I want them to be invigorated by the word and not be buried by it.
We are one entity; I am not a Provincial Minister. I’m a Minister General. There is one, just us. We try to keep our structure very simple, to the point, and only to what we need considering administrative structure. Pretty much, we’re governed by the Rule and by the Vow. They are very simple in structure as well. We took the rule and vow from Francis. We also operate under a democratic form. If the professed bring up something, we listen to it and we can make decisions that way.
When it comes to matters of operation, discipline and induction, I have the final decision—it lies with me.
We don’t have a Friary. If you go back in history, our brothers feel we actually live closer to the rule of 1223. Francis wanted them out of the monastery. He didn’t want them hidden in a box. He wanted them out in the world. Brothers living communally, 3 or 4 max—two or three living together was fine. But not as an ongoing presence. We’re new in that we harken back to something old. We are new in that we allowed people to be married, to be fathers. To be partnered, to have multiple vocations. We don’t mind if they are married, divorced, partnered. We don’t stand in their way. Their marital status or sexual status is not a criterion for why we think they are a brother. Unfortunately, with the SSF that is not the case. You must be single. Otherwise you can’t be in their Order.
Interview: Robert Siegel, poet of Maine USA speaks with the writer on his work–another in the ongoing series of conversations with Anglican and Christian poets
This writer says as note, I have been thinking about how to make the Eucharist a Christmas 2011 statement, and also to introduce the article-interview with Maine poet Robert H. Siegel about his work which is a gift. [Certainly, Christ’s birth is a gift to mankind—as is the Eucharist. In a manner, so is the gift of poetry a kind of birth in the poet’s life, as the poem does take on a life of its own after its “birth.” A poem requires nurture.]
The interview with Robert Siegel was conducted by email, and questions were answered in writing by the poet.
The following quote displays his poem about finches, and was one inspiration for the title of his book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems…” It is from the Houghton College interview conducted by John Leax and noted as partial reprint later in this article.
By Robert Siegel
It is morning. A finch startles
the maple leaves. Everything’s clear
in this first light before all thins
to a locust harping on the heat.
While day clutches at my pulse
to inject the usual anesthetic,
now, Christ, stimulate my heart,
transfuse your blood to fortify my own.
Let no light upon these sheets
diminish, Lord, before I feel you
burst inward like a finch
to nest and sing within this tree of bones.
For my way of thinking, the work of a poet is the result of a gift. This is especially true of Robert Siegel of Maine, USA; he is a man with a gift. He is also a man who writes poetry that reflects his faith while writing about God’s creatures in a way that a naturalist can love.
This article-interview on Robert Siegel is another in the ongoing series of interviews with Anglican and Christian poets. The poet wrote in an email:
You asked about a person, or persons, who know my work. On my website (robert-siegel.com ) I’ve included six complete reviews of my last two books of poetry. You might want to look at Paul Willis’ review in Christianity and Literature, as he touches on the relationship of poetry to faith and the spiritual. So does Thomas Bontly in The Sewanee Review. Robert French in The North Dakota Quarterly comments on my animal poems, which I consider my most characteristic, and (it seems to me) gets at what I’m trying to do in these and others.
I was raised Presbyterian but I have been an Anglican for 49 years this November, having been inspired to change by C.S. Lewis (and by my lovely wife, who preceded me into the fold).
POET PAUL WILLIS’ REVIEW, IN PART
Here is part of one review of Robert Siegel’s book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected poems,” Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts) from his website.
Professor of English at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Paul Willis wrote:
Sometimes Siegel ventures into the realm of specifically biblical creatures, to fine effect.
In “A Colt, the Foal of an Ass” from the selected portion, the beast of burden reflects on “this moment of bearing the man, / a weight that is light and easy” (118). “The Serpent Speaks” which concludes the first part of the new poems, is perhaps the greatest achievement of the collection. This long, sinuous monologue tempts us all over again—”I am another vine”—even as it rehearses the infection of all of history and the inevitable diminishment of the diabolical speaker (28). And yet the serpent is always a serpent, slithering side by side with the other natural snakes in this volume, all exquisitely observed.
To continue with a long quotation from the review written 2009, and appearing on the poet’s web page here, the review goes on in detail:
… I want to hasten to point out other glories of this collection. Prominent among them are the portraits of New Testament characters that comprise the second part of the new poems. These rough sonnets crystallize the inner lives of a whole array of individuals. Take, for example, “Perfection,” on Mary Magdalene, whose flask of perfume has been brought from Egypt by a Roman general and given to her with the command, ‘”Never age…. / Stay perfect. This will help”‘ (37). Or “Judas” who confides to us, “All along I was the only one who seemed to know / what the Man could do if he put his mind to it” (41). Or “The Epicure” who enjoys
… a pleasant life: at night the temple girls,
occasionally, after lunch, the flute-playing boy.
A moderate life: poetry for the heart and prose
to temper the mind, though I found less and less joy
Then, one day, happening to hear in the agora “one speak of a strange god,” suddenly he “heard Pythagoras’ // golden spheres turn for a second” (46).
It is the turning of these golden spheres that points to Siegel’s abilities and aspirations as a poet. His way of seeing is not merely sacramental but ultimately mystical. In “Annunciation,” he marks the coming of Gabriel in the most homely and heavenly of ways:
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever. (34)
Likewise, in “Patmos,” Siegel records the vision of John, “now in the blaze of noon and when the stars sang to his eyes” (47).
This anagogic impulse is sustained in poems throughout the volume. Part three of the new poems begins with the shaped stanzas of “Peonies”: “we see in them absolute / fire at the center, stasis / of star’s core…” (51). They are as “Dante saw the stars in a glass, / a corolla of souls, / each reflecting / the other’s light / and charity…” (51-52). Not surprisingly, another poem in this section is titled “Traherne,” a tribute to and imitation of that supremely mystical seventeenth-century English poet. Siegel glosses him when he writes, “The smallest grain of wheat would light the ground…” (60). The very last poem in the volume, “Voice of Many Waters,” with an epigraph from Revelation and a dedication to Clyde Kilby, is reminiscent of Traherne as well. First to last, in poems that span perhaps forty years, Siegel has stayed wondrously true to this vision.
INTERVIEW BY EMAIL WITH JOHN LEAX RE ROBERT SIEGEL
John Leax: I was a student of Clyde Kilby at Wheaton in the early sixties. I believe he first told me about Robert Siegel, holding him up as something of a model for me, one of the times we talked about my ambition to be a poet. Bob, with his degree from the Hopkins Writing Seminars and PhD from Harvard, I agreed was worth emulating, but I couldn’t imagine myself following that path. I was too much an indifferent student to achieve on that level.
About ten years later, after I’d gone to the Hopkins Writing Seminars (but not Harvard or any other PhD) and had begun teaching I finally met Bob at a conference on teaching creative writing sponsored by the Library of Congress. I believe Mel Lorentzen, a former teacher of both of us from Wheaton, introduced us. Bob, who was sitting with Richard Eberhart, was very polite. I was a bit in awe, somewhat tongue-tied, and awkward. What contact we had following that conference I can’t remember.
In 1980 or early 1981 I invited Bob to visit Houghton where I was teaching. I think our friendship really began then. I was editing a small magazine then and interviewed Bob for it. (I’ll arrange to have it scanned and emailed to you tomorrow.) A couple years later when the group of writers that would become the Chrysostom society met at New Harmony, I was included at Bob’s invitation. (He had written an introduction to my first book of prose that had just appeared.) Our friendship, encouraged by yearly visits and the shared concerns of thesociety, grew from that time. I may have been on the board at the same time as Bob, I can’t remember.
For the last ten years, we have been working together with Jeane Murray Walker on a collaborative poem on the seven deadly sins. The idea for this came from Bob and was worked on while hiking along the gorge in Letchworth State Park. This work has overflowed the boundary of the literary project and infiltrated my life. If I was in awe when I first met Bob, I am now deeply humbled by his craft, learning, wisdom, and generosity. In a strange way, largely because of my personality, our friendship while warm remains a bit formal. I still regard Bob with a bit of awe and can’t imagine imposing myself on him. (I know his character is such that he would find that sentence impossible.)
One thing that should be added: If one walks into a room filled with laughter at the Chrysostom Society, most likely Bob Siegel and Richard Foster are at the center of it. Somewhere in the archives is a collection of “roasting” limericks exchanged between them and others (often Luci Shaw) over dinner.
INTERVIEW WITH MAINE POET ROBERT SIEGEL
Peter Menkin: Take us down the road a little on the journey of the poet. By this I mean, what is it that the ear is tuned to, and the eye wanting to see, and the heart moved by when it comes to the life of a poet and the work of poetry in one’s life.
Robert Siegel: Even before I could read I enjoyed the sound, rhythm, and texture of words in nursery rhymes like the following:
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
Later I played with words on signs and billboards while riding in a car. Gulf Gas spelled backwards created the abysmal monster Flug Sag, and Standard Oil became Dradnats Lio a mythical half dragon and half lion. I wrote occasional rhymes As a sophomore in high school Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar inspired a somber sixteen-line poem called “Anthony’s Revenge” that began ,“My grief it knows no fathom, my wrath it knows no end,” It impressed my teacher, but chiefly I wrote poems as an adolescent to impress and woo the girl who is now my wife of 50 years.
In my college freshman comp. course I wrote a love lyric that came out of nowhere one lunch hour. The professor liked it well enough to read to the class and suggested I enter it in a contest. After that I was hooked. I took a couple of creative writing courses and every literature course I could find, and in my junior year started gathering weekly to workshop poems with other students, some of us bringing in three or four poems every week. We called it the Poets’ Corner, after that corner of Westminster Abbey.
During that time there was a definite moment when I felt called to a life as a poet. It happened in the fall of my senior year. I was in the Morton Arboretum looking at a spectacular array of fall foliage, when I rounded a corner and stopped in awe of a brilliant red tree—a crabapple, perhaps, or a Japanese maple. As I looked at its intensely red leaves they mesmerized me, as if they were on fire. And yet they were still, as if I ‘d stepped out of time. In that moment the thought came to me: “So this is Beauty and I am called to reveal it to the world.” It was very distinct, and after that I knew clearly what my poetry was for. It had the force of a religious vocation.
After that it was inevitable I’d apply to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. After taking the master’s degree, and a year’s teaching in Chicago, I enrolled in Harvard’s graduate school—partly because the poet Robert Lowell was there. I had read his early poetry, such as his elegy, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket. Lowell was a great inspiration and I worked with him my four years there, His approval confirmed my vocation. Early in my first term there I went to his office hours with nine poems I had written that fall. I found him alone, and had an hour and a half with him before another student showed up. I handed him one poem after another. After reading a few he said to me. “Other people have played this trick of handing me one poem to read and then another and another, but this is the first time I’ve looked forward to the next.” Obviously these words burned themselves into my brain, along with other very encouraging comments. Each fall from 1963 to 67 I attended his morning office hours, which by the second year had turned into an informal seminar. He urged me to send out poems and liked particularly my poem “Hanscom Air Field” so well he carried it to Robert Manning, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in June of ‘67. Later he recommended to the publisher my first book, The Beasts & the Elders..
Peter Menkin: You have also been a teacher for many years. Some schools where you taught are these: Siegel has taught at Dartmouth, Princeton, and Goethe University in Frankfurt, and for twenty-three years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he directed the graduate creative writing program and is currently professor emeritus of English. He has degrees from Wheaton, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. He is married to Ann Hill Siegel, a photographer, and lives on the coast of Maine. So your website tells its readers. Is there a similarity to the work of teacher to that of poet? Or more, does being a teacher feed your poetry, and sense of the poetic?
Robert Siegel: I feel very privileged to have taught. Not only did teaching provide the time for writing, but it meant that I was always working with literature and with students who were learning to write poetry or fiction.. It was wonderful to have the chance to teach Paradise Lost, King Lear, and Heart of Darkness to Dartmouth freshmen, Coleridge to seniors, and, later, Yeats to graduate students.
We were particularly fortunate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to have a large graduate program in creative writing with students in their twenties to mid-seventies. Not only did this mean we had mature students, but also ones with some life experience to write about. I had one lady in her seventies who had survived Hitler’s camps—though much of her family didn’t—and ultimately published two books of poetry about it.
I think writing and teaching draw upon the same energy, for I did not write as much during term time. But teaching a subject helps you to continue learning it, and you learn in various ways from students. For instance, I think the critiquing of student poetry in seminars no doubt sharpened my ability to revise my own work.
One thing I learned while teaching in our graduate program in an urban university is how much talent there is out there, and how many people with talent fail to fully develop it—often for understandable reasons. This has always seemed to me to hint at the reality of an afterlife—there is so much more to people than can be fully discovered and developed in one lifetime.
Peter Menkin: I think people believe the poet is like the philosopher, like the teacher, like the musician—also the painter. In essence, the poet is a writer. Will you tell us if you agree with these statements and talk a little about your own work, especially that of the religious and faith kind. Does it either increase for you and even others food for thought about the Almighty and his Son Jesus Christ? Do you think that there is a sense of the grandeur of life and that of the Almighty? If so, how and even why? I know these are pointed questions, especially regarding religion and God, but my work as a Religion Writer sometimes asks I talk about such things with people. I am hoping you will take some time and talk to us about such things.
Robert Siegel: Yes, there is a connection between the poet, the musician, and the philosopher. Also the painter. I particularly identify with the painter in the use of imagery. We have several artists in the family, including my wife, a truly gifted photographer. Walter Pater said poetry aspires to the condition of music, and music is certainly of the essence too. Pound said that in addition to visual imagery and music, poetry had to have substantive meaning (I think the exotic term he used for this was logopoeia) which certainly connects it to philosophy.
For me that meaning is ultimately spiritual. Charles Williams said somewhere there are four sources of natural revelation: Love, Art, Nature, and the City. I’ve never related well to cities but the other three have been the source of poetry for me and means of apprehending and expressing my spiritual convictions, however indirectly.
In college I was fortunate in my English major to take courses in the major poets, Chaucer , Spenser, Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, and Shelley and Hopkins, and Eliot. to mention some of my favorites. They presented love, poetry and nature to me as sources of the divine. I will talk more about romantic love later. But I’ll quote here two lines from Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” that struck me my freshman year in college:
What is this world, what asketh man to have,
Now in his love’s armes, now in his colde grave.
As for nature, they –even T.S. Eliot—found “splendor in the grass and glory in the flower,” as Wordsworth put it, and shared in various ways a neo-platonic view of the world where everything is capable of revealing the divine , no matter how lowly it is on the great chain of being. Hopkinscalled this inscape, and he found it in everything from an eyelash to a wave of the sea. Poetry then became for me a possible sacramental, a way of final participation in Owen Barfield’s sense, of “finding the presence of God in everything,”or in Browning’s “God is seen God, / In the star in the stone in the flesh in the soul and the clod.”
The experience of a calling I referred to earlier helped me to understand this. And before that, a conversion experience I had in college where God revealed His reality to me . Immediately afterwards I transferred toWheatonCollege a strong, non-denominational Christian institution , where I knew my faith could be nurtured and I might grow in Christ. There I encountered C.S. Lewis’s works and was confirmed in the Anglican Church. In the last decade I have started regular centering prayer, according to the method taught by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, and find this contemplative method has certain qualities suggestive of the act of writing.
In turn the act of writing poetry becomes for me a kind of sacramental experience. Bruno Barnhart, a Camaldolese hermit, says that the “unitive” aesthetic experience offered by literature and art—when we feel one with what we are reading, looking at, or hearing– is a step toward experiencing union with God and I would agree. Our best experiences with literature and the arts are contemplative, a union of ourselves with the beauty before us. Literature and the arts can help us to forget ourselves and experience a completeness, a wholeness, for a moment or an hour. We forget our incomplete, divided selves and for a time are made one with what we are contemplating. This unitive experience can lead us to see beyond the work of art itself to what may shine through it, the world of the spirit.
This unitive experience may often lead me to write a poem. As I’ve described it elsewhere: “Most of us [writers] share a desire to call up things into words. This is the alchemy that fascinates me. A sensation, impression, or image will step out from its surroundings and demand my total attention. the thing itself will appear to rise up as words and send me fumbling for my notebook or keyboard.. Here is the wonder of what Keats called ‘natural magic’ as the image reaches up toward the words, the words become the image, the thing itself. For one happy moment they are fused. Thing becomes word and word becomes thing. . . substance and meaning are fused. The terrible gap between experience and the articulation of experience is closed. The mind is one with what it perceives.”
In my animal poems, especially, I attempt to become one with the animal while remaining my human self, and thus, I hope to create a third thing or voice, which is something like a totemic presence. The act of becoming one with something as you contemplate it or write is what Keats named “negative capability.” Much of his poetry comes from this experience. He once commented that if “a sparrow comes before my window I take part in its existence and peck about the gravel.”
Here are several examples of what I do in the animal poems. In each case I’m quoting a short part of the poem (all from A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems. Copyright 2006, Robert Siegel. All rights reserved.):
from Deer Tick:
No larger than a period I scramble
among the sequoia of your armhairs
unable to decide in this vast wilderness
where to drill for the life-giving well,
the water of life, the warm blood.
For I am sick unto death: in my abdomen
the spirochete turns its deadly corkscrew
which I must shortly confess to the stream
pulsing from your dark red heart,
setting at liberty this ghostly germ
large in the deer’s glazed eye
and the mouse’s tremble. . . .
I am of two minds moving out of sync—
when one’s in action, the other’s resting,
and so I never come to a conclusion
though we move in the same direction
by separate steps, by little omegas,
yet neither end comes ever to an end. . . .
tasting the ocean
one mouthful at a time.
It is a slow rumination,
a reading of incunabula
in my cloister,
in this cell where light
fills me totally like an eye
then washes away. . . .
White, moist, orange,
I crawl up the cabbage leaf exposed,
too much like your most intimate parts
to be lovely, to be loved. I weep to the world,
my trail a long tear, defenseless
from its beaks and claws
except for my bitter aftertaste.
He who touches me shares my sorrow
and shudders to the innermost–my pale horns
reaching helpless into the future.
In plastic cups filled with beer
ringed like fortresses around your garden,
your lie of plenty,
we drown by the hundreds,
curled rigid in those amber depths,
so many parentheses surrounding nothing.
You do not understand nothing:
the nakedness to the sky,
the lack of one protective shelter,
the constant journey.
Millions of us wither in the margins
while food rots close by.
Nothing is a light that surrounds us
like the breath of God.