Beauty and Truth in a Time of Plague

Photo: J R Korpa, Unsplash

”I recover my tenderness by long looking.” — Theodore Roethke1

Sometimes it feels like we are in our plague years. Not a plague such as millions suffered in the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, or the thousands with Ebola, but a plague of despair and hopelessness. Having said that, I know that for many people this is a time of ascendancy—not plague—when beliefs they fervently hold are coming true and people in power are making that happen. It is a time of vindication.

Still, if we see through the rising and falling of hopes to the generalized need for hope as such, there is a commonality of restlessness and anger that infects us all. We are creatures who have adapted to the uneven surfaces upon which we walk to such an extent that even when we come upon a level plain, we walk as though we were at sea.

We demand our place, we want our words to strike home—the metaphor, taken literally, is violent in its imagery—we confront, we stand with, we never retreat nor give an inch. In short, we are at war with others and the Other.

It should be evident that things we care deeply about are worth defending. In fact, one sign of a society whose members no longer regard it as defensible is the callous reply, “Whatever,” to matters of importance. But we are crippled by a lack of moral imagination for making a defense that itself does not complicate the problem. In Yeat’s phrase, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

***

Poet Seamus Heaney tells a story from 1972 in Belfast: he and a musician friend were on their way to a recording studio when a series of bombs ripped through the city. Within minutes of them arriving at the studio the air was full of sirens as ambulances rushed to the wounded and the dead. Heaney recalls that they looked at one another in unspoken anguish, his friend packed up his guitar and they left. It seemed indulgent to be doing something so enjoyable. What he called Art and Life—or again—Song and Suffering, had seemingly clashed. And what he and his friend, David Hammond, were feeling at that moment was that “song constituted a betrayal of suffering.” 2

Poets and writers, said Kurt Vonnegut, are our early warning system, the canaries in the coal mine—they are the first to be affected by the deadly fumes of a culture in extremis, and their warnings must not be overlooked. Examples abound throughout the ages, but one that still echoes for me on the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a howl of feedback with a melody line that staggers, backtracks, and spirals, at once raging and raw and yet somehow wistful in the way the notes hang, looking for a safe place to land. In the midst of a tragic war, in a society tearing apart from the disparities between its promise and its peril, Hendrix’s interpretation was a cross-section of a felled tree, revealing the rot at the core.

From the opposite angle comes the sigh of the oppressed, the longing of the exile for familiar hills, and the mockery of captors who demand a tune from back home for their entertainment.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there

we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?3

Can suffering be healed by beauty? Does it dishonor the gravity of the situation to try?

***

Online discourse in these times falls along predictable lines. Someone posts a provocative article or viewpoint on, let’s say, an anguished response to the mass shooting(s) of the week. Common sense cries out for a ban on assault weapons: the various attack ships uncloak themselves and swarm into view overhead as their troops beam down. “It can’t be done,” “It’s video games,” “Guns don’t kill people . . .”, “Don’t take away my guns,” “It’s a mental health problem,” “Godless people are to blame,” “It’s the Democrats’/Republicans’ fault.”

Solutions are proposed and derided, facts are claimed and scuttled, sweeping generalizations jolt aside private duels over verb tenses. In time, with the battlefield littered with bodies, the survivors limp away to their rendezvous points. Truth, bound and bloodied, is led away captive. Almost no one notices.

After all that, to claim, as Keats does, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” almost sounds quaint and anachronistic. And yet, there is something in us that wants, above all, to believe that Beauty and Truth are within reach and can be brought into our lives, even in such toxic and arid times.

***

I return to Seamus Heaney who, as a native of Northern Ireland, grew up within the centuries-old sorrows of its history, and who lived through the sectarian “Troubles” that claimed so many innocent lives. The questions he raises about truth and beauty, about being a poet in a time of war, open a way to understand our times—and may also cast a light upon the path of faith through this world.

“In one sense,” he says, “the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But recalling how he and Hammond clammed up around the sirens, he wonders again, “Why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?”4

I am reminded of the experience of Sting, who had scheduled a concert near his home in Tuscany for the evening of September 11, 2001. When the news of 9/11 stunned the world, he almost cancelled, feeling that such a celebration would border on sacrilege in the aftermath of a tragedy of those proportions. But friends persuaded him to go ahead, assuring him that light and beauty in a dark time would be a kind of prayer for hope. One of his songs, “Fragile,” is forever linked to that time.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one

Drying in the color of the evening sun

Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away

But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant

To clinch a lifetime’s argument

That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

For all those born beneath an angry star

Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

How fragile we are5

Heaney’s essay brings forward the experience and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier who wrote from the trenches of World War I, and who was killed shortly before the end of the war. Owen was a leader and a soldier, but he was vehemently against the carnage of a war that took the flower of European civilization. His poems are bitter at times, usually melancholy, always directed at deflating the false glory of dying for one’s country. He sought to awaken conscience. “True poets must be truthful,” he wrote. “All a poet can do today is warn.” Art seeking to change Life.

Heaney also points to Mandelstam, a Russian poet of renown, who would not write propagandistic drivel for Stalin’s regime. Mandelstam saw poetry as rising up within the poet like a flood or growing from within like a crystal. He could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing and still live. He went to his death with the view that the creative impulse is its own reason for existing. “For him,” writes Heaney, “obedience to the poetic impulse was obedience to conscience; lyric action constituted radical witness.”6

So, Owen writes poetry which rebukes beauty in favor of truth; Mandelstam seems to hold Keats’ dictum that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. “He is a burning reminder,” says Heaney, “of the way in which not only the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ may be salvaged from the catastrophe of history, but the word ‘beauty’ also: a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’”7 We need both: the hard edge of Truth and the softer light of Beauty. There are moments in our lives when we can only take in one or the other; in time, as it may be, we will be sustained by both.

Poetry gives the attentive reader a moment to take a breath and to give attention, fully and freely, to what is there on the page or in the ear. In a time of war and in a time of social tension, it reminds us that beauty and justice and truth are not at odds.

What is efficient may not always be what is effective. And if poetry, art, and music touch us it is in part because we have entrusted ourselves to their power to lift us and transform us, another kind of faith.

Like calls to like: when we respond to beauty seen and heard, it is a revelation that Beauty is still within us.

  1. Quoted in Mayne, Michael. The Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, American Edition, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. xii.
  3. Ps 137: 1-4
  4. Heaney, xii.
  5. Sumner, Gordon. Fragile. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management.
  6. Heaney, p. xix.
  7. Heaney, xx.

Faith as Poetry

StoneChurch:stefan-kunze-16862-unsplash

Have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and try to cherish the questions themselves . . . Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer. — Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What if creating our personal faith was like writing a poem? Not doggerel or a sentimental one-size-fits-all Hallmark card, but a creation of content, form, style—all of that welling up through hard-won experience.

What is “faith”? Is it a journey, a process, a procedure with a product at the end, a string of moments that our memories turn into a continuous experience? Should we tend our faith like we would a garden, yanking out the weeds and watering regularly? Is it like playing a piece that we’ve performed hundreds of times, each performance slightly different from the last because we have incrementally changed since last we performed it? Perhaps, as we are often told, it is a gift not received until we open it. Or is it the speaking into sound of our suffering, the dis-ease we feel being apart from God, the telos of our completion?

If it were simple we would not be having this communion. I don’t know all the ways in which faith is veiled to our comprehension, but I can give voice to what I am beginning to grasp about it in the light of poetry.

Like poetry, faith can form from a slight movement within our vision or from a word that drops into our life at an opportune moment. As in poetry, we form an idea and express it in a way that allows for both consistency and fluidity. The writing of it—and the living of it—takes attention, creativity, commitment, sacrifice, and an ability to lift thought to sound. There is something on the page and in the life that can be read and understood; there is something else that arises and moves beyond the meaning of the words, something that could not be entirely predicted from the arrangement of those words. It is a seeing-into, an awareness of the numinous sleeping inside the modestly mundane.

Mary Oliver says in A Poetry Handbook that writing poetry demands “a perfect seriousness. For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand.” Rainer Rilke, in his incomparable Letters to a Young Poet, implores his young friend who is doubtful about his calling, “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? . . . And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ’I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity.” Could we ask for a deeper motivation for the building of our faith?

Rilke’s correspondent, a young officer in the army who longs to be a published poet, has asked for Rilke’s critique of his poems. Rilke responds gently: “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.”

And we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, a motion of utter seriousness, and yet not without its playfulness. Where do we begin?

Mary Oliver commends to beginning poets that “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers.” In flowing that out to faith we have no end of examples. For me, the two that I return to over and over are Abraham contesting with God for the souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob desperately wrestling through the night by the river Jabbok. They are heroic figures, all the more appealing in their finitude, striving with all their might with a benignly awesome force that could flick them out of the way in a heartbeat. To read these stories is to wake up; it is to realize with a shiver that while God will not be mocked, He yearns for engagement at close quarters. Our faith is most alive when it is thrown on its back foot; whether reverently challenging God’s judgments as did Abraham or striving to realize our new identity in God as Jacob did, we learn first by seeing and then by doing.

Oliver continues her master class with an invitation to imitate. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.” As she says, there is very little downside to this. In imitation we try on the unfamiliar, testing whether the expression we’re holding feels like it could be ours. “Imitation fades as a poet’s own style—that is, the poet’s own determined goals . . . Begins to be embraced.”

Are we the impassioned, but clear thinking Augustine of The Confessions, or the restrained tensile strength of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil? The gentle and comforting hand of Henri Nouwen or the stern ebullience of Martin Luther? The brilliant erudition of John Donne and Karl Rahner or the urgent intensity of Jurgen Moltmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

We must begin in faith to find our “style” of faith. We are beginners and we do not know ourselves enough to know what is truly ours. Rilke, advising the young Herr Kappus, says, ”To love is also good: for love is difficult . . . Therefore young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it.”

And we have to learn faith—it’s not self-evident or obvious nor is it a matter of simply trusting the smirking and coiffed televangelist. Whatever else we may learn about faith, we can know by example, by story—eventually by experience—that it is supple and flexible rather than hard and brittle. It not only adapts to changes, it is change; if it were not so there would be no possibility of surviving our pasts.

“What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?,” asks Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it. All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.” The spark that jumps where love and faith touch is enough to renew us in responding to the God who “makes all things new.”

Our experience is all we’ve got, but it’s enough. Our bodies, ourselves, our needs and wants, may coalesce into some kind of coherent narrative over time, but that usually appears in the rear-view mirror. Going forward, and in the present moment, it’s much more difficult to know where we are. Christian Wiman, commenting on the American poet, Hart Crane, muses that “he did to some extent confuse meaningful experience with mere turbulence, as if one weren’t truly in one’s life unless one were being overwhelmed by it.” We needn’t feel ashamed if our experience is quiet, even reticent, rather than crackling with drama. We get the conversions we need, not the ones we envy.

There is a way of relating to faith that is indolently passive. We go about our business, occasionally mildly surprised that nothing has bloomed in the no-mans land between us and God—a change of situation, an uplifting feeling, a new viewpoint on our life’s journey—something that should happen to us. But when we attempt to make something happen it inevitably falls flat. Maybe we read our Bible for fifteen minutes a day, pray for fifteen, start going to church more or even for the first time, disconsolately trudging down the path mapped out by spiritual self-help consultants. These actions can seem like we’re priming the pump or cutting down on the odds that lightning will strike and we’ll have a spiritual experience. This is not the dark night of the soul, it’s more like twilight for spiritual zombies. If that sounds harsh it’s because there is no formula for writing great poetry any more than there is a formula for walking, open and unafraid, in faith.

Great poetry, I am convinced, is the result of being rooted in this world while seeing beyond it. It takes our full attention, both as writers and as readers. It is often difficult, because speaking life through our words is hard, just as folding our words into our waking lives is hard. All this can be said of faith, no doubt.

For poets, and for the rest of us, what really matters in life and in poetry begins with questions. For the poet, as for the traveler in faith, there is an active waiting, not straining, that is as much about hope as it is about faith. As the epigram from Rilke says, “Live the questions now,” and we may “one distant day live right into the answer.”

Photo: Stefan Kunze, Unsplash.com