Sunday, May 27, 2012

Listening to far-off fields: The Man Watching

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

It was another Friday pepperoni-mushroom-onion-pizza night, home at last from my long commute, talking about the week with my husband. But it wasn’t just another Friday night. It was a Friday night in October of 2001, a month after the world collapsed in on itself, after the storm arrived, the storm that we should have known was coming had we been listening to the Man Watching. If we had only listened to what the far-off fields were saying.
My recollection of that period in history is one of both hunkering down and moving on. Many folks I knew dug in, put up bunkers, mainly emotional ones, but also ones with real ramifications, like choosing to not do anything (not travel, not trade in stock, not make big purchases, not change jobs, etc.).  But even more people I knew made really big decisions within the six months after 9/11, life changing decisions. The sudden then steady images over the news of the immovable being permanently moved, of dust-covered people we could have known (we could have been) running for their lives, created this wave of  realization that life is too short to fight such tiny battles and put off the big dreams. It was a national catalytic moment.

My husband and I were among the dreamers and the deciders, the catalyzed. That Friday night over our usual pepperoni, mushroom, and onion pizza with a couple Diet Cokes thrown in for good measure, we decided to put our house on the market.  Just like that. After years of talking about moving to Maine, as we nibbled on the last bits of crust that momentous evening, we looked at each other and said, “What are we waiting for?” 

You see, before that point (I can easily say now in retrospect), what we had been fighting was “so tiny,” to borrow from Rilke. The “far off fields” had been saying things to us that we needed to bear with friends and love with sisters. We had not loved our dreams well enough until then. Until we had been dominated by the immense storm, we could not move past the small fights that only made us weaker with every win.

Today, a decade-plus older and hopefully the wee bit wiser, even my more noble fights still look petty when I stop and realize my need to be “dominated /as things do by some immense storm.” As things do. Like trees that bend in the wind. Like a river that floods then contracts.

If only I could always pick the really big and important fights, the ones with eternal consequences, the ones that are not so newsworthy, but really matter. Perhaps then I “would become strong too, and not need names.”

Another slice of pizza couldn't hurt, either.

I dedicate this post to the countless warriors (the ones who no longer need names) who chose to fight not the tiny but the greater, to let themselves be dominated, ultimately “being defeated, decisively” for this country and for freedom. Let them grow in our memory.

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly (Harper & Row, New York, 1981)

Monday, May 21, 2012

A World Aflame with Words

Musing on Malcolm Guite’s “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier”

Note: By day, guest blogger Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

As another school year closes and graduations descend upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about beginnings and endings. The sermon I heard Sunday marked another such end, as we celebrate the last Sunday in Easter and look towards Pentecost next week, the longest season of the church calendar. Endings and beginnings. Words, in the form of greeting cards and speeches and yearbook signings, fond farewells and a welcome in to the summer season. I’m changing jobs, moving to a high school next year, and so as I draw this year to a close, thoughts of my first day in a new place fill me even as I face the last moments with these people, some of whom I shall surely never see again.

Ah, that first day of school. As a teacher, I love that day. I’ve found nothing in the world so potent with possibility as that first-day-of-class terror. Not my fear, anxious though I always am, but the fear of my students. Thick and palpable, I can almost feel it as I walk into the room and write my name on the board. Potent with possibility. And a faint whiff of panic.

It’s always puzzled me that so many teachers let such a powerful moment slip by. So many of us follow the same format: we pass out a syllabus and then proceed to read the most stultifying prose known to man to these unwitting students in such terrific terror. As if they cannot read, at least well enough to register for and find their way to our classes. As if we need a way to lose their attention at once, providing them papers full of rules and deadlines. “Dead lines” indeed—a sort of crisp white boundary to immediately insert between themselves and us. Such a promising moment, so sadly squandered.

Fully confident of the fact that I have plenty of time, however inadvertently, to bore them in the future, I seize this first moment that I open my mouth before them and then dare something different. I stare at them a moment and then begin telling them about my dear friend, the ReverendDoctor Malcolm Guite of Girton College, Cambridge. He lookslike a half-sized, happy Hagrid, rides a Harley, plays guitar and sings lead in a pub band, and writes poetry in form. Everything you want in an Anglican priest, no?

One day at Girton College, one of Malcolm’s poems gummed up the Xerox rather badly and elicited this terse comment from the woman in charge of said copy machine: “Dr. Guite, your poetry is jamming my machine!” After freeing his verses (haha!) from the maw of the copier, Malcolm recognized that she had uttered a perfect line of iambic pentameter: “My poetry is jamming your machine.” He walked away musing, and soon thereafter produced the following villanelle.

I cannot begin to say how grateful I am that he did. I’ve memorized this wonderful piece, and I quote it to bookend the entire class. Each start and end of term, the opening words my students hear out of my mouth on the very first day of class and the last thing they hear as they head for the door come in the form of this poem. These lines for me perfectly take advantage of those vital moments of creative fear or of weary accomplishment. I have memorized through years of good use (and suggest you do the same):

On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier

My poetry is jamming your machine
It broke the photo-copier, I’m to blame,
With pictures copied from a world unseen.

My poem is in the works -I’m on the scene
We free my verse, and I confess my shame,
My poetry is jamming your machine.

Though you berate me with what might have been,
You stop to read the poem, just the same,
And pictures, copied from a world unseen,

Subvert the icons on your mental screen
And open windows with a whispered name;
My poetry is jamming your machine.

For chosen words can change the things they mean
And set the once-familiar world aflame
With pictures copied from a world unseen

The mental props give way, on which you lean
The world you see will never be the same,
My poetry is jamming your machine
With pictures copied from a world unseen.

Let’s look at the poem. Several phrases of course leap out right away. These “pictures copied from a world unseen” slyly suggests several things at once. To those of us involved in the daily struggle to grow inside ourselves some kind of a spiritual life, this phrase might suggest the next world, new life. Heaven peeking through the thin places of the world. C. S. Lewis writes that the scriptures are “rustling with the rumor” that a new world awaits us. And the creative arts, poetry, architecture, dance, all the products of all the Nine Muses, these are the pictures we imperfectly create of a world we long to see.

Next I love the quite cunning phrase “we free my verse” all the more because I’ve never known Malcolm to write free verse at all. I feel justifiably certain he’d write EXCELLENT free verse; that he’d suggest it in so complex a form as a villanelle points to the sheer weight of gleeful creativity this poet brings to bear in his outstanding work.

“Subvert the icons on your mental screen” of course points to what both art and the Holy Spirit long to do—turn over the tables in our temples and present the world a new way for us to see into ourselves and into the lives of others. New eyes. Flipping things around. The irony, the paradox of a savior in a stable. And the subtle invitation to turn from the outer screens that bombard us daily and to pay close attention to the images inside. New eyes.

And new ears, for here again Malcolm’s sensuous spirituality slips in and “opens windows with a whispered name.” I think I know that name. Do you? Might it be my name? Might it be yours? Might it be the name at which we all will kneel in joy and wonder one day?

And now we come to the heart of the poem, of course: “chosen words can change the things they mean.” Isn’t that what all of us who labor in language long on our best days to do? I exhort my students never to underestimate the power of language to change the world, because from where I stand, ultimately, language offers us the only thing that ever does change the world.

In class as I round my recitation toward home, I pick out the most reluctant and least-likely faces and make eye contact, and even point a little, pressing home the truth that “the world you see will never be the same” for having allowed my poetry to jam up their machines. And by now, even the dullest among them realize that we are speaking here of more than machines, that a profound and purposeful metaphor has slipped into their soul by way of words.

Their machine may be an Xbox or an iPod, or a football field or a lifelong loathing of English class. It may prove something more primal, like fear of failing, or years of disapproval in the form of red-pen corrections. I tell my students that the books we read are not boring. Properly contextualized and opened up, any book one finds in the current school curricula might well offer wonders  and beauties, riches of several kinds. Perhaps the machine that this poetry will jam is their too-quick dismissal of a beauty that takes time and silence to unfold.

I exhort my freshmen reading Shakespeare for the first time that this searching for its sunken treasure takes time, and effort, and silence. A dictionary, and no distractions. A pencil to parse out the pages. And believe it or not, when they push open their lives to make space for the poetry of the play to arise, they find themselves both powerful in their ability to understand, delighted by the cleverness of it all, and even sensitive to the searing truths that the Bard always touches upon. After opening one passage recently, one young man literally shook in his seat for the joy of it all—both because of the lovely, intricate delight in the excellence of expression and meaningfulness, and because of the proud sense of power that he had understood it. He shook in his seat for joy. A world had opened up before him.

And so, as I face final classes this week, I shall recite this poem again to them, and pray somehow that for more than just one, my poetry has jammed their machines.  Although it may smolder awhile before each knows what to do with it, I hope they have found in their reading, in my poetry that I’ve pressed upon them, a spark that just may set their whole worlds aflame. And, come fall, we’ll try it all again.

Until then, next Sunday on Pentecost many of the churchfolk I know will wear clothes of yellow and red to remember the fire that comes down till it sits on our heads—and sets the world aflame, with pictures copied from a world unseen. Thank you, Malcolm. Your poetry is jamming our machines.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rock me to sleep: Guest Blogger Sarah Flaherty on a Mother’s Love

It is an honor to welcome social media maven and talented wordsmith Sarah Flaherty to share her best Mother’s Day thoughts for readers of All Nine. A self-described bookworm and work-out junkie, Sarah is also one of those rarest of individuals: a quietly insistent and steady voice for kindness, fair play, and quality work. Follow her tweets at @SarahLiz815.

Rock me to sleep: Sarah Flaherty on a Mother’s Love
Over my heart, in the days that are flown,
No love like mother-love ever has shone;
No other worship abides and endures,—      
Faithful, unselfish, and patient like yours:
None like a mother can charm away pain
From the sick soul and the world-weary brain.
Slumber’s soft calms o’er my heavy lids creep;—     
Rock me to sleep, mother, – rock me to sleep!

From "Rock Me to Sleep" by Elizabeth Akers Allen

When I was young, my mother used to hold her hand to my forehead and rub her thumb in the space between my eyebrows. It was as though she had hit my own personal "Relax" button—a switch that would calm my breathing, stop my tears, ease my mind. I wouldn't be able to stop my eyes from closing. I do the same thing now to my husband when he has a headache, and I'm sure one day I'll do it to our children. It's more than just a soothing movement; it's an expression of love.

For Mother's Day, I wanted to find a poem that would express the gratitude and love I have for my mother. The passage above was a little too Hallmark-card for me at first pass, but what I love is its simple message. So many of the poems I found were too complicated, too modern, too focused on the memories of a mother who has passed, or the complications of dealing with a mother's illness, or the intricacies and faults of a mother/child relationship.  All true expressions, in their own rights—but not what I was looking for.

With a few exceptions, I don't normally connect with poems published before the 20th century. They feel too grandiose (case in point: the exclamation point at the end of the stanza above), too large to find a way in. The camera is "zoomed out," as one of my college professors would have said. I can't get close enough to see the intimacies, the brushstrokes, the imperfections that invite me into the poem in a human way.

As I write this now from my husband's parents' house, I hear my mother-in-law on the phone upstairs speaking to one of her other three children (all in their 40s). "Love you, kid," she says as she hangs up. That's what I'm looking for, I thought. A poem that expresses the purest, tender love a mother has for her child that prompts her, 40+ years after their birth, to still call them "kid." And that's what I like about the excerpt above: it gets at that timeless love, the love that remains regardless of illnesses, passings, disagreements. It's beyond that. It's above that.

In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes writing in her journal when she felt scared, lost, or drained. It's been a few years since I read the book, but I remember she talked about a voice that would emerge from the page and guide her forward. It was her own voice, of course--but a wiser, more honest part of herself that spoke only when she was willing to listen. I'm blessed that my mother lives just a few miles from me and I can call her or stop by when I'm overwhelmed with life, irrational fears, or anxiety.  And she's always there to help me dig for what's true, to tell me (and, more importantly, help me believe) that everything will be okay.  But when she's not immediately available and I have to find that voice to help me move forward, the voice of wisdom in my head is my mom.  If I can think about what she would say, what advice she would give, I'm always better off.  It's just one of the gifts she's given me, but it's one of the most valuable, guiding my writing, my work, and the way I live my life.

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there—and to my own, I love you.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sweet Accord: 4 writing tips from Wyatt

Throughout the world if it were sought,
Fair words enough a man shall find,
They be good cheap, they cost right nought,
Their substance is but only wind,
But well to say, and so to mean,
That sweet accord is seldom seen.

—Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

For those of us in the business of communicating concepts through words (and when you get right down to it, aren’t we all?), it helps to review some basics about getting our messages heard through the cacophony of noise.  And for the rest of us who have to sort out all the competing messages, we would give anything for that priceless “sweet accord” that Sir Thomas Wyatt refers to.  The words that will get noticed are those that are “seldom seen,” those fair few that meet at the intersection of “well said” and “well meant.”

Sir Thomas Wyatt provides us a few timeless lessons on finding that priceless “sweet accord” of fair words and truth:

1.      Leave white space. “Fair words enough a man shall find…” Say/write only enough to get your message to your intended listener/reader. It is always better to leave people wanting more than to suffocate them with well-intentioned words.

2.      On the other hand… don’t be stingy with your fair words. “They cost right nought…” There may be a day, a moment, an opportunity when you are the one person who is there in the right place at the right time to say something very true, very well, and very much needed. That is not the time for white space.

3.      Say your most important things very well. “Well to say…” Honor your best efforts by giving them your best words. You are not going to change the world with your ground-breaking study of newfound truth if no one can understand what you are saying (or if they are too bored by it to wait for the punch line).

4.      Use fine words fittingly. “So to mean…” Your loyal readers honor you with their eyes. Don’t betray that trust with empty words or half-truths. If you have nothing of substance or meaning to offer at this time, take a pass and leave space for the next messenger bearing the substance of sweet accord.