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- 13 - Ron's passing
THE LANGUAGE OF THERE1992 was indeed "an auspicious juncture in the history of His Cause." That year White published not only his final major book of poetry, Occasions of Grace, but also two small volumes: The Language of There and Notes Postmarked the Mountain of God. 1992 also marked the hundredth anniversary of the ascension of Baha'u'llah in 1892. In the Ridvan Message that year, in April 1992, the Universal House of Justice referred to "an onrushing wind...clearing the ground for new conceptions," "some mysterious, rampant force" and a "quickening wind." It was this wind which was ventilating our "modes of thought...renewing, clarifying and amplifying our perspectives." Perhaps White's final blasts of poetry were part of this "befitting demarcation," this Holy Year.
By the end of that Holy Year in May 1993 White had left this earthly life. This "special time for a rendezvous of the soul with the Source of its light and life....a time of retreat to one's innermost being," to which the Universal House of Justice called all Baha'is in April 1992 did arrive quite literally for Roger White. Perchance the soul of Roger White was being filled, as that year came to an end, in that undiscovered country "with the revivifying breath" of Baha'u'llah's celestial power "from His retreat of deathless splendour."1
In October 1992 I received a copy of The Language of There in the mail. Six months later Roger left this mortal coil and all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is air to" that Hamlet spoke so eloquently of in the beautifully modulated rhythms of that soliloquy in Act III Scene I of Shakespeare's play by that name. The last published poem and piece of prose on the last two pages of this small volume of poetry speak volumes and so I will quote them here. White's last words, quite literally, seem perfectly appropriate in this final essay on his final works. These last words embody the thinking of a lifetime, as so many of White's poems do, and the delight he found for his spirit in giving expression to the truths he found in life.
THE LANGUAGE OF THERE
I mean to learn, in the language of where I am going, barely enough to ask for food and love.-James Merrill
Yes. There, light will be our language,
a tongue without words for
perhaps, or arid, or futile,
though shadow will be retained
that we may contrast the radiance.
Almost will no longer be a measure.
We will learn a hundred synonyms for certitude,
and love will have a thousand conjugations.
Ours will be the italicised vocabulary
of delectable astonishments.
The possessive case will play no part
in the grammar of joy and burgeoning,
infants will speak at birth, and only the ancients
will remember the obscenity exile.
There, laughter will be spelt in capitals,
sadness grow obsolete,
and negation be declared archaic.
Hell will be pronounced remoteness,
and vast tomes will be devoted
to the derivations of yes.
Where all is elation and surprise
exclamation points will fall into disuse.
There, food and affection will be ours for a smile,
and immortality for a fluent, knowing wink.
In time, our desire to speak will abandon us.
All that need be said the light will say. Yes.
It would seem that White found, at least gave expression to in his poetry, what literary critic Leone Vivante describes in the opening paragraph of his book as "a principle of inward light, an original self-active principle, which characterizes life and spontaneity as contrasted with mechanism."2 This concept of self-activity revealed and developed itself in White's poetry in a supremely genuine and direct way. There is a quality of truth in some poetry, what Vivante says can claim to be "an ultimate truth which is essential to their poetical value."2
While I'm not sure I'd go all the way here with Vivante, I can appreciate the direction of his philosophical thought. There is for me a certain 'truth claim' which gives White's poetry much of its impact, its force, its unity. There is a certain 'spiritual essence' in his work which gives me a deeper sense of the spirit, deeper than I would normally have had without his art. White's literary value is partly, for me, a reflection, a discovery, of the intrinsic nature of my inner being and the truths of the religion I joined more than half a century ago. For the "grand power of poetry," as Matthew Arnold wrote back in the 1860s, "is its interpretive power…the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new, and intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them."
As I read White's poetry, I frequently sense he is putting me in touch with the essential nature of things, taking some of life's bewilderment out of things, giving me some of the secret of things and some of their calm and harmonious inner life. This, too, is poetry's highest powers.
White's short essay entitled "Advice From a Poet" is worth quoting in full because of its comment on the 'spiritual essence' of his work and how he envisages it:
Advice from a poet
Address to World Centre Baha'i Youth Group, 31 October 1990.
"Poetry, like all art, has a message for us. It says: care, grow, develop, adapt, overcome, nurture, protect, foster, cherish. It says: your reality is spiritual. It says achieve your full humanness. It invites us to laugh, reflect, cry, strive, persevere. It says rejoice! Above all, it says to us: be! We cannot turn our backs on art. Art heals.
I am of the conviction that in the future, increasingly, one important measure of the spiritual maturity and health of the Baha'i world community will be its capacity to attract and win the allegiance of artists of all kinds, and its sensitivity and imaginativeness in making creative use of them.
Artists--not tricksters and conjurers, but committed artists--will be a vital force in preventing inflexibility in our community. They will be a source of rejuvenation. They will serve as a bulwark against fundamentalism, stagnation and administrative sterility. Artists call us away from formulas, caution us against the fake, and accustom us to unpredictability--that trait which so characterizes life. They validate our senses. they link us to our own history. They clothe and give expression to our dreams and aspirations. They teach us impatience with stasis. They aid us to befriend our private experiences and heed our inner voices. They reveal how we may subvert our unexamined mechanistic responses to the world. They sabotage our smugness. They alert us to divine intimations. Art conveys information about ourselves and our universe which can be found nowhere else. Our artists are our benefactors.
To the degree the Baha'i community views its artists as a gift rather than a problem will it witness the spread of the Faith 'like wildfire' as promised by Shoghi Effendi, through their talents being harnessed to the dissemination of the spirit of the Cause. In general society's artists are often at war with their world and live on its fringes. Their lack of discretion in expressing their criticism--which may be hostile, vituperative, negative, and offer no solutions--may lead to their rejection and dismissal by the very society they long to influence. Artists are frequently seen as trouble-makers, menacers, destroyers of order, or as frivolous clowns. Sometimes the kindest thing said of them is that they are neurotic or mad. In the Baha'i community it must be different. Baha'u'llah said so. Consider that the Baha'i Writings state that All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit and exhort us to respect those engaged in science, art and crafts.
The artist has among other responsibilities those of questioning our values, of leading us to new insights that release our potential for growth, of illuminating our humanity, or renewing our authenticity by putting us in touch with our inner selves, and of creating works of art that challenge us--as Rilke says--to change our lives. The artist aids in our transformation.
In the Baha'i Order the artists will find their home at the centre of their community, free to interact constructively with the people who are served by their art; free to give and to receive strength and inspiration. It is my hope that all of us who are gathered here will be in the vanguard of this reconciliation between artists and their world. As Baha'u'llah foretells, the artists are coming home to claim their place. I urge you: Be there! Welcome them! Bring chocolate!"
White's views here had arisen out of more than forty years of writing poetry and, now, he was going. Indeed, inside the cover of the copy of The Language of There that he sent me in September 1992, six months before he died, he wrote "with these lines I probably exit--smiling, waving, heading for "There"......There is a consciousness of this theme of the afterlife in the one hundred and two poems that make up this volume. It is the first major published collection of poetry that White did not divide into thematic-sections.
Emily Dickinson is still there: White writes seven new poems, right at the beginning of the volume, in which her life and her poetry are mentioned. To read Emily Dickinson had been for White, what Robert Smith said it should be, "a profound engagement, an imaginative reconstruction, a crystallizing of attitudes, on her flickering presence." Her "arduous and lifelong pursuit of a speech fitting to God...(to)...divine Unnameability" was, as Elisa New once wrote, a thorny and difficult problem that she got around only by a genuine "humility."
White got around the problem, for the most part, by his commitment to a religion which provided ample amounts of that "speech fitting to God." He also got around many of life’s thorny and difficult problems in his poetry by means of humour. Emily Dickinson’s poetry is, for most readers, obscure and complex. White’s seven poems written in part in memory of some of Dickenson’s poems have a tongue-in-cheek humour. They also possess their own complexity. Readers will get to the end of some of these seven poems and find themselves perplexed, just as perplexed as they were while reading Dickinson’s poetry.
These seven poems which cast a backward glance at Emily Dickinson are found right at the start of this booklet of poetry. There is only one poem before this group of seven. That poem, in 19 parts, also possesses a complexity and enigmatic quality which will leave the average reader quiet perplexed. By the time he or she gets to the end of the package of 7 Dickinson poems, he will probably put the small book down saying: “here is another book of poetry full of stuff I do not understand.” It will help readers, of course, if they havc some familiarity with that famous American poet. As is so often the case with poetry, the reader needs to read a piece two or three times to get the gist. I find that when I do get the gist, which is not always the case with White’s poems, I feel as if I’ve had a pay-off for my reading labour. “No pain, no effort, no gain,” I say to myself to justify the work I’ve put in to understand the poem.
White dealt with many of the human problems we all face in several ways which we can see by examining his poetry throughout his several volumes, but particularly--and not coincidentally--in the last half a dozen poems in this volume, his last published poems. I'd like to deal with these last "death" poems, or perhaps I should call them "life" poems, here.
The Language of There may well go down as one of White's most famous and quoted poems. There is an optimism, a texture and context that appeals even to the most hardened atheist or agnostic, to say nothing of the avowed believer in virtually any religion. That in itself is no mean achievement. "The thing that should eventually make him truly important," wrote the American poet James Dickey speaking about the special poet in our time, is "the quietly joyful sense of celebration and praise out of which he writes." White had put this idea a little differently in one of his first poems in which he was writing about "the banality of pain/and the ordinariness of suffering." "It is joy that is remembered," he added. White certainly gives us a golden seam of joy amidst his other contributions to our intellectual and sensory emporiums, amidst the inevitable fortuitousness of his poetic impulse which the poet and four time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Frost, says ideally begins in "tantalizing vagueness" and then finds or "makes its thought."
The humility and joy that White apotheosizes in his penultimate poem Learning New Ways may not be everyone's long range vision of an afterlife but, in its basic simplicity or, perhaps I should say, profound simplicity, there is something deftly appealing and-who knows-accurate about the picture it paints, however succinctly:
wanting and having, I shall only be.
Occupied with boundlessness
I shall yet divine your unspoken question:
Were you drawn away by the music,
the promised ecstasy of reunion?
These are only some of White's many images and thoughts about the afterlife found in his corpus of poetry.
Many poets after making immense imaginative efforts, such as Wordsworth and Browning, seem to experience a certain psychic exhaustion. While such a sense of exhaustion, of sadness, is not entirely absent from the last poetic efforts of White written after the age of sixty and on death's door, there is also awe, humour, joy, calm, peace, wisdom….These last poems are a study in themselves and tell much of White's ultimate view of life and death. There is a delicacy and penetration in White, a richness and power. His final production, far superior to what his nature first seemed to promise in the late nineteen forties and early fifties, was abundant and varied. He supplied to the Baha'i community what the poet Coleridge provided to England in the early nineteenth century: "a stimulus to all minds in the generation which grew up around him, capable of profiting by it."
The memory of Coleridge, writes Arnold, inspires a certain repugnance as well as gratitude. The behaviour and activity of White, at least as far as we know thusfar, has a cleaner, more consistent record to underpin and invest his memory as one of the founding fathers of poetry in the Baha'i community in its first two centuries. "Every poet," wrote the French poet Maurice de Guerin, "has his own art of poetry written on the ground of his soul; there is no other." White has left us with the ground of his soul both in his last volumes of poetry written in 1992 and in the whole of his previous oeuvre.
Before commenting on some specific poems in White's The Language of There I'd like to make a general point about his appeal to our human need or impulse for novelty which stirs within us and often, if not always, provides the necessary momentum and incentive for us to seek insight and a sense of achievement in life. Our desire for novelty is part of the pleasure we take in life itself and is, as Samuel Johnson once wrote, the only and real end of writing. This appeal to his readers' need for novelty was there right to the end. The rich prism, the intensified record that was his poetry, fluid and diverse as it was even to the end--and especially in the end--in his last two books of poetry published in 1992, seemed to be part of White's abundance. In the last few months of 1992 and the first four of 1993, after the publication of his final two volumes of poetry, there was somewhat of a husk of a man, a somewhat drained specimen. Weariness began to prevail by 'silent encroachments' but, again, I have little detail to go on and I leave the sketch of White's final notes to his first and future biographer.
White writes poems about several departures: from the Baha'i world centre, from the intensive care unit, from this earthly life, from sadnesses, from joy and laughter--all in the last nine poems. Ten poems from the end he writes of "returning" to his home town which he had just done in 1991. The themes of the poems that occupy White throughout the booklet illustrate his preoccupations in the last year of his life. To comment on them all in a befitting way is beyond the scope of this brief essay and would lead to prolixity. The poems have that concision, that slight obscurity and illusiveness that is part of poetry's nutritive function and a sensibility that Marianne Moore says "imposes a silence transmuted by the imagination into eloquence." Read with patience and receptivity they provide an exercise in pleasure.
One of the reasons I have come to poetry as I’ve headed into the last years of middle age and the first years of late adulthood, is that I find, in the case of a good poem, a whole book can be found. This is what makes a poet a good poet---for me. I spent my teens to my 50s with the social sciences and I found reading a novel required too much of my time. White so often gives me meaning and delight on one page. His poem Aphrodisiac on page 13 tells of the experience of millions of men and women in marriage. I won’t give away all the plot in the tight little 19 line narrative about sex and the marriage bed over the many years of a marriage, but I’ll just say they go to the heart of the relationship without you having to wade through a 400 page novel. The following poem entitled Wish tells what retirement is like if one uses it wisely. In eight lines White describes my life experience in these years of my retirement from the world of jobs and leaves me feeling light, easy and more in touch with myself than I was before reading the poem. Both of the two poems I’ve just described are a reward for me for having got through the first fist of poems in this small book that I found difficult to grasp.
I shall now select two poems on which to close this brief commentary on The Language of There. I will leave it to readers to discover White’s succinct dealing with Dylan Thomas’s raging into the night, more of his wise words about love, about writing poetry, about circumcision, his nods to Ogden Nash and T.S. Eliot, and much more.
Since the first poetic writings in the 1940s of the two major poets associated with the emergence of a Baha'i consciousness in world literature, Robert Hayden and Roger White, the number of local spiritual assemblies had grown from several hundred to many thousands. It is not my intention to expatiate on the brilliant conception underlying the Baha'i administrative Order, itself the nucleus and pattern of a future world Order, but I would like to include below one of White's poems that conveys the experience that many hundreds of thousands of Baha'is have had serving on local administrative units or LSAs. The Baha'i system of decision-making is far removed from the western parliamentary process and its debate oriented lance-and-parry thrust. The Baha'i administrative system is based on consultation in small groups and, although apparently simple in design, it is a very demanding process for those called upon to serve. Here is the poem:
Nine of us, equipollent,
in ragged semicircle
our eyes glazed by the impasse
we have reached
far from the decision
distantly drawing us forward.
Tension leaves us dry-mouthed,
chokes off the fatal sundering words
any one of us might speak
that will plunge us into the chasm.
This is a good terror.
With delicate calm
the Book is passed
hand to hand,
its words reweave
the disciplining cord
that binds us to our purpose.
Again the humbling summit is assaulted;
we make our verticle ascent
past fault and fissure.
Sing in gratitude
for the fragile resolution
that leads us in ginger circumspection
from the miasmal ooze
from which we so painfully inch
our consequential necessary way.
I have always been most moved, in the ten years since I first read this poem, by White's use of the term 'good terror.' The reason I was moved by these words is that I found they were so apt. They describe how I often felt in the nearly forty years since I began serving on LSAs. This same 'terror' is often part of the experience men and women have in secular organizations as well. We are all in it together now as the world forges the instruments for its salvation in the centuries to come.
Like so much of White's poetry there is a direct appeal in this poem to the experience and knowledge, the convictions and commitments, of Baha'is the world over. So many of the Baha'is, in the half century since both White and Hayden began writing poetry, have been knee-deep in that "miasmal ooze" during the consultative process while they inched their "consequential necessary way." It is not my intention for this elucidation of White's poem to turn my comments into evaluation. I leave that to readers, as I say so often in these essays. But there is a power in this poem, as in so many of White's poems which makes itself felt immediately. If I had to define this power in a word it would be honesty. There is also a gentle undercurrent of humour, as there is in so many of White's poems, which gives just enough leaven or lightness to balance the outer seriousness of the poem. The style is so White: colloquial, elevated even quirky, uniting opposites in his own unique way.
Many of the poems in this selection of nearly nine dozen pieces are salutes, nods, waves, hellos and good-byes to famous and not-so-famous poets, writers and artists who had influenced his writing and thinking: Ogden Nash, T.S. Eliot, Keats, some Canadian poets, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Ovid, Walt Whitman, Scott Joplin, William Sears, Anais Nin and the inevitable Emily--and others. White's faculty for absorbing incidents from real life, his keen eye for a good scene, his memory for detail, quotation and anecdote; in addition, his knowledge of a remarkable circle, an extraordinary collection of intimate and not-so-intimate friends and people from history, gave to White and to this final collection of poetry the qualities his readers enjoy.
Many readers of poetry and literature may dislike my attempts to confine White's free and varied insights within the limits of a system of thought that is, perhaps, too ordered, too neat and tidy, too abstract for their liking. They will want to read his poetry, but not analyse it. For me, the generalizing faculty asserts itself and must find a hearing. The poetry surveyed persistently raises metaphysical questions making some theological discussion inevitable, even if not desired by some readers. Theological discussion serves to deepen not restrict our insight and usually raises questions of moral and humanistic interest which are of increasing interest to even secular minds. But, however theological or philosophical a poem, there is over any collection of White's verse some of that feeling, expressed once by Carl Sandburg, that "poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." Appreciation of a poem does not require literary criticism, but it is often enriched by such criticism, if it is well written.
My final selection from among this rich repertoire of poems that gave me pleasure in one way or another is called Sometimes The Poem...I will quote the entire poem and make some brief comment as I go along.
Sometimes the poem is heard as a nighttime footstep
echoing from another room
or a creaking floorboard on the dim stairs.
Often it leaves a chair rocking silently
in an emptiness filled with dustmotes
and a sense of precipitate departure.
Later it may be heard in the kitchen
warming milk and rummaging for biscuits
or may mock with the banging of a door
and the crunching sound of retreating feet on gravel.
While I am writing this I am listening to a tape of the voice of Australian writer Alan Marshall who is talking about the importance of small details, of writing down things that you might not remember, because so many of the stories in life come from little things. Of course, he is talking about writing stories and fiction, but the same applies to writing poetry, as White indicates above. What Marshall tries to do, White tries to do also--connect the microworld and the macroworld and in the process of observation and analysis he gave it new life, significance, meaning. Poetry serves the function, for White, of interpretress of life's many worlds. Poetry helps White on his long journey down life's enchanted and not-so-enchanted stream as it alternately rushes, meanders and winds its way to the sea.
White continues in the second stanza of that poem Sometimes the Poem:
Sometimes it huddles in shadow
outside the window or claws at the shutter
sobbing tormentedly in the wind and tearing its breast.
I have glimpsed its eyes, transparent and haunted,
beyond the rainstreaked glass
and heard it babbling dementedly in the poplars
under an intermittent moon that glinted like steel.
In the darkness it has whizzed past my ear
with a knife's chilling whoosh.
In this second stanza those "little things" seem to have moved inward in a subtle way. White its writing here about what Robert Creeley says about a poem: that it "can be an instance of all the complexity of a way of thinking....all the emotional conflicts involved in the act of thinking." Perhaps Peter Stitt puts it better: "Wherever real liveliness of emotion and intellect is happening. I feel poetry is near."
With the glue of cobwebs
it has brushed against my sleeping face
awakened me with its distant cries of anguish
or taunting laughter only to elude me
in the hushed corridor or the deserted garden.
It has called me urgently from dreams
to rise and shiver at the desk
staring for hours at a blank page.
I've known it to watch from the corner
then creep up behind me
its breath smelling of wet leaves and apples
cold and moist on my nape.
I hear the call of life here in this third stanza. " A writer is not trying for a product, but accepting sequential signals toward an always arriving present," as Stitt says again. There are so many ways of saying what White is saying here, as poets and critics at least since Shakespeare and as far back as Pindar or the writers of the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, have tried to express the poetic impulse. Perhaps "the always arriving present," soon to be White's experience and calling him urgently, is that boundlessness, music, laughter and "the promised ecstasy of reunion" that he wrote of in his poem Learning New Ways.
A final five lines from this same poem:
Sometimes it stares faint and helpless
from the mirror where
in a wavering aqueous light
my image drowns signalling
Befriend me! I am the poem you would write.
Perhaps White is referring here, partly, alluding as he does to an 'unwritten poem', to what that French poet Guerin describes when he writes: "There is more power and beauty in the well-kept secret of one's self and one's thoughts, than in the display of a whole heaven that one may have inside one."
The poet Shelley once defined the poetic Sublime as an experience that persuaded readers to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. The reading of the best poems, the best literature, constitutes more difficult pleasures than most of what is given to us visually by television, films and video games. Shelley's definition reveals an important aspect of what I am saying about White and his poetry. For White is both entertainer in the finest sense and intellectual provocateur due to the supreme difficulty that often arises for his readers due to the power of his intellect and his capacity to use words.
He can hold you in a spell, but it is not the vacuous spell of mental inactivity offered by electronic media, it is the spell that derives from the indubitable powers of poetry. The refreshment White offers comes from the pleasures of change in meaning each time you read his poetry. There is often, too, a shock, a kind of violence, that we do not find in fiction and certainly not on television. It startles us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life. It does not find its origins in visual and auditory stimulation but, rather, in the powers of the mind and imagination and their "new and wonderful configurations." They are configurations, which 'Abdu'l-Baha once wrote derived from "a fresh grace…an ever-varying splendour….from wisdom and the power of thought."