7. SHAYKH AHMAD and
Two of the many inspirations in the pantheon of Baha’i saints, heroes, scholars and spiritual giants of various kinds who have served as inspirations, mentors and exemplars of sorts and as people with fascinating lives were these precursors of the Báb and His Revelation: Shaykh Ahmad(1753-1826) and Siyyid Kazim(1793-1843). I dedicate the many poems I have written in this sub-section as well as the essay which follows to these ‘luminous Stars of Divine Guidance.’(Nabil’s Narrative, p.1 and p.9)
THE FIRST CAUSE
French historian and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote that "if we could go right back to the elements of societies and examine the very first records of their histories, I have no doubt that we should find there the first cause of their prejudices, habits, dominating passions and all that comes to be called the national character."1 The record of Shaykh Ahmad from the 1780s to his death in 1826 and the life of Siyyid Kazim from the time he met Shaykh Ahmad in Yazd in 1815/16 to his death in 1843 reveals, if one accepts Tocqueville's analysis, much of the Baha'i character, its habits and passions that is in evidence today. The poem below plays with this concept as applied to Shaykh Ahmad. -Ron Price with thanks to Alan Macfarlane, The Riddle of the Modern World, St. Martin's Press, London, 2000, p.163.
He was a man alone in Arabia, in Ahsa
and his soul was filled with anguish at the
world he knew in Islam’s Shi’ah branch.
We, too, have our anguish, our unerring
vision, our fixed purpose, having set out
from our homes with that sense of crushing
responsibility which does not always crush
and which we feel impelled to shoulder.
What battles did we win in our zealous
search with our irrepressible yearing
to sow those seeds in receptive hearts?1
1 Nabil, The Dawnbreakers, pp.1-5.
24 July 2002
POETRY AS A SOURCE OF SOCIAL GOOD
If these booklets of poetry, some twenty-seven now,** help to establish nothing else it will be my search for a context in which relevant fundamental questions about the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, the societal need for legitimate and just authority and our need as individuals for solid thinking about the organic change in the very structure of society that the world has been preparing for but has not yet experienced—can be examined. In thirty-two hundred poems, a massive corpus, this search for a context for the examination of fundamental questions may not be so obvious. For I try to do a great deal in this poetry.
The fluid and elastic qualities that underpin the expression of freedom assume a different latitude from one mind to another. Indeed in this Faith there are "unique methods and channels"(1) for the exercise and maintenance of freedom. The very meaning of freedom has been deepened, its scope extended. The very fact that my writing poetry, an expression of art, is elevated to an act of worship augers well for the "enormous prospects for a new birth of expression in the civilization anticipated by His World Order."(2)
Much, if not virtually all, of my poetry is about personal experience, a personal view of some sociological or historical process or fact. I see this poetry as essentially lyrical, as capable of expressing a sense of commonality and, for me, unparalleled intimacy. Some of what I write could be termed confessional. The first person "I" is vulnerable, dealing as it does with varying degrees of self-revelation. But even in the second and third persons there is the poet’s view, less direct, self-revelation less obvious. The poetry is self-serving; the reader is invited to share in my experience, in my thoughts. The poetry also serves the community, however self-focussed my poems are, and they all are to some extent. They deal with the universal and with the growth and development of that universal Force and Cause behind these poems. They deal with community. And the quest for community, it would seem, has always involved some conflict, some anxiety.
I strive, of course, for moderation, refinement, tact and wisdom in any of my poetic expressions of human utterance. But for everything there is a season. Thusfar, the season of my poetic writing in public has been minimal. I have been quite happy that the public utterance of my poetry, at poetry readings, has been minimal. I have written about this before in the five interviews recorded in previous booklets of poetry. Baha’u’llah, Himself, reinforces this idea in the maxim that: Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed...nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the ears of the hearer." As the Universal House of Justice says in its expatiation on the theme of speech and freedom "an acute exercise of judgement" is called for. Perhaps when, and if, I become "public property" I will have acquired more of that quality of acute judgement.
The freedom of the poet to declare his conscience and set forth his views is at the root of the foundation of this Order, but poetry of a negative quality should be strictly avoided to prevent confusion and discord reigning in community life and to remedy divisiveness. The process of criticism is baneful in its effect and, therefore, the nature of my poetry is intended to counteract dissidence which I see as "a moral and intellectual contradition of the main objective animating"(3) my words. But often what I write is simply ordinary speech, sometimes emotionally loaded, raised to a high level, the highest level I can, of expressiveness. I strive for what the Greeks called kairos: tact, discretion, prudent restraint, maturity, for the quality the poet Pindar expressed.(4) For humanity today needs that communitas communitatum and this Faith, the Baha’i Faith, has an important role to play in this unifying process. This poetry is part of that wider process, that wider phenomenon. Of course, dissent, dissidence, criticism, conflict of different kinds, in this age of adolescence, is difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate from one’s personal or social life. In poetry, too, it becomes part of the language, the idiom, the story, the experience—forboth the writer and the reader.
I seek a judicious exercise in my writing. I try to be sensitive to content, style, sound, tact, wisdom, timeliness in order to "give birth to an etiquette of expression"(5) worthy of that term 'maturity', which Pindar possessed, and which this age must strive to attain. There must be a discipline here in this poetry if it is to attain the status of being a "dynamic power in the arteries of life."(6) If my words are to attain "the influence of spring" and cause "hearts to become fresh and verdant", they shall have to be seen as "acceptable to fair-minded souls."(7) I can not make such a claim of my poetry, yet; nor can I make such a claim for my relationships. Can anyone?
I am sensitive to my poetry's tenderness, as I am to the tenderness of the Cause which motivates so much that underpins my poetry. The rigorous discipline that must be exerted when putting print before the public eye, I have not exerted, not entirely. Forwhatever discipline one exerts in print is, in part, a reflection of one’s disciplinein one’s iner life and private character. I have assumed that, for the most part, the public will not see most of my poetry, at least for some time to come, although on the internet in the years 2001 to 2007 this began to change. I strive to speak the words of both myself and my fellow human beings as part of a whole; this autobiography serves the whole. It resonates in the immediate and the concrete, in the inner and the outer values of our lives, or in some socio-historical framework. However idiosyncratic and autobiographical a particular poem may appear it is related to the totality, the cosmic, the grand-scale, the great system of time and place. For mine is the poetry of a metanarrative. Hopefully different readers will be cheered or saddened in different ways as my poems drift through diverse human situations.
Spontaneity, initiative and diversity must be encouraged, but everything in its time, the right time under heaven, so to speak. The individual in this Cause is "the focus of primary development"(8), but within the context of the group; for the individual is essentially subordinated to the group. The individual should be seen as a source of social good. This is his most supreme delight. This is the essential context for poetry. When, and if, this occurs my poetry will find its right and proper place in community life. Dealing as my poetry does with the fragile, confused and ever to be rediscovered and redefined self, the place of the inner life and private character, the delight to which I refer will, hopefully, be associated with understanding, with intellect and wisdom, the two most luminous lights in the world of creation.(9)
28 November 1997
** The last booklet I sent to the BWCL was called The Art of Glorification. For the period 9 January to 4 September 1997 I sent no poetry. I continued to send poetry to the Baha'i World Centre Library until December 31st, 2000. The developments on Mt. Carmel are like a lodestone to human hearts. I sent my poetry, in part at least and perhaps the major part, as an expression of the intense attraction of the heart.
References1,2,3,5,6, 7 and 8 above: all of these references are found in the letter from the Universal House of Justice to the followers of Baha’u’llah in the United States of America, 29 December 1988.
4. Joan Aleshire, "Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric", Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, editors, Gregory Orr and Ellen B. Voigt, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 28-47.
9. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, USA, 1970, p.1.
Carl Bart saw Mozart as an instrument of the grace of God, an instrument through which music was created and performed. Mozart, he said, presents us with beauty, the primal sound, the music of the spheres, the tone of a timelessly valued form. His music contains no moral, no ideology, no message, just simply beauty in an inimitable style, with astonishing emotional power, perhaps the most sublime in our musical tradition. One senses that the ultimate secret of the universe is revealed in some of the ethereal, enchanting pieces. -Ron Price with thanks to "Revelation, Reason and Belief", ABC Radio National, 11:30-12:00, 24 November 1999.
There is no doubt that Shaykh Ahmad knew full well that he was chosen by God to prepare men’s hearts for the revelation of the more complete truth shortly to be revealed.1 His growing consciousness of this reality in the 1760s, ‘70s and ‘80s is difficult to chart after the passing now of more than two centuries given the lack of detail regarding his life from 1753 to 1826. I have assumed, for the purposes of the poem below, a similar pattern of revelation of beauty and truth for both these men, Shaykh Ahmad and Wolfgang Mozart, but in the case of music it is like clear glass and the teachings of the Cause are like fresh water. ---Ron Price with appreciation to Dr. T.K. Cheyne in Nabil’s Narrative, 1974(1932), p.2.
Was the beauty you1 heard
the same that he2 heard:
the most sublime notes
in the world of creation,
an inward radiation of
Was the beauty you heard
some god-like gift?
Some divine sponsorship?
Only partly explainable as
a phenomenon in history?
A sign of the coming unification
of the spiritual history of humankind?4
Its truth: subtle, elusive, complex?
2Shaykh Ahmad(b. 1753)
3A.L.M. Nicholas in Nabil’s Narrative: Footnotes, p.1.
4Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God, Penguin, 1969(1959), p.5.
24 November 1999
THE FIRST DAWING-PLACE
On December 14th 1999 my wife and I went on a teaching trip. As is often the case we combined business with pleasure and my wife saw a doctor in Hobart. We knew we would be able to talk to two friends from a decade or so ago, a colleague from the teaching profession and his wife, now living in England. The husband was a devout atheist and the wife, an ostensible member of the Church of England. The drive in the car was nearly three hours distant from George Town. Teaching people who had become friends over the years was one of the major forms of teaching during these three epochs. The poem below was written during the trip.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, Unpublished Manuscript, 1999.
We hardly know you,1 speck of history
that you were: about as significant as
the eye of a dead ant to Western
historians charting the ebb-and-flow
of the historical process since 1750.
The revolution really began with you,
when you were about forty in the 1790s.
There were other revolutions in the air.
They got more air time, as they say.
But you know, now, from your retreats
of nearness, part of the concourse on high,
is my guess, as you taste of fragrances of
mercy wafted, as they are, over all created
things. Can you see the countenance of the
Ancient of Days turning towards His holy seat?
Your life was a sacrifice to Him and you were
the first dawning-place of His signs. Surely you
see Him now? One day, it is my belief, we will
see you and history will acknowledge the wonder
of your days-and-ways when Napoleon did rule,
Waterloo was fought and you prepared The Way.
15 December 1999
1Shaykh Ahmad, major precusor of the Bab.
WHO AND HOW WE WERE
Price’s poetry tells us who and how we were, at least some of us, in those years when the Arc was built. His poetry is culturally and historically specific to that decade 1991-2001 and, perhaps more generally, the epochs of the Formative Age from 1944 to 2001 and the years beyond. Price provides a delightful, a colourful, a rich and interesting sideroad, or detour, from the main highway provided by the mainstream of literature that began to burgeon in the late twentieth century in the Baha’i community. Down this sideroad one discovers a poet who is trying to define himself and his place in a community which has been constantly shifting not only because he has lived insome two-dozen of its administrative localities across two continents, but also because the psychological and sociological parameters of that global community have been constantly redrawn in a rapidly changing society.
Travelling down that sideroad, that potentially useful detour, one finds a poet whose art and its meaning is not confined to himself alone. His significance can be understood partly in relation to his major precursor, Roger White, for comparisons and contrasts; and partly as a response to the emerging Baha’i Order as Price saw it over the four decades 1959 to 1999 and to the social changes that were rapidly taking place over these same four decades; indeed, his self-expression is but an adjunct to the service he renders, to make his work like a mirror reflecting a light to guide and cheer others. The poet’s life intersects with his age and experience in specific and ideologically determined ways.1 -Ron Price, Pio neering Over Three Epochs, Unpublished Manuscript, 1999; and 1Marjorie Perloff, Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois,1990, p.27.
He, too, forsook his home at the age of 23,
as bidden by Providence, partly aware of
the perils and pitfalls, partly aware of
responsibility’s weight, imbued with
the conviction that this new Revelation
would regenerate the world.
First he proceded to Frobisher Bay
where he was dealt a knock-out blow.
Besieged on every side, not by enquirers,
but by disinterest, difficulties and despondency,
the irrepressible yearning, the eagerness to continue
his search, did not leave him and he continued to sow
seeds to receptive souls, feeling, from time to time,
a sense of burden, oppression, loss, despair, anguish.1
20 December 1999
1This poem describes my own experience drawing on the language used by Nabil in The Dawn-Breakers to describe the experience of Shaykh Ahmad, pp.2-10.
Like the stories of the great patriarchs in the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, stories which have been crucial to a great slice of the poetry in the West over the last two hundred, even three thousand, years, the stories of the wondrous precursors of the Bab, Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kazim, the leading figures of the Babi dispensation and famous teachers during Baha’u’llah’s time cannot be excluded from my own poetry, however remote they all may seem from my own life and art. They are alive in me, and they will not be silent. They make their appearance, time and again, by the vehicle of the metaphorical nature, the mirror, of Baha’i history. For Baha’i history is a theatre that raises questions, that permits differing, sometimes contradictory, interpretations and clashing opinions. It is the place of the dramaturgical. It is source and rich reservoire of poetry. It probes, provokes and sometimes punctures our fixed and defined frameworks. -Ron Price with thanks to Grace Schulman, "The Persistence of Tradition", Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, editor, Sharon Bryan, W.W. Norton and Co., NY, 1993, p.174; and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Asking Questions. George Ronald, Oxford, 1990, p.63.
Starting as far back as his birth
in northeast Arabia, about as
peripheral to Western civilization
as you could get, then, and now;
about as obscure, as irrelevant
as a man can be when weighing up
the forces of history and what
makes it all happen then and now.
He was, we are told, inspired
by a light that shone within him,
as we must be. He arose with
unerring vision, as we must be,
with fixed purpose, as we must be,
with sublime detachment, as we must be.1
And, yes, how obscure and apparently
irrelevant, are we: still, even now, even now.
19 December 1999
1Nabil, The Dawn-Breakers, p.1.
SHAYKH AHMAD and THE NEW ORCHARDIST
We planted the Tree of the Qur’an and provided its Orchard with all kinds of fruit, whereof ye all have been partaking. Then when We came to take over that which We had planted, ye pretended not to know Him Who is the Lord thereof. -The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, Haifa, 1976, p.135.
Did you have any idea what
you were getting in for
or what you were starting?
After you tidied-up your
succession,1 did you know
your little world of believers
would be blown apart after,
what, 1843? Those three
factions after Siyyid Kazim
left the scene, led by:
Mirza Hasan Gawhar in Karbala
Hajji Mirza Shafi, Thiqatu’l-Islam
and Mulla Muhammad Mamaqani
Hujjatu’l-Islam in Tabriz, and Hajji
Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani
in Kirman...2 went down three long
and not-so-sinuous paths into our
modern world producing more believers,
known as Shaykhis, than there are Baha’is
after one hundred and fifty years in Iran
and in the Middle East—it seems.....
But your messianic Shi’ism produced,
through the Bab and Him Whom God
would make manifest, a world religion,
a new Orchard,3 whose testimony is this
tapestry of beauty4 with all kinds of fruit.3
15 January 1999
1In 1826 he was succeeded by Siyyid Kazim
2Moojan Momen. An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, George Ronald, Oxford, 1985, p.229.
3The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, Haifa, 1976, p.135.
4The Mt. Carmel Project
15 January 1999
The following essay, the last chapter in my book published by Juxta Publications on the poetry of Roger White, integrates the long line of writings from Shaykh Ahmad to Roger White in the context of discussing the future of White's poetry.
Two hundred years before the death of Roger White in 1993, Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsai "arose to dedicate the remaining days of his life to the task" of preparing the way, as one of the two critical precursors of the Baha'i Revelation, "for the advent of a new Manifestation." In the next several years he began to write a great deal about the metaphorical nature of the prophecies relating to the birth of a new and independent Revelation of God. Indeed, there was a strong poetic strain in the Shakyh's writings: symbolism and metaphor abounded. Shaykh Ahmad was very unorthodox and many "professed themselves incapable of comprehending the meaning of his mysterious allusions." This poetic, symbolic, strand has continued through the two precursors of the Babi Revelation, the Revelation of the two Manifestations of God and the writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, all part of what you might call the epic-poetic tradition in the Baha'i Era.—Ron Price with appreciation to Nabil, The Dawnbreakers, p.2.
There has been, too, a series of poets beginning with Tahireh in the 1840s, up to and including Roger White who have made important contributions to the literature and commentary on the Cause. In some ways it could be said that the passing of Roger White in 1993 marks and end of two centuries of intense and significant poetic writing in a tradition centred on the appearance of two Manifestations of God in the nineteenth century. It is not the purpose of this book or this chapter to describe this long history, this tradition, of poetic influence, of poetic writing. The experience of poetry begins anew with each generation. Since the first teaching Plan, 1937-1944, poetry written by Baha'is has slowly became a part of world literature, first through Robert Hayden and second through Roger White, the subject of this study.
The future of the poetry of Roger White is so intimately tied up with the future of the Baha'i Faith that to discuss the one is to discuss the other at least in a book like this so obviously about both. As the world moves through several more stages, in the next few decades and centuries, of the necessary and inevitable political and religious unification of the planet, from a Baha'i perspective, having already experienced earlier units of political and social organization: band, family, chiefdom, tribe, city state and nation, it is useful to examine one man's poetry, apparently insignificant in the large scheme of things, during a part of the great turning point that has been the twentieth century. As long as new meanings continue to come from White for generations yet unborn, then his essence will not become exhausted and he will continue to be read. After twenty-five years he appears to have the reputation of being both a difficult poet, a critic's poet as well as a popular or a people's poet. But beyond his current reputation and the reactions of contemporary readers, White, through his poetry, "defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions," as Shelley wrote nearly two centuries ago. White created anew the world of his Baha'i experience after it had been "annihilated by recurrence, blunted by reiteration." We, too, must do the same. We must, like White, redeem time, rescue it, reclaim it, renew it, by ransom, by the payment of our lives.
But whether White's poetry follows a downhill trajectory toward oblivion or an upward one to some canonical, some classic, status will depend on canon makers, publishers, editors, initiators, marketers, reviewers, teachers and, ultimately, consumers, the current interests and cultural needs of the reading public. For the moment White is marginal and only a slow but massive shift in the value orientation of society, in its cultural capital will bring him from the margin. For, in the end, literary works that become classic or canonical do so "because the groups that have an investment in them are culturally the most influential." A classic is a work that stands the test of time, as Samuel Johnson once said, and the test is determined by those who control the literary establishment. In the end, it is the interests and beliefs of this group that define the classic. Toward the end of the twentieth century this group became fractured and the whole question of what constitutes the canon has been confronted and opened up to wider representation.
It is not so much the text that endures but the literary and cultural tradition behind the text. The literary and cultural tradition going back to the writings of Shaykh Ahmad in the 1790s, a literary and cultural tradition containing the immense body of Writings of two manifestations of God and Their Successors, then, is the critical matrix within which White will survive, disappear into oblivion or remain forever on the remote and obscure margins of a contemporary culture.
White's poetry will be, it seems to me, what Wallace Stevens called "the essential poem at the centre of things" for a minority. His work will enable future literary critics to establish a pattern of continuity between their cultures and the part of their heritage that was alive and well in the last half of the twentieth century. For White's work has a larger historical importance in addition to the delight it provides readers. The ultimate source of a poem is not only the individual poet but also the social situation, the historical process, from which both he and it springs. Of course, White is not alone in this exercise of providing historical continuity. He will have the company of a vast range of people from the creative and performing arts and the print and electronic media. But there is no art more stubbornly associated with group identity than poetry. No art that expresses the deepest feelings and emotions of a group than poetry. No art provides that exceptional sensibility, that exceptional power over words, with greater strength than the poet. Of course, in our time the electronic media in its various forms provide for many that sensibility and that power. The great majority of most groups, at least at this point in history, do not respond to the poet, whether he be a Shakespeare or a White, a Dickinson or a Hayden. "What matters," writes T.S. Eliot about the future influence of the poet, "is that there should always be at least a small audience for him in every generation." That is the case now and time will tell as far as future audiences are concerned.
Matthew Arnold's view in his "The Study of Poetry" help us gain a perspective on White for the future. Arnold says there are three sorts of "estimates" we make of a writer: the historic, the personal and the real. His contribution to the study, the understanding, of the past; the contemporary relevance to the present, the time the poet is being read; and the poetry "as in itself it really is." Often, the personal and the real get mixed up. White was the first twentieth century poet I read who wrote about Baha'i themes and gave me pleasure, comprehension and responsive feeling. Many of his poems are so well-anchored in my head now that the task of a just evaluation may not be a realistic expectation. For I write to a large extent out of gratitude. It may be too difficult for me to perform a just and considered view; I may need a lifetime and many more years to give me a more detached perspective.
The work I am doing here may appear too effusive to some readers. I think the future will bring a balance to what some may see as my overly enthusiastic encomium. As critical accounts of White's work by highly and not-so-highly qualified students of poetry, as attempts at a definitive analysis of his poetry by critics with pens abler than mine, and as full, unembarrassed appreciations of his poetic virtues that do not repel more highbrow sensibilities, become available in the years to come, the relevance of the words of the great analyst of literature and especially poetry, Randall Jarrell, will be seen to apply to White's poetry: "The most important thing that criticism can do for a poet," wrote Randall Jarrell, "is to establish that atmosphere of interested respect which gets his poems a reasonably good reading." Such is the context that I hope I have cultivated to some degree for White’s work in the years ahead. Of course, there may be many different Whites to emerge in the decades and perhaps centuries ahead as a thriving critical industry on White expands in English and other languages. New kinds of poetry will provide new ways of reading White, ways that give his poetry new life.
Already one can imagine a White with a message to give his times, an engaged social thinker and responder, immersed in his daily environment at the Baha'i World Centre just at the time when it and the global Baha'i community was emerging from obscurity. Here the critic has the primary role as interpreter and systematizer trying to figure out what White means and where and how he fits in to the historical development of the Baha'i community. Then there is the caricature of White as humorous, comedian, or writer of obscurities. Does his humor dominate and make him the funny man, the funny poet? After readers have had their laugh, after they have been entertained, do they put White down complacent and self-satisfied. Are the complexities of some of White's later work, complexities which leave many of his potential readers in the Baha'i community puzzled and perplexed, quite conscious parts of his poetic? Are these complexities the visible outcroppings of some deeply laid poetic and geo-political scheme that was itself in embryo, in its early stages, with a future connected with Baha'u'llah's Wondrous Vision, the brightest emanation of His mind.
I think White has developed an idiom that is at times so simple and childlike and at other times so complex and dense that his poetry possesses a style of such fundamental peculiarity and eccentricity that it will facilitate his absorption by later poets. White gives body to the soul of English, our language for dealing with our beliefs and attitudes. White passes on to the Baha'i community of the twenty-first century a more highly developed, more refined, more precise idiom for dealing with our experience than it was before he wrote his poems. "That is the highest possible achievement," wrote T.S. Eliot in his essay on what one learns from Dante, "of the poet as poet."
White enables ordinary men and women to see and hear more in the ordinary range of their experience. He enables us to experience a greater range of emotion and perception, to interpret greater depths of meaning, than we otherwise would have seen or heard without his help. He is like an explorer beyond the frontiers of everyday consciousness. White helps us comprehend the incomprehensible. His poetry is only one element in that mystery which is the culture we live in and what he writes is dependent upon many of our culture's elements, elements which are beyond his control. But given the excellence and vigour of his poetry it can affect the sensibility of the whole of the Baha'i community. Of course, the language of our community is affected by many other elements in our culture. Eliot argues that the poet affects the many through his influence on the few. What matters, he goes on, is that there always be a few in each generation who will serve as the audience for the poet.
Just after White was born Edmund Wilson wrote about what he called 'the dying technique of verse.' He said that verse's role had grown increasingly narrow since the eighteenth century. It's territory had been usurped, he argued, by prose. Just before White passed away Joseph Epstein updated Wilson's discussion of the death of poetry. He said poetry was now confined to universities, poetry's professionals: teachers and lecturers and their creative writing programs. Epstein is a brilliant polemicist and he continues to describe the decline in the cultural importance of poetry that concerned Wilson fifty years before. Poetry is certainly not part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life today. It is the occupation of a small and isolated group, an invisible cultural niche. Ironically this reality has slowly been taking place during a period of unprecedented expansion of the art of poetry: books, anthologies, prizes, public readings, published criticism, newsletters and scholarly journals. Nevertheless poetry's overall position in the culture and its indifference by the mass media is, as both Wilson and Epstein have noted, depressing. There is, too, so much poetry appearing in journals, on the internet and in the poetry subculture that no one can evaluate it, except perhaps the occasional critic. White's poetry needs to be seen against this background of analysis by Wilson and Epstein. If the rest of society has mostly forgotten about the value of poetry, an argument about the virtues of some dead Baha'i's poems may seem like an irrelevant concern for an archaic art form, or a debate in some seedy café about some obscure and tiresome social issue.
The poetry on the Internet deserves some attention because there is a growing subculture of poets, thousands of them on the Net: atomized, decentralized, interdisciplinary, computerized and anti-institutional, bohemian and middle class. There have never been so many people writing poetry, having it accessible, spread out over dozens of websites as there is today. It is a veritable explosion. Perhaps White is one of the few great writers of our time who has helped to lead the way for that large body of secondary writers who, Eliot argues, are essential to the continuity of a literature but are not necessarily read by posterity.
How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand and appreciate, that poetry still matters, White's or anybody else's? The difficulties of trying to engage an audience and of finding out what concerns the great mass of the public, has become a major problem for the poet. The poet is marginal. He has been on the edge, largely irrelevant, for half a century, at least just about the entire time White has been writing poetry. With the fragmentation of high culture, the arts are now isolated from each other and from the general audience. This is especially true of poetry, even with poetry on the Internet. There is an audience there in their thousands, in the form of dozens of coteries, if you want to plug into them. The Net is so different from the traditional poetry reading. It's public and private all at once.
What will keep White and poets of his ilk from sitting in a remote periphery on an irrelevant appendage of society will be what the poet Marianne Moore said of the genuine poet. The genuine poet, she stated, is "a symbol of the power of Heaven." Such a poet "lodges a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of." Such a poet is part of the "felicitous phenomenon" that is literature. Their poetry will be brought to the public in new and fresh ways by people who take responsibility for bringing their art to the public, far beyond the stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates the public art of poetry today. The enjoyment of poetry can be a complex experience in which several forms of satisfaction are mingled, in different proportions for different readers.
The White industry is bound to be influenced by major trends and revolutions in intellectual and social thought. Already since 1970 there have been several trends which could influence the interpretation of what White has to say and why he says it: psychoanalysis, structuralism and post-structuralism, feminism and the new historicism. Their influence on this evaluation of mine is largely muffled; perhaps that is because, for me, White is a mentor. Perhaps, too, I see a great deal at stake in White criticism. Perhaps my focus, introductory as it is, has a wider aim beyond the influence of contemporary trends and various theoretically grounded approaches to poetry. Perhaps, for me, White outflanks theoretical models. Perhaps, and finally, I am still trying to situate myself and determine just what being a critic of White means.
Beginning perhaps as far back as Columbus or Magellan began sailing the ocean blue, the planetary nature of human civilization, its interdependence and interconnectedness, has been increasingly demonstrated. In the last century to century-and-a-half this process, this planetization of humankind, at least our awareness of it, has speeded up. This speeding up process has taken place, has synchronised, at the same time as the emergence of a new world religion on this earth. The fundamental teaching of this new world religion, the Baha'i Faith, is that phenomenal reality is one: humankind is one, religion is one and God is one--the earth is indeed one country. White's poetry is part and parcel of the global orientation that is the Baha'i Faith.
This realization has become even more a part of human consciousness in the years since the 1950s when we began to venture into space and could literally see the round ball that is the earth. White's poetry comes at this time as does the poetry of Robert Hayden and, if it was the intent of this book, one could line up their poetry with significant developments in this increasing planetary consciousness. But that is not my intention here. Rather, it is to note, as far as my own interpretive abilities permit, those elements of White's poetic and his alone that serve the cause, the development, of this political and religious unification in the years ahead within the context of the evolving Baha'i institutions, the nucleus and pattern of world Order currently expressed through the instrument of Baha'i administration. Part of the reason I focus on White to the exclusion of other poets and writers who have influenced this planetary consciousness is that White's poetry helped me understand my own life, my own experience. "Is there a better test of poetry?" wrote Ezra Pound is his tribute to Thomas Hardy's poetry.
When White was writing his first poems, the first poems that were clearly influenced by the Baha'i teachings, a process had begun that Shoghi Effendi called 'the Kingdom of God on earth.' It had been initiated with the completion of the Baha'i Temple in Chicago in 1953. Indeed, many of the Baha'is in the 1950s and 1960s, thought that the approximately two hundred thousand members who entered the Ten Year Crusade in 1953 would vastly increase their numbers in the years immediately ahead. Although the process of entry-by-troops could be said to have begun as early as the 1950s and although the numbers did increase in the next forty years to several million, it is obvious in retrospect that expectations for many were too high. Some disappointment was inevitable, so tied were hopes to a vast increase in numbers.
As the voices of the sixties and what the Universal House of Justice called the dark heart of the age of transition became more shrill and the noises of society got louder, White offered many cautionary remarks:
Let us not stroke too swiftly toward
the green opposite shore
where death rehearses. We have tried
these pearl-promising waves
before and might guess the danger.
These pearl-promising waves were, it could be argued, the unrealistic hopes of the Baha'i community in the ninth(1953-1963) and early years of the tenth(1963 to, say, 1979) stages of history. White wrote this poem, arguably, about 1980. An aggressive or even an enthusiastic proselytism alienates people and the Baha'is, for the most part, have avoided, such an overt approach to increasing the size of their community, inspite of the fact that growth in the West has remained discouragingly meagre for more than three decades. The complex exercise of achieving intimacy and harmony in their marriages and in their small groups, in their private and personal worlds, often resulted in frustration and failure, often as much for members of their communities as for the secular society they were part of.
White describes this process metaphorically in the same poem, The Other Shore, in some graphic, tender and touching imagery:
Recall how always we turn back spent
to the sun-warmed sand
and stand anguished in separate solitudes,
though hand in hand,
each to each grown stranger.
Of course, not every Baha'i is going to agree with my particular interpretation of this poem or the general tenor of my remarks, such is the nature, the fruit, of individual interpretation. In reading Roger White's poems we all must deal with metaphor in our own way, for it is a device in which we all must fill in the meaning if we are to unlock the significance of the passage. To miss the metaphorical significance is to miss the meaning. Metaphor is a safeguard against literalism and dogmatism. It helps explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, the abstract in terms of the concrete and, in this case, the progress of the Cause and our own dear lives in terms of swimming, waves and the beach. If readers of this essay do not find my interpretation of the metaphor helpful, they can and should find their own personal meaning. This is part of the challenge of White. His poetic presence now is continuous and inescapable. His poetry, having become part of the landscape of Baha'i experience in the third and fourth epochs, will breathe new life into many epochs to come. White will be with us for some time to come—such is my personal estimation.
Goethe said there were two classes of great poets. The first, containing Shakespeare and Homer, were universal in their outreach and did not bring their own individuality, their own selves, into their poetry. The second category constantly exposed some trace of individuality, some of the spirit of the poet, some of his character. Perhaps White is here too. There is no question, for me, that White belongs primarily to the former category.
White appeals to us in that same poem, The Other Shore, not to be too hasty, to get our perspectives, our settings on social reality as accurate as we can, to pursue a 'moderate freedom' and, in our eagerness and innocence, our enthusiasms and excitements, not to expect too much too soon:
we, young, too soon said
Land! Land! and, plunging, did not see
his torn pinion, his bloodied head.
Ease us, wise love, toward this wet danger.
Our convictions, our zeal, our desire to get things right, indeed our very sense of wonder is but a starting point. White emphasizes that:
It is not enough to marvel: the sea asks more.
It does not casually strew enticing shells
There is calculation in its murmur,
frothed treachery laps its shore.
So many millions are not, yet, going to respond to our teaching efforts or, as White puts it in the same poem in a fascinating turn of phrase:
who did not heed the hoarse and reeling gulls--
know that in our darkest incoherence
the ocean spoke......
So much of our effort seems to be an experience of the 'darkest incoherence.' But in that incoherence the ocean does speak, through our humble efforts and in the context of the greatest metaphorical exercise on the planet, the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Some, a few, do respond. In time millions, nay billions, will come under the shelter of this protecting wing. White concludes his poem with several lines about the few among humanity's billions who became enthusiastic believers in the decades he was able to observe the teaching campaigns: 1950-1990. He writes, in lines that are among my favourites in the entire White oeuvre:
Let the dreaming, lovely drowned
who loll and bob in bubbled wonder
tell us why, returning,
weeping without sound,
we stand, wistful and incredulous,
along the shore.
Even among the hundreds of thousands, nay millions, who come across this new Faith, and who have joined it in the last several decades, so many "stand wistful, incredulous along the shore," while it is the few who "loll and bob in bubbled wonder."
In another poem this same understanding of what often appears as the slowness of the process, the need for a cautious, quiet attitude prevails as White encourages us, points us, toward wisdom. The poem For the Children Watching closes with the following seven lines:
It were wiser to stand in Magian silence,
reverent before the admonishing blackness,
and read in its long black reign
the gathering of an astounding dawn.
Let us watch the sky, children,
incautious with hope,
jubilant with wisdom.
Here jubilation is associated with hope and wisdom not with an evangelising religiosity, a narrow ecclesiasticism, festive activities of various kinds or some media event with its necessary hype and often genuine enthusiasm. Wisdom and jubilation, conjoined by White here, are critical to his vision of the years ahead and the times we live in at this turn of the millennium, this 'gathering of an astounding dawn.' White is writing about that "solemn consciousness" that the Universal House of Justice said must be evoked as "the wellspring of the most exquisite celebratory joy." For celebration "does not mean merely festive activities. It is primarily a spiritual celebration...occasion(s) for deep reflection." White comes at this subject in an indirect way through his poetry. But the point is clear. The fact that White expresses the question, the problem, the issue, metaphorically forces his readers to think, to work out the meaning for themselves. White provides no quick fix.
As "the plague" spreads "invisibly," as we "lean innocently to scoop our marbles," perhaps we need to be more "reverent before the admonishing blackness." Perhaps we need to base our jubilation in wisdom and hope's private optimism that is, for society, a public resource and, as Lionel Tiger defined it "a heightened form of gregariousness," a gregariousness that for White often requires that we "stand in Magian silence."
White deals with this whole question of the spiritual journey and the progress of the Cause in poem after poem. I will site one more example here, parts of the poem The Journey. White begins by placing the believers in the role of children and he writes:
And they will warn you, children, as they stand
In wan ardour at the dense thicket's rim
That your pitch venture is folly,
I think most of the people I have known in my life would regard the exercise I am embarked on as a Baha'i as "folly," as an unrealistic utopianism. But as Teillard de Chardin once wrote, speaking of realism, it is the utopians "who make scientific sense." White continues by saying that others and sometimes ourselves, see what we are doing as:
Dangerous progress over untracked land
Ambushed with bogs in which illusions mire,
Keen fang and talon glint from every tree
And murky bats career and lean wolves prey.
Certainly the Baha'i pioneer, and we are all pioneers in different ways, experiences the above as the long decades become his journey. "Reason is soon victim and then desire--" White goes on succinctly summarizing two of the tests that many believers experience. I will leave the rest of this poem to the reader to play with intellectually. The poem is nothing less than brilliant, from my particular point of view. For, indeed, the journey is long and "murky bats career and lean wolves prey."
"Who counsel flight from Love's far lair are wise
But O! not they shall see the Lover's eyes." So...reward there is, but there is a price and "many perish." White knows, then, that jubilation is not an ever present emotion. Indeed, often "Sparse nourishment the slow years give."
Hope beyond this life, a perspective of transcendence, is important to White, to the survival ethic and the process and program of building the new world Order. While we are all trying to build a society worth living in we must remember that this "sparse nourishment" is a sign that
Tells timeless feast hereafter.
This transcendentalism, this strong conviction regarding the immortality of the soul, is accompanied in White by the ordinary, the everyday and he would urge us to be
glad of the predictable wonder
of our ordinary lives
unscripted, flawed and plausible.
He would urge us too, as he does in the last line of that same poem, to appreciate as fully as we can "the incalculably priceless booty of our human joy?"
But not to allow our joy and our knowledge to give us
A taint of preening calculation
(which) makes of our knowledge knowingness,
(and) carries us too soon from innocence
He knows that we so often:
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence....
We, deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
It is important to keep in mind, when reading a poem, White’s or anyone else’s, that "the recipient must abdicate for the moment—must surrender his independent and outstanding personality, to identify himself with the form presented by the poet." Only in this way can the reader penetrate to the heart of the mystery that is the poem.
Only then can White’s attempts to reconcile, rather than resolve, the contradictions of life have any tangible results in the readers’ minds and hearts. Those who have served in the Baha'i community in the years from the 1950s to the 1990s, the period during which White produced his poetry, have watched the unobtrusively developing System of Baha'u'llah spread over the face of the earth and, more recently, embellish its world spiritual and administrative centre with an Arc of great beauty. The emphasis, for the most part, has been on establishing small groups at the local level and spreading the teachings as widely as possible. Such an exercise has militated against the emergence of large concentrations of Baha'is in one place. In the fifteen years in which White's poetic output has been most extensive, 1977-1992, the Baha'i community continued its rise from the shadows of an obscurity in which it had been enveloped for over a century.
"The process whereby its unsuspected benefits were to be manifested to the eyes of men," Shoghi Effendi once wrote in analysing the growth of the Cause, "was slow, painfully slow, and was characterized....by a number of crises which at times threatened to arrest its unfoldment and blast all the hopes which its progress had engendered." White expressed this same theme in several ways. In Notes on Erosion he wrote:
Neglect will foster, and dismay
but fertilize its thrusting growth.
Indeed, the potential of the Cause is immense; it
thrives in the desert
where the resolute verbena
unarrestably insinuates itself
through the socket of despair's bleached skull
However difficult the circumstances, the growing influence of the Baha'i community and its astonishingly creative Founder will:
with (its) fierce festoons,
with (its) green and wily succulence.
Down the road we are all about to travel we will find, as White emphasizes in a poem which likens our experience to Noah on the arc,
the lean provision of devotion, of nefarious mutiny
the wild and mounting waters, the weeks and
months of never-ending dark. A deluge, folks,
is not a lark.
White knew quite well that there "is a tide both in public and private affairs, which awaits both men and nations,’ as Shakespeare wrote, which is not some cataclysmic overnight event but, rather, some process which we are in the midst of and it may well take some time before the tide has reached its high-water-mark, if it has not already done so.
White is, as Geoffrey Nash once described White in a pithy phrase, a deceptively insinuating quotient. White has us laughing and with our guard down he tells us we are heading for hell on earth. He does it with what might be called "an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the race," as the Universal House of Justice described, in its discussion of the characteristics of a judicious exercise of speech. As the decades in the last half of the twentieth century slipped by the social and political landscape did get hotter or at least continued the high temperatures already experienced since WWI. The tempest the Guardian had described so vividly back in 1941 clearly continued into the twenty-first century. As the Universal House of Justice had informed us back in 1967, we had entered "the dark heart of transition" and it was getting darker with century's end. White's interpretive schema was not wide of the mark.
Even the affluent minority of the planet were finding their hedonistic-materialism paradigm and its success orientation as a recipe for happiness was breaking down, first in the 1920s as F. Scott Fitzgerald showed us in his classic novel The Great Gatsby, then in the sixties when most of the hippies who came from affluent homes rejected affluence as a raison d'etre for living and yet again in recent decades as the world seemed to be swept daily into a maelstrom.
White gently describes the struggle we have ahead. He does it with an honesty, a subtlety and a tongue-in-cheek humour. At least that's how I read him. In one of his many, what I call, arc poems, with a timing that is perfect for the last generation of antediluvian’s that we may be, we who have placed a heavy investment in beauty and given the vision at the centre of the Cause a physical apotheosis, White puts phrase after phrase in the mouth of someone who, so the story goes, built an instrument for saving humanity and the life on earth from total extinction: Noah--
Noah will say this journey is definitely not
for the timid and the overwrought;
not for the vainly pious,
the pusillanimous of spirit,
the bloodless prig.
Now that the arc is built:
.................This much is plain:
not for those weary and in despair of love,
this ardent voyage on the unvariable storm-lashed brig,
the unreasonable rain,
the long wait for the salient dove
to bring the living twig.
The darkest hours before the dawn have indeed arrived, as White prognosticated in his metaphorical poetics, written for the most part in the third and forth epochs of the Formative Age, with his gentle humour and his often simple and sweet language brimming over with light. But there was in his idiom a solemn consciousness, a poetic experience that allowed him, like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, to tap into "a dark river flowing inside him to which he could lower the bucket daily." For poetry is not so much a criticism of life, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, as it is "a look at life from the abyss, the bottom. Few can do so for long. They don't know where the depths are or they don't know quite what to say: or they are afraid." But White knew, at least he had the centring wisdom of over a century of infallible guidance and the interpretions of history, society and the future in the endless letters and messages from thirty years of a fully institutionalized and unquestionably legitimate charisma in the Universal House of Justice. He had the example of thirty-six years of writing from someone whose masterly grasp of the rich vocabulary and subtle nuances of English supported a power of unerring perception.
And so White looked deep into the heart of the Revelation and at more than a century of experience of the religion that was born from It by the time he had become a servant of the Cause. He gave us what he saw and what he thought and, in the end, we are only getting one man's views. They are not the expression of an authoritative exegesis; there is nothing infallible about his narrative style; however insightful his power of definition and however meticulous his attention to the meaning of words, all we can enjoy is the fruit of individual interpretation as it heightens our horizons and intensifies our vision. They may satisfy and transcend the need of the moment and serve the future of the Cause as well as the present; they may become part of a grand design, carved as they are in the abiding stone of language but, in the last analysis, readers of White are caught up in his "genuine creativity, characterized by an intensity of awareness and a heightened consciousness." White is attempting what Plato wrote about "discovering truth by reminiscence." He is moulding and remoulding his world through his consciousness. He is not seeking authority. He is seeking meaning within a structure of willing and wishing, a structure that he has been a part of for over forty years, a structure that is the structure of freedom for this age. In the process he gives us, at least some of us, what Wordsworth once gave his readers:
….that which moves with light and life informed,
Actual, divine, true.
In presence of subline and lovely forms.
With the adverse principles of pain and joy….
………….all grandeur comes,
All truth and beauty, from pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
White is pointing his readers toward joy, toward wisdom, to many things. Among the many points on the horizon he urges us toward is a cautious conservatism, a moderation. Shoghi Effendi had, years before, pointed us toward a moderation in his summary of the reasons for the failure of the Babi community nearly a century before. Shoghi Effendi writes in the epilogue to The Dawnbreakers that the moderation the Bab "had exhorted (his followers) to observe was forgotten in the first flush of enthusiasm that seized the early missionaries of His Faith, which behaviour was in no small measure responsible for the failure of the hopes He had so fondly cherished."
For White the focus is on the inner life, "the extent to which our inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold wisdom the supreme claim of the Abha revelation." The success of our teaching plans, White would argue, rests on this inner life far beyond any set of new and noble principles, any staunchness of faith, any exaltation of enthusiasm, any force of numbers. White expresses this idea of Shoghi Effendi in a multitude of ways. From Emily's Song he writes:
Had heaven held sure solace
To hasten there were wise
But I, grown timid, cautious,
Search for ambush, man's and sky's.
One day I'll meet fate's boldest stare
And ask its harsh command
My apron full of gentian and
Lone daisy in my hand.
It was White's view that few rise to great heights of service and achievement on the spiritual path. Unlike servants of the calibre of Martha Root
.................We, mincing few
Tenants of a grey plain, whose nervous eye
is peeled for tinselled honour will not trace,
Gasping, your pell-mell plunge from pride to grace.
Those few who take the plunge enjoy a spiritual banquet but, for the many:
The sour brew, the perishable flower
From which the mind weaves garlands, the vain meat
Of will that does not nourish.....
White concludes this apparently pessimistic or, as the voice of experience might call it, realistic poem with a plea for help from heaven's great souls
..................From your pantheon
Unseat us from our thin feast to speed the dawn..
Baha'u'llah's vision of the 'Most Great Peace' evoked no response from the rulers of the nineteenth century or, indeed, from the vast majority of people who came in touch with it in His lifetime. This is not to say there was no response for when Baha'u'llah passed away in 1892 He had, it is estimated, some 50,000 followers. The Faith He founded passed through its first century with its unity firmly intact. That was, arguably, this new Faith's greatest achievement. A global community has taken form inspired by and possessing a certitude that the human race can eventually work together as one people.
But the Baha'is know and White puts it so well that:
Love offers first the suppliant at its gate
faith's bricks and planks and rusted nails that wound.
To fragile shelter built of love's spare plan,
gold-laden, comes royal lover's caravan.
There is always a golden seam of joy, of hope, and sometimes of sheer ecstasy in the rag-and-bone-shop that is daily life in White's land or Whiteland as some might call the spiritual and intellectual landscape he has created in his poetry. But White would have us head into the future with our eyes wide open and conscious that as we
........................ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies (our) doubt.
White has seen--and he hopes we too see--that within the religious and non-religious circles we move in, that our:
makes of our knowledge knowingness,
carries us too soon from innocence
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence.
White selects many special themes and topics for our edification: marriage, martyrs, faith, inter alia. Perhaps in some future volume I may write several essays around some of his selected themes, if others do not do so before me. In the meantime we are warned by White that there are:
...............................a thousand ways
to fit distraction to our fleeting days,
that there are "few whose passion wins the sought caress," that "though privately there swarmed/Martyrs in our dreams, publicly we warmed/To tenets socially approved and fled rebirth." In the end, though, ours is not the role to judge but rather to accept, to be easily pleased with others in community. If we do not, the troops that come slowly into our community in the next few decades may find that we have developed too critical a faculty with our intellects and use our knowledge to judge and not understand. For knowledge needs to be about love as well as understanding. Some of White's aphorisms and poetic injunctions may be useful, if they are familiar, if they are ingrained on our emotional equipment.
White was only too aware that his poetry was not for everyone, although some of it comes as close as one could possibly expect of poetry in a culture heavily dosed on the products of a mass media and its entertainments. Although there are more people reading poetry and buying books of poetry in these early years of the twenty-first century, there are millions who never get near a book of poetry and probably never will. One poetry critic recently argued the case for advertising and sociology being the new forms of poetry, the former for the mass and the latter for an elite. This kind of argument alters the whole paradigm for poetry. Either way, White will not make it into any mass market, not yet anyway.
Before I close I’d like to draw to your attention two simple stanzas selected from one of many possible poems, in this case 'in homage to Emily Dickinson.' They are symptomatic of the aphoristic nature of much of White’s verse. For poetry, far more effectively than any other art form, conveys the immediacy of thought. And White is pithy, often with memorable lines, an effective communicator, to use modern parlance.
I struggled with temptation, Across his soul's scarred battlefield
Denial was the cost. Where all his pride was slain
Finally I conquered The legions of his enemy
Though heavy was the loss. Prepare to strike again.
One of the factors that I think gives White a contribution to play in the future is the sheer number of very fine poems that he has brought to this and succeeding generations. His reputation does not rest, as say in the case of Eliot, on a few outstanding poems which, with some persistence, can be read in an evening. Rather, the sheer number of individual poems he gives us will guarantee readers the experience of finding a poem they did not know was there in his collected works. Like, say, the works of Hardy,Yeats or Stevens who offer more individually appealing lyrics than our minds can take in, it is difficult to know all of White's poems. He turned out a great deal of material in his last fifteen years in slim and not-so-slim volumes.
On the other hand, it is fatally easy to decide that one "knows" the few poems that one does, has heard them before and can't be surprised again. No matter how much White you know or, in some cases, even have committed to memory some of your favourite pieces, there will always be a poem there on the next page that you know only slightly and delight to read as if for the first time.
White would have made a good poet laureate, an office that took on its modern form in 1843 when William Wordsworth was apppointed, although the office itself went back to 1668. It was an office in England that was reserved for the greatest poet of the day as a mark of public recognition of his pre-eminence. It was the highest office that a professional poet could aspire toward. Indeed, if a poet had achieved distinction it was reasonable of contemporary commentators to speak of him as ‘laureated,’ even if he had not been formally granted a public laureateship with its accompanying stipend. In 1843 there were "no specific obligations laid upon the holder," although that is certainly not the case today. White was often called, therefore, the ‘unofficial poet laureate’ of the Baha’i community, an apt term given the long and variegated history of poet laureates for some four centuries and the very distinction that White achieved in his poetry in the last two decades of his life.
White liked the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Part of White’s enjoyment of Eliot was an affinity for both his life and his work, although I would have to engage with the White archives if I wanted to substantiate this claim. Lyndall Gordon wrote of Eliot's adult life that it could "be seen as a series of adventures from the citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience." Perhaps for Eliot this defining experience was a commitment to the Anglican form of Christianity. White found his 'defining experience' in his late teens and he spent his life defining, studying and understanding it as deeply as he could. Like Eliot, White often shuddered from his contact with the world and withdrew to his citadel "where he could labour to record, as precisely as possible, his strange encounters." I'm not sure White would have liked the word "shuddering," but my own study of his poetry suggests, like our own dear selves, he had enough of such moments to help give his poetry the depth it attained.
And finally, with respect to White's poetry, I can only repeat the words of Ezra Pound in relation to T.S. Eliot, with that same sense of urgency that Pound voiced at the beginning of Eliot's poetic output, READ HIM. For White is a poet of the future and that future is now. His poetry begins in a new myth and ends in that myth and, if White's poetry survives into the future, it will be because of this myth and its powerful metaphor embedded in history. White was just one light in a long tradition of poetic lights shining upon this history and radiating new meanings to his contemporaries.
BURSTING UPON OUR EYES WITH STUNNING BEAUTY
The splendours of colour and the diversity of tint and shade have made the flora of Western Australia world famous...the delightful form and hues of the flowers are outstanding. -C.A. Gardner, Wildflowers of Western Australia, St. George Books, Perth, 1981, 14th edition(1959), p.5.
This poem was written after a walk with my wife in King’s Park Botanic Garden in early spring. -Ron Price, 19 September 1995, 7:30 pm.
They were giving you fellows names
when the first intimations of that Light
were first becoming conscious
in that luminous light: Shaykh Ahmad.
The green winter-world
had just been splashed with colour
in this garden of delight
as we came to walk here,
together in early spring.
Patches of blue-Lechenaultia-
burst apon my eye and stuck to my retina.
Kangaroo-Paw, Wattle and Bird of Paradise
shouted out their stunning beauty
a billion balls of yellow-gold,
blue and orange hues.
The earth was humbled
to be associated with such grandeur.
Long stems and leaves lifted
these majestic networks of colour to the stars:
millions of years of evolution
touching perfection for our eye.
What will we see
in five hundred thousand years?
Where will we be at the end of this Era
when that Light has radiated
its concentrated power
from its home up there on that hill,
bursting upon our eyes,
now, with its stunning beauty?
19 September 1995
"Rejoice, for the hour of your departure is at hand." Muhammed said this in a dream to an Arab. The Arab was instructed to say these words to Siyyid Kazim, telling of his death which was to take place soon. -Nabil, Dawnbreakers, p.44.
When he came out of Bahrain1
and began preparing the way
a whole new age was
about to have its say.
And sound, what sound could be heard!
Paganini took Europe by storm
after Siyyid Kazim had come to the throne2
with his special kind of power,
his immense struggle,
his spiritual virtuoso,3
his spell, his miracle, his message,
his romantic star
which would enter that chamber4
redolent with flowers
and the loveliest perfume,
see the light fall on that lap,
warn of the world’s fleeting
and beguiling vanities
in subtle and covert phrases
and learn of his own death
from an Arab in a wondrous dream.
18 October 1996
1 Shaykh Ahmad left his home at some time in the 1780s to tell people about the
Promised One to come.
2Siyyid Kazim began his leadership of the Shaykhi community in 1826 and two years later Paganini, the great violinist, began his famous concert tour of Europe.
3Siyyid Kazim and Paganini are similar in some respects, in the sense described by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge UP, 1974, p.200.
4It was in such a chamber that Siyyid Kazim visited the Bab.
THE END OF THE ABOMINATION THAT MAKETH DESOLATE
Only Noah and his companions in the Ark were left. And the waters held their own over the land for a hundred a fifty years. -The Bible, Genesis, Chapter 7, verses 23 and 24.
The birth of the French Republic in 1792....saw a ragged distracted democracy capturing the secret of power which is never a function of mechanism, but always an ardour of the soul...in 1793 she executed Louis XVI. -H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe: Vol.II, Fontana, 1973(1935), p.898-900.
In the last fifty years(1919-1969) a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place.
-F.J. Hoffman, "Anderson and Freud", in Winesburg, Ohio, ed. John H. Ferres, Penguin Books, NY, 1977, p.317.
A wind has been blowing;
the waters have held over the land
for many a long year now?
How much longer will it blow?
How long will the floods flood
our very souls, harrowing us up?
How long have the floods flooded
our generations? Did they begin
with the blissful consummation?*
Perhaps when Shaykh Ahmad
left the island, Bahrain, in 1793!**
Perhaps in 1844 the floods began,
or in 1863, or 1868, or, or , or;
you can only play with numbers
for so long, though we define the
end of the abomination that maketh
desolate*** as 1863. And there was
a sense of a new life, then, in many places:
the Civil War, Darwin, the list goes on and on.
Immense shifts in what people believed,
the youth in revolt, more and more
until they seemed wiser than the adults;
there was more materialism than ever before
and frustration and loneliness filled psyches
with a frenetic passivity. A vast complexity
filled the horizon of people's lives everywhere.
21 March 1996
*these words are found in the last chapter of the Book of Daniel.
**this man left his home in 1792 and spent his time preparing
the way for the Promised One.
***a quotation from the Book of Daniel.
I did not take up writing about the Baha’i Faith as a subject, as a duty but, rather, as something which engaged my mind and perhaps to an extent as an obsession, as a member of that team which is writing about the Baha’i Faith. As someone who grew up in the northern half of America, of North America, in what we used to call the Dominion of Canada when I was a kid, I have little trouble identifying myself with the epic experience, the epic history of the Baha’i Faith. With six thousand poems and several million words under my epic belt, so to speak, I feel tied to, part and parcel of, this epic experience which for me goes back to 1753 and the birth of Shaykh Ahmad--a quarter of a millennium ago. My life, since 1967, has been part of "The historic mission beyond the confines of the Dominion," and part of the "push to the outposts of the Faith to the northernmost territories in the Western Hemisphere." The greatest drama in the world’s spiritual history, the Baha’i story, is an epic of mamouth proportions. My writing is simply one of the infinite number of expressions of this story. "The historic mission beyond the confines of the Dominion," and part of the "push to the outposts of the Faith to the northernmost territories in the Western Hemisphere." The greatest drama in the world’s spiritual history, the Baha’i story, is an epic of mamouth proportions. My writing is simply one of the infinite number of expressions of this story. Shoghi Effendi, Messages to Canada, NSA of the Baha’is of Canada, 1965,p.vi.; and Shoghi Effendi, Messages to Canada, NSA of the Baha’is of Canada, 1965,p.vi.