The brief paper below was presented at the Baha’i Studies Conference on Creative Inspiration held in Melbourne in September 1999. It offers one central position or thought about the afterlife that has been important in my experience and in the creation of my poetry. But before coming to that paper I'd like to open this section with several poems that point toward the afterlife in one way or another. One poem is about Keats and the inspiration he felt from beyond the grave from 'the mighty dead.' I have long believed the same inspiration, the same assistance, is available to us all. The Baha’i writings have much to say about the afterlife, much more than in all the sacred scriptures of old. Since my mid-thirties, due to the trials and tribulations of life, I have turned to this source of help on a daily basis through the mediums of Baha’i prayers, the intercession of souls and the benefits we on Earth can obtain from those who have passed into the Great Beyond.
The closing portion of this sub-section on the afterlife is a chapter from my book on the poetry of Roger White. the chapter is entitled ‘The Language of There." This title is taken from one of Roger’s poems about the afterlife and its language---the language of ‘There.’
"There is no music in the literature," writes Harold Schonberg, "that has Bach's kind of rightness." There is rightness in an inevitability, an intelligence, in an organized sequence of notes, in a relation with religion and divinity, in a new harmonic language, sense and intensity which sets Bach off from his more timid and less inventive contemporaries. Nothing could interfere with his vision of music and his drive, nor his compulsion to saturate himself with his art. Even so, he expected the bulk of his music to disappear after his death, a subject which obsessed him. -Ron Price with thanks to Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, W.W. Norton, NY, 1981, pp.35-46.
Yes, a rightness here
in this endless poetic
which came after
they prayed for me
and I prayed for them
and her and went
again to the edge,
down and out in Dundas,
Ballarat and Frobisher Bay--
due to some intensity,
some relation with religion
and divinity, mysterious,
compulsive, all this,
with a strange attraction
to that undiscovered country
and its breezes, trees, sunshine
and roses and, yes, light.
1 October 2002
FACTICITY BEYOND QUESTION
"Stories are what make us human," writes Peter Jacobs.1 The history we as Baha'is have in our possession, especially God Passes by, by Shoghi Effendi, is full of stories to provide the basis of our humanness. So, although our knowledge of the past may be incomplete and sometimes oversimplified to overcome multitudinous complexity, as just about any history is, we are not in the position that Will and Ariel Durant2 suggest we are in, namely, that we have to guess at what happened in our history, that we have a story that is inaccurate. Nor do I have to guess what happened to me as I relate this autobiography. I may have to guess at its meaning; my memory may be faultly here and there; the hermeneutical base of this autobiography may be capable of endless and varied analysis, but the facticity is, for the most part, beyond question. -Ron Price with thanks to 1 Peter Jacobs, Histories of Landscape Architecture in Canada, L'Harmattan, France; and 2Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, MFJ Books, NY, 1968, pp.11-13.
There's not a shadow of a doubt
that I joined the Baha'i Faith at 15,
that I graduated from university at 23,
that I came to Australia at 27
and that I'm still there at 58.
arrangement is as fixed as the sun.
But what about that me--
more inner than bone,
as Emily once wrote,1
the invisibility of an interior landscape,
the self that is insufficiently present
or not even presentable,
its hidden places, inexplicable---
but there, simply there,
is an "I" deeper than the sea.
All that I see here shall pass away
and I shall be asked of my doings,
of my patience and resignation
and I shall freely converse
with the Maids of Heaven
about what I was made to endure
and the battles I lost.
And I shall blaze out
with a great longing.2
1 Emily Dickinson, Poem Number 321.
2Baha'u'llah, Gleanings, p.156.
24 March 2002
AM I WORTH SAVING?
"A biographer can be a most uncomfortable visitor for a living author and his family. Skeletons clatter in all our closets; everyone's life has black patches, shames and sorrows: no one, you would think, would willingly submit to Judgement Day come early." So writes Peter F. Alexander at the start of his book Les Murray: A Life in Progress(Oxford UP, 2000). But when such an author, like myself for example, is a virtual unknown; when he has never published a book; when no one in the literary world has ever heard of him, then such a discomfort would not be experienced by that author. Indeed, such an unknown author would probably think to himself that no one in his lifetime would venture to seriously consider writing a biography about him at all. Skeletons in his closet and the darker side of his life would, therefore, concern him not a twit, for he would know that no writer would ever be likely to probe into his private life while he was alive. Such is the way I feel as I approach the age of sixty.
When I eventually pass from this mortal coil, though, I would be more than happy to grant any aspiring biographer complete access to everything: manuscripts, letters, diaries, various documents private and public, even accounts and memorabilia of all sorts. I would be equally happy for such a biographer--should he or she ever exist--to interview whomever they want and as frequently as they want, ever mindful of the courtesies required of such potential intrusions into people's lives. I would like to think that such biographers should feel free to prod, probe and uncover whatever they could find, for we are seen by others in such varied ways. Such is the attitude I shall possess after my demise. -Ron Price with thanks to Peter Alexander, Les Murray: A Life in Progress, Oxford UP, 2000, p.9.
Should I give full and exclusive
access to my voluminous papers?
How easy should I make
the detective work
for the possibly impertinent,
not especially skilled,
wanting to save a life
for future generations?
Am I the sort of man
you might want to see
live again and dance
in the pages of a book?
If you know of my battle
on the road, will it help
you with yours?
Do you need all my sordid
of my hind parts
and an exploration
of mountains of trivia?
Whatever will help future
generations....whatever will help
and only if it helps.
March 16 2002
THE GARDENS OF CONSECRATED JOY
From the age of six I felt a strong attraction to some form of artistic expression. At first I had a compulsion to draw tulips, hundreds of them. An obsession, it resulted in variations on the same shape, score after score, day after day. Various other obsessions occupied me until my late forties when the major artistic compulsion of my life grabbed my attention: poetry. A more complex activity than drawing tulips, it involved in a similar way my obsessive inclinations. Poetry as obsession arose insensibly during my late thirties to my late forties. By the time I was nearly sixty I felt, like the Japanese painter, Hokusai, that I had just made a beginning to understanding the form and the expression that was poetry. It was my hope that by the age of seventy I would make great progress and by the age of eighty I would penetrate far toward plumbing the depths, the essence, of this art form. As I turned ninety and ,then, one hundred, my achievements would become, such was my goal, invaluable to my community. During the years in which I was to enjoy some of my second century of life, I would come, finally, to see my work as "sacred and resplendent tokens from the planes of glory." I would find myself attracted toward "the court of holiness and nearness and beauty."1 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Hokusai, "Every Dot Will Be Alive," trans. Anne Twitty, Parabola:The Creative Response,p.99; and 2 Baha'u'llah, Seven Valleys, USA, 1952, p.3.
Now let it be seen
how many years
I would be given
and so live to see
this court of holiness.
For it would make
living to be a hundred
worth my while if:
I could see in creation
the Face of my Beloved One,
the Honoured, and gather
the fruits of communion
in the gardens of consecrated joy.
9 February 2002
AN EMPIRE OF THE MIND
Price found many things about Keats and his poetry that resonated in his own work and his approach to poetry. Keats had, for example, a sense of service to humanity and devotion to the well-being of the world. Keats probed and questioned these central features of his work in poem after poem. Keats also felt divinely inspired.1 Keats felt that "Great spirits now on earth are sojourning." Price felt all of these things in the particular context of the religion he had been associated with for nearly fifty years. Price would not claim to be divinely inspired; rather he felt he was trying to reflect "however inadequately" the divine spirit breathed into the world by Baha'u'llah. Also, he was trying to derive benefit through the power of souls who had passed on. The prospects opened by poetry for Price, as for Keats, became an empire of the mind, an imaginative freedom and imaginative conquest.2 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Stephen Coote, John Keats: A Life, Stoughton and Hodder, London, 1995, p.40; and 2ibid.,p.43.
You coined the word 'firesider,'
right at the start of Their lives.1
You looked conscious of your
high calling. I'm not sure such
a look could be recognized today.
The faces of the mighty dead
crowd into your room
and you pray to the great spirit
that you might be worthy of accompanying
these immortal beings in their glories
and of being encouraged in your work.
Have I received some of their pure leaven?
Is this manifest work evidence of their power?
Where is that 'reflection of divinity?'
Is there some of the spirit of the age here?
After a long incubation, long gestation,
my development took on this visible form,
my vision, my imagination, clothed
in meaning, abiding preoccupation,
a busy solitude of my own heart,
a deep silence of thought.2
1 Coote informs us of this coining of the word 'firesider' to suggest an intimate but cultivated domestic world about 1817 to 1819.
21 January 2002
THE CREATIVE INSPIRATION
In some ways I see this paper as a continuation of the paper I delivered in 1990 at the ABS Conference that year in Perth on "The Inner Life and the Environment". It is a continuation of that paper in the sense that what I want to stress here in this paper is the same thing I stressed in that 1990 paper: the inner life and private character. For it is here that ‘the creative inspiration’ finds its origins. I can’t begin in a better place than quoting that passage of the Guardian, a passage that has gained in strength and meaning as the decades have passed since his passing in 1957:
Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching - no matter how worldwide and elaborate in its character - not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and sceptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha'u'llah.--Shoghi Effendi: Baha'i Administration, Page: 66.
The creative inspiration is clearly associated in manifold ways with this "inner life and private character." Before we begin to examine the inner life and creative inspiration, though, I’d like to say a few things about ‘where I am coming from.’ What are the origins of my own creative inspiration, what are some of the perspectives that inform it, in relation to poetry, one of the many outward forms, manifestations, of this creative imagination, inspiration, the inner spiritual powers? There are several sources and perspectives which illustrate something of what I want to say about my own creative inspiration.
Firstly, there are the influences of socialization. Both my mother in the 1950s and my grandfather in the 1920s, began to write extensively in their late forties and fifties. My father had an immense energy and drive. The two sides of my life, as represented by my parents, I think have played a role, partly undefineable, in whatever inspiration has come into my life in poetry.
Secondly, there is the influence of my religion which I have been a member of now for forty years and attending various functions for forty six. A poetic literature, a long line of artistic and intellectually endowed associations, listening to people from an infinitely wide range of paths in life, an exposure to books, to reading, to hearing people read, to reading myself in public,visible commitments, etc. These and other aspects of my connection with the Baha’i Faith have all contributed to defineable and indefineable influences on my creative inspirations.
In this connection I’d like to mention the invocation Ya Baha’u’l-Abha which means "O Glory of the All-Glorious" and which ‘Abdu’l-Baha says "is more profit to thee than all knowledge of the sciences and all the wealth of the earth. It is....the melody of eternity...that cry that brings the Supreme Concourse to the door of thy life...It holds all there is of substance in the world of creative thought."(source unknown)
Thirdly, ill-health and personal difficulties: manic-depression in the 1960s and 1970s, divorce, employment difficulties which turned me toward seeking special inspiration. By 1980 I frequently read the following passage from Gleanings(p.161) and sought the intercession of the departed Hands of the Cause on my behalf:
The soul that hath remained faithful to the Cause of God and stood unwaiveringly firm in His Path shall, after his ascension, be possessed of such power that all the worlds which the Almighty hath created can befefit through him. Such a soul provideth, at the bidding of the Ideal King and Divine Educator, the pure leven that leveneth the world of being, and furnisheth the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest.
I began writing poetry about a year or so after reading this passage frequently. Although I saw no association between this passage and my first poems, by the 1990s I began to wonder at the possible connection with my poetic output and these leavening influences.
Fourthly, the influence of other poets: Roger White in the 1980s and many poets from the western intellectual tradition since Wordsworth. For a dozen years, 1981 to 1992, I had ‘company defined by letters’,1 company with the most delightful letter writer I’ve ever known and a poet whose influences have had primacy.(1Robert Creeley, The American Poetry Review, Sept.’99, p.18.).
In the years 1993 to 1999 my poetic friends were in books. I read dozens and dozens of books about poetry since Wordsworth started writing in the 1780s. I read publicly in cafes, restaurants, in colleges and at Baha’i functions but did not find it inspirational, although people enjoyed my reading due to my ability to entertain. But I had tired of the public domain after nearly thirty years of teaching and endless firesides, LSA meetings and what seemed like an endless variety of meetings. I had dried up. Poetry functioned like a new lease on life, but this refreshment was in the private domain. I seemed to be seized with the desire to tell my story and the story contained in the history of my religion, the Baha'i Faith. Not being able to do so in any depth in the public domain, I could do so to my heart's desire in private, in the hope that one day my words would be public. I think I was driven to writing poetry.
Fifthly, the possible influence of the holy year, 1992-1993. My Baha’i life had occupied the span between the two holy years, the other being 1952-1953. I think this influence is most mysterious. But my life as a Baha’i had spanned these two special years and a flood of poetry was unleashed after this forty year hiatus. Perhaps it was something of what Rilke expressed when he wrote that "reality is something distant that comes infinitely slowly to those who have patience." Baha'is in that forty year period did a great deal of waiting; perhaps they expected too much in those years. For most of the Baha'i community, at least in the West, the growth, the process, was slow.
Sixthly, the particular view of time, space and history in the Baha’i teachings. Time: 13.6 billion years; space: infinite, a general scientific view; and history, a ten stage process(Shoghi Effendi, 1953, Chicago) with plans, eras, cycles, epochs, stages, phases, the Baha’i calendar, all of this helped to give my life, my age and all of history a new focus and this plays a role in my poetry. As I have got older, particularly since the last decade of middle adulthood(50-60), I have become more conscious that 'the wheels of God grind slowly.' The evolutionary process points to great expanses of time(eg. the first light after the Big Bang 900 million years later) and in my own life and in society evidence accumulate again and again on the slow nature of progress, this in spite of all the advancements in technology in our century.
You will see from the above influences something of that inner life which I speak of and something of the creative inspiration which is at the centre of this topic, this discussion today. And my poetry tells a great deal about my inner life; indeed, I often feel quite naked in giving my poems to people.
THIS ENTERPRISE OF GREAT PITCH AND MOMENT2
In Act 2 Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet a speech is delivered by Hamlet praising man's nobility, his reason, his beauty and his angelic quality. But Hamlet goes on in the same speech to say that man is the "quintessence of dust." Man brings Hamlet no delight any more. Having tasted of this experience myself from time to time in my life or variations on a similar theme, I felt like writing a poem to express the particular nature of my "fighting/That would not let me sleep," of my desire "To die, to sleep/No more," of my "native hue of resolution" which "Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."1 In the end, for Hamlet, "the rest is silence."1 For me, for this poet, the rest seemed to be endless words. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, The Soliloquy: "To Be or Not To Be;" and 2The work of the Cause and this poetic opus.
I decided more recently
to take up arms against
the world's sea of troubles
and not suffer the same slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune,
to take up arms differently
than I had done for forty years.
And so I reduced the many
natural shocks that flesh is heir to,
the whips and scorns of many a year,
the fatigue, the weariness
in which I did toil and sweat
to an unavoidable, a narrow, band of woe.
So....when the sleep of death does come,
when I have shifted off this mortal coil
and entered that undiscovered country
from which no man returns;
when I do not have to deal with things
contrary to my wishes,
but only with those days of blissful joy
that are assuredly in store for me,
I can look back and say that
to this enterprise of great pitch and moment
the native hue of resolution
was coloured over with
the rich cast of thought
and a quickening wind
amplified my perspectives
of surprising poetic potency:
and a rendezvous with my Maker1
that seemed to never end.
1The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1992.
15 February 2002
"A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries." So wrote Thomas Mann at the outset of the Guardian's thirty-six year ministry. I feel this idea quite strongly in relation to my own experience, that of my Baha'i community and the wider society I am a part of.-Ron Price with thanks to Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1924.
I write this poetry for me
and I write it for you,
for we are people
of the same world
and the life I live
is mine and yours.
I write because I must write.
This compulsion has grown
with the years back in the '80s.
Perhaps it was those souls who
have gone on--those faithful ones--
to whom and for whom
I have prayed and now
they give me all of this,
all this leavening,
all this manifesting
due to their power,
to something they have found
within me and they've turned the key.
And so my soul's connection
is found in their ascension
to undiscovered sea.
There's lightning on their landscape,
special sheets of place.
One can never quite suspect
what flash, what clicks,
will make them to appear.
But appear they will
in ways I cannot tell,
but there's something
about these words of mine
that come from Unseen Mine.
11 February 2002
A SURE STANCE
Throughout the Middle Ages men despised life and thought of death in the language of terrors. They passed through life as the valley of the shadow of death. The body was looked on as unclean and the mind as the emanation of the Evil One. In the stages of history, after the Mystery of the Gate1, a gentler vision has become available for humankind. Although still possessed of some fire and fear, as it is, it is a vision in which the body is seen as the temple of the soul and the mind, a luminous light in the world of existence.-Ron Price. Reference 1 is to the Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, Haifa, 1976, p.57.
The world is a school,
every atom in existence,
the essence of all created things;
and one day, when I pass on,
days of joy will I enjoy,
far removed from these mirages,
these vapours which I chase
in this dry land only to discover,
in the end, that they are mere illusions.
Soon I will go into a hole
and be heard no more.
God will deal justly with me
to the nth degree, to the extent
of that speck on a date stone1
and I will dance as I have never danced
and gain, at last, that sure stance.2
1 The Bab, Selections, p.68.
28 April 1999
SILENT STANDING ON MY FEET ALONE
In the years between my becoming as Baha'i and pioneering, 1959 to 1962, Dame Mary Gilmore lived the last three years of her life. She lived to be 97. She was an Australian poet, patriot, radical pioneer and social reformer who had been awarded the D.B.E., Dame Commander of the British Empire, for achievements in literature and social reform. That year was 1937; the year of the inception of the 'Abdu'l-Baha's teaching Plan. For those three years, 1959-1962, she was virtually confined to her flat. When it was her time to go, she said she wanted to be "fresh and quick; still like a cup held out/To catch some word, some thought might find/This ever hungry, ever wakeful mind. Bill Wilde's description of her final years led to the following poem. -Ron Price with thanks to W.H. Wilde, Courage a Grace: A Biography of Dame Mary Gilmore, Melbourne UP, 1988, p.461.
When your last sands were running out
you wanted to be able to take one last,
long, remembering, backward look,
of love for all you knew.
And then, like some leaves, fall.
To be silent and stand on your feet,
alone, as you had been all your days,1
was the template you wanted
for your future beyond the grave
where you wanted to go on
without any ties, everyone free,
no hampering, whatever and wherever
you were, nothing possessive, no ownership.
And you fought on right to the end,
trying to extract one more thought,
one more comment
you might give to the world,
proof of your usefulness in life.
It 'twas as if you could not stop
for death and so he stopped for you:2
gentle-wise, a dropping of weary hands,
a closing of tired eyes,
a slipping away in peace,
a simply letting go,
a falling asleep, asleep,
1 This was how she saw herself and this image seems like one that is useful to me at this stage of my life, if not for the first forty years of my pioneering.
11 October 2001
A LOVE WE PUT AWAY
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about what it was like in one’s house the morning after one of its ‘loved ones’ died. She refers to ‘putting Love away’ and not using it again ‘Until Eternity’. It seems to me that one has this experience many times in life, especially when one moves to another town and never sees the person again; it is as if they died.-Ron Price with thanks to Emily Dickinson, Number 1078, Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems, editor, Thomas Johnson, Faber and Faber, 1970, p.489.
There is a love we use on earth
and then we put away.
‘Tis as if it’s in a box
It’s not as if this love has died,
just taken off the stage.
How real it is, its golden coin
will one day reveal true gage.
I knew her once,1
the kindest heart.
I let it slip away.
Perhaps it was the best,
but one never knows.
For if we’d wed
my role on stage would have been
such a different part.
4 January 1999
1I was thinking of a woman I knew in Whyalla, a Kathy Karavas, from July of 1971 to December 1972, during my first marriage. I talked to her many times in my home and hers, usually with others present. So I got to see her many sides. I liked them all. I also found her a very attractive woman physically. We lived through a great deal in the Baha’i community over those eighteen months. I had a short visit with her in December of 1973, I think it was in Whyalla. I was going through a divorce at the time and, for some reason, did not seriously entertain the idea of marrying her. I will never know why the idea did not enter my mind at the time.
THE WORDS ‘HERE AM I! HERE AM I!’
Emily Dickinson writes "There is a finished feeling/Experienced at Graves-"(Number 856). Her short poem inspired my own which draws on a short passage from the Long Obligatory Prayer.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, 4 January 1999.
Death is tidy, in a box,
at funerals I see.
It has a finished feeling,
quite precise, eternal: be.
There is a leisure, too, that enters
in this wilderness of size.
This is where His footsteps start
and the words ‘Here am I! Here am I!’
4 January 1999
THE KINGDOM OF THE INEFFABLE
The great thing in life is to decide what to make of the whole business, life's strange and complicated pattern. I found, as I approached fifty, after praying for more than a decade for departed souls "who remained faithful" and after having gone through my own dark night of the soul several times, that writing poetry was itself a creative stimulus to self-discovery. I often felt, too, that the arts had become "wings" to my life, a "ladder" to my ascent. I saw myself as a co-creator of my life, God's poem, some etherial finger-painting. In short, I felt drawn, attracted, to the world beyond. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, Unpublished Manuscript.
Into this parched and arid wasteland
comes the bluest sky, the greenest trees
and the most beautiful women imaginable—
but I fly; I am drawn; I can feel
a subtle closeness on the wing
on the faintest gleam to beyond concreteness,
away from immediacy,
on the edge of this uneasiness,
a finer, invisible tone, a fabric, a garment
from some Kingdom of the ineffable,
timelessness. I can almost feel it touch me
as my life gets worn away with the years
and my unclothed spirit takes flight
to some immeasureable place, some refuge,
nest on the boughs: waiting, still,
rooted so deep in truth's rich soil
while I slowly drink of reunion's cup,
1 August 1998
THE REAL WAR FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH
One of the first movies involving other planets, other worlds, extraterrestrials, space ships, is now somewhat slow and boring, 44 years later, to western audiences. -Ron Price, an impression after watching about one hour of the movie The War of the Worlds first screened in 1953.
They saw The War of the Worlds1
at the beginning of the ninth stage of history
as old worlds were dieing
and new ones were being spread out
in their stead;
and people were thinking
of other planets and extraterrestrials,
getting ready for moon landings,
mapping the universe in the decades ahead.
We were just finishing the Shrine of the Bab,
the Mother Temple of the West
and opening up one hundred countries
for a war of the worlds that noone knew about,
only him who had defined it for us
on the basis of products of that mystic intercourse:2
such a vision of a war
involving the onslaught
of all the peoples of the world--
a war of the worlds
which we would one day see
in its fierceness and its groaning
and in the confusion of defeated tribes.
19 October 1997
1This movie was first screened in 1953.
2This mystic intercourse between ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah produced many
writings from the pen of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
‘Abdu’l-Baha states that in the afterlife a lack of progress is tantamount to regression...through pride....or through despair...a person could refuse to ask for forgiveness or repent of one’s actions....like a planet slipped from orbit...becoming ultimately so remote from the magnetic attraction of the sun that it flies irretrievably into remoteness. -John S. Hatcher, "Afterlife and the Twin Pillars of Education", World Order, Fall 1978, p.33.
Remoteness is an insinuating force,
a feeling made of distance.
I heard it when the wind blew strong
in the eaves with some resistance.
I saw it when she turned away,
so quick it chilled my bone.
I’ve felt it often in my soul.
It tastes of an Arctic zone.
Perhaps it’s a sign of things
to come, of frigid corridors,
where sad, cold angels dine alone
in far off, refrigerated stores.
The tyranny of distance that
we’ve all grown to know so well,
might be a hint of ice inside
a heart that may freeze in hell.
Remoteness, like tincture of fear,
leads to repentance for our actions
and, if not felt, we slip from orbit
and fly irretrievably beyond traction.
Remote from His magnetic force
we can slip beyond the pale
and possibly decline for good,
in diminution’s endless wail.
4 January 1996
THE LANGUAGE OF THERE
1992 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 ( All of the
references in this paragraph are to the Universal House of Justice Ridvan Message 1992.)
In October 1992 I received a copy of The Language of There in the mail. It was from Roger White. Six months later Roger left this mortal coil and all its "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. For 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 nearly 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 six 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 the problem 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 in what may be one of White's many images 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?
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. I shall select two poems on which to close this brief commentary on The Language of There.
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 Pintar 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:
ometimes 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 splendor….from wisdom and the power of thought."__________________________end of story____!