Everyday Poems #14, “Have You Ever Not Feared?”

Eugene-Peterson

I’ve got a sermon to work on so not much writing for today. But I do keep coming back to Wallace Stevens’ idea of the poet being “the priest of the unseen.” And I wonder if Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite writers, knew that quote and had it in mind when he asked, “Isn’t it interesting that all of the biblical prophets and psalmists were poets?”

If Stevens is right and Peterson is right, then maybe pastors and teachers within the church would do well to ignore the business leader manuals and marketing strategies – at least for a while – and listen to Hopkins and Dickinson, Berry and Radnoti.

Just a thought.


Have You Ever Not Feared?

Have you ever not feared?
To stand there in all that mercy,
if only for that split second
with nothing to fear, is heaven itself.

Everyday Poems #14, “Willie Nelson’s Guitar”

WillieNelson_TriggerFB2.658e65f41aebcd149041b12da7c1972d

Some of my earliest memories are of vacations with my parents, either to stay at that house right behind the Thomas Donut Shop in Panama City Beach or to stay with my Aunt and Uncle up in Gatlinburg. They owned an auto parts store in town.

On those trips, we listened to Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond and Willie Nelson. “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” moved me even as a kid. Old country songs remind me often of some of the best things about good poetry and often veer into the country of poetry. They talk about normal things and help you see them differently.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote “Ozymandias” – which we all had to read at some point – said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

I like that quote. Most people appreciate a poem every now and then if only for that reason. It helps us see beauty in something we might have missed. Poetry helps us with perspective. A poem’s value might be gauged by how well it changes the way we see something we already knew was there but did not see it for what it was.

Like a beat up guitar.


Willie Nelson’s Guitar

It’s hard to write a poem
about Willie Nelson’s guitar.
It’s not like flowers and starlit nights
or my wife’s curves and smiles.

No, his guitar is beaten up
and has a hole in the wrong place.
It’s covered in scratches and
looks like it’s been around forever.

It’s not like the beautiful body
I saw hanging in a store once –
perfect red, and silver shown –
I can’t even play, much less own.

It’s ugly and brown and black
and looks like it could fall apart
but really nothing sounds better
than Willie Nelson’s guitar.

Everyday Poems #13, “This Morning I Did Not Clock In.”

heaney

On the day Seamus Heaney died, I went to the library to find a volume of his poems, of which they had none. So then I went to the used bookstore down the street and joyfully found his collection, Seeing Things.

I think it’s the first poem of that collection in which he writes, “A 9 to 5 man, who knows poetry.” Now I did not yet understand that poem but I was a 9 – 5 man struggling as a banker and poetry was a way of grasping at beauty in a world in which only numbers and profit ruled. Since then I have learned the line may be a sly criticism of a particular person. But no matter.

Heaney’s poetry has always had this ancient and modern sound in my ears. Ancient, probably because he grew up outside of Belfast on a farm that was in his own words, “medieval.” But Modern, because his poetry became popular in a world of modern machines and modern ideas about the world.

He is intensely likable. I have listened to every podcast multiple times in which he is featured. And one of my favorite books, Stepping Stones, is just one long interview and that kindness is on every page.

One of things I like about his poetry is the lack of cleverness. Now, I like a clever poem. But his are never that. They shoot straight, even the ones that take a few readings to get your head around.

Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it. – Seamus Heaney

He is from Belfast. So you must expect a beautiful sadness behind whatever he writes. Below is my favorite poem of his. I do not have a lot of complete poems memorized, but this one I have and will keep. It is one of the poems that hung like a beacon in my last cubicle at my last job at the bank.

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

I can remember the joy of driving into work on my first day as a teacher after leaving the bank. Little did I know I would be working with people who knew the work of Seamus Heaney and prized it. They also knew the work of Mozart and could discuss it. This would be a new and beautiful world. A world I miss.


This Morning I Did Not Clock In.

Instead,
I listened to the Clarinet Concerto
and drove under cobalt blue skies.
I also thought about Seamus Heaney
and those lines,

“Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.”

By then the duet of Susanna and Constance
in that scene when Andy
locks all the doors
and turns on the intercom
and they can all hear the beauty
taking over the morning.
During all this,
my desk sat empty.

I guessed all my poems
were taken down from
those short dead gray
walls, never read,
and thrown away.

But the sky hung blue
and I could only listen
with all the joy I knew.
Also, I did not clock in.

Everyday Poems #12, “This Is the Day”

monday

I hated Mondays slightly more than other days when I worked at the bank. They were always frantic and everyone was running around and the more some ran around frantic, the more others did too. You’ve seen it, too.

But it wasn’t just the bank. Everywhere seemed to burst into a frenzy after the weekend. And I did not like it. But I was always trying to get perspective. At least I had a job. We never missed a meal. And you’ve felt that, also.

We were healthy.

While we lived in Greenwood, Lori, a friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. I remember that on one particular eventful day – maybe the day of surgery, I cannot remember exactly but I do remember that it was a day that held the possibility of dread and fear – she woke up, sat up in bed and quoted from Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

“Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” – Salvatore Quasimodo

That took something, I have always wanted. On hard days, Bethany and I quote this to each other. Keep in mind that what we call a “verse” is a line from an ancient poem written by someone from a very different culture. And yet what he wrote we all “get.” We want to look at even the hard days and see them as something to rejoice. We get that. If poetry does anything well, it has the ability to reflect back what we recognize within us and sometimes around us.

The following poem is a result of Lori’s confidence and my desire to acquire that confidence.


 

“This is the day”

You have made –
a Monday –
a day of full inboxes
and frantic bosses –
and car repairs
we cannot afford
regardless of cost –
a day with a child’s fever
and sales goals –
a day of projects rushed
and turned into teacher –
a day of prayer for mercy
and simple graces –
a day to rejoice in –
a day he has made
and I’ll be glad in it –

at least I’ll try.

 

Everyday Poems #12, “Just Now”

auden

One of the great wonders of poems is how they can capture a moment and help you understand the moment is more than what skates on the surface. This is good because often we have more than one thought and often more than one emotion swirling within us at the same time. Who has not felt grief and anger and wonder all at the same time?

Auden defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

Maybe that’s why we see so much poetry in the Bible. Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers as to how much of the Bible is poetry. But it’s at least around 30%.

And that makes great sense to me. Because the Bible is dealing with all the great mysteries of the Universe, including the mysteries within us, it makes sense for the varied authors to hand us revelation in the form of poetry.

Some of that poetry is beautiful and comforting. Sometimes the poetry is sad and brokenhearted. Often it is frustrated and confused. What is interesting is how all that includes God. That may be an obvious point. But here is the thing – whether it is about a loss, a reason for anger, a betrayal, fear, grief, wonder, the beauty of creation, lovers entwined, or advice for a son – God is in the mix. Though unseen, he is the highest reality.

Wallace Stevens said the poet is “the priest of the invisible.”

And that is why poetry –including the poetry of the Bible – is often what I go to when I am tired of this world. I need a clear expression of my mixed feelings to stare into and to know that what I see is not all there is.


“Just now”

Just now,
on the way to the school,
I saw
a cat writhing in pain
in the opposite lane.
And I hated this world
of death
and the friends of this world
who, when
(every time, it seems)
we speak of our cats
feel free
to tell us how, they
do not like them and prefer dogs.

 

Everyday Poems #10, “No Worries”

eliot

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

I wrote a lot of poems while at my last job. Yes, while. On the clock sometimes under the guise of bathroom breaks, I confess. But most of the time, at lunch. Not only were the ones I read tools of survival. But also the ones I wrote. Xanax was not enough.

It would do little good to tell you all of what I had to do in that cubicle. (Actually, it was many cubicles because every time you made a friend next to you, they moved you. Friendship and conversation were not efficient.) Our job was one of constant frenzy. I worked for a bank and my department was an internal help line for branches. When I took the job, you answered the phone and did everything you could to assist the person on the other end. I enjoyed it because I knew what it looked like and felt like to be in the branch and not be able to find a document, etc.

But that was not efficient. And my department generated no real income for the bank, so efficiency was naturally a driving force.

Not long after I transferred into that department, the job changed and the primary way we assisted the branches was through “chat.” And by the time I left, that is all we were doing. Except that we were doing two at a time. And as soon as we finished one, another chat with a dire problem would pop up. All day long. It never let up. It was frantic. Thus the poems. I knew of at least three others beside myself who were on Xanax or some other anxiety medication.

As far as I knew, I was the only one on poems.

When I found out T.S. Eliot was a banker, I was elated. I immediately went and bought a book of his poems featuring The Waste Land (with a great introduction by Mary Karr) during my lunch break. I also found a short biography. All this encouraged me. I did not always understand his poetry, but I was okay with that. I was so discouraged about my job and full of anxiety, I understood little about anything. The Waste Land was able to say something to me even when I could not understand what he was saying.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” – T.S. Eliot

Worry and anxiety are everywhere now. There is so much chaos and confusion and anger and suspicion and disappointment.

When Christ teaches those who would listen to him, “Do not worry about your life…” in the Sermon on the Mount, he is saying something about reality. And it is not a reality that is no less real because it is unseen. He is saying, “If you follow me and trust me, you will be made citizens of my kingdom and in that kingdom there is no reason to worry. You are safe from the need to worry.”

The following poem anticipates the desire for such a kingdom.


“No Worries”

is what she told me
when I thanked her
for her understanding.
And as the words sat
there on the screen,
I could not help but
think of, “No trespassing.”

And that got me
thinking –
what if we had
structures where
worry had to keep out?

Worries were simply
not allowed.
And in that space – we
could sit
and stand
and even
run free
from what sat outside,
we could not bring them in even if tried.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

wendall-berry

1. Chaos is not real. It is a perspective skewed by ignoring the highest reality of God and his love. Chaos is looking through the glasses of those who trust only their own perspective. If the light within by which we see is darkness, then how deep is that darkness.

2. Let Spring be wisdom. Or maybe even sermon. A letter would do.

3. We have a chance to “educate” our children during this time. We have a chance to teach them our first world problems are a vapor. Our plans are often born of arrogance. Our perspective is often dictated by the fleeting whims of pop culture. That we have a King and a kingdom. Within that kingdom we are perfectly safe. We know…know that all things are working out for good – the good of those who follow the crucified King. That we carry a cross because we have already died and our lives are hid with Christ. And when he appears we also will appear with him in glory. We can tell them these things, sure. But only if we proceed with kindness and joy will they learn it.

4. The Avett Brothers sold Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise to be used in a financial planning commercial.

5. Willard said we should ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. I think this has now been done for us.

6. I hate living in a world where COVID – 19 is a marketing opportunity for businesses and churches, of which it is often hard to tell the difference these days.

7. Wendell Berry is far easier to hear during this time. His poems are like prophecy – not so much foretelling as much as forth-telling. He sees more than we do. And in a way they remind me of Dylan’s songs. There is something else out there we are not seeing. Indeed, we don’t even know how to see them. If only because they do not seem beholden to them times, they are worth our time. I have found more than a little comfort in both.

8. One of the things I was teaching my 7th grade OT students was how to approach the Scriptures. I used five lenses. One of those lenses was “Sin is our biggest problem.” This was just another way to say, “Our circumstances are not our biggest problem.” The goal was joy. Each and every circumstance is to be colored with the knowledge that our biggest problem has been defeated. It was true in the stories of the Bible. And it’s true when you find yourself in the middle of a story that includes a pandemic.

9. Are you alive in a world dying to binge-watch?

10. Everyday Poem #11, “Doing Nothing”

I am pretty sure I was in Mrs. Grissett’s room at W.J. Christian Elementary when I learned about the Haiku. I could be wrong about that but I have very fond memories of learning poems and writing metaphors and similes and enjoying the difference in that room. There was never a day I could say I enjoyed school but I do remember enjoying learning those things. There seemed to be a power in that knowledge.

I only remember learning the 5–7–5 line scheme but it is possible we were told more was required. Matsuo Basho, the great writer of Haiku, said that words pointing to the seasons and nature were required also.

“How I long to see
among dawn flowers,
the face of God.”
– Basho

I forget this often and transgress. But I love Haiku. And when I sit and read some Basho, I feel like I have often taken in more volume than those three lines. A good Haiku says more than those seventeen syllables. There is compact power.  Because there are so few words each word can be mined and then held up to the light and seen for what it is and what it can be.


 

The Sabbath shows us
doing nothing is sometimes
better than something.

Everyday Poems #9, ““Who Knows If Being Alive is Dying, And Dying Is Being Alive”

paterson

I’m not a big fan of movies. Rarely do they do what I want them to do. They seem to usually either distract or propagandize. And neither of those options open up the heavens. But every now and then I find one.

Not long ago someone told they didn’t like the movie, Paterson, because it was slow and didn’t go anywhere. That person is exactly right. And that is exactly why it is one of my favorite movies. I want to move slow and I don’t want to go anywhere…on a a number of levels.

Paterson is about a bus driver poet (played by Adam Driver, no really), named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. His favorite poet is William Carlos Williams, who is from Paterson, New Jersey. The movie is full of Paterson’s poetry (actually the poetry of Ron Padgett) voiced-over while he is driving and walking through his day. Paterson owns no cell phone and there appears to be no TV in the house. His day is fairly predictable except for the whims and artistic pursuits of his wife.

But actually the movie is about something else. William Carlos Williams’ most famous piece of work is a lengthy work called “Paterson.” And in that work, he says something that poets and critics have been debating for a long time.

“No Ideas but in things”

There is a scene when Paterson is walking his dog and he hears a guy (Method Man from Wu-Tang Clan) in a laundromat working on a rap. In that rap he quotes the above line from WCW.

The great American poet, Donald Hall, friend to WCW, helped me see what this line is all about. Williams wanted to write without a message. No sermon. No lesson to be learned. No big ideas. He simply wanted his reader to see what is there. See it differently. See it for what it is. See people for who they are.

Even the movie Paterson is meant to do that. There is nothing exceptional in the lives of the characters (unless Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s seeing is exceptional). You are meant to simply appreciate them as they are without any need to be a big idea or a message.

Of course, the irony is the movie does have an important idea. Apart from our ideas and our opinions…and even our convictions, there is value in this world in which God has made. Our ideas and thoughts or feelings about a tree blooming in early Spring do not add or subtract from the intrinsic value of said tree. It is a thing wholly outside of us and it’s value and beauty is not beholden to usefulness. And if that is true of trees it is true of the most ordinary people.

And things.


“Who Knows If Being Alive is Dying, And Dying Is Being Alive”

If you were to say the above title to this,
my poem,
you would,
I think,
be quoting me,
yes.
But I’m quoting Augustine,
who was,
understandably,
quoting Plato,
who was,
of course,
quoting Socrates.
And it turns out,
he was,
in fact,
quoting Euripedes,
the playwright-poet,
whose tragedies I bought this morning,
at the library bookstore along with a $2 puzzle for my wife.

Everyday Poems #5, “Last Night I Had Chicken and Waffles”

milkmaid-56_13132

Ferlinghetti said that every poem is an overstatement understated. He was an anarchist philosopher-poet, though. He is worth paying attention to if only because of the size of his influence on Western culture. He published Ginsberg, who influenced Dylan. And it was only after meeting Dylan, that The Beatles started us asking, “Who is the Walrus?” But even in his anarchy of language – which is never consistent, by the way – he stumbles on something so true, you are arrested.

But I think we can all understand what Ferlinghetti means. He means what we cannot very well say except through poetry. And this is why poetry is full of so much metaphor. We are always comparing things. Poetry formalizes it. And in those comparisons we can overstate our case and understate it at the same time and with both arrive at the place of understanding.

In the second quarter of the school year, usually in late October, I have my 9th grade theology students write a poem on the creation story in Genesis. Half the class breathes deep because it is not a paper. The other half moans. And I know why. A poem is not formal and requires something inside you lying dormant in most papers and most people. You can write prose all day about God creating the Universe and never use the invisible part of you.

And there are always students uncomfortable with this.

And for some reason last year I had a number of students in one class who thought this was a hard assignment. So I told them, “Okay, I will write one right now.” And I did, within the rubric of the assignment. I was done in 15 minutes.

I must have been reading a lot of Billy Collins at the time, which is no surprise because his poems are always swimming in my streams of consciousness. This poem sounds a little like him. Okay, maybe a lot like him. I’m fine with that because he is fine with it. He talks about poetry being a kind of theft and borrowing and copying and imitating. He does it to great effect without shame.

He also used to carry Ferlinghetti around in his pocket.

A poem can be made of common household ingredients. It fits on a single page yet it can fill a world and fits in the pocket of your heart. – Ferlinghetti

I like this idea of poetry being about ordinary things. Which is one of the reasons why Collins poetry is so full of life. He charges all the ordinary parts of life with life. Often with humor. Very often with wonder.

Which is also why we like the paintings of Vermeer. We are getting a peek at doings that are incredibly boring if we just said what they were. “Oh, here is a painting of a normal woman pouring milk.” But when you look at the painting of The Milkmaid, it is stunning.

We were created to be stunned by the everyday things. However, we are stunted by CGI and a life of hurrying past everything. We need to stop and smell the roses, as they say. Or taste the chicken and waffles, as it were.


Last Night I Had Chicken and Waffles

that tasted like the six days of creation
and Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s ninth.
You may think it hyperbole
to say such provincial fare could be
compared to the making of the night sky –
the Creator flinging into being all those stars.
But it’s only because you were not there – in that booth
or when the world was made for that matter.
So how could you even know they tasted just like the wind
blowing through the leaves of the first trees?
Not to mention the creation of Eve
and any one of Monet’s waterlilies.
It might help if I tell you in all seriousness,
each bite, which at the time seemed so much
and now seem so few, was just like the works
of Vermeer, who even though Dutch,
most likely never even imagined
chicken and waffles for all his abilities
to paint idyllic domestic scenes
as if all those homes were sawed open
so we could see from hundreds of years later
what they were up to, which obviously
was not yet the eating of chicken and waffles.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

frodo

1. My recommendation is that you quit your devotions. Quit reading a verse in the morning and then a short piece of writing about that verse, so you can just move on to the next one tomorrow. My recommendation is – choose a big passage like Matthew 6:19-34, Colossians 1:9-20, Psalm 23, Colossians 3:1-17, or Philippians 2:3-16 and then memorize that passage and recite it from memory every morning till it is part of the furniture of your mind. Then add another long passage. Then when you go through hard times, those words will have formed how you think already, so that going forward the voice of the King of the Universe will remind you of what is real reality.

2. Our local library is closed for the foreseeable future. But I think they should let me check something out from the poetry section because I am pretty sure my germs are the only ones in that area, seeing as how I’ve never seen another soul there.

3. I do worry about how all the video streaming will affect churches. Will it affect attendance in a culture that already chooses baseball practice over corporate worship? I almost hope it won’t be successful and that people will not enjoy it to the point of craving corporate worship and the sacraments.

4. I am just going to go ahead and assume that Wendell Berry has not even noticed what is happening.

5. If everything is filtered through a conservative or liberal political lens, then that is mostly likely the religion you actually follow and place your trust in.

6. Wallace Stevens said poets are priests of the invisible.

7. Maybe this will show us the value of slowing down and drinking in a simpler life. Maybe this experience will be a sermon we all need to heed. You don’t need to fill your life or your kid’s life with activities. Boredom is good. You do not always have to be entertained. A simple dinner made with what you have on hand is good.

8. For those who think this is a hoax, I am not saying you are wrong, but it is hard for me to believe you are right. Think about how many people would have to be in on it. Think about all the nurses and doctors. Is the hoax about the danger? Is the hoax about whether it exists? What kind of proof would you need to believe it to be real and not a hoax?

9. Not ashamed to be reading LOTR again.

10. I love to sit in my front yard during the day and during the night. Because of this we will sometimes meet people and they will recognize us as the ones who sit in our front yard at wave at everyone. I want to be known as “the waving neighbor.” Well, one night about seven years ago, I thought long and hard about the value of what you can see up in the sky with the naked eye on a clear night.

Another concern I have in the midst of this pandemic with it’s need for social isolation is that we will become more addicted to being entertained by a screen. I hope I am wrong and the glories of books and music and the woods and our front yards will become new again.

The moon, when available, is free, by the way.


From the far reaches of your front yard
breaks the moon’s playful beams,
for which we’d pay full fortunes,
were they shut off from us in the dark.