>Got Poetry?

>Only 9 more days of National Poetry Month left, and I’ve barely given it a mention this year! It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it… and reading it… and reading about it quite a bit. But two things happened yesterday to prompt this post:

The May/June issue of Poets & Writers arrived in the mail, and a friend invited me to hear the Orthodox poet, writer and speaker, Scott Cairns, in Oxford on May 2 and 3. In his biography on the Orthodox Speakers Website, Cairns talks about his journey to Orthodoxy and his development as a poet: “the poems —the writing of the poems, learning to lean into the language, learning to trust poetry as my vocation— actually led me to Orthodoxy.” He has also written a memoir about visiting Mount Athos, A Short Trip to the Edge, and several others books of poetry and prose.

My first brush with Cairns’ art happened last May, when I discovered his book of paraphrased mystical writings, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. I blogged about it and excerpted from it here. So, if you’re interested, Cairns is speaking at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Oxford at 5:30 p.m. on May 2, and again on Sunday morning. A bit of info from their announcement:

On Saturday, May 2nd at 5:30, renowned spiritual writer and poet Scott Cairns will conduct an informal discuss/Q & A about writing, creativity, spirituality and religion.
On Sunday, May 3rd, Mr. Cairns will be featured at the adult forum. He will read briefly from his poems and/or memoir, followed by a Q & A.

Scott Cairns (pronounced K-air-nz, one syllable, “air” in the middle) is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri. His work has been featured in The Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton-Mifflin), and his memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, was recently published by HarperCollins. A dynamic reader and speaker, as well as one of the most prominent spiritual writers in the U.S., Cairns received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.

I’m looking forward to heading down to Oxford on May 2 with a friend, so I’ll report back in a couple of weeks!

Poets & Writers always has some great stuff in it, and this issue did not disappoint. However, since I write prose rather than poetry, I always head for any craft articles about memoir and essay, and also interviews with agents and editors. I won’t spend any time commenting on my reads in this issue, but instead would like to congratulate two friends on their awards which are announced in P&W:

Dinty Moore, with whom I studied at the Creative Nonfiction Conference last year, won the 2008 Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize for his essay collection Between Panic and Desire, which I blogged about here. Congratulations, Dinty!

The second name I recognized in the awards section of P&W was Ravi Howard of Mobile, Alabama, whom I enjoyed meeting this past November at Southern Writers Reading, down in Fairhope, Alabama. Ravi was the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his novel, Like Trees, Walking. (This award honors an African American author for a book of fiction.) Ravi lived in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi for part of his childhood, and I enjoyed hearing Ravi read from this book last year. Kudos, Ravi!

On a different but related note, a friend reminded me the other day of the treasure-trove the Scriptures are, and how they’re offered up to us over and over in the services of the Orthodox Church… especially the Psalms. I memorized a fair amount of scripture growing up, but the verses that are in my heart now are there just from repetition in the services. And yes, in times of fear, anxiety, depression, they can be an arsenal against the enemies of soul and spirit. As the Psalmist says, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11).
John Burgess, in his book, Why Scripture Matters, says: In hearing and repeating Scriptures daily, early Benedictine monks memorized large portions of it. Because they would then recite Scriptures to themselves as they worked, they were sometimes known as “the munchers.”…. The traditional training of Orthodox priests included memorization of all 150 Psalms.
Burgess also talks about how various people during times of imprisonment have been strengthened by the Scriptures that are embedded in their hearts, giving them “assurance that God had not abandoned them, that God was indeed with them.” He goes on to say, “In a word-weary world, memorization is a lost art.”

I was thinking about his words when I picked up last Sunday’s (April 5) copy of the New York Times Book Review and read the essay on the back inside cover, “Got Poetry?” by Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. Holt started memorizing poetry a few years ago, and now has about 100 poems in his mental cache, including some as long as 2,000 lines! He takes them in short pieces, reciting them while jogging or just walking around Manhattan. Holt shares tips on the process of memorizing, but it’s the why that struck me:

“At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.”
Kind of like the monks “munching” on God’s word during the day.
Holt quotes Clive James’s book, Cultural Amnesia, where he declares that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.”
Maybe there’s really that much at stake. Or maybe it’s just a heightened experience of pleasure (poetry) or spirituality (Scriptures) that I’m intrigued by. For Holt, it was definitely the former:
It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within.
I’m reminded that every time I’ve heard my favorite poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, “read” from her work, she rarely looks at the written words on the pages in front of her. Her poetry is a part of her, and her delivery is much more transparent as a result. And really, I think the same can be said about reciting the Psalms, or even prayers, in church. During the sections of the service that I know by heart, my intellect gets out of the way and lets my heart take over.

I’m leaving for the beach (Seagrove) tomorrow through Monday…. and maybe I’ll take along a few of my favorite poems and try memorizing them on my morning walks. Ahhh, I can almost smell the ocean breeze now. But I’m leaving Memphis with a mixture of joy and sadness, as my dear friend, Nancy, lost her husband Lloyd to cancer today. I was blessed to spend some time with them on Friday, and I hope that my presence was even a tiny balm on Nancy’s pain. (This is Nancy and Lloyd about a year ago.) And that hope is expressed beautifully in one of my favorite poems, (which was also set to music by Kim Delmhorst, “Invisible Choir,” on her Strange Conversation CD), so I’ll leave you with George Eliot’s 1867 poem: (the last verse is my favorite)
O May I Join the Choir Invisible
Longum Illud tempus, Quum Non Ero, Magis Me Movet, Quam Hoc Exiguum.—Cicero, Ad Att., Xii. 18O
MAY I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, fail’d, and agoniz’d
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolv’d;
Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.

And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobb’d religiously in yearning song,
That watch’d to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better,—saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shap’d it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mix’d with love,
—That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gather’d like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever.

This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow.
May I reach That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!

So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

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