"Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, July 25, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Proverbs 9:1-6

While reading this month’s Magnificat, the Catholic magazine of daily devotionals, I came across this wonderful little poem that is in Proverbs.  Now as I’m slowly reading my way through the Old Testament in sequence, I have not gotten up to Proverbs yet.  I’m not aware of how its organized or its significance.  I've only been exposed to bits of readings quoted, read in church, or placed in devotionals.  I was surprised that this was in the form of a poem.

Wisdom has built her house,
She has set up her seven columns;
She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,
Yes, she has spread her table. 

She has sent out her maidens; she calls
From the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To him who lacks understanding, I say, 

Come, eat of my food,
And drink of my wine that I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live,
Advance in the way of understanding.”

          -Proverbs 9:1-6

The line “She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,” reminds me of my mother with her meats that go into her Sunday Italian gravy.  I believe “mixing of wine” refers to the ancient practice of adding water to wine to adjust the taste.  At least they did that in the Roman world, so I’d assume they did it in ancient Israel as well.

The gist of the verse is with the line “Let whoever is simple turn in here.”  Wisdom rests in simplicity, so “forsake” sophisticated foolishness.


And I absolutely love the lines, “Come, eat of my food,/And drink of my wine.” Isn't that a phrase used in a song?  Probably.  Of course it echoes Christ, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood” from John 6:54.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Poetry: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 1

As I continue on my annual poetry read, this year being that of Gerard Manly Hopkins, I want to analyze in some depth one of the most original poems in the English language, arguably Hopkins’ greatest poem, and for sure one of my all time favorite poems ever written, “The Windhover.”  Actually Hopkins himself said it was “the best thing I ever wrote.”  Here is the poem, but don’t be intimidated, I’ll walk you through it. 

The Windhover

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
   dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
   As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
   Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
   Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
   Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

First let’s get some of the basics out of the way.  It’s an Italian sonnet where amazingly all eight endings of the octave have one rhyme, “-ing.”  [The octave is the first eight lines; the sestet is the remaining six lines.]  The octave here contains one complex thought, which I’ll shortly decompose, and the sestet breaks down into two thought units, one in the first three lines, the other in the last three lines.
If it is a sonnet, it’s a rather experimental sonnet.  Sonnets typically contain ten syllables, making that pentameter, and the rhythm is usually iambic, which means it follows a rhythm of unstressed/stressed, five times per line.  The very first line does follow an iambic pentameter meter, the bold being a stressed syllable.  Bold type below signifies a stressed syllable, while normal type is unstressed.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

But what is one to make of the second line:

dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Sixteen syllables!  And with no regularity.  I won’t do this for the whole poem, but here are the next three lines:

   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

The third line also has sixteen syllables, the fourth has fourteen syllables, and the fifth has eleven syllables.  There just isn't a pattern.

A couple of points can be made here about the meter.  Hopkins is a dissenter to the belief that natural rhythm of the English language is iambic.  He is actually prophetic here.  Other than Walt Whitman, and I don’t know if Hopkins was aware of Whitman’s poetry, no other poet before him broke from the iambic predominance in English poetry, with the possible exception of Robert BrowningBrowning had a penchant for quirky rhythms, Whitman considered his meter natural, and Hopkins called his meter “sprung rhythm.”  Between the three they pioneered what became known in the 20th century as “free verse.” 

Hopkins’ stretching of the lines beyond the traditional pentameter is both an aesthetic statement of breaking with tradition and reflects the soaring flight of the falcon within the lines.  Adding or subtracting an extra foot (a single syllable) is not unusual, but adding six most definitely is.  Notice also the enjambment (the running of lines into the next) in the octave, and how that also reflects the soaring freedom of the bird.  It makes the poem run.  I don’t ever recall seeing a hyphenation (“king-dom”) in any poetry before modernism get fragmented so that the first syllable ends a line and the next enjambs into the next.  It probably has occurred, and I suspect someone will point it out to me, but it’s not in my memory banks.  Did Hopkins do it just to be different or for the rhyme?  No!  It has thematic significance, which I’ll point out in part two of this analysis.

So, allow me to break down what is literally going on.  From the first chunk of meaning from the octave we have this, which I’ll reformulate in linear form:

“I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding/High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing/In his ecstasy!”

The poet saw a bird that morning, a falcon, who the poet calls a “dauphin” (a French aristocrat) and in whose flight appears to be either (a) being pulled in by the morning dawn light or (b) the falcon ahead of the dawn seemingly pulling the encroaching light across the sky.  Both of those meanings I think can fit “dawn-drawn Falcon.”  I’ve always seen it as (b) but I bet most people read it as (a).  Now the falcon is actually a windhover, which is a smaller species of falcon that can stop and hold itself still against the wind so that it appears to hover in the sky.  So to put this all together, the bird swooshes across the morning sky until he comes before the poet and just hangs still in an ecstasy. 

Now for the next chunk of meaning:

“then off, off forth on swing,/As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/Rebuffed the big wind.”

After a moment of hovering, the falcon takes off, swooping like an ice skate heel pulling a precise turn.  In flight, the bird “rebuffs” the wind, that is, checks it or pushes back against it.  This is the first image of the bird in opposition to the wind.

“My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.”

Here the narrator steps forth and tells how at a moment of weakness or fragility—how does one interpret “my heart in hiding”?—was looking for some inspiration, some incredible finesse, some incredible skill, some “mastery.”  That completes the octave, and to put the complex thought together what we have is a poet looking for some inspiration when early one morning he catches sight of a falcon coming across the dawn light.

The sestet has a b-c-b, c-b-c rhyme scheme, which so beautifully interlocks.  And Hopkins chooses some of the hardest words to rhyme: “chevalier” and “vermillion.”  The first three lines of the sestet brings a climax to the bird/wind opposition, and the last three lines explains the meaning of event that enfolded before his eyes.

“Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/Buckle!”

Here is the climax: the falcon (“brute beauty”) in full skillful sweep collides with the air into a crash.  The metaphor (implied through “chevalier” and “dauphin”) is of jousting knights coming to a crash.  The collision is described as a “Buckle,” and, if anything, how he uses this word shows Hopkins to be a great poet.  What a word to choose here.  To some degree the whole poem rests on this word “Buckle.”  Notice how he enjambs the word to the next line and ends the sentence one word into the line.  That’s a bit unusual, but it gives the word an immense power.  But what does he mean?  When jousting knights collide, their spears buckle.  It means a collapsing and breaking open.  But it means more.  Hopkins is punning on the word.  Buckle, like a belt buckle, brings things together, binds them.  But in what way does a bird flying into the wind buckle?  Yes, it’s metaphorical.  But it’s more than that.  It’s metaphysical.  What buckles and breaks open and binds together is transcendence.

“AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”

What breaks open is literally the morning sun bursting with light, lovely and dangerous.  The bird, the wind, the sun, God’s creatures within God’s elements are integrated and charged with spirit.

But Hopkins is not finished there.  He then goes on to explain what the drama that unfolded before him means with two incredible and contrasting metaphors.

“No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion/Shine”

From the lofty action-filled imagery of the falcon and the wind, all of a sudden Hopkins is talking about a plough?  The burst of light, he says, should not be a wonder.  Why?  Because a plough plodding through dirt shines.  From the transcendent imagery of falcon and air and light, Hopkins switches to that of plough and earth and mundane.  Here too that gleam of transcendence is encapsulated in the “shine” that bursts forth from the activity.  Even the word sillion—a word coined by Hopkins, meaning the turned over soil that is not as dusky as that on top—suggests the innate glimmer of the divine that shines in all things, not just with a falcon, but with lowly dirt.

“and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”

Here he repeats how the divine is in everything with another image, embers in a fireplace.  As they burn, they fall and break open, and show the “gold vermillion” of its interior beauty.


That provides a reading of the poem.  This post is already a bit long, so I’m going to reserve the implications and aesthetic considerations in a part two, and even discuss a little controversy with this poem.  If you enjoyed this, stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Literature in the News: Redefining Religious Fiction

I came across this interesting article, “Redefining Religious Fiction” by D. G. Myers in the online version of Books and Culture: A Christian Review, which I liked to share and comment upon.     Myers opens his essay with a premise. 

The novel of religious faith—or, rather, its disappearance—has been much in the literary news lately. Since the death of Walker Percy a quarter century ago, no American novelist of comparable stature has emerged, it is said, to pack flesh and blood onto the life-altering experience of "something beyond myself" (as the British novelist Muriel Spark shyly described the religious sensation). The last American fiction writer to shout her Christian convictions at the top of her voice was Flannery O'Connor. But now, it is said, while ordinary Christians may bellow from pulpits and political rallies, American fiction has become like the churches of Europe—hushed and almost empty of believers. 

That is a premise that is around today, and I’m not sure it holds up to scrutiny.  Oscar Hijuelos, Ron Hanson, Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, even Don Dellilo have written novels with religious connotations.  To be sure, faith is not as overt in these novels as say in novels from the prior generations, but it’s there subtly.  But nonetheless, Myers has a point; religious literature is not as conspicuous as it used to be.   

Myers goes on to cite a debate between Paul Elie and Gregory Wolfe, where the two take sides on this issue. 

 The main combatants in this cultural clash have been Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (a 2003 collective biography of four postwar Catholic writers), and Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, a literary journal founded to publish work concerned with the faith traditions of the West. A year and a half ago, Elie declared in the New York Times Book Review that religious belief shows up in contemporary fiction, if at all, merely "as something between a dead language and a hangover." Great religious novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Brideshead Revisted are barren of living offspring—except perhaps for the novel Elie admitted that he himself was in the process of writing. Replying in The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe scolded him for looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing. "[W]e live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive," Wolfe said. "Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways." 

That Elie essay in the NY Times Book Review can be found online and read here.   The Wolfe Wall Street Journal essay can be read here.     

Elie proposes that religion, though still paramount in American life, has regressed in fiction because of various social changes in the culture. 

[Flannery] O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion — that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”  

Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell. The religious encounter of the kind O’Connor described forces a person to ask how belief figures into his or her own life and how to decide just what is true in it, what is worth acting on. Tens of millions of Americans have asked those questions. Some of us find ourselves asking them every day. But even in fiction, which prizes the individual point of view, and in our society, which stresses the individual to excess, belief is considered as a social matter rather than an individual one. When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible — about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12step everything. What about the whole story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story ends — right where it ought to begin. 

Myers, however, supports Wolfe in that religious fiction has not disappeared from the literary scene, but has been altered stylistically. 

I find myself on Wolfe's side, and not merely because he quoted me in the Journal. Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. But there is plenty of perfectly good religious fiction, Wolfe reminded Elie, which conveys its faith in "whispers rather than shouts." Elie was dismissive. Why the need to whisper? "It's not like we're in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted," he scoffed in a later interview. But this misses the point. Although religion in what Terry Eagleton calls its "doctrinal inflection" may once have appealed to intellectuals and writers like T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell, for whom conversion was a reawakening of the mind, it no longer does so. The generation of young Americans just now rising to notice is surrounded by an intellectual élite which jeers that religious belief is the death of intelligence. For the Roman Catholics among them, the scandal of clerical sex abuse was an occasion of profound disgust, which led even the most devout to muzzle their faith. The public display of religion has come to seem as false and insincere as public displays of affection. 

Other than the clerical abuse reference (it was disgraceful, but how silly the claim that it led to muzzling our faith), I tend to agree with Myers.  Religious fiction is being written, though not in the same overt manner as it was in the past.  Religious fiction will always be written because great novels show the transcendence of mortality, and religion, at least through Christianity, since that is what I know, is the fullest means of showing transcendence.

Wolfe, who publishes the magazine Image, (I used to subscribe in its early days when I used to read print magazines), summarizes it this way: 

In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.

 Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O'Connor's manifesto: "For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." That made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.

However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O'Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.
 

I don’t disagree with Wolfe’s conclusion, but I don’t think it’s fully accurate or complete.  Now here is my perspective as to why today it’s more of a whisper than a shout, as it used to be.  I think it’s more mundane than the intellectual struggles that Wolfe portrays back in mid twentieth century.  The reason I see is that today writers of literary fiction do not want to be identified—or more accurately, “pigeon-holed”—as genre writers.  There are lots of Christian contemporary writers, but they mostly form a genre, and if you want to be considered “literary” you have to, fairly or unfairly, transcend being labeled genre fiction.   I think it’s the market today that has indirectly muted overt religious fiction. 

All three essays, Myer’s, Elie’s, and Wolfe’s are excellent reads and all three—even Elie’s in dissent—cite writers where faith plays a part in the fiction.  You might want to read them to find some new writers to read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: From “The Wood-Sprite” by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve wanted to read more Vladimir Nabokov for a while.  The little I’ve read intrigues me, especially for his prose style.  He may be the best prose stylist in English since World War II, and English is not even his first language.  It may not even be his second language.  Just look at how precise and to the point are his sentences in this short story that isn’t even anything he seems to have put real effort in.  The Wood-Sprite”   is such a short little story—three pages—that one could consider it a throw away exercise.  The story is about a “wood-sprite,” some sort of fairy or diety who has been chased out of Russia, presumably by the Bolsheviks, and meets with an exile, the first person narrator.  Nabokov was also chased out by the communists.  The story I believe, though I could not verify, was translated by Nabokov himself.  It was Nabokov’s first published short story. Here is the first quarter of the story.

I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand's circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly. 

"Yes, I'm here, come in..." 

The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night. 

I knew his face - oh, how long I had known it! 

His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust....That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth - how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory! 

I got up. He stepped forward. 

His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong - on the female side. In his hand he held a cap - no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap.... 

Yes, of course I knew him - perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam's apple.... 

With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touched the back of a shabby arm chair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly. 

"It's so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don't tell me you've forgotten?" 

His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy - I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness....

 
You can read the entire story, a very short read, at A Longhouse Birdhouse, here  or you can hear the story read on Youtube here.  Or listen as you read along.  I enjoy a good oral presentation with the words right in front of me.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Music Tuesday: Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) by Merle Haggard

First off, I just love Merle Haggard.  That voice is so authentic.  Second, I surely thought this song was about his family.  It feels so true.  But the Wikipedia entry makes no mention of it being autobiographical, and I think it would have if it was. 

The song is about a blind guitar singer, his wife who is deaf, and a sister who plays the tambourine, all in a family band.
 
 




I just love the lyrics.  Country Western music is strong in storytelling.  Here’s a section that makes it feel so authentic for me. 

Frank and mama counted on each other
Their one and only weakness made them strong
Mama did the driving for the family
And Frank made a living with a song

Home was just a camp along the highway
A pickup bed was where we bedded down
Don't ever once remember going hungry
But I remember mama cooking on the ground


Read along with the entire lyrics from MetroLyrics.

 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Come To Me

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading at Mass contained one of my favorite quotes by Jesus.  The quote was from Matthew 11:28-30, and I arrange the quote in poetic lines and stanzas because I think the arrangement really accentuates the key words.  By the way, that is one of the reasons poets write in lines, to accentuate words.
 

"Come to me,
all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for your selves.
 

For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
 


That quote just exudes peace.  It also projects the crucifixion, where Jesus takes on not light burdens but arduous ones.  Here He asks us to place our burdens on to Him, and He will resolve them.  He willHe will take on our suffering for us.  Even the yoke He asks us to take on projects the cross He will carry.  
 
 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Garden In Perfection by Kathy Felsted Usher

Not all great lines are written by published authors.  My blogger friend, Kathy Felsted Usher, who has stopped here to comment, has a blog on gardening, crafts, and home interests, called Moving On To The Past.   

Kathy just put out a post on her summer garden that was so rich in language I just had to post it and show everyone how envious I was of it.  It’s called “The Garden InPerfection.”   

There are times when something strikes you, something that is all too familiar but buried so deep in the ordinary that you fail to take notice. As it happens, one day it is as if a curtain is lifted and you become awed at its existence. Today is one of those times.  

As I approached the garden I saw what nature intended, what God designed in His perfectness. In the late morning sunshine the squash spread open its blossoms enticing the bumbles into its very depths, dusting countless hairs and coating every leg with the sweet life creating pollen.  

Arched leaves drooped in thirst on this mild but unusually dry morning. Before watering I check each leaf for pests, surprised by the discovery of adults and nymphs surrounding a patch of perfectly aligned jeweled eggs, deeply dark and ready to burst with replacements for their comrades that perished at the hands of both man and beast. 

The bumbles calmly part allowing me to turn over leaves that lay in their flight plan. I imagine to myself that they are part of the alliance of arachnids, beneficial insects, bees, fowl and human that depend on my bounty. With God's favor, this is the year it all comes together. A wet, cool spring to establish roots, gifted compost to provide nutrients, the discovery of wild amaranth luring pests away which allow my vines to flower, and now the sunshine, the warmth that will allow the fruits to mature.  

For this I plant, for this I hope. 

Isn’t that wonderful?  It’s just five short paragraphs but it captures so much.  I used to garden but my garden never looked anywhere as good as Kathy’s.  I did a quick search through her blog for her gardening posts and here are a few.  Go over and find some others.






 

Not only am I envious of her post “The Garden In Perfection”, I’m envious of her garden!