Quite a few years ago now, in this very sanctuary, a not-so-young-at-all but very new minister was ordained on a spring Sunday. She had invited her mentor, a woman who had once interned here and at the time was in the early years herself of a long and sustained and successful ministry in a college town in Alabama, to deliver the sermon; traditionally both a personal message of advice and inspiration to the one who is about to be formally consecrated or launched as a Reverend and a kind of a state of the union address about our faith tradition.
She titled her sermon “Comes the Poet,” from a poem of the same name by Walt Whitman from his collection Leaves of Grass and used as the primary text for a book by professor of religion and theologian Walter Brueggerman, quite a controversial book at the time: Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation.
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist,
The geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
Ordinations are like wedding services for the couple being married, or in this case, the minister being crowned and blessed. Like the marriage I performed just yesterday late afternoon outside at a lakeside park. The young man and woman facing me were only barely present at this grand occasion into which they had poured so much energy, coming to the decision, as I told them, to risk loving, to risk living from their very hearts and souls. To make the commitment, hopefully permanent, to this relationship, this institution. I could tell, as is so often what happens, that they were both overjoyed and terrified, and somewhere far away from the words I was speaking to them. Perhaps one day they would want to know what had been said, but for that moment they were experiencing their own private, inner ceremonies.
So it was for the person being ordained that afternoon, that person who was me. It was a grand day, made so by many people in this congregation, who had planned it, did the inviting and the decorating and the catering.
By the colleagues who came to support me, march with me, speak to me about what I was leaving behind, and what was coming ahead, with so much gravitas and honesty. But, like a bride, I was not really there, and exactly what the preacher said slipped away.
So what I remember of it is only this: that the speaker, my mentor, The Reverend Diane Jordan Allende, quoted the Whitman poem about that poet worthy of being called poet, saying that I had told her the very first time we had met that I was poet: a sort of self-ordination. Which made people who knew me and those who didn’t laugh, both with me and at me in the kindest of ways.
I imagine, or dimly recall, that at that moment I may have drifted back in my memory to the first scribblings I wrote at seven or eight, the short free verse poems that my mother typed up on thin onion skin paper and kept for many years. Poems that were praised and put up on a bulletin board by a beloved third grade teacher, who made me feel special and capable.
Then the report I did on famous poets when I was 10, at the conclusion of which I said I hoped one day I might be known like one of them. Perhaps it was Emily Dickinson. Perhaps it was Robert Frost.
At which point my fifth grade teacher announced to the class that I was bragging and furthermore my poems did not rhyme. I did not write again, or at least share my poems, for many years.
Came the poet to a child who did not know it was wrong to welcome her. And the poet was shot down.
Again, it was a supportive teacher, a high school history instructor, whose assignment to write a report on apartheid South Africa became a clutch of original poems, including one about the Church’s role in discriminating against what they viewed as the primitive and immature Bantu religion. In this one, I ask: “What kind of God is it that tells them that because their skin is pale that they are meant to be my master, that they are meant to live on the best land, to drink the best wine, to eat the best food.” Despite the misspellings and the poor typing, I get a good grade and my poetry is resurrected.
These memories, some sweet, some painful, are what most likely distracted me from being present during my ordination sermon, as happens to us all when something is triggered in us, that takes us far away.
So I contacted Diana recently to ask her if there was any way she had kept a copy of that sermon, written before it was common practice to email it, post it, podcast it as soon as it was delivered. She searched for it, remembered it had been on an old hard drive, so lost to her and to me.
But she told me that she was sure she must have talked about the poet’s eye and the power of language to move and change people.
Brueggermann’s intro is subtitled: Poetry in a Prose-Flattened World. Apparently it is he who has said, she recalled, that preaching at its best and truest is a poetic construal of an alternative world. He also has said, “Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing nor is it a soothing good humor. It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age.”
Poetic preaching as sharp awareness and deep metaphor, an antidote to the one-dimensional, Bible-toting drilling (and sometimes droning) of the radio and television ministers who dominated and still dominate the airwaves, or the showy, shallow pyrotechnics of the mega-church pastors.
That is what Brueggerman believes and my mentor was charging me to aspire to, and charging those in the pews to expect, at least some of the time.
The true God comes singing… finally comes the poet. As poet Denise Levertov observed, the prophetic role of poets to awaken sleepers.
April is National Poetry Month, and in an article heralding this, one well known regional poet told a reporter that poetry is still the smallest niche of American literature, it is this tiny little speck in the spectrum, he said. You’re not going to make a living off poetry. So you do it, he has come to realize, for the love. You do it for the art. Which is cliché, he said, but it’s true. It’s a calling.
Austin Klefon, in his wonderful little book Steal like an Artist, who reminds us that T.S. Eliot believed that immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take and good poets make it into something better, also is convinced that not making a living off of poetry, working a day job, is good for the soul, and better for writing. He says that a day job puts us in the path of other human beings, who we can learn and steal from, and which allows for creative freedom if we remain disciplined in regularly using what time remains in the service of our creativity.
Indeed there is a long history of writers, especially poets, with day jobs: William Carlos Williams, who worked his whole life as a medical doctor.
Eliot who clocked in to a London bank. Others who were hotel clerks and secretaries and writers for fashion magazines.
As a young working mother and just beginning to be published poet, I was interviewed for a study of women poets by a graduate student in anthropology, who was examining the changing role of women in the world of arts, which she argued had been sadly neglected. She focused on a small sample in the San Francisco Bay Area. While there was a diversity of ages and lifestyles, and maturity in the writing styles, all of us pieced together a creative life in the midst of holding down other jobs and for some, caretaking, as I was, of two very small children. I was teaching in a childcare setting, submitting freelance articles and reviews to local newspapers, writing a book on parenting, and holding together a marriage.
And while I bemoaned the difficulty I found in carving out time and energy to write, and the narrowing of my world to the constant and demanding tasks of child-raising and housekeeping, when I wasn’t working for money, I spoke to the researcher about my “real body need to write,” which led to capturing poems as they flew into me: reflecting the life I was given, no matter what form it took.
In a poem called Exchange, while bemoaning what I saw as a loss of emotional range, creative flow, and magic in my life, I wrote “I never knew them again, the sorrow or the melancholy dreams, the beating wings or moth’s fluttering… these leaden mornings we rock together in uneasy stillness… it seems we must always change one gift for another — fertile dreams for conception, passion for birth.”
Poems came to me as I heard stories about the women of my mother’s generation, like her best friend Pearl, who lived in her three-bedroom one-bath brick house on the corner, and “polished door knobs when she felt like fleeing, took out the jar of wax and spread it until the twenty knobs lit up like candles in the National Cathedral.”
Poems sparked by a children’s party, where I found myself “on this birthday lawn/ exposed without my pretty gold babies/ creased like a white duck skirt in all the wrong places.”
Or an extended period of rainlessness, coinciding with the birth of my second child, a daughter, and the connection between her infancy and the story of Noah: Drought’s baby/ you have never heard/ a storm define our roof/ or watched a rainbow/ inscribe God’s covenant in the sky.
Verses that rolled out like the pastry dough of pies I made with other women writers: “We should have stayed with apple picking/ piles sorted, bruises gone over and cut away/ our talk light and measured/ our deepest fears laced with brown sugar and cinnamon.”
Poems written in addition to, or instead of, weeping over a dying partnership: “If I could believe in spring leaves/ I could hold on to love renewing itself at the ends of festering branches.”
Or the found moments, the pure joy of checking in on a sleeping child: “the diligent moon transforms your room into a nursery/ nestled in the rich soil of darkness/ you lushly bloom at dawn.”
What I called then a real body need to write, even if it took rising an hour before the rising of my early rising children, and mopping my floors late at night to buy myself the time while they napped, came, though I did not at the time articulate it at the time as such, as spiritual practice, with spirituality defined by Roman Catholic poet Carolyn Forche as the capacity to be awake, a consciousness. To notice and to experience what is outward and inward reality in the present moment. Which leads to what she describes as the revelation of the deep essence of selfhood, the inwardness, the light.
Her voice is one of many in A God in the House, a recent collection of poets talking about faith, poets from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, from those who embrace a personal God to those whose theology and spirituality is more universal and grounded in the natural world.
Their assignment was to link their writing with their religion or spirituality, some seeing the hand of God directly in their creativity, others noting how their particular practices, such as sitting or walking meditation, makes possible or enhances their poetry.
Which enable a writer like Zen Buddhist Jane Hirschfield to stay fearlessly in the moment, to experience awareness and allow wildness. To live a life that belongs to her alone, that does not belong to others.
Among us Unitarian Universalists, when we talk about the connection between poetry and spirituality, we see how poems force us to think differently, to pay close attention to the sound of words and slow down. We talk about how poems capture small moments in beauty, offering sometimes unexpected clarification. How it helps express one’s soul, however we experience or define it.
In a volume of works by Unitarian Universalist poets, Jennifer Bosveld asked them, in all of their cultural and theological diversity, to tell her about the intersection of their poetry and this faith tradition. One poet explained that for her there is a natural affinity between writing and her UU affiliation because both require a searching, a putting aside of easy answers in favor of an exhilarating and often lonely quest. Another spoke about the healthy skepticism of our world view that serves poets well.
Another believes there is a very close link between Unitarian Universalism and writing poetry, because they both ask us to walk inside our own experiences, striking up whatever light we can. Others speak about the link between authenticity and poetry, self-culture and poetry, and the honoring and celebrating of all life.
We have our famous UU poets, or poets we claim: William Wordsworth Longfellow, perhaps Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, ee cummings, Sylvia Plath, and May Sarton. Mary Oliver is not a Unitarian Universalist, though our Beacon Press has published her, and we very often use her amazing poems in worship.
For me, May Sarton’s poems were not her highest form of literature. I preferred her autobiographical writings, with their observations of nature, of the sacredness of gardening and of domestic life. But her writings about creativity and the poetic life have impacted my sense of myself as a poet and poetry as spirituality.
UU Scholar Beverly Anderson Forbes, who died just last week, wrote about Sarton’s work on spirituality in a compilation and study guide. In it, we learn about her views on Creativity as a Dialogue with God, in which she says she has felt the world of art, especially the world of poetry, was a dialogue between herself, which must present resolution instead of conflict. So angry prayers were unfit for God’s ears. She wrote that there was Hell in her life but she kept it out of her work.
She believed that her creative work, her poetry, brought her a sense of wholeness. Whatever the wounds we have to heal, she said, the moment of creation assures that all is well, that one is still in tune with the Universe, that inner chaos can be probed and distilled into order and beauty.
She wrote at 70 that she was full, herself, perhaps only when she was creating something.
For me, her most influential writing was about the relationship between poetry and grace. A quote of hers stayed on my refrigerator for years, yellowing and fading. In it, she said that while, in her view, all of her writing was a gift from God, poetry was a gift of grace, coming through her, whole and perfect, like small unexpected and unmerited comforts and kindnesses.
Since I was a young girl, much of my poetry has come from that place. This gift of grace has given me access to ways of seeing my life and the world that I cannot explain otherwise.
As Sarton declared:
If I were in solitary confinement, I’d never write another novel, and probably not keep a journal, but I’d write poetry, because poems, you see, are between God and me.
Unitarian Universalist minister and poet Angela Herrera writes about how poets pray:
What do you do with the secret verses of your heart?
With your need for redemption, the story without words?…
You weave their energy into a poem… luminescent strands shot through with light from an unknown origin. And you whisper it into the dark…
May it be so.