Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Grace of Incorruption

This post is distinctly different from any of its predecessors. In it, I will try to sell you on a book called “The Grace of Incorruption,” written by a great man and a great friend who died in 2010.

When I tell you that the book’s subtitle is “The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics,” you’ll see why I imagine a challenge to my efforts. Not all readers will share even my radical-Protestant Christian vision; still fewer, I’m sure, will share the late author’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As one who himself instinctively recoils from the very notion of “orthodoxy,” whether religious, political, or social, I myself seem an unlikely promoter of such a volume.

But Don Sheehan’s example gives me pause, and more. Anyone who knew Don, a professor at Dartmouth and elsewhere and, more significantly, for over a quarter century the director of the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, will remember highly unusual qualities in the man. He was one of those rarest of people who, upon entering a room, immediately change its atmosphere for the better. Don seemed somehow lit from within, and whether you shared his spiritual take on human existence or not, you saw that his was a spirit of all but incomparable kindness and compassion. Not that Don ever confronted you with his faith. Rather, in his manner and his thought, he exemplified the deep values it had produced in him.

Even physically, Don was a striking figure on the streets of Hanover, or anywhere: as a subdeacon in his church, he wore a magnificent, long, white beard, one to put Santa Claus’s to shame. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and dressed with what seemed an almost studied plainness. But that light I spoke of surrounded him everywhere he went.

It is thus all but unimaginable to me that this gentle soul had apparently been, in younger years before I knew him, a street gang hooligan, a motorcycle jockey, a hell-raiser, modeling himself on the James Dean of “Rebel Without a Cause.” Be that as it may, in the opening chapter of “The Grace of Incorruption,” we see that the seeds of his life after hooliganism, his later life of spiritual wisdom, were planted –and in most improbable ways– when he was a mere child.

At nine years old, Don was shot. The bullet barely missed his heart. The shooter was his best friend, and the two boys had come on a big brother’s target pistol. In his recollection of his experience in the emergency room, however, Don emphasizes the serenity he felt on looking up at the strongly built doctor who skillfully removed the bullet. That serenity would recur to him, often in unpredictable circumstances.

For example, a few weeks after the shooting accident, the Sheehan family broke apart. Don’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic, and Don vividly recalls blood on his mother’s face from the man’s brutal beatings, which were frequent and savage.  In due course, his mother opted to flee her husband with the children. 

Yet before that, according to the introductory essay, there was a particularly brutal episode, the father raging, breaking dishes, terrifying Don’s sister and brother. But Don recounts a miracle, which, along with the hospital episode I just mentioned, seems to me determinative not only of the spiritual tack he would later take but also of his literary views (though to separate these two dimensions is impossible in Don’s case).

“Then I did something that still takes my breath away. I walked across the living room and sat down on the couch right next to him. I picked up a magazine from the coffee table and opened to the first pictures I came to, and I pointed to one. ‘Look, Dad, isn’t that interesting?’...

“No answer. After a moment, I looked up at him, and I found that he was looking down at me. Over fifty years later I can still see my father’s eyes. They were sad eyes, yet peaceful, warm, and profoundly young, with all the wildness gone out and, in place of it, something like stillness. And I felt all at once peaceful, the way I’d felt on the operating table at the hospital three weeks before.

“He looked at me for a long, long minute, and then he spoke. ‘You’re the only one not afraid of me.’”

I call these events determinative because Don Sheehan’s world-view depended upon penetrating to the deepest sort of darkness– from which he perceived a redemptive light.
That light suffused Don’s introductions to visiting poets at the Frost Place, which were famous for their penetration. However diverse the cast of authors in his thirty years there, Sheehan seemed somehow to find the spiritual nugget that made each what he or she was. Many of those poets –and I count myself among the many, having heard his spoken introductions and read his treatment of two of my poems in this collection– were astounded to understand their own work better by virtue of these pre-reading commentaries. With the exception of poet Nicholas Samaras, a fellow in Orthodoxy, none, I believe, would have used St. Isaac the Syrian or Dionysos the Aereopagite as the grounds of appreciation, but none, either, could deny that Don’s church fathers had produced in him a stunningly keen insight.

I think poet and director of the International Writers’ Program in Iowa City Christopher Merrill has it just right in his excellent introduction. “Humility,” Merrill writes, “is the cornerstone of (Sheehan’s) faith; the quality of attention on display in these pages, a form of prayer dedicated to revealing the sacred aspects of literature, is rooted in his belief that knowledge is limited; his observations, drawn in part from his experience of working with a range of poets at the Frost Place ..., shed light not only on the creative process but on the religious imagination. In this book the subdeacon and the professor work hand in glove.”

Perhaps the most compelling of all Christian paradoxes, in fact, shows through here: humility, the trait that Don so personified, is precisely the one that can illuminate our world– and here, our poetry. In the first half of his collection, “Reflections on Life, Literature, and Holiness,” Sheehan examines works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Frost, Salinger, and contemporary poets like Jane Kenyon, me, and Samaras, addressing the nature of prayer, of individual liberty, of depression, and so much more. The teaming of churchman and intellectual results, as I say, in unusual and keen readings of all these writers.

I won’t gloss Don’s religious conversion here, since it is so much more movingly recounted by the man himself in the first half of the collection. Trust me: to call it an intriguing narrative is to lack for words.

The second half of “The Grace of Incorruption” enters the majestic domain of the Psalms.  (Don, who commanded classical Greek, in fact translated the Greek Orthodox Septuagint rendering of Psalms.) The psalter is no doubt one of the truly originative and influential collections of poems in the western canon. As Chris Merrill, again, once said at the Frost Place: “It is not possible to imagine poetry in any Western tongue without the imagery, insights, and ideas of the Psalms, the ground of our inheritance.”  No one was more familiar with that ground than Don Sheehan.

The focus of Part Two is particularly on psalm 119 (118 in Orthodox tradition), often called the Wisdom Psalm, and one ingeniously assembled. Overall, it describes the divine plan for creation in a complex, alphabetic-acrostic format. The longest psalm, in fact the longest chapter in the Bible, each of its twenty-two stanzas (all octets) begins with a Hebrew letter and all display a wide diversity of rhetorical and musical techniques. Given the breadth of its scope, it’s small wonder that psalm 119 has so inspired poets from the virtual dawn of our literary tradition. To that extent, any poetry enthusiast, even if he or she be the most committed of atheists, will discover that attention to Donald Sheehan’s brilliant reading and interpretation will repay the considerable effort it requires.

I can’t end these remarks without expressing personal thanks, which I hope, on seeing “The Grace of Incorruption,” you will share, to its editor Xenia Sheehan, the author’s wife, without whom this striking book would not be known to us.  Mrs. Sheehan faced many challenges: her husband died at 70, of what turns out to have been the effects of long-misdiagnosed Lyme Disease, and in the final months of his life he had essentially been reduced to silence by his illness, able only to write tragically terse notes. He had not imagined a volume of these essays, so Xenia Sheehan had to piece them together as well as she could without his guidance.

And as well as she could seems to have been very, very well indeed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Aesthetic Confusion

Walter Benjamin famously opined that every monument to beauty is also a monument to barbarism. Mont St. Michele, for instance, so grand and gorgeous on its spit of land, demanded unimaginable labor and doubtless suffering amongst those who did the grunt work. That was my first thought on seeing the abbey, even though I was a witless, late-teenager, not yet inclined to ponder the world's ambiguities.

But one's aesthetic sense can be addled even by the natural world. Seeing the hawk I describe in this poem attempt (vainly, as it turned out) to murder a squirrel– well, first of all, it would have been imbecilic to anthropomorphize the whole scene, as if the squirrel were a mere innocent and the raptor a villain. These creatures were simply doing what such creatures do. And yet I found myself, for all of that, uncertain whether I was glad for or disappointed by the predator's failure to succeed in his/her intention.

Here's what resulted:


Tuesday. Somewhere I’d guess around the 4000th
one of my life, and I’m washing my coffee pot
and putting it onto the dish rack, the way I’ve done
every Wednesday too, every Thursday, every Friday,
Saturday, and Monday for many years–

most of the 72 by now– so there’s nothing
that you’d call thought in the process, and then –whoosh!–
like thrilling cascade or comet, in broadest daylight
a broadwing hawk swoops in and scatters the finches
from the feeder, which, whatever we try, is a feeder

for squirrels as well, both red and gray. It’s a gray
the hawk had his eye on, and the hawk seems big as a hog,
though he’s lithe and deft and unbelievably quick
in his stoop. Which misses, however. His quarry cartwheels
under a stunted pine I’ve meant again

and again to hew to better the view we have
through this same kitchen window. And now, as something you might
call thought returns after all, I’m pondering whether
I’m glad to have left it standing. The hawk was lordly,
as much as the eagle my wife reported seeing

last week, which started an almost identical dive
but flared up the ridge when he found no game out there
among spilled seeds, where the blood on wet March snow
would in either case have shown so gorgeous, so brilliant.
The look of the squirrel would of course have been pathetic,

no doubt about that. The world’s a puzzling place.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Narrative Values

Tomorrow evening I will be giving a talk on poetry at an excellent independent bookstore in Norwich, Vermont, not far from where I live, but on the other side of what some of us jokingly call The Volvo Line. It is called "Narrative Values, Lyric Poems: Inviting the Reader In." Below, I excerpt just a few sections of it to give the drift.

Please excuse the odd formatting, which I seem powerless to amend.

...Nothing I say tonight has doctrinal value. I try never to make the
claim That’s not poetry, simply because there have likely always been almost as many different notions of what poetry is as there are poets.

No, I have no sweeping take on what poetry may be. Even if I did, however, it wouldn’t be very important. What I’ll really be talking about tonight is my own practice as a writer. And my practice is my practice not because it represents the “right” way but because it’s my practice, if you’ll allow me some circular logic. I don’t want to make what I can do the measure of virtue in poetry and therefore make everything else into a vice. That itself would be a vice called narcissism. It would also exclude any number of my favorite contemporary poets, maybe in fact most of them, from my inner circle.

No, I have no sweeping take on what poetry may be. Even if I did, however, it wouldn’t be very important. What I’ll really be talking about tonight is my own practice as a writer. And my practice is my practice not because it represents the “right” way but because it’s my practice, if you’ll allow me some circular logic. I don’t want to make what I can do the measure of virtue in poetry and therefore make everything else into a vice. That itself would be a vice called narcissism. It would also exclude any number of my favorite contemporary poets, maybe in fact most of them, from my inner circle.....

I want to speak of narrative values in lyric poetry not merely because I employ them but simply because I think they can help us avoid the sort of density, even impenetrability, of many a contemporary poem read, say, in The New Yorker– the sort of writing, as I see it, that can give poetry a really bad name even among people who read a lot, who come to libraries and good bookstores like this one.....

My friend, the brilliant Garret Keizer, tells me that when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war broke out, Israeli conscripts rushed home to get their rifles, which they were obliged to own, and copies of poetry collections by the great Yehuda Amichai. That is an extreme example, of course, but perhaps illustrative: I find it impossible to imagine anyone’s running home for copies of the cleverness and self-indulgent word-play that marks so much of current fare.

Before I proceed further, I should tell you that many younger editors are all but militantly anti-narrative. At 72, then, I’m doubtless quaint, and becoming more so in ways that I don’t even recognize, but that those younger people will. So be it. I’m old enough not to care what the smart and hip people think.  

As the title of my presentation suggests, I want poems that invite readers in, rather than ones that exclude them, and this is what in my opinion narrative values can help us with.

Mind you, I say narrative values, which is not the same as talking about writing narrative poetry– with actual plot, beginning, middle, and end. I have written a certain amount of such poetry, and I have surely enjoyed it in other writers, all the way from the extraordinary epics of Milton and Spenser to much of Frost’s longer work to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie to a lot of Sharon Olds’s poetry to the matchless story-poems of B.H. Fairchild to fabulous stuff by Maine’s poet laureate, Wesley McNair .....  

Narrative values, the values of conventional short fiction, ones that my generation learned about in grammar school: character, plot, and setting– I think they come in as a way of inviting the reader into your creation.

For me, in any case, there are a few basic questions I pose to any draft I produce, and they are much related to character, setting, and plot. Who’s talking? To whom is he or she talking? Where is the speaker on delivering the words we read? Answers to these questions in the trombone poem are impossible for me to find. The speaker, whatever strange beast he is, could be anywhere as he waits for a letter containing the word “trombone,” though why he should desire such a letter is mysterious in the first place; so I lack a sense of setting. Who the speaker is remains totally unclear; I have no sense of character. I want that sense, and if I write or read a poem in the first person, I want the character named I to show some characterological qualities too– I am not interested in the thoughts or feelings of a mere pronoun. In this case, if the poem were unattributed, just for trivial example, we could equally imagine its speaker to be female as male. If I can’t even know be sure of something so apparently trivial as that, how may I be expected to know what my students have always called “deeper meanings”?

Who, way, what, where? If my poem can’t answer at least some of these questions, I feel I need to work on it further.

As the saying goes, I want to know, in my poem or someone else’s, what’s the story here? Not knowing that, not knowing, as my generation used to say, where the speaker is coming from, I feel not invited in but– almost intentionally it seems– excluded. I feel a need to know some encoded language, or some other secret, in order to enter the poem. Lacking the knowledge of who-what-where-why, etc., I turn away– and that, for me, is about the last effect I want to have on my reader.

Again, as writer, and in fact as reader too, I ask those basic questions of the unit of language before me: who’s talking, to whom, where, and why? Who is the character or characters? Where do they find themselves? I don’t need a plotted story per se, but I want those seemingly factual issues to be as clear as possible.

Does this mean that as writers we need to “dumb down” our poems? Scarcely. Poetry by its nature is engaged with complex feelings and thoughts. But there is a vast difference between complexity and mere complication. ...That's the difference, to my taste, between Robert Frost, one of the most complex minds in our literary history, and Ezra Pound, one of the most complicated.

If as poets we present complex material, we are already challenging our readers to pay very close attention. There is no speed-reading of poetry, no scanning for story. Why would we want to expand that challenge to include what I have called simple facts: who, what, where why? Again, the presentation of such facts is what I call the invitation to the reader. To use a famous example, that reader may say, “This is tough stuff to sort out, but at least this much I can know”:
                Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
                And sorry I could not travel both
                And be one traveler, long I stood
                And looked down one as far as I could
                To where it bent in the undergrowth.

             We have a starting point for the famous instance I use here. A sort of door has been held open to us as we move into a poem that, though often reduced to a mere pep talk about self-reliance, is in fact profoundly ambiguous and finally even mysterious, perhaps like all good lyric.

And so on.....


Here is a recent poem dealing with an unusual physical (and, it seems, psychological) condition.


A student told me this story,
because the one she’d written
used the word, anosmia,
which I’d never heard and which
the one on the page did not
define or refer to again.
It just said the protagonist
had such a condition and then

went along without pause about race-cars,
machines that traveled much faster
than anything should. The girl
had fallen for one of the drivers
and ended up in a trap.
He was clearly a son of a bitch.
All that NASCAR lore, I confess,
was stuff I’d always dismissed

as pure yahoo, but it had its appeal.
The love plot didn’t– way
too familiar, the kind of thing
that any young person will say
in writing, or if so inclined,
face-to-face. I’m afraid that old tale
couldn’t hold me for long. I’m jaded,
I guess. But anosmia... well,

I’ve always been crazy for words,
and I wanted that one for me.
It kicked off the more gripping story:
her dad was an EMT,
and as a small girl she’d peeked
inside his vinyl bag
and found the smelling salts.
What are these for? she begged,

and although he didn’t want to,
she insisted, he gave in,
she took a sniff and –poof!–
she’d never smell again.
That as I say made a better
tale than what she wrote,
which was same-old-same-old-same old.
I waited her out while she spoke,

then asked her about her sense
of taste. She said all she cared for
was Mexican cooking or Thai,
and only the spiciest flavors.
She’d soon enough gotten used
to mouth-searing pepper and sauce.
They never bothered her now.
My mind strayed off, because

I was close to her father’s age,
and what I mostly conjured
was how that man must have tried
his hardest not to surrender
but did, and then– too late.
He’d likely meant to do good.
Don’t most of us strive for that?
Driving home, I looked out

on a late March moon, and directly
beside it, Aldebaran,
brightest star in Taurus.
And if you have any faith in
this sort of thing (I don’t),
the Bull always craves reward.
Born in that sign, you’re a sucker
for wet kisses, fine wine and food.

What can it possibly feel like,
if you have a decent heart,
to have made so small a mistake
and deprived your child of all that,
anosmia hanging on
in the life of a daughter you love?
Fo you go on replaying that moment?
I don’t know, but my guess is you must.

I remembered a woodsman named Don.
He and two wives had a slew
of kids. His manner was terse,
but he had a nose for truth.
(That moon looked sharp as an axe-blade.)
I got thinking of something he said,
and not about children only:
Some damned strange traps is set.