We continue the theme of religion and art and how much they have to do with each other. We travel from painting two Sundays ago and performance last Sunday to poetry now, and this third Sunday in Black History Month, my examples come from African-American poetry. I am not wishing to make you all into English majors, but to prepare you to come to church every Sunday morning, ready to listen, as it were, with the inside of the palm of your hand.
Let us pray. . . O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts give wings to the faith in you which lies so deep within each one of us here this morning, my Strength and my Redeemer.
Love is a wild wonder And stars that sing, Rocks that burst asunder And mountains that take wing.
Tambourines! Tambourines! Tambourines To the glory of God! Tambourines To glory!
A gospel shout And a gospel song: Life is short But God is long! [Langston Hughes]
Where are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? What’s behind the stars? Can I stand this pain? Is there a God? What is so rare as a day in June?
These questions circulate every day in the privacy of our minds, yours and mine. These same questions never leave poets alone. They drive the poets crazy. Poets write furiously, they scribble, they get up at night, they may drink, because they are reaching, always reaching, to express what can’t be said, what there are not ordinary words for, what society bars from being said. They attempt to capture what is fleeting, what is ephemeral and yet–universal. They attempt to describe a deeper dimension of existence.
They may start with sensory objects ready to hand (e.g., “a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water”), but poets ultimately proceed to levels that require a sixth sense on our part, to describe a deeper dimension of existence. In so doing, artistic creations sometimes baffle, confound, annoy, even defeat the viewer. This is true of all the arts, of course, but maybe most of all–of poetry.
In the beginning, in the West, there was only one poet, represented by a collective of bards who recited from memory the epic saga of the ten year Trojan War and of one general’s ten year journey home. Fast forward, today the number of published poets probably equals the U.S. national debt, and the number of UN-published poets exceeds the number of stars in the sky. The fact is, there are possibly more writers of poetry now than there are readers.
Why do people find poetry so hard to read? I’m talking about poetry that isn’t purely decoration or confection, or what we call verse, doggerel. The answer may surprise you. It is because poets strive for economy, for maximum economy. So much economy that often words are left out and transitions are not provided. The intent is for the biggest punch with the least motion.
And it’s hard because poetry is written in private for private consumption–written in the study, read in the living room. Often poetry is written in a prescribed, formal way (sonnet, ode, elegy, etc). So it helps to have some prior familiarity to find the groove. Then one day, strict forms went out the window and were replaced by the language of conversation.
At about the same time, poetry went public. There have always been poets for special public occasions, famously, like at Presidential Inaugurations. Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman are recent examples. Then came something called poetry slams, where poets declaim their truth in pubs and church basements.
Another example is rap, the new freedom song of Black America, that is written exclusively for public performance. These are easier on the ear now, never being meant for the printed page. Such poetry can be incantatory and hieratic, dreamlike or an altered state of consciousness. Poetry lets us visit the entire world at once.
Since it is Black History Month, if you took just ten Black poets from the 250-year history of African-American poetry, only the first two were traditional poets.
Phyllis Wheatley, brought from Africa at the age of 8 and enslaved in Boston to the Wheatley family, learned to read and write in English so well she wrote excellent poetry modeled on classical forms of the time. When her poetry was published in book form, the Wheatley family manumitted her to freedom.
James Weldon Johnson, born and educated in Atlanta, and his composer brother (Rosamond) lived in NYC. You heard his lyrics from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written in 1900 and known as the Black national anthem, in the Call to Worship.
The others wrote for the human ear and for the street, for conversation and for controversy. Three have been three U.S. Poets Laureate and one is our present Boston Poet Laureate.
Langston Hughes, born in Ohio and lived in Paris and New York. Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago, the first Black to be named U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote poems about women in labor and men in trouble, about Paul Robeson and Malcolm X. This one about Malcolm X ends, He opened us– Who was a key, Who was a man.
Audre Lord, Amiri Baraka/Newark, Alice Walker are other great names,
Rita Dove was the next Black woman to be name Poet Laureate, gave us, “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
Finally, Tracy K. Smith, our latest Poet Laureate who is Black, wrote, After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span Hides something elemental. Not God. Exactly.
In Boston we have our own Poet Laureate, who is Porsha Olayiwola, from Jamaica Plain. You have to see her and hear her perform her poems on the internet.
All poetry draws directly from the lives of the poets, and so, life in America for Blacks being what it is, the burden of African-American poetry is to convey the height, width and depth of their pain, and its taste. As one commentator put it, “All those with the audacity to breathe while black. . .offer up a daily epic of struggle and song” [Kevin Young].
African-American poets, too, write furiously, they scribble, they get up at night, they may drink, because they are reaching, always reaching, to express what can’t be said, what there are not ordinary words for, what society bars from being said. They attempt to capture what is fleeting, what is ephemeral and yet–universally true.
But these poets also know the famous dictum of Emily Dickinson from 1850–
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — . . . The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind --
To say the naked truth, Emily Dickinson argues, would leave people dazzled, as Moses was dazzled going up the mountain. Like Wisdom of the Bible which dazzles with truth not understood by simpletons. Like Revelation which dazzles, truth coming to us slant, in the form of an ecstatic vision that we would be sorely tempted to alter in order to understand it better. St. Paul wrote, we see but through a glass darkly.
So the echoes of the wordless Word reach us only at our solar plexus, they reach us in our fitful dreams before dawn, in the water that slakes our mortal thirst, in poetry, and also–in church. Because the questions poets ask: “Where are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? What’s behind the stars? Can I stand this pain? Is there a God? What is so rare as a day in June?” aren’t these exactly our questions on a Sunday morning!
However, on Sunday morning we are greeted with the opposite problem–seemingly too many words. Religion is the opposite of poetry in that respect. Whereas poetry is concise and concentrated to a fault, religion is prolix. Consider the Bible–nothing compact or condensed about that! Yet like poetry, religion reaches to express what there are not ordinary words for, what society bars, what is fleeting, ephemeral, but universal.
Religion is a kind of poetry, you see. Yes, and poetry is a kind of religion.
Maybe they are the inside and the outside of the same glove. But which is which? It requires a kind of extra-sensory perception to pick up the signals from beyond the stars.
I want you to come to church every Sunday morning, ready to listen, as it were, with the inside of the palm of your hand.