Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Song of Myself

This is an address on Walt Whitman and why I love his poetry.

Walt Whitman

Last week the poet Michael Rosen wrote this comment:
I'm probably jumping the gun a bit here, but the press is full this weekend with accounts of what is anticipated to appear in the new guidelines for Primary English.
What seems to be coming up is a requirement that all primary children from the age of 5 should learn poetry by heart.
From the discussions that have been on the radio and television this week Michael Rosen was correct, as part of his Curriculum reform Michael Gove is suggesting that all infant and primary aged children should be expected to learn and recite poetry along with times tables and other facts.
Now as an ex teacher I can see the value of learning things by rote and that includes poetry, but when it comes to poetry I am a little unsure as to how it will affect children’s future attitudes if it is not handled properly.  I am sure there are those of us here who can remember being made to learn verses by heart when we were at school.
I certainly can, and I never did find it easy.  Times tables I could manage but poetry – well I never did manage to commit any to memory. 
Did any of you?
And I wonder how many of you actually read poetry now today and if you do was it because of this learning experience?
As this news played out I began to think about where my love of poetry came from – because as most of you are aware I do love poetry.
Well it didn’t begin during my school years at all.  No, I know the exact year when I turned to poetry and began to read it.  It was 1989 and I was 40 years old.  It happened when I went to see a film that was released that year, starring Robin Williams – it was called ‘The Dead Poets Society’.
In it Williams plays the part of one John Keating, a rather different teacher of English, especially poetry.   


One of the most memorable speeches for me was when John Keating says to the boys he is teaching:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?’

It was a mixture of those words and the image of Robin Williams striding about saying call me: "O Captain! My Captain!," in reference to a Walt Whitman poem, that set me off reading poetry for the first real time.
Now I must admit I didn’t take to Walt Whitman’s poetry then, it was, I think, far too American and I didn’t really understand it.
It took me finding the Unitarian church, a decade or so later, to begin to appreciate Whitman.  Not that he was a Unitarian, no he was a Quaker if anything but he has even been called an atheist.  However he did move in Unitarian circles and was friends with people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

And the Transcendentalist movement, to which Whitman belonged, was firmly rooted in the Unitarian tradition.
And then, of course, there is his tangential association with Bolton Bank Street chapel, which has connections with a local Whitman society, which has been in existence, on and off, for over a century. In 1887 two Bolton men, J.W. Wallace and Dr. John Johnston, sent birthday greetings to Walt, and to their great surprise and delight, he responded, and a regular correspondence – over one hundred letters – ensued, until the poet’s death five years later. Now, on the nearest Saturday to Walt’s birthday, 31st May, there’s an annual Whitman walk, in which participants wear sprigs of lilac, Walt’s favourite flower, and make frequent stops to read from Leaves of Grass and to drink from a ‘loving cup’. On the Sunday following there is a service in Bank Street Chapel, to commemorate the Whitman Society’s association with the Unitarian movement.  
   What is it in Whitman’s poetry that was so appealing to the Unitarians of 19th century Lancashire and to contemporary Unitarians worldwide? One reason is his independent, almost revolutionary, spirit. His poetry, in both style and content, is radically new. His verse is free, direct, accessible, untrammelled by conventional decorative features such as rhyme and rhythm. Emerson recognised that Whitman’s was the first authentically American poetic voice. Before him, American writers, including Emerson himself, had copied European models, but Walt struck out on his own. ‘Resist much, obey little,’ his words of advice to the American states, could be taken as the motto of his own life and his own work.’ (Bill Darlison)


Walt Whitman is not an easy read, his poetry is full of uncomfortable things and a lot of it was not allowed in print at first because it is sexually explicit.  Also his poems are extremely long and I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to read them whole but maybe try dipping in and you find such wonderful delights as:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

And it is verses such as that second one that call out to me now as they speak of the soul.  How Whitman can be called an atheist I do not know for his poems are full of the soul.
Audrey Addison Williams  says: “My prayer for all of humanity is that we learn to live from a place of "soul". In my work, I am stunned by the number of people who have no idea about the longings of their heart and soul. They live like robots, doing almost mechanically what they feel they must do. Than we spend billions on medicine and doctors trying to figure out why we are in so much pain. Today, listen to your heart, connect with your soul. Your soul has all the wisdom you shall ever need.

Whitman’s most famous poem, that I read from in our reading is the ‘Song of myself’ and it is full of words of wisdom that speak of life, of love and for me of God.

Those words at the end of that verse I read:
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd
    by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.”
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
These words sum up my whole theology. His God is probably not the God of Christianity, but Whitman’s poetry is drenched in what we might call God-consciousness. As the Rev Bill Darlison says:
This may be pantheism, deism, panentheism, it may even to some be considered blasphemous, but it is certainly not atheism. Whitman has no belief in a static revelation; the genius behind all the great religions is the inexhaustible genius of the human race which is as active now as ever it has been. He doesn’t object to special revelations, but, he says he considers ‘a curl of smoke or the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation.’[Song of Myself] The simplest creature is a manifestation of God, a miracle, a revelation:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars...
And the narrowest hinge of my hand puts to scorn all machinery.....
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Walt Whitman’s poetry gives you a recipe for living.  He tells you first and foremost to be yourself and in the words of Robin Williams, as the teacher John Keating he says in no uncertain terms that Latin phrase ‘Carpe Deum’  which means ‘seize the day’
Seize the day.

Just opening my book of Whitman’s poems at random the poem I found was this:

DAREST thou now, O Soul,

Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,

Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?



No map, there, nor guide,

Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.



I know it not, O Soul;

Nor dost thou—all is a blank before us;

All waits, undream’d of, in that region—that inaccessible land.



Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,

Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds, bound us.



Then we burst forth—we float,

In Time and Space, O Soul—prepared for them;

Equal, equipt at last—(O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.

I could go on - there are so many poems that cry out to be read.  But do I read them because I was made to learn poems by heart as a young child?  No I read them because as an adult I have come to poetry myself.  I have travelled in my own way just as Walt would have wanted me to because as he said:
No one is going to do the hard work for you, you must find the meaning of your life & your destiny yourself.
And so it must be for our children too.
So May it be

Sunday, 3 June 2012

A struggle with God

 from a service 3.06.12

I tend to give my services titles as it helps me to focus on the subject.  Today’s is called ‘A struggle with God’ strange you might think as a title for a minister of Religion, but then of course I am a Unitarian so maybe it might not be such a surprise after all that I should speak about struggling with God.  Actually the title came from the story in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestles with an angel.
  In that story it is more a wrestle but for me it is definitely more of a struggle.

I remember when I first became a minister, (is it really almost six years ago?) someone once said to me, Gillian, you mustn’t assume that we know the stories of the Bible we’re Unitarians.  So I suppose I had better give you a bit of background about Jacob so that we all understand why he should be wrestling with God in the first place.

 Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. So he is a pretty important figure. The whole story of Jacob begins in one of those really, really strange Bible moments. Jacob, God’s chosen leader essentially cheated his older brother out of his birthright of inheritance. Jacob dressed up as his older and simpler brother to trick his father, Isaac, who was on his death bed. With his mother’s help he pretended to be older brother Essau, so that their father would bless him and make him the official heir. And Jacob pulled it off so that he could be the leader God wanted him to be. Not really a very auspicious start for someone so great.

Then, afraid that Esau might kill him for his treachery, Jacob fled the country, fell in love with Rachel at a well, worked for seven years for Rachel’s father so that he could marry her. The father cheated Jacob by sending in his other daughter Leah, disguised, so that Jacob was married to her. So Jacob worked seven more years until he could marry the sister he first fell in love with.  You might think that this would mean that Jacob’s life is sorted, but no. As we all know there is a saying ‘cheats never prosper’ and so it is in this story. Eventually the cheating caught up with Jacob.    He decided that he must return home,   so he set  off; with two wives, eleven children, the servants and all his belongings—

Then he heard that his brother Esau was coming toward them, accompanied by an army of about 400 men. Jacob panicked —it must be payback time; his brother must still hate him. So Jacob sent his servants ahead with an army of gifts, hoping to buy his brother’s goodwill. And then he sent his family and his flocks of sheep across the river at a river crossing one night. Then he came back across, all alone to get his possessions. While he was there, a mysterious being appeared. Some say it was a man, some say an angel. The two of them wrestled until daybreak.
                          Rembrandt - Jacob wrestling with the angel

 When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip so that the hip was wrenched terribly. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak. But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?"
" Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

This story is often used to illustrate the moment of a personal struggle with faith. It’s quite literally, if you read the story that way, a moment of wrestling with divinity. It’s a hard fight. Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life from where the angel injured his hip. But Jacob struggled with divinity and he refused to let go of that struggle until he got a blessing out of it.

In our lives we all of us have times of struggle, times when we have to wrestle with demons.  No one is exempt.  And when it comes to faith that can be a struggle too.  I envy the person who has such a belief that they have not had to struggle with it, or do I?  Maybe the struggle is worth it, maybe the struggle makes faith stronger.   One person who epitomises this for me is C S Lewis.  Probably best known for his children’s book The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe and the rest of that series and  less well known for his science fiction and for his religious writings.  All of his books though, whichever genre, are about faith, belief and religion.  It is then hard to think  that he was once an atheist.  His autobiography Surprised by Joy tells the story of how he moved from atheism to one of such strength of faith that all his writings speak to it.  In that book he says:

You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnest­ly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Like Jacob, he had gone through his wrestling match with God.  Rainer Maria Rilke, my favourite poet, puts it into better words than I could in his Book of Hours

It starts with a dream
Add faith, and it becomes a belief.
Add action, and it becomes a part of life.
Add perseverance, and it becomes a goal in sight.
Add patience and time, and it ends with a dream come true.
In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet....

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
like a spring rain?

~ Strange, how this too speaks of dreams, and struggle.  This particular poem always reminds me of the struggle I underwent in finding my faith.  I grew up being involved with the Anglican Church, attending Sunday School and being confirmed and yet by the time I left home to go to college I found that I had no true sense of faith at all.  I fell out of the church and church life and explored many paths.  Over 30 years of exploration I was, I felt, certainly agnostic if not atheist.  Nothing seemed right or true.  Then about fifteen years ago, something happened which was to change my life completely.  I had my own personal struggle with God.  

 Over many years I had suffered with a recurring nightmare.  It began when I was a child and would always rear up when I was feeling vulnerable, or in turmoil.  So times like exams at school.  Leaving home to go to college.  When I got married.  When I got divorced. . . . . .  With alarming regularity the awful dreams would return.   
Then I went to stay with a lovely lady called Amy, she was in her nineties and for various reasons I ended up staying in her house for a month when she had a serious fall and needed nursing if she was to stay in her home.  It coincided with my summer holidays when I was teaching so I stayed.  I was in one of those times of turmoil and was experiencing that dreadful nightmare almost every night.  Amy belonged to a religious group that believed in having an altar in her bedroom.  

 We never talked about it, that was not Amy’s way but I was aware of the existence of this sacred place in her room.  Then one night, the dream happened again and I found myself terrified, literally.  I woke to find myself trying to scream, and the scream was so bad that it was a silent scream.  I was so scared that no sound would come out.  As I lay there in this strange house, with only a frail, elderly woman for company I wondered where my life was going and how I was going to overcome these nightly terrors.  It was then, when I felt at my lowest that I found in my head a vision of Amy’s altar on the other side of the wall and gradually my breathing settled and suddenly I found myself crying, ‘ok, ok, I give in’ and then I admitted to myself, reluctantly, that I did really believe in God.  

 It was another couple of years before I finally found the Unitarian Church in Padiham and I set my feet on the path towards Unitarianism and eventually into Ministry, but it was that night when It all began and everything changed.  And touch wood – I have not had that nightmare again.  It was my Jacob moment.  I had wrestled all night and in the morning I felt blessed by God.
There is a beloved passage from the poet Rilke:
You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed... But, please, consider whether these…sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? …Were it possible for us to see further than our own knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with [even] greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity…a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

Something new has entered into us’ – said Rilke, and yes something new had entered into me and continues to enter in, daily.

We all, I am sure, have had our moments of struggle with God on a greater or lesser level; and our human struggle with God is never easy.  Yet within that struggle we experience divine blessing. 
There is a poem by William Stafford called "The Way It Is." It offers wise advice for wrestling with God:
There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

Jacob's struggle reminds us of that thread: we may struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak there is only the blessing.
May God’s blessing be with us all.
So may it be.