Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Some Notes on Poetry and Daily Conversion

When we lived in England, we attended a church which in the seventeenth century had had for its vicar the poet Richard Crashaw. In our time, the church had another poet, a devout lady in her seventies whose Little Book of Poems had been printed up by a concern in Ipswich and was sold on a table in the back of the church, alongside postcards and leaflets on Marian devotions, for 50p. Of this lady my husband, now a Catholic theologian but then an Anglican priest, used to say that she had no actual sin -- hers was all original.

She had grown up in a village far out in the fens, the daughter of stern, old-style Methodists who had threatened to disown her on discovering a rosary in the drawer of her nightstand. Though she was elderly when we knew her, she still had about her the quality we associate with small children and think of as innocence:  a reflexive, unselfconscious egotism which assumes that its concerns are everyone's, and that there are no others. She once rang me on the telephone -- I was packing up our flat to move back to the U.S. as it happened -- to say that a parcel had arrived for her from Maryland. From the absence of any explanation of what was in the parcel or who had sent it to her and why, I understood that I was supposed to know these things and comprehend their significance. I didn't, and I still don't. "Well, it came from America," she said before hanging up. "I knew you'd want to know."

I wish I could think where to go with this fragment of narrative. It, too, was part of my attempt to write a serious paper on poetry and religion, and I'm fairly sure it didn't make the final cut, because what can you say about someone like this, whose trust has been so utterly in your hands, with regard to poetry? Once she gave my husband a poem about the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham;  it's probably just as well that I don't remember the poem itself, though I do remember rather vividly how I felt about Walsingham at the time. It was not my favorite place. Specifically, the Anglican shrine was not my favorite place. Walsingham itself is a charming and, when the National Pilgrimage isn't on, very quiet village, maybe five miles from the sea in Norfolk. I love the ruined abbey, begun on a site shown miraculously to an 11th-century Saxon lady named Richeldis by the Blessed Mother; the last time I was there, my two oldest children were six and two years old, and we spent the time when everyone else from our parish was at Mass walking in the abbey garden and peering into a well which crawled and wriggled and croaked with shiny green frogs at various stages of metamorphic development.

That was as close as I came to piety in those days -- I consented to enter its city limits -- and even now, if I wanted to write a poem about Walsingham, it would undoubtedly wind up being about frogs or Buddhas, a cottage windowful of Buddha statues being my other favorite sight in the whole of the town. Actually, though, that's not entirely true. While we were in England, I did write a long cyclical poem purporting to tell the story of Richeldis's vision, in which Our Lady showed her her own house at Nazareth and asked that one just like it be built in Walsingham. I wrote it not out of devotion, but out of liking what I imagined of Richeldis as a narrator, and out of some . . . taste in my mind for that landscape, when its ancientness was less ancient, and the Normans were poised to come in and take over everything, including the language. By the time I'd finished writing the poem, most of my reflexive skepticism about things like Marian apparitions had evaporated. I still liked the Buddhas in the window, but I also liked Mary more than I had, and I loved Richeldis, who had seen her. The poem's lost now -- no idea what I did with it -- but I can still see bits and pieces of it in my mind, like the outline of something wanting to be built. Ultimately I think it will be built, though maybe not in those words.

For a writer, maybe it's just as well not to be innocent, but to need to be redeemed, daily, by writing, in the same way that one is redeemed, daily, by the practice of the faith and the reception of the sacraments. To stand in need of conversion and to need bringing over -- well, that's all of us, obviously, not just writers, but this is what my own writing does for me. The soul it's out to win is mine. Somehow it's letting me see something which realigns my soul with God, and it's in this -- not subject matter, not argument, not the apologetics -- that the religious element exists. It's of a piece with my practice of my religion:  ergo. 


Margaret said...

I appreciate your writing this! Although we did not know the lady so well that she would telephone me and tell me about a package from the US, I do know to whom (is that correct?) you refer! Having had young children in the same area at the same time, I appreciate so much of your posts on England and your experiences while living and traveling around the area, please never hesitate to share. It helps me examine this time from the past, too! With Love, Margie PS And I so appreciate your poetry!

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks as always, Margie.

I hesitated to put this post up for the same reason that in the end I declined to include those first few paragraphs in the paper I was writing: I did not want to be sneering or making fun or getting some kind of mileage out of -- well, anyone, really, but especially a person who in one way, and in some quarters, might be seen as an easy target, the church-lady laureate. I'd hesitate to score points off even a rotten person, but . . . well, it sounds so facile to say that she was *good,* because she was (and as far as I know still is) a human being like the rest of us.

It did occur to me that a heart already fully converted, or finding its daily conversion in other ways, has less need to work things out in writing, which may be a very good thing for that heart, but maybe not such a good thing for the poetry it wants to write, as its conclusions are already settled. But then that sounds arrogant, too, on my part. Maybe there's just no good way to do this . . .

Sally Thomas said...

And who am I to say, actually, that her poetry wasn't doing the same thing for her, only better?

Sarah Johnson said...

I thought this was an awfully interesting and disarming response to that exhortation from the woman who took you by the arm at the poetry reading. It reminds me of that poem, "Prayer," by George Herbert, who I guess is as devotional as they get. He comes up with a whole series of metaphors to say what prayer is and then ends by simply calling it "something understood." You're saying that writing poetry is in some way a means of salvation for you, and it seems that what you describe about that poem on Our Lady of Walsingham is a process of coming to understand something. You and Herbert seem to be talking about the same thing, making a connection between prayer (which is of course necessary for salvation) and understanding-- even understanding of ordinary things.

Sarah Johnson said...

Here's that poem (hey, it's a sonnet!)


PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sarah, and the Herbert poem, too! Long live the sonnet!