#9: Going East: Following the Path of Poetry and Liturgy
Inexhaustible, March 31, 2017
Four poets who worship in the Orthodox tradition consider the intersections of poetry and liturgy. Scott Cairns, Angela Doll Carlson, Gaelan Gilbert, and Cameron Alexander Lawrence reflect on how the enduring poetry of the liturgy builds an architecture of wakefulness, an habitus of prayer that becomes a way of life. Similarly, poetry reveals hidden possibilities and cultivates attentiveness to language and the world. Opening conversation between host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Angela Doll Carlson.
- Rainer Maria Rilke,
- Love Poems to God
- “The Dark Hours of My Being”
- “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
- Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian Year, “The Annunciation”
- Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”
- Nikolai Velimirovich, Prayers by the Lake
- Scott Cairns, “The Annunciation”
- There’s another unattributed poem called “A New and Familiar Place”
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
On today’s episode of Rewrite Radio, we’ll listen to a conversation between four writers in the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition about the deep poetry and lasting peace that liturgy offers. Scott Cairns, Angela Doll Carlson, Gaelan Gilbert, and Cameron Alexander Lawrence reflect on orthodoxy, and how it can clear a pathway into the slings and arrows of modern life.
Scott Cairns’ poems and essays have appeared in many publications including the Paris Review, the Atlantic, and Image Journal. His newest poetry collection is Idiot Psalms, and he has recently been appointed Program Director of the MFA Program at Seattle Pacific university. Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. She is the author of two books: Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition, and, most recently, Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body. Gaelan Gilbert is an assistant professor of English at Saint Katherine College and the managing editor of Saint Katherine Review. Cameron Alexander Lawrence is a poet whose work has appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, Exit 7, IMAGE Journal, and Rock and Sling. I caught up with Angela to talk about that conversation.
[music, phone rings]
Angela Doll Carlson: [00:01:35] Hello?
Lisa: Hey Angela, it’s Lisa.
Angela: Hey! How are you?
Lisa: I’m good. Thanks so much for joining us today. Where did we catch you?
Angela: Well, I’m actually at home. I just got home from confession. I feel pretty good about that. [Lisa laughs] Right now it’s Lent, so.
Angela: Got my confession in so I’m really good now. [Lisa laughs]
Lisa: Excellent. Well, we’ve caught you at the perfect moment, obviously.
Angela: Right. Oh, yeah. Great.
Lisa: So we’re about to listen to this panel on poetry and liturgy, that you were a part of and actually proposed for the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. Can you tell me a little bit about how you understand the relationship between poetry and liturgy, and how it kind of came into focus for you personally?
Angela: Well, I think that, when I think about poetry in particular, I think that it seems to me to be a kind of lens. It’s a way of looking at the world, a way of speaking about the world. Using an economy of language is the way I’ve heard it put before and it’s sort of a beautiful way to put it. And I think that one of the things I love about poetry is that the language use has to be very particular. It has to be very specific. The poet says what he or she is trying to say in a way that not only conveys it, but really it kind of enters into us as we read it as well. It has this sort of, you know, transmission effect. And liturgy strikes me that way as well.
I was raised Catholic and became Orthodox only maybe five or six years ago, but the one thing that I was missing when I kind of wandered away from Catholicism before I wandered into the Orthodox church was that liturgy, that liturgical part. You know, I kind of wandered around a number of places and the poet part of me really was never satisfied with any places that I visited in between. I think that what orthodoxy did, was it reinvigorated that love of language and that economy of language that, in some ways, it’s kind of a strange way to think about it, that the Orthodox liturgy hasn’t changed really substantially, except to be shortened, really since it was developed. And there’s something comforting about that to me, that it’s the words that are spoken are the words that have been spoken. They have an enduring quality to them. And I think poetry is like that as well. When we look back at really early poetry—I mean, if you go back to even into, if you read poems by Rumi today—they still really resonate, they are still, they still have that kernel of truth in them, and the transition that has happened over the years, the words have stuck.
Lisa: Yeah, sure. Is there one you’ve discovered lately or any poems that you’ve been thinking about that come to mind, that are sitting with you?
Angela: Oh, boy. I’m trying to think.
Lisa: [laughs] Sorry for putting you on the spot.
Angela: No, actually, I have book that I bought a long time ago, but it’s Rilke and it’s [thinking] … oh, it’s Love Poems to God. That’s what it is. And it’s ... Rilke had come into contact with orthodoxy at one point in his life, and he was just really moved by it. And I think, you know, it’s that poet soul just kind of reached out and it really spoke to him, so he has a collection of poems. This collection kind of … well, most of these were written around the time that he still was deep and enamored into orthodoxy, but the one that always keeps coming back to me is, I love “The Dark Hours of My Being."
Lisa: [00:05:28] Would you mind reading “The Dark Hours of My Being?” Can you put your fingers on it? Is it dog-eared?
Angela: Sure. It is dog-eared, yes. [reading] “I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them. / There I can find, as in old letters, / the days of my life, already lived, / and held like a legend, and understood. / Then the knowing comes: I can open / to another life that’s wide and timeless. / So I am sometimes like a tree / rustling over a gravesite / and making real the dream / of the one its living roots / embrace: / a dream once lost / among sorrows and songs.” [pause] Don’t you love him?
Lisa: I love that.
Angela: He’s my poetry boyfriend.
Lisa: [laughter] Excellent. We’ll have to fight over him. He’s one of my favorites too, so.
Angela: [overlapping] Okay. [laughter]
Lisa: Well, thanks so much for spending some time with us today.
Lisa: [00:06:29] And now, “Going East: Following the Path of Poetry and Liturgy at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.”
Angela: So when I first started thinking about putting together a group of Orthodox poets and writers and good thinkers and really smart fellows and such, really what I had imagined was just getting them on stage and asking them a lot of questions, and so that’s what I hope to do. But what I really want to do is find these spaces where poetry and liturgy intersect.
In a very loud and busy and distraction-driven world, I think these places where we find those two things cross over is of vital interest to us, not only as writers, but as people. I want to start with an image because I just can’t help myself: I love that Chicago is built on a grid. If you’re from Chicago or you’ve been to Chicago you know that it’s actually really easy to get around, because you’ve got your east and west streets, and you have your north and south streets. And then there are those weird cut through streets, you know, Elston and Milwaukee and such. But there is one street that I like the best, and it’s called Grand Avenue. [talking to audience member] Do you know Grand Avenue? Heck yes, thank you. [referring back to full audience]
Alright, good, so this isn’t going to be lost on everybody. So Grand Avenue starts out as an east and west street, and then around Western Avenue it becomes a diagonal street. So, rather than running parallel to streets it begins to cross them. So, in a way I think that’s what we’re looking for: we’re looking for our Grand Avenue. And I thought I would just give you a little idea of what Grand Avenue is for you non-Chicago people, from the very trusted source, Wikipedia [audience laughter]. [reading] “Grand Avenue is a major east-west arterial surface street in the city of Chicago and nearby DuPage County. Although it deviates somewhat from Chicago’s grid system, as it is diagonal west of Western Avenue. Grand Avenue was originally known as Whiskey Point Rd” [audience laughter]. You know, I read that, and thought that’s you [audience laughter]. Sorry, was that a secret? [laughter]
It’s a muddy American Indian trail leading to the west side of Chicago, but it seemed like a nice image for us today to talk about poetry and liturgy, that sort of run parallel for a length and then at some point, there is this cutting over space. So we’re going to talk a little bit first about poetry, and then as Scott says, we will yammer about liturgy, and then we’ll see if we can work our way toward finding those crossover spots and how they make a difference in our work, and in our lives. So, I told these guys they should be ready to answer what I think is a horrible question. You know, like what is poetry?
Scott Cairns: And it was.
Angela: It is horrible, I know. I admit that, totally admit that. But I thought it would be good to at least give definition from another well trusted source. If you ever read McSweeney’s, they have a—it’s poetry month, National Poetry Month—and they have a great frequently asked question, and the first question was “What is poetry?” They say poetry is clumps of words that make people feel something [audience laughter]. I think it kind of covers it, but that’s just me. So I’ll give you guys that, but I think a better question, perhaps, is: when we talk about poetry what do we mean? So I’m going to hand this [microphone] to you Cameron, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go first.
Scott: What was the question?
Angela: When we talk about poetry today, especially here on the stage, what are we talking about?
Scott: [00:10:38] Well, let’s talk about the poetic operation of language—which can happen in fiction, or in memoir, or in essays, or in drama—but must happen in poetry, or else we’re fooling ourselves about this text being poetry. And the poetic operation of language is, I think, the degree of opacity. Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but there is a way in which words most often are expected to operate which is truly denotatively. The word is a sign for a thing, or a name for a thing. And so, very often when we are reading, much of what we read, the words themselves obtain a degree of transparency and we are basically looking through words to the thing the words name.
Poetry, the poetic operation of language, is when the words obtain a degree of opacity and we can’t move right through them to a single thing they name. Instead, we’re obliged to reflect, as one does with things that are opaque. Transparent glass, you see through to the thing out there. Opaque glass, you see something of yourself in that surface. And so the poetic operation of language is language that obliges us to see something of ourselves and to participate in the meaning making of that text. That has to happen in anything we’re going to call a poem, and it can happen in any other literary texts, and the degree which it happens is the degree to which it’s literary. And you’re welcome.
Gaelan Gilbert: Ditto. [laughter] I like the word “density”. I had a teacher at San Diego State—he runs the MFA there, Jerry Farber—he said poetry is patterned semantic density. Christopher Alexander, the architect, [cheer from audience]—thank you, unbelievable—basically applies this to architecture, right? He says the more meanings that a certain space can have due to its functions, the more poetic it is, the more livable it is. So there’s a kind of transparency there, because we all know what it’s like trying to read Finnegans Wake, but it does show you, as Roman Jakobson would say, yourself, and the very medium it’s using. So it’s kind of a funhouse of mirrors.
Cameron Alexander Lawrence: Yeah, I think for me one of the things I think about what poetry does is it, along with what these guys are saying, it reveals what’s hidden. And language, for as much as it reveals, it hides even more. Particularly when it’s in the poetic form. And so, I like to think about what a poem does. Just the other day I came across this great quote from Jane Hirshfield. She says, “Poems surprise out of the thicket of my life, a bird that I didn’t know was living in it.” She says, and from that thicket—she says you experience this, and it creates some confusion, some bafflement, and it’s almost as if you’ve been asleep and now you’re waking up. She says, out of that thicket of bewilderment suddenly comes a flash of plumage and a song, and for a moment the world is perfect as it is.
So I think, there’s something I really like about that, but where I maybe would depart a little bit from that is that I don’t know that, for me, the poetic reveals the world as perfect, but rather it reveals the world for what it is, and all of the hidden possibilities within it. That might be the world of myself or the exterior world, but it’s scaring up that bird that you didn’t know was there, giving you a chance to see it and know it and name it.
Gaelan: [00:15:06] Yeah, and asking what poetry does is different. It’s related, but it’s different, right? And I don’t know if we want to go there, but it does so many things. I mean, it’s an action, right? In Greek, it means “making.” I like to work with wood—does poetry actually make architectural structures? Maybe that’s just getting too loosey-goosey, I don’t know. Verbal poetry, I think it does invite an expanded vision of things. It shows that truth is not univocal; there are many ways of knowing. It defamiliarizes, it tenderizes. While Stevens says something like “poetry can eat a man alive,” Rilke ends his poem about the Belvedere Apollo with the line “You must change your life.” So, good poetry maybe does that. I don’t know. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves I think.
Scott: What does it do? It focuses one’s attention.
Angela: I think that’s actually a really good segue into this next piece, where we’re going to do kind of the same thing with liturgy. I keep wanting to take notes, because the idea of holding one’s attention, and that opaque, seeing yourself and seeing through, I mean, these are really good, functional pieces here. I want to segue just really briefly then into the idea of liturgy.
I don’t know if anybody else feels this, but it feels to me as though we are moving, as a culture perhaps, in this country in particular, more toward a liturgical way of understanding worship, in some ways. I have a friend who recently used the word “liturgical” to describe a loaf of bread that she bought [audience laughter]. And it wasn’t for liturgy or for mass or for anything, it was just delicious. I looked it up and I kind of think it works in some strange way, ’cause it’s bread. But really when I think of liturgy, first and most recently in social media, I think of my friend David Dark who—I don’t know if he’s here. If you have not heard him speak—wow, that sounds weird— or haven’t read his work, I hope that you will; I think he’s speaking tomorrow and also on Saturday. But he has, on Instagram, a hashtag he uses: “#liturgy”. And they are these commonplace, everyday things, but they hold this sort of deeper meaning. So you look at these pictures, with the hashtag liturgy. Hashtag. I don’t know how he does it. It got me thinking about that a bit.
So what we talked about—what do we mean when we talk about poetry—here today, so, I’m going to ask the same thing. When we talk about liturgy here, in this discussion, in these parallel streets that are going to cross over, what are we talking about, particularly, I think, as Orthodox Christians? I think it’s important that we make very clear what liturgy means to us.
Cameron: I can say a little bit about that. So, I think that one thing that we probably immediately consider when we hear the word “liturgy” is a church service. And that’s certainly true, and in the Orthodox church the sort of preeminent service out of many many services—we’re actually still in Lent right now and experiencing lots of these services—is the divine liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. And, like I said, that’s certainly a big part of what we do, it’s our common worship, it’s—liturgy can be defined as the work of the people, and so it’s what we do when we get together, we work. And the work is bringing ourselves to attention, to a place of wakefulness, so that we can really get in contact with the God who is always with us. There isn’t a moment where God is not present, but there are many, many moments that we are not present to God. So liturgy is one of those things that we do together as a community to bring ourselves to a place of wakefulness.
But I don’t think we can stop there because, in the Orthodox Church, liturgy is a way of life. Maybe that gets to what you’re saying, Angela, about this sense that we have in the culture that people are talking more about liturgy in broader terms. The Orthodox way is a way of life. It’s not just one service, it’s not just a handful of services, it’s daily prayer; and if you really want to get hard core, there’s hours of prayer in each day that you can follow in a pattern. There’s fasting, there’s feasting—it’s all one connected thing. So when we say liturgy it’s a much bigger thing, that connects to not just the sacrament of the Eucharist, which we partake of every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, but the sacrament of the world: the world as a gift that God has given us as a means of grace and communion with him.
Scott: [00:20:57] That’s what drew me to it, frankly. I actually was prepared for my journey east by my practice of poetry. Initially my poems were all pretty anecdotal, like most people’s poems, where I would have what I thought was a profound experience and sort of write a transcription of it, in hopes that someone else might glimpse something of that profundity. Increasingly, that became less interesting to me. What became most interesting to me was the way that, what I experienced when I focused on the page to make a poem, the way that I focused on the page to read someone else’s poem, the way poetry taught me to quiet, to become still and to attend to what was before me.
So that when I did finally find my way to my first Orthodox liturgy, invited by Warren Farha, at Eighth Day Books’ table over here, it was a homecoming of sorts. It was, “Oh this is what worship can be.” It’s not surprising to me, that experience, that so many people have replaced religion with poetry, or with some art form or other that occasions that degree of stillness, that degree of attention to the world. That really the liturgy, and the idea that the liturgy isn’t just a thing you go to but it’s a thing you ingest and then carry with you into your attitude toward your entire life. It’s the prayer of the church—the work of the church, the prayer of the church—and then what you learn to do over time is bring that degree of prayerful attention to the rest of your life.
Cameron: So there’s this thing that happens when you’re Orthodox where you show up and there’s already something going on. There’s always something already going on. You’re always coming in the middle of something. The way the Sunday morning services work is that there are three services. I won’t go into it right now, but at any point you can show up before the ten o’clock hour when the liturgy really begins, but there’s already prayers happening, there’s already liturgy happening, and I think what’s really lovely about that is that in our understanding as Orthodox is that there’s a liturgy always going on in heaven and we, by stepping into what we call the temple on Sunday mornings, we are participating, we are entering into that liturgy that is always going on. So you are coming in, in the middle.
Gaelan: [00:24:05] I don’t know if I can add to that, but a couple things came to mind: yes, yes, yes [audience laughter]. The next thing that came to mind was, poetry, like the kitchen, is one of the only things left where people who don’t have tons of money can spend time making something. Liturgy can be something where you do that with other people and learn how to do it together. There aren’t many places left either where you can be in a room learning words that you’re hearing, that are the same words for the most part with—you know, there’s moving parts depending on who the saint is of the week, or what season of feasting or fasting it may be—but you’re learning almost to breathe together with people that you may not otherwise choose to spend time with. There is a very different dynamic with friends than there is with family. It’s more like family, where you’re standing next to people or sitting next to people that you may not be able to identify any one other thing you have in common, except that which has the ultimate meaning, and you are committing to that together.
So, it is work, it is labor. I mean ergon is the root there in the original Greek for “liturgy.” Sometimes going to liturgy feels like an urge, it feels natural, like, my soul needs this, it’s being healed by this. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult, because of the attention that’s required, but it’s something where you do—whether you feel it or not—get caught up in something that you’re not the only source of. In fact, the particular form in which it happens in the Orthodox church is seventeen hundred years old, so there is a history of this, which has a kind of depth to it.
The only other thing I’d like to do is make a tiny bridge with poetry, in the sense that liturgy is also a pattern of semantic density. People write commentaries on liturgies, they’re called mystagogies, and it’s literally unpacking what a single movement or what a single procession or a single architectural design means, and there’s a list. It means, with a proliferation of meaning, to put it in one way. So, it’s living poetry. Not just in the sense that you’re singing hymns that have a poetic, kind of theological content to them, with certain meter and so forth, but you’re doing that in tandem with all the other arts—music, visual, pictorial iconography, architecture. So you’re combining them all, and that’s not to say that it’s always washing over you, every time, no, right? Because it is a habit. I wouldn’t say a technique, it’s a habitus; it’s a chosen pattern. But, there is that kind of synthesis, as well, just beyond the words themselves.
Angela: Yeah, I think that’s what I’m kind of hearing from you guys, and again what I wish I was writing down was part of that crossover is the unpacking of something, that, you know, people can write a commentary about liturgy, and then the rest of us, people more like me, just show up when we show up and participate. And we are a part of it.
One of the things I loved, and I honestly cannot remember who wrote it down where I read it, it was probably Father Alexander Schmemann, who talked about liturgy being a place where—oh, it might have been in Metropolitan—we’re standing at the center of time, when we’re in liturgy. So we’re in the middle of the past, and the present, and the future. And I think there is some good crossover points there with poetry as well. So we can read a poem from the seventeenth century, and be able to reach back into it, and reach forward, and then stand here at the center. So do you guys have any...I have one example. I have an example. I told them they could read poetry [sigh].
Scott: And we’re gonna, so. Be warned.
Angela: But I want to start it with a poem by Malcolm Guite. He is not an Orthodox Christian, but he’s pretty close.
Scott: Like Scotch.
Angela: [00:29:26] He’s pretty close. Scott’ll get him one day. But this is called “The Annunciation,” and I think that it kind of strikes at this idea of the past, and the present, and the future, and just sort of standing in that middle place, and paying attention. [reading]
“We see so little, stayed on surfaces. / We calculate the outsides of all things, / Preoccupied with our own purposes / We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings, / They coruscate around us in their joy / A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled, / They guard the good we purpose to destroy, / A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world. / But on this day a young girl stopped to see / With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice; / The promise of His glory yet to be, / As time stood still for her to make a choice; / Gabrielle knelt and not a feather stirred, / The Word himself was waiting on her word.” [pause]
I know, right? This is Sounding the Seasons. Dude, pick it up. So good. It’s especially nice to read through the liturgical year, if that’s your bag. So you guys had some stuff, Scott.
Scott: One thing that poem, as well as, what you were saying a minute ago, Gaelan, reminded me, that another aspect, another corollary, it seems, of say liturgical practice, worship, and the practice of poetry or the study of poetry, is—the word inexhaustibility comes to mind, because, it’s true, for the most part, we’re saying the same words in worship every time we have the divine liturgy. It’s also true that there’s always something new to glimpse, or to hear, or to notice, in that repetition over the years. I feel the same way about a great poem. I don’t know that you can exhaust a poem like “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens, a great Orthodox poet [laughter]. But it’s one of the other things that I think serves those of who want to know why poetry is important, and also why liturgical worship is maybe important, is that the familiarity of the words themselves is a starting point. It’s in knowing what to say. And knowing, you know, if you’re reciting a poem or if you’re praying the liturgy with the rest of the people in the parish, what you experience is that suddenly a word you’ve said a thousand times before has a resonance to it you hadn’t noticed, and the word is opened. And we get that taste of the inexhaustible.
This is why the denotative practice is never satisfying. And a denotative, I suppose, a systematic theology even, is somewhat less than satisfying, because the language of those practices strike me as wanting to pin it down, when in fact our hearts want us to open up and to experience the inexhaustible, which we know to be the truth. The One in whom we live and move is not pin down-able. So poetry, liturgy—these are ways to get a provisional taste of how expansive the meaning of his presence can be.
Gaelan: And in that openness there is nonetheless a sort of stability. The church fathers talk about Scripture growing with the reader, right? every time you return to it, every time you return to a biblical passage, if a day has passed or ten years has passed, it does different work on you, and I think that’s kind of how liturgy works. Not only because it’s so saturated with biblical language and actual biblical passages, but because we change. We are becoming, and God is dynamic but there is a stability there. A metaphor for that is in that experience of returning to it, and having it be inexhaustible and fill us up again.
Cameron: It’s probably worth pointing out that, if it isn’t apparent already, that liturgy does not exist as an end in itself. I think that sometimes when I hear people talking about liturgy and they’re getting excited about it, the focus becomes on the actual work of the liturgy instead of the thing that it’s meant to do, which is to, we’ve already said it, to bring us to a point of attention and wakefulness, but into communion with God. It’s the liturgy as a path. It’s not something we just prize for the sake of itself.
Gaelan: [00:35:32] And it’s not, right, it’s not technique, if we define technique as the automatic facilitation of a response from God. I mean, He’s always there. It’s kind of the tenderizing of us to be open to that. We’re not, kind of, conjuring, so that God kind of has to be there now, or something.
The word “inspiration” gets to that, right? Inspiration is not impersonal, inspiration is breath. One of the definitions an Italian-Canadian poet, Pier Di Cicco, he says that poetry is not only the skill of not resisting God, but the inhale of God with his breath returning back out of us to him. So there’s this balance of agency, and, I don’t want to say passivity, right, because that’s a little … not so great. But the word there is the same word: passio, “compassion,” “to feel,” “to suffer,” literally, “to be a patient.” To have something happen to us, as well. And when we’re inspired, it’s as if it comes from elsewhere, so I think that’s harmonizing with what you’re saying.
I wonder if I could just read a little poem real quick. It’s also on the annunciation. It’s called “A New and Familiar Place.” [reading] “Deep in every human ear is lodged a holy name. When it is spoken, we hear the gravel, the bells, the creaking stairs, and the rain. A green sprout grows like a tear from Jesse’s dry stump. Dreaming of white ice in the womb of the lake, Mary hears, feels within a rushing, thawing breath: the antithesis of death. Then, months later, a bump. In the amniotic night before voice, the fetal forerunner jumps."
Angela: Well, you know, actually, it was just the Feast of the Annunciation for us. In the west as well, we were actually just a couple of days off this time. Five weeks apart on Easter, but annunciation goes right together.
Scott: Can I read my annunciation?
Angela: Please do.
Scott: Annunciation. [long pause] [audience laughter] “Deep within the clay, and all my people, very deep within the holy Earth and compound of our kind, arrives one clear star illumined evening. A spark igniting, once again, the tender of our lately bank noetic fire. She burns, but she is not consumed, the dew lights, gently suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down, and do you feel the pulse? We all become the kindled kindred of a king whose birth thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.” I just noticed a typo. [audience laughter]
Angela: Well, I think we found our purpose for being here.
Scott: [overlapping] Many benefits to rereading one’s work. Sorry.
Angela: [to Lawrence] Do you have an annunciation poem?
Cameron: I don’t, but I can read from Saint Nikolai.
Angela: Please do, and, actually, can you say a few words about Saint Nikolai, as well?
Cameron: Can you say a few words about Saint Nikolai?
Angela: I cannot. Just tell us who he is.
Cameron: [00:39:37] Yeah, Saint Nikolai Velimirovich—for those of you who actually know how to pronounce Russian names, forgive me—he was actually a Serbian saint, or Serbian bishop, who became a saint, and he has this book called Prayers by the Lake, and, I only recently discovered it, but one of things that just fascinates me about this book is the immense poetic power that Saint Nikolai has, and I can’t help but think that as a man who was steeped in the language of the liturgy and the liturgies, and the prayers of the church, that all that fed into his work as a poet. I’ll just read just the first one, here, because it was enough to blow my hair back. It’s a little bit longer, but, hopefully you’ll find it worth it. [reading]
“Who is that staring at me through all the stars in heaven and all the creatures on earth? Cover your eyes, stars and creatures; do not look upon my nakedness. Shame torments me enough through my own eyes. What is there for you to see? A tree of life that has been reduced to a thorn on the road, that pricks both itself and others. What else—except a heavenly flame immersed in mud, a flame that neither gives light nor goes out? Plowmen, it is not your plowing that matters but the Lord who watches. Singers, it is not your singing that matters but the Lord who listens. Sleepers, it is not your sleeping that matters but the Lord who wakens. It is not the pools of water in the rocks around the lake that matter but the lake itself. What is all human time but a wave that moistens the burning sand on the shore, and then regrets that it left the lake, because it has dried up. O stars and creatures, do not look at me with your eyes but at the Lord. He alone sees. Look at him and you will see yourselves in your homeland. What do you see when you look at me? A picture of your exile? A mirror of your fleeting transitoriness? Oh Lord, my beautiful veil embroidered with golden seraphim, drape over my face like a veil, over the face of a widow, and collect my tears in which the sorrow of all your creatures seethes. Oh Lord, my beauty, come and visit me, lest I be ashamed of my nakedness. Lest the many thirsty glances that are following upon me return home thirsty, upon me return home thirsty.”
Angela: My stars and creatures... [pause] I want to leave a good portion of time for questions, because I think, what I’m hoping we’ve done is open some avenues of discussion. Maybe, I hope you’ve heard some things that you, perhaps, had not heard before, and that maybe it stirred some stuff up in you. So that being said, I’ll go ahead and take some questions.
Lisa: [00:43:40] Lisa here. I’m popping in to reiterate the questions that were asked during the Q&A portion of the session. You can’t hear them very well on the recording, so I’m just going to repeat them. Question one: I read somewhere that the central purpose of hymn writing is to praise God. Could the same be said about writing poetry?
Scott: I think that’s what poetry does. It attends. It gives an uncommon degree of attention to the beauty of the creation, including the beauty of the human’s soul, the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of relationships. This lushness into which we’ve fallen is yet to be recovered. And I think in some ways attending to it with affection is, in speaking to the potential beauty of this creation and of its recovery, is in a way to praise the Creator, as well, by trust. That’s as good as I could get.
Gaelan: Yeah, maybe the fun of it is trying to do that, possibly, without using the word “God.” Maybe. [laughing] Or something, right? Theology has to use that word, being fully cognizant that there is no way of actually defining it satisfactory once and for all. So poetry can use that, obviously, but maybe part of the fun is that it speaks of everything that’s visible as a way of doing that. Again, the same poet, Pier Di Cicco, said that poetry is the act of immanence shouting, or I would say sometimes whispering, the infinite. So it’s the finite trying to gesture towards the inexhaustible. Something like this.
Cameron: [00:45:23] I don’t know if I have anything to add to that, but, I’m holding the mic just in case. [laughs]
Angela: Maybe the mic will—
Cameron: Maybe it has magic powers. I have lots of thoughts that these guys are stirring up, and, it’s sort of hard to bring them down into the microphone and give them to you in a clear way, but I can try.
I think that one of the thoughts that was shook loose by what these guys are saying is that poetry, at least for the poet, and maybe for some readers, is not just something we do but it’s maybe more of a way of life. I think to be a poet is to at least try, as much as possible, to stay awake to the world, and to yourself, and to God. And of course, you know, you think about Gerard Manley Hopkins saying that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. A lot of ways, a lot of times in our lives that grandeur is hidden from us, I think; not because God is absent but because we are asleep. You could talk about poetry and liturgy in an age of distraction, and there are all sorts of things in our lives that lull us to sleep in our souls. Liturgy is one of those things that helps us wake up, and I think poetry helps us wake up.
I don’t know that I would necessarily think about poetry in terms of praising God. I think that does happen, maybe more implicitly? I think about poetry more in terms of communion: this idea of a sacramental life that is lived not just in the institutional sacraments of the church, but in the sacrament of all of creation, that God has given us as a means of communing with himself. None of it exists as an end in itself, it’s all lovingly held in existence by him, for him. He is, Jesus Christ is the end, of our existence and our sustenance now. And so, I think about poetry in those terms. It’s bringing me to a place of worship in the same way that liturgy does.
Lisa: [00:47:47] Question two: Going back to the analogy of poetry and liturgy as streets that eventually intersect, is it possible that they are actually the same street? Are they the same thing?
Scott: A really simplistic version of that is … I’ll just speak to a resistance I’ve had over the years, when people have assumed that prayer, say, and poetry, are somehow identical. And I’ve always resisted that notion. Liturgy of course is the prayer of the church. It’s also, to a large degree, the poetry of the church, but, I don’t know that I’m yet comfortable with the notion that poetry per se, and prayer per se, or worship per se, are identical. I think on the one hand, poetry still is an art form. Prayer is also spoken of as an art. I guess the similarity there is that you can do one not so well, or better, or better, or better. You can develop through practice of facility with poetry. You can develop through practice a more efficacious prayer life. That’s what they seem to have in common. What they don’t have in common is that poetry is necessarily a public form. I don’t know that prayer is always a public, shared thing. Though the first part of your question had to do with does liturgy require a community? Frankly, yes. We don’t have a Eucharistic service where the only person there is the priest. There’s always gotta be another body, and ideally more, so it’s a communal practice. But I still am not quite comfortable with the notion that poetry and worship are identical. I don’t think they’re antithetical. I think they can be cooperative.
Lisa: [00:50:18] The third question was more of a comment, and a mic was taken into the audience so everyone could hear it.
Audience Member: Well, I was trying to deal with the three, and I agree that they are different because we have three different words to get at three different kinds of things. I was asking them whether or not what they share in common is the fact that they come out of a kind of deeper shared matrix. There is a deeper mosaic that supports the three of them.
Angela: Yeah, I think that kind of hits it.
Scott: I’d say, yeah. That’s gotta be it.
Gaelan: And what does matrix mean, right? Do we know?
Scott: [overlapping] Source, an originating source.
Gaelan: Yeah, womb, right?
Scott: Yeah, matrix, ’cause it is a mother.
Gaelan: This is a name that traditionally has been given to the church but I think you’re meaning it in kind of a different way, as well.
Scott: There’s that great Virginia Woolf book, A Womb of One’s Own.
Gaelan: And I’ll say real quick, too, that the author of the liturgy in the Orthodox tradition, St. John Chrysostom, has a very powerful homily that he gave, where he basically said: do not think you can remain in this building participating in this liturgy and not walk out the door—not have to walk out the door—and attend to the liturgy of the neighbor. They are inseparable, so there’s a togetherness in that sense.
Angela: So I want to get to the, way in the back here. You’ve had your hand up a long time.
Lisa: The fourth and final question was this: How do you see poetry and liturgy opening up space for lament?
Scott: Yeah. It’s certainly necessary that the church provide a space for our own recovery. And part of our recovery of course is awareness of our own complicity in the brokenness around us, and to limit that, to be sorry for that, to repent of that. The church certainly must provide a space for that. And out of that lamentation—have you ever been to a Friday service for Holy Week in the Eastern Church? That’s the lamentation service, and there are three pretty ancient hymns, with many verses each, that we sing. And they start out heartbreaking. And then there’s more heartbreak. And then something about the melody modifies, and even though those words are still words of lamentation, there’s like this shadow of joy about how, it’s a melodic effect but it’s also … the words start to take on not just a quality of loss but a quality of recovery. So I don’t know if you know those hymns, but that’s a big night, ’cause we’ve walked through all of Holy Week, and the Thursday service of course is reading all the crucifixion story, stopping just shy of the resurrection, and then the lamentations. And then late Saturday night we get our anastasis, resurrection. But I do think that you’re absolutely right, that church must provide an occasion for that confession, that acceptance of our complicity in the brokenness and then a place for hope, a scene from which we hope.
Cameron: [00:54:57] I just want to add to what Scott said, that the Orthodox church is impressively holistic in its treatment of things like lamentation and joy throughout the liturgical year, and all the seasons. The one little thought I wanted to add, is just that the liturgies, the prayers, all of these things, they actually give us a language for lamentation. That’s one of the things that was different for me coming into orthodoxy out of evangelicalism was these words that have been handed down through the centuries, as we come together to worship but also in our prayer books, and how, as you give yourself over to these words, they become your own words. So I think that’s pretty interesting thing to consider, too, that we don’t have to come up with our words for lamentation, perhaps, or joy, they’re there for us but they can become our own, and they’re imbued with our own experiences and meanings.
Angela: I want to say, too, that, one of the things that is striking to me, I came out of a Catholic background, so one of the things I really missed becoming Orthodox was Ash Wednesday. We don’t really do that. So I emailed Scott one time, because every time I was, I don’t know, conflicted, I emailed him, and asked him what he thought. He said, well, we don’t have Ash Wednesday, but we do have Clean Monday … which was pretty great, you know? This idea that we start into Lent, not just like “okay things are awful and this is bad,” in the Orthodox church we don’t withhold our alleluias during Lent. And that’s really striking to me, because we’re actually looking, at the same time that we’re grabbing onto this lament and this grief that we know is coming, we’re also still clinging to the alleluia. We don’t deprive ourselves of that. It’s something that’s always been a very striking piece to me, that we are always—I think as Cameron said—we are always balancing all of these things. We probably have room for one more question.
Scott: Okay, because I don’t need a question, I was just going to give you another answer. [audience laughter] I just wanted to say that the Clean Monday falls right after Forgiveness Sunday, so what sets up Clean Monday is that everyone in every parish has said to everyone in every parish “forgive me,” and has been forgiven. It’s in that condition of having asked for forgiveness and having received forgiveness.
Angela: It’s a profoundly joyful service. I mean, at the end of it, we’re...
Scott: [overlapping] There was weeping, but it’s a good weeping.
Angela: I think we do actually have to end. This guy’s doing this [hand gesture], so we do actually have to come to an end. I am so glad to have seen so many people here, so many awesome questions. We really, truly appreciate your being here today, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.
Lisa: [00:58:09] Special thanks to Scott Cairns, Gaelan Gilbert and Cameron Alexander. Links to their most recent projects can be found in the description of this episode. Thanks also to Angela Doll Carlson. You can follow her work on Facebook at “Garden in the East.”
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Reinstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.