By Doug Jackson
Being asked to name my four favorite poets is like being asked to name my favorite member of the Trinity. One despairs, because the very act of choosing involves heresy; then one rejoices, realizing that one cannot choose One without in fact choosing the essential unity of all and each. So here goes my auto-da-fé before outraged poetry lovers burn me by igniting a pyre of Helen Steiner Rice books piled at my feet.
I stumbled upon Scott Cairns’ poetry on a pod-crawl a couple of years back and didn’t expect to like it. For openers, Cairns is a fundamentalist emigreé to Greek Orthodoxy with all the zeal of a convert. Also, he made comments about the translation of the Greek New Testament that I am convinced arise from the failure to note the distinction between the Patristic dialect of the Church Fathers (whom he has translated extensively) and the Koine of the Scriptures. But mostly, he writes free-verse, of which I’ve never been much of a fan. But then I listened to him read his poems and my biases crumbled. He writes with a sardonic slyness born of the English professor’s age-old struggle between beauty and freshmen. His “Idiot Psalm 3” has, through many a meeting, staved off suicide and promoted humility.
A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously
slow to act, should You incline to fix
Your generous attentions for the moment
to the narrow scene of this our appointed
tedium, should You—once our kindly
secretary has duly noted which of us
is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused,
You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say
about so little. Among these other mediocrities,
Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how
his slow and meager worship might appear
from where You endlessly attend our dreariness.
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off
from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here
amid the motions, the discussions, the several
questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots.
And then, of course, there’s Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst and the Patron Saint of Introverts. I alternately absorb and argue with her, but even when I’m convinced she is wrong, a nagging sense persists that I may be wrong as well, because she says everything with such grace, which is appropriate because her favored common meter also governs John Newton’s immortal “Amazing Grace.” I used to quote one of her pieces to sort out my feelings about certain people who, for no reason even vaguely related to a healthy soul, have creeped me out.
A narrow fellow in the grass
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.
He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon
Have passed, I thought, a whip lash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.
Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
As long as I’m visiting New England, there’s always Robert Frost, the rugged Yankee for whom every poem was about simple farm life and no poem was about simple farm life. His “After Apple Picking” has seen me through many seasons of schedule overload, and his “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has both welcomed and disciplined my dark moments. One of his shorter pieces, “Design,” could serve as the shortest and most eloquent summary ever of the entire plot and heart of Moby Dick.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
And now for Wordsworth, Horace Rumpole’s “Old Sheep of the Lake District.” I’m still sorry that Browning (also one of my biggies) got so upset with him for getting a job, but surely they’re both standing around the Throne in glory and have long since settled that old score. I know his brand of nature-mysticism isn’t quite what I mean by the spiritual discipline of silence and solitude, but, as C. S. Lewis observes, he “made a good end,” so perhaps this was a way-station and he won’t mind me looking down the road a ways. At any rate, he first gave words to a what, upon reading the poem, I discovered was a mute yearning in my Baptist heart for liturgy.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Those are my four, the compass points of the fairy ring which I discovered a few mornings ago in the park around the corner from my house. They, like that magic circle, came to me more as a result of a random ramble than a deliberate pilgrimage, but if I don’t know enough to go in quest of perilous seas forlorn (yes, I snuck in a fifth!), I at least know enough to step into magic when I see it.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.