A Very Poor Effort

What song can I sing?
I have not a word to say;
Full of emptiness,
in wordless prayers I pray
toward formless forms and heatless burnings
toward Flyers In The Heaven without wing
and know – it is not You! You are not these!
O! (Whom shall I address?)
To what bright center shall I press,
and truly say: Ah, it is You! At last?
(When will I be strong enough to grip you fast?)

Should I form pictures in my mind?
And say: this homely glow upon these yellow leaves,
this pale pink fuse of dawn like frosted glass
these vast upswelling sheets, bright on the lake –

all these I have loved in loving You;
yet You are none of these.

Where art Thou, Lord?
A Child I cry –
and teacher to my soul, reply:
closer than I.

***

Jesus. There’s a name in which my mind can rest.
O beautiful and gentle son of Mary,
Your face here framed is long and brown;
You have her eyes.
This beard is full of dignity;
This mouth is firm and wise.
Where did you find your knowledge,
peasant’s son?
Where did you find your meekness,
son of kings?
How did your tired body learn to walk
with such persistent tread
on waves that melt beneath all other feet?
Why are you so beloved, who once was dead?
In desert loneliness you prayed for forty days
(two ages past)
and the world cannot forget you ever since.

Receive me today
O Son of God.
Your mother shall be mine;
I’ll listen at her knee.
I’ll taste your bread and wine.
Oh plant me as a willow tree,
And in your temple make me sprout:
I shall never more go out.

7 thoughts on “A Very Poor Effort

  1. It is very well done. Does the title indicate you have dissatisfactions? I have dissatisfactions and suggestions if you want them. I like it very well and think you ought to give it more effort.

    Besides that, I’m wondering about your Os and Ohs. I had understood that O is the sign of the vocative, so you use it for direct address, and Oh is the exclamation. You have them backwards, mostly, and I’m wondering if I’m wrong and you know something I don’t, or if you’ve made a mistake.

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  2. I think I fixed the O vs. Oh problem.

    Partly I call it poor because nothing could be good enough, on this subject. But I felt it was improved enough upon my previous efforts to post it. Partly, yes, I am dissatisfied. I feel it is not quite as coherent or perceptive as it could be. But I struggle to translate that feeling into anything concrete. So I am certainly interested in your thoughts on this poem.

    I’ve been reading E. B. Browning.

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  3. I don’t think it lacks coherency or perceptiveness, but I may not be the best judge of that. I think it is really good and like most of it, which is what makes the few bits stand out. What I’m noticing are places where the feel rhythm of the line is off or just hard to locate—the whole thing is irregular but still perceptively metrical throughout, and some of the best parts are the irregularities, the longer lines that come, the changes. But some seem to interrupt it.

    And answer myself, adult: —stands out. You have iambic dymeters all around it but then it is thrown off by the extra unstressed syllable of having answer and myself together. Not that you need dymeters there too, but one stumbles on the line.

    Where art thou, Lord?
    A child I cry –
    And answer myself, adult:
    Closer than I.

    Where art thou, Lord?
    A child I cry –
    But answer an adult: (perhaps or make it into four feet and break it into two lines— And child no longer/answers me. Something better than that line, obviously, but that’s the idea)
    Closer than I.

    Above that I’d consider changing – yet you are not these – to – yet you are none of these. Though that is a bit archaic.

    you have her eyes – is a bit silly. I think you’re talking about the painting you’re probably looking at, but it is a bit convenient for it to work out that way. You may remember how in testimonies the Lord had the most salient attribute of being neat. The Lord is not neat, and this strikes me as a bit along those lines, if you know what I mean: on the sentimental end of things.

    In your temple let me sprout – cries out for an unstressed syllable at the beginning. ‘And’ would work, but you might want to think of something better. I would not shy away from having ands beginning three consecutive lines but perhaps you have scruples about that. I think it would work really well, but I’m very fond of those kinds of repetitions.

    Some forsaken cemetery there will be – forsaken is apt in what it adds in meaning but I think it is bad for the meter. Try – Some cemetery there will be, forsaken – or just – Some cemetery there will be.

    I don’t know why you switch from second to third person in this section below, but I wonder why it should not all be in second person:

    O beautiful and holy son of God!
    How mild he bears his godly might;
    How right the things which he sets right
    How holy whom he chooses;
    How free the slave he looses.
    To you, sweet, sweet Christ God, I’ll ever say:

    I like that last line with the repetition. But why do you do that instead of – To you, sweet, Christ God, I will ever say: – shifting the emphasis away from the determination that sets up the last line?

    There is nothing wrong with writing a poem about that resolve, at this point we understand that resolve with better intensity and it seems to me the poem is more about that than anything.

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  4. These were very helpful criticisms. (My mind tends to run in generalities and your ideas are always so specific. Nothing could be better.) I made quite a few changes.

    The final lines…I’m not sure I know what you were suggesting. I think you’re right that the poem is about the resolve but there’s no getting there without the contemplation and adoration that sets it up. And I wanted to recapitulate them both in the last lines, bringing it all together. I tried something a few lines longer, a little more considered and intent there.

    I found compromises on a number of your suggestions because I liked your analysis and I also liked my original impulses. Let me know what you think.

    Later note: I’ve been making some changes of my own and now I am too tired to think any more so I’m leaving it as is. The end is troubling me. Should I cycle back to the mystical beginning or end with the concrete Christ? Should I end in silence after the final confession? Should I have added the final confession at all? This is what I ask myself as I trot off to have my sleep.

    In the morning: OK, I don’t think I’ll make any more big changes until I hear from you.

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  5. I think that if you are becoming as uncertain as you sound, you are listening too much to me and ought to put the thing aside for a while and then come back to it later. It is your poem and you need to have the final hand in it.

    It really is good, in my judgment. I think it is very good now.

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  6. For any who may read this discussion after.

    Feeling a little more confident in my craft these days I have made the following changes.

    Instead of “and answer adult” I put “Teacher to my soul reply.” This is probably the most important change that Joel suggested. I also smoothed out some rhythms.

    The problems in the final lines were too great, I felt, to fix, so I simply erased them and the poem is better for it. Part of honesty as a poet is learning to get rid of lines that you forced yourself to write because you thought you needed to complete some thought. If it doesn’t come forth burning from my heart, it’s not poetry.

    Finally, after some thought I kept the line “you have her eyes.” It would indeed be exactly as Joel suggested, too sentimental, too convenient, too meaningless, if it didn’t refer to the language of iconography. In icons of the Theotokos, she is depicted with wide-open eyes. This is an iconographic symbol of compassion. One doesn’t always see Christ depicted this way. Normally his eyes are different, one staring in all-seeing judgment, the other softened in human understanding. Sometimes you do see a Christ icon with the wider-open eyes. I felt the double meaning here was too good to pass up. For he really did have her eyes: it was from and from her alone he took flesh. There was no father from whom to inherit his eyes and Mary alone gave him all the body he had, in terms of human parentage. To bring it full circle, it is this taking of human nature from Mary that gives him that special quality of human compassion we find so comforting, for it was thus he took on himself all our sickness and grief, thus he was made perfect, as captain of our salvation, through suffering.

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