Monday, March 31, 2014

The Poetry of the Accidental Inkling

T.S. Eliot called him England’s greatest living poet, and described his novels as “supernatural thrillers.” He was responsible for the first major translation of the writings of Soren Kierkegaard into English. He wrote plays, criticism, and essays. And he was a major influence on at least one of C.S. Lewis’s novels.

Charles Williams (1888-1945) is mostly remembered today as an “accidental” Inkling, the group of Oxford dons who met at the Eagle and Child Pub and included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He was something of a wartime refugee – an editor of Oxford University Press in London, he moved (with the publisher) to Oxford during the blitz of World War II. He met Lewis, and Lewis drew him into the Inklings. (Lewis was a fan; Tolkien wasn’t, at least according to one source).

I first encountered his writings in the early 1980s. Eerdman’s published new editions of seven of his novels – Descent into Hell, The Place of the Lion, Shadows of Ecstasy, Many Dimensions, The Greater Trumps, War in Heaven and All Hallow’s Eve. They are clearly Christian fiction – but almost unrecognizable from what we know as Christian fiction today. The seven are complex works; they must be read slowly to grasp what is happening in the stories. Eliot’s “supernatural thrillers” gets at some of what they’re about; “supernatural thriller, mystery, theology philosophy, cultural commentary” may be a bit closer but still doesn’t adequately describe this extraordinary books.

Williams also wrote poetry, and three of his collections were republished in 2007 by the Apocryphile Press as part of their Inkling Heritage Series: The Silver Stair (1912), Poems of Conformity (1917), and Windows of Night (1925). The works are largely formal, rather classical poetry, with recognizable forms, rhyming schemes, and meter.

The Silver Stair includes a significant number of love poems, love toward women as well as the Virgin Mary. Poems of Conformity is a collection of theological poems, but that’s a generalization; there are other subjects and themes, too. Windows of Night is a more general collection, and includes a number of beautiful sonnets.

There is whimsy here as well, and fun, humor and laughter. One free verse poem in Windows of Night is a particular favorite:

On Meeting Shakespeare

I saw Shakespeare
In a Tube station on the Central London:
He was smoking a pipe,
He had Sax Rohmer’s best novel under his arm
(In a cheap edition),
And the Evening News.
He was reading in the half-detached way one does.
He had just come in from an office
And the notes for The Merchant
Were in his pocket,
Beginning (it was the first line he thought of)
‘Stil quiring to the young-eyed cherubins,’

But his chief wish was to be earning more money.

(Sax Rohmer is largely forgotten today, but he was the author of the Fu Manchu stories extraordinarily popular in the 1920s.) 

Not all of the poems in these volumes are as accessible as “On Meeting Shakespeare;” many anticipate the complexity of his novels written in the 1930s and 1940s. But together they are a piece of literary significance. Not every writer can claim to have influenced both T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

Related: Yes, there is a Charles Williams Society, based (where else?) in the United Kingdom.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I hear bells ringing

I hear bells ringing, calling,
announcing the hour to come
together, to congregate, even
though digital clocks and
mobile phones set their own hour,
their own time so well that
the bells no longer need
to be rung, but they are rung
anyway, calling those
who can hear them.
Digital clocks can be buttoned
for snoozing; mobile phones
can be turned off,  left to charge
overnight and not turned on.
Bells cannot be denied.

Photograph by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Visiting Art Galleries in New Orleans

We spent the last week in New Orleans, there for my mother’s memorial service, family things, remembering, visiting, trying to absorb the facts that my mother is gone, the house I grew up in (essentially) sold, and the New Orleans family that was large and boisterous when I was growing up seems smaller, quieter and definitely scattered.

We did some wandering, too, to the old neighborhoods, the Lower Ninth Ward where my mother and her siblings grew up, the suburb I grew up in, the business district where my father had his business for so many years, and the French Quarter. We spent a few hours wandering through art galleries on Royal and Bienville streets.

Maison Royale, just across Royal Street from the Royal Orleans Hotel, was actually a combined jewelry store and art gallery. We wandered in, and quickly discovered that we could quite likely not afford even the cheapest item in the store. The clue for me was the first painting I saw, one by Maurice Utrillo from his “white period.” It was not a print or a copy. Next to it was a small painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. In the next room was a painting by Camille Pissarro. The Pissarro was listed for $2.7 million.

Not all of the galleries are in that bracket. We walked into the Vincent Mann Gallery on Royal Street and happened upon a story very close to my mother’s life.

The gallery has been operating since 1972 and specializes in French Neo- and Post-Impressionism. It’s owned by Jacob Vincent Manguno (the g is pronounced like a j), who for commercial reasons shortened his gallery’s name to Vincent Mann. He was born in 1925 in the Ninth Ward, lived on Caffin Avenue (where my mother’s church was), had boarded for a year at Holy Cross High School (a block from my mother’s house), lied about his age to join the military in World War II, and was a member of the Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force).

We learned all of this because we were taken with one of his own paintings, entitled “Duet” (pictured above), and discovered that the elderly man sitting at a desk and working on a computer was none other than the artist and gallery owner.

He was a delight to talk with.

He didn’t know my mother or her immediate family, but he was familiar with the family names of some of my aunts’ husbands. He told us stories about some of his adventures, about walking the Ninth Ward, living on Caffin Avenue, how so many German families lived in the area (my mother’s family was French on her father’s side and German on her mother’s).

After several emotional days with my mother’s service and burial, this was like opening a door on the New Orleans of her youth.

Painting: Duet by Jacob Vincent Manguno, casein on canvas, 2013. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Old Hammond Highway

The interstate, elevated through swamp
for 23 miles, parallels its predecessor,
the Old Hammond Highway, finessing
the way between lakes and swamp,
fishing camps and gas flaring. We drive
across the flatness above the water, the sky
overwhelming like an old Dutch landscape.
Then I see the old car, a light blue
’54 Chevrolet, white-topped, speeding
along the old highway below, and the boy,
perhaps five or six, coat and bow tie,
the boy, buzz-topped, peering
from the back-seat window, until he looks up
and sees me. He waves, and keeps waving,
until the Chevrolet disappears behind trees,
I see him only once more, as the car rises above
the road onto the bridge over the channel, then
descending once again into the trees. I still see
the waving hand, the smile, the buzz-topped
blond hair, the window slightly lowered,
allowing the air past and present to cool
the interior.

Photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Kindness of the Trees in the Garden

This is an updated and revised version of the article that originally was published at The Master’s Artist.

We don’t read or teach much about poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) today, but he ranks with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville for the poets who contributed significantly to the making of 19th century American poetry. A native of Georgia, he fought for the South in the Civil War, and landed in a Union prison camp as a result – where he contracted the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him.

He’s known for a number of poems, including “The Symphony,” in which he wrote a part for each instrument. He loved music; it had been a major part of his childhood and music was a major influence on his poems. The year before he died, he published a study entitled The Science of English Verse, which “explored the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.”

In his last days, he was a lecturer and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught the English novelists, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan sonnets, Chaucer, and the Anglo-Saxon poets. A series of lectures entitled The English Novel was published posthumously. He died at age 39, and was buried in Baltimore.

This poem, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” was published after his death. It is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone, about to be betrayed, about to be forsaken. It seems especially appropriate for the Lenten season and the upcoming Holy Week.

A Ballad of Trees and the Master

Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him:
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him
When into the woods He came.

Out of the woods my Master went,
And He was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When Death and Shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last:
'Twas on a tree they slew Him -- last
When out of the woods He came.

The Poetry Foundation has a critical essay about Lanier, and Poetry Reincarnations has published ananimated version of this poem.

Photograph: Scene from the movie “The Passion.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

So What Was the Thorn?

It’s one of the mysteries of the Bible, attended by considerable speculation over the centuries. What was the “thorn” that plagued the Apostle Paul?

Paul mentions the thorn in 2 Corinthians 12, saying “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” He says he pleased with the Lord three times for the thorn to be removed, and three times his prayer was denied with these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

It doesn’t appear to be a literal thorn that Paul was talking about. Some believe it was a human being, a persecutor who followed Paul around various cities (there were certainly no shortage of people willing to do that, including the group in Judea who vowed not to rest until they killed him). I tend to sympathize with this theory, having had what I consider more than a fair share of people over the years who stabbed, obstructed, plotted and undercut in the various jobs I’ve held.

Others believe it was some physical ailment like cataracts. Having endured a ruptured disk, I have sympathy for this argument, too. Physical ailments can be debilitating without impairing one’s mental faculties.

Bob Sorge in The Fire of Delayed Answers leans toward the physical ailment theory, but gets to the heart of what the thorn is really about: strength perfected in weakness. “God taught Paul that when he was weak and feeling inadequate for the challenges of the ministry,” Sorge writes, “God’s strength was able to be manifest through him.”

There’s considerable sense in what Sorge says. When we feel on top of the world, our spiritual effectiveness can be diminished, because we think we can do it all. When we are weak, we recognize our dependence, and God can make use of that dependence.

It’s a lesson learned through experience. And often relearned through more experience. And I can say that from experience(s).

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “Confidence in His Ways,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Petr Kratichvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Poet and Poems: Brian Gardner’s “Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914-1918”

The Great War, the “War to End All Wars,” started 100 years ago this coming August. For many of the English-speaking generations since then, few things have shaped our of World War I than a group of British writers collectively known as “The War Poets.”

The more familiar members of this group, many of whom died in battle or from disease, were potes like Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Own, and perhaps Isaac Rosenberg, who were most typically represented in our high school and college textbooks. They fought and died on the Western front, mostly in Flanders and northeastern France.

But there were other fronts – Turkey, Iraq, German East Africa – and other poets, some o whose names are still quite well known: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, e.e. cummings, Herbert asquith (son of the prime minister), Thomas Hardy, Seigfried Sassoon, Robert Service, A.P. Herbert, A.E. Housman, William Butler Yeats, and even A.A. Milne.

Fifty years ago, author Brian Gardner assembled an edition of poems by the War Poets to commemorate the Great War (overshadowed as it had been by World War II). Entitled Up the Line of Death: The War Poets 1914-1918, it included poems by 72 poets, 21 of whom had died in the war.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Illustration: British World War I recruiting poster.

Monday, March 24, 2014

L.L. Barkat’s “Love Etc.: Poems”

We traveled south, recently, toward a funeral in New Orleans. We could see the trees and bushes along the highway changing: still stark, bare and gray in Missouri; the beginnings of greenery in Arkansas; the green growing gradually upward in Mississippi; and finally the complete greenery that is southern Louisiana most of the year.

Traveling toward a funeral, and family, and childhood and growing up, and finally leaving, it was a journey combining all of the elements of the subtitle of L.L.Barkat’s new collection of poems – Love Etc.: Poems of Love, Laughter, Longing and Loss.

I even found a poem that almost exactly described our journey south:

Winter Road Trip

The road is long as I travel south
and the sun is low in the white sky.
Last night I woke to a great silence,
in a house that is anything but silent
by day. Old pines keep watch
over that dwelling, and the moon
keeps watch, and I wish
for this kind of watching,
but my bedroom in the town where I live
looks out over streetlights and the sounds
of cars and sirens. In my room,
the roads seem short, and I wonder
if tonight I will dream of the long road
home, and how the sun bathed the trees
in gold, and how the sumacs leaned with flowers
the color of some wine whose name
I can’t remember, near the trees whose names
I’ve never known, now strung with long red necklaces.

I read these beautiful poems, and I’m struck with how closely connected love, laughter, longing and loss truly are. Even love and loss, and not in an obvious way like love lost, but in a less obvious but perhaps more accurate way – one experiences love and all of what has come before becomes a kind of loss, never to be found or rediscovered in precisely the same way, because love changes everything.

Barkat takes us on a journey with these poems, and not only a winter road trip south. She takes us to the edge of illness, to the borders of erotic love, to the defined realities of sight, sound and smell and the loves that stands before the stove in the kitchen, cooking soup. The poems are not only about relationships between people, and lovers, but more than that, and there is something more than that, the love that longs, that laughs, the love that sacrifices, and even the love that becomes represented by loss.

And beyond the journey, Love Etc. contains poems for the standing still, those moments that are eternity. This poem, “Ours,” is the poem our mothers repeat to themselves, including the mother whose funeral I’m attending:

We call them to the world
before we even know their names,
before we understand
what it will mean
to lean beside their beds
on breath-thin nights.

They teach us
how to hold their hands,
shut the lights,
pray for dawn.

I have been leaned over on those breath-thin nights, and I’ve been taught by my own children how to hold their hands.

Love Etc. reminds us what eternity is, and what part of it is contained within ourselves.

Photograph by Sabine Sauermaul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The tree

It stands simultaneously vertically
and horizontally, a stylized tree
honed and planed of its roughness.
Vertical to worship,
horizontal to serve,
it continues to stand
until it is finished.

Photograph by Weyenbergh Jacky via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday Good Reads: Way Back Home

It's four years old. More than 30 million people have seen it.

It's still extraordinary. And beautiful.

Hat tip to our friend Thais Duhon for sending the link.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Noah Charney’s “Stealing the Mystic Lamb”

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the movie The Monuments Men, about the U.S. military team assigned to protect art and monuments as the Allied forces invaded France on D-Day and rolled (and inched) toward Germany. I’m not usually a fan of World War II movies, but this one had George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh “Downton Abbey” Bonneville and a number of other stars, and so we went.

Based on a true story, it was the Monuments Men who stumbled upon the Nazis’ vast looting of art from across Europe. The looting came from museums of conquered nations, churches, Jewish families like the Rothschilds, and even German citizens, forced to surrender valuable works to Hitler’s plan for an ubermuseum in Austria (and Hermann Goering’s personal collection).

The extent of the looting was enormous. Some of it was deliberately destroyed. Some was never found. But much was recovered, and it is largely due to the work the Monuments Men, art museum clerks like the Frenchwoman Rose Volland (played by Cate Blanchett in the movie), and even a group of salt miners in Austria (who didn’t get any billing in the movie, although their salt mine did).

As the movie ended, I realized I had a book at home that was partially about this story, sitting on a bookshelf waiting to be read. The book was Noah Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb. When we got home, I went straight to the book and started reading.

The book is even more enthralling than the movie.

“The Mystic Lamb” is the title given to a work of 12 panels by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, completed in 1432 for what came to be called Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. It is an extraordinary work, one of the first oil paintings, and it evoked as much awe and wonder in 1432 as it does today.

It also evoked the desire to possess it. As Charney describes in the book, “The Mystic Lamb” has been associated with some 13 crimes, a “kidnapping” and ransom demand, several outright thefts, and an attack during the Protestant-Catholic religious wars following the Reformation (a Calvinist mob came very close to destroying the work). Over the centuries, the painting has assumed an important place in the region’s history and culture, and is considered (by Belgians) to be their country’s “national painting.”

Charney details the story of the artwork, beginning with its creation, who Jan van Eyck was, the possible involvement in the artwork by his brother Humberto, the benefactors who commissioned it, and why it inspired and thrilled from the very beginning. He then goes on to make a convincing case why this work is the most coveted artwork of all time. Given how many tiems it was stolen, partially stolen, hidden so it wouldn’t be stolen, and transported to keep it out of the clutches of thieves like Hitler, it’s amazing that the panels have survived. But survive they did.

Most of Stealing the Mystic Lamb is devoted to the three most spectacular thefts involving the panels collectively and individually – Napoleon (France’s Revolutionary Army and its successor the Army of the Empire anticipated and perhaps provided the model for the Nazis); the 1934 “kidnapping” of one of the work’s panels (a crime never officially solved); and the Nazis. Charney puts each of the thefts and criminal activities surrounding the painting in their historical context, so that the reader gets a solid overview of what was happening in Europe.

In the case of the Nazis, Hitler wanted to build the world’s greatest art museum in Linz, Austria, his hometown. This involved not only selling off art works deemed decadent but also identifying and purloining the works worthy enough for the museum, mostly art by northern European artists (Nazi ideology and propaganda fully embraced the role of art).

The extent of the Nazi looting boggles the mind. Some 1500 caches of art, each with thousands of paintings, sculptures, rare books, jewels and other valuables, were found in salt mines, castles and often unexpected locations. (Much of what was in the Uffizi Museum in Florence was found in a small jail in northern Italy, left behind by the German troops that had stolen it.)

“The Mystic Lamb,” sent ahead of the German invasion to the Vatican for safekeeping, was sidetracked to France when Italy joined the war. There it was found by the Nazis, and then it disappeared. It was one of the works found in the Alt Ausee sale mine in Austria, but not before it came very close to being destroyed as a final act of Nazi outrage.

Charney does an excellent job of telling the story of this artwork. Stealing the Mystic Lamb is a riveting story, exhaustively researched, carefully crafted and utterly fascinating.

Painting: Top, the paneled artwork by Jan van Eyck in Saint Bavo Cathedral. Bottom, the central panel depicting the Adoration of the Lamb.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

“On Reading God as a Poem”

This article was originally published at The Master’s Artist

That’s the title of a poem by Luci Shaw, included in her collection Harvesting Fog: Poems. It’s an arresting title, perhaps a trifle presumptuous, as if God could be read as anything. And then you read her poem, and you understand.

She’s not saying God is a poem, or even that he can be read as a poem. Instead, she is talking about where a poem comes from and the creative imagination. God, in fact, is mentioned only in the title, and yet he permeates the poem.

I came to poetry rather late. I did the perfunctory studies in high school, and was interested enough to take two semesters of English literature in college with the English lit majors while the rest of the sophomore class took American literature. Most people wrote term papers on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Faulkner’s “The Barn Burning.” I wrote papers on Beowulf, Piers Plowman, John Donne, Milton, Keats and Coleridge. But I was a journalism major, and had to leave English literature and poetry behind for a time.

A decade later, working as a corporate speechwriter, I started reading poetry again. And for the next 25 years, I read poetry, not as a steady diet but enough to grasp rhythm, flow, meter, rhyme (and” un-rhyme”) and enough to know who was a “name” and who wasn’t. Poetry’s expression of ideas in pacing and word choice helped me write better speeches. Poetry comes from the oral tradition. The same or nearly the same tradition that gives us great speeches and orations (blame Homer and the Greeks).

Five years ago, I started writing poetry. And I quickly learned three things.

First, writing a poem is hard. It takes a lot of focused, concentrated work like any act of artistic creation.

Second, it’s personal. Rightly or wrongly (and people actually argue about this), poetry evokes a feeling of vulnerability more than other kinds of writing. I still feel naked when I post a poem on my blog.

And third, writing poetry has helped me understand the word of God in a different way. It’s not only because more than a third of the Bible is written in poetic form. It’s also because Scripture can be both plain and complicated, with an obvious meaning and then deeper shades of meaning. And you can read a verse a thousand times, and suddenly something strikes that you never saw before.

A poem is a lot like that. Meaning can be both simple and layered, obvious and obscure.  Here’s Luci Shaw’s poem:

On Reading God as a Poem

The trail of connection is frail. I listen
for the oblique to become transparent,

straining to discern messages in
the deep silences between the calls of

a hoot owl on a  moonless night.
Unfocused images try to crowd between

the words on some hidden script,
leaving me guessing. Conversation, the to

and fro of language, can never be a monolog.
But maybe I’m deaf. Maybe I should

partner mystery with my own silence, Or
Is this a new language to be learned?

Struggling for meaning is like angling my view
to catch the glisten from a lump of coal

ready for burning, wondering about origins,
about carbon – its formation, its capacity

for warming a room, the life implicit in
some Mesozoic tree.

Each of us has encountered a time when a verse – or something we’re struggling with in our lives – is so beyond understanding that we listen intently for “the oblique to become transparent.” We strain to discern meaning – what is God saying here? – in those “deep silences.” All kinds of “unfocused images” come to our minds, and we’re left guessing (What is your will here? What would you have me do?).

Or perhaps we’re deaf to what’s really being said, as we find ourselves “struggling for meaning.” And often we have to go back to first things (I reread the Gospel of St. John) – that lump of coal/carbon that’s the basis of life, to understand the meaning that likely was there (“implicit in some Mesozoic tree”) from the beginning. And perhaps I’m the lump of coal, glistening in my dark ignorance but knowing that a lump of coal might one day glisten as a diamond.

That’s reading God as a poem.

Photograph by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Where do you place your confidence?

It’s a conversation at work, one of those idle ones that people have while they sit in a conference room. You’re waiting for a meeting to begin, or waiting on the person who called the meeting to show up and get this thing over with.

After the usual banter about the rudeness of people who call meetings, the conversation eventually turns to the idea of confidence.

“I really don’t feel confident in this plan,” one says. “I know we’ve been talking about it for weeks, but it’s just not well thought through.”

“Is it the plan,” another asks, “or is it that you don’t have confidence in our ability to implement it successfully?”

“Some of both, I think,” the first person says. “we’ don’t really have all of the experience we need, and we’re struggling how to figure out what success looks like.”

The conversation goes on (the meeting organizer is really late). I think about the things that we base our confidence on, or what we place our confidence in.




The right resources.

Professional training and education.

Outside consultants.


Senior or top management.

These are all work-related things, but they apply to just about any kind of human situation. Participating in a church activity. Raising children. Going to college. Booking an airline flight. Farming. Running your own business. Teaching a class.

This is a very human thing to do, to place our confidence in what generally seems to work in our specific culture.

But there’s another kind of confidence, and that is confidence in God. And it’s radically different form the human and cultural things we often place our confidence in.

As Bob Sorge says in The Fire of Delayed Answers, “Confidence happens when we come to understand God and his ways. When we really get to know God, confidence is automatic. If we truly come to know Him, we’ll be confident that He will be true to His person.”

I look at some of the key moments in my life, and ask the question, did I place my confidence in God?

In some cases, the answer is yes. In other situations (too many), the answer is no. I have too much a tendency to rely on myself and what I know. Sometimes it works out okay. Other times, it doesn’t.

I’m in one of those situations right now. Everything in my experience is screaming at me, “Do this! You know it will work! It will work this time! It has to! Go talk to him, or talk to her. They’ll know. They can help.”

Yet there is this small voice struggling to be heard amid the shouting. 

“Wait. Just wait. Put your confidence in what you know is rock solid.”

And it’s not my experience, my skills, my training, my intelligence, other people, or sufficient resources.

This time, I think I’ll wait.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “Confidence in His Ways,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.