Good, Holy Friday

Love Nailed to a Shared Cross

If you’re familiar with the writings of C. S. Lewis, you probably know him as a spinner of the wonderful children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Or, you may find yourself basking in the glow of his intellectually profound nonfiction work such as, Mere Christianity, or his autobiographical, Surprised by Joy, or his excellent radio address on The Four Loves.

But there is a treat in store for you if you have missed out on Lewis the poet (Don W. King does an outstanding job of exploring this corner of Lewis’s life in C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse).

One of my favorite Lewis poems captures in just a few verses the essence of Good Friday. I share it with you as a gift and as an invitation to meditate on the depth of God’s love as expressed in the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, on our behalf.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

Love’s as Warm as Tears, by C. S. Lewis

Love’s as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Haystacks afloat,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.

Love’s as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts–Infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.

Love’s as fresh as spring
Love is spring:
Bird-song in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering “Dare! Dare!”
To sap, to blood,
Telling “Ease, safety, rest
Are good; not best.”

Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.

 

Poets & Poems that Heal More Than Fish

Why Poetry Matters...

 

 

A poem is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.
from, This is a Poem that Heals Fish, by Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Simeón captures the effervescent effect of a poem in her delightful exploration of poetry. We discover along with young Arthur, the book’s protagonist, the many things a poem is:

A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.

Good poetry accomplishes this feat in a more condensed form than prose. If you don’t have time to dive into a novel, try poetry! You will get the biggest bang for your buck, and you are likely to remember far more of what you read, especially if it rhymes, and if the meter is regular. Iambic meter, with its series of unstressed and stressed syllables , is the most memorable of all. Most of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are written in iambic meter with five “feet” to the line:

When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnet 12)

Notice the tick-TOCK metronome cadence of this little poem that uses time as a metaphor. Don’t shy away from Shakespeare. His poems (and plays) are often funny, poignant, and insightful. And his use of language is unparalleled. His sonnets are a great place to start. They’re short (14 lines). Each one takes less than a minute to read.

There are plenty of other places to explore along the paths of poetry. You might find yourself trudging with Robert W. Service through the ice and snow of the Klondike with a frozen corpse, in search of a suitable crematorium:

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.” (from, The Cremation of Sam McGee)

Or you might walk beside those carrying the casket of Emily Dickenson through fields of buttercups, as per her request — and recall this introductory quatrain from her exquisite rumination on death:

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

Allen Tate (poet Laureate, 1943-44) wrote of this poem that,

 this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.

Or, you might discover along with little Arthur, that poetry can heal a fish.

Poetry matters because, once we welcome it into our lives,  it will shatter us. It will heal us.

And it will leave us wondering why we waited so long.

A Farewell Letter to Garrison Keillor

A Native Son Comes Home to Lake Wobegon - where "sort of the truth" is truth enough

Garrison Keillor

Dear Garrison,

I heard you are retiring today, and I had to write. I started listening to you by accident sometime back in the late 80’s. A buddy of mine named Jim Hoover had told me about this storyteller on National Public Radio. His name was Garrison Keillor, Jim said, and he loved to talk about his hometown of Lake Wobegon tucked away somewhere in central Minnesota.

I was traveling back from a preaching assignment as I recall, and I stumbled upon your show, A Prairie Home Companion, on our local NPR station. You were just launching into your weekly story with the now famous line, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town.”

The first thing I noticed was your voice! I don’t think I’ve ever heard, to this day, a more relaxed delivery. I mean, mister, you could talk the tension out of a twelve-string. On my maiden voyage with the program I had no knowledge of Lake Wobegon. The story that day was about the death of Buddy Holly in February, 1959. You and the members of your High School band, The Pharaohs of Rhythm, had traveled the roughly 3 1/2 hours down to Clear Lake, Iowa to pay your respects at the crash site. You guys saw the wrecked plane out in the field where it crashed, and piled out of the car to stand along a fence row for a better look.

You, heeding nature’s call, went over into some nearby trees to relieve yourself. You looked out through the trees and saw something sticking out of the snow—it was the neck of Buddy Holly’s guitar! To your credit, you resisted the temptation to snatch it, and rejoined your own buddies who were deep into conversation with some teenage girls who had come out to see what was to be seen. You and the Pharaohs of Rhythm played Buddy Holly music all the way back to Lake Wobegon—and I was hooked! What a story!

I retold the story to Lauren as soon as I got home. The next day I went into work and told Jim that Lauren and I had decided that we were going to visit Lake Wobegon that next summer. No matter what it took, I was going to find it and go into the Sidetrack Tap for a coke. Jim smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Reg, it isn’t real. It’s all make-believe.”

I’m a storyteller, Garrison. I know a make-believe story when I hear it. I respect Jim Hoover. He’s a good man. But I think he got this one wrong. I read an interview with you in National Geographic. In it you said, “People want stories to be true.” I’ve decided that yours are. They don’t have to be factual to be real.

The best stories—and yours are among the very best—are true in ways that stretch beyond the particulars of latitude and longitude. I find your stories in my own small town of Oakville, Texas. Your stories are in the small towns that populate our collective nostalgia, where all the women are strong, all the men are good lookin’, and all the children are above average. Thanks for a great ride, Garrison! And by the way, I’m loving your new collection of poetry, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound. Thanks for signing it with “All the best!”

I wish you the same.

P.S. Be looking for us. Lauren and I will be coming for a visit there in Lake Wobegon one of these days— pretty sure we’ll pass through Mayberry along the way.

For Evan on Father’s Day, 2016

My Pop and the Time we Talked

Reg's first Buck

Evan, you didn’t get to know your great grandpa—my Pop—but he was a great man in my eyes.  Pop taught me, among many things, to hunt. There wasn’t a lot of talk about anything. He was a man of spare words, so in that regard (and in many others) we were pretty different. We didn’t talk about life, or football, or why I was deathly afraid to kiss my first girlfriend, LU. With Pop it was all about what was going on right then and there. In this case, the hunt—how to stalk, how to track a wounded buck until you found him, how not to let noisy thorn bushes scrape your jeans. How to walk ten slow steps, pause and look. And wait. And then to hunt until you got back to the truck, because if you stopped before you opened the truck door, that’s when a big one would jump and run.

Falling asleep—though it was 5:30 a.m. and still dark as a javelina den at midnight—was strictly forbidden and besides that, it was unprofessional. By the way, the rules changed a little over the years. When Pop was about my age now, we would take naps on the shady bank of the Nueces. Most things, including all sports and any curricular or extra curricular activities were to be approached in the same all-or-nothing, do-the-very-best-you-can professional attitude. But winning wasn’t everything to Pop by a long shot. In fact, doing your best while losing showed more character than an effortless victory. Pop didn’t talk it. He lived it, day-to-day.

But there was this one time, Evan, when Pop and I talked on a hunt. This poem is about my Pop and me, but it’s for you. Because what my Pop held in his hand on that hunt, I hold in mine. I held it for your mom. I held it for my boys, your Tio Niko and Giaccomo. And I hold it for you for the all the days ahead.

Love,

PoP!

“Things to Come”
You sat with me while hunting deer
Beneath the big oak tree
You cupped a secret in your palm
And wouldn’t let me see
“You know what I have here?” you asked
“A bug? An arrowhead?”
You looked again and smiled a bit
And “nope” was all you said.
“I don’t know, Pop. Can I see now?’
You held the secret near
You nodded at the whisperings
I wanted so to hear.
“I hold you in my hand, my son,
I hold your dreams unbound.”
Then with a wink, you showed to me
The secret small and round
“Now here’s a forest in my palm
A thousand trees I hold
Ten thousand promises to keep
And stories yet untold.”
“This mighty oak at riverside
Began smaller than you
But God has blessed and God has grown
This oak as He will you.”
Now if you want to grow up tall
And straight and strong and grand
Remember that you started small
In God our Father’s hand.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Sayers and Mr. Yeats!

Celebrating the Gift of Creativity in Two Very Different Artists

The following blog was to be submitted yesterday, June 13, but a lightning storm interrupted the posting.

Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers

The great Symbolist poet William Butler Yeats (b. June 13, 1865) was 28 years old to the day when Dorothy Sayers (b. June 13, 1893) was born at the Head Master’s House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Though they both discovered their talents for writing at a young age, the their lives stood in stark contrast to one another.

Sayers, the daughter of  a chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School, won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. There she studied modern languages and medieval literature, finishing with first-class honors in 1915. Since women were denied degrees in 1915, she had to wait until 1920 when she became one of the first women to receive her MA from Oxford. In one of her most influential theological books, The Mind of the Maker, she explored the analogy between a human creator and the doctrine of the Trinity (more tri-theism in Sayers than orthodox Trinitarianism) in creation. Her human “trinity” consists of the Idea, the Energy (= the materialization of the idea into concrete/written form), and the Power (the reception/reading of the form by the audience).

Her good friend, C. S. Lewis said he read her excellent radio play, The Man Born to be King, every Easter, though he claimed never to have developed a taste for her more famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey and his adventures. She died 17 December, 1957. Her her ashes are buried beneath the tower of St. Anne’s Church, London, where she had been a churchwarden for many years.

W, B, Yeats

W, B, Yeats

Yeats, on the other hand was no scholar. He attended art school briefly to appease his father, also an artist. While there he decided to become a poet. He moved to London in 1886, where he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult group. He maintained his fascination with the occult for the rest of his life, often addressing spiritual ideas in his brilliant poetry. Women, as well, held him in thrall. He had many affairs and more than one mistress. He died in France in 1939, having founded the National Irish Theater in Dublin (now the Abbey), and having won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923.

Two exquisitely talented writers who shared much more than a birthday. Together they shared the gift of a creative spirit to which they gave a habitable form in their poems and novels and plays.

The defining difference between the two lies in their spiritual allegiances – she, to the Christ of Scripture; he, to an esoteric system of philosophy that reflected Hindu Theosophical beliefs and the occult – a system communicated to him through spirits (he called them “Instructors”) whom he had summoned while experimenting with automatic writing.

Can we enjoy the work of an non-Christian genius like Yeats as we can the works of the Christian Sayers? Of course. Just as we can appreciate the truth and goodness and beauty of the ring trilogy by an anti-Semite like Wagner, or Symphony #6 in D-Minor by Tchaikovsky, who struggled with homosexuality.

We can recognize and celebrate the truth, beauty, and goodness evident in these flawed men and women because these qualities emanate from the God we worship Who is the source of all that is true, and beautiful, and good. And Who graciously condescends to reveal Himself through flawed people.

Like us.

Time to Rhyme

April is National Poetry Month!

poetry-spatter

Happy National Poetry Month! And what better month to celebrate, as Webster put it,

“Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.

Bookish, yes. But true.

April’s a month festooned with  birthdays of some of the most glorious wordsmiths the world has ever known: Shakespeare (born and died on his birthday, April 23), Hans Christian Anderson (whose fairytales read like narrative poems, April 2), George Herbert (April 3), Maya Angelou (April 4), Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5), the late, great  country poet-songwriter, Merle Haggard (April 6), William Wordsworth (April 7), E. Y.. “Yip” Harburg  (wrote “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” April 8), Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (April 9), Seamus Heaney (Whitbread winner for his translation of Beowulf, April 13), Walter De La Mare (April 25), Robert Penn Warren (first US Poet Laureate, April 24).

This isn’t simply a list of names. These are friends, some of whom were introduced to me by my father, Max Grant.  All of whom I have read time and again. Dad was a petroleum engineer with the heart of a  scrub brush poet. When he told us bedtime stories, you never knew if you were going to get a “made up” story, a chapter out of Will James, or one of the old cowboy poems that he loved so much. I was reared in a storytelling family in South Texas. Most of the poetry I heard and learned in those early days were story poems by the likes of Robert W. Service the poet laureate of the Yukon. Poems like The Cremation of Sam McGee:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
Bi the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales,
That would make your blood run cold;

Or, The Ballad of Salvation Bill:

‘Twas in the bleary middle of the hard-boiled Arctic night,
I was lonesome as a loon, so if you can,
Imagine my emotions of amazement and delight
When I bumped into that Missionary Man.

It wasn’t until I reached high school that I graduated to Shakespeare, Angelou, and scores of poets living outside the April calendar. And yet, despite the beauty, the elegance, and perfection of more complex forms, my first love was and will always be the narrative poems of my youth. I suppose, because they were as close to story as you could get. But more importantly, there’s the warm memory of my dad reading or reciting those great cowboy poems by the fire on a winter’s night, or camping under the big oak down on the river. I think it’s the relationship with my dad more than the poems themselves that made poetry special in my life.

 Why not choose one of the April poets from the list above and really read one of their poems aloud? It doesn’t have to be long. Then share it with someone you love.

Who knows? You may even come to experience a “specific emotional response!”

Happy reading!

Love as Warm as Tears

No Room for Soft Sentimentality at Easter

Resurrection

One of my favorite Easter poems is by C. S. Lewis. In a brief, free-flowing poem of just 32 lines, he captures the nature of the uncompromising love of the Lord Jesus for all of us. Each of us.

He loved us corporately (He so loved the world… John 3:16), and He loved us individually. This Easter, take a few minutes to sit and ponder the deep love of Jesus for you as a member of the Body of Christ, but also for you as His child, made in His image, raised with Him on this Resurrection Sunday!

LOVE’S AS WARM AS TEARS

C.S. Lewis

Love’s as warm as tears,

Love is tears

Pressure within the brain,

Tension at the throat,

Deluge, weeks of rain,

Haystacks afloat,

Featureless seas between

Hedges, where once was green

Love’s as fierce as fire,

Love is fire:

All sorts–Infernal heat

Clinkered with greed and pride,

Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,

Laughing, even when denied,

And that empyreal flame

Whence all loves came.

Love’s as fresh as spring,

Love is spring:

Bird-song in the air,

Cool smells in a wood,

Whispering “Dare! Dare!”

To sap, to blood,

Telling “Ease, safety, rest,

Are good; not best.”

Love’s as hard as nails,

Love is nails:

Blunt, thick, hammered through

The medial nerves of One

Who, having made us, knew

The thing He had done,

Seeing (what all that is)

Our cross, and His.

Why Poetry Matters…

Because Every Attic Needs a Light

poetryfoundation.org

poetryfoundation.org

When you write in prose you say what you mean. When you write in verse you say what you must. Oliver Wendel Holmes

Prose is more democratic than its cousin, poetry. Prose allows for expansion into rabbit trail territory, while poetry keeps you pretty much to the path.

Prose is poetry in sneakers. Poetry is prose in dancin’ shoes.

Both make you move, both make you want to dance, but prose is a sockhop and poetry is the prom. Both should be celebrated. Both should be exercised. Both should be studied.

Why?

Because poetry is a vehicle for beauty unlike the most elegant prose. The compactness, the images, the music of poetry invite us to experience a writer’s perspective  condensed to this unique form. What is poetry? I’ll use the description (not really a definition) provided by the Poetry Foundation:

Poetry is unique because it uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader. Sometimes poetry rhymes, but not always. I will use the words ‘poetry’ or ‘poems’ to refer to verses intended to be understood as poems, not as part of something else such as rap, song lyrics, Bible verses, or greeting card messages.

Poetry in America (via the Poetry Foundation) surveyed 1000 people, through a random digital dial (RDD) sample of adult readers with varying levels of interest in poetry. Their findings suggest something that surprised me: 94% of readers indicated they had read poetry at some point in their lives. That falls off to 15% of the potential audience who claim to have read poetry at all three life stages (child, teen, adult). Still, it was encouraging to me that a great number of folks had at least a memory of encountering poetry at some point (www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/PoetryinAmerica_summary.pdf).

So, the vast majority of readers discovered poetry in their childhood through Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, etc. But then, poetry got left behind with Pooh and the honeypot, Thing 1 and Thing 2 never came to visit, and Silverstein’s Attic went dark. The excuses for abandonment of poetry are legion. Consider this an invitation to return. If not for yourself, then for the little ones who share your space.

All three of our now-grown children inherited, through their mother, the genetic blessing of math-giftedness. All three are also artists of varying types (Rosalyn draws beautifully and is a wonderful comic actress, Gabe and Nick are both actors and writers). The common passion we all share is a love of reading. But it wasn’t always so.

When Gabe was about 7, we noticed that he wasn’t carrying around books and reading all the time like the rest of us. Even Nick, who was only 3 1/2 at the time pretended to read. If you were a Grant, you loved to read. Not Gabe. He loved being read to, but numbers, not words, were his thing. Give him a math problem and he was in heaven. So, I – being arithmetically challenged and slightly threatened by this budding math whiz of a 7-year-old – set out on a quest to help Gabe love to read.

It didn’t take long. My philosophy as a teacher has always been, “build to your strength. Find what you’re good at and build that muscle.” Gabe was good at math, but what does reading have to do with math? Poetry! Not free verse, not blank, but something tightly structured. And I thought, “Haiku!”

“Gabe,” I said. “I have a challenge for you. Let’s see if you can write some traditional Japanese Haiku!” No response.

“It has to have a total of 17 syllables” (he already knew about syllables) “spread over three lines.” Gabe’s eyes lit up.

“The first line must have 5 syllables, the second line must have 7 syllables, and the third line must have 5 syllables. The poem should be about nature or the seasons, if you want it to follow the rules of traditional Japanese Haiku. What do you…”

But Gabe was already gone. Back to his room to find a pen and a pad of paper. As a teacher (not to mention as a parent) those are the all too rare moments you dream about. Come up with some idea that your child latches onto immediately, and then turn him loose.

Since that day, Gabe has composes scores of Haiku (some of which won prizes), he has written articles, and has finished his first novel. Gabe is a writer, and a good one to boot.

I’ve read thousands of Haiku over the years. My favorite was written by my son, Gabe. The occasion was a rainy night when the moon was shining through the raindrops, which were falling on a pond. At least that was the occasion in Gabe’s imagination.

 

My Favorite Haiku

My Favorite Haiku

The capacity of children to embrace and express themselves poetically is reason enough to pursue this art. To read it. To memorize it. To create it. Give yourself permission to play, to write nonsense verse. Poetry doesn’t have to be “important” or “serious” to be beneficial. Don’t know where to start? You can begin with Judson Jerome’s book, The Poet’s Handbook. It will, As Amazon reminds us, “teach the basics of the modern poet’s craft: diction, imagery, metrics, verse forms, symbolism.” (http://www.amazon.com/The-Poets-Handbook-Judson-Jerome/dp/1582971366)

Read a good poem today. Read it aloud where no one can hear. Then share it.

Casey at the Bat: Yesterday’s News

How a Story of Failure Captured the American Imagination

The Mighty Casey (Pre-Strikeout)

The Mighty Casey (Pre-Strikeout)

Yesterday, June 3, marked the 127th anniversary of the publication of Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer. The San Francisco Examiner ran the comic ballad in what Martin Gardner later classified as,

…the nation’s best-known piece of comic verse—a ballad that began a native legend as colorful and permanent as that of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

I didn’t write on Casey yesterday because I couldn’t decide on the angle of the piece. As poetry it doesn’t stand up to the kind of scrutiny we would apply to more serious works. Casey has more the feel of the humorous poems of Robert W. Service, the poet of the Yukon, who penned such poems as The Shooting of Dan Magrew, The Cremation of Sam Mcgee, and The Ballad of Salvation Bill a few years later – all of which were considered,

…doggerel by the literary set, yet remain extremely popular to this day. (“Robert W. Service,” Who2 Profiles, Answers.com, Web, Apr. 4, 2011.)

So, it isn’t the technical complexity or the sophisticated nuance of the poem that appeals. It’s the story of Casey (and of Dan, Sam, and Bill) that continues to hold our interest over all these years.  Casey, a big fish in the little backwater pond of the fictional Mudville, approaches the plate in the bottom of the 9th with the underappreciated Jimmy Blake at second, and the maligned Flynn “hugging third.” Casey represents the winning run, as the Mudville Nine are behind 4-2.

But Casey, full of confidence and of himself, proceeds to take the first two strikes as he stands, “in haughty grandeur there.” The crowd wants the ump’s head after the called second strike, but Casey quiets them with “one scornful look” (not sure if it’s directed at them or the ump). Then Casey gets angry, pounding with “cruel vengeance, his bat upon the plate.” He swings. He whiffs. And the crowd goes home joyless.

As readers and lovers of the Great American Game of Baseball, we connect with the story as Casey couldn’t connect with the ball. Regardless of the size of our hometown, we idolize local heroes like Casey. We want them to go yard, to hit it out of the park, to win in a walkoff.  But when the hero boasts his prowess like a transplanted Miles Gloriosus, there’s something lost in the victory, and something gained in the defeat. What’s lost is what Stanley Williams call the “moral spine” of the story (The Moral Premise) – the essential timeless truth that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16;18). While we may celebrate on a surface level with the braggadocio common to many gifted and spoiled athletes, at our core, we resonate with the truth more than with the lie that, “it ain’t bragging if you done it” (Dizzy Dean).

What’s gained in Casey’s failure is a confirmation, though immediately painful in the loss, that sooner or later hubris exacts a painful penalty. Humility, we should infer, is the essence of true greatness (see Aquinas on Aristotle’s definition of “true greatness” alongside a casual reading of Philippians 2)  and is often harder won than the closest of baseball games. Baseball is a humbling sport. A 15-0 victory rout on Tuesday night will likely turn into a 9-2 pummeling defeat on Wednesday as it did for my beloved Texas Rangers yesterday. Baseball and Casey are there to make us laugh (it’s easier to laugh when you don’t live in Mudville), and to be reminded that the greater the talent, the greater the need for a humble at-bat.