Rejection and Knowing: A Poem

I just came across a poem by W. S. Merwin about John Berryman, and for me it couldn’t be more timely. (H/T: Austin Kleon’s newsletter: 3/29/2019).

I’m not familiar with much of Berryman’s poetry, though I do love his poem, “There Sat Down, Once, a Thing on Henry’s Heart.” I especially enjoy this video of him reciting it:

 

And here’s Merwin’s poem.

Berryman

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton

I’m reading (and teaching!) G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re willing to set aside things like “historical accuracy” and revel in the idea and legends of Alfred the Great.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, here’s a great section on the differences between pride and humility:

Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,

As a man flings up sand,

But the firm feet of humility

Take hold of heavy land.

 

Pride juggles with her toppling towers,

They strike the sun and cease,

But the firm feet of humility

They grip the ground like trees. (IV.256-63)

 

Sabbath Poetry: Coleridge

Today is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s birthday, and Malcolm Guite has posted a sonnet he wrote in honor of the great poet, philosopher, and literary critic. Read more of Guite’s homage to Coleridge at his website and/or listen to Guite reading his own poem. Enjoy!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

A Sabbath Poem: Heaney

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music that you never would have known

To listen for. In a cactus stalk

 

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash

Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe

Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

 

And diminuendo runs through all its scales

Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes

A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

 

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;

Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.

Upend the stick again. What happens next

 

Is undiminished for having happened once,

Twice, ten, a thousand times before.

Who cares if all the music that transpires

 

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

-Seamus Heaney