Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Planting Spiritual Sequoias

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Planting Spiritual Sequoias

A friend and colleague, who retired from his school superintendent’s job just a few years before I left the same school, was killed in May in a three-car pile-up on an Interstate highway in southern Wisconsin.

Larry Dean Kooi and his wife Gail were en-route to family celebrations with their children and grandchildren in Minnesota, having driven from their retirement home in northern Georgia. Larry slowed for a construction delay on the highway and his vehicle was rammed from behind and pushed into the car in front of him, according to press reports. Larry died instantly apparently, and his wife was hospitalized for several days after the crash.

From every place Larry had ever led or advised a school, messages of sympathy came to his family underscoring his reputation as a wise, thoughtful, fair, caring, listening and loving man of Christ.

Larry, a native Iowan, as far as I know had never lived in the vicinity of big Sequoia trees, which are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and among the largest and oldest known trees on the earth. He and Gail did travel quite a bit and may have visited the national park that is home to the gigantic trees.

However, Larry told me once in our casual conversations that he had a favorite poem, and it was about Sequoias, but he couldn’t remember who had written the verses. I researched a little bit and came up with the poem “Planting a Sequoia” by Dana Gioia. Larry was thrilled to have rediscovered the text.

It is well worth reading Gioia’s poem so I have copied it below:

Planting a Sequoia / by Dana Gioia

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth—
An olive or a fig tree — a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s
orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

We will give you what we can — our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of
bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

(“Planting a Sequoia” by Dana Gioia from The Gods of Winter, Graywolf Press, 1991.)

Dana Gioia’s website is at:  http://www.danagioia.net/poems/sequoia.htm

Even if Larry never visited the Sequoias, they held a place of admiration in his consciousness. And I had the privilege of knowing and working with this poetry appreciating educator who planted spiritual Sequoias everywhere he lived and worked.

It seems humorously poetic to me also that Larry, with three successive vowels in his four-letter last name, admired a poem by a poet with four successive vowels in his five-letter surname writing about a tree with four successive vowels in its name.

I chant those vowels as a prayer for Larry: ooi-ioia-uoia!

Six-word Essays on Time

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

By Allan Roy Andrews

Now always dies
in clock time.

Streams of time
eventually dry up.

Life gives, but
Time takes away.

Clocks truly lack
faces and hands.

Has anyone seen
a clock smile?

Moment by moment
time abandons us.

The six-word essay is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who took up the challenge of telling a story in just six words.

The form has been popularized in recent years, largely through the online publication of Smith Magazine http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords/ and Narrative Magazine http://www.narrativemagazine.com/.

Poetry survives in a prose-prone world, but evangelicals (and many others) remain phobic

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

By Allan Roy Andrews

In the past month, the Academy of American Poets launched a new page on its Web site devoted to poetry and teenagers. The page, labeled “Poetry Resources for Teens,” is quickly reached by visiting poets.org and pulling down the menu “For Educators.” The resources on the new page include “reading recommendations, writing help, spotlight audio and video recordings, as well as new ways to get involved in grassroots poetry projects,” according to an Academy press release.

Describing the motivation for producing the page, the Academy’s press release sounds much like what could be written by any American church or religious organization. The Academy acted, in its own words, in response to a recent survey they conducted, which showed that over 75% of the people who use poets.org share one characteristic: that they first developed an interest in poetry before their eighteenth birthday. With young people spending a reported average of 16.7 hours a week online, it seemed clear that in the long term, the best opportunity to reach new readers and writers of poetry is in their early years.

In pondering this news from the Academy, I thought again of the importance of poetry and the contrary disdain it experiences in American life and letters, especially among religious mover s and shakers, and in particular amidst the evangelical subculture.

I guess my real problem with this push to give teens access to poetry is that it further distinguishes adulthood as a time for generally disdaining and disregarding poetry as unimportant to faith and life in the twenty-first century.

We need more people like John Keating (the fictional English teacher played by Robin Williams in the film, “Dead Poet’s Society”), who told his adolescent charges:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for . . . .

(Alas, I use a movie to make a point about poetry!)

My wife asked me a trick question last week: “What language is spoken in heaven?”

“Probably Aramaic,” I quipped.

If I had taken, as she did, any course in college offered by Dr. Thomas Howard (author of Christ the Tiger and subsequent others—see http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/authors/thomashoward.asp), she informed me I would have hastily answered, “Poetry!”

If that be so, it’s clear to me that the heavenly language fights for a public voice in today’s prose-dominated world. Oh, to be sure, poetry is available to any who hunt for it, but such a suggestion is a bit like telling sushi lovers in the Dakotas they can find their favorite food if they just search long and hard enough. Sorry, folks, but Fargo ain’t Tokyo!

If poetry is the language of heaven, it still gets short shrift on earth, even among those who claim to be diligent advocates for life beyond our numbered days.

Case in point: Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of Christianity Today International, a moderately evangelical organization that counts as one of its founders the evangelist Billy Graham, recently ran a poll to determine if its readers still counted themselves as “supporters of the arts” in these disturbing economic times. I’m less interested in the results of the poll (Weekly newsletter, Jun 23, 2009) than in the way the question was framed:

Are you cutting back on spending money on the arts (music, painting, movies)?

Please note the limiting listing of the arts: “music, painting, movies.” Poetry flies under the radar in Christianity Today’s perception. In fairness, the survey accompanies a compelling argument by Canadian singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends on why the arts are important; although, she seems to limit poetry’s influence to its aid in worship, comparable to icons.

In other contexts, I’ve chided Christianity Today and other popular evangelical publications for not regularly publishing first-rate contemporary poetry. One can look to Christian Century, Commonweal, First Things, and Sojourners to find a smattering of poets in religion journals, but one must look long and hard to find poets being published in the largest circulation religious magazine, familiarly referred to as CT. Among the magazines I’ve listed here, Christianity Today alone is without a poetry editor.

Almost a decade ago, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, Louis Markos, in a Christianity Today column of open commentary, called evangelicals “poetry phobic.” In the ensuing years, the magazine has done little or nothing to address and attack this phobia. Even Books and Culture, Christianity Today International’s intelligent and erudite collection of book reviews, does not have a designated poetry editor other than editor John Wilson, who often shows his personal appreciation of poetry but does not push for any regular publication of poems.

Let me be clear: I welcome poets.org’s effort to expand the exposure of teenagers to poetry. What I’d like to see is religious publications, who often target teenagers as an audience to be addressed and assessed, spend more time exposing their adult readers to the rising cadre of fine poets addressing questions of faith and the dilemmas of life and theology.

If it is true that evangelicals (and perhaps other religious subsets) are poetry phobic, much of the fault can be laid at the feet of the journalists, essayists, commentators, and preachers whose words fill the monthly magazines and who too often show a disdain for the poetic voice.

Note: Anyone interested in fine contemporary poetry from a Christian faith perspective should visit the Journal of Christianity and Literature hosted by Pepperdine University at http://www.pepperdine.edu/sponsored/ccl/journal/. Another excellent source of such poetry is Image: A Journal of Art, Faith, Mystery at http://imagejournal.org/page/journal/. Image is closely tied to the Graduate Writing Program at Seattle Pacific University and to the Glen Writing Workshop in New Mexico.

Cowboy Contemplative: Heaven or Home?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Cowboy Contemplative: Singing our way home

[in memory of Mom]

Years ago a popular country song recorded by Tanya Tucker extolled the bliss of Texas. The song was “Texas When I Die,” and was written by a Tennessean (born in Arkansas), Ed Bruce (along with a couple of collaborators). Bruce actually cut a much better version of the song than Tucker’s, but her version moved further up the charts.

It begins with this repeated quatrain:

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Texas

‘cause Texas is as close as I’ve been.”

I have no connection whatsoever to Texas, so when I heard and fell in love with Bruce’s song, I toyed with the lyrics and made it my own.

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Brooklyn

‘cause Brooklyn is as close as I’ve been.”

New York actually gets dissed in Bruce’s lyrics, as does Detroit, Milwaukee, and—one could extrapolate—also Hell, while San Antone and Willie Nelson and Texas beer are given a treatment close to apotheosis. But no matter, for me Brooklyn—with or without Schaeffer or Rheingold beers—is sweeter than San Antone or Houston or Big D.

One could, of course, plug in one’s own place of heavenly memories: “. . . then bury me in Boston/‘cause Beantown is as close as I’ve been.” Or, for less urban devotees, how about, “. . . then bury me in Springfield /‘cause Main Street is as close as I’ve been.”

For me, it was living in Brooklyn, believe it not, that drew me as a teenager to the thrall of country and western music. At the time, a New Jersey radio station, WAAT, beamed Don Larkin’s “Hometown Frolic” into the region with its theme song, the Gene Autry standard, “I’m Back in the Saddle Again.” (Nora Ephron and Tom Hanks proved that song a favorite even to the Sleepless in Seattle!) If confronted with the quasi-Biblical query, “Can anything good come out of Jersey?” I would have quickly and confidently responded, “country music.”

So while my high school buddies in Brooklyn were losing themselves in Alan Freed and the rhythm and blues music that evolved into rock ‘n’ roll, I was steeping myself in Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Slim Whitman, and cowboy favorites such as Autry, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Roy Rogers, and Rogers’ original compatriots, the Sons of the Pioneers. My adolescent fantasy of singing on the “Grand Ole Opry” ranked second only to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 500 country and western songs.

At that time, the only thing truly cowboy about that line-up of singers I mention is that several of them wore cowboy hats and occasionally appeared in chaps and spurs. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that “cowboy” is an attitude and a mindset more than a way of life or vocation; like me, most of the singers I mentioned above probably weren’t comfortable around horses, steers, or ranch waste; nevertheless, they extolled the way of the cowboy.

I think what cowboy singers promoted and what appealed to me as a boy was what I now can identify as the life of a “cowboy contemplative.” My heroes didn’t respond to life with Clint Eastwood macho aided by a big six-shooter; they backed off, rode alone, extolled the trail, preferred the dogies to the barroom, and sang quiet ballads.

Even when they did have to turn to the gun, they acted and then, like Alan Ladd’s “Shane” or the legendary Lone Ranger, rode into the distance to be alone with themselves—and perhaps, with God—and to sing a song (I just know the Lone Ranger sang when he was alone).

And they may well have asked the question repeated in Bruce’s “Texas When I Die,” which wonders if cowboys get to heaven (they do, as surely as ragamuffins enter God’s kingdom) and asserts those dying cowboys are ready to accept the next best thing: home.

Though she was neither a cowgirl nor a singer but surely a psalm-loving contemplative, it’s no wonder my mother always said of those who’d recently died, “They’ve gone home.”

————————————–

Writer’s Note: Ed Bruce, the writer of “Texas When I Die,” and the writer and original singer of “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” in the twilight of his career has cut two successful gospel albums—“Changed” and “Sing About Jesus”—and, as noted on his official Web site, has become an ambassador of God’s life-changing love in Jesus Christ.

P.S. If you’ve read this far and would like to know more about my own cowboy contemplative life, you can click a link on this blog for “Poetry by ARA” to find my poem entitled, “One of Their Kind.” Or, just click here.

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Listen to hear Ed Bruce’s recording

Power in Tears: My April Showers

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

By Allan Roy Andrews

I’ve never bought into the adage that “real men don’t cry,” and thankfully Jesus belies those words by showing his manly humanity at the news of the death of Lazarus (John 11:35).

My wife likes to tweak me occasionally by telling others I’m the only grown man she knows who cried during Disney’s “101 Dalmatians.” (Damn you, Cruella de Vil!)

I’ve simply never tried to hide my tears at poignant movies, and I discovered more than a decade ago that tears are basically uncontrollable as I delivered a eulogy to my mother during a family memorial service. I was fine about two-thirds through my prepared remarks. Then my mouth started quivering uncontrollably, my tongue turned to Styrofoam, and deep sobs broke from my soul, interrupted only by my sniffling apology to the gathered relatives.

Something similar occurred years earlier when while visiting friends in Philadelphia I read the newspaper at bedtime and discovered an obituary of a college friend who had been killed in Vietnam. I fell back on my pillow and cried deeply for 10 or 15 minutes.

Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve found myself moved to tears on numerous occasions, and all of them have come as a result of my reading or viewing.

I picked up a 2008 book of poems called America at War (NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008), and cried over a poem by children’s poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of these fine poems gathered by Lee Bennett Hopkins; nevertheless, by the time I read Dotlich’s poem, “My Brother’s Shirt,” the futility and injustice of war had overwhelmed me as I read,

It is mine now,
one stiff Army shirt,
THOMPSON printed
on the pocket.
United States Army
sends something home;
gives part of you back.
The part that cannot
breathe, or speak
or tease me
anymore.

Memory and a fictional voice triggered my tears a few days later. Reading Bernice Morgan’s novel of Newfoundland, Random Passage (St. John’s, NF: Breakwater, 1992), I came across this pedestrian declaration: “We’ll have hot bread for you before you leaves.”

It was my Aunt Eva speaking, or it could have been my Aunt Jen, or my Aunt Mary Winsor, or my cousin Frances McGowan—Newfoundlanders all—expressing hospitality in the dialect that I’d known as a boy, never questioning their grammar. Now I heard them again and cried.

I cried last week reading the sports pages and watching televised accounts of baseball in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as the nation celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. I am a boy who grew up in Brooklyn and has never been able to get the Dodgers out of my fan’s consciousness. I can recite the uniform numbers of the stars of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Robinson’s era: Duke Snider, 4; Pee Wee Reese, 1; Carl Erskine, 17; Preacher Roe, 28; Billy Cox, 3; Carl Furillo, 6; Junior Gilliam, 19; Gil Hodges, 14; Roy Campanella, 39; Clem Labine, 41; Don Newcombe, 36; Johnny Podres, 45; Jackie Robinson, 42!

As I watched clips of Robinson as a revolutionary rookie, I realized again how his story defined race relations for me as a teenager. To see every major league player, coach, manager, and umpire wearing Robinson’s number 42 on April 15 was a sign of hope and progress and unity that rarely appears in the modern world, and I wiped tears from my eyes.

Finally, I confess I was moved to tears (not unlike Demi Moore) when I watched the YouTube performance of a Scottish woman singing before a panel of judges in an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D5DgQi2oqA). By now, Susan Boyle has become an Internet and entertainment celebrity. What moved me to tears was the triumph of her strong and pristine voice in the face of disdain and cynicism from the audience and the judges.

Then, the honest confession by the judges of surprise, delight, and as actress Amanda Holden put it, her “complete privilege” of hearing this wonderful voice. I was witnessing a triumph of grace, and it made me cry.

In these episodes of April I’ve had to confront my own humanity, and I better understand the power in tears and the wonder of knowing that Jesus wept.