History in the Poetry of Roger White
by, 01-11-2008 at 10:49 PM (2313 Views)
"A poet's life, any life, is a process of unfolding realization… a responsibility for poetic values, poetry is a way not only of knowing but also of living in the world, straining towards feelings of consciousness in which what is outside is fused with what lies within the self." - Veronica Brady, introduction to South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, , Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1998.
J.B. Priestly once wrote that "the true Shakespearian way of life was to combine a scepticism about everything with a credulity about everything". What one might call this 'modern attitude' of having a theoretical uncertainty about even the surest of statements is, perhaps, "our greatest asset in adapting to our human situation".
In approaching history White began with the assumption that man's social evolution was due to the periodic intervention in human affairs of the creative force of the universe by means of the Founders of the great religions.
White had examined this assumption in the light of the new evidence for this phenomenon provided by the Baha'i Faith. This had been part of his investigation in the late forties and early fifties. White's approach to history was the same as his approach to religion. It was based on the scientific method. What White has to say in his poetic history, expressed over hundreds of poems in several volumes and chapbooks, can be verified, understood, only by individuals capable and willing to assume White's point of view. His views can only be understood and appreciated by those who have studied or are willing to study the history on which they are based.
The element of historical subjectivity that resides in White's poetry is the same that resides in any other domain where the scientific method is applied. What White is saying in the field of religion is not so private, so mystic, so incommunicable as to be beyond scientific method. In exploring White's understanding of history I invite readers to study the historical configurations on which it is based. For, I would argue, it is virtually impossible to appreciate that element of his poetry which deals with history without knowing something about that history.
White's poetry, like the poetry of W.B. Yeats among the poetry of many other poets, is so filled with the people and places he cared about, the beliefs and issues he was involved with as an active publicist of the cause he had identified himself with, that the events of his life seem curiously inevitable, as we find ourselves accepting unreflectively one striking event in his life and his poetry after another.
White and his poetry are part of the tissue, the very warp and weft, of the Bahá'i Faith in the history of its heroic and formative ages.
White's way of writing, of talking, sounded like the way historian of modern poetry David Perkins described Yeats and his poetry: "the actual thoughts of a man at a passionate moment of life.... compelled to speak directly from his personal self, writing of the actual men and women in the actual world and in his own life". With Yeats, White might have also written, as Yeats did in his epigraph to his volume of poetry Responsibilities in 1914: In dreams begin responsibility. White put words down on paper but his moment in history, his society, his milieux speaks through him. One could argue, and White seems to, that once written, once spoken, the poem belongs to those who read it and authorial intention and poetic ambiguities cannot be resolved, although they can be discussed.
The literary interpretations of readers are seen as announcements of who they are and what they believe. Readers shape the poem and are shaped by it. Misinterpretation and distortion by readers are unavoidable, to some extent. At the core of poem after poem, though, is what Mark Turner calls "narrative imagining.... the fundamental instrument of thought". Narrative imagining relies on the readers' capacity to project one story onto another, to organize the story of a life, say, in terms of a journey. The mind of the reader relies on the story to interpret "the simplest quotidian acts to the most complex literary achievements". The mind of the poet relies on the story for a myriad purposes, often unknown to the reader.
Perhaps White was trying, among other things, "to preach some kind of self-effacement to his own self-assertive age". Perhaps humility was not natural to White, or to many of us. Perhaps it was, as he saw it, a mental need without which we would have difficulty seeing the world in its proper light.
In the beginning was the story, the Word - and White leads us back to that story and Word, into a modern-day story and Word: its sacred sites, its archetypes, its culture, its map, its truth and its engagement with moral law. Readers can tap into these eternal stories, find their relationship with them, their meaning, illuminate what endures in life, place the ephemeral in its proper perspective. White hounds us, tantalizes us, haunts us, with his rendition of the Baha'i story. He is often obscure, does not give us a definite shape, leaves us with an urgency in our drive to interpret, an urgency which is often a symptom of our lack of knowing, perhaps even our insecurity. White reminds us of where we are going and why. He gives his readers a range of vehicles to take themselves and their lives seriously. One of the vehicles is history.
In an age when stories come at us until they are filling our eyes to overflowing and coming out of our ears in excess from a print and electronic media, White's 'story', his interpretation of the Baha'i story, has a particular and special significance. His recreation is memory and soul, so unlike the big television blockbusters which recreate history as spectacle, as body, which keep the eyes busy but leave the mind, in the end, amused and vacant. White's re-creations help the Baha'i community define who and what it is. Remembering is a "fragile, heroic enterprise," says former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and poetry can teach us about this enterprise. White is in the front lines of this fragile and heroic enterprise.
The Western 'dreaming' opens, for the Greeks and the Hebrews, on the plains of Troy and in a garden laid out by the very hand of God. And now, after several thousand years, we exist at a vast distance from the psychic universe of these Greek and Hebrew writers. The 'dreaming' that White is dealing with in his poetry is yet another severe historical landscape charged with the ethereal brightness of dramatic Persian mountainscapes, great expanses of naked rock, long green valleys and their rivers and deserts of searing heat, dust and inhospitable emptiness, stone and brick villages and some friendly and agreeable shores. White's poetic places of 'dreaming' also take readers on a journey to Israel, Europe and North America, at least some of the places and people there, where the history of the Baha'i Faith went through its first century. We have come closer to this 'dreaming' than we were, in recent times, to Eden and Troy. There is no anachronism here, no abstruse language, no arbitrary and mythical eschatology. Here is a 'dreaming' which was part of Western history just recently - a story which was lived in just the other day.
The steel of White's genius strikes the flint of history and of our times and gives that 'dreaming' a fresh spark and vitality. White would have agreed with poet and literary critic Sir Philip Sydney who saw poetry as superior in some ways to both philosophy and history, to the essential abstractness of philosophy and the essential concreteness of history. Poetry is free to roam in a vast empire of passion and knowledge which the poet tries to bind together. Like Sydney, White saw poetry as the superior moral teacher. The poet could, by a fitting selection and organization of ideas and incident, achieve a reality more profound than that presented by quotidian experience.
However recent, the Baha'i 'dreaming' can slip into history beyond our reach. It is we who must recover our 'dreaming'. We have to discover our 'story', our stories, and connect them to our everyday lives. White is helpful here. He takes dozens of the stories from the precursors (1743-1843) of the Babi and Baha'i Revelations right up into our own time in the last years of his life (1990-1992) before he was too sick to write - and puts his readers right in the picture. He holds the hands of his readers, sometimes gently, sometimes with an encouragement to 'come-up', sometimes informing us that 'here is your hero', 'here is your soul', 'here is the work', 'this is the spiritual point', though he leaves his readers plenty of room to work it out for themselves. All they need to do is wait and work, follow the path, try not to worry, have faith and Be - be like some or many of the souls, the people, White has given us in his poetry.
White gives us a neighbourhood to journey in for our 'dreaming'. Sometimes the path is too hard to walk on; sometimes on the path our tentative moves will be welcomed and our sure moves rebuffed. But for each of us, the 'dreaming' is particular and we must work out our own narrative vehicles for gaining access to the general sacred order that White gives us on page after page of his poems. But the big 'story', when it strikes, is a metaphysical cyclone because it is particular to the individual, interpreted in a singular context and it surges up within us. Some of the story, the 'dreaming', is erudite, some simple and everyday. White's poetry is, at times, a complex virtuosity and, at other times, the essence of simplicity like the 'story' he is conveying. White provides what Dr. Johnson described in his preface to his edition of Shakespeare, namely, a place for the mind to repose "on the stability of truth".
After the endless products of the mass media, what Johnson might have called "the irregular combinations of fanciful invention... and that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest", White creates for his readers "a golden world superior to the brazen world of reality", - a world with a special kind of optimism, a world with:
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
Are given as our library –
We, star-affrighted, gaze to land.
All roads in White's poetic journey converge at one spot: the teachings of Baha'u'llah and His life. Baha'u'llah is not the hero, like Achilles in that Greek 'dreaming', simple and splendid. He is the eternal mystery, the enigma, but His life takes place in a precise historical time and place where the participants are real personages who were born, lived, suffered and died. They happened along 'once upon a time'. This time the physical 'story', the historical account, contains a massive detail compared, say, with the account, the 'dreaming', of the Old Testament or the Iliad or Odyssey. White's stories seem to coalesce out of the primal mist, the clouds, the gold sparks of Babi-Baha'i history going back over two hundred years to, arguably, say, 1793 when Shaykh Ahmad left his home to prepare the way for the Promised One.
White helps us to carry our stories within us, into the world and out of it. In the end it is often not so much that we read White's poems but, rather, that they read us. Sometimes, as George Steiner says of Franz Kafka's works, White's poems "find us blank.". We turn away from his poems as we often turn away from the Revelation, from their potential for enchantment, for exuberance. We turn away from his invitation to explore our 'dreaming'. For in this world of confused alarms our sensory emporiums are so bombarded that the best that is written and thought eludes us as we settle for that which cannot satisfy or appease the hunger.
White's poetry is, of course, more than 'story'. It is both praise and criticism of life, social analysis and psychological diagnosis. It is the expression, the result, of his search for unity. For many writers in the last decades of the twentieth century, this search for unity was constantly frustrated in its narrative, historical and subjective domains with the result that they often reduced history to autobiography and society to their own consciousness. Former and apparent blueprints for social change that many had found in religion or politics became increasingly delusory. As the expressions of social and political unity increased in the world, so too did the expressions of fractured, divisive, violent and anarchic activity increase.
When White started writing poetry the world's population was something less than three billion; when he finished nearly fifty years later that population had become something less than six billion. To document the changes in that half century is not possible in the context of this essay. But White's history, his view of the past, is inseparable from the world he lived in and the changes it went through.
White's poetry is an expression of what for him was "true historical sense", of his existence among countless events and of his definition of history's landmarks, points of reference and its perspectives. In writing his poetry, his history becomes ours if we want to share it with him. Among the multiplicity and immensity of it all White finds & preserves coherence, wholeness and unity. This, too, is our task. For we, too, must mould our historical and personal consciousness, our historical unity. We must make our own story into history, our multiplicities into a oneness, our narrative into a portion of that "mass of billions of local stories" that is universal history. White offers to us a series of synthesizing mechanisms that help bring together history and our lives, the macro and the micro as it is sometimes expressed today.
White would have liked to achieve, as any poet would, what Johnson wrote in his life of the poet Gray: "Images which find a mirror in every mind" and "sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo". Still, he left his mark. He gives us old knowledge, old history, rendered in new ways, the familiar made unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar, as one writer once put it.
Roger White is one of the finest wordsmiths in the Baha'i community to have written in English in recent epochs. If you love literature, history and the Baha'i Faith, I could do no better than suggest you patiently pursue poem after poem of what is an extensive opus and devour, as much as you can, White's delicious instances of wit, wisdom and sheer genius. Hagiographers may indulge in the pleasing task of describing the religion they espouse as it descended from heaven arrayed in its native purity; a more melancholy and at the same time more joyous and intellectually satisfying duty falls upon the poet.
The poet's task, certainly as White sees it, is to discover the inevitable mixture of humanity and ordinariness, vanity and weakness, heroism and virtue, which is associated with the subtle and complex system of action and conviction in the emerging world religion he was part of for nearly half a century. The given moment of history, to White, is something more than a mere circumstance. It is a moment he must seize as a moral, an aesthetic fact. In seizing this fact, the reader is often required by White to do a little digging, exert some intellectual effort, exercise more than a little brain power and imagination. If the reader is not capable of giving something of himself he cannot get from White's poetry the best it has to give him. If that is the case he had better not read White's poetry, for there is no obligation to do so.
White seems to have some of that "inexhaustible ardour for insight" that the poet William Blake evinced and "his sensibilities so heightened that ordinary events were translated into extraordinary ones". The outward creation was certainly, from time to time anyway, a transparent shell through which White beheld the fiery secret of life and its burning ecstasy. It was a secret and an ecstasy that he had seen and experienced, thanks to the teachings of the prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith and His transforming influences. But it was a many-splendoured, many-sided thing. White knew that:
We court a miracle and see the candles fail,
The petals rust. What do our tears avail?
No sword of vengeance cleaves us as we stand,
Our supplication brings no answering shout.
An ant crawls by persistent as our doubt
And in the comprehending hush we understand
Our mediocrity and godliness …
White would have agreed with Jane Austen when she wrote: "Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all." The record of the past has never been easy to render; in some basic ways the content of the social sciences in general is much more complex than the physical sciences and so the telling of history, in or out of poetic form, is a difficult task. It helps to know a great deal and it helps to have thought long and hard about it.
So often it is in vain that with retrospective eye we can conclude a motive from the deed. For character is unstable, life at best only partly explainable and the individual only understandable to a degree. It is not surprising that for many, even the more informed, history still is what it was to Gibbon two and a half centuries ago: "little more that the register of the crimes, the follies and misfortunes of mankind".
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