Language, like the body, is alive, expressing the soul, the self, the breath in phrase and gesture. And poems, more than any other form, concentrate the soul language. In poems we offer elaborate praises, vivid laments, litanies of griefs, spontaneous raps, nonsense syllables, songs of memory, longing, and love.
Children seem to remember this more than adults. I have had the great privilege to teach poetry through the California Poets in the Schools program for many years. When I started teaching, I didn't realize I would be so constantly astonished by the casual profundity of children's words, the directness and transparency of their images, the generosity of their insights. Teaching children has kept me in touch with the power of closely observing and celebrating the world around us, listening to our questions, and developing our own metaphors.
Every day that I am in the classroom someone offers a shimmering question or a radiant image or an unadorned statement that startles and enlivens. More and more I have come to believe that such poetry is not rare but it is precious, and it needs nourishing!Some of the best poems are the ones we say to people we love; some are written down and travel across centuries to sustain people in far different lives and circumstances.
Nearly twenty years ago I edited and illustrated a book called Changing Light: The Eternal Cycle of Night and Day. I included myths, poems and prayers about night and day--an Egyptian hymn to the sun, Native American moon calendars, night poems of love, dream, and death, pieces from James Agee, Annie Dillard, Whitman and DIckinson, Anna Akmatova and Rilke, Louise Bogan and Kathleen Raine. Works of depth and radiance illuminating the beauty of both light and darkness.
I do not know if I could ever choose one single favorite poem. Today the poem I carry closest to me is a poem by the British poet Kathleen Raine. Written in four sections “To the Sun” summarizes much of our mythic relationship to the sun across cultures as the poet insists on holiness is in our scientific age.
A few months after Changing Light was published, I was given the opportunity to read at the Naropa cafeteria at noon. I had been brought by Anne Waldman’s office and introduced to her beforehand; I was feeling a bit intimidated. The venue was less than ideal. The cafeteria was noisy, people were slamming the sliding glass door as they entered and left the room, the microwave was beeping at irregular intervals. Changing Light was new, and I was not familiar with reading the work outloud yet.
All of the sudden I found myself reading the fourth section of “To the Sun.” It begins, “Not that light is holy, but that the holy is the light.” Everything shifted into stillness as I continued, and we moved into the mysterious unity that Raine glimpses and translates into language.
Not that light is holy, but that the holy is the light
Only by seeing, by being, we know,
Rapt, breath stilled, bliss of the heart.
No microscope nor telescope can discover
The immeasurable: not in the seen but in the seer
Epiphany of the commonplace.
A hyacinth in a glass it was, on my working table,
Before my eyes opened beyond beauty light's pure living flow.
'It is I,' I knew, 'I am that flower, that light is I,
'Both seer and sight'.
Long ago, but for ever; for none can unknow
Native Paradise in every blade of grass,
Pebble, and particle of dust, immaculate.
'It has been so and will be always', I knew,
No foulness, violence, ignorance of ours
Can defile that sacred source:
Why should I, one of light's innumerable multitude,
Fear in my unbecoming to be what for ever is?
“Not that light is holy, but that the holy is the light.”
In a few days I will be attending the funeral of the mother of a close, close friend. Once again I return to these lines I love so much and know I do not understand, these lines which provide solace in the face of the unknown.
About J. Ruth
Causes J. Ruth Gendler Supports
Poets in the Schools
River of Words
Friends of the Earth
Doctors Withour Borders