First Frost

First Frost

The Scottish people may not have been big fans, but this Arizona girl found the first frost enchanting. (Until she almost slipped on ice during her run, that is.)

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“First Frost”

His kiss was cold, pinking my pale face
As he sucked my breath away in steaming plumes;
But smooth and crystalline as spider’s lace,
Beneath my feet, he gently decks my way—
A bridal train toward some white winter’s groom
Summoned by the late-light of new day.

As sheets of mirrors crack beneath my weight
And break apart that swiftly-slipping dream—
Though frozen-fast, not solid as it seemed—
My chilled hands grasp at shrinking shards and hold
Them up as though through them to glimpse again
(Ignoring as my fingers burn with cold)
That frost-transfigured globe contained within.

The Philanthropist

The Philanthropist

He began the fall in wealth,
His arms hanging heavy with green, new-money
Made in spring.
It was the cash that grows on trees:
Easily spent and easily made,
Budded by summer and
Minted by the gold-standard sun.

Investing at Autumn’s asking,
He lays a few leavings in her chill-bone hands
But scatters the rest in splendour
As on her bridal path.
He takes care to appear choosy,
Particular and piecemeal as
A widow with her mite,
Though he is secretly as prodigal as his creator
As wistful as a lover,
Plucking a piece at a time from his boughs
And sending it off,
Hopeful as a love letter,
Yellow as a first rose,
And dancing in girlish spirals
on its way down.

Down, down, down to the banks.
A copper here.
A penny there.
Soon he will rest.
Soon he will lay down his last life
And wait half-dead in winter’s retirement.
But for now,
As a bird feathers her nest,
He lines the road with dew-damp gold,
Lavishing heaven’s riches on earth
For a few more weeks, if not
For Eternity.

Hallow Hill

Hallow Hill

The hill was ghostly. Even before finding an old sign revealing its history as an early Christian burial site, I could sense the tension between life and death in the air that chilled my face. It was a place pulsing with potential, yet quiet and lonely as a sleeping giant. Insignificance and eternity confronted me as I felt at once my own smallness amidst the swirling mist and the faint-but-discernable presence of those sleeping beneath the grass and dirt.

And so, here is a poem.

On Hallow Hill the lichen grows
On trees far, far too young to know
That ‘neath their root-laced, grassy shroud
There lies in loneliness a crowd.

O’erhead crows caw continuous gloom
As doves pray peace for th’unseen tomb.
Such sombre birds of ghostly air,
The only pilgrims passing there—

There where the earth, a swollen bride,
Still nurses those that testified:
Expecting, under dust and leaves,
The birth toward which her babes believed.

Listen! She lulls with willow song:
“Though ages pass, it shan’t be long!”
It shan’t be long ’til these hills cry
As Light tears through their cloud-hung sky.

So tune to joy, you mournful dove!
As bones reknit themselves in love
To stretch, to stand—to kneel—toward
The One who wakes them by His Word.

Poetic Love

Poetic Love

A year ago today I picked up a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in a Waterstones in Cambridge. I read it cover-to-cover without sitting and — admittedly — without purchasing it. I was intrigued, but, when I closed it and placed it back on its display, I realized that the fascination I’d felt with Kaur’s poetry was no different than the sensual interest I might have felt for a moody text post on Pinterest or Tumblr.

Now, I am thrilled to see poets gaining recognition at this level. Miss Kaur’s books are New York Times Bestsellers and clearly they speak to a lot of hurting people. I am pleased to see them promoting empathy in their expression of sensitive subjects such as emotional and sexual abuse. However, as a literary critic, I must raise some concerns.

Are these poems surviving on their merit as well-crafted works of art? Or, conversely, are they selling because of their sensualism and apparent relevance? Can we expect them to endure the test of time to rest beside the Dickensons, the Frosts, Eliots, and Wordsworths?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask that final question. I like to consider myself a fair poet, but I am also realistic; I am no literary giant and my poetry will not likely be studied in schools or mounted on plaques. Still, though, I think it is a duty of discernment to consider whether modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is actually succeeding due to its artistic merit or whether it simply appeals to the emotionalism and liberalism of the current age.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

I understand the thrust of this statement. Free love denies the fidelity of monogamy, the bonds of family, and the commitment of friendship. An idea that sounds like the multiplication of a good thing (love), in actuality leads to a devaluing of its virtue. Without a sense of consent, commitment, and collaboration within a loving relationship, there is no security and envy, competition, guilt, and distrust will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Free love in this sense is no longer love.

Applying this idea to poetry is, on the surface, a pleasing parallel. Without structure, a poet might think she has more freedom. However, these very boundaries are what force creative problem-solving, clever turns-of-phrase, and focused expression. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been written without their characteristic structure, but they would have become a formless, romantic soup rather than the noble, innovative works of literary architecture we know today.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” could never have endured had Shakespeare taken a more Rupi Kaur-esque approach and penned something along the lines of:

You were the summer
hot and wet:
my sun
and yet
you burn.

Now, this is a poor translation between styles and it sorely abused the subject matter. But doesn’t it feel almost painfully forced? The lack of structure made the poem spineless, all emotion and self-expression and with no creative, rational thought or construction.

In this, I can understand Chesterton’s point. Without the commitment to structure and poetic rules, there is less of a chance of the poem making objective sense; it becomes too subjective to be understood and to endure beyond the self and those like that self. It becomes like free love: a delicious idea that is not built to withstand the hard truth that human beings crave consistency and order.

However, I do believe there is a unique beauty and purpose to free verse poetry. Free love in the sense of love without any sense of confines or commitment is certainly an idea doomed to fall into license, but love that operates solely by rules and requirements becomes legalism. The heart of it will either be poisoned by total freedom or hardened by lack of genuine affection.

This brings us to the idea of poetic license, which might more properly be defined as poetic love. For the love of the poem, a poet chooses to follow structure to support its subject, but also to deviate from that structure when necessary to support the poem’s affection. In this, both reason and emotion are given enough elbow room, and are brought into cooperation with each other. For the love of this literary art, we poets must carefully and intentionally choose where we will follow the rules to give our poem a sturdy skeleton and where we will bend them to make its flesh more alluring.

This can, believe it or not, be accomplished in both the strictest of sonnets as well as the most seemingly free of verse. However, sonnets must sometimes compromise an exact rhyme here or a little inflection there to avoid becoming mechanical, whereas free verse must invoke some sort of internal structure to prevent becoming a milksop.

I can think of no better example of this than T.S. Eliot, who is a master of metaphor and theme and uses both as unifying devices so that even the most abstract of verses retain a resounding echo of purpose, sense, and decision. There is not a half-hearted word or phrase to be found in Eliot.

For the sake of ease, however, I will use a collection of my own poems as an example. A few years ago, I wrote my first collection of free verse poetry based on the healings in the Gospel of Mark. (These can be found at https://inkarnationpress.com/2019/07/10/immediately-eight-poems-on-the-gospel-of-mark/)

As a dogmatic, conservative soul, I admit that free verse has always made me uncomfortable. (Sylvia Plath and I have just now started to get along, whereas good ‘ole Robert Frost and I have been childhood friends.) However, the sense of spontaneity — of utter brokenness being drawn back into wholeness and life — in these stories of healing demanded freer form.

Still, these are stories of disorder being reordered in Christ, so it would have been almost blasphemous to write them without any sense of structure. Stealing from the scriptures, I employed the recurring word “immediately,” as well as the inherent parallelism found in the gospel accounts to stitch my poems together and give them both arc and depth.

There is value in poems such as Rupi Kaur’s in that they provide their poets a way of healing, just as writing my Mark collection was an exercise in devotion and wholeness. However, what is lacking in these popular poems is a sense of internal unity and apparent structure. Themes of brokenness and resilience are found throughout, but is that enough? Within the individual poems, I only seem to find random line breaks and sentences that would have made more sense left in a single line and pasted across an angsty Pinterest photo. It seems that the raw thrust of Kaur’s emotion is the only thing keeping her books selling. And, just as in love, that first burst of emotion cannot endure. As in any relationship, mutual understanding and effort are what produce lasting love. It is the same with poetry, which is so often born of love. Without a skeleton, flesh will eventually fold away; it is easy to write superficial, fleshy verses, while constructing and beautifying a skeleton meant to last takes skill that I am yet practicing.

For instance, I scribbled this fleshy bit of poetry in the span of a second:

Knock knock
I never said come in
but still
you
did.

I’m not even sure what it’s about, but it feels sensual enough to sell if I were to slap a badly drawn broken heart on it. In contrast, to write a sonnet of brokenness is not only to express the hurt, but to rebuild it into something ordered and beautiful. A lament is a far cry from a complaint. (Consider the Psalms, which are authentic in brokenness, but continually return to order and trust.)

Poetry today is often used to express anger, sorrow, and ache and I do not want to devalue this vulnerability. It takes courage. It takes widening wounds to share them with others and this opens doors for empathy. In this, modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is potentially helpful. However, art is — at least for the Christian —  fundamentally about order; it is about expressing, but also recreating and reorganizing. Writing broken lines and hastily-scribbled complaints may have value as self-expression, but without returning — both literally and literarily— to a balance of emotion and reason, heart and mind, there is little hope for redemption in both poem and poet.

Poems and a Creek and Such (revisiting an old spot of time)

Poems and a Creek and Such (revisiting an old spot of time)

When I was a freshman in college, I had the not-uncommon experience of feeling 150682234% overwhelmed. It was honestly a feat of grace and strength that I stuck it out, but by the second semester, how happy I was that I did!

As that terrified, homesick 18-year-old, I went on a choir retreat and nearly had a complete breakdown which resulted in the composition of what I consider my first “real” poem. Now, I am not quite as proud of it and see its many faults, but here is the link to it just the same: Poems and Trees and Such

This past semester (my second-to-last as an undergraduate) has been a whirlwind, but it has also been characterized by a level of calm which I never thought I’d achieve as a freshman. Naturally, when I revisited the site of my first poem (written in that state of anxiety), I wrote more poetry in an outpouring of gratitude, mixed with a certain melancholy that the time has flown by faster than I ever imagined possible.

In the craziness of this semester, though, I forgot this scribbling and only just rediscovered it as I leafed (pun, as always, intended) through my journal. So, now that I have a bit of breathing space, I’ll share it:

This stream I knew is dry now
and its rocks are all laid bare.
It buzzes, stinging, where once it washed
with water and with tears.

The rattling, skeleton tree limbs
stretch but don’t quite reach
across the dusty canyon bed
or seasons since we first did meet–
I and this crumbling, crackling creak.

But still the lone lorn pools reflect
in their barren, dirty sheen,
the ghost of the girl gone and grown
who now returns to where she’d been.

I see myself in retrograde:
this fount is as I was.
I was first the barren stream,
the jagged soul with aching limbs,
and he, the babbling merry thing.

Then it was green and I was young,
but worn in ways I am not now.
I came to cry, but now to sing,
for here first from my heart did spring
a gush of poetry.

And, in being made so free
by nature then to nurture words
and, drinking of living water,
to be rewritten by the Word.

And now, although I have come back,
content as I was not then,
I find I cannot return that
happy favor to this friend.

My cup o’erflows and I’ve grown strong;
now I’m the one bubbling in song.
My ghost meets me in the creek-bed’s death
and, thankful, I draw in freshened breath;
Although we have now traded place,
I bless this stream and its gentle grace.

An Advent Poem

An Advent Poem

Empty, the sanctuary waits
beneath a tree, beneath a cross—
the branches a burden and trough
to bear body and newborn king.

White wails of a storm without
are vespers whispered warm within,
And yet echo infant, age-old cry —
of beginning and of end.

In the lonely silence, all is dead,
yet all holds living breath:
awaiting — fearful, wonderstruck —
marriage of birth and death.

The tree below soon will glow
while carols sung, bells rung,
but only to light the waiting night
for the ghastly promise hung
above the tree, upon the beam—
O! Lift your eyes and see!

In the fullness of both fear and cheer,
Gather quiet, waiting here:
beneath the cross and truest tree
topped by the Morning’s darkened beam:
Born to die and yet in death,
taking that first all-blessed breath.
And as that storied star must rise,
Cradle cross bears Christmas skies.

Art courtesy of Rebecca Tyler (oppositeendsofthescale.wordpress.com)

To Travel: A Sonnet

To Travel: A Sonnet

I was a stranger here yet better known
Away from all I thought myself to be—
Away from all routines that made me, me,
I found myself in being severed grown.

Away from all the people I loved best
I found myself in newer company—
I found my soul in this older country
Away from where in strivings I would rest.

I came in laughter ready to enjoy
Yet leave a somewhat sadder, wiser heart—
Yet leave more whole for being torn apart,
I return dyed a deeper shade of joy.

Away I went to see the world’s wide wealth,
I return now, a world within myself.