Saturday, January 23, 2021

Teaching poetry and script

In Lent last year, Jim Gordon had a series on the poetry of George Herbert. Did you ever have trouble reading poetry? I could not slow myself down long enough even in University to tease out the reality of poetry. It was not until I began to sing the Metaphysicals that I began to appreciate all the poetry that had been stuffed into me by rote from Chaucer to Eliot. I still have trouble.

The Psalms, the Prophets, and Job (with the exception of the prologue and Epilogue) are all 'poetry' in the Bible. The words are in short sharp lines and have a different set of cantillation signs.

We should be able to slow down, even if we may read parts of a poem fast as Amanda Gorman did at the inauguration of Biden, We should be able to perform and study and appreciate the shapes, the forms, the sounds of words and letters, to celebrate the gift of tongues that we all have.

Rejoice in God O ye Tongues:
Give the glory to the Lord and the Lamb

Nations and languages And every Creature
In which is the breath of Life

Let man and beast appear before him,
and magnify his name together


Jubilate Agno, Fragment A, by Christopher Smart

A youngster 1/10th my age asked if we could write a book together. I said, yes, but thought, we must explore all aspects of writing in this digital age, cursive, mirror, shape, ease, sound, and also form, content, character, tension, humour, and poetry.

After some discussion of his initial words for a story, and scribbling down some quick thoughts, he and I together, and asking some questions about writing, I started us off with the exercise of tracing the poem Easter Wings by George Herbert, as if one must have a poem as a lead-off, maybe part of the front matter of 'The Book' to be written. All due love to my first teachers of Metaphysical poetry especially Peter Ohlin of McGill, 50+ years ago, and the musicians, knowingly or not, who allowed me to wake up to Herbert's words.

If we are to write a book, we really ought to practise some writing. Here is our first attempt, each of us alternatively tracing the words and letters over three days. What is in the poem?
Tracing Easter Wings by George Herbert

No doubt our letters are impoverished compared to what the 17th century writer would have done. But it is a start. (You can find an original Ms online at the Bodleian - but I could not get it to instantiate.)
Here is an image from Trinity College Cambridge.
Easter Wings  by George Herbert: TCC, VI.11.29, p
Many have written about this poem, what does a 75-year-old see to help teach a 7.5-year-old? What is in the poem today for us in the early 21st Century? It is rather more applicable to us than abstract theology drawn from its surface.

But surely, having touched on the obvious shape, we could begin with sound and letters. Including the words that I inadvertently skipped! My failure will give both of us a lesson in syllables. How could I leave out 'this day', so much a part of Hebert's theology! (There is but one and that one ever).

Why are the syllables asymmetrical? 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 : 2, 4, 8, 8, 10.

Letters that stood out to me were the f's in the last line of stanza 1. These sounds are repeated in the final three lines of the second stanza.

How did I think of applying the content - we are still at the beginning of things, and a poem like this will take years to absorb. But the created order is evident to a 7.5 year old: parks, animals, fields of vegetables, beaches, seas, rain, snow, wind, mountains, clouds, sky, sun and moon, planets and stars. So line 1 has its application - and the loss of species (line 2) he has heard of, the becoming poore. Yet with thee (the old language that he has never heard till now), he can imagine flying even after the fall into most poore in the middle lines.

And stanza 2? Sicknesses and shame he is no stranger to, broken bones, disability in near relations, trouble, and most obviously, the current pandemic. But imp though he is in modern terms, he can hear the original sense of imp, as Jim Gordon pointed out, the grafting of our feathers on greater wings, using even the pandemic as affliction to advance flight.

Can we learn and use such affliction together to advance the flight in us?

Singular must include some aspect of plurality also, lest we be merely self-centred.


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