POEMS THAT HAVE SPOKEN TO US IN THE PAST


The Christos Acheiropoietos or ‘Christ-not-made-by-hand’, a much revered 12th century Russian Orthodox icon, celebrates the miracle in which Jesus healed King Abgar of Edessa by sending him an image of his face imprinted on a piece of linen cloth. Such an icon is said to have been “written” by the word of God, not painted by a person.

Poems that have spoken to us in the past have, like friends, the absolute right to our special attention in the present.

Our doors are always open to them, so to speak, and because such poems have already proved their trustworthiness, the critical small-talk can be skipped over. They’re let straight into our most intimate spaces, they’re sat down to supper and even have the right to stay all night if they wish.

However much of an historical accident the elevation of  “In A Station of the Metro” or “The Red Wheelbarrow” might have been, they have now become close friends to most contemporary poets and readers. A poem that reaches this level doesn’t have to prove anything any more. It simply is.

Which is true of many older works of sacred art, of course, like the Willendorf Venus (28,000 BC), the Lady of Warka (3100 BC), and Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531). Closer to home, nursery rhymes, Saturday Evening Post covers, and relics from our childhood altars, or those of our grandparents, Irish, Tamil, Armenian or Hmong, such artifacts are permanently numinous. However kitschy they might have been at the start they have achieved the status of  “antiques” — even if they were just five-and-dime store knick-knacks to begin with. They’ve been rubbed all over with the wax of human love, familiarity and coherence, and as a result have a sheen deeper than intention, or skill, or even what they might, or might not, have meant, or mean. Indeed, like all great religious ‘icons,’ they mean without meaning, and can speak and weep through the humblest paste and cardboard.

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Scrabbling around in the trunk at the foot of my bed, I discovered the following poem. It illustrates beautifully what I mean because it got placed there during a period in my life when I was down on my knees most of the time. At this point I’ve lost all connection to the religious content of the poem, I’m afraid,  yet still it speaks to me with utter conviction, sincerity and passion — indeed, as I feel it must have spoken to Simone Weil, “Love” having been among her favorite poems as well.

Look at “Love” through Simone Weil’s eyes and I think you’ll see what I mean when I say that certain poems like friends are hors de contest.

Christopher Woodman

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.……………………………………………….LOVE

………………………Love bade me welome; yet my soul drew back,
……………………. …. .Guilty of dust and sin.
………………………But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……………… … ..     …From my first entrance in,
………………………Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
……………….      . ……If I lack’d anything.

………………………“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here:”
………….      …. ………Love said, “you shall be he.”
………………………“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
…………..      … ………I cannot look on Thee.”
………………………Love took me by my hand and smiling did reply,
……………………………“Who made the eyes but I?”

………………………“Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
…………………………….Go where it doth deserve.”
………………………“And know you not,” says Love, “Who bore the blame?”
……………………………“My dear, then I will serve.”
………………………“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……………….. ………….So I did sit and eat.

…………………………………………………………………………George Herbert

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