Monday, January 02, 2012

Homily: "Poetry for the New Year" (Delivered 1-1-12)

First Reading
“A Change in Plans” by Tony Hoagland *
It’s tiring, this endless revision
of our idea of a world
which is continually revised –
as the painter good-naturedly lengthens
 the ash on his model’s cigarette – or,
if nature is his model, subtracts a leaf
from the birch undressing in the yard.
It’s hard to remember
what we’re practicing for
with this long succession of goodbyes
as each new understanding
goes out of date, like a window
turning into a mistake. 
What we’ve learned is mostly
not to be so smart – to believe,
as the hands believe,
in only what they hold.
And we don’t rush our explanations.
Instead, we tell a story: 
Remember how the reptiles,
after generations of desire
to taste the yellow flowers,
thrust out wings one day and lifted from the ground?
Being birds by that time,
their appetites had changed.
But they kept on flying. 

Second Reading 
“The Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Syzmborska *
Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short. 
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not. 
Happiness and spring,
among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer. 
Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie. 
A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth. 
There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff. 
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task. 
Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
Hope
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas. 
God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.  
“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naive ones. 

Third Reading
“Thanks, Robert Frost” by David Ray * 
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago. 

* Note: These poems are readily available for free on the internet. If you are the copyright holder of these poems and would me to remove them, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will remove them immediately.


Homily 
I used to schedule a worship service known as Poetry Sunday each year in the late spring, usually around the middle of June, when the church year was coming to a close. By that time of the year I’d often feel that I didn’t have too many words of wisdom left to offer. I’d turn to the wisdom of the poets, and allow myself and allow you to be held for a time in the grace of their beauty and insight.

So, why are having a Poetry Sunday in January? I didn’t run out of springtime poems. Neither is my own storehouse of ideas is growing bare. I figured that the morning of the first day of January is as good a time as it gets to pause, to reflect, to allow ourselves to be held by the grace of beauty, and to take time to listen intentionally. Plus, there may not be as many poems about the New Year as there are about the spring, but there are certainly a lot and it would be a shame not to hear a few of them.

I’ve always been remiss to try to divide the world into two types of people, but it seems to me that one true division could be made between those who regard the new year as a threshold moment, a true turning, an opportunity given to us by the universe to take a different path if we would only have the steely fortitude to make the necessary resolutions. And then there are those who do not regard the turning of the year as any sort of a watershed moment, who are not necessarily against the idea of self-improvement or personal betterment, but prefer gradualism over cold-turkey willpower, who view time as cyclical rather than epochal.

The poems that I selected for this Poetry for the New Year service all have to do with looking forward and with how we ought to regard a turning calendar or a changing era. These poems are about how we mark the passage of time and these poems are about our own plans and hopes and aspirations within time.

Someone asked the poet in a letter, “How should we live?” It is a question at the core of human life. “How should we live?” It is a question that cuts to the ethical core of the religious enterprise. And, it is a question that Nobel laureate Wislawa Syzmborska, in her poem “The Century’s Decline,” suggests is a naïve question. Taking a long, broad view of the twentieth century, she remarks that this is a question that we, the members of the human race, are not particularly good at answering.
There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
Hope
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas. 
In this poem Syzmborska humbles us, chastising us for our grandiosity and for our foolish utopianism. Her poem is no less true for us, now a full decade into the twenty first century in a Western democratic nation, than it was for the poet who was writing in Poland in the 1980s, an Eastern Bloc fully in the tumultuous throes of emerging from communism.

At the exact same time in the 1980s, Tony Hoagland, another of my very favorite poets, published his very first chapbook of poetry, named after the poem that was our first reading. (If you like the poetry of Billy Collins, you’d like Tony Hoagland. He is like Collins, but edgier and more irreverent.) From the United States to Poland, Hoagland’s poem can be read as a reply. We’re not talking about a century here, but the long history of evolution. As human beings, as living organisms, it is our nature to desire loftily, to plan intensively, to strive with all our might, only to recalculate our desired destination midway through the journey.
Remember how the reptiles,
after generations of desire
to taste the yellow flowers,
thrust out wings one day and lifted from the ground?
Being birds by that time,
their appetites had changed.
But they kept on flying.
Indeed, “this endless revision of our idea of a world” is tiring. It’s true, it can be hard at times to “remember what we’re practicing for.” According to Hoagland, we focus on the task at hand because it is the task at hand, and not any guarantee eternal significance and meaning. If Syzmborska tells us that time shows us our folly, then Hoagland urges us to be foolish, because what other option is there?

To these two poems, I add a third. I had never heard of the poet David Ray until just about a week ago, when the poem was recommended to me by a colleague. I’d never read any of his Ray’s poems, but I plan to read more of them. (Ray has a local connection, having taught for several years at UMKC which honored him as professor emeritus.) If Syzmborska writes that we are cursed by our foolishness and Hoagland writes that we are blessed by our foolishness, then Ray holds out the hope that we might be compassionate with ourselves for our foolishness.
[The past] will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought… 
How do you regard the turning year? How do you respond to the blank calendar, the symbolic fresh start? Do you see this day as a threshold? Or, do you see it as just another day?

I know that there are some of you who are restless souls. It is in your nature for you to scrutinize yourselves and to be perpetually aware of the exacting standards you don’t always live up to. You know who you are. Truth be told, I often count myself among this group. As out goes the old and in comes the new, I offer you and myself this blessing, a paraphrase of the words of David Ray: May the future, yes, and even the past become something you can bear. And, may this strange peace comfort you.”

And I know that there are some of you who are not nearly as strident, not nearly as insurgent.  Some of you, like the figures in the Tony Hoagland poem, are content to be in the moment. To you, I offer this blessing: May the new year bring you yellow flowers worth your striving, and may you not confuse the long road for the foolish road. As we enter this New Year, carry these poetic reflections out into the year before us.

If here you have found a sense of determination and resolve, then go forth determined to live fully.

If here you have found an ability to laugh, take that laughter out into the world.

If here you have found a greater sense of peace, go forth and bring peace to a world ever in need of peacemakers.

If here you have found a depth of commitment, commit to blessing the world.

If here you have found a willingness to be foolish, go forth and love foolishly.

If here you have found hope, go and share it with all you meet. Amen.

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