I was asked by Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace to give a reflection about the relationship between art and my peace activism. I decided to explore my experiences with poetry and politics and how my attitude towards both has evolved over the years. To my surprise, I discovered that Quakerism--and the practice of meditation--helped me to grow and deepen as a lover and writer of poetry. From the rich Ground of Silence flowers of goodness emerge, synthesize the Light, and bear fruit!
The Black Art
by Anne Sexton
A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands weren't enough;
as if mourners and gossips and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.
A man who writes knows too much, such spells and fetishes!
As if erections and congresses and products weren't enough;
as if machines and galleons and wars were never enough.
With used furniture he makes a tree.
A writer is essentially a crook.Dear love, you are that man.
Never loving ourselves,
hating even our shoes and our hats,
we love each other, precious, precious.
Our hands are light blue and gentle.
Our eyes are full of terrible confessions.
But when we marry, the children leave in disgust.
There is too much food and no one left over to eat up all the weird abundance.
Politics and poetry have been two of the great passions of my life. Today I’d like to reflect on my passion for poetry relates to my passion for politics, and how both were transformed by Spirit.
My passion for politics was in my DNA since I am the son of a Greek immigrant who, like many Greek men, loved to argue politics. My father had little formal education—he jumped ship from Greece and settled in New York City when he was only fourteen and learned English from reading the newspapers. Nonetheless, he was a voracious reader and had strong opinions on every political subject. As he grew older, he grew increasingly conservative. He ended up being a supporter of the Vietnam War and of Spiro Agnew, that Greek lover of language who is probably best known for describing liberals as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” My father admired and praised Agnew, which of course drove me nuts. My father and I argued incessantly and passionately until the day he died. We made peace only after his death, in the land of dreams and poetry.
I don’t know where I got my passion for poetry, except that it was somehow related to my love of language. English was spoken in my home since my mother was Scottish—a woman my father met during the war, when he served as a soldier in England. But my relatives spoke Greek and I grew up with the language of Homer and Aeschylus and Plato reverberating in my head. Thanks to the excellent school system in Princeton, NJ, where I grew up, I learned French and Latin while still in junior high school. It was at this time that I fell in love with poetry.
I still remember my first poem as vividly as I remember my first kiss. I was reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and the rhythms and rhymes affected me like a drug. I was utterly mesmerized as I wandered about the school yard repeating the lines: “And the silken, sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before, so that now to still the beating of my heart I stood repeating, ‘Tis some late night visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door. That is its, and nothing more.” I was so entranced with the sound of this poem I learned it by heart. I later learned by heart poems by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas—all masters of the magic and mystery of words.
In high school and college, I was editor of the literary magazine and aspired to be a poet. But my poetry came from a dark place and a troubled life---a life of drugs and alienation that led me to the brink of madness The poets I most admired all had similarly troubled lives—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Coleridge, and Anne Sexton. In college Anne Sexton became my teacher and mentor. As you may know, she was one of the most famous of the confessional poets—along with Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. When Sexton attempted suicide and had a nervous breakdown, her doctor recommended that she write poetry as a form of therapy. A brilliant coiner of images, Sexton turned her neuroses into a successful career as a poet. This is something that I and many of her students hoped to do when she came to teach at Boston University. I sometimes describe her class as a gathering of the most creative and gifted neurotics in New England.
Looking back at BU, I realize that my two most important teachers were Anne Sexton and Howard Zinn. It’s hard to imagine two teachers more different than these two, yet such was my divided self that I was drawn to both.
I loved to go to demonstration and protest the war but there was a war within myself that I could not find any way to end. I went to rallies to be in solidarity with the peace movement, but always felt like an outsider, a spy, a figure from a Dostoevsky novel. And out of that loneliness and alienation, I wrote poems that were quirky and intensely personal, just like the ones that Anne Sexton describes in her poem, “The Black Art,”
I suffered a minor nervous breakdown in college just before graduation, and just as my father died of a protracted illness, in 1971. To help overcome my grief and depression, I went on the road to Canada and discovered a new life, a life centered not in my neuroses, but in the Spirit. Inspired and enthusiastic, I wrote a lot of poems, some of which were published, but my urge to write poems petered out about the same time that Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974. Her death took the wind out of my poetic sails.
Instead of writing poems, I went back to college in order to become an English teacher and teach poetry. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers, where I studied with Paul Fussell, who had written a brilliant, prize-winning book about the poets of World War I: The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) By this time, I had stopped writing poetry altogether, except for some poems I wrote in Latin. Yes, I wrote poems in a dead language, which were even published in a learned journal. I suppose that earns me a place in the Dead Poet’s Society’s Hall of Fame.
After earning my Ph. D. I had another major crisis/turning point in my life. I got my first teaching job at Carleton College, and my first marriage ended in a painful divorce. I also got the news that my mother was dying and needed my help, so I returned to Princeton, my home town.
This is where I discovered Quakers and renewed my spiritual life. I became so intrigued by the practice of meditation and prayer I went to live at the Providence, RI, Zen Buddhist center and stayed there for nine months. One of my goals was to wean myself from my addiction to words. To my surprise and delight, I began writing poetry again.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I got back in touch with my creativity at the Zen Center since the poems I wrote were like the messages that are given in a Quaker meeting for worship. We Friends say that genuine messages come out of the Silence, the deep silence in which we feel connected with Spirit and each other. In this state, words are totally unnecessary because we experience the deep, inner peace that passes understanding. Yet sometimes in this silent place, an inner voice whispers to us words that can heal and bring comfort as well as reveal hard truths that need to be uttered.
During my life as a Quaker, I have written and published numerous poems that come from this place of Silence. If my early poems were about the “Black Arts”—the mystery of death and darkness—these poems are about the magic and mystery of being intensely alive, and of experiencing the Light Within. As Martin Laird says in his beautiful book, Into the Silent Land, "We cannot pass through the doorways of silence without becoming part of God's embrace of all humanity in its suffering and joy."
I no longer feel there is a huge chasm between poetry and politics. We need enlightened poetry just as we need enlightened politics in order to have a full and abundant life. Both come out of an enlightened community where there is a place for contemplation and action, silence and the prophetic word. As a Quaker, I was able to use my passion for poetry in order to edit a book of poems and fiction by Soviet and American writers that helped create understanding and promote peace.
But the world of poetry is still primarily the inner world, the world of feelings and insights that cannot be reduced to political slogans or ideas. Poetry is about the mystery and magic not only of words, but of life itself—the life we live day by day, and the life that we imagine in our dreams, and in our fears and hopes, and in the peace that passes understanding.
The following poems were published in Quaker publications: “Quaker Hymn to Spring," "All the Time In The World," and "Exiles" appeared in Friends Journal; "Desert of the Heart" in Rebirth of Artemis and in Journal of Humanistic Psychology’; “All the Time in the World” in EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age (Friends Bulletin, ed. Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos); “Surrender Garden” in Enlivened by The Mystery: Quakers and God (Western Friend, ed. by Kathy Hyzy); "Song to Benjamin Linder" was set to music and recorded by Sharon Sigal in an album entitled January Sunbeam.
All the Time in the World
It takes all the time in the world
to enter the water and the wind wholly,
to let fall the imaginary boundaries
and return to the source and the destination.
It takes infinite patience to be the forest,
to cry with the chickadees and crawl with the ants,
to stalk with the cat, and forage with the bear,
to let the slow, timeless sap flow through your branches,
and feel roots and tubers pierce you like a lover...
Nothing begins or ends here: there is only the circle,
widening, calling back its own.
When you walk the path, you must be the path.
Do not be proud. Even the centipede knows this.
Everything that you touch changes
and changing, changes you.
Everything you think fill the air with its smell.
As you build you tipi or your city,
remember that knowledge and skills cannot save you.
When night falls, you must be the night.
When day breaks, you too must be broken.
(For Ramon, an El Salvadoran)
Walking upland through snowy woods
we used only the simplest words:
Cold, frio. Trees, arboles. Snow, nieve. Sky, cielo.
Using only such speech as exiles speak,
feeling the same cold, the same wind,
we climbed higher, slipped on the wet snow, laughed,
and clambered on.
Our sanctuary lay ahead, some lichen-spotted boulders.
We sat down without a word.
But echoing in my mind like wind trapped in a cave
were words Ramon repeated often:
"I have lost my God, I have lost my God."
Marriage, children, country, God--all lost,
like last fall's leaves.
What could I say?
Here, as we sat among the ancient stones,
nothing needed to be said.
With a smile Ramon got up,
wrote his girlfriend's name in the snow,
then leaned back against a rock and
disappeared into his poncho.
I continued to watch the trees:
buds, like tiny nipples, slept on tips of branches.
Quaker Hymn to Spring
(for Yuki Brinton)
The sunlight seemed to sing out in a weeping cherry tree
that spring day I arrived at Pendle Hill.
Someone had hacked it halfway down, and yet it sang to me:
"There's that in me no one can ever kill." (Repeat)
I stood amazed and listened until someone told me how
a widow old and small but hardly frail
had hurried to this spot when she had heard the horrid sound
of a chainsaw and its silence-shattering wail. (Repeat)
This tree her husband planted, and it now was in her care.
Some say she climbed it like a mother cat.
Some say she brought the woodsman down with just a piercing stare.
This much I know: this broken tree still stands. (Repeat)
In the stillness of the morning, in the stillness of my heart,
it sings its light-filled song to joy and spring. (Repeat)
The Desert of the Heart
To what desert can one go
to escape the desert of the heart?
There's no extinction, no forgiveness, here:
everything that's born suffers and dies,
returns and, returning, turns in our minds again,
until we learn to look with love,
and without desire or fear,
at each lizard and rock,
each dry well and prickly pear.
What we know, or think we know,
brings death, sudden or slow.
Old newspapers blow across the proving grounds
scorched with our well reasoned fears.
Each mind contains a holocaust;
with each heartbeat a world's end nears.
What we don't know
gives life and peace and hope
beyond mere words.
A man tickles a beetle
with a stick, and lightning leaps across the skies.
A woman sits so quietly she can hear
dust settle on her face,
and in the earth below
invisible seeds await the unthinkable rain.
--- Providence Zen Center, 1986
(set to music by Sharon Sigal in her album, "January Sunbeam")
Ben Linder was an all-American,
a hero, builder, and clown.
He loved the folks of Nicaragua,
and the contras gunned him down.
He loved to build, not destroy.
He was a true engineer.
He knew that life is a narrow bridge,
wouldn't give way to fear.
He loved to ride a unibike
and balance on a rope.
He liked to try the impossible
and never gave up hope.
He wouldn't work for Boeing,
wouldn't hustle for Star Wars.
Kid, you'll never get rich that way,
said his friends who knew the score.
He was only twenty-two
and five-foot four
when he went to Nicaragua
and saw poverty and war.
He stayed in a war-torn village,
made power from a creek,
lived in a shack and dug Dire Straits
like an old-time '60's freak.
For the kids of El Cua
he juggled beans, tortillas and rice
"Eat balanced foods," he told them.
They thought he was crazy but nice.
He liked to pick wild orchids,
and walk alone by a stream,
joke with friends,
lie in the sun, and dream.
Some say he was a dreamer,
but to me he was wide awake.
He knew that life is the kind of game
that we play for mortal stakes.
He didn't win any medals,
He didn't have any secret funds,
He didn't kill or lie for a living,
Sell drugs or bonds or guns.
Ben Linder was an all-American,
A builder, a hero, a clown.
He loved the folks of Nicaragua
and the contras gunned him down.
The Surrender Garden
(for Wendell Berry)
I farm a room-sized plot of earth
where once a factory stood.
In spring, I'm met by eager volunteers--
onions and leeks, swiss chard and kale
green and sweet as those in paradise.
But as I turn the soil for the first time,
bricks the size and shape of potatoes
stick in my digger's stubborn teeth.
My brow sweats. My winter-weary muscles ache.
I feel the effects of the fall.
My seeds are scattered to the sound
of kids and cars, trolleys and boom boxes.
I use my hands instead of a digger
because I love to mold and stroke the earth,
to feel it touch my skin.
I sit in my garden like a kid in a sandbox
and think of my Greek grandfather
for whom gardening was no game.
With the sun and rains
weeds rise up like angry peasants
insisting on their squatter's rights.
I can't blame them.
I've been an absentee.
Down on my knees, I make a space
for my seedlings as I pull the weeds
carefully by the roots,
roots that go on and on
like my compulsions and obsessions.
This is the work that never seems to end,
the work my father and his father handed down.
Some evenings I come here simply to sit alone,
and watch things grow.
It's quiet and still as a church.
At the far end of the garden
a woman waters her flowers,
and the smell of wet earth rises
like a prayer, an offering,
into the darkening sky.
Haiku written at the Providence Zen Center
entering the dark temple
i bow to shadows
awaiting the teacher's bell
our shadows on the floor
pass so quickly..
he whacks away at his still