SERMON HYMN 330 The Arching Sky of Morning Glows Mark Belletini
SERMON The Power of Poetry Rev. Maddie Sifantus
The words to our hymn were written by my colleague Mark Belletini. Words mean a lot to Mark, as does music, as does his Italian heritage. Mark was chair person of the hymnbook commission that produced our grey hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, therefore he gave a lot of thought to the poetry that makes up the words of our hymns—our hymnody. And he gave thoughts about how words paired with music. When I was the music director in the mid-nineties at our congregation in Reading, Massachusetts, it had not been long since the hymnal had been published. Mark is very close friends with Jane Rzepka who was the minister there at the time and who I just had the great good fortune to see on my trip back East last week. He sent Jane and I the absolutely, show no one, confidential list of what he considered to be hymns that should never be sung by congregations in the then new hymnal. Mostly they were ones that musically are better done by a choir or soloist. Or perhaps a hymn was accepted by the hymnal commission because of the poetry of the words but the melody really was un-singable.
I have long felt that it is in the words, the poetry if you will, of our hymns that our theologies as Unitarian Universalists are best expressed. In some way the combination of words and music, when they do work together, allow for the space for all of us to find our own meaning in the context of our faith, somewhat in the way the Universalist cross is a circle with a cross off to the side to represent the Judeo-Christian heritage, leaving space for the influences of all the world’s religions and philosophies to inform us.
You may not know that I spend part of my Study Leave, which this summer will be the month of August, planning in a general way for the Sunday services for the next church year…and reading books to inform those services. Last year I decided that doing a service on The Power of Poetry would be a good idea for April, which is National Poetry Month. National Poetry Month is a celebration of poetry which takes place each April. It was introduced in 1996 and is organized by the Academy of American Poets as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.
I thought about the power of poetry—how it can express things in a deeper way than our normal prose or conversational ways. I thank Pat and Peter for sharing favorite poems with us and I look forward to hearing from all of you what poem in your life has moved you beyond all measure…or a poem that just plain makes you laugh and turns the ordinary into something that can make you smile. Or perhaps you just don’t get what the big deal is about poetry. I’d be interested in that too.
One writer you hear me quote often, especially if you come to our monthly Gatherings, is John O’Donahue, the late Irish poet. His website cites these words: “The poet wants to drink from the well of origin; to write the poem that has not yet been written. In order to enter this level of originality, the poet must reach beyond the chorus of chattering voices that people the surface of a culture. Furthermore, the poet must reach deeper inward; go deeper than the private hoard of voices down to the root-voice. It is here that individuality has the taste of danger, vitality and vulnerability. Here the creative has the necessity of inevitability; this is the threshold where imagination engages raw, unformed experience. This is the sense you have when you read a true poem. You know it could not be other than it is.
Its self and its form are one.”
The poet and prose writer Rainer Maria Rilke once remarked about poetry: “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences.” William Carolos Williams wrote:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Poetry speaks somehow to our inner lives. Poetry takes us out of the normal busyness and distraction that fill our days to a differently metered space.
This thinking on poetry, the experience of poetry, brought me back in time to my childhood, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Poetry.” I am not sure who gave me the book which still has the label in the front from Lauriat’s Books on Franklin Street in Boston, long defunct and “Madeleine” written in my bold, scrawling child’s hand. It brought me back to Stevenson’s poems so descriptive and tidy such is this one, “Foreign Lands” which starts:
Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands.
How compact the world of these foreign lands with its rhyme and rootedness. There was something solid to stand on in these poems, but pointing to more, as in this one, “The Land of Nod”:
From Breakfast on through all the dayAt home among my friends I stay,But every night I go abroadAfar into the land of Nod. All by myself I have to go,With none to tell me what to do–All alone beside the streamsAnd up the mountain-sides of dreams. The strangest things are there for me,Both things to eat and things to see,And many frightening sights abroadTill morning in the land of Nod. Try as I like to find the way,I never can get back by day,Nor can remember plain and clearThe curious music that I hear.
Poetry opens the door to something beyond what we find right in front of us, while also trying to make some sense of it all. It brings in curious music. I can remember sitting in my Grandfather Henry Turner’s lap in his wing chair next to the fireplace in the sort of English Tudor house he built himself in Melrose, Massachusetts after he emigrated from England. He was the epitome of the learned English gentleman, although he worked with his hands as a finish carpenter. I can remember the smell of his pipe tobacco and roughness of his tweed vest as he read his beloved poetry to me. He loved Coleridge, Yeats, Shakespeare and all the English poets, none of which made much sense to me when I was little. We would write each other letters. I would write him little poems and he would send me some of his favorites.
As an adult I find that poetry is what is often most expressive at the times of life passages. There is a piece by Rabindranath Tagore that I often use towards the end of my homily in a Memorial Service: “But the truth is, death is not the ultimate reality. It looks black, as the sky looks blue; but it does not blacken existence, just as the sky does not leave its stain upon the wings of the bird.” These are healing words that paint a picture. Which brings me to one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year and we spent a whole service memorializing following her death and who we have read today in our Opening Words. Here is her poem “Everything.”
I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister
the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daises and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be
songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
What are poems but another way to try to “see the unseeable”? Which is why they are so useful in worship and elsewhere. But poems can also just be pure fun. When my next door neighbors dog barks all day long, I like to read this one by Billy Collins.
“Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House”
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.
When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton
while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.
Or the fun of limericks. A limerick is a humorous poem consisting of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines must have seven to ten syllables while rhyming and having the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines only have to have five to seven syllables, and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm. Some of the common nursery rhymes we remember are limericks:
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Several years ago I went on a trip to Ireland to sing with my friends the Rowan Brothers. On the last day, our bus was stuck in a traffic jam in the city of Limerick. While we were looking at the same gated garden for about an hour, we made up limericks with a few twists and turns that I would not speak from a pulpit. Suffice it to say that we were in gales of laughter coming up with the rhymes in time.
Or there are the limericks in this slim volume one of you gave me, “Leaves of Sass” by Clarence Freeman and Doris Vernon. Here’s one by Doris:
There once was a nonagenarian
Who was friends with an octogenarian
Neither was dim-of-wit
For they wrote many-a-limerick
It’s said each was a contrarian.
I have colleagues that memorize poetry, choosing to commit their favorite poems to memory. That is not one of my talents, but I think having a poem in your pocket would make the day go better, sort of like how some folks carry little stones or mementos as touchstones. If I were to carry a poem in my pocket, it would likely be this one which has meant a lot to me this last thirteen years since a car accident which almost took my life, kept me in the hospital for two months, housebound for six, with interminable visits to Physical Therapy. For me this poem, which I have shared with you before, written by Jane Kenyon speaks to how life can change in the blink of an eye and, corny as it sounds, it is important to notice the details of every day because one day it will be “Otherwise.”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
One day it was “otherwise” for Jane Kenyon who died too young of cancer. But while she was living, she looked at life with a poet’s eye, seeing the smallest details of her day in a kind of beauty. Just as the late Provincetown poet Mary Oliver does. I leave you with one more poem of Oliver’s, giving us a world that is ours, or could be.
Five A.M. in the Pinewoods
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night
under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I
got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under
the blue trees, shyly
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even
nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.
This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them — I swear it! —
would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like
the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,
I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.
So may it be for us.
BENEDICTION “tough and tumble” Nicola Gordon
run that rough ride
do that tough thing
that hard sweaty thing
that get a grip will of steel thing
this grit and grueling
I got this tough and sweaty thing
and then find alive
the tough and tumble rumble thing
pin your white fluffy feather wings
to your sweatshirt superman
you got this.
 From Asphodel, that Greeny Flower.
 From House of Light.