THE EMERGENCE OF A BAHA'I CONSCIOUSNESS IN WORLD LITERATURE: THE POETRY OF ROGER WHITE
Geoffrey Nash, in a review of Roger White's poetry in 1982, wrote that
White heralded "the development of Bahá'í consciousness in world literature."
Literature, poetry and prose, letters and other genres, have been arriving on
the world's literary stage from the pens of Bahá'ís for more than a century and
a half. White certainly has been, in Nash's words, a herald. White's work
emerged from obscurity at the same time as the Bahá'í Faith did, in the years
after the Revolution in Iran in 1979. It is more than coincidental that his
first major book of poetry Another Song Another Season
that same year. There is now a burgeoning literature on the Bahá'í Faith
provided by individual Bahá'ís the world over in the two decades since Nash
wrote what have become prophetic words. White has, indeed, become a herald.
Though I'm sure he did not set out to become the brilliant initiator that he
There are others I could focus on to describe this 'development of a Bahá'í
consciousness in world literature': Robert Hayden, Bahiyyah Nakjavani, H.M.
Balyuzi, M. Momen, Adib Taherzedeh, John and William Hatcher, among others,
whose books, each in their own way, played their unique parts, in the 1960s,
1970s and 1980s, in laying this foundation of consciousness. I think the
period 1979 to 1984 was especially significant in bringing about a
transformation in the literature available to Bahá'ís on their Faith. White
published three books of poetry and a novella which I deal with in essays later
in this book. Nakjavani published two books: Response
and Four On An
in a refreshing and highly stimulating idiom that was as much poetry
as prose and, like White, left many readers puzzled. Others found her writing
possessed of a vitality and originality that, as Henry Moore once put it, were
uniquely her own.
It was also a style of
writing that was inspired by that same universal vision that inhabited White's
poetry and that, I am confident, will take on additional significance as time
goes on. And there were other books. But this series of essays deals with
the poetry of Roger White. I leave it to other writers and critics to deal
more comprehensively with the other authors who have been part of this
emergence beginning, say, with the first teaching Plan(1937-1944) when,
arguably, this Bahá'í consciousness made its earliest appearances in world
literature and the Faith itself begin to expand over the surface of the earth
to become the second most widespread religion on the planet.
The course of development of the prose, the language, the thought--and
especially the poetry--of a group of people: a nation, an ethnic group, a
religion, indeed any group with a specific identity, a specific set of
characteristics is, as the nineteenth century literary critic Matthew Arnold
wrote, "profoundly interesting." "By regarding a poet's work as a stage," he
continued, "in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make
it of more importance as poetry than it really is."
Perhaps I am guilty of this literary sin in what I admit to
be, again in Arnold's words, my quite exaggerated praise, my arguable
overrating of White's work. What may be the long term historical estimate of
White's work and what is the intrinsic estimate of his work to a contemporary
individual--and particuarly this critic-are not necessarily identical.
The internationalization of literature, its global orientation, its
planetization, its planetary consciousness, the perception of literature as
part of the essential fabric of a global civilization or culture has really
only emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Goethe, at the turn
of the nineteenth century, was the first great thinker to suggest that the
literature of the future would be a world literature with a planetary
consciousness. A. Alvarez remarks, in analysing modernism in literature in the
first three decades of the twentieth century, that it was "synonymous with
The scholarship of
comparative literature and the histories of comparative literature have
demonstrated that a common vein of ideas and conventions runs through all of
Western literature. Indeed, there is unquestionably an underlying uniformity
in the literary heritage of humankind, although an outdated nationalism,
parochialism and insular local traditions still militate against the thrusting
sense of global culture. Of course, traditionality, localism, associations of a
national culture will remain, will be enriched. That, too, is part of the
process currently underway on this planet.
Mr. T.S. Eliot once wrote that "literary criticism should be completed by
criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."
I'm not sure that is necessarily the case.
It would appear than many of the greatest painters and
writers did not write from an explicit, a defined and articulate philosophical
perspective, but in the case of this work, this literary evaluation of the
poetry of Roger White, I do write from much the same ethical and theological
standpoint as White. Perhaps more importantly, though, the White I am
analysing in this book is a very personal White. He is my White.
personal relationship grows up between poet and reader, a personal
interpretation. The poet may be part of an embryonic Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature, but he also becomes part of the individual reader's
consciousness in a very private and personal world often quite different from
the world's of other readers. Lionel Trilling made this same point in
relation to Robert Frost's poetry at a talk he gave at the Waldorf-Astoria in
New York in 1959 in celebration of Frost's eighty-fifth birthday.
For this reason and the personal friendship that I had with White over many
years, I feel somewhat like the famous literary critic Helen Vendler who said
in a panel discussion just recently in New York
"I don't often do negative reviews...that does not seem to
me an interesting kind of writing to do." Vendler went on to say that the
negative, the critical, side of reviewing detracts from the affect, the
vitality, of the content on the page. Critics want to write about the kind of
poetry they would like to write themselves or they'd like to sponsor. No
critic wants to write about some poet they don't like especially, Vendler
concluded, as they get older and especially if they know the poet. Marjorie
Perloff, another critic on the panel, said that to demolish or trash a poet was
a devastating thing to do. Her approach was to say 'if you can't say something
good about the poet, don't write the review or the book.' She said this is
especially true for poets you know personally and when the review is not
anonymous. Who wants to be critical of someone you know personally? It's not
natural or instinctive, said Perloff. Some critics can hide behind the veil of
anonymity and psychological distance and thus make more devastating comments.
Others simply won't write about living poets. As far as these essays are
concerned, then, readers will find little overt and strong criticism of White.
There is, I trust, much of that etiquette of expression, that judicious and
disciplined exercise of the writtten word, that moderation which "ensures the
enjoyment of true liberty."
Such is my
I like to think my study, my literary criticism, is similar to that of the
father of literary criticism, John Dryden. "His is the criticism" in the words
of Samuel Johnson, "of a poet, not a dull collection of theorems, not a rude
collection of faults....but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight is
mingled with instruction, and where the author proves his right of judgement,
by his power of performance."
standpoint, though, theological and otherwise, my aim, like the aim of White's
poetry, is to awaken and enlarge the mind by rendering it the receptacle of a
thousand otherwise unapprehended combinations of thought.
White knows that:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments.
And so he gives us that `many-coloured glass,' some of his philosophy `the
white radiance of Eternity' and the process of our death trampling life `to
fragments.' And I give you this review of White's poetry. I try to convey
something of the new voice that White creates for us in his several books of
poetry. I try to save the poetry from the artist who created it. For this is
what White wanted. He was quite insistent in making this separation. This
book opens with a short biography in three parts. I know that readers are as
much interested in the man as the poet and his poetry. I don't think I overdo
it, though. I hope Roger would find my weighting of these two distinct
categories in good taste. He was always so kind in his letters that even if he
disagreed with you he would always let you down slowly, laughing as you went.
And he is no longer with us, with me, to say "I think you overdid it here,
Ron." He was also adventurous and frank, so you knew where you stood. He did
not beat around the bush, as they say.
There is a high seriousness in White but his alembic is humour. For some
readers the affect of his poetry is a lightness and pleasure that only humour
can provide; for other readers White's seriousness and his language place too
much of a demand and, not willing to read and reread his poems, these readers
put him down without extracting the intellectual delights; for still others,
White has the affect of an invigorating exercise of the mind. For them the
laughs are a bonus and the reward is more than pure delight. These readers gain
an understanding of the religion they joined at some time in the last half
century, an understanding perhaps deeper than any learned commentary or,
indeed, the efforts of their own investigation. These readers get a sense of a
Bahá'í consciousness, a Bahá'í sensibility, a Bahá'í voice, from a poet who has
made a distinctive contribution to the birth of a spiritual and universal
Matthew Arnold, writing about the 'sanguine hopes' which accompanied the
splendid epoch of poetry in European civilization in the first quarter of the
nineteenth century, said there was a 'prematureness' to its expression. He
said that, in spite of its energy and creative force, that epoch did not know
enough. The creation of a modern poet, he went on, "implies a great critical
effort behind it"
or it will be a
short-lived affair. Time will tell, of course, if there has been enough of that
critical effort behind the poetry of Roger White to make it a long-lived
affair. There is certainly a critical effort required on the part of the
reader if White's work is to be appreciated. In this twenty-first century,
sinking deeper as it appears to be into a slough of despond, one can't help but
wonder with Harold Bloom
what will survive
in the long term from the world's burgeoning literary and media productions
that fill people's lives today to assume a home in the world's literature in
history's long arc.
In this greatest drama in the world's spiritual history in which we are all
engaged, Roger White appeared for a time on the stage and is gone. But his
poetry remains: as playful as Robert Frost and as serious as Ezra Pound, with
his delightful metaphor and the freshness thereof, with his sympathy and
infinitude, expansive virtues as Shelley once wrote "awaiting a world of peace
and justice for their due recognition."
That voyager is gone, ten years now. He gave himself, the only thing a writer
has to offer. And where life is concerned, a writer, a poet, can only truly
see, as he does through his own eyes and his own heart. He gives us the
results of his search which, as Mark Tobey once wrote, are "the only valid
expression of the spirit."
He gives us
what Dante says are the proper subjects of poetry: venus, virtue
He liked the term `minor poet,' at least he used that term to apply to himself
in one of his first poems.
I think he
would have eschewed the term `major poet' for many reasons but, if a
distinction can profitably be drawn between `major' and `great,' then White,
for me anyway, deserves recognition as a great poet. Minor writers, minor
poets, can be loved as purely and appreciated as much as major ones, and
sometimes more easily, as another great analyst of poetry, Helen Vendler
The distinction between
may be useful here. The former, said Arnold,
gives the notion of power in a poet's performance, while the latter felicity
and perfection in the art.
For me, White
has some of both.
It is, perhaps, unimportant to "decide" whether White was a great poet.
Pursuing labels of this kind and making such distinctions, may not be that
helpful. White was good enough to provoke the question; that in itself is a
great deal. He was an exquisite craftsman. He produced an ample body of
powerful poetry. That was enough, in the case of Balzac, for Somerset Maugham
to use the term genius, or in the case of Wordsworth for Matthew Arnold to use
the same term. Arnold also felt that "poetry to be truely excellent must have
a high seriousness."
White certainly had
Arnold also wrote that: " Whether one is an eagle or an ant, in the
intellectual world, seems to me not to matter much; the essential thing is to
have one's place marked there, one's station assigned, and to belong decidedly
to a regular and wholesome order"
gave others a taste for the things of the mind. Bahá'u'lláh explored the same
idea in writing about the portion of some lieing in a gallon and others in a
thimble. 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote much about the cultivation of the mind. Arnold was
in good company. I got the impression these questions did not matter much to
Now, of course, I think it unlikely that recognition of this or any kind
concerns him in the slightest. As he writes in one of his last poems:
wanting and having, I shall only be.
Occupied with boundlessness
I shall yet divine your unspoken question:
Were you drawn away by the music,
The promised ecstasy of reunion?
The work of a critic can be fantastically overestimated. Readers often
forsake the works critics are writing about. Instead of enjoying the poet, the
reader now turns to the critic as specialist, to his prodigalities of
implication, his hyperboles, his nimbuses of rhetoric, his exaggerations and
the various promptings that the critic places before the reader. This I do not
mind. I think there is a certain inevitability here, at least for some
readers. As long as all that I have written convinces you, the reader, if only
for the moment, of White's talent and genius, I will have done my job. For my
main responsibility is to the poet, Roger White, and the need to be truthful.
If what I write appears over the top, as it is said colloquially these days,
that is because of the genuine enthusiasm and pleasure I take in reading his
poetry. White is a subtle, yet bewilderingly gifted, poet. I would not want
you to miss the experience of Whiteland. I like to think that most of White's
life consists of only those things that weren't good enough to go into his
So, if his biographical details
are a little light on, readers should not feel they are missing much. White
wanted it this way.
The nineteenth century literary critic Amiel, describing perhaps that century's
finest French literary critic Sainte-Beuve, wrote that "it is only at fifty
that the critic is risen to the true height of his literary priesthood, or, to
put it less pompously, of his social function."
Only then does a critic have the required critical
judgement. These essays were put in their present form when I was in my late
fifties. I'm not so sure I qualify for any literary priesthood; I'm not sure I
possess the maturity of judgement Amiel refers to, but I hope that readers
enjoy the essays that follow.
Samuel Johnson wrote biographies of each of his subjects before proceding to
comment and evaluate their works. Such a combination satisfies, it seems to me,
a perfectly proper curiosity. Johnson's Lives of the Poets
is part of a
biographical tradition going back to the early seventeenth century and earlier,
a tradition that keeps separate a man's poetry and the man.
Gradually, in the nineteenth century, the study of a
man and the interpretation of his work began to mingle and to mingle more in
the twentieth century. I do some mingling. I am a moderate mingler in deferecne
to White's particular philosophical proclivities in this regard. I hope
readers will find my mingling helpful but not intrusive.
Herbert Read in Poetry and
, Vision Press Ltd., London, 1967, pp.157-8 describes the
importance when writing literature of any kind of cultivating and giving
experession to 'an intensity all its own' and a style which 'renews the
spiritual vitality of the English language.'
Matthew Arnold in Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, David Daiches, Longman, London, 1981(1956),
A. Alvarez, Beyond All this Fiddle:
, Allen Lane, London, 1968, pp.9-10.
T.S. Eliot in The True Voice of
: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Herbert Read, Faber and
Faber, London, 1958, p.272.
Herbert Read in op.cit.
, p.148 argues
that the painter Turner and the poet/playright Shakespeare did not profess an
explicit philosophy, at least not one we can decipher and agree on in examining
Lionel Trilling, "A Speech on Robert Frost:
A Cultural Episode," Partisan Review, XXVI
(Summer 1959), pp.445-52.
Helen Vendler, March 15th, 2000,
"Contemporary Poetry and Poetry Criticism," Poetry Society of America
The Universal House of Justice, Letter,
29 December 1988
John Dryden in Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, David Daiches, Longman, London, 1981(1956),
P. B. Shelley, Adonais
Marion Hoffman, "Recollections," Mark
Tobey/Art and Belief
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.56.
Matthew Arnold in Lives of the Modern Poets
, William Pritchard, 1980,
Faber and Faber, p.10.
Harold Bloom is one of the major literary critics during this climacteric of
history. He takes a very pessimistic view of the future of the great
literature of the western intellectual tradition.
Herbert Read in Pritchard,
Mark Tobey in Mark Tobey/Art and
Quoted in Language As Symbolic Action:
Essays on Life, Literature and Method
, Kenneth Burke, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1966, p.288.
Roger White, "Minor Poet," Old
Songs/New Songs: Selected Poems 1947-1977
Helen Vendler, op.cit.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.320.
Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p. 144.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.173.
Roger White, "Learning New Ways," The
Language of There
, New Leaf Pub., Richmond, BC, 1992, p.77.
Anatole Broyard, "Wittier Than Anybody:A
Review of Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, William Pritchard."
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
David Daiches, op.cit.