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Emergence of a Bahá'í Consciousness in World Literature:
The Poetry of Roger White

by Ron Price

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Chapter 1


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 was published 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 has been.

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 Island 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.[1] 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."[2] 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 internationalism."[3] 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."[4] I'm not sure that is necessarily the case.[5] 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. A 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.[6]

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[7] "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."[8] Such is my aim.

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."[9] Whatever the 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.[10] White knows that:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments.[11]

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 art.[12]

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"[13] 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[14] 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."[15] 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."[16] He gives us what Dante says are the proper subjects of poetry: venus, virtue and salus.[17]

He liked the term `minor poet,' at least he used that term to apply to himself in one of his first poems.[18] 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 notes.[19] The distinction between talent and genius 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.[20] 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."[21] White certainly had that.

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"[22] as one 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 White.

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:
.........................Released from
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 laughter,
The promised ecstasy of reunion?[23]

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 poems.[24] 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."[25] 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.[26] 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.

[1] Herbert Read in Poetry and Experience, 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.'
[2] Matthew Arnold in Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition, David Daiches, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.249.
[3] A. Alvarez, Beyond All this Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967, Allen Lane, London, 1968, pp.9-10.
[4] T.S. Eliot in The True Voice of Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry, Herbert Read, Faber and Faber, London, 1958, p.272.
[5] 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 their works.
[6] Lionel Trilling, "A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode," Partisan Review, XXVI(Summer 1959), pp.445-52.
[7] Helen Vendler, March 15th, 2000, "Contemporary Poetry and Poetry Criticism," Poetry Society of America Panel.
[8] The Universal House of Justice, Letter, 29 December 1988.
[9] John Dryden in Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition, David Daiches, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.242.
[10] ibid., p.273.
[11] P. B. Shelley, Adonais.
[12] Marion Hoffman, "Recollections," Mark Tobey/Art and Belief, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.56.
[13] Matthew Arnold in Lives of the Modern Poets, William Pritchard, 1980, Faber and Faber, p.10.
[14] 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.
[15] Herbert Read in Pritchard, op.cit., p.287.
[16] Mark Tobey in Mark Tobey/Art and Belief, p.33.
[17] Quoted in Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method, Kenneth Burke, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1966, p.288.
[18] Roger White, "Minor Poet," Old Songs/New Songs: Selected Poems 1947-1977, p.1.
[19] Helen Vendler, op.cit. p.2.
[20] Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.320.
[21] Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their Authors, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p. 144.
[22] Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.173.
[23] Roger White, "Learning New Ways," The Language of There, New Leaf Pub., Richmond, BC, 1992, p.77.
[24] Anatole Broyard, "Wittier Than Anybody:A Review of Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, William Pritchard."
[25] Matthew Arnold, op.cit., p.381.
[26] David Daiches, op.cit., p.250.
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