NOTES POSTMARKED THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD
A second booklet of Roger White's poetry was published in 1992 by New Leaf
Publishing of Richmond British Columbia. It had already been accepted by Rob
Weinberg for inclusion in his forthcoming anthology of reflections on Mt.
Carmel. New Leaf Publishing reprinted the booklet, Notes Postmarked The
Mountain of God
, which consisted of one poem White had written in 1990. It
was the longest poem he had written. While not following strictly the program
of pilgrimage nor alluding to every point of historic interest visited by
Bahá'í pilgrims during the course of their stay in the Holy Land, the poem was
structured in nine parts following the nine days of pilgrimage.
What White brings his readers in this poem is what the poet Shelley said the
mind in creation must be if it is to be truly successful in the writing of
poetry. The mind must be as a fading coal which some invisible influence,
like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness. What he awakens to
a wonderful brightness for the reader is his experience of pilgrimage,
certainly one of the more introspective and thoughtful pieces written thusfar
on this important aspect of the Bahá'í life. White would write poetry for two
more years. He brings us, then, his fading coals. In 1990 he had his
quadruple bypass operation and he did not anticipate "an enthusiastic return to
a full life." At least the goal of a full life was one which he said he limped
toward "without much conviction."
mentioned in one of his poems from the 1980s his old friends from the forties
and fifties, in and out of the movie industry, started dieing and complaining
of their ailments. In September 1990 his old friend, the person from whom he
learned of the Cause, Winnifred Harvey died. As he wrote in the poem
in the last four
lines, as he was about to leave hospital:
No one had asked
him whether he wished to return
from his murky indolence,
human, hapless and vulnerable,
to this profane, irresistible confusion.
And so, this long poem written in 1990 entitled Notes Postmarked The
Mountain of God
might be seen as a transitory brightness, thirty-three
pages of a flash of brilliance, awakened as he was by some invisible influence,
some inconstant wind on the fading coals of his life. He had worked at the
Bahá'í World Centre for nineteen years. It was fitting that he should at last
have his pilgrimage although at sixty-one, as he writes in the first few lines,
a pilgrimage is a venture that tastes of beginnings. His plane touched down at
Ben Gurion airport and
The luggage he struggles with
bulges with untried convictions,
rusted resolve and unrelinquished disappointments.
Hope, his best provision,
is crammed in among random indiscretions,
outworn hesitancies and inappropriate tweeds
He has already won the heart of the reader by the time he gets to the end of
that first sixteen line stanza. "Poetic truth" as Wordsworth once wrote, "is
operative-it works on us, it carries its own conviction with it."
Part of the pleasure we derive from White, achieved for me
right at the start, is the pleasure I experience from having my "basic
psychological structure touched and illuminated."
Among the orange blossoms, the warm tarmac, the
Levantine confusion and the humid air are the normal internal complications and
conflicts we all have, we who are the followers of the Blessed Beauty trying as
best we can to live lives consistent with His teachings.
White gives his loyal readers what is by now a familiar language: the everyday,
the colloquial, the ordinary, packed in with the trenchant, the pithy and the
profound. Piercing, exact, coherent and complex: words I would use to describe
White's rendition of the vision of his Faith, part of his individuality, the
experience of one man who has served this new world religion over forty years.
His vision is not some set of dogmas saluted to but not contemplated over and
over again. It is the personal experience of one man with belief and doubt,
passion and thought, memory and desire so closely interwoven that is often
difficult to distinguish their separate expressions. White's poem is a whole
world of order and beauty; it has little to do with political and religious
formulae. White gives his readers what the great American poetry critic Ivor
Winters says a poem should give: "a clear understanding of motive and a just
evaluation of feeling; it calls upon the full life of the spirit; it is
difficult of attainment."
and what he writes I think applies to White's poetry of pilgrimage, an
experience that pilgrims so often have difficulty putting into words: "by his
art he makes clearings of sanity in the encroaching jungle of experience; and
because of his skill, these clearings are more lucid, more precise, more
generally meaningful than those of other people."
By putting his own passions, prejudices and human
weaknesses on the line White helps his readers to be more pleased and accepting
of their own while, at the same time, he gently encourages his readers to lift
White brings into this poem many stanzas of previous poems. He incorporates
into its text relevant passages from poems in earlier volumes, not so much to
attain a synthesis of his life's work, but rather to deepen the meaning and
affect of this particular poem. The opening section, entitled
' is stage one of his journey, a plane to Tel-Aviv and
a hotel. These were part of "the suburbs of authentic arrival" and "the
alphabet of homecoming" as he characterizes this "lightweight wardrobe of
The reader then proceeds on a poetic journey through nine days of pilgrimage
for some thirty pages. It is not my intention to take you through each day
step by step; for that you must read the poem. But I would like to comment on
some of the aspects of White's pilgrimage and the poem that stood out for me
and had a particular meaning. White's aim is not to excite, as T.S. Eliot once
wrote of the aim of Dante's poetry, but simply "to set something down." The
reader's task is to perceive "what the poet has caught in words."
At the end of Day Three
White includes a quotation which he first
'caught-in-words' in his poem A Sudden Music.
Indeed much of what White writes about Day
seems to have had its beginnings in that poem which also became
the name of White's novella. He writes about 'the choreography of
We deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
who had entered and then left
that rare Presence,
There is an honesty here which is central to White's whole poetic opus. This is
how so many millions of people, both inside the Cause and out, experience
prayer and much that is the routines of traditional religious experience. They
know of the words, they know the motions to go through, but little joy is
experienced in the process. This may not be as it should, but it certainly is
the way it is. And White's task is to tell it as it is or at least how he
experiences it. In the process he wins over many readers, for this is their
Twenty-one years before, in an article in World Order,
William Hatcher wrote about "the theoretical
uncertainty" that must remain "even with the surest of statements." For it was,
he went on, "our explicit awareness of this uncertainty which is our greatest
asset in adapting to our human situation."
The feeling of certitude, Hatcher pointed out, is a psychological state and can
be part of our life even without knowing much at all. He went on to say that,
if we accept something as true, then our emotions organize themselves around
that something. Then that something becomes part of the way we live. Faith,
here, is the process of organizing our emotional life around our
"No statement can be held to be absolutely true, for no statement is
independent of other statements and facts.....Our knowledge, then, is
relative." Hatcher writes again. So it is, when White refers to the believers
as "deft practitioners of protocols of piety" and says, in the next line, that
we "are stranded on uncertainty," perhaps he is thinking of the kinds of things
that Hatcher is saying above.
But uncertainty and doubt do not exclude the experience of certitude and
belief. In the first line of Day One: Visit to the Shrine of the
White refers to the sense of assurance the pilgrim gets when he has
his first glimpse of the shrines and the gardens. For they are as he or she has
seen them on postcards and they possess "a sense of familiarity." "Mingling at
Pilgrim House," more assurance and certitude are his with "expectations
peopled," a "sense of belonging"
him and the experience of "immediate acceptance" as familiar
s greet him with every step. Once in the Shrine of the Bab
the pilgrim feels even more assurance in the "awesome silence" and the
"mounting ecstasy." White describes the affect on his inner self of the
beauties and wonders of the threshold of the Shrine, its exterior and the
gardens. By the time the reader is halfway through the second stanza the issue
of certitude and doubt is not on his agenda, far from his mind and heart, as he
"longs to have his own heart break or conflagrate."
Before going to bed on that first night the Shrine of the Bab and some of the
Bab's life is permanently etched on his sensory emporium, freshly minted by the
pull of the "exquisite details" that had invaded him during the day:
He Who had no candle
has here, ensconced in circled circle,
amid adoring flowers
and green deferential trees,
this whitest marble taper
tipped in gold.
It gleams serenely from Carmel,
inextinguishably lights the world,
our reverential hearts
the willing wick.
And so the intellectual issue of doubt and certitude disappears in a complex of
experiences from Day One
: the heart's enthusiasm, reverence,
life's disappointments, a past he brought on his pilgrimage and a whole world
that he summarizes in a poem which, it appears, he has just written:
Tentative as commas
they balance on wind-swung wires
along which our voices speed,
So goes the first stanza and its allusion to the tentativeness of so much of
life, especially our thoughts which balance "on wind-swung wires/along which
our voices speed."
The poem goes on to
express a fascinatingly introspective piece of sociological and psychological
analysis. He begins this analysis, in stanza two, by expressing his
consciousness of presiding "with feigned indifference" over the things he sends
or others send to him(or that we send to ourselves) over those 'crackling
wires" with their 'garbled" statement of our anguish and with their news of his
triumphs and defeats. He continues referring to some of his writing, his
poetry, one of his tragic personal experiences in life and his own inability to
"soar." I did not find this section of the poem simple, easy to translate into
personally meaningful terms. I shall have to return to it again and again with
the years. But given the fact that this one of the few poems, few pieces of
analysis, about the inner meaning of a pilgrimage, and given the fact that I am
unlikely to go to Haifa again before I die, White's poem will be worth my
On Day Two: The Trouble With Mountains
White describes Mt. Carmel
as a whole. He goes on, as the poem develops, to mention his father, Shoghi
Effendi and Bahá'u'lláh before he ponders "why he has waited so long/ to
approach this unprepossessing hill" and "whether his commitment is adequate."
In the evening he writes a poem. The poem was written some ten years before
but, with poetic license, he indicates to the reader that he writes it in the
evening. One can only imagine that the poem's contents seem so perfectly
appropriate to this pilgrimage poem:
THE TROUBLE WITH MOUNTAINS
We come to this mountain late
in laggard wonder
and atrophied awe,
in distrust of the prompting of angels,
the voice in the thunder.
"Like the old plainsman brought dazed
to the coast to die,
needing to hate
Vancouver and his death,
who glared sullenly at its peaks
which to outwit death
he'd never try
protesting they block the view
and stifle breath.
"An ant's dusty truth. We gaze
at our thorn-stabbed feet.
It is too late, too late,
the bruising stones reveal
to follow to the summit
One Whose feet were steel.
"And do not hear the battered bird
high in the torturing wind: Pass! Pass!
With adamant soul
and sharpest sight
on feet of brass."
This bird comes into his dreams that night. This poem says so much about
White and, perhaps, about his readers, at least some of them. That he had come
on his pilgrimage too late
, that he should have come earlier in his
Bahá'í life. But still, whenever we come we must follow Bahá'u'lláh "With
adamant soul/and sharpest sight/on feet of brass!"
He finishes his poetic exposition about Day
by referring to 'hope.' He wants to explore its implications with
someone, anyone and discuss poetry but concludes "poetry has no place/amid the
clatter of cutlery," for "the insistent world is never far away."
And so, in this brief review of White's pilgrimage poem, I have taken you
through the first three days of his experience, his thoughts, his private
world. He writes on the remaining six days of: the meals, Bahji, Akka, the
house of Abbud, writing his poetry each night back in his room, the gardens,
the social exchanges with the other pilgrims, the Shrine of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the
inevitable Emily Dickinson, the gravesites on Mt. Carmel, the Pilgrim House
and, finally, the cab, "smuggling his convictions past Customs" and the
aircraft that takes him away.
White did not have to choose his poetic subjects. They chose him. On Day
, leaning against a tree at Bahji, "its walks the very corridors of
heaven," he writes:
"Is this then all there is, a simple garden,
And a silence that displaces need for words?
What portent in the blood-red wayside poppy?
What message in the music of the birds?
"The hero's heart is hoisted on a cypress,
the saint's is softly folded as a rose;
But mine lies shattered here among the pebbles
On the only path the fainting coward knows."
In these years at the dark heart of an age of transition, with the wider
society grappling with a torrent of conflicting interests in the most turbulent
period in history, at one of the great--perhaps the greatest--turning points in
history, attempting to grasp the significance of the historical transformation
that has been the twentieth century, it is not surprising that individuals in
the Cause, and poets like White, feel that sense of cowardice, that they have
not done enough, that they are far from the requirements of heroism or
saintliness they would like to exemplify in their lives.
The victories the Bahá'í Faith had won in the forty years or more since White
had joined its army of spiritual teachers in the late 1940s in Canada had
indeed been immense, "one of the most enriching periods"
it had experienced in its history. But White was giving
voice to an experience all Bahá'ís have given the immensity of the task, the
social paralysis, the tyranny and anarchy in the world and "the phantoms of a
wrongly informed imagination" that they have to do battle with daily in the
minds of millions upon millions who are "as yet unaware of the Day in which
they are living."
On Day Seven
which White describes and analyses in more detail
than any of the nine days he visits the Shrine of the Master. While alone here
he feels the Master's "warm laughter that offers renewal of courage." It is in
this section that one of his modifications of Emily Dickinson's poems is
included; the poet George Herbert is mentioned and he composes a poem while
"resting on a low stone wall" that he will later include in his last major
hard-cover book of poetry, Occasions of Grace.
The poem is called
The Desert Place.
This poem describes Haifa and Israel especially during the summer
"In the sandy convolutions of this landscape
grainy, parched and impersonal as God's brain
perception shifts and shimmers
and the crazed hot wind mutters apocalyptically:
Here, we are beyond the known and possible.
Israel is a difficult place with the heat; White asks:
"Can anything survive the unquenchable sun?
A solitary lizard darting from invisibility
to invisibility like a fleeting thought
leaves no trace.
Having describes so many of Israel's inhabitants succinctly, White goes on to
outline the affects of the heat:
"the stinging eye, amazed,
sees the heat as a solid malignancy
hulking on the horizon
mesmerizing the merciless.
Small wonder the Prophets were placed in this oven
where the heat consumes all but compassion.
Anyone who has been in Israel in the summer can appreciate these words. White
writes much of the setting, all the settings that are part of the pilgrimage
experience. But his autobiographical impulse is less a Lutheran 'I can do no
other' than a joy in the dead and a reaching out, a desire to accept, to
. "Waves of admiration sweep over him./For each dear name a smile of
recognition and a prayer,"
as he enters
the palm-fringed place of the graves of holy ones and their white tombstones
with familiar names at the foot of Mt. Carmel.
The many moods, emotions, feelings and thoughts that are the inner experiences
of the poet, these autobiographical writings, are as personal as White gets in
all his poetic journey. What Peter Steele says of the autobiographical
namely, that it "is a species of
play....an act of wit," is true of this five to six thousand word poem of Roger
White. White's desire in writing this poem is much like the desire of one of
his mentors, George Herbert, many centuries before: "to let the variable mind
and heart play out the drama of...psychic predicament and aspiration."
The examples of this 'psychic predicament
seem legion, but to choose one simple example: when he is at the Pilgrim House
an unearned excruciating happiness
Am I feeling this, or is it that
I feel I should feel it? an inner voice
White is in the last years of his life. Perhaps writing this poem is a means of
conversing with his soul, with the divine element in himself and in life. For
the Bahá'í pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the world seat of the wondrous System
he had been associated with since the Second Seven Year Plan(1946-1953), where
that System's heart pulsated, where the dust of its Founders reposed, where the
processes disclosing its purposes, energizing its life and shaping its destiny
contained "all the nuggets
his heart" could hold. His poem was, as he himself admitted, "a bulwark
against fanaticism.," as all art was. Of course, his poem was so much more: an
effort to make clear to himself and thereby to others the temporal and eternal
questions, as Ibsen would have put it.
was what the poem was to Albert Schweitzer "a poet talking to himself...to
grasp his experience in words...the sound inside his head...the record of an
White was suspicious of the
motives of the poet. He had written of this before. I think he would have
agreed with George Orwell, at least insofar as some writers are concerned, that
"at the very bottom of a writer's motives there lies a mystery."
The trouble with most poems is that they are not interesting enough, not
revealing enough to impart conviction, not surprising enough to keep a reader
reading and wanting more. They don't give enough pleasure. For most people
pleasure has moved over to the electronic media during the years since the
teaching Plan began in 1937. Print does not have the pull it once had for
millions. But in spite of this reality, millions more books are being read than
ever before, if only because since the late 1930s, when that great teaching
Plan began, the population has gone from about two billion to six billion
people. There are more people doing virtually everything.
I have written the above for the increasing numbers since 1980 who have come to
enjoy Roger White's poetry. White's audience was still a small vanguard of
people, far from that large readership which T.S. Eliot says arises when the
poet is not really doing anything new, just giving his readers what they were
I have also written the above
for those in the future who come across his work. White on occasion quoted the
poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The last time he
quoted him, before he passed away in 1993, White was writing about how works of
art should 'challenge us to change our lives.' Rilke also wrote that: "time
passed in the difficult is never lost."
Some of White's poetry many find difficult. But like Shakespeare there is a
reward for those who make the effort, for those who want to try.
In the end, of course, we can't all enjoy the same stuff, to each his own as it
is often said. I think reading the poetry of Roger White is an experience of
reading great literature. C.S. Lewis once wrote that "in reading great
literature...as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I
transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do."
Roger White, Letter to Ron Price, 25 July
Roger White, The Language of There
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.91.
Ivor Winters in Beyond All This Fiddle:
, A. Alvarez, Allen Lane, London, 1968, p.256.
T.S. Eliot, "Dante," The Sacred Wood
Roger White, A Witness of Pebbles, p.81.
William Hatcher, The Science of Religion, World Order, 1969, pp.7-19.
William Hatcher, The Science of Religion,
Bahá'í Studies, 1977, p.9. Reprint of the original World Order article.
Roger White, Notes, p.3.
The Universal House of Justice, Century
of Light, p.99.
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan,
Roger White, Occasions of Grace, p.97.
Roger White, Notes, p.29.
Peter Steele, The Autobiographical
Passion: Studies in the Self on Show, Melbourne UP, 1989, p.2.
Shoghi Effendi, Programme of Pilgrimage,
Hendrick Ibsen in The Poet in the World, Denise Leverton, New Direction
Books, 1960, p.44.
George Orwell in Decline of the New,
Irving Howe, Victor Gollanz Ltd., 1971, p.276.
T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poetry and Poets
, Faber and Faber, London, 1957, p.21.
Roger White, The Language of There,
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: 1892-1910,
WW Norton and Co. Ltd., NY, 1945, p.153.
C.S. Lewis in Through the Open Door: A New Look At C.S. Lewis, Dabney Adams
Hart, University of Alabama Press, 1984, p.96.