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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 13


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."[1] As he 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 Returning[2] 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."[3] 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."[4] 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."[5] Winters continues, 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."[6] 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 their game.

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 'Beginning,' 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 beginnings."[7]

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."[8]

At the end of Day Three White includes a quotation which he first 'caught-in-words' in his poem A Sudden Music.[9] Indeed much of what White writes about Day Three seems to have had its beginnings in that poem which also became the name of White's novella. He writes about 'the choreography of reverence' and continues:
We deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
who had entered and then left
that rare Presence,
rehearsed petitioners,
and empty-handed.

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 experience too.

Twenty-one years before, in an article in World Order,[10] 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."[11] 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 assumptions.

"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 Bab 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"[12] invading him and the experience of "immediate acceptance" as familiar Allah-u-Abhas 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."[13] 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 pursuing.

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:

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!"[14] He finishes his poetic exposition about Day Two 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 Six, 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."[15]

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"[16] 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."[17]

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.[18]

This poem describes Haifa and Israel especially during the summer season:

"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 accept. "Waves of admiration sweep over him./For each dear name a smile of recognition and a prayer,"[19] 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 passion,[20] namely, that it "is a species of 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."[21] The examples of this 'psychic predicament seem legion, but to choose one simple example: when he is at the Pilgrim House he writes:
...................................he feels
an unearned excruciating happiness
Am I feeling this, or is it that
I feel I should feel it? an inner voice challenges,

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 all originated,[22] 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.[23] It was what the poem was to Albert Schweitzer "a poet talking to grasp his experience in words...the sound inside his head...the record of an inner song."[24] 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."[25]

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 used to.[26] 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.[27] 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."[28] 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 in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do."[29]

[1] Roger White, Letter to Ron Price, 25 July 1990.
[2] Roger White, The Language of There, p.74.
[3] David Daiches, Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.91.
[4] idem
[5] Ivor Winters in Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967, A. Alvarez, Allen Lane, London, 1968, p.256.
[6] ibid.,p.257.
T.S. Eliot, "Dante," The Sacred Wood, 1922.
[9] Roger White, A Witness of Pebbles, p.81.
[10] William Hatcher, The Science of Religion, World Order, 1969, pp.7-19.
[11] William Hatcher, The Science of Religion, Bahá'í Studies, 1977, p.9. Reprint of the original World Order article.
[12] Roger White, Notes, p.3.
[13] ibid., p.6.
[14] ibid., p.10.
[15] ibid., p.21.
[16] The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p.99.
[17] The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 1999.
[18] Roger White, Occasions of Grace, p.97.
[19] Roger White, Notes, p.29.
[20] Peter Steele, The Autobiographical Passion: Studies in the Self on Show, Melbourne UP, 1989, p.2.
[21] ibid., p.77.
[22] Shoghi Effendi, Programme of Pilgrimage, Inside Cover.
[23] Hendrick Ibsen in The Poet in the World, Denise Leverton, New Direction Books, 1960, p.44.
[24] ibid., p.52.
[25] George Orwell in Decline of the New, Irving Howe, Victor Gollanz Ltd., 1971, p.276.
[26] T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of Poetry," On Poetry and Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1957, p.21.
[27] Roger White, The Language of There, p.80.
[28] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: 1892-1910, WW Norton and Co. Ltd., NY, 1945, p.153.
[29] 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.
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