OCCASIONS OF GRACE
The major failing of Socrates, it has been argued, was that he
did not enact a genuine political irony. The overserious teacher, possessed of
an improvement morality, was put to death as the Athenian experiment in
democracy became unstuck. Socrates was a threat. His politics was
anti-democratic in a crucial period of the frightening anti-democratic
revolutions, 411 and 404 BC.
So, too, were
the politics of Socrates' student, Plato, whose visions of community grew out
of his fears of anti-community associated with the Peloponnesian War of 431 to
404 BC, of the secular humanism of the sophists and of the rootless
individualism of the masses. Plato wanted a new form of political community.
This same desire motivates the poetry of Roger White. White does not find his
political community in the Republic
but, rather, in the embryonic Order
associated with the teachings of the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith,
Aristophanes, the poet, writing in that same fifth century BC during that first
experiment in democracy, provided the western world's first political satire.
People laughed at themselves and their institutions as Aristophanes put his
society under his literary microscope. In recent centuries satire's rich vein
of intellectual freedom has been on the come-back trail after centuries in
which humour was seen as an expression of the devil. Since the Renaissance and
Reformation the congregation of satirists have made humour a part of peoples'
blessedness. As political philosophers have been struggling to articulate a
new basis for community in the last several centuries, a Voltairian
irreverence-as-antidote has come to occupy the public space. The smile of
reason has kept many people sane in what seems an insane world. To counteract
the excessive moralizing, the meretricious, the sanctimonious, the bitter
melancholy, the acids of individualism, and the stupidity of collectivities a
Comic Faith has grown in our midst.
Beginning, perhaps, with Erasmus, Swift, Rabelais and Sterne, four ordained
clerics, this vein of comedy has shown that the ridiculous can be sublime and
that the comic imagination can change our experience of reality. But the game
is deathly serious. Comedy seeks to transcend the tragic and overcome its
dominance and dangerous romantic grandeur that so often leads to fanaticism's
passionate intensity. Bertolt Brecht goes so far as to say that comedy deals
with the sufferings of humankind more seriously than tragedy. This idea seems
on the surface to be somewhat shocking. Hannah Arendt suggests that, although
it may be shocking, it is true.
is or is not, I introduce these ideas in an essay on White's Occasions of
because White's poetry is underpinned with a sense, a spirit of play,
a sense of homo ludens
, play as a way of establishing order in an often
complex, absurd and difficult world, play as a way of mastering experience by
combining the light and the serious in delightful juxtapositions, play in the
context of a tendency to apotheosise language, to give it a power not of God,
but a power which reflects His informing and transforming power. For some it
is the spiritualization of wonder; for others its secularization. But irony is
After a decade that saw two more volumes of his poetry, Occasions of
continues a poetic construction that is part of the slow growth in
the prestige of a prophetic message with an important role to play in creating
dialogue among presently competing creeds. His construction is clever. An
ingenious manipulator of words, he provokes admiration and titillates the
sensibilities. Of the nearly 200 pages of text, fifty are prose and notes on
the poetry. White divides his poetry into six major sections. There are more
than a dozen poems to and about Bahá'í martyrs. Another dozen or so, as we find
in virtually all of White's books of poetry, about major figures in Bahá'í
history. There are the familiar poems to friends, to actors, to Israel, to
to a pot-pourri of themes too long to list.
The reader leans forward to learn from White as he places his own frail
vulnerability on the firing line. His openness creates a bridge of trust. He
whispers in the readers' bones and arteries and one finds that his song is
often the hidden bird on one's own heart. But bring your dictionary along or
you may not hear any song at all. The Bahá'í Faith suggests an alternative
political order with the future in its bones. A phoenix which has been growing
slowly in the ashes of orthodoxies that have long held people's minds and
society's definition of reality. The lance and parry techniques of an archaic
tournament continue to fill the intellectual air and prevent fluid and
collaborative exchange. The jangling mockery of our own limited understanding
is paraded in the absence of an artistic and critical humility. In the
whirlwind of a distracted hour getting command over the craft of
self-expression has become an awesome feat.
This is true both for individuals and for society's institutions. An organic
change in the structure of present-day society and the profundity of a change
in the standard of public discussion is heralded in the poetry of Roger White.
The artist is predictive. In his language, his struggles and his joys White
allows the reader to see the texture of our age. The psychological problems of
people in this dark age of transition are a product of sociohistorical changes.
White charts these changes in his powerful poetic idiom. He packs a great deal
into his more than one hundred and thirty poems, his several thousand lines of
At the centre of White's perspective is an assumption, a philosophy, a
principle- that dissidence is a moral and intellectual contradiction to those
who would be peacemakers and unifiers of the children of men.
The charm of this perspective is present in poem after
poem in an etiquette of expression that possesses a candour, a tone, a motive,
a manner, a mode that takes the faintest hints of life and converts them into a
basis of dialogue. But the dialogue White apotheosises implies a nobler and
ampler manifestation of human achievement, a relationship between our outer and
inner selves not yet achieved. His vocabulary of humour and seriousness, of
joy and sorrow, which encompasses both the trivial and the profound, engender a
perspective that seeks both immortality and temporary pleasure. White's
readers must love words if they are to love White.
As wordsmith he works at his anvil. He plays with his own fears, his
loneliness, ignorance, despair, with the world's random sordidness, vulgarity
and sadness. He plays with his readers. He smiles. I enjoy playing with White.
It's a little like playing marbles when I was a kid. But you've got to like
playing marbles. His marbles are words. They bounce sharply into holes; they
scatter all over the place; they're bright, hard and clear as crystal. Art
forms are often best at their beginnings: Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dickens in
poetry, drama, art and the novel, respectively. The poet, the novelist, the
artist, the dramatist once commanded a respect. From a certain height of
grandeur they possessed a common touch. After two centuries of modernism the
intellectual elites have been overthrown. The cultural mandarins of
post-modernism do not possess any value system; much of contemporary cultural
production is scarcely different from commercials. Insidious shifts in our
value systems have vastly broadened the acceptable boundaries of high culture
and the nature of creativity that sustains it. The artist, the poet, is unable
to compete for public attention or favour with the new mandarins of public
entertainment, pop-psychology and the media. White's pages whirl about on the
wings of the spirit. He knows that for many they might as well be blank. You
can just about hear him say: 'Don't ask me what it means!'
White does not cultivate obscurity. But in his encounter with the reality of
experience--his and ours--he takes no little pain to inform his readers of the
asphyxia of soul, the offence against life that comes from a hedonistic
materialism which denies that at the heart of life there is pain. White offers
a challenge: to transcend the ordinary, the comfortable, the
protective-chrysalis of the contemporary, the corporate and the candy-floss
suburban mediocrity. For those who journey with White the spiritual texture of
our times takes on definition. History and sociology are poetry. It is
constructed of infinitely instructive surprises resulting from a systematic
introspection, an introspection which courts bafflement, misunderstanding and
In 1983, two years after The Witness of Pebbles
, his One Bird, One
Cage, One Flight
appeared. It was a gift to all those who find that they
must make everything out of their solitariness and the privacy of their
thought. Ostensibly a homage to Emily Dickinson, this slim volume was a
testimony to the confrontation with self and to the cry of all romantic artists
since the industrial revolution:
I don't want comfort; I
want God; I want poetry; I want real danger; I want freedom; I want goodness. I
People living out their lives in unobtrusive and quiet ways, those who
do want comfort and don't want sin, come under White's microscope. His
meditative eye looks at the microcosm of the human drama in all its detail and
provides a window for the reader to enter the cosmos. The ordinary person, the
boredom, the fragility, the doubts and the fears of people in their
ordinariness are paraded for us in all their panoply and pageantry. White has
married his words and out of this marriage poetry is born. He has married
solitude. So, too, has he married the social. I offer this one poem, chosen
somewhat at random, to give a taste, a texture, of White's solitude and social
and their juxtaposition:
Adolescence, I thought, and not for the first time, could be hell.
You sit hooded in discontent
oblivious of the sunlit garden
telling of the boy who has your heart.
It does not suffice you to be
young and bright and to wear
an innocent loveliness.
Love is too great a burden, you sigh,
I long to be happy; to leap, to fly.
I nod, sage to your novitiate,
knowing you would despise my shabby wisdom.
It is adequate heaven
that you are young and beautiful,
that the light so irradiates your flawless cheek,
that with moist lashes
you should sit with me-among the blind flowers
under a freshly-laundered sky-
yearning to be happy
and unaware of how effortlessly I soar
bearing the weightless burden of my love for you.
Emily Dickinson becomes, in White's evocation, a prototype of a path some must
take in their search for themselves, their God, or just a true friend. That
path is one of solitude. For it is in solitude that the richness of the inner
life is to be found. There is an awe, wonder and an awareness of the good and
the bad in all of us that leads to insight and prevents moral arrogance. The
reader finds it is in community where he locates his aloneness. White locates
this paradoxical home for us in all its perplexing complexity. White seems to
be saying that the future lies with that man or woman who can live as an
individual conscious of the solidarity of the human race. Within this
solidarity is a tension between individual and community that is the very
source of ethical creativity. The communication that binds people in
solidarity is conciliatory and restorative. The tension is seen in the
distinguishing characteristic of the artist--his restlessness.
In the day-to-day round of everyday existence the challenge and the risk of
life seem so often to leave us. White puts courage back in the game.
Experiences of meaning and significance are the heart of White's world.
Temperamentally unable to accept success and the ease it brings, he kicks
against the pricks. When one frontier is conquered he soon becomes ill-at-ease
and pushes on to a new one. He is drawn to unquiet minds with a rebellion that
helps define his vision. The humanity of this poetic gadfly, this Voltairian
rebel, lies in the fact that civilization will arise from the very needs he
exposes in his vulnerability. White's story, his poetry, is the agony of the
creative individual whose nightly rest only resuscitates him so that he can
endure his agonies the next day. But there are flecks of gold in a seam of joy
that comes from his passion, a quality of commitment, and a realization that he
is helping to form the structure of a new world.
White knows that he is working at the beginning of this new world and its
embryonic order. With all its strangeness, darkness and insecurity that all
true beginnings bring to those who search, White deals with the existential
questions of the human predicament with both timeliness and timelessness. In
the process he helps empower his readers to define who they are, where they've
been and where they want to go.
White knows there is no escape from living through the dialectical relationship
between individual and society. He points the way to live it through
constructively, with zest, with humour and dignity without wasting one's energy
on protest against a universe not organized to one's liking. The artist-poet
who lights up our world lives and breathes with the daemonic. The hunger for
meaning makes White appear like a bee fetching sweetness out of everything.
But he is not oriented to the easy. If something is difficult there is all the
more reason to do it. Love exerts an exacting claim on him and calls him to
vast things. Love, for White and for us, is both burden and apprenticeship.
His poetry, like that of any aspiring master-craftsman's, is the most valid
expression of his spirit.
There is a melancholy that haunts the isolation of genius. But in White it is a
melancholy that he does not carry about in order to drown people out. It is,
rather, a sadness that is lonely and attentive and waiting for the future to
enter in ways that transform. Our destiny, White knows, goes from within us.
Holding to the difficult, to what is most alien and strange, we must try to
love the abuses and dangers and, in time, they will be our trusted and faithful
friends. What we find most terrible is, perhaps, something helpless that wants
help from us. Sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of what
is foreign. Life never ceases to be difficult. One must move beyond the sense
of victory and loss, find the patience to endure and the simplicity to believe.
White has this simplicity but it is not compounded of innocence. His eyes are
wide open; he insists on arguments and won't give in.
The fine delicacy in human relationships is also at the centre of White's
poetry. He is never embittered, although he often shrinks and is appalled. His
awareness of human misery has opened him up and helped him to crystallize his
individual character: but infinitely slowly. This outburst of poetry has come
to a man in his fifties and early sixties. This anchorage in his poetic form
was denied him in Canada and Africa. But since 1979 an awakening creative urge
has found its outlet and the Bahá'í Faith has found a provisional
poet-laureate. He has found a happiness in being a beginner. But the longest
road through life is found in artistic form and White is more than a little
conscious of how beginnerish he really is. In writing about his first
publication Another Song Another Season
he said in a letter to a friend:
'I suppose it will look primitive to the next generation.'
White has been building, inwardly, preparing something invisible but
fundamental. The fruit of a constant introspection has resulted, for White, in
Occasions of Grace
and, for us, in a public resource of private
optimism. The bonds of community are mostly private renditions, private
perceptions, private needs and private strengths sketched out in a pattern of
interdependent other privacies. Private citizen White shares another view of
his life and his world--and ours. His poetry is exquisite and brings both his,
and our, highest faculties into play. Like good conversation it often seems
that he does it all for the sake of something quite evanescent: just for the
sake of pure delight.
It seems fitting to close this brief statement with the last poem on the last
page of Occasions of Grace
. It expresses so succinctly the reception
White knew only so well, of much of his poetry by most of his audience, an
experience common among poets:
REPORT FROM THE GRAND CANYON
Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand
Canyon and waiting for the echo.
So, don, you waited futilely?
Well, you expressed it beautifully.
But I find it's even worse
When echoes do attend my verse.
With every book of mine
Some excited pedant's on the line.
That he's noticed a misspelling
And, warming to the attack,
Listsa errors of mere fact
Relishing each transgression-
(Does he want a signed confession?)
How did you CLICK! like the poem?
I'm left listening to the dial tone.
Readers like that are obnoxious;
They should read only cereal boxious
Or be dropped into a canyon-
The Grand, or one chosen at randyom.
Or consigned, Don, to some tome-lined hell
that lacks your archie and mehitabel
Its books ponderous and fustian
and written in futhark or Etruscian.
"I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story,"
The New York Times Magazine
, April 8th, 1979, pp.22 ff.
Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith
University of Chicago Press, 1980.
 Letter of the Bahá'ís of the United
States of America: 29 December 1988
, The Universal House of Justice.