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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 14


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.[1] 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, Bahá'u'lláh.

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.[2]

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.[3] Whether it is or is not, I introduce these ideas in an essay on White's Occasions of Grace 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 everywhere.

After a decade that saw two more volumes of his poetry, Occasions of Grace 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 love,
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 poetry.

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.[4] 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 rejection.

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 want sin.

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:

Adequate Heaven

Adolescence, I thought, and not for the first time, could be hell.
-Dick Francis
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:


Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
-Donald Marquis
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.

Enthusiastically telling
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.

[1] "I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story," The New York Times Magazine, April 8th, 1979, pp.22 ff.
[2] Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
[3] idem
[4] Letter of the Bahá'ís of the United States of America: 29 December 1988, The Universal House of Justice.
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