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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 16

A GALAXY OF CHARACTERS

The great bulk of the poetry of Roger White that was written and published came in the last fifteen years of his life. Indeed, it was the culmination of a life's work in reading, writing about, teaching and serving in various capacities the religion he had joined in his late teens in southern Ontario. This poetry will remain at the outer limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively and spiritually, as it came to be expressed in the last quarter of the twentieth century in the Bahá'í community as it was just emerging from its century and a half chrysalis of obscurity. Although at that outer limit, it is also an important part of the permanent record or revelation of the nature of reality, the history, in that quarter century. Much of the truth of life is knowable only through the various cultural attainments of the mind. If White had not come along, perhaps we would have learned the things he had to teach us from others. Perhaps we wouldn't. His poetry is a magnificent ornament for that unfailing occupation of our lives-the cultivation of our minds.[1]

The galaxy of characters that White created, recreated, defined, gave birth to, analysed with a brilliant clarity, penetrating detail, a compression of facts: the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith, Ruhiyyih Khanum, Martha Root, Keith Ransom-Kehler, Louis Gregory, Horace Holley, Marion Jack--are more than just clever instances of how meaning gets extended, refined and elaborated upon, they are expressions of how new modes of consciousness come into being. White gives us a vivid, a graphic, impression of the multifariousness of life and the many layers of the human personality. In some ways White is an enigma, a person about whom we know only a very basic line of biography, a person who kept saying, time and again, to examine his poetry not his life, if we wanted to come to know him. But, if we do this, we find we have in our hands a person who was everyone, a vision that takes in everything, an art so infinite that it contains us and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us. His opus may have been a small one, apparently minuscule, compared to the collected works of many other great writers in history, but it stands on its own as a significant body of poetry in the last quarter of the twentieth century. White's poetry provides what Herbert Read called "a teleological function,"[2] a connecting link between transcendental being and human consciousness. His poetry was also a connecting link, a transforming medium, that took the pain and the joy of life, his and others, and turned it into art. It is an art that is, for many, a sublime and moving testament to many of the significant personalities in Bahá'í history.

Perhaps I am overstating the case. But once White's poetry floods your consciousness and you find he is reading you better than you are reading him, you begin to appreciate what you have in this subtle quotient, this wondrous sifter of the Revelation and the history, the philosophy and sociology, of a religion that claims to be the emerging planetary system of the coming millennium. I find I am being read by a poet I cannot resist, who possesses what you might call a `fatal attractiveness.'3 One must read White with a certain exertion, a certain strenuous exercise of energy but, knowing this, his poetry will read you even more. The reader has in White a poet who delights in other people, who has an active and incisive mind and a practicality he brings to bear on a range of personalities. I find him exquisitely tender. He deals with the problem that Somerset Maugham says faces the writer: "that vice can be painted in colours that glow, whereas virtue seems to bear a hue that is somewhat dun."[4] He deals with this curious trait of the human condition by presenting his characters as 'rounded' in E.M. Forster's sense, with their mix of the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful all in one poem.

Most cerebral poetry functions at such a level as to lose its emotive power and I'm sure there will be many who will give up on White, as they give up on Shakespeare or any other literature that does not come easily into the sensory and intellectual emporium. Ideas have to be given what the poet John Milton called a 'local habitation;' they have to be given shape and form before we take them into ourselves. White does this with an artistry that is sometimes gentle and subtle and sometimes graphically straight from the shoulder in carefully crafted images. His poetry requires that you take a little time and I think it is here that White loses many from the mass culture of the electronic media where stimulation is instantaneous, visual appreciation highly refined and busy, but a lively literary sense often dull and decaying.

After two decades of studying White's poetry I don't feel like Robert Bernard Martin who wrote of Gerald Manley Hopkins that understanding his poems was "far less difficult that getting to know the mysterious man who wrote them."[5] Indeed, I don't feel I need to read a massive biography spread over say five hundred pages dutifully describing each stage of White's life in great detail and analysing why he did what he did at each stage of the game. Inevitably such biographies will appear, I'm confident. For me, White's poetry provides a base line of understanding that is always there for me to read: read myself, my religion, my society, my time and age. White flirts with ideas, and values in an imaginative way that exercises my mind and my heart; or, as Daniel T. O'Hara writes of the kind of imaginative portraits that White gives his readers again and again, until they often lose their appreciation in his liberal effusions, these portraits are "written as part of a dialogue of the mind and the heart."[6] White's interpretations are part of a process by which his disclosures give to his readers a new capacity for knowing themselves. His is the work of an historical, a sociological, a psychological, imagination that revises the past and imagines a myriad alternatives. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that White, along with several other writers in the twentieth century, has begun to create a critical language in which man will speak for a thousand years.[7] I have come to see White as one of those midwives of an idea whose time has come. And what may that idea be? It is the oneness of humanity and its institutionalization in a world Order. The past cries to be recognized and the present to be transformed. White helps us with this recognition, this transformation.

For this writer, the eminence, the genius, of White lies in the sheer diversity of people: heroes, heroines, saints, martyrs, pioneers, administrators, servants of various kinds to the work of the Cause, ordinary people both within and without this newest of the worlds great religions. There are so many separate selves and, if this were not enough, White also deals with a very wide range of ideas from the landscape of history, society and the future. He does all this with a gentle wit that is more than just a verbal flourish. It is part of his poetic modus vivendi, modus operandi. His wit and humour preserve "the seriousness from sentimentality and overstatement, as the seriousness keeps the wit from flippancy."[8]

But, far and above, White's greatest faculty is unquestionably his intellect. White does what 'Abdu'l-Bahá says the intellect must do in this age if ideas and thoughts are to be the very soul of the world in a boundless sea that must boil up "until the waves rise and scatter their pearls and knowledge on the shore of life."[9] White creates "new and wonderful configurations." He embellishes the world with "a fresh grace," "an ever-varying splendour" which derives from his power of thought.[10] White, of course, is the first to admit that this gift, this "sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace."[11]
There are great poets in our time and in history who are not great thinkers and there are great poets of conceptual originality. Each critic would make their selection of poets to put in each of these categories. But there are very few poets in all of history who are both great thinkers and in the possession of a creative imagination that is highly original.

What White brings to life are, for the most part, not creatures solely of his imagination. He does not create Falstaffs and Hamlets, characters who in some ways are larger than life and live down the centuries in its imaginative literature. The individuals who inhabit White's poetry are part of his experience, his historical memory and/or part of the historical record of the Bahá'í Faith. The presentation of human character and personality remains always the supreme literary accomplishment whether in drama, in narrative or in poetry. White presents people with sufficient meaning that one gets to know them sometimes quite profoundly, as well or better than many in one's life. Through the interaction White creates with this history, this memory, the voices of his poetic narrative, the recreation and inauguration of personality, of character, in history--as well as the person he is in his verse--readers undergo slow transformations of their own. The deepest meaning of White's poetry lies here. "It is who we have gradually become in reading this verse," writes J.B. White in his book about the poetry of George Herbert, "that we can best call upon as our guide to understanding it."[12] It was not without purpose that White was attracted to the poetry of Herbert.

Shoghi Effendi in his famous statement that outlines the key to our success in teaching, namely, "the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirrors forth in their manifold aspects the splendour of those eternal principles proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh."[13] White renders the characters in his poetry with an uncanny power of highlighting, mirroring, those eternal principles. The people in his poetry seem so real. Their reality never leaves you, at least in the case of some of the main characters. Each reader will have his or her favourites. This is because White's creations are real and because White gets on their insides. They strut and fret upon the stage of life and walk proudly too, but their brief candle, White ensures, colloquially, often in a quotidian way, will shine in quite varied ways for us in his poetry. They will be heard from some more, then, on this earth and in mysterious and unknown ways in the next.

White's compendium of characters are not unlike Geoffrey Chaucer's in his famous Canterbury Tales. A group of characters who, as William Blake once wrote, exemplify "the eternal principles that exist in all ages,"[14] are described by someone who delights in other people, who has an active and incisive mind, who dwells only on essentials, whose feelings are sincere and intense, who is exquisitely tender but clearly wily and tough minded enough to survive the late twentieth century and its dark heart. Like Chaucer, White wrote most of his published poetry in the last years of his life, in fact, just about exactly six hundred years after that founding father of English poetry. The comparison is an interesting one but I mention it here only in passing.

Like Chaucer's work, too, White requires some immersion on the part of his readers if they are to gain some deeper appreciation of his meaning. White is showing his readers what and even how to perceive, what to sense. He is trying to enlarge their world, their perception. The problem is often simply how to read a poem. Often the reader is left with a question, a puzzle, a mystery, because much of the poetry is what you might call part of "a quest narrative."[15] He deals in metaphor and readers must fill in meaning for themselves. It does not jump off the page as it might off the TV screen in some straight action or passion shot. The journey is described, the story told in what you might call a `hidden way.' The tone is sometimes joyous and confident but the journey often possesses a proportionate amount of danger and frustration, qualities that give the goal of the journey meaning. For White's tale is not something "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."[16] The following poem talks little of the joy and confidence, although the reward is clear in the last line:
And they will warm you, children, as they stand
In wan ardour at the dense thicket's rim
That your pitch venture is folly, a dim
Dangerous progress over untracked land
Ambushed with bogs in which illusions mire,
Keen fang and talon glint from every tree
And murky bats career and lean wolves prey.
Reason is soon victim and then desire--
A sharp cry marks the kills no startled plea
Postpones. No one returns uncrazed, the cautious say,
And many perish. Who might guess
How few whose passion wins the sought caress.
Who counsel flight from Love's far lair are wise
But O! not they shall see the Lover's eyes.[17]

There is a wilderness, though, through which we must blaze a new and individual trail. Occasionally people try to mitigate the story of the pain by stressing the hopeful vision, the positive side of the journey but few, White warns, win "the sought caress." No easy wish-fulfilment here. Readers return again and again to White's varied charactizations and his depiction of life's journey because they find he gives them so much of the world they find to be fact. He is not creating a world of fantasy to escape into with one's novel at bedtime. He tells it how it is and he says it so well, with such articulateness, that his readers keep coming back to hear it said so eloquently.

White answers the needs of this first generation of Bahá'ís in the tenth stage of history, the first generation of pioneers under the aegis of the Universal House of Justice, the trustees of the global undertaking which was initiated by the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh in the nineteenth century. If White's poetry is to endure it must answer the needs of future generations as well. Those needs will vary but White is an international possession and his poetry, I would argue, will come to transcend the generations, nations and languages. I do not think he can be confined to the decade-and-a-half that he wrote and published in the third and fourth epochs of the Formative Age and their historical, social, political, economic, rational and poetic contexts. I do not think White can be reduced to a time and place. His influence on his readers is unique and it will continue into the future. The interpretations of the first quarter-century of what you might call the White industry are just the beginning. Wonder, gratitude, amazement at such a mind and sometimes shock are accurate responses to White's work. White writes to be read, occasionally at public readings but, for the most part, silently due to his subtlety and comprehensive and omnipresent creativeness, to use Coleridge's term.

White, of course, will mean different things to different people, but he has ensured that whatever he means it is to be found in his poetry and not his biography. Unlike Shakespeare who seems to have had little influence on religion over the last four hundred years, White's influence on the thinking of millions of Bahá'ís even in the first generation of his readership has been significant. I like to think that White was and is popular, although is not nor will ever be 'popular culture,' at least not in our current sense of the term.

Much of our experience of culture, our reading of poetry or prose, our attendance at the theatre, indeed a significant part of our religion, is a search for ourself or a search for other selves. White gives us other selves and he gives us ourselves. This is one, perhaps, the main reason, he is important to us. Whatever the social, spiritual and intellectual provocations that animated White in the years after the revolution in Iran, in that fifteen year period when all his major poems were published--and there were many as the Bahá'í Faith went through a period of significant growth and its spiritual and administrative centre in Israel was embellished to an unprecedented degree--his writing, as he himself says, "appears to be rooted in the need to shut off the clamour of the external world....to enjoy silence and solitude."[18] In the process White enlarges our vision rather than sorting out the problems we face. He helps us accept and outgrow what Carl Jung calls the insolvability of so many of our problems while we move to "a new level of consciousness."[19]

In 1990 Geoffrey Nash suggested that our age with its fading systems of belief has given to "those bats of the night,"[20] the materialists, the dominance of the realms of thought and action. A grossly materialistic, utilitarian and atheistic world has the poet to keep alive in man, as Schiller once wrote, aims that are higher than the material.[21] Nash, writing just as the Bahá'í community was beginning to respond to the Universal House of Justice's call, in 1979, for the "development and fostering" of the "intellectual....life of the believers,"[22] decried the absence of an audience and the groundwork of shared values with those among whom the poet dwells. The poet, he argued, has had no mooring and has floated adrift in an amorphous and frightening ocean for more than a century. With Matthew Arnold, the poet was: 'Still bent to make some port he knows not where.'

But even in 1980 Nash offered hope. He saw the poet, then, as an heir to the Romantic artists who sensed the dawning of a new age in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He saw the Bahá'í poet as raising his house on a sure foundation, inspired by golden tapestries of the past. "The Word of God," Nash states, "has power to raise a score of fine poets from a hoard of illiterates who now know nothing of philosophy, nor a word from our poets."[23] White is certainly a fine poet and in the last quarter-century a host of others have started walking beside him. Some have more talent than others and not everyone is a Roger White.

Two years after writing the above, Geoffrey Nash was to inform his readers that "Roger White is a significant poet whose style and use of Bahá'í subject matter heralds the development of Bahá'í consciousness in world literature."[24]

White, like Shakespeare, thinks in terms of the lone individual but, unlike Shakespeare, White also thinks in terms of community. The power of community will, in the end, triumph over everything that opposes it. It will be as natural to man as breathing, Alfred Adler once wrote.[25] The new ideology will utilize community for the first time in history in a way that does not sound like the repeated sound of a single boot. For the real problem facing our human community are not so much to discover the norms for survival as it is to discover the true basis for a revolutionary myth that will be adequate for our age, that will integrate human behaviour into some group ethos and its patterns of interdependent privacies. What White is suggesting in so many of his poems is that "concerted action toward a single goal" must be taken. "Vague sentiments of good will, however genuine, will not suffice. Some explicit agreement on principles will be required for any coordinated progress."[26]

Shakespeare's ambassador to that undiscovered country, death, was Hamlet. White draws on the enigmatic and wondrous poet, Emily Dickinson. But far beyond and above Dickinson, White has the writings of a powerful armoury of two Manifestations of God, Their successors and now more than a century of extensive and legitimate interpretation. Death, indeed, so many of life's quintessential mysteries are framed in a language that transcends history. In all of these things White is both entertainer and source of wisdom literature. White gives us pleasure and bewildering intelligence.

By 1963 the charismatic authority that resided in the person of Bahá'u'lláh was fully institutionalised in the Universal House of Justice, the elected body of all the Bahá'ís of the earth. 1963 also marked the beginning of the last stage, the end, of history. That the first decades, the first thirty years, 1963 to 1993, when these trustees of the global undertaking initiated by the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh more than a century before put into action a series of Plans for the achievement of that single goal--that these years should spawn such a poet as Roger White is, I think, no accident, no mark of chance, no movement of the wheel of fortune. As Shakespeare was to write in Hamlet "The play's the thing," White was to state again and again "The poem's the thing." For in his poems readers could find the most succinct expression of the realities of the newest of the world's great religions, the Bahá'í Faith, over its first century and a half, 1844-1994.


Notes:
[1] 'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to 'the cultural attainment of the mind' as the 'first attribute of perfection.' See The Secret of Divine Civilization, Wilmette, 1970, p.35.
[2] Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry, Faber and Faber, London, 1958, p.181.
2 ibid., p. 157.
[4] Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their Authors, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p.42.
[5] Robert Bernard Martin, Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life, Harper Collins, London, 1991, p.xv.
[6] Daniel T. O'Hara, The Romance of Interpretation: Visionary Criticism From Pater to de Man, Columbia UP, NY, 1985, p.19.
[7] ibid., p.27. See also The Letter of the Universal House of Justice, December 29, 1988 to the Bahá'ís the USA for a discussion of this 'critical language.'
[8] Alfred Alvarez in the Psychic Mariner: A Reading of the Poems of D.H. Lawrence, Tom Marshall, Heinemann, London, 1970, p. 199.
[9] Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, Wilmette, 1970, pp.109-110.
[10] ibid., p.1.
[11] Roger White, Occasions of Grace, George Ronald, Oxford, p.ix.
[12] J.B. White, This Book of Stories: Learning To Read George Herbert, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, pp.260-1.
[13] Shoghi Effendi in Ridvan Message, 1988, The Universal House of Justice.
[14] William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer: Penguin Critical Anthologies, editor, J.A. Burrow, 1969, p.82.
[15] Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet's Quest, University of Alabama Press, 1985, p.,183.
[16] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Soliloquy.
[17] Roger White, Pebbles, p.51.
[18] Roger White, "An Articulate Silence," Essay Sent to the author in April 1991.
[19] Carl Jung in The Secret of the Golden Flower, pp.91-2.
[20] 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Geoffrey Nash, "Can There Be a Bahá'í Poetry?" Bahá'í Studies, 1980, p.2.
[21] idem
[22] The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1979.
[23] Nash, op.cit., p.3.
[24] Nash in Bahá'í Studies, Vol.10, p.23.
[25] Paul Stepansky, In Freud's Shadow: Adler in Context, The Analytic Press, Hillside, N.J.,1983, p.269.

[26] Douglas Martin, "Bahá'u'lláh's Model for Universal Fellowship," World Order, Fall 1976, p.13.
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