Two hundred years before the death of Roger White in 1993, Shaykh
Ahmad-i-Ahsai "arose to dedicate the remaining days of his life to the task" of
preparing the way, as one of the two critical precursors of the Bahá'í
Revelation, "for the advent of a new Manifestation." 
In the next several years he began to write a great deal
about the metaphorical nature of the prophecies relating to the birth of a new
and independent Revelation of God. Indeed, there was a strong poetic strain in
the Shakyh's writings: symbolism and metaphor abounded. Shaykh Ahmad was very
unorthodox and many "professed themselves incapable of comprehending the
meaning of his mysterious allusions."
poetic, symbolic, strand has continued through the two precursors of the Babi
Revelation, the Revelation of the two Manifestations of God and the writings of
'Abdu'l-Bahá, all part of what you might call the poetic tradition in the
There has been, too, a series of poets beginning with Tahireh in the 1840s, to
Na'im late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, to George
Townshend up to mid-twentieth century and later Robert Hayden, Roger White,
Bahiyyih Nahkjavani and Michael Fitzgerald who have made important
contributions to the literature and commentary on the Cause in a poetic idiom.
In some ways it could be said that the passing of Roger White in 1993 marks and
end of two centuries of intense and significant poetic writing in a tradition
centred on the appearance of two Manifestations of God in the nineteenth
century. It is not the purpose of this book or this chapter to describe this
long history, this tradition, of poetic influence, of poetic writing. The
experience of poetry begins anew with each generation. Since the first
teaching Plan, 1937-1944, poetry written by Bahá'ís has slowly become a part of
world literature, first through Robert Hayden and second through Roger White,
the subject of this study.
The poetry of
White is seen as continuation and development, as part of "the decisive, the
most significant, contemporary life of tradition,"
as poetry critic F.R. Leavis once described the poetry of
the present. White should be seen, too, as part of that rich treasure of human
life which is now stored within the pale of a new and emerging world religion.
White had much of the culture of this embryonic Force, this Movement,
fermenting, crystallizing, in his head and it took him on a voyage over the
deep of poetry with its delicacy and tenderness, with its inexhaustible
resources, infinitely new and striking. The world had been exploding with ideas
and inventions, knowledge and discoveries for a century and a half. The world
White was writing for was a part of this burgeoning. By the end of the
twentieth century it was teeming. White's timing was just right. If the world
was filled with practical people who did not respond to poetry, who had an
inveterate inaccessibility to ideas, who were impatient with them because they
were unfamiliar, it mattered not. In the burgeoning billions now on the planet,
there was a coterie for everything. White had his audience, an audience that
his ideas could permeate and vivify in a literary epoch that was just beginning
to reach to all the corners of the earth with audiences that were simply
unimaginable in the past.
T.S. Eliot once defined tradition as "a way of feeling and acting which
characterizes a group throughout generations; and that it must largely be, or
that many elements of it must be, unconscious."
Perhaps this is one way of summarizing the two century
old tradition which White is a part of and that I have just outlined briefly
here. There is little evidence that White was ambitious to be a part of this
tradition. There is in White's poetry little evidence of that attitude
expressed by British writer Martin Amis that writers who mean business need to
be ambitious and think they are the best.
Occasionally White makes some comment that bears directly or indirectly on this
issue but, for the most part, the question of ambition and the desire for fame
and success seems curiously or, perhaps, not surprisingly, absent from his
White's concern in his poetry is not
ambition or even utility but, rather, truth which is, as Emerson put it, "its
Part of the necessity of this
focus is, as Hayden Carruth writes eloquently, that lying "has become a way of
life, very nearly now the
way of life, in our society. The average adult
American of average intelligence believes almost nothing communicated to him in
language, and the disbelief has become so ingrained that he or she does not
even notice it."
While I find what Carruth
writes a little over the top there has developed a pervasive skepticism in our
society with its roots in many places: advertising, religion and politics,
among other sources. "Poetic truth," that which ought to be assented to,
serves as a partial antidote. The difficulty with this emphasis on skepticism
is that there is also an immense quantity of credulity in society as well;
millions will believe just about anything. The issue is quite complex. Perhaps
a good poem "enables us to notice and to judge...those aspects of experience
which an intelligent, curious, compassionate, sensitive, alert person would
deem worthy of attention." A good poem "earns our assent."
It's truth must be discovered afresh at each reading.
The future of the poetry of Roger White is so intimately tied up with the
future of the Bahá'í Faith that to discuss the one is to discuss the other. As
the world moves through its several stages, in the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries, of the necessary and inevitable political and religious unification
of the planet, from a Bahá'í perspective, having already experienced earlier
units of political and social organization: band, family, chiefdom, tribe, city
state and nation, it is useful to examine one man's poetry, apparently
insignificant in the large scheme of things, during one part of the great
turning point that has been the twentieth century. Although White's poetry
has attained a certain fixity now that it has been written, published and has
slipped into tradition's recent past, it has assumed the character of an
atemporal object which has broken free from its historical moorings and is no
longer closed in and restricted. It is free to be interpreted in relation to
the historical situations of future readers.
I'm sure the future will see new and sympathetic
appreciations of White's work and its creative invention that is beyond
explanation in terms of "influences." To ascertain the master-current in the
literature of an epoch, an age, and to distinguish it from the minor currents
is one of the highest functions of a critic; perhaps it is presumptuous to even
try. Arnold says the ability to do this requires "justness of spirit;"
the Universal House of Justice referred to
as an adequacy of "Bahá'í perspective" and "an etiquette of expression."
The future of the poetry of Roger White is also tied up with the search for
fresh answers to the eternal questions, a search that has been a principle
preoccupation of poetic minds at least from Wordsworth's time.
An introspective voyageur, White offers more than
stoical fortitude. He builds a substantial bridge between himself and the
natural and human world about him. At the end of that bridge White offers a
hope-bearing vision, a vision, a cosmic order, that is more than that legend
that goes: 'where the rainbow touches earth there is a pot of gold.' White
believes in the inevitability of an unimaginably glorious destiny awaiting
humankind. The door to this destiny is to be unlocked by a Divine Plan, one
that began unfolding in his lifetime and that he played a part in effecting its
achievements, one that will continue unfolding in the centuries to come long
after he has gone. It is a Plan that he cherished and that is presently the
labor and love of millions around the globe.
The ship of White's poetry does not suffer shipwreck at the entrance to the
harbour where the secular imagination so often fails to solve the enigmas and
contradictions of life, where it lives in a state of tension between belief and
disbelief. And so the pervasive melancholy and the aridity one finds in the
poetry of the Romantics is succeeded in White's poetry by what Geoffrey Nash
called that 'golden seam of joy' and what White himself referred to, among
other things, as a 'green and wiley succulence.'
But one should mention, if one is to be honest,
"despair's bleached skull" and "the heart's thin soil"
and that solemn consciousness wherein joy grows and has
its being. The enthusiastic critic of White's work must always hold out the
possibility that over time his poetry will come to be located in a predictable
and allotted portion of a progressive set of anthologies, a portion which
shrivels with the decades before disappearing altogether. For critics are not
seers, prophets or soothsayers. They cannot tell what the future holds. The
hopes which recent progress in the unfoldment of White's poetry has engendered
may be blasted by any number of future events.
One of the features of White's verse that made him popular while he was alive
was his capacity to generate light verse and to inspire laughter. In this way
he was somewhat like the American master of light verse, poet Ogden Nash, who
wrote prolifically from the 1920s to the 1960s. Nash, like White, distanced
himself from any sort of earnest literary ambition. White, I'm sure, would
have been comfortable with terms used by Nash to describe himself: a versifier,
a trifler, a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet, a devotee of the minor
idiocies of humanity.
This aspect of
White's idiom may not have the staying power as cultural idiosyncrasies and
their associated bases for humour change.
The whole problem of "the trustworthiness of the tradition of interpretation"
which comes up in any hermeneutical
tradition is not present with respect to White's poetry because it is not
present with respect to the ideological and religious framework within which
his poetry is written, namely, the Bahá'í world faith. This is not to say that
our interpretations of White will not have their prejudices; in fact, our very
prejudices may be our "best means of preserving the vitality and
of White's poetry in our
hearts. If there has been any incomprehension of White's poetry in his
lifetime, and there certainly was, I am confident he will emerge solidly into
the light of a universal acclaim as the Cause he was identified with virtually
all his life grows into the glaring light of public recognition. More and
more people will come to enjoy the poetic fashioning he made of his experience,
a process which engaged him for over forty years. The pendulum may swing as
the years go on, of course, from what I trust is a discriminating adulation of
writers like myself, to indifference, but I think it unlikely that White will
receive the extremes of denigration that some poets get in the periods when
their public reception swings into the negative.
Samuel Johnson's words, from his preface to
Shakespeare's plays, offer White a hopeful future: "While an author is yet
living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we
rate them by his best." I think, too, that White will be read, in part,
because his poems are a crucial index to the temperament and emotions, the
experience, of the last half of the twentieth century.
Literary critic Jonathan Holden offers a useful perspective that for me applies
to White and his future. Holden sees a poem as a method of analysis not "the
product of analysis." Holden sees the poem not as a vehicle for communicating
some already discovered vision, some already fixed position, but rather as a
means by which, through the act of writing, the poet might discover and clarify
his predispositions and the precise connections between his feelings and
troublesome facts." In this sense White points the way for us as we try to
clarify our own feelings and thoughts, rather than act from positions where our
minds are already made up. White's poetic form is more of a way of thinking
about poetic form. It is more process than product, more operation than
structure. White's poems 'discover' their form, develop their subject matter,
their content, as they go along. That's what keeps his poems going.
This approach keeps a certain openness
present in the overall tenor of his poetry. It helps to keep his poetry alive
and fresh for generations yet to come.
The individual and society have become, if they were not in the past, quite
complex things. If they are to be written about in poetry they must be
understood at a deep level by the poet. White possessed a critical perception
and understanding and it is this, as Arnold wrote, which gives poetry its
healthy relations with life.
possessed the genius of a great philosophic poet, not as one in mental repose
as perhaps Wordsworth was,
not as one who
enshrined the world of imagination at the apex of creation as Stevens did,
but as one who provided hundreds of lines of
poetry which possessed a philosophical and imaginative perception with humor
and wit, entertainment and edification. And while he did all this he gave the
Bahá'ís new music out of old stories. I'm confident that these lines and
these stories will appeal to generations, as Wordsworth's The Prelude
among his other poems have done for the last two centuries. Like Wordsworth's
poetry, too, White's poetry may well have its periods of popularity and periods
of less public enthusiasm. White's philosophy is embedded like gems, like
pearls, like a fine ore body, in context after context, in a great scheme not
of his own making, as was Wordsworth's.
With this philosophy he helps us clarify the complex and insoluble aspects of
our lives. I see no reason why this should stop with his death.
I should say something, too, about what seems to me to be a complacent and
uninformed view of modernist and contemporary poetry that it is endlessly
experimental or for others that it doesn't rhyme. If there has been a war in
the last two centuries between rhymers and non-rhymers, as some superficial
view might entertain, the non-rhymers have won hands down. The vast majority of
poetry written since Wordsworth got going in the 1780s and 1790s has not been
rhyming. Even some of the greatest of poets before that time, Shakespeare and
Chaucer for example, are essentially non-rhymers. Others see the modern vogue
in poetry as a superficial flouting of poetic convention, with coarse and
indiscriminate hacking up of prose into lines, without punctuation or
capitalization. White's poetry is experimental
in a much deeper and
non-trivial sense of that word and has nothing to do with experimental hacking
of words into lines. White's future will draw on these deeper roots, far
removed from any poetic superficiality.
I like to think that White's poetry will be, as Shelley once wrote in his
Defence of Poetry
, "a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of
wisdom and delight, and after one generation and one age has exhausted all its
divine effulgence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another
and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the unforeseen
and unconceived delight." For as a poet White is partly historian, partly
sociologist, partly psychologist, partly story teller. He has a foot in so many
camps, disciplines. In some ways he is an archeologist who digs until a portait
of the past is revealed to him and preserved for us.
I am not going to even try to begin to provide any examples here. I can only
suggest readers pick up one of the half a dozen or more books of his poetry now
available. His philosophic treasure-house has many rooms. White seems, to me
anyway, a fine example of the person and the process Keats wrote about in a
letter in 1818: When man has arrived at a certain ripeness of intellect any
one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all the
two-and-thirty Pallaces...The results would be a voyage of
conception....engender etherial finger-paintings arising out of the most
in that same letter: Greatness in art....involves losing the sense of our
personal identity in some object dearer to us than ourselves.
Much of White's identity was
unquestionably to be found in an object dearer to him than his life's vein: the
Bahá'í Faith. It's history was fresh and recorded in great detail under the
light of modernity. White, consequently, had a great deal to write about, to
sustain him, as a poet. It was a solid ground for the future. White's poetry
possessed what Irish poet Galway Kinnell said was essential for "true and real
poetry," namely, that it "tends to be more ordinary and close at hand."
As long as new meanings continue to come from White for generations yet unborn,
then his essence will not become exhausted and he will continue to be read.
"The grand power of poetry" wrote Matthew Arnold, "is its interpretive
power....the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully
new, and intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them." White does
this for me and for many others. It is my belief that he will continue to put
readers in contact with the essential nature of what the Bahá'í Faith, its
history and teachings mean, partly because he acknowledges in so many ways the
process between the discomfort in our lives and the joy, partly because he
deals with life's bewilderment and oppression and lightens the load and partly
because he brings us closer to life's secrets and helps us to be in harmony
with them. The result is a certain calm and satisfaction that, it seems to me
anyway, we can not find in quite the same way anywhere else.
After twenty-five years he appears to have the reputation of being both a
difficult poet, a critic's poet, as well as a popular or a people's poet. But
beyond his current reputation and the reactions of contemporary readers, White,
through his poetry, "defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the
accident of surrounding impressions," as Shelley wrote nearly two centuries
White created anew the world of his
Bahá'í experience after it had been, to use Shelley's words again, "annihilated
by recurrence, blunted by reiteration." We, too, must do the same. We must,
like White, redeem time, rescue it, reclaim it, renew it, by ransom, by the
payment of our lives. White helps us with this process in so many ways: in the
reconciliation of Truth and Beauty; by giving his readers a satisfying sense of
reality, of the real nature of things; by helping them reconcile themselves
with their society and the phenomenal world around them. When you read a poem
of White's his experience becomes your own. That may just be the core of
White's poetic longevity.
But whether White's poetry follows a downhill trajectory toward oblivion or an
upward one to some canonical, some classic, status will depend on canon makers,
publishers, editors, initiators, marketers, reviewers, teachers and,
ultimately, consumers, the current interests and cultural needs of the reading
public. For the moment White is marginal and only a slow but massive shift in
the value orientation of society, in its cultural capital will bring him from
the margin. For, in the end, literary works that become classic or canonical
do so "because the groups that have an investment in them are culturally the
A classic is a work
that stands the test of time, as Samuel Johnson once said, and the test is
determined by those who control the literary establishment. In the end, it is
the interests and beliefs of this group that define the classic. Toward the
end of the twentieth century this group became fractured and the whole question
of what constitutes the canon has been confronted and opened up to wider
It is not so much the text that endures but the literary and cultural tradition
behind the text. The literary and cultural tradition going back to the
writings of Shaykh Ahmad in the 1790s, a literary and cultural tradition
containing the immense body of Writings of two manifestations of God and Their
Successors, then, is the critical matrix within which White will survive,
disappear into oblivion or remain forever on the remote and obscure margins of
a contemporary culture. For literature and poetry are, in a sense, an organic
society all of their own, an organic society supported by a whole social
It is my belief that White will
survive as an integral part of that larger literary and cultural tradition.
Herbert Read comes close to telling us why White will survive. "Human nature,"
Read writes describing men like White, "saw something get a shock" and there
has been "a tremble ever since."
in that tremble. This tremble we are in from White applies to a much greater
extent from the Revelations at the heart of this new Faith. Another aspect of
White's survival quotient is the light that shines within him and which Matthew
Arnold said was so much more important than the pleasure a writer gives. It is
that inner light which is a rare and treasured thing and which depends on some
"children of light"
sharing that light and
on the Canaanite having left that land.
White's poetry will be, it seems to me, what Wallace Stevens called "the
essential poem at the centre of things" for a minority. His work will enable
future literary critics to establish a pattern of continuity between their
cultures and the part of their heritage that was alive and well in the last
half of the twentieth century. For White's work has a larger historical
importance in addition to the delight it provides readers. The ultimate
source of a poem is not only the individual poet but also the social situation,
the historical process, from which both he and it springs. Of course, White is
not alone in this exercise of providing historical continuity. He will have
the company of a vast range of people from the creative and performing arts and
the print and electronic media. Part of their role is and will be to preserve
the past and its stories, its beliefs, to be handed on to the next generations
for continuity and immortality, to keep holy, as Rilke says, all that befalls
us, even disappointment."
And I might add: especially disappointment. I think this is especially
important in an age like our own when "cultural memory is remarkably short" and
"communications are disintegrating" so quickly.
There is no art more stubbornly associated with group identity than poetry. No
art expresses the deepest feelings and emotions of a group than poetry. No art
provides that exceptional sensibility, that exceptional power over words, with
greater strength than poetry. Of course, in our time the electronic media in
its various forms provide for many that sensibility and that power. The great
majority of most groups, at least at this point in history, do not respond to
whether he be a Shakespeare or a
White, a Dickinson or a Hayden. "What matters," writes T.S. Eliot about the
future influence of the poet, "is that there should always be at least a small
audience for him in every generation."
White certainly has a small audience in this generation; time will tell as far
as future audiences are concerned. Inevitably, too, there will be varying
reactions to White's work. There will be many vocabularies of encomium and
opproprium that arise in reaction to White's poetry as the years go on.
Matthew Arnold's views in his "The Study of Poetry" help us gain a perspective
on White for the future. Arnold says there are three sorts of "estimates" we
make of a writer: the historic, the personal and the real. His contribution to
the study, the understanding, of the past; the contemporary relevance to the
present, the time the poet is being read; and the poetry "as in itself it
Often, the personal and the
real get mixed up. White was the first twentieth century poet I read who wrote
about Bahá'í themes and gave me pleasure, comprehension and responsive feeling.
Many of his poems are so well-anchored in my head now that the task of a just
evaluation may not be a realistic expectation. For I write to a large extent
out of gratitude. It may be too difficult for me to perform an unbiased
evaluation; I may need a lifetime.
The work I am doing here may appear too effusive to some readers. I think the
future will bring a balance to what some may see as my overly enthusiastic
reaction. As critical accounts of White's work by highly and not-so-highly
qualified students of poetry, as attempts at a definitive analysis of his
poetry by critics with pens abler than mine, and as full, unembarrassed
appreciations of his poetic virtues that do not repel more highbrow
sensibilities, become available in the years to come, the relevance of the
words of the great analyst of literature, Randall Jarrell, will be seen to
apply to White's poetry. "The most important thing that criticism can do for a
poet," wrote Randall Jarrell, "is to establish that atmosphere of interested
respect which gets his poems a reasonably good reading."
Put another way, criticism ought to be experiential and
pragmatic rather than theoretical. Such is the context, for the most part, of
this work in the tradition of Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt. I try to
bring White nearer to his readers and his potential readers. For if he is
nearer he can be put to greater use.
The situation of poetry, it has been argued by many, at the opening of this new
millennium has many facets which are not encouraging to the poet. It is almost
exclusively a non-commercial medium. It is not sustained by popular success; it
makes no best seller lists, is rarely found in the electronic media and, for
the most part, languishes as an academic specialization, in corners of the
Internet and in coteries where the enthusiasms of performance poets keep the
poetic spark alive. Given that poetry seems to be possessed of no laws, no
standards, no necessary forms, it is now the form that everyone may attempt.
Criticism is extensive but, again, confined, for the most part, to esoteric
corners of academia. Anthologies and surveys abound to cater to what has
become in the last century or two a boundless, formless, domain of an ancient
art. Publishing lists expand, vanity presses multiply, and poetry bloats like
the tentacles of a bureaucracy. Criticism is essential by its exercise of
judgement and thus quality control or a Tower of Babel results with its
inevitable anonymity from the sheer force of numbers. There are many
descriptions of this perilous state, some encouraging, some with tragic
If one accepted all that I write here, one could conclude that White has
already been lost, lost to just about everyone except a few, and these few are
so negligible as to hardly matter. White, following this line of thought, not
only does not have a future, he has already been lost, virtually. His days of
fame and glory have gone not with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes, but with
fifteen years. I take a more optimistic view. I think there may be many
different Whites to emerge in the decades and perhaps centuries ahead as a
thriving critical industry on White expands in English and other languages.
New kinds of poetry will provide new ways of reading White, ways that give his
poetry new life. In the meantime I hope what I write will serve as a catalytic
agent. The electronic media, still in their first century of popularity, I do
not think will hold their sway over the minds and consciousnesses of human
beings for the entire future of humankind. The life of print is healthy now
and its future, I think, is filled with hope. White's function in the future
for whoever his readership may be was described best and indirectly long ago by
Sir Francis Bacon. "Read not to contradict and confute," wrote Bacon, "nor to
believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and
White will give what he has
already given to many, spiritual and intellectual food to weigh and
The advice of Somerset Maugham with respect to novels, slightly altered in its
application to poetry, is pertinent here to would-be readers of White's verse.
Maugham encouraged readers to "learn the useful are of skipping."
To skip without loss, though, is not easy.
Some poems, I find, are absorbed easily. Others require two or more readings.
Most of us read for pleasure, for enlightenment, for diversion. When reading
becomes a labour, most of us only read for a time. When White becomes too
heavy going we need to read something else, come back to him later and, if we
are to really grasp his work, keep coming back again and again. Don't let his
books of poetry sit unread on your shelves for years. White is good on reruns,
second, third and more visits. Some of his poetry is hard work; some of it is
easy. Perhaps future editions of his poetry will be like that edition of some
novels which Somerset Maugham's publisher asked him to introduce with an essay
providing a context, a setting, a framework to take away some of the labour and
provide more meaning. I like to think White's popularity has just begun for he
is a good poet who never goes too far in his poetry, never claims an expertise
that is not his. He may write, for example, about the poor, the affluent, the
land, greed and money but he does not offer his readers economic theory or the
politics of poverty. He knows when to shut-up, when to be silent. I like to
think that White's poetry does what Emerson said the best books do: "impress us
with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads."
There are several Whites one can already imagine. There is the White with a
message to give his times, an engaged social thinker and responder, immersed in
his daily environment at the Bahá'í World Centre just at the time when it and
the global Bahá'í community was emerging from obscurity. Here the critic has
the primary role as interpreter and systematizer trying to figure out what
White means and where and how he fits in to the historical development of the
Bahá'í community. Then there is the caricature of White as humorous,
comedian, or writer of obscurities. Does his humor dominate and make him the
funny man, the funny poet? After readers have had their laugh, after they have
been entertained, do they put White down complacent and self-satisfied? Are
the complexities of some of White's later work, complexities which leave many
of his potential readers in the Bahá'í community puzzled and perplexed, quite
conscious parts of his poetic? Are these complexities the visible outcroppings
of some deeply laid poetic and geo-political scheme that was itself in embryo,
in its early stages, with a future connected with Bahá'u'lláh's Wondrous
Vision, the brightest emanation of His mind?
What White writes he writes with and from a bias and
everything he writes is conditioned by that bais. What he writes is part of his
personality, his idiosyncrasies, his taking sides, his loading of the dice his
way, his sense of the dramatic, his particular way of grabbing our attention.
For he is an artist, a choreographer, a director and producer--and a poet all
in one. He pleases and he informs. He is good at both.
I think White has developed an idiom that is at times so simple and childlike
and at other times so complex and dense that his poetry possesses a style of
such fundamental peculiarity and eccentricity that it will facilitate his
absorption by later poets, readers and critics. White gives body to the soul
of English, the language used internationally for dealing with our beliefs and
attitudes. White has passed on to the Bahá'í community of the twenty-first
century a more highly developed, more refined, more precise idiom for dealing
with its experience than it possessed before White wrote his poems. "That is
the highest possible achievement," wrote T.S. Eliot in his essay on what one
learns from Dante, "of the poet as poet."
There is in this idiom an intimacy, a familiarity, that adds to his poetry's
verisimilitude and gives his poetry much to recommend it to future epochs and a
wide range of readers.
White enables ordinary men and women to see and hear more in the ordinary range
of their experience. He enables them to experience a greater range of emotion
and perception, to interpret greater depths of meaning, than they otherwise
would have seen or heard without his help. He is like an explorer beyond the
frontiers of everyday consciousness. White helps them deal with the
incomprehensible, the mystery of life. His poetry is only one element in that
mystery which is the culture they live in and what he writes is dependent upon
many of their culture's elements, elements which are beyond his control. But
given the excellence and vigour of his poetry it can affect the sensibility of
the whole of the Bahá'í community.
course, the language of that community is affected by many other elements in
the wider culture. Eliot argues that the poet affects the many through his
influence on the few. What matters, he goes on, is that there always be a few
in each generation who will serve as the audience for the poet. What matters,
too, is that the topics White has chosen are of enduring interest. We can
never know enough people profoundly enough. It is one of our main routes to
self knowledge. If White's poetry is to endure an enduring interest in what
White writes about is fundamental. Given the topics and the community he deals
with, White will be around as long as the Bahá'í Faith is around. Given, too,
that there exists in his poetry what Harold Bloom calls "a pleasureable
difficulty," a kind of difficulty he equates with the sublime, the
transcendent, this generation does not need to complete the excavation of
White's poetic. White caters to this 'poetic sublime,' to the larger created
presence of the imagination; his work sustains close readings. Bloom says the
first principle for how to read poems is "closely." White's future may lie in
the creative exhuberance of packing of much into little.
Just after White was born Edmund Wilson wrote about what he called 'the dying
technique of verse.'
He said that verse's
role had grown increasingly narrow since the eighteenth century. It's territory
had been usurped, he argued, by prose. Just before White passed away essayist
Joseph Epstein updated Wilson's discussion of the death of poetry. He said
poetry was now confined to universities, poetry's professionals: teachers and
lecturers and their creative writing programs. Epstein is a brilliant
polemicist and he continues to describe the decline in the cultural importance
of poetry that concerned Wilson fifty years before. Poetry is certainly not
part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life today. It is the
occupation of a small and isolated group, for the most part an invisible
cultural niche. Ironically this reality has slowly been taking place during a
period of unprecedented expansion of the art of poetry: books, anthologies,
prizes, public readings, published criticism, newsletters and scholarly
journals. Nevertheless poetry's overall position in the culture and its
indifference by the mass media is, as both Wilson and Epstein have noted,
depressing. There is, too, paradoxically, so much poetry appearing in
journals, on the internet and in the poetry subculture that no one can evaluate
it, except perhaps the occasional critic. White's poetry needs to be seen
against this background of analysis by Wilson and Epstein. If the rest of
society has mostly forgotten about the value of poetry, an argument about the
virtues of some dead Bahá'í's poems may seem like an irrelevant concern for an
archaic art form, or a debate in some seedy café about some obscure and
tiresome social issue. That may be the perception, say, of a book like this on
the part of your typical suburbanite in these opening years of this new
The poetry on the Internet deserves some attention because there is a growing
subculture of poets there, thousands of them churning out their poetry:
atomized, decentralized, interdisciplinary, computerized and
anti-institutional, pluralistic, bohemian and middle class. There have never
been so many people writing poetry, accessing it and spread out over dozens of
websites as there is today. It is a veritable explosion. Perhaps White will
come to be seen as one of the few great writers of our time who has helped to
lead the way for that large body of secondary writers who, Eliot argues, are
essential to the continuity of a literature but are not necessarily read by
I don't know but, as a
practicing but non-professional futurologist, I think White has led the way
with the great Gestalt
that he made(that we all make) from himself and
all that is not himself, a Gestalt
given shape with what his natural
reticence would allow.
How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand
and appreciate, that poetry still matters, White's or anybody else's? The
difficulties of trying to engage an audience and of finding out what concerns
the great mass of the public, has become a major problem for the poet. The
poet is marginal. He has been on the edge, largely irrelevant, for half a
century, at least just about the entire time White has been writing poetry.
With the fragmentation of high culture, the arts are now isolated from each
other and from the general audience, although there are evidences of an
especially true of poetry, even with poetry on the Internet. There is an
audience there in their thousands, in the form of dozens of coteries, if you
want to plug into them. The Net is so different from the traditional poetry
reading. It's public and private all at once.
What will keep White and poets of his ilk from sitting in a remote perifery on
an irrelevant appendage of society will be what the poet Marianne Moore said of
the genuine poet. The genuine poet, she stated, is "a symbol of the power of
Heaven." Such a poet "lodges a few poems where they will be hard to get rid
of." Such a poet is part of the "felicitous phenomenon" that is literature.
Their poetry will be brought to the public
in new and fresh ways by people who take responsibility for bringing their art
to the public, far beyond the stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates
the public art of poetry today. The enjoyment of poetry can be a complex
experience in which several forms of satisfaction are mingled, in different
proportions for different readers. One way to keep poetry fresh is to memorize
it; it gives you the feeling you have written it; it comes close to your
psyche; it becomes like an old friend. There are special and critical insights
that a poem that gives itself to memorization can yield. Possession-by-memory
gives the reader the feeling that he or she wishes they had written the poem.
The poem becomes a part of the reader. Readers come to acquire an intimate
relationship with the poet. White's poems help us speak to ourselves more
clearly and more fully and, as Bloom says, "
to overhear that speaking." he helps us find
The White industry and the various critiques that arise from its several
assembly lines and production plants are bound to be influenced by major trends
and revolutions in intellectual and social thought. Already since 1960 there
have been several trends which could influence the interpretation of what White
has to say and why he says it: psychoanalytic criticism, structuralism and
post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, Marxist literary theory,
post-colonial theory, cultural studies and the new historicism, among others.
The influence of this efflorescence of literary theory on this evaluation of
mine is largely periferal. Perhaps this is because much of literary theory
"seems to entail an indifference to, and even a hostility toward,
Perhaps, too, the field of
literary criticism and some of the interdisciplinary influences on it like
those from anthropology, linguistics, sociology and psychology are simply too
immense to adequately deal with in an introductory book of this nature on the
poetry of Roger White.
Literary theory has to do with the way in which writers and readers interpret
their world and the texts in it. No single mode of interpretation that
literary critics draw on is satisfactory for my treatment of White. For the
most part the world of literary theory is confined to academic cloisters with
the general public either unable to engage in its specialized, its largely
arcane and depressing language or uninterested in doing so. After forty years
of what one writer calls The Age of Theory, literary theory does not appear to
be delivering the hoped for intellectual revolution; on the other hand it does
not appear likely that this Age of Theory will float away.
I see literary theory as a potentially constructive and
integral part of literary criticism, although a great deal of it causes
resistance from those in the very field it seeks to explore. It would take a
separate essay to deal with the relevance of literary theory and related
disciplines to White's poetry and its implications for this commentary.
Appreciation of poetry can be, and mostly is, quite independent of theory and
criticism, but there are several features of the literary theory I draw on for
my own personal literary architecture. First, mine is an individual synthesis,
drawing as it does on many literary theorists. Daniel T. O'Hara says that
literary theory and criticism are aimed at creating "the critical language in
which men will speak for a thousand years."
I like to think, although one can never know for sure,
that my work will fit into this futuristic perspective. I call the literary
theory underpinning White's poetry and my analysis of it Bahá'í literary theory
and criticism. It stands in contrast to Marxist literary theory and the other
major literary theories with their associated disciplinary support systems that
have arisen in the last half century, although it shares with them various
specific features. It really requires, as I indicated above, a separate essay
and it is not my intention to deal with it fully here, but I will sketch its
outline briefly because it seems to me that the future of the White industry
will be involved in an elaboration of this theory in different directions.
It is teleological; it is based on a belief in progress through Providential
control of the historical process. It views human beings as essentially
historically, socially determined in a complex interaction of genetics and
environment. It sees man as a composite being whose nature is basically
spiritual and capable of change. Primacy is given to becoming over being, to
relationships, to process, to diversity, to the relativity of truth as the
basis for and essence of any unity and harmony in human life.
Bahá'í literary theory possesses a vital and dynamic theoretical structure with
a deep historical consciousness which assumes athat all of reality is in a
continuous state of flux. It is based, too, on an explicit and unequivocal
dialectical method in which "a concept passes over into and is preserved and
fulfilled by its opposite."
philosophical principle of unity, a "structure of mutual and reciprocal
interdependence of diverse elements within a system," which transcends both
simplicity and diversity, "implies the dynamic movement of history in the
direction of increasing complexity and integration."
These concepts are the domain where the ontological and
normative principles at the base of the philosophy of history that this
literary theory draws on or is based on. These are some of the coordinating
principles behind my critical evaluation of White's poetry.
As I indicated above, it is not my purpose here to
explicate a detailed outline of Bahá'í literary theory and some of the other
literary theories behind which White's work and my interpretation of them. The
art of poetry is greater, I believe, than its interpreters; not even the
greatest critics can pin down the all its kinds of significance and value. In
the end, all criticism is tentative, partial and oblique.
"A work of literature-a poem, for example," writes David Daiches, "is an
immense complex of meaning which is nevertheless often simple and immediate in
its impact, and it is impossible to account for its impact."
Criticism and theory can help but, in the end, however
useful and helpful they may be, there is a larger truth unexplored. As
Bahá'u'lláh writes, "myriads of mystic tongues find utterance in one speech and
how many are the mysteries concealed in a single melody, but alas there is no
ear to hear or heart to understand."
Perhaps this is one of the meanings of this verse.
Beginning perhaps as far back as Columbus or Magellan sailing the ocean blue,
the planetary nature of human civilization, its interdependence and
interconnectedness, has been increasingly demonstrated. In the last century to
century-and-a-half this process, this planetization of humankind, at least our
awareness of it, has speeded up. This speeding up process has taken place, has
synchronised, at the same time as the emergence of a new world religion on this
earth. The fundamental teaching of this new world religion, the Bahá'í Faith,
is that phenomenal reality is one: humankind is one, religion is one and God is
one--the earth is indeed one country. White's poetry is part and parcel of the
global orientation that is the Bahá'í Faith. The teachings and history of the
Bahá'í Faith unquestionably inform the literary theory that lies at the base of
this analysis of White.
The realization of humankind's oneness has become even more a part of human
consciousness in the years since the 1950s when we began to venture into space
and could literally see the spherical shape that is the earth. White's poetry
comes at this time as does the poetry of Robert Hayden and, if it was the
intent of this book, one could line up their poetry with significant
developments in this increasing planetary consciousness. But that is not my
intention here. Rather, it is to note, as far as my own interpretive abilities
permit, those elements of White's poetic and his alone that serve the cause,
the development, of this political and religious unification in the years ahead
within the context of the evolving Bahá'í institutions, the nucleus and pattern
of world Order currently expressed through the instrument of Bahá'í
administration. Part of the reason I focus on White to the exclusion of other
poets and writers who have influenced this planetary consciousness is that
White's poetry helped me understand my own life, my own experience. "Is there a
better test of poetry?" wrote Ezra Pound is his tribute to Thomas Hardy's
As I have already indicated, this
study is an expression of my gratitude to White for the understanding, the
power of understanding, his poetry has contributed to the life I have lived.
When White was writing his first poems, the first poems that were clearly
influenced by the Bahá'í teachings, a process had begun that Shoghi Effendi
called 'the Kingdom of God on earth.' It had been initiated with the completion
of the Bahá'í Temple in Chicago in 1953. Indeed, many of the Bahá'ís in the
1950s and 1960s, thought that the approximately two hundred thousand members
who entered the Ten Year Crusade in 1953 would vastly increase their numbers in
the years immediately ahead. Although the process of entry-by-troops could be
said to have begun as early as the 1950s and although the numbers did increase
in the next forty years to several million, it is obvious in retrospect that
expectations for many were too high. For some disappointment was inevitable, so
tied were hopes to a vast increase in numbers.
The poetry of White reminds me of the Aeschylan drama which emerged in the
years immediately after the birth of Greek democracy in 462 BC. The drama of
Aeschylus, particularly the Orestia
(458 BC), deals with a new
understanding of personality, of law, of society, of political institutions, of
a transition from chaos to order. "Athena has to instruct them with a new
White's poetry emerged in the
years immediately after the birth of the democratic theocracy that is the
Bahá'í Faith, its fully institutionalized charisma, in 1963. His poem The
is one which, since I can't write five or six pages about its
theme, I will simply say it is full of the deepest, most touching and profound
wisdom vis-à-vis this newly emerging democratic theocracy. I will try
to convey something of White's sensitive, poignant and perceptive understanding
by quoting a few lines and commenting. He refers to the many years of
Revelation and authoritative interpretation, 1844 to 1963, in what is for me a
deeply moving metaphor:
Long she lay there and we grew accustomed
to the crystal concentrate of beauty
as the eye to any artefact, placed, marvelled at, forgotten;
He continues, noting that
.................some stopped to amaze,
And those that did were
grateful that grace be so contained
as to pose no threat.
Certainly this was the case in the first two decades after the election of the
Universal House of Justice. Even now, some four decades after that first
election, the beginning of the democratic theocracy that is the Bahá'í Faith,
there is a grace associated with this global institution. The "exquisite power"
also associated with these new, embryonic institutions, and the "intolerable
beauty" which may, one day, "disregulate the city's ordered ways," White
describes in oh so gentle, oh so touching metaphor:
"Many," White writes in the second stanza:
".....................................did not see
beneath the glacial shield the girl's mild bosom
swell with breath, or tears well in her eyes.
None asked what exquisite power she might wield
I don't think I can capture in prose what White has hinted at in strangely
allusive, strongly indirect, poetic metaphor. The poem is an immortal
masterpiece. If I murmer something about its possible meaning, history will
inevitably smile at my effort to convey its significance and lay me in the
corner beside those cultivated people from Oxford and Cambridge who thought
Shakespeare a Hollywood scenario-writer.
I sense, as I try to interpret
White, that these are the earliest days of the imputation of meaning to his
poems. The White industry will yield much more sophistication and depth in the
years ahead that my simple efforts.
As the voices of the sixties and what the Universal House of Justice called the
dark heart of the age of transition became more shrill and the noises of
society got louder, White offered many cautionary remarks:
Let us not stroke too swiftly toward
the green opposite shore
where death rehearses. We have tried
these pearl-promising waves
before and might guess the danger.
These pearl-promising waves were, it could be argued, the unrealistic hopes of
many in the Bahá'í community in the ninth(1953-1963) and early years of the
tenth(1963 to, say, 1979) stages of history. White wrote this poem, arguably,
about 1980. An aggressive or even an enthusiastic proselytism alienates people
and the Bahá'ís, for the most part, have avoided, such an overt approach to
increasing the size of their community, inspite of the fact that growth in the
West has remained, in most places, discouragingly meagre. The complex exercise
of achieving intimacy and harmony in their relationships, their marriages and
in their small groups, in their private and personal worlds, often resulted in
frustration and failure, often as much for members of their communities as for
the secular society they were part of.
White describes this process metaphorically in the same poem, The Other
, in imagery that is graphic, tender and so apt:
Recall how always we turn back spent
to the sun-warmed sand
and stand anguished in separate solitudes,
though hand in hand,
each to each grown stranger.
Of course, not every Bahá'í is going to agree with my particular interpretation
of this poem or the general tenor of my remarks, such is the nature, the fruit,
of individual interpretation. In reading Roger White's poems we all must deal
with metaphor in our own way, for it is a device in which we all must fill in
the meaning if we are to unlock the significance of the passage. To miss the
metaphorical significance is to miss the meaning. Metaphor is a safeguard
against literalism and dogmatism. It helps explain the unfamiliar in terms of
the abstract in terms of the
concrete and, in this case, the progress of the Cause and our own dear lives in
terms of swimming, waves and the beach. If readers of this essay do not find my
interpretation of the metaphor helpful, they can and should find their own
personal meaning. This is part of the challenge of White. His poetic presence
now is continuous and inescapable. His poetry, having become part of the
landscape of Bahá'í experience in the third and fourth epochs, will breathe new
life into many epochs to come. White will be with us for some time to come.
Goethe said there were two classes of great poets. The first, containing
Shakespeare and Homer,
were universal in
their outreach and did not bring their own individuality, their own selves,
into their poetry. The second category constantly exposed some trace of
individuality, some of the spirit of the poet, some of his character. Perhaps
White is here too. There is no question, for me, that White belongs primarily
to the former category. I give you here in this book my White
. It is
your task to find yours.
White appeals to us in that same poem, The Other Shore,
not to be too
hasty, to get our perspectives, our settings on social reality as accurate as
we can, to pursue a 'moderate freedom'
and, in our eagerness and innocence, our enthusiasms and excitements, not to
expect too much too soon:
we, young, too soon said
Land! Land! and, plunging, did not see
his torn pinion, his bloodied head.
Ease us, wise love, toward this wet danger.
Our convictions, our zeal, our desire to get things right, indeed our very
sense of wonder is but a starting point. White emphasizes that:
It is not enough to marvel: the sea asks more.
It does not casually strew enticing shells
There is calculation in its murmur,
frothed treachery laps its shore.
So many millions are not, yet, going to respond to our teaching efforts or, as
White puts it in the same poem in a fascinating turn of phrase:
who did not heed the hoarse and reeling gulls--
know that in our darkest incoherence
the ocean spoke
So much of our effort seems to be an experience of the 'darkest incoherence.'
But in that incoherence the ocean does speak, through our humble efforts and in
the context of the greatest metaphorical exercise on the planet, the
establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Some, a few, do respond. In time
millions, nay billions, will come under the shelter of this protecting wing.
White concludes his poem with several lines about the few among humanity's
billions who became enthusiastic believers in the decades he was able to
observe the teaching campaigns: 1950-1990. He writes, in lines that are among
my favourites in the entire White oeuvre:
Let the dreaming, lovely drowned
who loll and bob in bubbled wonder
tell us why, returning,
weeping without sound,
we stand, wistful and incredulous,
along the shore.
Among the hundreds of thousands, nay millions, who come across this new Faith,
and who have joined it in the last several decades, so many "stand wistful,
incredulous along the shore," while it is the few who "loll and bob in bubbled
In another poem this same understanding of what often appears as the slowness
of the process, the need for a cautious, quiet attitude prevails as White
encourages us, points us, toward wisdom. The poem For the Children
closes with the following seven lines:
It were wiser to stand in Magian silence,
reverent before the admonishing blackness,
and read in its long black reign
the gathering of an astounding dawn.
Let us watch the sky, children,
incautious with hope,
jubilant with wisdom.
Here jubilation is associated with hope and wisdom not with an evangelising
religiosity, a narrow ecclesiasticism, festive activities of various kinds or
some media event with its necessary hype and often genuine enthusiasm. Wisdom
and jubilation, conjoined by White here, are critical to his vision of the
years ahead and the times we live in at this turn of the millennium, this
'gathering of an astounding dawn.' White is writing about that "solemn
consciousness" that the Universal House of Justice said must be evoked as "the
wellspring of the most exquisite celebratory joy." For celebration "does not
mean merely festive activities. It is primarily a spiritual
celebration...occasion(s) for deep reflection."
White comes at this subject in an indirect way through
his poetry. But the point is clear. The fact that White expresses the question,
the problem, the issue, metaphorically forces his readers to think, to work out
the meaning for themselves. White provides no quick fix.
As "the plague" spreads "invisibly," as we "lean innocently to scoop our
marbles," perhaps we need to be more "reverent before the admonishing
blackness." Perhaps we need to base our jubilation in wisdom and hope's private
optimism that is, for society, a public resource and, as Lionel Tiger defined
it "a heightened form of gregariousness,"
a gregariousness that for White often requires that we "stand in Magian
White deals with this whole question of the spiritual journey and the progress
of the Cause in poem after poem. It seems to me one can often learn more about
teaching the Cause in so many of White's poems than in many a learned
commentary. I will site one more example here, parts of the poem The
. White begins by placing the believers in the role of children and
And they will warn you, children, as they stand
In wan ardour at the dense thicket's rim
That your pitch venture is folly,
I think most of the people I have known in my life would regard the exercise I
am embarked on as a Bahá'í as "folly," as an unrealistic utopianism. But as
Teillard de Chardin once wrote, speaking of realism, it is the utopians "who
make scientific sense."
by saying that others and sometimes ourselves, see what we are doing as:
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.
Certainly the Bahá'í pioneer, and we are all pioneers in different ways,
experiences the above as the long decades become his journey. "Reason is soon
victim and then desire," White goes on succinctly summarizing two of the tests
that many believers experience. I will leave the rest of this poem to the
reader to play with intellectually. The poem is nothing less than brilliant,
from my particular point of view. For, indeed, the journey is long and "murky
bats career and lean wolves prey." As Shakespeare left behind over the decades
and centuries many hundreds, nay, thousands of interpretations, so, too, will
the poems of Roger White bestrew the minds of believers with many many views.
will be the one you find? Here is more of mine from that poem
Who counsel flight from Love's far lair are wise
But O! not they shall see the Lover's eyes.
So...reward there is, but there is a price and "many perish."
White knows, then, that jubilation is not an ever present emotion. Indeed,
Sparse nourishment the slow years give.
Hope beyond this life, a perspective of transcendence, is important to White,
to the survival ethic and the process and program of building the new world
Order. While we are all trying to build a society worth living in we must
remember that this "sparse nourishment" is a sign that
Tells timeless feast hereafter.
This transcendentalism, this strong conviction regarding the immortality of the
soul, is accompanied in White by the ordinary, the everyday and he would urge
us to be
glad of the predictable wonder
of our ordinary lives
unscripted, flawed and plausible.
He would urge us too, as he does in the last line of that same poem, to
appreciate as fully as we can
the incalculably priceless booty of our human joy?
But not to allow our joy and our knowledge to give us
A taint of preening calculation
(which) makes of our knowledge knowingness,
(and) carries us too soon from innocence
He knows that we so often:
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence....
We, deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
It is important to keep in mind, when reading a poem, White's or anyone else's,
that "the recipient must abdicate for the moment--must surrender his
independent and outstanding personality, to identify himself with the form
presented by the poet."
Only in this way
can the reader penetrate to the heart of the mystery that is the poem.
Only then can White's attempts to reconcile, rather than resolve, the
contradictions of life have any tangible results in the readers' minds and
Those who have served in the Bahá'í community in the years from the 1950s to
the 1990s, the period during which White produced his poetry, have watched the
unobtrusively developing System of Bahá'u'lláh spread over the face of the
earth and, more recently, embellish its world spiritual and administrative
centre with an Arc of great beauty on Mt. Carmel. The emphasis, for the most
part, has been on establishing small groups at the local level and spreading
the teachings as widely as possible. Such an exercise has militated against the
emergence of large concentrations of Bahá'ís in one place.
In the fifteen years in which White's poetic output has
been most extensive, 1977-1992, the Bahá'í community continued its rise from
the shadows of an obscurity in which it had been enveloped for over a
"The process whereby its unsuspected benefits were to be manifested to the eyes
of men," Shoghi Effendi once wrote in analysing the growth of the Cause, "was
slow, painfully slow, and was characterized....by a number of crises which at
times threatened to arrest its unfoldment and blast all the hopes which its
progress had engendered."
this same theme in several ways. In Notes on Erosion
Neglect will foster, and dismay
but fertilize its thrusting growth.
Indeed, the potential of the Cause is immense; it
thrives in the desert
where the resolute verbena
unarrestably insinuates itself
through the socket of despair's bleached skull
However difficult the circumstances, the growing influence of the Bahá'í
community and its astonishingly creative Founder will:
with (its) fierce festoons,
with (its) green and wily succulence.
Down the road we are all about to travel we will find, as White emphasizes in a
poem which likens our experience to Noah on the arc,
the lean provision of devotion, of nefarious mutiny
the wild and mounting waters, the weeks and
months of never-ending dark. A deluge, folks,
is not a lark.
White knew quite well that there "is a tide both in public and private affairs,
which awaits both men and nations,'
Shakespeare wrote, which is not some cataclysmic overnight event but, rather,
some process which we are in the midst of and it may well take some time before
the tide has reached its high-water-mark, if it has not already done so.
White is, as Geoffrey Nash once described White in a pithy phrase, a
deceptively insinuating quotient. White has us laughing and with our guard down
he tells us we are heading for hell on earth. He does it with what might be
called "an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the
as the Universal House of Justice
described, in its discussion of the characteristics of a judicious exercise of
speech. As the decades in the last half of the twentieth century slipped by
the social and political landscape did get hotter or at least continued the
high temperatures already experienced since WWI. The tempest the Guardian had
described so vividly back in 1941 clearly continued into the twenty-first
century. As the Universal House of Justice had informed us back in 1967, we
had entered "the dark heart of transition" and it was getting darker with
century's end. White's interpretive schema was not wide of the mark.
Even the affluent minority of the planet were finding their
hedonistic-materialism paradigm and its success orientation as a recipe for
happiness was breaking down, first in the 1920s as F. Scott Fitzgerald showed
us in his classic novel The Great Gatsby
, then in the sixties when most
of the hippies who came from affluent homes rejected affluence as a raison
for living and yet again in recent decades as the world seemed to be
swept daily into a maelstrom.
White gently describes the struggle we have ahead. He does it with an honesty,
a subtlety and a tongue-in-cheek humour. At least that's how I read him. In
one of his many, what I call, arc poems, with a timing that is perfect for the
last generation of antediluvian's that we may be, we who have placed a heavy
investment in beauty and given the vision at the centre of the Cause a physical
apotheosis, White puts phrase after phrase in the mouth of someone who, so the
story goes, built an instrument for saving humanity and the life on earth from
total extinction: Noah--
Noah will say this journey is definitely not
for the timid and the overwrought;
not for the vainly pious,
the pusillanimous of spirit,
the bloodless prig.
Now that the arc is built:
.................This much is plain:
not for those weary and in despair of love,
this ardent voyage on the unvariable storm-lashed brig,
the unreasonable rain,
the long wait for the salient dove
to bring the living twig.
The darkest hours before the dawn have indeed arrived, as White prognosticated
in his metaphorical poetics, written for the most part in the third and forth
epochs of the Formative Age, with his gentle humour and his often simple and
sweet language brimming over with light. But there was in his idiom a solemn
consciousness, a poetic experience that allowed him, like the Welsh poet Dylan
Thomas, to tap into "a dark river flowing inside him to which he could lower
the bucket daily."
For poetry is not so
much a criticism of life, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, as it is "a look at life
from the abyss, the bottom. Few can do so for long. They don't know where the
depths are or they don't know quite what to say: or they are afraid."
But White knew, at least he had the
centring wisdom of over a century of infallible guidance and the interpretions
of history, society and the future in the endless letters and messages from
thirty years of a fully institutionalized and unquestionably legitimate
in the Universal House of
Justice. He had the example of thirty-six years of writing from someone whose
masterly grasp of the rich vocabulary and subtle nuances of English supported a
power of unerring perception.
And so White looked deep into the heart of the Revelation and at more than a
century of experience of the religion that was born from It by the time he had
become a servant of the Cause in 1947. He gave us what he saw and what he
thought but, in the end, we are only getting one man's views. They are not the
expression of an authoritative exegesis; there is nothing infallible about his
narrative style; however insightful his power of definition and however
meticulous his attention to the meaning of words, all we can enjoy is the fruit
of individual interpretation as it heightens our horizons and intensifies our
vision. They may satisfy and transcend the need of the moment and serve the
future of the Cause as well as the present; they may become part of a grand
design, carved as they are in the abiding stone of language but, in the last
analysis, readers of White are caught up in an individual "creativity,
characterized by an intensity of awareness and a heightened consciousness."
White is attempting what Plato wrote about
"discovering truth by reminiscence." He is moulding and remoulding his world
through his consciousness. He is not seeking authority. He is seeking meaning
within a structure of willing and wishing, a structure that he has been a part
of for over forty years, a structure that is the structure of freedom for this
In the process he gives us, at least
some of us, what Wordsworth once gave his readers:
....that which moves with light and life informed,
Actual, divine, true.
In presence of subline and lovely forms.
With the adverse principles of pain and joy....
.............all grandeur comes,
All truth and beauty, from pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
White is pointing his readers toward joy, toward wisdom, to many things. Among
the many points on the horizon he urges us toward is a cautious conservatism, a
moderation. Shoghi Effendi had, years before, pointed us toward a moderation
in his summary of the reasons for the failure of the Babi community nearly a
century before. Shoghi Effendi writes in the epilogue to The
that the moderation the Bab "had exhorted (his followers) to
observe was forgotten in the first flush of enthusiasm that seized the early
missionaries of His Faith, which behaviour was in no small measure responsible
for the failure of the hopes He had so fondly cherished."
For White the focus is on the inner life, "the extent to which our inner life
and private character mirror forth in their manifold wisdom the supreme claim
of the Abha revelation."
The success of
our teaching plans, White would argue, rests on this inner life far beyond any
set of new and noble principles, any staunchness of faith, any exaltation of
enthusiasm, any force of numbers. White expresses this idea of Shoghi Effendi
in a multitude of ways. From Emily's Song
Had heaven held sure solace
To hasten there were wise
But I, grown timid, cautious,
Search for ambush, man's and sky's.
One day I'll meet fate's boldest stare
And ask its harsh command
My apron full of gentian and
Lone daisy in my hand.
It was White's view that few rise to great heights of service and achievement
on the spiritual path. Unlike servants of the calibre of Martha Root
.................We, mincing few
Tenants of a grey plain, whose nervous eye
is peeled for tinselled honour will not trace,
Gasping, your pell-mell plunge from pride to grace.
Those few who take the plunge enjoy a spiritual banquet but, for the many:
The sour brew, the perishable flower
From which the mind weaves garlands, the vain meat
Of will that does not nourish.....
White concludes this apparently pessimistic or, as the voice of experience
might call it, realistic poem with a plea for help from heaven's great souls
..................From your pantheon
Unseat us from our thin feast to speed the dawn..
Bahá'u'lláh's vision of the 'Most Great Peace' evoked no response from the
rulers of the nineteenth century or, indeed, from the vast majority of people
who came in touch with it in His lifetime. This is not to say there was no
response for when Bahá'u'lláh passed away in 1892 He had, it is estimated, some
50,000 followers. The Faith He founded passed through its first century with
its unity firmly intact. That was, arguably, this new Faith's greatest
achievement. A global community has taken form inspired by and possessing a
certitude that the human race can eventually work together as one people.
But the Bahá'ís know and White puts it so well that:
Love offers first the suppliant at its gate
faith's bricks and planks and rusted nails that wound.
To fragile shelter built of love's spare plan,
gold-laden, comes royal lover's caravan.
There is always a golden seam of joy, of hope, and sometimes of sheer ecstasy
in the rag-and-bone-shop that is daily life in White's land or Whiteland as
some might call the spiritual and intellectual landscape he has created in his
poetry. But White would have us head into the future with our eyes wide open
and conscious that as we
........................ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies (our) doubt.
White has seen--and he hopes we too see--that within the religious and
non-religious circles we move in, that our:
makes of our knowledge knowingness,
carries us too soon from innocence
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence.
White selects many special themes and topics for our edification: marriage,
martyrs, faith, inter alia
. Perhaps in some future volume I may write
several essays around some of his selected themes, if others do not do so
before me. In the meantime we are warned by White that there are:
...............................a thousand ways
to fit distraction to our fleeting days,
that there are "few whose passion wins the sought caress," that "though
privately there swarmed/Martyrs in our dreams, publicly we warmed/To tenets
socially approved and fled rebirth."
the end, though, ours is not the role to judge but rather to accept, to be
easily pleased with others in community. If we do not, the troops that come
slowly into our community in the next few decades may find that we have
developed too critical a faculty with our intellects and use our knowledge to
judge and not understand. For knowledge needs to be about love as well as
understanding. Some of White's aphorisms and poetic injunctions may be useful,
if they are familiar, if they are ingrained on our emotional equipment.
White was only too aware that his poetry was not for everyone, although some of
it comes as close as one could possibly expect of poetry in a culture heavily
dosed on the products of a mass media and its entertainments. Although there
are more people reading poetry and buying books of poetry in these early years
of the twenty-first century, there are millions who never get near a book of
poetry and probably never will. One poetry critic recently argued the case for
advertising and sociology being the new forms of poetry, the former for the
mass and the latter for an elite. This kind of argument alters the whole
paradigm for poetry. Either way, White will not make it into any mass market,
not yet anyway.
I have met many Bahá'ís who just could not get onto White's wavelength. They
are not able to get the tuning-fork of their minds onto White's pitch. I'm not
sure how much one can will that tuning, but when the frequencies do meet the
effect is uniquely White's. I always find it slightly sad when I come across
others in the Bahá'í culture I am a part of, and of which White was a major
linguistic recorder only recently, who cannot read him. This is often due to
the densely woven web of his text in many of his poems. But he is nowhere near
as dense and impermeable as John Ashbery who, like White, raided the spoken
language of his culture. White, unlike Ashbery, is not suspicious of thought
and does not leave most of his readers unable to make out what he is talking
I find White's place in the poetic tradition of the West is not unlike
Ashbery's. I am speaking here in the broadest of senses because Ashbery has
attained a popularity that White has never achieved among the poetry
cognoscenti. They are both what you might call ruminative poets like Wallace
Stevens and T.S. Eliot going all the way back to Walt Whitman and Emerson. All
these poets tend to turn a few subjects over and over; they all tend to
aloneness and to the world of self as "solitary singers." Our world now is a
post-White landscape, a post-Ashbery landscape. Like Ashbery criticism which
defines the meaning and status of what it is to be 'American,' White criticism
defines the meaning and status of what it means to be a Bahá'í. For both White
and Ashbery their central concern, among others, was the self-world
relationship. This comparison is, for me, useful since Ashbery and White were
contemporaries, in the last half of the twentieth century and, despite their
differences or perhaps because of them, my view of White is sharpened.
Before I close I'd like to draw to your attention two simple stanzas selected
from one of many possible poems, in this case 'in homage to Emily Dickinson.'
They are symptomatic of the aphoristic nature of much of White's verse. For
poetry, far more effectively than any other art form, conveys the immediacy of
thought. And White is pithy, often with memorable lines, an effective
communicator, to use modern parlance.
I struggled with temptation,
Across his soul's
Denial was the cost.
Where all his
pride was slain
Finally I conquered
The legions of
Though heavy was the loss.
Prepare to strike
One of the factors that I think gives White a contribution to play in the
future is the sheer number of very fine poems that he has brought to this and
succeeding generations. His reputation does not rest, as say in the case of
Eliot, on a few outstanding poems which, with some persistence, can be read in
an evening. Rather, the sheer number of individual poems he gives us will
guarantee readers the experience of finding a poem they did not know was there
in his collected works. Like, say, the works of Hardy,Yeats or Stevens who
offer more individually appealing lyrics than our minds can take in, it is
difficult to know all of White's poems. He turned out a great deal of material
in his last fifteen years in slim and not-so-slim volumes.
On the other hand, it is fatally easy to decide that one "knows" the few poems
that one does, has heard them before and can't be surprised again. No matter
how much White you know or, in some cases, even have committed to memory some
of your favourite pieces, there will always be a poem there on the next page
that you know only slightly and delight to read as if for the first time.
White would have made a good poet laureate, an office that took on its modern
form in 1843
when William Wordsworth
was apppointed, although the office itself went back to 1668. It was an office
in England that was reserved for the greatest poet of the day as a mark of
public recognition of that poet's pre-eminence. It was the highest office that
a professional poet could aspire toward. Indeed, if a poet had achieved
distinction it was reasonable of contemporary commentators to speak of him as
`laureated,' even if he had not been formally granted a public laureateship
with its accompanying stipend. In 1843 there were "no specific obligations
laid upon the holder,"
although that is
certainly not the case today. White was often called, therefore, the
`unofficial poet laureate' of the Bahá'í community, an apt term given the long
and variegated history of poet laureates for some four centuries and the very
distinction that White achieved in his poetry in the last two decades of his
White liked the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Part of White's enjoyment of Eliot was an
affinity for both his life and his work, although I would have to engage with
the White archives if I wanted to substantiate this claim. Lyndall Gordon wrote
of Eliot's adult life that it could "be seen as a series of adventures from the
citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience."
Perhaps for Eliot this defining
experience was a commitment to the Anglican form of Christianity. White found
his 'defining experience' in a new emerging religion in his late teens and he
spent his life defining, studying and understanding it as deeply as he could.
Like Eliot, White often shuddered from his contact with the world and withdrew
to his citadel "where he could labour to record, as precisely as possible, his
I'm not sure White
would have liked the word "shuddering," but my own study of his poetry
suggests, like our own dear selves, he had enough of such moments to help give
his poetry the depth it attained.
Of course, in some ways, important and basic ways it is difficult to know how
White will be considered in the future because it is difficult to know where we
are at in history. Matthew Arnold thinks that the century ending in 430 BC was
the time when poetry made "the noblest, most successful effort she has ever
Toynbee, perhaps the twentieth
century's greatest megahistorian, saw 431 BC as the beginning of the decline
of Graeco-Roman civilization, the long decline of some thousand years.
Inevitably, this is all arguable. But Toynbee liked to think of himself as much
a minor poet as a historian; he liked to see the historial process as one
divinely inspired current, an expression of unity in the love of God.
There has been a theme, pursued for many a long year in the Writings of the
Bahá'í Faith and its interpreters in the twenieth century that we are
witnessing the dark heart of an age. Mixed with this view is the belief we are
in the springtime of a new age, a cultural and intellectual quickening the like
of which has never been seen. One could certainly interpret that century 530
to 430 BC as one which witnessed a similar quickening, a similar birth. The
fifth century BC has been viewed as the birthplace, birthtime, of our western
civilization. There is no doubt that these years were a climacteric of
It is not my intention here to examine this complex and fascinating historical
and poetic hypothesis, to compare and contrast climacterics. But it may be
that down the track of time historians of the future may look back on this
period of history as a period that witnessed the birth-pangs of a new
civilization. And in our time White, in the last decades of the twentieth
century, was there with his new poetic, a poetic that was highly accessible to
the embryonic new religion he had joined in the first years of its second
century. In that slough of despond which was part of this birth process,
something new was being born across the face of the earth and one of its
critical harbingers was the poet Roger White. Like Fugita who made
'Abdu'l-Bahá laugh, White made the Bahá'ís laugh and while they were laughing,
while he was making them glad, he slipped in some of the finest poetry of our
age. Like the religion he spoused which was becoming for an embryonic global
civilization "a source of joy so abundant that" it was to run all "over upon
the material world"
and transfigure it,
White's essential note, among so many of his essential notes, was joy.
And finally, with respect to White's poetry, I can only repeat the words of
Ezra Pound in relation to T.S. Eliot, with that same sense of urgency that
Pound voiced at the beginning of Eliot's poetic output, READ HIM. For White
is a poet of the future and that future is now. His poetry begins in a new
myth and ends in that myth and, if White's poetry survives into the future, it
will be because of this myth and its powerful metaphor embedded in history.
White was just one light in a long tradition of poetic lights shining upon this
history and radiating new meanings to his contemporaries. He was a voluminous
poet, an inventor on a large scale, especially during the last two decades of
his life. His was a marvellous poetic gift and had he lived into old age I am
confident he would have gone on concocting poem after poem. But what he did
produce, I'm confident too, will be enough to last into the future.
Such an article or book as this is not relatively but absolutely inadequate to
a body of poetry as great as White's, both in quality and quantity. It can be,
at best, as Randall Jarrell said of his study of Robert Frost's poetry, "only a
kind of breathless signboard."
as Matthew Arnold once wrote, humankind discovers that more and more it has to
"turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us,"
then what I have written here may find a
useful place in the burgeoning literature of this endangered species.
Nabil, The Dawnbreakers
I pointed out in chapter one of this book a
number of other contributors to the emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature. I pointed out, too, that this book deals solely with the
poetry of White.
F.R. Leavis, Revaluation
Tradition and Development in English Poetry
, Pelican Books, 1972(1936),
T.S. Eliot in "Lessons of the Masters: T.S.
Eliot," Garrick David, Contemporary Poetry Review
Martin Amis, "There is a Kind of
Meanspiritedness," The Times Newspaper Ltd.
, 4 August 1997.
One could list a number of quotations in
White's poetry that relate to this issue. Pebbles
, p.56 and
, p.82, among others.
R.W. Emerson in Jonathan Holden, Style
and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry
, University of Michigan Press,
Columbia, 1986, p.170.
Hayden Carruth in Jonathan Holden,
Philip Wheelwright in Jonathan Holden,
Dwight Poggemiller, "Hermeneutics and
Epistomology: Hirsch's Author Centered Meaning, Radical Historicism and
Gadamer's Truth and Method
," Premise, Vol.II, No.8
, 1995, p.3.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.110.
The Universal House of Justice,
Letter, 29 December 1988
James Benziger, Images of Eternity:
Studies in the Poetry of Religious Vision from Wordsworth to T.S. Eliot
Southern Illinois UP, London, 1962, p.4. By Wordsworth's time this search for
fresh answers became a more dominant historical note.
Roger White, "Notes on Erosion," The
Witness of Pebbles
, 1981, p.72.
Gary Cohen, "A Notorious Trifler," The
, July/August 2002.
Dwight Poggemiller, op.cit.
Some poets receive a wide swing of the
pendulum of popularity with the years. See Louis Untermeyer, The Lives of
the Poets: The Story of One Thousand Years of English and American Poetry
Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959, p.612 and his discussion of the poet A.E.
Jonathan Holden, "Discovered Form,"
Style and Authenticity In Postmodern Poetry
, University of
Missouri Press, Columbia, 1986, pp. 92-110.
Matthew Arnold expressed this basis of a
'healthy poetry.' See F.R. Leavis, Revaluation
, Penguin Books, London,
F.R. Leavis, op.cit.
Wallace Stevens in James Benziger,
James Benziger, op.cit.
John Keats, Letter to John Reynolds,
19 February 1818
, John Keats: Modern Critical Views
, editor, Harold
Bloom, Chelsea House Pub., NY, 1985, p.19.
Galway Kinnell, "Interview" in Greenwich
Village, NY, February, 2001.
Shelley, quoted in The Critical Path:
An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism
, Northrop Frye,
Indiana University Press, London, 1973(1971), p.96.
Jane Tomkins, "Masterpiece Theatre: The
Politics of Hawthorne's Literary Reputation," Falling Into Theory:
Conflicting Views on Reading Literature
, David H. Richter, editor,
Bedford, NY, 2000, p.138.
Terry Eagleton, "The Rise of English,"
Falling Into Theory: conflicitng Views on Reading Literature
NY, 2000, p.49: discusses the equation between literature and ideology.
Herbert Read, Poetry and
, Visions Pub. Ltd., London, 1967, p.118.
Mathew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p. 182.
R.M. Rilke in an undated interview with
poet Maxine Kumin.
Rita Dove, American poet, makes this
comment in an undated interview.
This is not to say that people do not
respond to many forms that various analysts of popular and high culture argue
are much like poetry, for example, songs, bedtime stories, advertising,
T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poetry and Poets
, Faber and Faber, London, 1969(1957),
William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, pp.112-113.
Randall Jarrell in Lives of the Modern
, William Pritchard, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.296.
I have drawn on the views of Garrick
Davis in this paragraph. See G. Davis, "The Breakdown of Criticism Before the
Printed Deluge," Contemorary Poetry Review, 2001.
Harold Bloom, How To Read and
, Fourth Estate, London, 2000, p.21.
Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p.2.
R.W. Emerson in Harold Bloom,
Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of
, Wilmette, p.48.
T.S. Eliot, "What Dante Means To Me,"
To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings
, Faber and Faber, London,
See T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poets and Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1957, p.22.
Edmund Wilson in "Can Poetry Matter?"
Dana Gioia, The Atlantic Monthly
, May 1991, p.3.
T.S. Eliot, "The Classics and the Man of
Letters," To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings
, Faber and Faber,
London, 1965, p.147.
A German word with no exact English
equivalent. 'Pattern' comes closest. The motto of the school of psychology with
this name informs us here: 'The whole is more than the sum of its parts.'
This is quite a complex issue and needs
to be treated separately.
Dana Gioia, "Can Poetry Matter?" The
, May 1991, p.17.
Harold Bloom, op.cit.
Frank Kermode, An Appetite for Poetry:
Essays in Literary Interpretation
, Collins, London, 1989, p.5.
David Gorman, "Theory, Antitheory and
Countertheory," Philosophy and Literature, Vol.21, No.2
Daniel T. O'Hara, The Romance of
Interpretation: Visionary Criticism from Pater to de Man
, Columbia UP, NY,
Nader Saiedi, "Dialogue With Marxism,"
Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social Issues
Anthony Lee, Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1984, p.236.
Nader Saiedi, op.cit.
Northrop Frye writes that criticism
requires some coordinating principle. See Lionel Trilling, Beyond
, NY, Viking Press, 1965, p.58.
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.396.
David Daiches, op.cit.,
Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words
T.E. Rosenmeyer, The Art of
, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, pp.336-68.
Roger White, Pebbles,
John Hatcher, The Purpose of Physical
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980,
[5 The Universal House of Justice], Letter
to the Followers of Bahá'u'lláh in the USA
, 29 December 1988, p.5.
Roger White, op.cit
The Universal House of Justice,
Letter, 3 April 1991.
Lionel Tiger, Optimism: The Biology
, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1979.
Teillard de Chardin, The Future of
, London, 1969, p.74.
Roger White, op.cit
Herbert Read, op.cit.
, p. 197.
This has not been entirely successful as
concentrations of one thousand or more Bahá'ís have emerged in some cities in
Shoghi Effendi, God passes by
Roger White, op.cit.,
Shakespeare quoted in Herbert Read,
, p. 219.
The Universal House of Justice, Letter
to the Bahá'ís of the United States of America,
29 December 1988, p.10.
Donald Hall, Their Ancient Glittering
Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets
, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1992,
T.S. Eliot in The Echoing Wood of
, Jennijoy LaBelle, Princeton UP, NJ, 1976, p.87.
For an examination of this process of
`the institutionalization of charisma' see the writings of Max Weber
the last decade of his life 1910-1920.
Rollo May, The Courage to Create
1975. These are notes I made in the front of this book from reading about Rollo
The Universal House of Justice,
Letters to the Bahá'ís of the United States of America
, 29 December
William Wordsworth quoted in Herbert
, p. 211.
Epilogue, The Dawnbreakers
Shoghi Effendi, Guidance for Today and
and The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 1989.
Roger White, One Bird
Roger White, Pebbles,
Roger White, One Bird
Roger White, Pebbles,
Susan Schultz, editor, The Tribe of
John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry
, Introduction, Internet, 2002.
Roger White, One Bird, p.28.
Kenneth Hopkins, The Poets
, EP Publishing Ltd., Wakefield, 1973, p.211.
Lyndall Gordon, Eliot's Early Years,
NY, Oxford, 1977, quoted in William Pritchard, The Lives of Modern
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.200.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.153.
Arnold Tonbee, "Comment," Journal
of the History of Ideas, Vol.16
(1955), p.421 and Edward Fiess, "Toynbee as
Poet," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.16
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Randall Jarrell, "To the Laodiceans,"
Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays
, editor, James Cox,
Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962, p.100.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.