THE FIRST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS: 1929-1954
This essay would benefit from access to White's archival collection held
now at the Canadian National Bahá'í Centre in Thornhill and at the Bahá'í World
Centre in Haifa. But it has not been my intention to cover White's entire
collection of poetry, letters, essays and references in the general literature.
Rather, I am attempting a general introduction to White's work since, as yet,
no introduction has become available and it has been ten years since he passed
away. The time is right, it seemed to me and to my publisher, for such an
introductory work. The focus in this book is, in the main, on White's poetry,
his major publications, not on his letters, essays and the several genres
within which he worked as a creative artist with words. Some attention to
these other genres is found here in the name of bringing White closer to his
audience and introducing a new generation of readers to this delightful poet
who happened along at a critical stage in the emergence from obscurity of the
religion he had been associated with since the late 1940s.
White's first published work, the first work in what could be called the Early
stage of White's poetic development,
chapbook in 1947. It was entitled Summer Window
and was published by
Cherry Press in Belleville.
One day a
student of White will examine its contents as the White industry, now in its
earliest days, expands, as it surely will. Even by his mid to late teens
White needed to write. This need defined the basic premise upon which
everything else depended. It was one of the two or three great categorical
imperatives of his life. A second chapbook of poetry, also containing poetry
from these early days, was published in 1973 by Haifa Publications. He called
it Sketches of 'Abdu'l-Bahá
.3 I leave the examination of this poetry
to future scholars. One chapbook that Roger sent me at some time in the 1980s,
Old Songs/New Songs,
contains several poems about White's early life
before the age of twenty-one.
certainly written before he was twenty-one. White called these poems his
juvenilia. Two of them, sent to me under separate cover, he said he wrote
'circa 1947.' He wrote at the top of the page 'juvenilia.' He said he found
these "while sorting through his papers."
I reproduce them here, the
earliest poems that I have read from what became nearly half a century of
writing poetry. There is no indication that his earliest work gave him "the
creeps" as the earliest work of the great American poet Wallace Stevens
affected him as he looked back from the pinnacle of his literary success.
These were the early days of White's education as a poet. Through the
experience of writing, White was learning what literary structures fitted his
talents. They were important lessons. Often a poet does not learn until too
late. Ezra Pound learned late that The Cantos
were basically incoherent
and a lifetime of over fifty years and 800 pages may have been useful for a
biography of Pound but they served largely as an unvisited mausoleum
for his poetry. White, on the other hand,
slowly fashioned his craft without the harsh judgement that some poets inflict
on themselves. One of White's contemporaries, Robert Lowell, for example,
complained that his(Lowell's) poems "seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged
down into the bog."
White's poetic edge
seems lighter, humorous, easier on his psyche even in the late forties and
fifties. By the seventies and eighties, then, White had refined his literary
structures. He profited, it would appear, from that early education.
Emily Dickinson had a way
of passing every tidy day;
home, the hearthside and a cat,
to pen a verse, she asked just that.
My home is bare,
my hearthside's cold,
my cat has mange,
I'm growing old.
What shall I do should all disperse?
Pen a verse, son, pen a verse.
White was only sixteen at the time he wrote this. The wonderful poet Emily
Dickinson had already made her mark on White's consciousness. Few Canadian
youths at sixteen would have enjoyed the perspicacity to appreciate this
enigmatic poet of the nineteenth century who, with Walt Whitman and Emerson,
gave a poetic voice of some profundity to American society in that long and
arduous century. White, who helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Bahá'ís in
the 1980s and 1990s, most of whom had joined what one writer called this
chrysalis global church in the period of its first six Teaching Plans 1937 to
1979, to articulate their own voice within the framework of the writings of
their Faith. In the 1940s White was already defining his own voice. It was a
voice that had little to do with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees or
so much that was popular culture.
no clear window into the inner life of a person," wrote the philosopher
Derrida, "for any window is always filtered through the glaze of language,
signs and the process of signification." 
these poems White gives us some of that glaze. He also gives us the very
beginnings of that narrative identity which developed with the years into a
tool of great power and strength and which is "a task of the imagination, not a
imagination empowered White to identify with the great range of historical
personages, a process, an activity, I discuss in a later chapter.
I have included a second item of White's juvenilia here because it shows the
kindness that was already a part of his style, his humour and his forgiving
nature, and was also a part of his character, a character which endeared him
to people until his death in 1993 and continues to do so through his poetry.
Now that you have bruised my heart
and, tiring, said that we must part,
I'll smile your favourite smile and say,
"The gods be with you on your way,"
and brush aside remembering
and wish you joy and everything
But if your angel deems it wise
to overcast your summer skies,
and other lovelings whom you hold
turn aside and leave you cold;
if some small wraith of misery
haunts your nights with thought of me,
There is self-disclosure here but it is oh so gentle, so indirect, so
light. There is the humour, the surprise element, the delight. And this would
be how the reader would come to know White and his poetry in the years ahead.
The reader might have to draw on a dictionary now and then, for White was quite
a wordsmith. He digs deeply below life's surface and into his large vocabulary
and he requires, often, some patient study on the part of his readers. Such
patience would yield a payoff, though; readers would come to know White as a
friend. For many, they would learn something about the Bahá'í Faith and life
that could not be learned in the available commentaries on the Cause and in the
burgeoning literature increasingly available. What I provide here in this
brief biography will not detract, as biography often does, from the brilliant
opacities that are many of White's poems.
The friendship that readers can enjoy is not to be based on personal
acquaintance, reciprocity and having cups of tea in his home or theirs, but the
kind of friendship that the Pythagoreans enjoyed, a friendship based on being
part of a universal brotherhood--in the case of the Pythagoreans the universe
of several Greek city states in the sixth century BC. These friends were
assumed to be friends regardless of whether they knew each other. It would be
a friendship not based on physical proximity or face-to-face meetings. It would
be a friendship embedded in silence, in his poetry and the words of his
letters. It would be a friendship that yielded no anecdotes, except those
deriving from the printed word, from White's poetry. It would be a friendship
characterized by sudden interruptions, sudden communications that commented in
some unique way on the strangeness, the fascinating complexity, the surprising
nature of human community and its existential dilemmas. Hearing not seeing is
the condition of friendship for White, at least for most of those who are his
readers. There is camaraderie; there is Voltairean irreverence and there is
also a profound respect. In addition, people have a basic need to make evident
their deepest feelings about life, part of everything they are and know.
Readers of White, each in their different ways, felt they were partly
satisfying this basic need in his poetry. For hundreds, thousands, of Bahá'ís
it was a refreshing relationship, a relationship of self-discovery with the
help of an art form that never ended. It could always be re-created.
White knew he could not heal the multitude of wounds people had who came near
to his poetry. But as a friend he might help with understanding. I'm not so
sure White was conscious of much of this at sixteen, in 1945, at the onset of
his poetic experience. One poem he wrote, which first appeared in his Old
, does go a long way to describe what he did know, where he
was at, in his mid-to-late teens, say 1945 to 1950. It is called New
. In it he refers to a certain cynicism that set in during these
years. "A clean, cold, wind" left him feeling like "a stripped young tree in
autumn with a cynical winter setting in." This spiritual state, he goes on,
left him with "nothing large enough to house his impulse to believe."
White continues, though, and describes his psychological, his spiritual,
condition in 1947 or 1948, when he first came across the Bahá'í Faith in those
meetings in Kingston Ontario that he began to attend:
The need lay as quiet, unhurried and insidious as a seed
snowlocked in a bleak and lonely landscape.
These words could very well describe the condition of the needs of millions of
young men and women in their late teens(as well as many adults): quiet,
waiting Micauber-like for something to turn up,
waiting for a sense of direction to emerge in their lives, waiting for some
love which would sweep them off their feet, some career to give them some
centering and some meaning. This is how White describes his early years of
contact with this small group of Bahá'ís in Kingston:
forgiveness came, an unsuspecting flooding rain
and the seed was there, a promise kept.
Even your rejection was forgiven
and, in the burgeoning, lovesap slowly stirred.
God hadn't died, of course, abandoned us for Russia,
nor moved to Uganda.
The lines are evocative and present a sensitive and humorous portrait of the
first stirrings of White's beliefs, beliefs that would produce some of the
finest poetry written by Bahá'ís about their experience in the second half of
the first century of the Formative Age. In White there is an etiquette of
expression. There is that tact which is a part of fine poetry. There is, too,
a passionate, sympathetic, insightful, astute, attractive personality who often
made the writing of others seem more important than his own.. Often only a
fraction of the output of a poet is really first rate. In White's case the
fraction is large.
The following poem take us back to even earlier years in White's life.
refers to a period
of "cloudless years," probably his late childhood, 1937 to 1941, or early
adolescence, 1942 to 1945. He focuses in this poem on these magic days of his
early life, cloudless years
when make-believe ran rampant
and each young heart
loved his private witch
who stoked delicious fears.
In this poem White describes a spinster in Belleville who lived alone in a big
grey house. He writes:
she always wore one black gown
so this woman was our witch
such adventures I remember we would have
trailing the old woman about
shivering with sweet delightful fear.
she bound stray children into sacks
and kept them in her basement
but, of course,
we never really caught her in the act.
Two other poems, in a collection of poetry published in 1981, give us some
insight into White's life with his mother and father during his childhood and
adolescence. In Memoriam: John Bernard White 1904-1971
does not tell us
a great deal about his life with his father, although it reveals some of
White's attitude to and understanding of his father, written perhaps a decade
after his passing. Kathleen's Song
,16 in that same 1981 collection
called The Witness of Pebbles
, tells us much more about a woman who
coaxed him "toward exultancy." She was the "goodwife." She was "Earth's
God's-penny." Perhaps the following lines, the first ones in the poem, place
his life with his mother in the most accurate perspective:
Life is her cause and love her sole crusade.
She extols, proclaims, upholds them, knows them dear,
Divine and indivisible. Many chilled with fear
Find her warming fire.
White's mother was a woman who held the "key to recesses of hearts." She had
an energy and joy that had an immeasurable affect on White's psychological and
spiritual development. Perhaps it was in this critical relationship that White
acquired his sensitivity and innocence, the same "swift joy" and the same
I think it is useful to make one or two points about the poem White wrote about
his father, In Memoriam: John Bernard White
. Father and son
relationships have long been characterized by far fewer words than the
mother-son or mother-daughter relationship. White writes:
Father, I am your book, you know me well
Yet said so little of this while you lived.
The mysteries that once held you time has sieved
And memory surrenders you to tell
The words that man and boy may barely say.
This poem was written at some time in White's mid-to-late forties and shows an
empathy, a wisdom, an identity with his father, a closeness only achieved, one
safely assumes, with the passing of the years. Although the poem tells us
little about White's early life in Canada it tells us a great deal about how
White came to see these years and his father more than thirty years after he
left home and nearly a decade after his father's death.
For all of us, though, our life story is always incomplete, partial, episodic.
A man turns to poetry to provide experiential self-continuity. The poetry
provides a sort of remobilization of memory in the service of living more
effectively. It resurfaces the poet's life and gives a new depth to memory's
story. White writes:
I am your inmost essence, your hidden
Replication of your heart's deep need;
I voice your silent prayer, retrace your plan
And sorrow for this lonely thing--a man.
The poet composes his life story over and over again, as we all do as we get
older. White here is interpreting the reality of his relationship with his
father, a reality that became quite a different thing in the light of his
experience, in the light of his poetic and contemplative reflection on his
life's narrative, his story. He continues:
My soul's map
charts your bravest deed,
Bears imprint of your hope and conquered fears
And love. Shamelessly I shed your unspent tears.
I asked Roger once what he thought his father's "bravest deed" might be that
his soul was charting. He said it might be the occasion when his father put his
foot through the television screen when someone was talking about the Cause.
White was impressed that his father could feel so strongly about the Faith.
Imagination and critical reflection live in the house of the mind where White
composes the definition of his reality, in this poem the reality of his
relationship with his father. The friends that his critical reflection and
imagination bring home are a source of great illumination. They produce, here,
a poem of considerable insight.
continues, as if speaking directly to his father:
book--you know to Whom addressed
And tell blind reader: is the ending blest?
In the end White is faced with mystery in his relationship with his father.
So, too, is it in our own lives. We get a sense here of what it means to be a
father, a person. What were his father's "unspent years?" Did White feel, at
this juncture, while he wrote the poem, a "homeless thing?" Who knows? In some
ways it does not matter. But there is little doubt that we all feel this way
from time to time. The meaning of this poem, like all poems, whatever its
sound or its structure, remains empty and a non-event to readers unless it
touches the receiving mind. The receiving mind must be active in a certain way
if a transmutation from a mere set of words on a page into an experience of
meaning is to occur. This activity is part technique and part an "inner ringing
as the reader constructs a
parallel world to the world constructed by the poet.
In a poem in a 1982 collection, Whitewash
, White ponders his years in
Belleville and whatever pleasures they offered to him as a growing boy--and it
would appear they were for the most part pleasurable. He ponders these happy,
cloudless, years in the context of another form of pleasure and ecstasy, that
of martyrdom. White seems to be reflecting in this poem, Sweetmeat
on his life and the indifference of his society to the religion he joined. He
contrasts his life with the experience of a person living in a society which
would kill those who took an unorthodox path of belief:
would welcome contempt
In that same 1982 collection, Whitewash
, in a poem entitled Lines on
, White refers to the lack of response to one's efforts to teach
the Cause in a brilliant piece of analysis: "how tiresome this pride which love
nor hope nor irony convinces,/this will that will not will belief." Here was a
man speaking from thirty-five years experience in, what for me, is one of his
cleverest turns of phrase and one of his most accurate statements of an
important area of Bahá'í experience, both in his first twenty-five years of
living and in the second twenty-five that was to come.
I will have more to say about White's experience in school in a later chapter
but, for now, let me say that for the most part White enjoyed school. He did
not enjoy mathematics, metalwork or woodwork. The Catholic sisters were
uniformly kind, gentle and pious. They all smelled faintly of disinfectant or
witch hazel, a fact which perhaps contributed to their seeming
interchangeableness and anonymity.
By 1947, at the age of eighteen, White was in the habit of visiting Kingston,
the biggest city on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario. Kingston is at the
point where Lake Ontario joins the St. Lawrence River at Thousand Islands. It
was a natural attraction for a young man with a curious and adventurous spirit
living in what was then the small country town of Belleville. Over the next
five years, as the North American Bahá'í community was completing its first
temple in Chicago and its second Seven Year Plan, White got to know the small
Bahá'í community in Kingston. He also got to know some of the Ottawa Bahá'ís
who travelled to Kingston on extension teaching trips. Winnifred Harvey was one
such travel teacher. Doug Wilson and Cliff Huxtable were students at Queen's
University in Kingston at the time.
From time to time he heard visiting speakers like Ruth Moffatt, Allan Raynor
and Margaret and Larry Rowden. Eventually, a small Bahá'í community grew up in
Belleville: Margeurite Carter, William Connors, Helen Owens, Margaret Mann,
Jack Campbell, James McLaughlin and Robert Cretney. These names are, for the
most part, unknown now but, by 1954, a local Assembly was formed in Belleville.
That same year Roger married Helen Owens.
In 1954 Roger also started working as a freelance court reporter and assistant
editor of Hansard in Ottawa. This daily record of the debates in the Canadian
House of Commons gave White an invaluable experience which helped him get a job
in Vancouver in 1958 with the Supreme Court of British Columbia as a reporter
and which helped to continue watering those poetic seeds that would eventually
mature twenty to thirty years later in an extensive body of poetry.
There is no doubt, though, that White was a skilled craftsman with words is
these early years. John Ward, in his book The Hansard Chronicles
that White was "acknowledged by his colleagues as one of the finest shorthand
writers ever to serve the country. White gave up a promising career as a
freelance journalist to join Hansard where he was for many years resident..."
The decade from 1947 to 1957 saw the beginning of White's poetic output. White
produced a chapbook Summer Window
in 1947. The poetry in this booklet
may have gone back to earlier years. Further study of the White archive in
Toronto and Haifa will tell future scholars more about the beginnings of
White's poetic life in the 1940s. Job, marriage and the demands of early
adulthood kept him busy. The total quantity of poetry that has come down to us
from these years, at least that poetry now readily available for popular
consumption and not requiring the resources of an archive, is slim. This, as
yet unpublished, poem "When the Gods Forsake Us,"
provides a retrospective look at White's early-to-mid
adolescence, the years to the end of WWII. Written five years before his
passing, this poem gives us a window into his early youth in Toronto: age
WHEN THE GODS
I reach for a forbidden cigarette
out of a perverse loyalty to Paul Henreid
who sanctified the ritual of lighting up
back in the days when the Surgeon General
minded his own business.
Most of my significant decisions
were made during matinees
at the Alhambra, Danforth Avenue, 1943.
Fay Wray would have given that ape the slip
if she'd known how much I loved her,
ageless in reruns.
I'd never have torn her dress.
The casual slouch of Bogart's fedora,
Cary Grant's insouciant grin--
the mirror yawned at my worshipful impersonations.
No one warned me that the immortals would die.
Have I mentioned that I'm still in mourning
for Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh?
It's 1987 and friends in their 70s
who've forgotten Sonny Tufts
complain that they're up
several times in the night
and hint at other dark indignities.
I am inconsolable.
Do not come to me
saying in the clipped tones of Bette Davis,
What do you mean? Whatever do you mean?
For the years of his late adolescence and the earliest years of his adult
life(1946-1952) we must also remain, scantily informed. All we get from these
early years is the occasional poetic revelation into some aspect of the
impressionable years of a Canadian youth and young adult who became, in the
last dozen years of his adult life, a poet who defined and described the
experience of Bahá'ís in the last half of the twentieth century, perhaps better
than anyone else. The identity that White conferred on his readers was not so
much his own, although he does give us a human and humorous taste, but
It did not concern White that he left little information about his life, any
direct autobiographical detail, for to him the poet was not to be confused with
the poem. If the reader wanted to know about the poet, about Roger White,
White advised readers to study his poetry. Therein, he said, was his life.
Although not explicitly autobiographical, poem after poem tells much about
White. His autobiographical poetry is not, as Ann Goetting
argues in her study of the autobiographical process, some
simple repetition of the past. His poetry is the presence of a spirit in a
world now gone, the creation of a particular view of reality, reconstructed
truth, fact and experience. This truth, this reality, is not always
self-evident or even subject to proof. It often adds an element of seasoned
consciousness to some original experience, an interpretation of life's
processes. It was an expression of how White dealt with the life around him.
Combining history and biography, much of White's poetry is a type of
sociological imagination as C.Wright Mills described it back in 1959.
This imagination escapes the merely
personal by surrenduring to the features of life's bigger picture; it escapes
personality because the poet is only a medium, a vehicle, a vessel, a catalyst
in the process of creation. This forces the critic to direct his attention to
the poems not to the poet. T.S. Eliot called this the "impersonal theory of
and Goethe said it was part of the
poet standing "above art and the object"
so as to utilize art and its many forms for his own purpose and deal with it in
his own manner.
With Proust, White would have concurred that "in reality, every reader is,
while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a
kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to
discern what, without the book, he would never have preconceived in himself."
With Ortega y Gasset and the poet Wallace
Stevens White saw himself as the poet of himself,
but he also provided a view, a philosophy of life.
It remained the task of his readers' to
find themselves in his poetry. White was conscious, as we all are, of the
incomplete, episodic nature of daily life. Poetry provided a source of
experiential self-continuity; it remobilized his memory in the service of the
living, of living more effectively; it provided freshness of surface and depth
of meaning and retention.
It does the same
for White's readers who travel with him in his poetry. For what readers see
depends on what they bring to White's poetry and what they read depends on what
they bring to the reading. Readers, in other words, create their own poetry
through their own interpretive strategies "as members of a larger community."
The interpretation of a poem is not so much
the art of construing but the art of constructing. Poetry can penetrate deep
into people's personal lives because in giving form to their worlds, it
articulates their nature, sensibility, energy, passion, their life of feeling.
For many White's poetry did just that.
Before we turn to White's poetry and the specific books of poetry that he had
published, though, we will examine in the essay which follows his second
twenty-five years: 1954-1979. It is difficult to draw on what some literary
historians see as a developmental model for my study of White. Early, Middle
and Late can be comfortably applied to White, but I'm not sure how useful such
a division into periods of writing is in White's case.
Like the theories of developmental psychology: Freud,
Erikson, Piaget, et al., whose application is complex and still unfolding their
relevance to students in the field of psychology, this chronological
development model applied to White's poetry could be a study in itself. For my
purposes, though, these three stages simply provide an outline, a broad
chronological framework, within which White's poetry can easily fall. How
useful this model is for showing White's development as a poet is difficult to
assess. This model may be more useful to us as we try to account for his
growth as a poet than it is to describe his life's narrative since information
here is somewhat thin-on-the-ground. And, as I have pointed out above, that is
the way White wanted it. I leave the analysis of this question of development
to future literary critics and lovers of White's verse. And so, we now turn to
this Middle period of his writing.
See William Pritchard for his outline of the
stages in the career of a poet in Lives of the Modern Poets
, Faber and
Faber, London, 1980, p.219.
Roger White, Summer Window
Press, Belleville, Ontario, 1947.
3 Roger White, Sketches of 'Abdu'l-Bahá
, Haifa Publications, 1973.
4 Roger White, Old Songs/New Songs: 1947-1977
, Haifa Publications,
5 Roger White, "Price-White Correspondence: 1981-1993," Unpublished.
6 William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern Poets,
Faber and Faber, London,
William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern Poets
, Faber and Faber,
London, 1980, p.165.
Robert Lowell, "On Skunk Hour," in
This is not to say that popular culture had
no influence on White's literary and artisitic development as several of his
poems about the influence of movies indicate.
J. Derrida in Interpretive
, N.K. Denzin, Sage Publications, London, 1989, p.19.
Richard Kearney, The Wake of
Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture
, University of Minnesota Press,
Minneapolis, 1988, p.396.
Chapter entitled "A Galaxy of
Aaron Copland writes of a similar
experience listeners have with music in On the Nature of Musical
, editors, B. Reimer and J. Wright, University Press of Colorado,
First Published in Old Songs/New
Roger White, Old Songs/New Songs
10 Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981,
J.A. McLean, Dimensions in
, George Roanald, Oxford, 1994, p.178.
Boethius, De Institutione Musica
trans. Calvin Bower, ed. Claude Palisca, Yale UP, New Haven, 1989, p.15.
19 Roger White, Whitewash,
Bahá'í World Centre, "Biographical Notes
on Roger White," 1991, p.1.
John Ward, The Hansard Chronicles: A
Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Hansard in Canada's Parliament
Deneau and Greenberg, Ottawa, 1980, p.173.
Roger White, Unpublished Poem, Sent to
Ann Goetting, editor, Individual
Voices: Collective Visions: Fifty Years of Women in Sociology
, Temple UP,
Philadelphia, 1995, pp.13-15.
C.W. Mills, The Sociological
T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual
Randall Jarrell, "The Collected Poems of
Wallace Stevens," The Yale Review, Spring 1955
Marcel Proust, The Past
Ortega y Gasset, History as a System
and Other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History
, 1961, p.203.
Julian Symons in The Achievement of
, editors, A. Brown and R. Haller, Lippincott Co., NY, 1962,
p.120 states us that Stevens provided his readers with an objective view of
himself but not of life, no philosophy of life. Readers of White, it seems to
me, get both.
See Wendy J. Weiner and George C.
Rosenwald, "A Moment's Monument: The Psychology of Keeping a Diary," The
Narrative Study of Lives
, editors, R. Josselson and A. Lieblich, Sage
Publications, London, 1993, p.56.
Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Do We Write the
Text We Read?" Falling Into Theory: Conflicitng Views On Reading
, second edition, David H. Richter, editor, Bedford, NY, 2000,
See Julian Symons, "A Short View of
Wallace Stevens," Life and Letters Today,
London, September 1940. Symons
states the usefulness of applying a developmental model to the poetry of Yeats
and Eliot but not to Wallace Stevens.