THE SECOND TWENTY-FIVE YEARS: 1954-1979
From 1954 to 1966 White lived in Vancouver, a centre of a great poetic
upsurge that had begun as early as the 1940s in Canada and the USA.
White does not mention any direct influence
from this awakening poetic spirit, a spirit that continued on into the 1950s
and 1960s among the Beat Generation of poets, the Black Mountain poets, the
poets of the San Francisco Renaissance and the poets of the New York School.
During these years of a great burgeoning of poetry in North America White
worked with the Supreme Court of British Columbia as a reporter. In 1966 White
moved to Nairobi in Kenya and remained there until 1969 when he returned to
North America. He lived in Palm Springs California until 1971 where he served
as secretary and research assistant to writer and Hand of the Cause Bill
Bill and Marguerite Sears inform us
they suggested to Roger that he apply to serve at the Bahá'í World Centre in
1971. They were planning a six month teaching trip at the time. As Bill put
it while he carried Roger's bags to the car back in 1971: "You know, of
course, Roger, that this is good-bye." "What do you mean?" replied Roger. "Do
you think the Universal House of Justice, once they hear about all the
wonderful things you do, your multiple skills, and what a remarkable Bahá'í you
are, will ever let me steal you back again?" Bill also underlines that Roger
his assistant. "We were partners together under the eye of
Bahá'u'lláh, along with Marguerite."
These were prophetic words and that is exactly what happened. White came to
Haifa in May 1971 and stayed for twenty years. Had it not been for his bad
health he would still be there today. His work was especially invaluable in
compiling and publishing volumes XIV and XIX of The Bahá'í World
in Israel he served for many years as the associate editor of the first English
language poetry journal of Israel, Voices-Israel
, founded in 1971.
One interesting story comes from the Kenya period and that was White's
"infiltration" of the Nairobi Theatre Group. It was a "white only" theatrical
group and White, although being offered a dancing spot, had to refuse due to
I have not gathered many
details from this period, nor from the Palm Springs chapter of White's life. My
aim here has been to provide a short biographical sketch as a backdrop for the
study of White's poetry.
Most of the poems in Old Songs/New Songs: 1947-1977
come from White's
first six years in Haifa. They did not receive a wide circulation. Some dozen
poems can be found in this small booklet that did not
appear later in
Another Song Another Season
. It was somewhat fitting when, two years
later, in 1979, his Another Song Another Season
White was fifty and he had produced his songs
for all seasons. Few of the poems that White had published before 1979 were
not readily available again in this bright new book of poetry which was
published by George Ronald in 1979. It is not my intention to examine in any
detail White's poetry before 1979. Most Bahá'ís have never seen it and this
study of White's earliest poetry, from 1947 to 1977, some thirty years of
poetic output, will have to await a more comprehensive treatment by a future
author. But White's colloquial prose readiness and casual speech combined with
poetic depth and clear direct feeling was there in these early poems, in his
language, a language for the whole mind in its most wakeful state.
So, too, were the difficult poems, the kind of poems that needed to be read
over and over again, that required familiarity. And even then, a persistent
reader will not get all the poems and all the levels of meaning. White was to
write a great deal in the years ahead and by the end of a lifetime he would
write what a lifetime brought to him. It is one of the advantages of having
some of your finest hours at the end of the road, in contrast ot the early
brilliance that many poets have enjoed over the centuries. The reader did not
have to understand every jot and tittle of White's verse. Part of the reason
readers are not able to understand every line and phrase in every poem is what
you might call the aesthetic aspect of poetry. "Aesthetics" Louis Reid writes,
"is difficult because it courts vagueness and evades precision." It is
difficult to analyse poetry clearly and philosophically. There is a certain
ineffable quality to poetry. To be "aesthetically equipped," Read goes on in
his analysis, requires "a great sensitivity to the suggestiveness of the
material which he perceives."
There is no doubt that the years 1971 to 1979, White's years in Haifa, were an
immense stimulus to his poetic creativity, to the wonder and delight, the joy,
the sense of a certain fundamental assurance and happiness that had little to
do with the glitter and tinsel of an affluent society. There is also little
doubt that his years before arriving in Haifa laid an important foundation for
his future literary output. Like T.S. Eliot's first marriage which some critics
have seen as a heaven-sent trial that spurred on both his poetry and his
which gave him an opportunity to
suffer and write poems, White's marriage and divorce during this second
twenty-five year period, 1954-1979, helped to provide a fertile base. White
also suffered during his years in Canada, in Africa and in the USA, to say
nothing of the eight years in Haifa. But whatever his suffering was, it is to
his poetry that we must search out his lessons, not to his biography. There
were romantic attachments in his life, tests in his various jobs, to say
nothing of the inner demons we all face, but it has not been my purpose to
describe these relationships in any detail. It would appear that to a large
extent he fought his own spiritual battles by himself, as most of us must do
for the most part.
Perhaps White's work could be seen as part of what Northrop Frye has called
"the colossal verbal explosion"
place in Canada after 1960. His poetry could also be seen as an art form
which grew as the Canadian Bahá'í community grew after the formation of its
National Spiritual Assembly in 1948. White's work was also part of a long
history of poetry in the Babi and Bahá'í Faiths going back to the 1840s.
However suddenly his poetry may have appeared, like some miraculous tree sprung
full grown, ex nihilo
, in a desert, to most of those who had themselves
become Bahá'ís in the generation after WWII; however charming his work was--and
indeed it did hold a special charm for thousands of readers by the 1980s,
poetry written by Bahá'ís and Babis goes right back to the earliest days of
their history. The artistic and ideological originality of White's poetry--and
prose--is partly the result of a slow, painful, century-and-a-half-long
process, a tradition richly impregnated with the inspirational poetry and prose
of two manifestations of God.
The wider generation of poets who began publishing poetry in the 1940s and
1950s, at the same time White began his creative output and moved into his
thirties, people like Robert Lowell, John Berryman,Delmore Schwartz and Randall
Jarrell, were born a little earlier than White, around the time of World War I.
And they died in the sixties and seventies, fifteen years before he did. I
always find it hard to identify White with these poetic luminaries of the
mid-century, whose names and lives are known now only to the poetic literati.
Even their poetry is slipping away into obscurity. There is in their lives and
their poetry: a tragedy, an obsessiveness, a psychological disorientation,
perhaps partly due to living through both those experiences of collective
insanity: WW I and WW II. White is more what Richard Tillinghast, a Professor
of Literature at the University of Michigan, calls "laid back."
Perhaps, too, it is the perception of White's poetry as a
magnificent ornament adorning an international literature, an ornament that can
occupy the lives of his readers for generations yet to come.
The primary currents of this one-hundred and fifty year poetic, literary,
process will not be examined here, nor will White's tangential connection with
the literary developments in Canada and North America in what was one of its
most fertile periods of growth and development. Part of our difficulty is that
we know so very little about White's life during this time.
We know he divorced just before embarking on his
international service to the Cause in 1971. We know he was busy with his new
portfolio at the Bahá'í World Centre which was in the 1970s, building the seat
of its international administrative centre. Some future literary historian or
literary biographer, I trust, will write to those who knew White and put
together a more detailed picture of his activities, his interests and the
influences on his poetry. My interest is a more focused one, namely, on his
poetry. The rest of this book will focus more sharply on this poetry. As
Rabindranath Tagore counselled: the poem not the poet.
In the forward to his autobiography American novelist John Updike wrote
"Description solidifies the past and creates a gravitational body that wasn't
there before." There is a "background of dark matter--all that is not said," he
goes on, "which remains buzzing."
is much in White's life that remains buzzing. But the hand of the maker, in
this case White, knows better than the eye of the observer, who are his
readers. And this is the way White made it, the way he wanted it, as far as he
was concerned the only way it could be. It was his poetic art that White wanted
his readers to focus on. For it was this art that he knew, from his own
experience, could transform a life through its power to capture the vital
nature of feeling in objectified, dynamic and artistic forms. Poetry he well
knew could give outer form to inner affect. It could refine, clarify, deepen
and extend the quality of our inner subjectivities.
Identities are historically conferred, ambiguous, and subject to redefinition.
The experience, the life, of a poet like White will be examined and explained
differently each time some biographer goes to work. And each time readers will
find out about the events, the people, the institutions, the ideas, the
emotions and the relationships that became meaningful to a Canadian who used
language to pattern his past and his world from a different perspective. His
first memories, his childhood, consisted of the events of that horrific decade
of the 1930s when the Bahá'í Administrative system assumed the framework of its
present form and the first teaching Plan swung into action.
He became a Bahá'í in the 1940s when there were about
two hundred Bahá'ís in all of Canada and he grew in his middle age to become
the major poet in the Canadian Bahá'í community. With his extraordinarily
original imagination he helped to create for us-so to speak--many new tastes,
colours and sounds, many real people and a history alive with new meanings. In
these discoveries we discovered ourselves.
1 George Woodcock, The World of Canadian
, University of Washington, Seattle, p.254; and Thomas Parkinson,
"Robert Lowell and the Uses of Modern Poetry in the University," Robert
Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays
, Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Roger White, "The White-Price
Correspondence: 1981-1993," Unpublished.
Bill and Marguerite Sears, "Fax Read at Farewell to Roger," 30 April 1991.
Roger White, "White-Price Correspondence," Unpublished.
Roger White, "Letter to Anne Atkinson," 14 February 1992
This point, 1979, begins the third stage,
the Late poetry of Roger White. It is a stage that continues to his death in
April 1993. My application of this technique of the literary historian of
dividing White's literary life into three stages is a somewhat arbitrary one.
I find it a useful biographical and literary convenience for analysis which I
am confident can be improved on by future students of White.
Louis Arnaud Reid, A Study in
, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1931, p.160.
Robert Canary, T.S. Eliot: The Poet and
, American Library Association, Chicago, 1982, p.22.
Northrop Frye in The World of Canadian Writing
, George Woodcock,
University of Washington Press, Seattle, p.18.
Richard Tillinghast, Robert Lowell's Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, p.86.
Future biographers of Roger White I'm
sure will be able to unearth much more than I. The focus here is, as I've said
above, on White's poetry not his life.
John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike
, Andre Deutsch
Ltd., London, 1989, p.ix.
Bennett Reimer, "Selfness and Otherness in Experiencing Music of Foreign
Cultures," The Quarterly Journal of Teaching and Learning, Fall 1991
Loni Bramson-Lerche, "Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá'í
Administrative Order in America, 1922-1936," Studies in Babi and Bahá'í
, Moojan Momen, Kalimat Press, 1982.