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Emergence of a Bahá'í Consciousness in World Literature:
The Poetry of Roger White

by Ron Price

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Chapter 5

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.[1] 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 Sears.[2]

Bill and Marguerite Sears inform us[3] that 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 was not 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. While 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.[4]

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 "other obligations."[5] 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 was published.[6] 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."[7]

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 faith,[8] 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"[9] that took 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."[10] 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.[11] 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."[12] There 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.


Notes:
[1] 1 George Woodcock, The World of Canadian Writing, 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.
[2] Roger White, "The White-Price Correspondence: 1981-1993," Unpublished.
[3] Bill and Marguerite Sears, "Fax Read at Farewell to Roger," 30 April 1991.
[4] Roger White, "White-Price Correspondence," Unpublished.
[5] Roger White, "Letter to Anne Atkinson," 14 February 1992
[6] 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.
[7] Louis Arnaud Reid, A Study in Aesthetics, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1931, p.160.
[8] Robert Canary, T.S. Eliot: The Poet and His Critics, American Library Association, Chicago, 1982, p.22.
[9] Northrop Frye in The World of Canadian Writing, George Woodcock, University of Washington Press, Seattle, p.18.
[10] Richard Tillinghast, Robert Lowell's Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, p.86.
[11] 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.
[12] John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike, Andre Deutsch Ltd., London, 1989, p.ix.
[13] Bennett Reimer, "Selfness and Otherness in Experiencing Music of Foreign Cultures," The Quarterly Journal of Teaching and Learning, Fall 1991, pp.32-34.
[14] Loni Bramson-Lerche, "Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá'í Administrative Order in America, 1922-1936," Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History, Vol.1, Moojan Momen, Kalimat Press, 1982.
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