THE LETTERS OF ROGER WHITE
For a dozen years I wrote to Roger sending him essays I had written on
his poetry. In reply I received his delightful letters, the occasional essay
he had written, cartoons, jokes, poems, clippings from magazines and
newspapers, a virtual cornucopia of printed and visual material. His letters
and essays show a side of Roger quite different than his poetry. Roger's
letters and essays were consistently light and humorous, although the themes
were serious ones. His poetry did have a light and humorous side but I think,
on balance, it tended to the serious. At least that is how I have come to see
it. Some readers find White's poetry too complex and dense for their liking.
Such readers would not find his letters and essays too dense. The letters and
essays I received struck quite a different tone than White's poetry. Anne
Gordon Perry has made a collection of White's letters, but the only letters I
will draw on here were ones I received during those twelve years. They are
quite enough to provide a base of analysis and comment. In a book like this,
devoted to a study of White's poetry, this commentary on White's letters
provides a certain balance, a different perspective. It is, as I've said
before, a concession to the biographical. In the end, though, I am inclined to
agree with Henry Miller who wrote: "I don't care who the artist is, if you
study him deeply, sincerely, detachedly, you will find that he and his work are
Some poets, like famous American poet Wallace Stevens, have a definite line
between their poetry, their role as poet, and their professional/social life.
Stevens was for many years the vice-president of an insurance company and he
did not like his professional associates to know he even wrote poetry. He
lived in two worlds quite inscrutable to each other. White, on the other hand,
was more like the poet Yeats whose life and work were all of one piece, part of
a comprehensible whole, open for inspection by the rational intellect while
containing irrational elements as all of our lives do. He may have felt his
life not interesting enough for someone to write a biography, but he did not
see the different parts of his life as separate compartments, with definite
lines between them, quite as sternly as Stevens. White's letters certainly
illustrate this interaction, this wholeness. Few poets in their letters write
so freely about their art, their intentions, their observations of life. Fewer
write so well, so entertainingly. Some poets, when not speaking about poetry
and the arts in general, write in quite an ordinary, quite a banal, way. White
is as sparkling, as humorous, in his letters no matter what he writes about.
White was like Jane Austen who "hardly ever wrote a letter that had not a smile
or a laugh in it."
I will provide a few
examples below for the delectation of readers.
Looked at from without, White's life was uneventful. At least that is how he
saw it. Like American novelist Henry James, White's adventure was an inner one
"known only to himself except in so far as he himself put it into words."
Self-revelation, letting it all hang out, has
become in recent decades part of what might be called a confessional mode in
letter writing and poetry. Genuine self-revelation, with its associations of
wisdom, humour and delight, though, is a rare gift, almost a creative art form.
Many people's autobiographies, their memories, their real confessions from the
current of their days, are often alien and remote accounts leaving readers as
distant from the writers as they were at the start. Alternatively,
autobiography is often overdone, overstated, with every sordid detail of a life
set out before our eyes. Somehow knowing the intimacies of people's lives does
not necessarily make them closer. Five hundred page autobiographies often
leave us out in the cold. A great life does not necessarily make a great book,
or a great letter writer. So, although White did not keep his life in clearly
separate compartments, as American poet Wallace Stevens did, neither did he
open-up his private domain for the minute inspection of the biographer.
Rather, he felt there was little for the would-be-biographer to inspect.
In the end, though, at least in the several dozen letters I received, White
was far from aloof. He created a sense of intimacy. I came to feel as if he
was a close friend, even though I never met him. Like Henry James, whatever
biography on White is eventually composed it will draw heavily on his letters
for its portrait, on that side of his life he showed to the world he lived in
and loved and with a side that is little more than suggested here and there. In
his letters to me White enters easily into my world and meets me on my own
ground. I'm sure these letters are not the exception. They are, I am
confident, representative of a style that is endearing, honest and full of
So what I'd like to do here is bring near the letters of a man I never met, but
whom I came to feel close to, primarily through his letters and, secondarily,
through his poetry. In reading these letters ten years after his passing I
experience a piercing radiancy of meaning. Perhaps that is too strong a term.
That is how the historian Thomas Carlyle described the letters of his wife that
he was gathering together for publication after her death.
I am reminded from reading White's letters not to grow
tedious as a result of my religious proclivities. I am reminded, too, that the
world, for the most part does not care whether I bow my head before the latest
Prophet of God.
In some ways my study of these letters confirms another poet Robert Graves'
view of the poet and the man; namely, that there is no distinction. Henry
David Thoreau put it in a similar vein: "the artist and his work are not to be
separated...the deed and the doer together make ever one sober fact."
This has not always been the case and White
clearly saw the poet and the poem as two separate worlds, at least insofar as
his life was concerned.
This whole question of the involvement of the consciousness of the writer in
the reader's experience of his work is a relatively new way of experiencing
literature. When Shakespeare's plays were published seven years after his death
in 1623, the editors were not interested in satisfying any public interest in
Shakespeare the man--for, indeed, there was no such interest. How much have
we changed in four centuries! Publishers now have become hesitant to publish
literary studies that do not give much attention to the writer's life.
I also get a sense from White's letters of the total span of a life, in this
case White's between the ages of fifty and his death at sixty-three reflecting
as he did on his whole life back to 1929. I get a sense, from the fresh air in
his letters, that I have a key to an unfamiliar room in my own house. It is a
room filled with the memorabilia of my religion and everywhere there is
laughter and joy, familiarity and a delightful common sense. But I am
cautioned by a remark of Sharon Campbell in her analysis of the poet Emily
It is questionable whether
anyone's letters should be taken as a reliable form of
biography....letters may, in fact, tell us more in fact about the
replace relationship than about the relationships themselves.
I feel some caution, too, in expressing my enthusiasms for White, indeed for
anyone attempting to follow a spiritual path, by a remark made by Samuel
Johnson about his biographer Savage: "The reigning Error of his Life was that
he mistook the Love for the Practice of Virtue, and was indeed not so much a
good Man as the Friend of Goodness."
course White does not appear to have any of the gross indeciencies or
deficiencies of Savage and I do not want to put White down in any way. Rather,
my point here is that the lofty heights to which the Bahá'í Faith exhorts its
votaries inevitably make the individual believer, however much he or she has
achieved, feel quite conscious of their sins of omission and commission. White
knew he was no saint and, as he expressed this idea so succinctly in his poem
Lines from a Battlefield
, "I loved my enemy but sought the Friend."
Indeed, one could argue that, since I never met White, how could I claim
relationship. Surely the letters were like the postures one observes in a
favourite comedian, entertainer or social analyst on TV. One feels close, but
does one really become close? I suppose we all become close to different
people in life in different ways. Although there are obvious similarities the
whole thing, process, theme, is idiosyncratic. Each individual must define just
how, in what way, closeness is achieved for him or her in their lives and with
What I'd like to do for the reader here is to define and describe my
correspondence, with White. For it is my relationship with White, forged over
twelve years with the aid of his letters and my responses that is the centre of
the account here in this brief essay. There is something of the everyday
person, the entertainer, the educated poet giving us his imaginative
outpourings because he has the excuse, the occasion. There is in his letters a
commentary on his work and on himself. Readers can get some idea of how he
created his poems and how he created himself. But I provide only a glimpse.
Readers need a more complete collection of his letters to really get the view
through the window. Such a view, though, may be the closest true biography we
are likely to get or need.
White's last letter to me was written nine months before his passing. In the
brief three paragraphs there is contained the three main characteristics of his
correspondence: the practical, the humorous and the intellectual. White
comments on the introduction I wrote for his last major book of poetry
Occasions of Grace
. He comments on when I was likely to get my
hardcover copy that he had paid for and had arranged for his publisher to send
to me. The last words he wrote to me, as it turned out, were "I am ever
grateful to you..." I was about to turn forty-eight and my life as a serious
writer of poetry was in the process of beginning, although I did not know it at
the time. I had been writing occasional pieces of poetry in the years 1980 to
1992, although I referred to my poetry only rarely in my letters to Roger.
From July to October 1992, six months before he passed away, I received several
books in the mail from Roger. He seemed to be clearing his decks, his desks,
his library, in anticipation that the ship was finally coming into harbour.
All of books, save one, have been read over and over in the ten years since
they arrived in the post. I'd like to comment on these books, briefly, since
they tell a story in their own way. The Complete Poems of Emily
, editor: Thomas H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, 1984 arrived in
July. One of Roger's books of poetry One Bird One Cage One Flight
written in "homage of Emily Dickinson." I have written a special essay on this
book of poetry in the pages ahead and so I will leave comment on that book for
now. Receiving this book did not surprise me, though it gave me great
pleasure. Somehow it symbolized one of the many currents of our
correspondence. It contained some 1775 poems and it will pleasantly occupy
some of my time each year as long as my mental faculties are operating.
Dickinson is among the great poets who have ever lived, some argue the
In July two other books arrived: existential psychologist Rollo May's The
Courage To Create,
WW Norton, London, 1975; and novelist Lawrence Durrell's
, Simon and Schuster, 1957. I had read the former and
promptly reread it. The latter I have still to read, although I have read
several reviews. In early October 1992 I received copies of White's final two
books of poetry: The Language of There
, New Leaf Pub., Richmond, BC,
1992; and Notes Postmarked The Mountain of God
, New Leaf Pub., Richmond,
BC, 1992. Inside the front cover of the former, Roger wrote: "with these lines
I probably exit-smiling, waving, heading for "There".....And so he did six
months later. I never heard from him again.
wrote that Durrell was trying
to keep literature literate and trap reality in a mesh of precise words. White
tried to do the same thing. Perhaps that is why he sent me Durrell's four
volumes. One day I will read Durrell, a writer whom American literary critic
Alfred Kasin says is "concerned with pleasing his own imagination" not with
"making deeper contact with the world."
While I certainly please my imagination through my writing and while I would
like to make deeper contact with the world, I have not, as yet, done so, at
least not in my writing. Rollo May is a thinker and writer I have been
reading since 1973, with his book Love and Will
. I won't go into the
many ideas of May, since I am concerned here with my correspondence with White.
Roger wrote on the inside of the hard cover: "much or maybe all May says about
"the experience" has been true of my encounters." He was of course talking
about his experience of creativity and the relevance of Rollo May's views on
the subject to his writing of poetry. I could write a separate essay on this
book, on White's view of creativity, and one day I may.
Occasions of Grace
came out in April 1992 and on April 24th Roger wrote:
referring to the introduction I wrote(a long one of 2500 words) "your new piece
is splendid; thank you for sending me a copy. I wouldn't change anything
you've written." Roger also wrote, in that same letter, "pleased that you made
friends with Epstein." Joseph Epstein wrote Plausible Prejudices: Essays on
. White had sent this book to me in February 1992.
Whatever wisdom Epstein possessed on reviewing books--and he had some clever
comments on the subject--was a little late. It was late for Occasions of
. But it was not late for the essays I was to write on all of White's
works. I had no idea at the time. It must have been my big ego that prevented
me from seeing the meaning behind White's generosity. White was not casually
casting off some unwanted volumes that he would have no need for in the next
Kingdom. He was being very practical and I have little doubt that he had the
needs of the Cause at the top of his list of priorities, of reasons for doing
what he was doing in sending me these several books.
Indeed, Epstein's book was the first in a series of what you might call helpful
perspectives that would and did help me in the years to come as I pondered over
all that White had written. White closed that letter of April 24th with the
words, referring to Epstein, "You've found a true mate." By April 24th,
indeed, I had. This somewhat complex account has several messages and
significances. I leave it to readers to interpret the various meanings
themselves. White seemed to welcome any grain of reality, any speck of
significance round which his imagination could pile its rings. So promptly and
eagerly did he reach out to things that floated by in my letters, in his daily
life and in the lives of others and the world at large. He then converted these
specks into the richer and more adventurous life that he felt we should all
lead. I felt from time to time that he was showing me 'the way,' but oh so
gently and without the sense of advice giving that so often reduces advice to a
form of dry and unwanted moralizing. He seemed to be so alive with the whole
of his sensibility. At least that was the side I saw in the letters I
In mid-January 1992 Roger wrote at the beginning of his letter: "I never know
the date---make one up, if you care to." A sign that the end was near? I had
written a brief paper on The Tablet of The Holy Mariner
and sent a copy
to him. He thanked me for it and referred to Occasions of Grace
"Perhaps Occasions of Grace
will not be a posthumous publication, after
all." As it turned out, he lived for one year after
White was a busy man in that last year. Three! books of his poetry were
published. If the strain was exhausting his strength, as well it might, it gave
him one last year of the fullest and deepest experience, perhaps, that he had
ever known. At least that was how I was reading it in his letters thousands of
miles away at the other end of the Pacific Ocean in Australia.
White did not think his life would make much of a biography. This is clear from
the last paragraph of this letter of mid-January 1992: "Hunched as I was
over a typewriter most of my life transcribing other people's words, Anne
Atkinson(working on a biography of White in 1992) may have some difficulty
infusing excitement into her account of my activities. But she plods on
The main reason why my short biography in the following chapters in this
book--is short--is this view White had of his life. Most of the significant
stuff in his life involved writing. This view of the insignificance of the
ordinary aspects of life is a common one among writers. A person who does a
great deal of writing is taking part in a solitary activity that is difficult
to describe as exciting. "What is needed
," White goes on in that same
paragraph, "is a cache of forgotten outrageous love letters written by or to
me, preferably written by a woman of noble birth but unsavoury
White goes on, in closing that same letter, to expand on the essentially
uneventful nature of his life, as he saw it. He carries on in a humorous vein
explaining how he never would have found time to write such letters of romance
because "secretaries are expected to be at their desks from 8 'til 5:30, and
when one considers deadlines and overtime....And add to that, time devoted to
firesides and committee meetings and gatherings of the Spiritual Assembly, the
omission and commission of sins would surely have had to take second
." And so much of White's life was, in fact, serving someone as a
secretary and the inevitable meetings in the evening. To get at the inner
dynamics of this aspect of his life would require a pen abler than mine.
In October 1991 I sent Roger one of the many essays I had written on his
poetry. Roger had, by then, left the Bahá'í World Centre. Two months after he
left the World Centre, on June 12 1991, he wrote: "I received your letter
postmarked 18 November 1990; it must have vacationed on the Riviere en route."
His transfer to the west coast of Canada did not seem to affect his humour. Nor
did the news that he had inoperable lung cancer. As he put it: "I was in
Canada-as an officially retired gentleman--merely three days before I suffered
acute shortage of breath, was confined for three weeks in hospital where I was
subjected to various tortures and medical tests, and was pronounced a victim of
inoperable lung cancer."
He continued in that same letter: " After all the discomfort of a quadruple
bypass, I am vexed in the extreme by the news, though I recognise it gives one
an unequalled opportunity to discover whether one really believes that death
has been made a messenger of joy....And the verdict comes hot on the heels of
my having at last invested in the jumbo edition of Webster's dictionary that
I've coveted for years."
In what was probably the funniest letter I received, White goes on:
"My doctor, a very likeable fellow, has predicted that I shall be one of
those irritatingly noble and saintly beings who will bow to the inevitable with
radiant acquiescence and whose last agonised hours, embraced with spiritual
resolve, will be an example to the entire hospital ward and a comfort and
confirmation to the medics and nurses."
And there's more.....
"Some friends, no doubt, will accept my news with a regret that is tinged
with an astute enviousness."
And finally: "From here can I hear you say,
"Wow! No more Assembly or committee meetings!"?
Roger's letters invariably enclosed "bits and pieces" as he called them. I
collected a significant mass of material over those twelve years. Indeed, a
separate study could be made of the 'little goodies' he enclosed with his
letters. I may refer to the occasional piece in this essay, but for the most
part I ignore these inclusions: quotations, poems, cartoons, newspaper
clippings, jokes, advertisements, magazine articles, a myriad array of places
where the Cause got mentioned, et cetera.
One such goodie is a must, though. It is a poem he wrote and sent to me "on
leaving the World Centre." It's a gem:
Those who his
complain, "His parting's overdue."
While those who count his presence dear
protest, "He was too briefly here".
Still others mutter with a yawn,
Oh, was he here? So, has he gone?"
The Universal House of Justice wrote the following on 23 April 1991, on the eve
of White's departure from the Bahá'í World Centre:
Dear Bahá'í Friend
For twenty years you have rendered devoted and invaluable services at the
Bahá'í World Centre, and on the eve of your departure it is difficult to bid
farewell to you. We cannot but recall with heartfelt gratitude your loving
assistance as Secretary-Aide to our former colleague, Mr. David Hodman, as well
as your noteworthy contribution to the Publishing Department. In addition to
these specific assignments your manifold contributions to life at the World
Centre have been a real source of enrichment.
Your talents and abilities have won the admiration and resect of all of
us. Little did we know when you arrived in 1971 that there was now a budding
poet in our midst--a field in which you have now distinguished yourself.
About a week before White received this fairwell letter of appreciation, he
replied to my letter of March 30th. He was about to leave the World Centre. In
that letter he gave me permission to quote from his letters, although the full
text of his letters he felt "do not merit publication."
Yes, of course, you have permission to quote from letters. I just have
difficulty imagining their being of interest. When attention is focussed on my
life my embarrassment arises from the dullness of my existence; I should want
to oblige any biographer by having an infinitely more complex and interesting
life. Not that a list of the Bahá'í committees I have served on is utterly
without fascination---staying awake while reading it is the trick.
White kept coming back to Tagore's theme: 'the poem not the poet.' If we wanted
to know Roger White we needed to study his poetry. That was his fundamental
biographical point. This is the basic rationale for the emphasis in this book
on White's poetry. But these few words on his letters and essays will serve
their purpose. It is natural in our society for people to want to know
something about the artist as they go about studying his art. Men whose lives
are crowded with incident and adventure make for quite a different biography
than those whose dramatic adventures are played out silently between their ears
in the corners of their minds. White was in this latter category. I find there
is some truth in the words of Emilio Roma III, namely that: "a critic will get
at the meaning of a poem if and only if he does connect it with the poet's
life...he must use this material if he is to be a good critic."
White's letters have helped me here. For, as Thomas
Hardy once wrote, "To cull from a dead writer's whole achievement in verse
portions that shall exhibit him is a task of no small difficulty, and of some
White's letters and essays
helped provide me with some of that temerity.
"I write best to people I don't know," Wallace Stevens is reported to have
said. By "best" he meant writing about his poetry and about art.
Stevens' poetry did not become central to American
poetic history until a decade after he had passed away and his letters were not
published for three decades after his demise. It is too early to know if this
was true of White and his letters. It was certainly true of that portion of his
letters that I received. For White certainly did not "know" me in the normal
sense in which people know each other. Like Stevens, White was also an
intellectual's poet, a poet of ideas, with a poetry above the economic and
political squabbles of society, with a poetry that travelled widely in the
exotic places of the mind.
To return to his letters: With this letter of April 15th White enclosed "a
list of reviews" of his poetry, "a list of appreciations," an "index of titles
of his poems" and "an alphabetical index of first lines of his poems." He
gave me a solid foundation for my personal exploration and contribution to the
White industry. Indeed, if I lived to be ninety-six, I could spend half my life
exploring his poetry. With ten years under my belt, though, it looks like I am
off to a start. Time will tell if it's flying.
The same day White wrote to me, April 15th, he also wrote to the editors of
responding to a letter to the editor that criticized the
inclusion of his poem 'A Letter to Keith' in the March/April issue. Were this
essay not primarily concerned with the White-Price correspondence and not the
many other letters White wrote during his life I would quote this letter to the
editor in full. For it is masterful if nothing else. It makes me wish White
had written more essays. For his prose is ingenious, self-revealing and does
not soften or discount the awkwardness of the issue by impoverishing the facts.
He takes the issue--male attitudes to women--head on with intelligence and
sensitivity. White also sent me in that same month an essay he entitled An
. It was an explanation of how he went about the process
of writing. It was clear, concise and articulate. The Bahá'í community may have
found a poet, but it lost an essayist. Writing poetry was unquestionably
White's first love. Like English poet, Thomas Hardy, other writing was
utilitarian, poetry came first.
There is one thing that White's letter to the editor
as well as his many letters to me, illustrates, and that is a
distinction that the literary critic Leone Vivante makes "between poetic
thought and the poet's thinking about or around his poetic thought."
Something comes into being, some genuinely
creative form, some absolutely inherent richness and depth, that is new and
that "can not be explained by other influences."
The study of all of White's letters, his few essays, any
biography that comes to be written all stand outside "the inherent richness and
depth" that is only available in White's poetry.
By April 1991 I had completed an outline of White's life(The First Twenty-Five
Years: 1929-1954--see chapter 2). He returned my outline with several
corrections of detail. I had informed him, in my letter of March 30th, that
George Ronald felt that a book about him was "not timely at the moment,"
although they indicated that one day they would "want to publish such a
book-perhaps under the title 'Official Poet Laureate.'" Roger's response to
this bit of news was: "The possibility they raise of a future publication in
which the "un" is deleted from "unofficial" poet laureate is surely an advance,
of sorts." I don't think the subject held his interest significantly.
Roger was interested in the close reading of his poetry by anyone who took the
interest. My "generosity in devoting time to such close reading" he said
touched him deeply and commanded his "heartfelt appreciation." In that same
letter, January 9th, 1991, Roger described several poetry readings he had given
at the end of December at what was to become a Bahá'í university, the Langegg
Academy in Switzerland, where he was one of the guests of honour. He wrote:
....in breaks I just moped about looking poetic and
gazing soulfully at the beautiful lake. Other than that I'm not aware of
disgracing myself too seriously.
The Gulf War was just breaking out. White wrote: "Well, we have
gasmasks, but other than that there isn't much we can do except proceed with
'business as usual.' And "I'm still hoping to head for Vancouver and retirement
at the end of April, unless Armageddon places me into permanent retirement
An enclosure with that letter was a short essay Roger wrote dated December 13th
1990. It was a description of his life at school. The entire essay is a source
of pleasure and delight. I will include two or three passages to convey the
White started the essay by indicating he was good at all subjects except
mathematics. Of mathematics he wrote:
"I hadn't the type
of headset that could accept the notion that if one had a pie and cut it into
six pieces and gave three away, one was left with three pieces. If apple, which
I despise, John and Mary could have all the pieces they wanted; if lemon, my
favourite, I might or might not share it.....I've gone through life without
knowing the multiplication tables, long division, fractions and algebra and allthe mysterious trappings in which figures disguise themselves.
Of metalwork, he continued:
"I do recall clearly a day in
the class of our 'machine shop' teacher when, despairing of my inability to
produce the simplest item in metal---a medium in which I have never liked to
work, any more than I have been attracted to working in glass, preferring wood,
paper or fabric, decided to make an example of me by employing his considerable
skill in humiliating me before the entire class...But he was essentially a nice
man and at one point I saw that he felt he had gone too far. Blushing
profusely, he turned to the class and devoted several minutes to praising
highly, and with utter sincerity, my stoicism, co-operation and unfailing
politeness throughout the ordeal....If he is still alive and I were to meet
him, I'd like to praise his gesture.....
In mid-1990 Roger opened his letter:
The quadruple bypass is now behind me. It was, after all, no worse than
being struck down by a herd of stampeding rogue elephants, or perhaps a small
Sherman tank, and the surgeon is attempting, without much success, to convince
me that I survived his attack on me with a scalpel, an attack I have no doubt,
that was inspired by his overexposure, in adolescence, to late-night re-runs of
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
White's entire letter is funny, but I will content myself with one short
I was delighted to read in the hospital
discharge booklet, under "Sex", that I am free to resume "normal sexual
activity" whenever I feel up to it, provided I avoid "positions which require
pressure on the chest or support from the arms."
On November 7th 1990 White describes his welcome back on September 7th
"to the office" at the BWC after ten months absence and his bypass operation.
In the same letter he describes how a French girl who had translated some of
his poetry into French had become a Bahá'í on her arrival back home. He also
alluded to the passing of Canadian Bahá'í Winnifred Harvey, the inaugural
meeting of the physiotherapy unit of a Haifa hospital and a Canadian poetry
reading. They all have their humorous flavour. Roger concludes his letter with
an Irish blessing which he says he has "just this moment invented." May the
good Lord whom you serve with such distinction always recognize you from behind
and never place on your shoulders burdens intended for others.
It was a very timely prayer for in the early nineties I did get worn out
from an excess of speech and meetings in both my professional work as a
lecturer and in my service to the local Bahá'í community. Gradually over the
next decade such burdens were taken from my shoulders or I took them off my
shoulders myself and I could seriously engage myself in writing as the early
evening of my life approached. I wonder if Roger's Irish blessing had any role
in the process?
Referring to the only time Roger and I may have met in 1966/7, Roger wrote
"one can never gauge what happens to one's inner workings through highly
." In that same letter Roger comments on his first
major book of poetry Another Song
: I think perhaps the Bahá'í
community was ready for a book of that sort when it appeared, and someone or
other had to write it; I drew the card. I suppose it will look rather primitive
to the next generation.
I'll close this essay with some quotations from the rest of Roger's letters,
taken somewhat at random. They will continue to give a flavour of the person
behind the poetry, poetry being the main focus of this book. White's wit, it
should be kept in mind, is more than just a poetic or literary flourish. It is
a means that is much more than cleverness and goes beyond the telling of a
joke. It preserves the seriousness of what he has to say from sentimentality
and overstatement. His seriousness, on the other hand, keeps his sense of wit
from being mere flippancy.
In his letter of May 1985 Roger wrote the following in relation to my
suggestion to remarry: "
Remarry? I'm not very good
at marriage; I failed "taking-out-the-garbage" and "watering-the-lawn". But I'm
in the throes of a very pleasant romance right at this very moment and who
knows where it will end?
Roger never did remarry.
In February 1985 he wrote:
The Fast is nearly upon
us; but happily it is followed by the Great Gnaw.
"I've always suspected,"
Roger writes in July 1984 about the Concourse
on High and the holy souls of all past dispensations contained therein. He
thought "this is the real source of the impulse to create and that, when one
is sure it isn't just an ego prompting, one is assisted by the Concourse; what
else have they to do but run errands for heaven? They
seize on any willing channel. Sometimes I have had a sense almost of "presence"
when writing about one of the long-goners.....But I would have difficulty
formulating the experience into a presentable or acceptable theory. It's
enough for me that it seems to be true....I'm content to accept that it is,
rather than too zealously dismissing it as being in the realm of idle fancies
and vain imaginings. And I'm not even very religious. Heaven knows what the
guys in the Spiritual Big Leagues experience in this respect."
Commenting on my concern about plagiarism, he wrote in February 1984:
Never apologize for recycling--can we do anything
other than that, when everything comes from the one source, the Writings?
At the same time, he concluded, we must watch because often "the words
of others simply don't fit our face.'
Referring to George Townshend's words about digging into the Writings
and life's journey: "you may lose your first wind but if you get your second it
is permanent though you run all day long,"
White writes: The analogy of the long-distance runner is very
accurate......All seems easier after forty, though there is a dandy fifty-odd
menopausal spin awaiting you.
Mine was on the horizon, little did I
Writing about goals and processes, White wrote in October 1983:
"I probably live like I write.....without qualification,
training or premeditation--inventing it all as I go along and without
formulating goals and objectives....I really have no idea where I stand in the
fight and I almost don't care...I hope that by doing the thing that is under my
nose, day to day, it might tally up at the end as acceptable service."
Writing about the sense of certitude in that same letter he wrote:
I once asked Bill Sears whether, at any point in his long
Bahá'í life, he knew for a certainty that he was where he should be and doing
what he should do for the Cause. He replied that he knew that only once---when
he had been with the Guardian who had assured him that his home in South Africa
would be surrounded by Shoghi Effendi's prayers.
And, finally, in response to my question about what his father's "bravest
lonely deed", referred to in one of his poems, might have been, Roger wrote in
my father's conscious rejection of
Bahá'u'lláh; I remember him once....when a speaker was talking about the Faith
on television, rising up and putting his foot through the screen of the TV set.
I reflected that anyone so concerned not to accept must have, in his heart,
been deeply threatened and attracted by the Cause.
I feel that I have come to know Roger White not by direct contact with
what he has written but by the tone, the manner, the mode of his voice. I feel
the same way about White that Robert Bernard Martin felt about the nineteenth
century poet Gerald Manley Hopkins: "I have slowly come to feel that
understanding the poems is far less difficult than getting to know the
mysterious man who wrote them."
1 Henry Miller in Critical Essays on Henry
Miller, editor, Ronald Gottesman, G.K. Hall and Co., NY, 1992, p.1.
Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), pp.47-8.
Percy Lubbock, The Letters of Henry
, MacMillan and Co., London, 1920, p.xiv.
The Collected Letters of Thomas Carlyle and
Jane Welsh Vol.1: 1812-1821, Duke UP, Durham, NC, 1970, Introduction.
Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers, pp.312-313.
Sharon Campbell, Lyric Time: Dickinson and
the Limits of Genre, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1979, pp.11-12.
Virginia Spencer Davidson, "Johnson's Life
of Savage," Studies in Biography
, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass., 1978,
Roger White, Another Song Another
George Steiner, Language and Silence:
, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, p.53.
Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries, 1962,
Emilio Roma III, "the Scope of the
Intentional Fallacy On Literary Intention," Critical Essays, editor, D.
Newton-De Molina, Edinburgh UP, 1976, p.79.
Thomas Hardy in Thomas Hardy's Personal
Writings, editor, Harold Orel, MacMillan, 1966, p.76.
Norman Holmes Pearson, "Like Rare Tea:
The Letters of Wallace Stevens," The New York Times On The Net, 6 November
Leone Vivante, English Poetry
Southern Illinois UP, Carbondale, 1963(1050), p.ix.
T.S. Eliot in English Poetry
Leone Vivante, Southern Illinois UP, Carbondale, 1963(1950), p.ix.
David Hofman, George Townshend, George
Ronald, Oxford, 1983, p.323.
Robert Bernard Martin, Gerald Manley
Hopkins: A Very Private Life, Harper Collins, London, 1991, p.xv.