ANOTHER SONG ANOTHER SEASON, 1979
THE CANADIAN WHO LIVES HERE
The supreme test of a book is that we should feel some unusual intelligence
working behind the words. Roger White possessed such an intelligence, at least
there is a coterie of readers who sense that intelligence when they read the
several books of his poetry. It is not my desire to make White into a poet of
some inevitable and complex profundity, but for me there is certainly a
wondrous intelligence that I sense behind his poetry. White's is a poetry
which, in the words of Lionel Trilling, "goes on existing beyond our powers of
explanation." "The aesthetic effect," Trilling goes on, "depends in large
degree upon intellectual power."
Part of our
pleasure with White, too, is that we are not under any illusion that White has
conquered the material he directs his attention toward. Like the great writers
of this century White raises many questions about the social and political
landscape of ideas in our liberal and democratic West. Like some of the great
writers White, too, simply wanted to get something off his chest.
In so doing he orders what for most of us are partly
ordered, insufficiently ordered or disordered in our minds. He creates a
self-contained cosmos with its own centre of gravity. I think each of us might
define that centre of gravity a little differently. For me it is that mystic
centre at the heart of the religion both White and I share in common.
I aim in this book to convey some of White's subtle and not-so-subtle
intelligence as I survey the major volumes of his poetry and examine some
special subjects in his poetry toward the end of this book in what could be
seen as one long essay. I hope in the process not to overestimate the values
and virtues of White's work, to be overly approving or, in the words of
literary critic David Daiches, to exhibit the dangers of an excessive
catholicity It is easy for me to do this because I thoroughly enjoy White's
poetry. White provided the kind of poetry I needed to teach me the use of my
own voice. Until White's verse appeared in Another Song Another
when I was thirty-five such verse did not exist for me. I also think his
poetry is underestimated by the wider Bahá'í community and so, in part, this
study is an exercise in establishing a balance and bringing into greater light
a writer who speaks with particular directness or exaction to our present age.
In that great discourse with the living dead which we call reading, when it is
more than reverie or an indifferent appetite born of boredom, reading is a mode
We engage its presence and allow
it to enter our inmost consciousness, imaginations and desires. White passed
away just a few years ago but, for some, he is still alive and well. He is
alive in his style, a style which involves having the 'proper words in their
as Coleridge once wrote,
having a certain rhythm and voice and a certain aesthetic which Panofsky
defines as an abandonment to the objects or ideas being perceived.
He is alive, too, to the generation that
emerged in the sixties, that had worked hard at defining itself but often
inarticulately. White helped that generation and others along on the long road
to being articulate, to finding words for the immense complexity of existence.
Perhaps, then, this essay, this exploration of White's first major book of
poetry, will help to enlarge public literary taste, produce a finer
discrimination and flesh out what often becomes a mere impressionism. For a
simplistic chatter about personal likes and dislikes, when rampant, can be
fatal to any critical appreciation of poetry or literature in general and in
relation to White's total oeuvre
I trust that new readers can come to sense the intelligence behind this
remarkable poetry and old readers, who have not really given White the full
study he deserves, can come to see him anew. Many read Shakespeare, Gibbon,
Toynbee, indeed many of the great writers of history and do not come away
enriched. That is not the fault of the writers. The meanings and the relations
between words are the outcomes, in the final analysis, of the genuinely
creative activities of the individuals reading those words at a given time in
history, in a given set of historical and personal circumstances. The reader,
the individual, is the sole bearer of meaningful interpretation. The
combustion takes place within readers who read White's work in a meditative
way. Once the poet has written, only the reader can give the poem meaning.
The discipline required by the reader is as great as the discipline that was
required of White to write the poetry in the first place. Just as the poetic
idea provides the generative kernel of a poem for White, so does the reader
have to find some equivalent generative kernel, either easily and quickly as is
the case in some of White's poems, or slowly and tortuously as in others. For,
as Edwin Muir puts it in his discussion of the analytical intellect in relation
to poetry, "no matter how brilliant an analysis of a poem, that is not enough,
and that is not even relevant....This is not what poetry was made for." The
mystery of the poem is in the readers; the poem is not 'a problem to be
Poetry is not an answer book. If the reality of man is his thought, then the
reality of Roger White is his poetry, for his poetry is his thought. The
qualities of mind and of literary excellence which appear prominently and
consistently in his poetry, these are White's endowments, these are the
revelations of his powers. But White was incredulous about reading his life
and personal character out of his poems. To him, the two were quite separate.
Both life and poetry are an endless succession of engagements with people who
are only partly explainable and with an experience which is only partly
understandable. With White there is a rich coherence, a complex embedded
comment and the cumulative effect of this comment is to predispose the reader
in favour of a particular interpretation of self and society. Behind the
facts of history and of his life, White is conscious of a swarming mass of
causes on which he can turn his poetic microscope. This sensitivity to minute
causality produces a sense of amazement at the road both he and others have
travelled on, a sense of the difficulty, the toil, with which performance
struggles after ideal and a sense that much of the massive facts of our lives
and of history are just too immense for our intellect.
But he strives. What Samuel Johnson wrote about the poet Alexander Pope could
have been written about White, although White would probably be embarrassed to
acknowledge its truth. But now that he has left this mortal coil we can more
comfortably pour all the encomium we want onto White's shoulders. "A mind
active, ambitious and adventurous, always investigating," wrote Johnson,
"always aspiring; in its wildest searches still longing to go forward, in its
highest flights still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater
than it knows, always endeavouring more than it can do."
There is little doubt that readers of White see the
results of a vigorous mind on a large landscape, an immense canvas, a panorama
that consists of the first century and a half of the history of what Bahá'ís
believed to be the emerging
world religion of the coming millennium. White enlarges the boundaries of the
understanding and conquers new intellectual regions, of the Faith many of his
readers have become associated with. He leads them back to their lives and
their experience, after a journey through his particular experience and what,
for me, are often quite exquisite intellectual pathways. Poetry can not be
expected to accomplish anything more.
Writing in an age when religious controversy is conducted with violent
bitterness and for millions often with disinterest and indifference, White
quietly describes his own way of life, his modus vivendi
, his religious
ethos, without trying to put those who differ from him in the wrong. He takes
his many stands firmly, grounded as they are in the Bahá'í writings, its
history and teachings. The metaphorical character of his language springs, in
part, from his constant tendency to harmonize contraries, to co-ordinate
polarities, to find commonality in divergence, to express a fluid and
functional unity rather than a fixed and irrevocable one. His vital poetic
norms move from equivalence and reciprocity to identity and fixed agreement.
His poetry was his invitation to others and always it was with an awareness of
the interdependence of diverse points of view rather than the totality of a
White does not always pass a verdict on every issue he takes up. He views his
evidence from many standpoints. He opens up questions, looks at things from
many angles, opens up imagination's active window to enlarge the narrow circle
of our days. His questions become a form of answer, which itself contains the
seeds of another question. But, however complex the questions and however
difficult the road, the journey and history's maze, he suggests to the reader a
perspective, a direction. However awkward and tangled the reality of the
material he deals with, he does not soften it by impoverishing the facts or
discounting them. In White's hand the power of the past to elude the net of
language must struggle with White's subtle strength and humour. The immensity
and wonder of the century and a half of history, perhaps the most awful scenes
in the history of man's religious experience, White deals with in lively images
and with a commitment to his own narrative voice. He stocks his mind with fresh
and original impressions from a storehouse of an inexhaustible variety. For it
is his view that all of reality exists for our training, all of nature is
itself "a dispensation of Providence."
critic's function, my function in writing this book, is to interpret White's
work in light of all that I know and to struggle, as best I can, to understand
his work in terms of literature as a whole, the religion he seeks to examine
and the society within which both that literature and that religion operate.
The first book of his poetry was Another Song Another Season
in 1979. For many thousands of Bahá'ís this book 'rocketed White to
as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas
described the effect his own poetry had four decades before. And White would
astonish again and again in his last dozen or so years with book after book of
poetry, from the age of fifty to sixty three. It was not the power of
incantation, the rolling vigor of a voice or its melodic subtlety, the
overwhelming lyric purity which characterized Thomas' work and style--and made
him the most persausive reader of his day, the most famous poet on radio. It
was the power of insight into the nature and reality of the Bahá'í Faith, its
history and teachings. It was the vigorous intellect, the superb turn of
phrase, a simplicity and complexity all rolled into one, a vein of humour and
delight that appealed to high brow and low brow, indeed all brows, that made
White a household name through parts of the Bahá'í world. White was part of
that movement in poetry whose aim and whose effort was to bring poetry closer
to the people, not through a watering down due to an apparent public disregard
for poetry, but through a belief that poetry had something of vital importance
to offer society and its several, its many communities.
Another Song Another Season
gave to the Bahá'í community its first book
of poetry written in a contemporary idiom. In the words of David Hofman, who
wrote the introduction, the book was written in modes of common speech and
everyday concepts, although it does rise occasionally to a certain grandeur
especially with the aid of metaphor which White seems to take a special
pleasure in using. His poetic style had been worked out in the three decades
before Another Song Another Season
was published. "All a writer's
qualities," wrote Lionel Trilling about the same time White put his first poem
on paper, "have their truest existence, in his style."
It was a style especially suited to Bahá'ís. White
became, consequently and quickly, a possession. He was our first Bahá'í poet,
up-to-date with living and breathing colloquialisms. It was Eunice Brown's
view, expressed among the several testimonials on the back cover, that White's
poetry was not obscure.
It could be read
and enjoyed even by those who previously had got little or nothing out of
poetry. This was because White translated the experience of Bahá'ís into
words, perhaps for many for the first time. Perhaps, too, some of the pleasure
readers derived from his poetry was their sense that White's writing, as the
poet Samuel Johnson once wrote, 'reposed on the stability of truth.'
There is little doubt that part of White's
motivation in writing poetry, as is the case with many a poet,
was a desire to help people live their lives and
understand the world they lived in. Undoubtedly, some of the pleasures readers
derived was White's success in achieving these goals.
But for many it was necessary that they read White again and again, far more
carefully than his humorous and often simple lines initially implied. For
often his lines were dense with meaning and the ore just could not be extracted
in a once-over-lightly reading. Sadly, as another poet, Alexander Pope, noted
three hundred years ago, readers "care not to study or to anatomize a poem but
only to read it for their entertainment."
If these readers were to get more understanding of the Bahá'í Faith from
reading White's poetry than they could from many hours of patient study of
other Bahá'í texts, as Marzieh Gail suggested they could,
they would require the patience to persist through
difficult passages, the same patience that is required when working though a
play or sonnet of Shakespeare. As one literary critic put it, readers need to
keep their knowledge "in a servile relation"
to their human response to what White's poetry was
saying. Otherwise they would often simply miss out on White's sometimes
secular, sometimes sacred, urbane, deeply touching and exhilarating voice with
its quick changes of pace and tone, its blend of vigorous thought with subtle
emotion, its tough reasonableness beneath a lyric grace. They will miss out on
White's true greatness: his power to tell the truth.
Often the distinguished, the genuine, in art, in poetry, is uncommon and not
accessible to the many. It is different; it must be different and so, in the
process, provokes some hostility or simple incomprehension in the many. Over
time the social, the intellectual, response to the received material is often
softened and what was initially a puzzled lack of understanding becomes
enjoyment without the effort, the demand, that initially turned the student
off. Some of White's first poems puzzled and exasperated readers. They either
did not appreciate his humour or simply did not understand what he was saying
due to the demands he made on his readers' literary capacities. Much of the
poetry in the twentieth century was difficult for readers. Indeed, a certain
obscurity is one of the hallmarks of the entire tradition of poetry going back
to Chaucer in the fourteenth century.
It has been more than two decades since White began to become somewhat of a
household name in many communities of the Bahá'í world. Perhaps that first
decade, 1979 to 1989 was White's peak season. With a business and a private
address for all these years at: C/-The Bahá'í World Centre, PO Box 155, Haifa
Israel, 31 001 many Bahá'ís who bought his poetry felt quite at home with
White. And many Bahá'ís around the world wrote to express their appreciation
to him for his poetry. And now, in this small volume, I seek to express my
appreciation of White by examining his perceptions, his wisdoms, and seeking to
understand their contemporary relevance.
"Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian,"
wrote the famous nineteenth century biographer Lytton
Strachey. For it is ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, selects and omits
with a placcid perfection. It is the beginning of a method. It is crucial,
especially for the Bahá'í with pretensions, deserved or undeserved, to knowing
a great deal about his or her Faith. Often, I think, a poem of White's is lost
on a reader because the reader feels he already knows about the subject at hand
and, therefore, could not learn anything more. Ignorance is bliss, to express
the starting point in relation to White colloquially. Readers must also be
aware of another warning of Strachey, namely, that "human beings are too
important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past."
This applies to obscure as well as eminent lives. White
makes the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. He brings a genuine
breath of fresh air into so much of Bahá'í history, its philosophy and its
teachings. He often takes what is quite obscure in a life from the exigencies
and details of history to give us insight into what Henry James called the
"truth of private experience."
Like Wordsworth's first and very successful decade, 1798 to 1808, White's first
years in the public eye brought an enthusiastic response. His fame rose
quickly. Unlike Wordsworth who lived another forty two years after that first
decade, White would be gone four years after that first decade of renown. He
could not refine his style in his years of late adulthood and old age because
he left this earth just as the years of late adulthood(60-80) arrived. He
passed away at 63. Perhaps the refining of his style was done in the years
before 1979, in the three previous decades with its several chapbooks and
life's steep learning curves.
As White himself put it, referring to Another Song Another Season
Bahá'í community was ready for a book of this sort when it appeared and someone
or other had to write it; I drew the card."
I am reminded of the poet William Carlos Williams'
words in relation to his famous poem Paterson
. He wrote that it was a
poem "crying to be written; the time demands it."
The Bahá'í community in 1979 was just beginning to
emerge from an obscurity that had enshrouded its history. White happened along
somewhat serendipitously at the same time as the Iranian revolution was giving
the Bahá'ís a media profile they had not enjoyed since the previous religious
persecution in the mid-1950s. White provided somewhat of a seriously unserious
note for a dozen years or so. It was timely that the Bahá'ís should have a
poet. With the great number of new books that had come into Bahá'í book shops
in the years since the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade when this new Faith
was taken around the world, there was little that was poetic in a modern idiom,
little that was light. White fitted into a high seriousness, but he also
brought something new, a Voltairian irreverence. He also brought a certain
erudition but, for the most part, he avoided its display in his poetry. His
poetry was not tortuous, did not possess a harsh complexity in his phrasing or
in the subtlety or vigour of his thought. His lively poetic intelligence was
within the reach of an educated reader. But he made his readers work.
Like all good poets White conveyed much more than his poems dealt with
explicitly. Yes, there was a Voltairean irreverence in his work. Some, like
those who reacted to the visually eccentric poetry of e.e. cummings back in the
1920s, were not able to cope with White's revulsion of the meretricious, the
sanctimonious and the pi.
reaction to White's words as far back as 1978 was apt: "his poetry was
spiritual and religious but not didactic and obscure." The influence of the
Bahá'í Writings on White's work cannot be measured by an accurate notation of
their echoes, by a quantification of Bahá'í themes, in his poems. Rather this
influence can be deduced from the ease with which White embarks upon his
frequent colloquy with his Lord. The tenderness and the playfulness, though,
are all White.
He packs a lot in, too;
many ideas often exist within a small compass. The subtlety with which he often
makes transitions from one aspect of the subject to another and the sureness of
his emotional control, are in some ways just aspects of his wit, his clever use
of language and his alert intelligence dealing as it does with poignant and
Perhaps the first quality of White's poetry that deserves to be emphasized is
the sense of liberation, happiness, delight and joy. There is a comic faith
which runs like a golden seam of intensity suffusing the body of his poetry.
White continues a tradition which began, perhaps as far back as Aristophanes in
the fifth century BC or some of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
White's criticism, his activism, though trenchant, is not a vociferous demand
for aggressive assertion. White's voice is tempered with his own compassionate
tolerance and a knowledge that arose out of study, his own vulnerability and
weakness. The voice of the intellect is, as Freud once put it, a soft one.
But, however soft, White uses his intellect to make his readers work, as I've
said above. There is a quiet and relentless scrutiny of his motives and, by
implication, his readers'. Perhaps this is inevitable in verse with a high
religious content. There is an emotional honesty which strengthens the fabric
of his poetry and it is often expressed in everyday language.
There are so many examples to choose from in this first major volume of his
poetry to illustrate some of the things I am saying. Some poetry critics
choose to quote an author, a poet, extensively in their essays; some hardly at
all. I shall choose a middle path and leave it to readers to go to White on
their own, hopefully encouraged by what I write here. For many readers White's
poems need no comment at all; they establish a basic correspondence between
writer and reader; they do not require the trappings of explanation. Other
poems, on the other hand, will need rather more than I could ever give. Between
these two extremes readers will find my reactions to the sound of the new voice
I heard in White nearly twenty-five years ago now.
One poem well known to White fans, which I have selected somewhat at random, is
called The Pioneer
.25 There is a humorous vein running all the way
through its more than three pages. To Bahá'ís, who see teaching the Cause as
the dominating passion of their lives, their role as pioneers is described with
lightness, delight, joy and that comic faith I mentioned above. Often, of
course, that is not how Bahá'ís actually experience the process of teaching;
often it acts as a weight in a secularized, pluralistic society whose members
are either little interested in religion or already are committed to one of
many others. White does not sing one note, one light and humorous song, or the
poem would lose its impact. If he did the poem would be little more than a
joke to add to the already endless pile occupying the social scene. There is
seriousness in this poem The Pioneer
, a high seriousness. The poem
ends on a very serious note. After many light phrases that lift the reader
into lighthearted and cheery territory, the reader is left contemplating the
profundity of the exercise of 'teaching the faith.'
moment is selected.
You will not see all heaven's angels,
all ancient good,
the very weight of history
rush to her support as she gathers breath
Have you heard the message of Bahá'u'lláh?
nor will you know that God Himself
through all worlds
gives ear to your reply
I tell you, she is dangerous!
You will not see any of this-the angels and the weight of history-but the irony
is that this is just what happens from a Bahá'í perspective. White continues a
religious tradition begun by Erasmus, Swift, Rabelais and Sterne, four ordained
clerics who belong to the congregation of satirists, the literary world of the
He presents human
life in the context of drama and mirth, among other contexts. This context of
the dramatic and comic deals with suffering, in some ways, more effectively
than the tragic. The comic takes away from tragedy its dominance, its often
dangerous romantic grandeur. In seeking temporary pleasure, what might be
described as the tragi-comic transcends the tragic. White does this again and
again. Humour for centuries was associated with the devil,
with the sinful nature of humanity. Gradually over
recent centuries it has come to be seen as part of his blessedness. Humour for
White is a very disarming form of seriousness itself.28 For White the humorous
provides diversion from the serious; a gentle irreverence provides balance.
White apotheosises language. He grins like the satirist and loiters like
Socrates. Plato knew he was dangerous and would not allow him into his utopian
Republic in the fifth century BC.
The following poem, The Appointment,
is not humorous, but its idiom, its tone and
flavour convey a lightness of touch, of thought. It possesses a seriously
unserious style, an apparent colloquialism, a language of simplicity which runs
through six pages. Running through these short poetic lines, the force, the
strength of the words comes from the slow build-up of simple ideas. The reader
is slowly caught up with a philosophical idea, an historical experience, of
some detail and significance. The reader is given, if he persists, a new
perception, a fresh insight, into the past, into himself. He comes, in the
end, to make more sense of life, his life. An event in history, the building
of the temple in Chicago, is given a whole new meaning. the familiar is made
unfamiliar; the unfamiliar is made familiar.
White touches us with his vision and his understanding. He touches us
frequently and we feel the texture of his touch, although we may not know the
detailed architecture of his vision. But the more we read his poetry the more
familiar we become with the particular choreography of his vision, his mise
. Unlike T.S. Eliot's immense poetic panorama of futility and
anarchy, White's poetic panorama stretches before the reader the possibilities
in existence that are based on a potentially integrated human being and a world
view that is sensitive to the problematic nature of our age and the need of
affirming a unified vision of life for all men.
In all his sketches and portraits of martyrs, pioneers and ordinary people
White reveals a tender world, a world born of wisdom and sympathetic
understanding. His words half conceal and half reveal the soul, as Tennyson
once put it. His words also rescue the life, the situation, under examination
from the abstraction of myth and the complexity of history. The brittleness
and fragility of of history and civilization as well as its polish and gloss
are part and parcel of White's poetry so that the reader can reach out, touch
it, bring it back from what might have been its rusty home in memory, or know
it for the first time.
Fujita With Pilgrims
is one such poem which has been analysed by
literary critics before.
what I am saying here about White's historical pieces so very well. It's not
that we learn something about Fujita who may have lingered obscurely for us in
a place in our own interpretive schema of history, rather it's that we learn
something about particular virtues that help us understand life. Fujita made
'Abdu'l-Bahá laugh; such is the focus of the first stanza. The gift of being
able to make someone else laugh is a treasure that, in some of life's contexts,
is just about priceless. The priceless value, too, of loneliness and isolation
White brings to our minds in the second stanza:
triviality by a pain and loneliness
that might instruct us,
rescued a halo's-breadth from isolating sainthood
by an exonerating intolerance and his need for us
but still a holy man.
These few lines need unpacking. If you read them quickly you're likely to miss
the point or points. A lot of White's poetry is like this. There are many
meanings in many of his poems. Each reader reads his own soul's meanings.
Often, too, a reader grasps a poem of White's without realizing how much they
hold in their hand. 'A book on a page,' I often think, is what White gives us
in some of his poems. Fugita With Pilgrims
is such a poem and each time
you come to it you take away a new depth. White's poetry needs to be kept at
arm's reach and not gathering dust on your shelf after a quick flick. He needs
to be tasted over and over again for his pithy and many layered poetry.
It's not so much that Fujita was lonely and isolated from much of human
society, that 'fact of history' could be debated, but what is the relevance of
this loneliness--assuming that he was? Its relevance(one could argue) is that,
if we too want to join the short line of saints, we might also have to endure
loneliness and pain. Along that path to sainthood, we, too, may develop an
intolerance of others and a paradoxical need for their company. Is this too
high a price for sainthood, one might ask? These lines are a good example of
how White packs a great deal into a short space. They are a good example of the
necessity on the part of readers to study White's words closely. In the end you
often find yourself questioning your own interpretation of a poem, wondering at
the mystery it contains. I'm only suggesting, here, some lines of inquiry into
White captures something of the essence of this first Japanese believer, this
mikado of mirth
the Servant's servant
And we, having examined Fujita, are left standing....
disconsolately tracing our distance from the goal,
churning the weightless air
with our questions and our words,
our endless words.
Someone asks: Did you take his picture?
It is easy to miss the point in this mixture of delicacy and directness. Fujita
reminds the poet, and hopefully the reader should he need reminding, of the
poet's distance from his spiritual goal in life. The poet is left churning the
air with his words. The image is graphic and profound in its own right. The
poet has taken a snapshot, a long exposure, of the outer personality and inner
soul of Fujita by means of his poetic shaping. The tourists in the group may
have forgotten to take Fujita's photograph and, however accurate the poet's
analysis of Fujita, he and his readers are still left "churning the weightless
air" with their questions and their words. For, in the last analysis, we are
all left with our endless words in the face of so many of life's mysteries.
I could continue the analysis here. For White says a great deal in a few words.
Reading quickly is for most of us the norm and to savour words, to read a
passage several times goes against our grain. But often this is what we must do
if we are to truly appreciate White's poetry, indeed a great deal of poetry
written over the ages, including much of the Revelation that inspired White in
White wrote imaginative portraits like the one above partly as dialogue of his
own mind with various people who stood out in Bahá'í history, partly as ironic
detachment, partly as studied dispassionateness and partly as a flirtation with
ideas and the meaning of life and history. In the process, a character, a
person, was created, disclosing to his readers a new capacity for knowing
themselves. White takes us deep into history at many of its points. His poems
become moral and psychological instruments of communication. His poetry is
often simpler than God passes by
, slimer and apparently easier to read
than Nabil's Narrative
. White is light, but you've got to do some
digging if you want to get to the roots of what he is on about. What might
occupy anywhere from several pages to a whole book of history, White deftly
deals with on a page, in a poem. And many of White's readers learn more about
that history, often, in that page.
The Bahá'í community had gone from 69,000 localities at the start of the Five
Year Plan in 1974 to 96,000 localities at that Plan's end in 1979. There had
been a massive expansion of the Bahá'í community in the quarter-century ending
in 1979 from perhaps two-hundred thousand believers to about three million.
White had arrived on the scene with his Another Song Another Season
timely juncture. White's critical dialectic, his delicate and gentle but
provocative and witty words suggested a direction for dialogue for the decades
ahead. White was, perhaps, a mid-wife of an idea whose time had come. He
provided an imaginative interpretation of Bahá'u'lláh's vision as it applied to
living in today's world. He was more than a popularizer. His deceptively easy,
sometimes acutely complex, passages of poetry sometimes require a dictionary to
deal with his wordy wonders. White is a subtle quotient.
History and experience cry out to be recognized and understood as they spread
out in their burgeoning, anarchic and often heart-breaking confusion before
us. White helps us in this process, taking us a step toward understanding the
metaphorical nature of physical reality, toward seeing the fragments of the
past, of history and of everyday life, as part of a whole. Such an exercise
requires a conscious effort of the mind and of the imagination on White's part
and on ours in the rag-and-bone shop of everyday life. And we do not always
win. Poetry, reading, much that is life, cannot be communicated easily, if at
all, inspite of our efforts. We often lose. White is no facile optimist who
believes you can do anything you want as long as you believe and persist long
enough. Our love, White writes in Songs of Separation
..................will pass unnoticed into time
And history not record our name or cause,
Nor future lovers weep to read this rhyme,
The hastening crowd not give it thought or pause;
Yet must I write these lines for my heart's ease.
White does not leave it here, however down-to-earth, however realistic, however
much these words are an accurate statement of human experience. More needs to
be said. Perhaps White is writing of someone's love, his lover, his former
wife, the world. Several lines later in that same poem he is writing
Had I but known that exile were the toll
Still would I offer that committed kiss,
Release you then to God for His Own role
Though death itself were paler deed than this.
In banishment, I learn that this is true:
I gave Him all, thus gives He ever you.
This optimistic-pessimistic-realistic note is, though, not the last word in
this difficult poem. In the last stanza White writes, after expressing his wish
that life was simpler and sweeter,
Are wrenched, torn, flung as unremembered leaves
Driven in doleful patterns the wind weaves.
Glad days are gone. A bastion given each
The long nightwatch begins.
We are back in the battleground of life, if we ever really left it, as the poem
comes to an end. The poet awakens "from fitful dreams" in "choking screams."
Whoever it is that is his love, she or it is "beyond the reach" of his "caress
and comfort." She or it dies and the poet can do nothing. Is this love part
of that 'vapour in the desert which the thirsty dreams to be water?' Is it part
of life's 'mere illusion?' However illusory life may be, however much it was a
prelude to a fuller existence, White does not underestimate the worth, the
value, the importance of this earthly life.
In another poem that honestly admits to human incapacity, to human inadequacy,
,32 White writes:
Is this then all
there is, a simple garden,
And a silence that displaces need for words?
What portent in the blood-red poppy?
What message in the music of the birds?
The hero's heart is hoisted on the Cypress,
the saint's is softly folded as a rose:
But mine is shattered here among the pebbles
On the only path the fainting coward knows.
Perhaps the note here is humility combined with a sense of awe. One is
reminded of the words of the mystic Thomas a Kempis that you should consider
none so frail as yourself, or the words of Shakespeare in the last lines of his
play The Tempest.
My ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces as it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
I have tried, throughout this essay and the ones following, to get behind
White's poetry, to suggest the world that exists within the content of
particular poems and White's poems in general and to point toward some
underlying principle or principles. In so doing I have tried, as Samuel Johnson
tried, "not to oversimplify what is complicated but to be faithful to the
complex richness and variety"
poet's mind. As White himself was to write several years later, "Attempting
to apply a divine principle is usually a creative and dangerous act...one of
those 'iffy things'.'
There is nothing so
complex as a principle. I have tried, too, to suggest how readers might come
to know White intimately as a friend. Knowing him it is impossible not to love
him. But I have my doubts, as Wordsworth did, about the value of literary
criticism compared to the kind of inventive lines one finds in poetry,
especially White's poetry and especially if one is in the game of trying to
induce love of the poet.
"Original composition," said Wordsworth speaking of poetry, does "infinitely
Let us hope there is
little mischief here. Perhaps I should have stuck with writing poetry which I
have come to enjoy in the last decade. Readers will certainly find little
overt criticism of White's work in these essays. I do not have that view of
White, for example, which Arnold had of Wordsworth even though he loved and
admired Wordsworth, namely, that Wordsworth's poetry would have been richer,
more complete and varied if Wordsworth had read more books. Some of White's
creative power comes from his being in the right place at the right time, when
there were the materials and the basis for the emergence of a Bahá'í
consciousness in world literature. Like Athens in the mid to late fifth century
BC, the mid to late twentieth century provided the milieux provided the glow of
life and thought for world literature to make its first major strides. White
happened to be there at the start. It was not the start of democracy, or the
breakdown of the architecture of the Middle Ages and the first stirrings of
modern science, that led to the literature of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, it
was the start of a world literature and the first imprint of a new, a
democratic theocracy, a vision with the future in its bones, that had just
stuck its head above the ground and enshrined that priceless jewel, the world
civilization, of which this infant Faith White had joined was "the sole
White was well read, but not
the scholar or academic, not the serious student with that rich, deep and
varied reading behind him that Arnold would have liked Wordsworth to possess.
But for me that is not important; indeed, I think, like Shakespeare, White is
better for the freshness and spontaneity he brings to ideas, to his poetry, and
the absense of an erudition.
We all see White through the prism of our own experience, perception and
knowledge. For me, White provides a strong, a solid, antidote or counterweight
to so much of the superficial thinking that drifts over the intersticies of our
existence, from the power of positive thinking to astrology, from the occult to
a vague emphasis on intuition, from so many of the superficialities of pop
psychology and media hype. White's interpretive schema, his view, his vision of
this emerging new religion on this planet accords with my experience and my
views. We like people who see things the way we do. It's natural. He also gives
me so much more, so many fresh insights into my own life, my religion and the
complex realities of the world.
Another Song Another Season
is divided into six parts. The
classification or sectional names for the parts are ingenious, suggestive and
provide a useful organizing principle for the poetry in the book: portrayals,
lines from a Persian notebook, songs and sonnets, the confused muse, a twist of
lemon. The division is natural, not artificial, as poetic categories often are
in books of poetry. White was to use this method in all his books of poetry,
except his last, his The Language of There.
In Another Song
there are fifty-nine poems, four letter sketches and ten pages of notes and
bibliography; together they fill some 180 pages. They are dedicated to White's
parents. The pattern of introducing both individual sections and poems with
quotations from the Bahá'í literary corpus and the writing of famous and
not-so-famous people is established in this first major book of White's poetry.
It was a pattern that would remain with all White's volumes of poetry. The
cover of the book looks like somewhere in northern Ontario. It reminds
Canadians that White is one of them. White, indeed, was "the Canadian who lives
here being, of course, Haifa. And
White was able, perhaps due to the imparting of some expansion and sensation to
his mind, some heightened consciousness, to experience propitious poetic
moments while in Haifa. He had been there for eight years by the time
was published. Unquestionably many of his insights were
associated with developments on Mt. Carmel and the very atmosphere of the
place. Inevitably, too, what animated the mass of his knowledge was a bright
and active imagination. Another Song
was his first major poetic result.
White was fifty.
White had been away from Canada for thirteen years by the time Another Song
was published. He had been "precipitated into homesickness"
many times. "Images of northness, seasonality, spaciousness, magnificence,
extravagant teeming abundance," still supported his reality in "the relentless
Hebrew sun" with its "unalleviated glare."
But one does not get that sense, so common in twentieth century poets,
especially those who left their homeland, of White the outsider. He became
accepted, not only by the Bahá'í community in Haifa but by a community of poets
in Haifa that he belonged to and academics that he had some association with.
If leaving Canada was a sacrifice, and
there is no strong evidence that it was, the experience, it would appear,
nourished rather than inhibited his creativity. He gained a great deal, so
much that he could not have found in Canada had he stayed there.
Herbert Read, in his analysis of the poetry of Wordsworth, argues that the
highest quality of poetry escapes analysis. It is, he goes on, an intangible
essence, a synthetic occasion.
true of the best of White. But White's best has become for many what Wordsworth
became for the young John Stuart Mill as he expressed it in 1828,
"a medicine for my state of mind....not mere outward beauty,
but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement
of beauty...the very culture of feeling.....a source of inward joy, of
sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human
beings....poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at
that time what his did. White's poetry is
also for many what English poetry was to Voltaire, the treatment of moral ideas
"with more energy and depth" than other
nations and poets and a powerful and profound application of ideas to life.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal
, Secker and Warburg, London, 1961(1951), p.297.
T.S. Eliot said this when asked about his
intentions in writing his famous poem The Waste Land
George Steiner, Language and Silence:
, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, p.29.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Poetry and
, Herbert Read, Vision Press Ltd., London, 1967, p.41.
Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual
, NY, 1955, pp.13-14.
David Daiches discusses the importance of
being able to distinguish good poetry and the dangers of mere impressionism in
Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London,
Edwin Muir, Essays on Literature and
, The Hogarth Press, London, 1966(1949), p.234.
Samuel Johnson in Samuel Johnson's
, Jean H. Hagstrum, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh
Haifa, 1978, p.142.
Dylan Thomas in Louis Untermeyer, Lives
of the Poets: The Story of One Thousand years of English and American
, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959, p.717.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal
, 1961(1951), Secker & Warburg, London, p.244.
Eunice Brown in Another Song Another
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1979, back cover.
Samuel Johnson, op.cit.
Wallace Stevens, a major poet in the last
half of the twentieth century is one example from among many who had what might
be called an ameliorist poetic philosophy.
Alexander Pope, The Correspondence of
, editor, George Shorburn, Oxford, 1956, p.228.
Marzieh Gail in White, op.cit.
1979, back cover.
Thomas R. Edwards, Jr., Essays in
Lytton Strachey in Jean Strouse,
"Semiprivate Lives," Studies in Biography
, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass.,
Lytton Strachey in Jean Strouse,
Henry James, in Jean Strouse,
Roger White, "Price-White Correspondence:
William Carlos Williams in Lives of
the Modern Poets
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.284.
David Hofman, Another Song Another
Compare Margaret Bottrall, George
, John Murray, London, 1971, p.94.
Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith
University of Chicago Press, 1980: discusses the development of this 'comic
. John Chrystosom in the Christian
tradition is discussed by Polhemus.
22 This humorous vein is found in many modern poets. See Bruce Dawe in "A View
of Bruce Dawe's Poetry," Paul Brock, Southerly, Vol.42
, 1982, p.235.
Roger White, Another Song
Geoffrey Nash, "The Heroic Soul and the
Ordinary Self," Bahá'í Studies, Vol.10
31 Roger White, op.cit.
Shakespeare, The Tempest
Jean Hagstrum, Samuel Johnston's
, University of Chicago Press, London, 1952, p.xvi.
Roger White, A Sudden Music
William Wordsworth in Matthew Arnold,
Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1969(1906), p.10.
Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine
, Wilmette, 1966(1939), p.6.
Roger White, op.cit.
Roger White, op.cit.
Professor Alex Aronson taught English at
Haifa University and wrote reviews of White's work; White also belonged to an
English language poetry group called 'Voices Israel.'
Herbert Read, Wordsworth
and Faber, London, 1930, p.xvi.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.