, University of Washington, Seattle, p.254; and Thomas Parkinson,
"Robert Lowell and the Uses of Modern Poetry in the University,"
Roger White, "The White-Price
Correspondence: 1981-1993," Unpublished.
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.
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.
Bennett Reimer, "Selfness and Otherness in Experiencing Music of Foreign
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.
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.
THE WITNESS OF PEBBLES
Two years later, in 1981, the second of what would eventually be three
books of Roger White's poetry came out from the George Ronald publishers of
Oxford. This second volume contained nearly three times as many poems as the
first. Geoffrey Nash, who had finished his doctorate on Thomas Carlyle and had
just completed writing Iran's Secret Pogrom,
wrote the introduction. The
following year, in 1982, Nash was to go on and write the first significant
essay on the work of Roger White: The Heroic Soul and the Ordinary
The publication of this volume of poetry was timely. Robert Hayden, a Bahá'í
and an American poet laureate in the 1970s, had died the previous year. He had
been a Bahá'í and a poet for over forty years. In some important ways the
Bahá'í consciousness in world literature that this book is discussing found its
first significant poetic expression in the poetry of Robert Hayden. John
Hatcher points out that Hayden came of age as a poet in the early forties,
during the first teaching Plan, 1937-1944. A Bahá'í consciousness slowly grew
in his poetic expression beginning in 1943 when he joined the Bahá'í Faith,
although it did not become obvious, did not express significant Bahá'í themes,
until at least 1962 in Hayden's collection A Ballad of Remembrance.
White of course had begun writing poetry and a poetry clearly influenced by the
teachings of the Bahá'í Faith perhaps as early as the early 1950s. It is not
my purpose to examine the minutiae of who was the first poet to write poems
influenced by this new religion. Both poets were writing poems as early as the
1940s. I think I'd give the nod to Hayden as the first poet on the block by a
clear margin. But, it seems to me, this emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness is
more of a process and both these poets were involved in the process.
This book focuses on White's part. White fully
achieved(if there was any doubt before), with this latest volume of poetry,
what literary critic A. Alvarez in 1962 said that poetry needed: 'a new
seriousness.' This he defined as: "the poet's ability and willingness to face
the full range of his experience with his full intelligence; not to take the
easy exits of either the conventional response or choking incoherence."
Poets, Alvarez went on, needed to cope openly
with the quick of their experience. This was what he called 'a new depth
poetry.' White had already begun to find this depth by 1962 when Alvarez wrote
this and, by 1981 some two decades later, he had made out of his rich internal
resources and self-contained strength his own style and his own identity.
The Witness of Pebbles
, as White called this new volume, was dedicated
"to all who witness in life and death."
title 'pebbles' came from Bahá'u'lláh's writings where He refers to His
revelation enabling "every least pebble to resound with Thy praise."
Whether one views this corpus of poems from a
literary or a non-literary standpoint, it is great poetry. T.S. Eliot once
argued that 'great poetry' had to be based on a great philosophy.
"We can hardly doubt," he put it "that the truest
philosophy is the best material for the greatest poet."
White, of course, derives his philosophy from the Bahá'í
Faith. His poetic inspiration, the poets who have clearly had an influence on
him, comes from George Herbert, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot among others,
although White once wrote in an essay
felt the critical inspiration behind his poetry were holy souls who had passed
on to the next world and influenced his writing in quite inexplicable ways.
For years White had been his own Aristotle laying down the laws his poetry was
subject to. There is a deep and important relationship between philosophical
thought about poetry and poetry.
essays about White's poetry shine a light on some of that subtle and
not-so-subtle relationship. It is a relationship that results, for this critic
anyway, in the diffusion of a tone and spirit of unity, a complex unity that
blends and fuses so much of that rag-and-bone-shop of life into a synthesis
through White's imaginative power. For the essence of the poetic process is
its "unifying and harmonizing activity."
One of the means White uses to get at truth is to examine the lives of
historical figures. Like Shakespeare, Euripides or one of a host of others,
White translates the great truths of his philosophy into a comprehensive
text-book on how to live. But like the literary outputs of all the great poets
and dramatists of history, White's text-book requires some work from his
readers. His is not a how-to manual, not systematic in its organization,
perhaps 'creative-resource-manual' might be a better comparison than text-book,
for there is little that is set out in a sequenced, ordered, way that covers
the material. It is impossible to read White's poetry without feeling that we
are being initiated into the company of a unique personality-a personality as
original and authentic as it is intellectually thought-provoking and a delight
to the mind, a personality who defined himself through his poetry, a work of
art that is produced by a special handling of language.
In the first section of this resource manual, containing some twenty-eight
poems, White does what Wordsworth did at the dawn of this modern age: he gives
the spirit of the past a restoration, a transformation. White is that poet of
memory and one can learn a great deal about Bahá'í history and its philosophy
by examining some of the poems here. Some of that history is recent; for
example, the passing of Hand of the Cause A.Q. Faizi in 1980. White gives us a
sonnet in rhyming couplets. But it's not the form that impresses so much as
the content. Here is one of many examples of spiritual history being rendered,
as the poet Roethke said it should be rendered, by dramatic poetry.
White brings to the poem a sharp sense of
who and what Faizi was. This sharp sense of another person brings to White,
paradoxically, a heightened awareness of his own self and the self of others.
It also allows him to make those "intuitive
leaps" which Roethke says "are one of the ways man.....approaches the divine-in
this comprehensive act, the really good poem."
I'd like to take you through the poem In Memoriam:
occasionally to make a point:
The children by the upturned sod
strew flowers, weeping. Only God
Who holds the slightest winged thing dear
knows all the sweetness folded here.
And so it was for those who knew Hand of the Cause Faizi: sweetness was the
operative word. This was no intuitive leap. But in the second half of the
octave White writes:
Were such love possible? ask we
who dole it with economy,
squander doubt and hoard affection
in private vaults beyond detection.
After warming us up in the first four lines with sentiments of tender-loving
care, White brings us down-to-earth, not so much with an intuitive leap, but
with an honest statement, pithy and poignant, of human inadequacy.
He continues, back to Faizi's funeral ceremony:
On Carmel trails the sun's gilt sleeve
as we chilled mourners slowly leave
And then comes the intuitive leap:
to seize the thought this death installs:
who'd serve the King must love His thralls.
Of course the idea is not entirely intuitive, but this last couplet is clearly,
for me anyway, the climax of the poem. For me there is surprise, truth, wisdom,
an idea that is unfamiliar that White makes familiar.
There is a loveliness in White's craft. Sometimes a simplistic, idealistic,
coherent view of a person can turn out to be too brittle for the complex facts
of a life--and the biographer must shift grounds. That is not the case here.
There is in White's work a sensitivity to "the sophisticated complexity of
that the great post-WWII American
poet Robert Lowell said was critical to any successful poetry. But however
complex the idea, there is a simplicity too. It is not a simplicity that orders
experience, rather, it is a simplicity that, in the words of Theodore Roethke,
attends "an experience with the conviction that there is order in it." White is
simply giving voice to a truth inherent in the death of the beloved Hand of the
Cause, namely, that he must be loved--and why. White is also giving us a poem
that "is so organized that the interplay between the elements sets up a complex
of meaning in which" White "wins through to his final utterance."
Again, the analysis could continue, but this is the reader's task.
"Criticism is the endeavour" wrote Saintsbury back in 1911, "to find, to know,
to love and to recommend the best that is known and written in the world,"
but not to explain every detail. Poetry is
most fully realized when a reader's mind subjects that poetry to their own
serious and systematic contemplation. In the process the poetry is raised up
to "its highest possibility," writes Richard Kuhns.
I will deal now with another poem which, though rooted
in a literal historical personality, recreates it. Solemnity is coated with the
colloquial, with the idiom of the everyday, its simple cliches and a sense of
immediacy. I am talking here of the first poem in the book The True
, although I could have chosen many others. Shoghi Effendi is
brought into the here and now. The reader engages with a Central Figure of his
Faith in a unique, a fresh, a human, a probing way. An inner landscape is seen
with a quiet eye
The poem opens:
Across the Twin resplendent seas
which cast this pearl
we ask what praise
is adequate to you?
A simple question is conjoined with what, to Bahá'ís, is some familiar
nomenclature: Twin resplendent seas.
So the poem begins in its
unassuming way. It continues:
who knew far more than we
how little was the little
that we knew.
After nearly twenty years these lines have become a type of bottom-line, a
fundamental starting position in my relation to and understanding of, Shoghi
Effendi. And yet the words are so simple, so easy, so profoundly basic. The
poem ends with the following two stanzas:
how belatedly we see
that you were more than brother,
more than true.
through a mercy
we've not earned O! comfort us
who did not comfort
Such pure symmetry. If there is such a thing as a perfect poem, this one is
mine. How does one define a perfect poem? Which one will be yours? I had had a
love for Shoghi Effendi for perhaps twenty-five years when I read this poem in
1983 but White gave me words, expressed a feeling, that had been inside me.
This is one of the reasons for his great popularity. I find White a superbly
rational poet. It is a rationality that arises from, in the words of Susanne
Langer, "an elaboration of feeling."
Perhaps, too, what White does here and in so many of his poems is to take the
imprecise, the vague and undefined, unexpressed feelings and thoughts of life
that we encounter again and again and give them form, precision, definition.
And some readers find it thrilling, beautiful.
The remaining six sections of this book of poetry are all shorter than the
opening one called 'The Witness of Pebbles.' I will not attempt to examine all
the directions and thrusts these poems take in each section. Rather I will
make some selections of poems I particularly enjoyed and comment on them as a
way of introducing this book of White's poetry. The second section is called
'Songs and Sonnets' and contains twenty-two poems. White's poem Coral and
was written for Hilda and Morrie Phillips
and the title comes from the words of a marriage prayer
by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. It is written in the form of a sonnet, one of the many
sonnets in this section.
I find the poem is much like another of White's poems on marriage Mark's
which we will discuss later in this essay only there is not that
humorous undercurrent here. This poem is serious all the way. "The only chance
of doing some arresting writing, something that the world is waiting for with
open arms," writes Marilyn Kallet," is to be ready."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, White was ready.
There was a world of underlying meaning waiting to be recovered like metal out
of ore. That world could be found in Bahá'í history, in relationships, in
day-to-day life, all over the mountains and hills of existence. This poem is
an engagment with the institution of marriage. Again, many of the lines in the
poem require time, thought and the engagement of the reader. This is no quick
stroll through an in-depth magazine article on marriage in the weekend
supplement. Like so much of White's poetry, be prepared for contemplation, for
pondering. He takes you into your inner life by way of the thinking process.
His poetry engages you in a process that some have called the raid on the
inarticulate. It is a process of persuasion, of ambush, of dogged hunting and
sometimes of surrender but, however you describe it, this thinking process must
be set in motion or your minds will lie, as English poet Ted Hughes once wrote,
"like fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish."
But to return to Mark's Madrigal.
I won't go through every line in the
poem; I'll leave that to you with your own copy of The Witness of
. But I'll examine several of the provocative and somewhat demanding
...................................It is your unmingled light,
Inviolate, self-kindled and enhancing that might
Tempt my pride to snuff it, eclipse the inner white
Wonder my warrant forged in passion cannot own.
Teach me that not in trespass do I harvest more
Than your surging tenderness yields to my sight.
I find these lines just enthralling in their meaning and beauty. It is passages
like these that have made me a White-fan, perhaps fanatic. "The inner white
wonder" is a delightful and wondrous phrase to describe both the external and
inner beauty of a woman. It is this "inner white wonder" that gets eclipsed and
snuffed out in marital relationships. The "warrant", is something which
authorizes action, in this case a something "forged in passion" which cannot be
owned. How many men--and women--have 'trespassed' and 'harvested' more than
they should have, more than "surging tenderness" yielded. In the end each
reader has to unpack each poem for themselves. I've just taken a few items out
of the suitcase here to start the ball rolling, to do some intellectual and
spiritual travelling. And, of course, poems that work for me will not
necessarily work for you.
The third section of this book is called 'The Milk, The Honey' and its
twenty-four poems are all 'from Israel.' There are many poems about the Bahá'í
World Centre in White's opus; I'd like to briefly comment on his poem The
written in the years immediately preceding the occupation by the
Universal House of Justice of its permanent seat on the slopes of Mount Carmel
above the Arc.
I'm not sure I understand all the poem, but I understand enough of it to give
me a deep satisfaction from reading it. And I read it again and again enjoying
what I do understand and trying to understand more. Poetry is undoubtedly,
among other things, an exploratory activity and White explores the beauty of
the Bahá'í Faith, a beauty expressed in the developments on Mt. Carmel, in
Bahá'í history and in the Bahá'í teachings generally. Poetry also deals with
things that touch us deeply and is a place of pollination and cross-pollination
for the actual, enlarging on, engaging in,life as it goes. Like William Carlos
Williams, White wants to make the unknown shine, like a sunrise.
The known in this poem is the religion White joined over
thirty years before and White in a short epigraph offers a cautionary note from
William Collins, a Bahá'í then working at the Bahá'í World Centre: "We must
resist the temptation to intellectually distance ourselves from the living
reality of the Cause of God, enclosing it in a glass coffin of our pride's
devising, which we circumambulate admiring our own handiwork."
White begins the poem comparing the Cause to "a shipwrecked victim washed
who has been "coffined...in
glass." Having "set it in a place of honour in the central square" we came to
"stare or lean above her." No one, White continues, now near the end of the
second of three stanzas, asked "what exquisite power she might wield." No one
asked what the effect of "Such intolerable beauty" could have, although it was
thought it could "disregulate the city's ordered ways."
Some of the greatest poetry is to be found at the beginning of things: Homer at
the start of Greek civilization, Pindar at the start of the great experiment in
Athenian democracy; Virgil at the start of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare at the
start of the modern age, arguably White at the start of the great drama in
democratic theocracy or the process of the institutionalization of charisma
that is the development of the Bahá'í Faith. Each poet provides his readers
with a Weltanschauung
, a world view, a perspective on the world that
gives it coherence, meaning, a framework.
In the final stanza of the poem under consideration White writes:
Long she lay there and we grew accustomed
to the crystal concentrate of beauty
grateful that grace be so contained
as to pose no threat
This poem is often difficult to contain, to get at or to. By 1980, the Bahá'ís
had been on Mt. Carmel for about a century. The Bab's remains had been entombed
on Mt. Carmel for some sixty years; the Guardian had been gone for nearly
twenty-five. One of the main functions of poetry is to put in verse some of
the intense emotion that accumulates in life. White's poem does this. It begins
in delight, as Robert Frost once said, and ends in wisdom 
or, as Wordsworth once put it more mysteriously:
Attends the motions of the viewless winds,
Embodied in the mystery of words
And there is a mystery to White's words, not all the time, but from time to
time and in specific poems like the once being discussed here. There is
something that tantalizes; there's a fragrance, but you've got to like White's
perfume. He integrates thought and imagination, he achieves a high intensity of
poetic and imaginative awareness, in his writing of poetry. He shares this
with his readers and through a participation in a common past, a common memory,
from which his stories, his poems, are so often drawn, there is a
revivification of the virtues inherent in sacred places and people.
Often people and places in history elude us and unless they can be given life
in poetry or some form of art they are lost to us. They remain as dry dust in
history books. White so often brings, awakens, a sense of Presence, of the
Divine, in some historical setting. White bestows a benediction, a sense of
blessedness, upon those who read his poetry. The renewed awareness that readers
gain becomes a source of and support for personal conviction and both the
individual and the community are strengthened. White helps us create our
world. He creates it out of himself sub specie aeternitatis.
In the remaining four sections of The Witness of Pebbles White
poems with religious feeling that deepen our awareness of life, poems that
increase our sense of identity and self-understanding, poems that have a simple
grace of image and style, poems that are poeticized prose, poems that deal with
the enigma of life's transience and art's enduring truth, poems that present a
Bahá'í analysis of history as a divinely ordained and logical process and this
era as a transition to an expanded identity and humankind's maturity, more
poems that are tragi-comic and much more.
Perhaps Mark's Madrigal
illustrate some of my main contentions about White's poetry more graphically.
The history here is not the history of the Bahá'í Faith but the history, the
experience, of so many millions in the marriage relationship. The poem opens
with some of that colloquial tone and dramatic speech:
Breathes there the man so limp with dread
Who never of his wife hath said,
'I love the wench but wish her dead!'
The rhyme, the lightness, the humour and the tragi-comic continue:
O lissom lass, O languid lad,
In wedlock are love's lessons had.
Then White, having got his reader gently swimming along in this casually poetic
idiom starts to get serious and a little elliptical. The reader has got to do
a little work:
Were freedom gained what is allowed
But from the stranger's hand a shroud?
How many people, feeling imprisoned and gaining their 'freedom' experience a
'shroud' from a 'stranger'? A second relationship so often just does not have
the anticipated pay-off. Some readers will go all the way with White in these
White keeps the tone and the style light, engaging, irreverent, calling a spade
Lives there the woman so unsound
Who never thought, in marriage bound,
I'll sleep best when he's underground!'
For all are granted fleeting terms
And restive are the amorous worms.
"What chain hath love that rubs me raw?"
Then, in the last three stanzas, in lines that could come from one of
Shakespeare's sonnets, thought-provoking words and ideas, some enigmatic, some
solemn and serious:
Both winsome maid and handsome squire
Know love's the chief prize we acquire
But count it, wed or celibate,
A hellish torment, soon or late.
So: love is something we acquire
and we may have to experience 'a
hellish torment.' And we reach the climax, the finale in the last two stanzas:
'Tis not the mate by whom we're soured
But love itself which proves us coward
To tame the fear's to tame the fire,
'Tis fear of love of which we tire.
Have done, good folks, with suffering,
Brave choice secures diviner thing.
Love won by courage shall endure
For love, methinks, is love's own cure.
Rejoice, rejoice in love!
There is a great deal said here about love, as Shakespeare said in his sonnets.
There is a profundity here as there was in Shakespeare and the reader does not
have to puzzle over the meaning to anything like the same extent. The reward,
the pay-off, in meaning in this poem of White's is reflected in these words of
Marilyn Kallet: "The poem is a kind of flower....rich with the truth of our
lives, a working through of the poet's experience of hurting, healing and
preparation through love."
White sprinkles humour throughout this his second booklet of poetry. It is part
of White's signature. He opens his final section, "Toddling Toward Salvation"
with a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: "Laughter is a token of virtue. No man
who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably
I think it is this laughter that
allows White to get away with some profoundly serious poetry in between the
laughs, poetry that is not just serious and profound but very provocative, very
challenging and, at times, threatening to much of our conventional thinking,
both as Bahá'ís and the world of liberal and secular thought.
I'd like to close this analysis of The Witness of Pebbles
with two such
examples. I could choose two from at least a batch of half a dozen poems which
made me think quite seriously about their implications. "A poem," as John
Hatcher emphasizes in his analysis of the poetic process, "is written to be
experienced, not dissected."
A Sudden Music
experienced with some force nearly twenty years ago when I first read it. I'd
like to dissect the poem to some extent to try and explain the source of, the
reason for, the impact this poem had on me.
The poem establishes for me an honesty, an introspectivity, a framework for the
examination of the forms of prayer, indeed my very interaction process with
others. The poem makes me take a look at myself. It begins
A taint of preening calculation
makes of our knowledge knowingness,
carries us too soon from innocence
I'd call the law that White invokes the "is this me?" law. Have I been carried
away by habit, by years of experience and familiarity, from my original sense
of innocence and sense of exaltation? Yes and no, I say to myself. Do I make of
my knowing, now that I know so very much more than I used to when I first
became a Bahá'í, a "knowingness?" Do I do any 'preening' of myself in all this
knowingness? Yes and no I say to myself. White is struggling and taking us
along with him in this struggle to reach higher levels of spiritual reality. He
is struggling, to use Plato's analogy of the cave, to find the light of
understanding from the images cast on the dark walls of life. White is the
active explorer shining the lamp of his poetic insight into the dark shadows of
our lives. Who can fail to be stimulated into an introspection in relation to
one's spiritual life by the following lines which close the poem:
We, deft practioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
who had entered and then left
that rare Presence,
Writing poems was for White, as it was for Robert Hayden before him in this
emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in world literature, "a way of coming to
grips with inner and outer realities, a spiritual act, a sort of prayer for
Writing poems was a way of
enriching human experience by poetic translation of its particulars, a way of
continually scrutinizing his own experience for answers that could often not be
final ones, final statements, just points along the road of analysis and
His poems were ultimately
acts of consciousness triggered by life, by the intensity of the mind and the
imagination of a man who could be safely and logically called a great
The spiritual life, one's own spiritual life, certainly needs to be examined
and reexamined. This poem, with many others, provides a point of reflection for
the "deft practitioners," the "rehearsed petitioners" who attempt to experience
that "rare Presence." In some ways, too, this poem is a meditation on the
words of the Bab: "The most acceptable prayer is the one offered with the
utmost spirituality and radiance; its prolongation hath not been and is not
beloved of God."
In the middle of the
poem, having opened and closed the poem expressing with serious doubts about
the value of his "protocols of piety," White inserts the dramatic account of a
"pilgrim child" who was happy while at the Master's Shrine and "broke into
dance rapturously." As White put it in an earlier poem "it is joy that is
A final poem from The Witness of Pebbles
is another personal reflection
on the spiritual journey, on the spiritual value of the phenomenal world. White
gives his insight an artistic form so that others may share in his perception.
White is, among other things, a perceiver and maker of symbols and metaphors.
This is certainly at the centre of how White articulates his role, his station,
as poet, how he interprets his world. As Louis Simpson has stated, discussing
the metaphorical process at the heart of poetry, "Metaphor is a process of
comparing and identifying one thing with another....the ability to see the
relation between one thing and another is almost a definition of
Of course. each reader's task is to give their meaning to the symbol or
metaphor. Each of us must do that task for ourselves. At the start of the poem
The Other Shore
I see that shore as death, the end of a journey, a
personal goal, some promising part of the future. White tells us, to start the
Let us not stroke too swiftly toward
the green opposite shore
where death rehearses.
This third line brings the focus of the metaphor to 'shore=death.' White
.............................we have tried
pearl-promising waves before
and might guess the danger.
So many times in life we get our hopes up high in relation to some event or
process and there is disappointment and loss. Hope gets a kick in the teeth so
to speak. White suggests that this experience we all have at one time or
another should caution us to view death with some caution, some sense of the
possibilities of danger.
Continuing the metaphor in the second stanza, the metaphor of shore, waves and
sand, White writes:
Recall how always we turn back spent
to the sun-warmed sand
and stand anguished in separate solitudes
though hand in hand,
each to each grown stranger.
For me, White is widening the metaphor here, to include not just the shore but
the place where we go in the summer to swim and enjoy ourselves. We go there
every summer. We seek life's pleasures quite naturally but, so often, these
pleasures lead us to an aloneness. No matter how close we get to those we love,
there is a fundamental aloneness we all must face in life and the experience is
often most acute in our most personal of relationships with family and
The final stanza is for me the most enigmatic. I have to work hardest to make
out its meaning. The language is veiled. But of course, as John Hatcher points
out perhaps with more emphasis than anything else he has said in his several
books now on the subject, "every man's principle goal in his physical
experience (is) the discerning of spiritual meaning in phenomenal reality and
the subsequent incorporation of that insight into deeds."
Here is the phenomenal reality White closes his poem with:
Not that the brave bird lied. But that
we, young, too soon said
Land! Land! and, plunging, did not see
his torn pinion, his bloodied head.
Ease us, wise love, toward this wet danger.
The question, of course, is, 'what does this mean?' White so often himself
said, "don't ask me what it means!" It is the task of the reader to give the
poem meaning, indeed, to give his life meaning. Just as the stones, "every
least pebble...resound again with Thy praise," so, too, may our own dear lives
find "wings" and "ladders" for our ascent so that we may understand the deeper
meanings of existence--and the beauty of the last stanza of a poem like
Part of the poet's task is to give historical perspective to an era, an epoch,
an age. White here is talking to me about my experience since the 1950s in both
the Bahá'í community and in my personal life. Back in the late 1950s as a young
Bahá'í I had far too high an expectation regarding the response of western
society to the religion I had come to believe in. No one had lied to me; "the
big bird," whoever it was that planted the latest wisdom in my mind, had left
my impressionable soul with the view that the world was going to respond to the
Cause in much greater numbers than it did. And marriage was going to be a much
easier process than I had ever anticipated. But in the next forty years I
experience "his torn pinion" "his bloodied head." Was it mine? Was it my
society? My religion? You read the poem and your mind plays with the options,
the optional meaning systems that poetry presents. For White's readers are
examining, they are part of that wider process: The
1 Geoffrey Nash, "The Heroic Soul and the
Ordinary Self," Bahá'í Studies: Vol.10
, 1982, pp.23-31; that same year a
professor of English at the University of Tel-Aviv, Alex Aronson, reviewed the
first two books of White's poetry. His review appeared in World Order
Summer 1982, pp.60-63.
Contained all of Hayden's poetry from 1940
The emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature, when examined with an academic microscope, will be found to
take place in a range of writings by a range of authors. An examination of the
subject 'world literature' on the Internet suggests a multiplicity of
possibilities. This book is concerned virtually entirely with Roger White's
contribution to this emergence of what is a complex and bigger picture.
A. Alvarez, Beyond All the Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967
, Allen Lane,
London, 1968, p.40.
Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981,
In "Poetic Truth: Three Interpretations,"
Tzvetan Todorov in Essays in Criticism
, 1988, p.107.
Roger White, "An Articulate Silence," Essay Sent to Author,
Richard Kuhns, Literature and
Philosophy: Structures of Experience
, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London,
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.110. Daiches
describes Coleridge's view of the nature of the poetic process in these words.
Ann T. Forster,Theodore Roethke's Meditative Sequences
, Edwin Mellen
Press, Queenston, Ontario, 1985, p.30.
Roger White, op.cit
Jeffrey Meyers, editor, Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1988, p.127.
David Daiches, op.cit.
George Saintsbury, A History of
, William Blackwood and Sons Ltd., London, 1911, p.522.
Richard Kuhns, op.cit.
Susanne Langer, Problems of Art
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1957, p.124.
Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles
Marilyn Kallet, Honest Simplicity in William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel,
That Greeny Flower,"
Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1985, p.21.
Ted Hughes, quoted in Ted Hughes: A
, Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Faber and Faber, London,
William Carlos Williams, Autobiography
Roger White, op.cit.
Robert Frost in Coleridge on the
Language of Verse
, Emerson R. Marks, Princeton UP, 1981, p.108.
William Wordsworth, Prelude V:
Roger White, op.cit.
Marilyn Kallet, Honest Simplicity in William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel,
That Greeny Flower,"
Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1985, p.15.
Thomas Carlyle in Roger White,
John Hatcher, From the Auroral
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.240.
Roger White, op.cit.
Fred M. Fetrow, Robert Hayden
Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1984, p.58.
., p. 101.
 Selections from the Writings of the
, Haifa,1976, p.78.
Roger White, "Lines from a Battlefield,"
Louis Simpson, An Introduction to
, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1967, p.6.
John Hatcher, From the Auroral
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.244.
ONE BIRD ONE CAGE ONE FLIGHT, 1982
Roger White's poetry, for all its unmistakable religious flavour, is
part and parcel of world literature. Like Pushkin and his work, which
signalled the emergence of Russian literature on the world stage, White's work
possesses a balance and harmony, an artistic and intellectual versatility, a
formal perfection and vigour, "not to be found in the details of his
biography."a It was White, among several other writers in the twentieth
century, who helped to forge what could be called a Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature. This consciousness has certain special peculiarities, a
certain spiritual identity, a certain global perspective, a particular
wide-angled lens. The emergence of this consciousness became apparent at the
very moment when the Bahá'í Faith was itself emerging from an obscurity in
which it had existed for a century and a half. -Ron Price with thanks to aMarc
Slonim, The Epic of Russian Literature: From Its Origins Through
, Oxford University Press, NY, 1975(1950), pp.96-7.
In 1983 White's novella A Sudden Music
appeared from George
Ronald and One Bird One Cage One Flight
was published by Naturegraph
Publishers Inc., Happy Camp in California. This was the slimmest of White's
volumes thusfar, although a collector's edition of a small selection of his
, also came out in 1982 under the name of an editor,
Reuben Rose, who lived in Haifa. An equally slim account of martyrdom, The
Shell and the Pearl
, was published in 1984. White was consolidating the
newfound popularity of his poetry with little volumes.
One Bird One Cage One Flight
however slim gave White, in what he called
on the cover a "homage to Emily Dickinson," an opportunity to commune across a
century of time with the spirit and the mind of a person who may very well have
been the greatest female poetic genius that America and the world has ever
produced. Perhaps it was more an effort to resolve some of the questions about
her poetry, about her metaphysical perspectives and about his own soul's
aspirations. Perhaps it was part of White's way of dealing with the beguiling
leisureliness of life's journey to death, his various preoccupations associated
with death and its deceptive, always somewhat obscure but potentially wondrous
purpose. Perhaps it was his identification with a poet who tried to distil
"amazing sense/From ordinary Meanings,"
in the words of Mircea Eliade, tried to reveal "the essence of things,"
life's immense and many mysteries with an
obsessive devotion to her vocation as poet. Perhaps it was simply White's way
of expressing what was a qualitatively different poetry than any of the verse
written by Bahá'ís before.
Whatever White's purpose, One Bird One Cage One Flight
clever and original addition to the White corpus and to the literature written
on Emily Dickinson in the first hundred years since her passing in 1886.
There remains for us, for our world with its insatiable interest in the
psychology of the individual, a corpus of poetry in which White speaks in his
own person or for Emily Dickinson. One is never quite sure. But, more
importantly, for many of his readers anyway, he speaks for us. The poems are
intensely personal, often moralizing and peculiarly characteristic of White.
He often dramatizes a spiritual situation in which he is participating and
speaking in the first person, though the other actors and the setting belong to
the world of story, metaphor or parable. White puts into practice here an
approach to poetry of one of the twentieth century's great poets William Carlos
My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme, to convey it, one
stick to it......Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic, or what
everything adjusts to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a
in flux, as it should be for the poet. But to fidget with points of view leads
to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility. A single
or mood thoroughly matured and exploited is that fresh thing.
There is in these poems a mastery of repetition. The full effect of the poetry
comes from this repetition, a repetition of what could be called a
'Dickinson/Bahá'í perspective.' There is an extraordinary evocation of aspects
of the life of Emily Dickinson and of the Bahá'í Faith. Poem after poem
interlaces Dickinson, the Bahá'í Faith and White himself. The repetitions are
of course variations. Readers, I'm sure, will find a sameness in these poems
but the change comes in the context of this sameness. It is, as Williams notes
above, "a single manner or mood thoroughly matured" in such a way that it
becomes, again and again, "that fresh thing."
I have found over the last twenty years, since I first began reading White,
that some of his lines have become memorized simply by the force of repetition.
Sometimes, when out walking for example, quite involuntarily a stanza occurs to
me and, if I am alone, I recite it. There is something mysterious about the
reciting that keeps the poem fresh. The following stanza is perhaps the most
commonly recited of White's poems in this volume:
I wind my
thoughts in knotless skein,
Unspoken mile by mile-
A league from immortality
Lay down my wool and smile.
It seems to me that we can say of White's poems in this volume, if not in all
his volumes, but especially in this volume, that they are at once
autobiographical and universal, personal and impersonal, ironical and
passionate, wounded and integral. White does not hide behind some literary
mask, some persona. For the most part, the "I" in White's poems is White
White recognized in Dickinson his twin, at least someone whose inquiring mind
was excited by the unknown expanse of immortality, its perplexity, its mystery
and, ultimately, its intimacy. Indeed there is an intimacy in Dickinson's work
that the reader finds in White's, but White's is gentler, simpler, far more
penetrable. The intimacy is paradoxical in both cases because what we actually
learn about the person, the poet, has little to do about their daily life in a
direct, explicit sense. There is an anonymity about the person, the poet. The
focus is squarely on the poem, on the poetry, not on the poet's daily life.
The reader does not learn what White did during the day, the year, the decade,
during his middle age, with his wife, inter alia.
But, however simple
White's poetry is from time to time, it needs to be read and re-read far more
carefully than its not infrequently humorous, deftly-drafted surfaces suggest.
Then, too, there is no getting rid of a certain apprehension that not all of
his ore will have been extracted by a cursory read. White changes a poem's
direction in a few lines or a few words. He may, in fact, be pursuing a wholly
different direction to the one you are ostensibly following.
But whatever direction he is going in, the reader feels,
as Dryden did of Chaucer, that here is God's plenty,
here is a perpetual
fountain of good sense.
Poetry has been described by one literary critic as `a unique representation of
some mental situation, some acute awareness, part of a cult of sincerity.'
Inspite of this representation, this
exposure, of their heart's and mind's most subtle secrets, the examination of
the phenomenon of their individual consciousnesses, the persona in their poems,
at least in the case of White and Dickinson, frequently address us with
perceptions that we sense are ours as well as theirs. There is what you might
call an externalization of the poet's experience in an attempt to make it valid
for others. This is how Joyce Carol Oates sees Emily Dickinson and her work.
And there is some value in this perspective
for our study of White. It is in this way that the poet, in this case White,
defines or makes an epoch, perhaps the third and forth of the Formative Age.
Here is an example of what could be many of White's poems. He writes the poem
as if the persona could be himself, dickinson or the reader. This is the
book's first poem, Spring Song:
My hope put out white
In tentative delight
But twice there came convulsive frost
Which, blotting out my April,
Stirred wisdom in my root.
Should another burgeoning come
Will twig renew? 'Tis moot.
In the poet's wondering there is a tone of purest anonymity or perhaps
universality, as if the poet, speaking out of his "tentative delight" with
"wisdom in (his) root" were speaking of our condition as well. There is in
White's words a speaking from the interior of a life as we might imagine
ourselves speaking, gifted with White's delightful way of putting things and
not bound by the merely local and time-bound nature of our life. "If anonymity
is the soul's essential voice," as Oats writes describing Dickinson's, "then
Emily Dickinson is our poet of the soul." And White is for me--and my
particular perspectives--the poet of my soul who addresses and helps create my
unknowable interior. And this is no small achievement given the importance of
that "inner life and private character" upon which the very success of our
teaching Plan depends.
White, like Dickinson, offers readers riddlesome, obsessive, haunting,
sometimes frustrating poetry. But, for the most part, White's poetry is much
simpler and easier to understand than Dickinson's. White does not ram words
onto lines with a force that in Dickinson often shatters the syntax, cramps the
structure and "pinches the words like a vise."
There is a romance of epic proportions in both poets
but, with White, the heroic sense is softened by the humour which runs through
poem after poem. The far simpler language and word patterns and a focusing of
the heroic in history amply mixed with White's(and ours) ordinary self give
these epic proportions a human, an everyday, touch. The world that White lives
in certainly requires a heroism, but it is of such a different kind than the
one which required martyrs in Iran in the nineteenth century and the one which
Emily Dickinson occupied in her intense and private poetic, in her clearly
eccentric life-style of virtually total isolation.
White creates a poetry of transcendence, the kind that outlives its human
habitation and its name. In One Bird One Cage One Flight
White does this
through a repeated focus on Emily Dickinson and her life. The following poem,
is a good example.
So much simpler than so much of Dickinson, who is also interested in
transcendence, this poem begins:
Had hearts the art of
The mending were small feat
But I have owned one whose repair
Earth's craftsmen can't complete.
Had love asked only giving
The donor were content
But I have known a stealthy hand
Twice prove our loves are lent.
Had death comprised mere dying
The handiwork were sweet
But I mark its keen audition
In every eye I meet.
There is for many readers the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying
White's work, classic
poetry in the right meaning of that word, work
belonging "to the class of the very best."
There may, of course, be weaknesses, failures, poems that come short, poems
that slip out of the net of the very best either because of an immense
complexity and obscurity as in the case of Dickinson, a similar complexity or
an irrepressible tongue-in-cheekness as in the case of White. If the reader or
critic is enabled to obtain a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of a poet
through some negative criticism then, as Arnold argues, that activity is no
mere "literary dilettantism."
enjoyment of the poetry should be that much increased, refined, deepened. Not
every poem will delight or stimulate the intellectual and sensory emporiums to
the same extent. The personal proclivities, affinities and circumstances of a
reader have great power to sway the estimates of a poet's work and often attach
more importance to a poem than it really possesses. The language of praise,
for example, that I attach to White's work may be somewhat exaggerated or
overrated, what Arnold calls a 'personal fallacy.'
All physical activity is capable of revealing mysteries. Like Dickinson, White
is fascinated by the mystery of death. Perhaps that is ultimately why he has
chosen to focus on Dickinson in this volume of poetry. White, like many poets
of old, is charting his, and our, progress toward his/our ultimate destiny.
Here is an outline of more of that journey in the last three stanzas:
Had heaven held sure solace
To hasten there were wise
But I, grown timid, cautious,
Search for ambush, man's and sky's.
One day I'll meet fate's boldest stare
And ask its harsh command
My apron full of gentian and
Lone daisy in my hand.
Till then, like Jonah in the dark,
I ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies my doubt.
It has been the view of many writers throughout history that literature is the
voice of a particular soil. The voice of the Russian soil was for long the
power of abstract ideas over concrete reality. The flood of illumination in
relation to the work of a particular writer comes to some readers only after
intensive study. Middleton Murray's study of Dostoevsky was one such example.
My own study of the poetry of Roger White is, for me anyway, another. The
poetry of White is not so much the voice of a particular soil as it is the
voice of a participation in the life of a community "which preserves in living
shape certain treasures of the past and certain expectations of the future."
These treasures have multiple roots in an
environment, a community, where White and his poetry now form a natural part.
White deals with abstract ideas but they are contextualized in history, in the
lives of people, in nature, in the seasons and in the ordinarily ordinary. For
White philosophy, ideas, the text and texture of his poetry are a species of
voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious autobiography. That is why
White urged his readers to read his poetry if they wanted to know about him.
The poem, Emily's Song
, tells a great deal about how White found the
journey of life. But he tells about his journey 'slant.'
In the process he tells the story for many of his
readers, many who have come to love his work because he speaks so
quintessentially of their own lives.
In many of his poems it does not matter whether the reader shares the same
religious faith as White. The poems are universal in the fullest sense. But
many of White's poems, both in this book of verse and in his others, will
simply be uninteresting and irrelevant to people for whom the very idea of
commitment to a religion--and in this case the Bahá'í Faith--is inimical to
their tastes. They will not make much of a good deal of White's poetry. That
was also true of the work of Emily Dickinson--and she had no commitment to a
specific religion at all. The reader, as in reading any poetry, must be willing
and able to assume the perspective of the person writing the poem.
Art is, at least some of the time, an experience of tension and the poetry
White writes is an art of strain, the nerves held tight but relaxed from time
to time due to the presence of some dispassionate intellectual tentativeness, a
tentativeness where humour can make its appearance free of what is often the
dangerous romance of passionate intensity. It is as if White was saying
"perhaps" after every expression of conviction: 'perhaps' the wisest word of
all the words, 'Abdu'l-Bahá once said in a story for children. It is not a
matter of the free expression of truth, but more a matter of how to work toward
the truth. In the case of White's poetry, the language is: private, allusive,
teasing, idiosyncratic, delicate, partly unfathomable to the ordinary mind.
So, too, was the poetry of the nineteenth century American poet, Emily
So White would agree with Dickinson's sentiments in her poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With expression kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--
White is the poet who comes at things, at readers, with indirection, with
glimpses, through the subtly distorting mirror of art. But he comes at things
after he has thought long and hard and what he gives, as Wordsworth once wrote,
is "the spontaneous overflow," "an emotion recollected in tranquillity" and,
finally, "a release from emotion."
a lifetime of pondering some of the questions regarding the afterlife and this
one(White had another dozen years to live after he wrote most of the poetry in
this volume ) , after some thirty-five years as a Bahá'í, White does not parade
his simple certitudes before us in these stanzas. He approaches the next world
with: caution, doubt, timidity, some grief, daily readiness, humility. Should
one ask more?
, among his many poems involving the subject of death, and
Dickinson's words above, are an honest expression of White's inner life, his
inner attitude to much that is life and death and, for many of his readers, of
White distances his poems from his personality, as Robert Hayden had done
before him. Poetic thought and emotion should have their "life in the poem and
not in the history of the poet: such was White's view regarding the writing of
poetry. The emotion of poetry, for White, was essentially impersonal."
This was the position of the New Critical
Movement in poetry that had its beginnings at the turn of the century. The
writer of the poem is not delivering a personal letter but, rather, he is the
medium of an experience. He ceases to exist and it is the experience that
belongs to all who can read and understand. The poem often, if not always, has
its origins in the history, the life, of the poet, but the poet tells it
'slant,' indirectly and his words become, for the attentive reader, theirs.
Virtually all of White's poems are a reflection of this spirit, this critical
attitude. In The Sermon
22 and Ladies' Verse,
one could site many more examples, like Dickinson, White
frequently writes of death, the afterlife, heaven and hell, God, the soul. Some
might say that, like Dickinson, he is obsessed with these subjects. But, given
that this book of poetry is a "homage to Emily Dickinson," it is only fitting
that White should be concerned with the same subjects that concerned Dickinson
in her 1775 poetic oeuvre. White often sees things in ways his readers have
not seen before. He asks readers to look at things they might not want to, face
realities they might not want to. Without quoting from poem after poem, I
shall content myself with some simple ideas and perhaps a few illustrative
In The Traveller
throughout most of the poem of the excitement, the pride, the cheering, the
jostling throng, the enthusiasms associated with much of life's short-term
goals. For me, I could not help but reminisce over the rich experience that has
been my Bahá'í life since the 1950s, but White finishes the poem on a note of
quiet realism. For the generation of Bahá'ís who, like White, have been working
in the Bahá'í community for between thirty and fifty years or more the note,
expressed in the last two lines, is just right:
seeks New Jerusalem
And knows the journey long.
Anyone who has worked in this Cause for most of the last half of the twentieth
century knows that the road is 'long, stony and tortuous.' The wondrous new
buildings on Mt. Carmel are certainly a sign of the 'New Jerusalem.' There is
much reason for celebration, for cheering but, in the end, he or she knows the
journey is long and will require all they have in the midst of the darkness
both in the world and, from time to time, in they own dear lives.
Ostensibly, so much of White's poetry is, as I said above, about immortality,
death and eternity. But Bahá'ís learn a great deal about their Faith or, to put
it more precisely, White writes so superbly about their experience that they
understand their lives more fully than before. And that is enough to make
White a much loved poet. In the poem Disclosure,
for example, White begins by describing the
process of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation perhaps as beautifully as anyone has
hitherto described it:
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
And the purpose of this Revelation, these hieroglyphics, White tells us
Are given as our library---
Bahá'u'lláh has 'ordained for our training every atom in existence and the
essence of all created things,' as He writes in the Hidden Words; or, as He
writes in another context, if we look at the atom we will find the sun. There
is wisdom both 'from on high' in His Words, in the Revelation and in all of
existence. White continues:
We, star-affrighted, gaze to
Where furnished in an atom's tome
Is erudition of the sky---
The reader can interpret these words in various ways to translate their
meanings. For my money I see the 'star-affrighted' individual turning to the
world of phenomenal existence, the 'land', where he will find a world of
learning and meaning. Such an individual turns to this material existence and
away from the stars, the Writings, because they are too awesome, too
mysterious. The individual finds 'erudition' in the land and misses the
erudition of higher forms: the Writings, the stars, the sky. The reader, of
course, can unpack these lines in other ways. To each his own. This is part of
the very beauty of poetry.
The dust-affronted student lifts
A blank uncomprehending eye.
We are one and all 'affronted' by the 'dust,' the overwhelming, the pervasive,
aspect of our existence and we, thus, exhibit 'A blank uncomprehending eye.'
One can only understand a small portion of the entire world.
And swivelling will not read the book
From which his glance will dart again,
Though it's indexed in his jugular
Where love annunciates its name.
This 'uncomprehending,' 'dust-affronted' individual---and there are hundreds of
millions of them---swivels away on his chair from the Bahá'í book he was
loaned. Or he looks at the book for a short time, but 'his glance' darts away
'again.' The idea that the Bahá'í message is meant for everyone to hear is
expressed so graphically in the phrase 'indexed in his jugular.'
And, finally, the last stanza:
Will not admit
Which looms a startled blink away
To bleach with gold the retina
Resigned in arrogance to grey.
I find the metaphorical significance, even beauty, of what White writes here
helps to put in focus the teaching process that I have been engaged in for over
forty years. White is easy to underestimate because his metaphors are so
stunning, so gentle, so elegant. The Bahá'í writings, White is saying here, can
' bleach with gold the retina,' but most people are 'resigned in arrogance to
grey' because they "Will not admit' the wonder, the grandeur, the
'magnificence' of this newly emerging world religion. What a world of meaning
in the words resigned in arrogance to grey!
Disbelief is a rejection of
divine reality; it implies a refusal of grace. White is expressing here, in
words that echo Bahá'u'lláh's utterance in one of His tablets: Woe betide
him who hath rejected the grace of God and His bounty, and hath denied His
tender mercy and authority."
Like Dickinson, White knows that the highest perceptual ecstasy comes just as
the object vanishes from sight.
fleeting our perceptions the greater their distinctiveness. The transience and
formlessness of experience give lustre to what we do achieve. Expressing that
lustre in the form of a covenant, an "exquisite bond,"
and introducing his poem with the words from one of
Emily's letters: "everyday life seems mightier," White writes:
Life gives so strong a covenant
Who shall not sign in trust?
Its smallest clause empowered to
Bind atom-sun or dust.
To all-compelling contract
Though codicil be pain
Adheres the constant signatory
Till only God remains.
All that fidelity attracts
A lenient bench reviews;
Sealed by the very hand of God
Exquisite bond renews.
Unlike Dickinson, who "delineates a oneness that is really a seething
competition of irreconcilable opposites,"
who can not see any divine plan in this overwhelming, omnipresent cosmic
oneness, for whom unity collapses under her genuinely tragic gaze,
White has found such a unity, a basis for
unity, and has examined its basis for over thirty years before he came to write
this poem. He has believed and sought to understand in the context of a quite
literal 'covenant,' a covenant that binds all of creation. He accepts that pain
is at the heart of life, at the heart of this covenant and that fidelity is a
crucial aspect of this 'exquisite bond,' this covenant.
For White there is no separation of the "active" and the "contemplative" facets
of our lives, no more separation of "mysticism" from "practicality." There is a
oneness of vision and form and he gathers the powers of his mind and
imagination to serve the establishment of a spiritual kingdom. He strives to do
this in a language that is "moderate, tempered and infinitely courteous," and
not filled with "dissent, discord and disdain." In so doing he whispers in our
bones and arteries and "the isolated and speechless elements in a community"
can find their voices in his poetic harmony. White becomes, for many of his
readers, "the clear song of the hidden bird" in their own hearts. Part of his
ability to do this derives from the grounding of his awareness in his own
shortcomings, his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This tempers his voice
and trains, in the words of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, "his vision with compassionate
The 'death poetry' of Dickinson and White needs to be given some special
attention in any essay on One Bird One Cage One Flight
. Both poets
characterize death with images of light.
In the last poem before the epilogue, a poem entitled Last Words
example, White writes about a radiant, unbearable and burning light
and a rank, radiant as light,
a rank of angels--
Oh what a dear confusion!
and God's face bright, not angry
and the gleaming City, white and past imagining,
Dickinson frequently balanced the visionary optimism she occasionally expressed
with a rather grim picture of death. Not so with White. He often muses on
death with a sadness and a tongue-in-cheek:
Left her portrait on the pillow--
Detail complete, save breath.
my thought in knotless skein
Unspoken, mile by mile,
A league from immortality
Lay down my wool and smile.
Like Dickinson White explores the affects of death upon human perception. The
ability to perceive is the most cherished aspect of human identity so that,
when perception is gone at the point of death, what might the experience after
death be like when we are 'sucked into its deep'? White offers us none of 'her
secrets.' Death's lips are sealed 'with stone.' This is about as cold, as
indifferent, as horrific, as White gets.
Death is like the
The scaled beast it gives keep
Will, careless, swim its dark coil's length
Till sucked into its deep.
Who'd tell its gulping treachery,
While down indifferent centuries
The blanching Sphinx looks on
And none may pry her secrets--
Her reason overthrown--
The horror fixed her mindless stare
And sealed her lips with stone.
In another context, somewhat softer, when death comes with its 'fang,'
It gives no cause to weep
That greater pen enfold the lamb
In everlasting keep.
Here our perception of death, our view of its meaning, is the very source of
our identity. Death has no horror; indeed, it is inviting. As the poem closes
death turns us toward life and forces us to admire and cherish it:
Then ring the bell and call the flock
Ingather all that stray
But mark the beast intractable
The fields invite to stay.
White's unflinching acknowledgment of death provides him with a tragi-comic
view of life. With Dickinson the reader is presented with her enhanced
perceptions of life. With White we laugh and, almost in the same breath, we
view the tragic but the tragic has soft edges:
like Jonah in the dark
I ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies my doubt.
Doubt for White is, as it clearly is for William Hatcher in his several
articles about science and religion, the logical concomitant of faith.
Explanation does not dispel mystery and
doubt. Progress is the product not only of transcending the old, but it is also
an appreciation of perspectives old and new. So often it is how we view things
that inhibits our capacity to wonder. White, viewing things sub specie
, views them with irony in a context of eternal struggle, an
eternal struggle, that is accepted as part and parcel of the reality of life
Across his soul's scarred battlefield
Where all his pride was slain
The legions of his enemy
Prepare to strike again.
The lines he writes are only a slight "palliative" for the "ravages of grief"
when they come. He will continue to "hobble on the page for ease"
and doubt will continue to be part of his
A mosquito buzzes round my faith
I think to name him doubt.
This small book of poems is divided into four parts of between twenty-five and
thirty-one poems each with an epilogue of three poems. Fifteen pages of notes
and a bibliography are included to guide readers through the life of the woman
whose journey and poetry has inspired White. Each section opens with a
quotation from the Bahá'í writings and the Bible. A simple drawing also
embellishes both the cover and the opening page of each section. A tone of
childlike simplicity is conveyed by these drawings. It is a tone that is also
one of the many outstanding qualities of White's poetry.
Many of the poems are preceded by quotations from the more than seven hundred
extant letters that Dickinson wrote between 1865 and 1885. It is not the
purpose of this essay to examine the life of Emily Dickinson, rather the
purpose is to examine the poetry of White and Dickinson, to the extent that
each of their respective works throws light on the other's.
The first section of the book, some twenty-nine poems, takes us through Emily's
years eleven to nineteen and is called 'Spring Song.' Most of the poems are
written in the abcb rhyme pattern and some in the aabb style. The rhythm is
iambic tetrametre and trimetre. They are usually quite easy to read compared
to Dickinson's poetic complexity, ambiguity and her often seeming chaotic
meandering. While Dickinson's universe often seems to be 'a cosmos in tatters,'
White presents a world that seems
balanced, cogent, elegant, elevated, graceful and, most importantly, familiar.
Humorous, perspicuous, satirical and sentimental, his poetry rarely seems far
away. On a clear day White can smile forever, especially through the mundane:
Deliver me from cooking stoves
From kitchens, pots and pans;
The only meal I select
Is that which heaven plans.
Only unbearable stress can extract the precious essence of life.
Dickinson and White both know this. White puts it this
Attentive is the scholar
That Master, pain, instructs;
A vivid erudition
His tutelage inducts.
White knows life is a battle. In the following stanzas he shows his
understanding of the battle in life and a desire to be rid of it:
Long has the chaffing struggle raged
And God alone can know
When might the captive, fervour gained,
Slip his lax chains and go.
There is an anguish, a depth of passion in the occasional tormented lament.
There is the story of pain endured and of life's travail in White's poetry
but, for the most part, this experience seems to have bred "an ancient
and some amalgam of that robust
quality that is part of the
very stock of White's ancestry and that gentleness and wisdom which has come,
it would seem, from a lifetime's association with the newest of the world's
Dickinson's attitude to God was, at times, suspicious, fearful and resentful.
White's is one that sees a danger in death, but a warmth and fulfilment in the
long haul, in the heavenly experience. He contrasts death's "stone" and "iced,
mean bone" with heaven's "kinder home" and its "pillows with fulfilment."
And meanwhile, in this earthly life, death
"stalks across" his "choicest day" and plunders everything he sees. There is
clearly a gentle side to death's ambience in White's poetry.
In the latter stages of Dickinson's life 'the pearl' comes to occupy the
symbolic centre-stage of her poetry.
Dickinson seems to deal more effectively with existential loss in her latter
years. In White's work light comes to occupy the centre of his mise-en-scene.
These, too, are White's latter years. Nothing stains the white radiance of
eternity in this climactic poem Last Words:
Father, calling, calling--and the light!
The light of immolation! Unto Thee lift up mine eyes...
Oh this lifting, lifting--
lifting beyond sense,
past doubt and why and how!
Bright Presence, lift me now!
Between this consummation in part four and many of the opening poems discussed
above in part one we have the core of the book: the summer and autumn seasons.
The most prolific years of Dickinson's life were the 1860s, especially the
early 1860s. White gives us some thirty-one poems in this section, the years
1860 to 1869, the most of any of the four seasons. They were also Dickinson's
most prolific years.
"The life of action," says Stephen Spender in his The Making of a Poem in
the Creative Process
, "always seems to me an act of cutting oneself off
That was unquestionably true of Dickinson who is now seen down the corridors of
time as the eccentric recluse who increasingly shut herself off from the world
as she got older. White captures the terror of her reclusiveness and the
elusiveness, fear and potential intimacy of the Divine Who is always waiting at
our metaphorical door with His 'hello', as The Caller:
The lady's tread upon the step,
Her hand upon the bell,
And all the rattling house grows wise
As when a solemn knell.
The lady, here, is the Divine Caller Who comes for us at our death. When She
My heart knifed by insistent ring
I steel myself to go
With dread swamped pulse to swing the door
Upon her fraught hello.
White gives his readers, through the window of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, a
series of perspectives on death that are consistent with the Bahá'í writings
but provide insights that are refreshing in their profundity, their wisdom,
their sheer delight.
"Talent perceives differences," wrote W.B. Yeats, "genius unity." A major
concern in Yeats' life was to hammer his thoughts into unity. 
Whites, possessing a philosophy of unity, draws
quintessentially on the everyday and articulates a poetic with unity at its
centre. But it is a unity surrounded by an immense diversity and a certain
To everything but anguish
The mind will soon adjust:
Uninvited, that marauder,
Invading, trails with dust
About the scrupulous household
The tidy mind maintains
Sets soiling boots on ottoman,
Remotest chamber gains--
Wrenches down the damask curtains,
Break's housewife's favourite bowl
And storms up faith's chaste stairway
To bed the baulking soul.
The context for this anguish is the simple everyday reality, a reality we all
understand only too well, for anguish is unquestionably a universal
Part two(1860-1869), Part three(1870-1879) and Part four(1880-1886) deal with
their respective sections of Dickinson's life. Her particular cosmology, her
world view, plays with a Calvinistic Christian orientation and a personal
vision embodying the imagination at its centre. White's play is with an
imagination sharing "a path or circuit of things through forms and so makes
them translucid to others."
attempts to wed the powers of mystic and poet in a process of perpetual motion
back and forth across all points of the sphere, so to speak. He tries to fuse
vision and form. Light for him is a unifying idea. Some of his work can be
appreciated quickly, but the depths do not reveal themselves quickly. His
poetic art only opens up to readers with patience and time. White had another
decade of poetry to give to his readers. Many had been hooked on White before
reading this his third main book of poetry. But most of his readers had yet to
arrive on the scene.
There is a humility that graces so many of White's poems. It has nothing to do
with a creeping submissiveness.. Although he is quick to point out his own lack
of loyalty and obedience to the divine Message, he takes no perverse pleasure
in making himself out to be a scoundrel. Sober self-knowledge, a low estimate
of his own worth, a reliance on God's love that is so confident that it
overcomes his despondency, a beauteous character that shines through his poetry
like light through clear glass, an ingenuousness, qualities that, for me
anyway, produce a complex human being. He had his inner conflicts, as we all
do, and his poems are partly an expression of these conflicts. Yet at times he
wrote with a childlike, lucid, simplicity with the voice of true innocence, an
innocence that one can only find on the far side of experience.
He did not simply acquiesce in his creed. He grasped it imaginatively and
presented it to his contemporaries with a storehouse of symbols familiar to
their worlds. In the process he forged for himself a style that was
unmistakable and inimitable. If a poet can do this, he is not obliged to do
 Emily Dickinson in Emily Dickinson: The
, T.H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, London, 1970, Poem Number
M. Eliade in Clifton Snider, "A Druidic
Difference: Emily Dickinson and Shamanism," Internet
William Carlos Williams quoted in The
Achievement of Wallace Stevens
, editors, A. Brown and R. Haller, Lippincott
Co., NY, 1962, p.198.
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
This phenomenon is part of the experience of
certain poets. See Justin Whintle, Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas and
, Flamingo, London, 1996, p.237.
John Dryden in Matthew Arnold's Essays in
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.247.
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber,
London, 1958, p. 153.
Joyce Carol Oates, "Soul at the White Heat:
The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," Critical Inquiry,
Summer 1987, p.1.
Arnold describes briefly how Chaucer "makes
an epoch" through his poetry. See Arnold, op.cit.
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
, George Ronald, Oxford, p.20.
Shoghi Effendi quoted in Guidance for
Today and Tomorrow
and The Universal House of Justice, Letter, Ridvan
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art
and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
, Vintage Books, NY, 1991,
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
, 1982, p.41.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Robert Lord, Dostoevsky: Essays and P
erspectives, Chatto and
Windus, London, 1970, p. 49.
This is the term Dickinson used to
convey the idea that it is often better to be indirect in telling things than
Joyce Carol Oates, "Soul at the White
Heat: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," Critical Inquiry
Summer 1987, p.3.
John Hatcher,From the Auroral
, George Ronald, Oxford, p.247.
22 Roger White, One Bird One Cage One Flight, p. 38.
Roger White, op.cit
Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of
, Haifa, 1978, p.48.
Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson:
Perception and the Poet's Quest
, University of Alabama Press, London, 1985,
E.M. Budick, Emily Dickinson and
the Life of Language: As Study in Symbolic Poetics
, Louisiana State
UP, London, 1985, p.6.
Bahiyyih Nakhjvani, "Artist, Seeker and Seer," Baha'I Studies,
, 1982, pp. 16-17. All the reference in this paragraph come from this
Roger White, op.cit
William Hatcher, "Science and Religion," Bahá'í Studies, Vol.2
E.M. Budick, op.cit
Roger White, op.cit
Roger White, op.cit
H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe,
, Fontana, 1960(1935), p.351.
Stephen Spender, The Making of a
Poem in the Creative Process: A Symposium
, University of California
Press, 1952, p.73.
Roger White, op.cit., p. 50.
W.B. Yeats, Yeats' Last Poems,
editor J. Stallworthy.
Roger White, op.cit., p.66.
Bahiyyih Nahkjavani, "Artist, Seeker
and Seer," Bahá'í Studies, Vol.10, p.18.
I have drawn on the work of Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert
Murray, London, 1971 for her analysis of Herbert to make my comparisons.
A Novella: A Sudden Music and The Shell and the Pearl
MARTYRDOM AND DOING WHAT IS UNDER YOUR NOSE
Perhaps it was in writing the poetry in honour of Emily Dickinson;
perhaps it was the latest generation of martyrs that the Bahá'í world was
experiencing in the early 1980s; perhaps it was a desire to get back to the
Faith's origins since, in many ways, especially with the completion of the new
seat of the Universal House of Justice in 1984, the Bahá'í community was going
through another period of 'new beginnings'; perhaps it was just a simple desire
to use a different form to express his creative output: but in 1983 and 1984
White wrote two books of prose. The first was a two hundred page novella, A
, and the second was 'an account of the martyrdom of
'Ali-Asghar of Yazd,' The Shell and the Pearl
. One was part fact and
part fiction and the other a brief historical work. They were both written in
memory of martyrs.
These were not the first pieces of prose that White had written, for he
sprinkled prose pieces throughout his books of poetry, long pieces of several
pages or shorter epilogues to many of his poems. Perhaps he was having some off
time from poetry for he had written a great deal in the late seventies and
early eighties. Only a serious examination of the White archive in Haifa and
Toronto will answer this question. There is a charm in White's prose, not a
sensuous or imaginative charm, at least not for me, but rather an intellectual
charm. It comes from the texture of his style rather than its elements, not so
much in the content but more in the turn of phrase, in the happy cast and flow
of his sentences.
One of the objects of writing poetry, as Howard Nemerov once noted, is similar
to making love, that is the perpetuation to immortality, although it is not
what you think of at the time. Perhaps it was, then, that White had
immortality on his mind which is not at all surprising, particularly after
writing all those poems in homage to Emily Dickinson. Or it may be, again as
Nemerov pointed out somewhat risquely, that "writing verses is like your
relation with your bowels: first you can't and then you can and, then at last,
you must(and then you reach for the paper)."1 Whatever, in 1983 and 1984 White
published prose works and he was not to publish any poetry until 1992, a year
before his passing.
A Sudden Music
was set in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century and
it is a poetic recreation of the first Bahá'í Centre in Europe. Ostensibly
about a young American student, Althea Edison Benedict, and her awakening to
the spiritual receptivity of the age, this delightful series of letters which
White creates gives us an interpretation of the spiritual and of how to apply
the Bahá'í teachings to the complex everyday life we have today at the
beginning on the twenty-first century. In the process White gives his readers a
vision, a window, into the lives of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and May Maxwell, the Mother
teacher of the West who was asked by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to stay in Paris and in a few
months established the first Bahá'í centre there.
White dedicates this book 'in memory of May Ellis Maxwell.'
Alex Aronson, in the first review of A Sudden Music
, characterizes the
book as the unfolding, the development, "of a spiritual commitment to an ideal
that may, but need not, be called religious." "This ideal," he goes on,
"embraces the moral, social and aesthetic life of humankind."
Aronson calls the book "most unfashionable." In this book
White restores the grammar of belief and at the same time uses its conventional
language infused with a new spirit. The novella moves at one level that of
spiritual rebirth and as the story is told, art and artists constitute the raw
material out of which a new Faith is born. White "finds meaning in the
transcendental," Aronson concludes, "without ever becoming esoteric."
Indeed, I remember writing to White in the
mid-1980s, congratulating him on writing a book with a remarkable everyday
flavour even though it travelled on lofty spiritual planes with important
issues for the mind and heart.
The Shell and the Pearl
, on the other hand, tells the story of the
martyrdom of 'Ali-Asghar of Yazd in 1891. It is one of the many and, to the
average western mind, inexplicable stories of the incredible tenacity of faith
which fill the record of Bahá'í history. 'Ali-Asghar had his head severed by a
howling mob in the city of Yazd. The mob threw this severed head through the
window of his home. His mother picked up the head, wiped off the dripping
blood and threw it back to the street. While throwing it she is reported to
What we have given to God we do not ask back.
Before White passed away he was to write many poems in memory of, inspired by,
the many martyrs historical and contemporary that are part of the history of
the Bahá'í Faith since 1844 and before. One can't help but think of two of
White's poems that, in different ways, speak to the heroic, the martyr, the
sudden music in which our own voice is raised in a spiralling 'Yes!' to the
calls of service to this Cause.
The first poem, Conversation
, begins with what could be the words of a
typical westerner contemplating martyrs, martyrs to any cause; or they could be
the words of an enthusiastic believer contemplating the relative indifference
of those typical westerners who could not imagine dieing for any belief or
The temperature of other
How new and strange an awe!
Having spoken of that gap between minds and hearts, White goes on to describe
the experience of that gap, that difference in temperature, in enthusiasm, in
My own words chill and
Chaffing my brain raw.
So intense are they, so heart-felt and emotionally laden, that
Moderate words from lips of guests
Alarm--as zephyr blown-
One whom extremes have nourished
But was not quite alone;
Thus, even 'moderate words' of friends and associates bring alarm to the
believer because he can not understand how anyone can live without some sort of
commitment, some passion for a cause, a belief. Such a believer has been
'nourished on extremes' not on moderation and the leisured pursuits of the
middle class where entertainment is usually the focus of life, earning an
income and attending to the responsibilities of family life and friends. Such a
believer, however involved in the extremes of his commitment or, perhaps,
because of the emotional and intellectual extremes that are part of this
commitment, was never "quite alone.' In the case of the Bahá'í Faith this
commitment tended to generate a high degree of people involvement involved as
he or she was in building a new world Order.
And finally, in the last stanza, White concludes:
conversed in accents
Tempered tongues disown-
The delirium of fever,
the chink of frozen bone.
As anyone who has spent many years serving any cause, any commitment, with a
passionate intellectual and emotional attachment, particularly a commitment
like the Bahá'í Faith with the obligation to extend its base by teaching it to
others they meet in their various walks of life, will find the above words so
apt. There is something about the "temperate tongues" of others which "disowns"
the "accents" which the believer wants to share. the result for the believer
is that he or she often feels "the delirium of fever/The chink of frozen bone."
A book on martyrdom is one such example. This is a booklet, only twenty-six
pages, for the believer. The typical person with a more 'temperate tongue'
would, for the most part, be estranged, bemused, puzzled by such a phenomenon
as someone like 'Ali-Asghar 'refusing to recant his faith in the Revelation of
Bahá'u'lláh' and, therefore, being martyred.
Such a reader would experience 'a new and strange sense of awe.' It is
unlikely that he or she would feel nourished by such a reading, although some
have been known to be strangely attracted by such an extreme.
The early years after the revolution in Iran in 1979 were years of great
persecution. White's book, The Shell and the Pearl
, was part of the
response of the Bahá'í community to this persecution. The Bahá'í response to
the persecution, particularly in Yazd, was characterized by an
"unconventionally positive stress-belief pattern."
It was not White's purpose to outline the response of
Bahá'ís in the 1980s. A distinctive quality of personal behaviour, though, can
be seen in the response of the Bahá'ís continuing a tradition going back to
'Ali Asghar's mother. The fundamental nature of social groups becomes apparent
during times of social conflict and stress.
White gives a detailed but succinct account of the martyrdom of 'Ali Asghar
drawing on a range of sources from Bahá'í history since the 1890s. By 1984
when he published The Shell and the Pearl
Yazd had become again a centre
of extensive martyrdoms yet again. There were dozens of Bahá'ís who had lost
their lives in the five year period 1978 to 1983 in Iran and White drew on
to write the poetry he did.
For this book, though, the focus was on 'Ali Asghar.
The second poem is quite explicit about the martyr:
The martyr may not choose his food
But gourmand won't complain
If cup holds only suffering
And plate be heaped with pain.
The tart fare, tribulation,
His appetite but whets,
Each lavish course a banquet whose
Swift passage he regrets.
Consumed is each least morsel-
Crumb, stem, stone, rind and all,
the victuals of love's festal board
Were ever sugared gall.
Were final wine a scarlet brew
He'll drain the keg, if able,
And rising long embrace sweet Host
Who sets so rich a table.
It is not my intent to write an extended analysis of the Shell and the
, but only to draw the attention of readers to some of the prose works
of Roger White. In the process, though, of referring to this small twenty-six
page booklet I would like to draw the attention of readers to White's many
poems with martyrdom as their theme. Like this poem, of great beauty and
intensity, White may come as close as anyone can to providing an intellectual
perspective that may move cynical and sceptical reader with their broadly
It is not my intention to go into great detail in summarizing the content of
A Sudden Music
, rather I would simply like to draw the readers'
attention to several quotations from this book, quotations which throw light on
the thorny problems we all face in our individual and community lives. They
are taken somewhat at random from A Sudden Music
, but they capture
something of the flavour of what White is writing.
1. On spiritual principles: "Attempting to apply a divine principle," says
White is "usually a creative and dangerous act...." He refers to it as one of
those "iffy things."(p.88)
2. On domineering personalities and ego: "I have grown alarmed at the subtle
way one comes to think of the impersonal power of the Cause as being one's own
3. All that reason destroys, hope must recreate. (p.175)
4. Analysis is the disease of this century.(p.103)
5. God achieves through our innocence what we cannot achieve through our
6. On Meeting 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "The plane of words and appearances is not the
plane one truly and most productively meets Him."(p.109)
7. On goals and aspirations: "Exposure to perfection reduces one's aspirations
8. On the spiritual and the physical: "There is something false about a
spiritual life that denies being rooted in our physical existence."(p.62)
9. On courtesy: Regrettably "courteousness...seals people in as effectively as
a suit of armour....they become models of mediocrity, smug and sage and
10. On suffering: "It can spring from many sources but it means nothing unless
it is faced heroically and triumphed over."(p.48)
11. On emotions: "Emotions are so untrustworthy and I detest the inner turmoil
they cause." (p.40)
12. On the inspiration of poets:(he should know) I shall forever remain
suspicious of the real cause of the inspiration of poets."
And so some snippets of White's prose-aphorisms. For the next seven years White
continued to serve at the Bahá'í World Centre before retiring to Vancouver in
May 1991 where he stayed for two years before passing away. While in Vancouver
he published his final major work Occasions of Grace
and two smaller
books of poetry, The Language of There
and Notes Postmarked The
Mountain of God
. All three came out a year before he passed away. And so
White continued to work rendering the highest service a Bahá'í can do and which
he defined in A Sudden Music
as: always doing "the thing under his nose
that needed doing."(p.71)
H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Bahá, George Ronald, Oxford,
Alex Aronson, "Resoring The Grammar of Belief," World Order,
Roger White, One Bird, p.119.
Roger White, The Shell and the Pearl, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.1.
F.T. Bethel,"A Psychological Theory of Martyrdom: A content Analysis of
Personal Documents of Bahá'í Martyrs of Iran Written Between 1979-1982," US
International Union, 1980.
See World Order, Winter 1983-4: A Congressional Hearing and a Senate and
Roger White, One Bird, p.95.
LIPSTICK AND BRUISES
Although this book is devoted primarily to the poetry of Roger White, I have
added special chapters to focus on a small selection of his letters, on his
books of prose and here in this chapter on some of his other activities
involving writing and poetry. I have done this to place his poetry in
additional perspectives, those of a creative and imaginative life.
In a book celebrating the first hundred years of Hansard in Canada's
parliament, John Ward wrote that Roger White was "acknowledged by his
colleagues as one of the finest shorthand writers ever to serve his country."
He also served as the official reporter for
the Supreme Court of British Columbia. These were some of the skills White
brought to the Publishing Department at the Bahá'í World Centre where he was
editor-in-chief of several volumes of The Bahá'í World
in the 1980s.
He wrote the lyrics for 'Songs for Solo Voice' by Jean South in Luxembourg and
the text of a book Forever in Bloom: The Lotus of Bahapur
In 1989 White gave a poetry reading in Haifa. He had been at the Bahá'í World
Centre for eighteen years by that time. The evening's program was called
'Lipstick and Bruises.' The tone was entertaining with a gentle satire in the
air as he read and spoke. White was a sit-down, not a stand-up, comedian. He
really was quite funny, not a surprising quality to anyone who knew his poetry
and had received some of his letters. White satirized almost everything that
the Bahá'í World stood for but, in the end, everything and everyone's emotions
and standards were left intact. Most contemporary comedians leave not a stone
or an institution standing after a thoroughgoing evening of satirical work is
done. Not so with White. He certainly turned stones over with his satire but
the process was gentle and embodied an etiquette, a refinement, of expression.
I was reminded, as I listened, of the Jews who for centuries have been 'the
funny guys,' the comedians. There seems to be something about suffering that
brings out the lighter side of life as a survival mechanism. It seemed most
fitting that two hundred Bahá'ís should join White in an evening of laughter
and pure delight. Somehow it was a sign of the maturity of the Bahá'í
community, so often measured in blood, sweat and tears but, this evening,
measured in, as White put it in the title he gave to the program, 'Lipstick and
White read many of his old favourites and the audience's. He also read some
new material: from letters he had received, from his experiences and those of
others. He joked; he played the raconteur, the provocateur, the stimulator,
the titillator, the poet-who-lives-here, the kind man that he was.
I was not present at the evening's entertainment which was organized, White
informed us, by the Department of Organization and Personnel. I was one of
those who received a cassette-tape with the background music of the Iranian
musician Masoud Rowshan who played the santour. I was one of those who heard
the voice of the poet, I think for the first time, after enjoying his many
voices in poetry.
There was a dryness in his voice, a little like the dry humour that comes out
of Canada. But there was that kindness, the kindness that 'Abdu'l-Bahá had
pointed to when He visited Canada in 1912. White was one of those "kind
friends' that 'Abdu'l-Bahá had raised up just about the time when Canada was
forming its first National Spiritual Assembly in 1948. With a lifetime of
service, over forty years, and the experiences of lipstick and bruises behind
him, White was a veteran. He was also greatly loved. There would be four years
of 'lipstick and bruises' to go before his innings were to be completed.
I wish I could have been there, although I was able to savour each line as it
came off my cassette tape. I felt as if I finally had White to myself after all
these years, such are the illusions of technology. Nineteen months after this
poetry reading White would leave the Bahá'í World Centre. With a quadruple
bypass operation under his belt, so to speak, which he likened to "being struck
down by a herd of stampeding rogue elephants or perhaps a small Sherman
he still had a little left. He put
that little into three books of poetry which were published within three years
of this public reading at the Bahá'í World Centre.
John Ward, The Hansard Chronicles: A
Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Hansard in Canada's Parliament,
Deneau and Greenberg, Ottawa, 1980, p.173.
2 These items I have on papers Roger sent to me in the years 1981 to 1993. I am
confident that a more comprehensive search through his archive and a thorough
investigation into his biography would reveal his contributions, literary and
otherwise, over a wide field.
Roger White, White-Price Correspondence:
White: Meant for Beginners
THE LANGUAGE OF THERE
1992 was indeed "an auspicious juncture in the history of His Cause."
That year White published not only his final
major book of poetry, Occasions of Grace
, but also two small volumes:
The Language of There
and Notes Postmarked the Mountain of God
1992 also marked the hundredth anniversary of the ascension of Bahá'u'lláh in
1892. In the Ridvan Message that year, in April 1992, the Universal House of
Justice referred to "an onrushing wind...clearing the ground for new
conceptions," "some mysterious, rampant force" and a "quickening wind." It was
this wind which was ventilating our "modes of thought...renewing, clarifying
and amplifying our perspectives." Perhaps White's final blasts of poetry were
part of this "befitting demarcation," this Holy Year. By the end of that Holy
Year in May 1993 White had left this earthly life. This "special time for a
rendezvous of the soul with the Source of its light and life....a time of
retreat to one's innermost being," to which the Universal House of Justice
called all Bahá'ís in April 1992 did arrive quite literally for Roger White.
Perchance the soul of Roger White was being filled, as that year came to an
end, in that undiscovered country "with the revivifying breath" of
Bahá'u'lláh's celestial power "from His retreat of deathless splendour."
In October 1992 I received a copy of The Language of There
in the mail.
Six months later Roger left this mortal coil and all "the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune," "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh
is air to" that Hamlet spoke so eloquently of in the beautifully modulated
rhythms of that soliloquy in Act III Scene I of Shakespeare's play by that
name. The last published poem and piece of prose on the last two pages of this
small volume of poetry speak volumes and so I will quote them here. White's
last words, quite literally, seem perfectly appropriate in this final essay on
his final works. These last words embody the thinking of a lifetime, as so
many of White's poems do, and the delight he found for his spirit in giving
expression to the truths he found in life.
THE LANGUAGE OF THERE
I mean to learn, in the language of where I am going, barely enough to ask for
food and love.-James Merrill
Yes. There, light will
be our language,
a tongue without words for
perhaps, or arid, or futile,
though shadow will be retained
that we may contrast the radiance.
Almost will no longer be a measure.
We will learn a hundred synonyms for certitude,
and love will have a thousand conjugations.
Ours will be the italicised vocabulary
of delectable astonishments.
The possessive case will play no part
in the grammar of joy and burgeoning,
infants will speak at birth, and only the ancients
will remember the obscenity exile.
There, laughter will be spelt in capitals,
sadness grow obsolete,
and negation be declared archaic.
Hell will be pronounced remoteness,
and vast tomes will be devoted
to the derivations of yes.
Where all is elation and surprise
exclamation points will fall into disuse.
There, food and affection will be ours for a smile,
and immortality for a fluent, knowing wink.
In time, our desire to speak will abandon us.
All that need be said the light will say. Yes.
would seem that White found, at least gave expression to in his poetry, what
literary critic Leone Vivante describes in the opening paragraph of his book as
"a principle of inward light, an original self-active principle, which
characterizes life and spontaneity as contrasted with mechanism."
This concept of self-activity revealed and developed
itself in White's poetry in a supremely genuine and direct way. There is a
quality of truth in some poetry, what Vivante says can claim to be "an ultimate
truth which is essential to their poetical value."
While I'm not sure I'd go all the way here with Vivante, I
can appreciate the direction of his philosophical thought. For there is for me
a certain 'truth claim' which gives White's poetry much of its impact, its
force, its unity. There is a certain 'spiritual essence' in his work which
gives me a deeper sense of the spirit, deeper than I would normally have had
without his art. White's literary value is partly, for me, a reflection, a
discovery, of the intrinsic nature of my inner being and the truths of the
religion I joined nearly half a century ago. For the "grand power of poetry,"
as Matthew Arnold wrote back in the 1860s, "is its interpretive power...the
power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new, and
intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them."
As I read White's poetry, I frequently sense he is putting
me in touch with the essential nature of things, taking some of life's
bewilderment out of things, giving me some of the secret of things and some of
their calm and harmonious inner life. This, too, is poetry's highest powers.
White's short essay entitled "Advice From a Poet" is worth quoting in full
because of its comment on the 'spiritual essence' of his work and how he
Advice from a poet
Address to World Centre Bahá'í Youth Group, 31 October 1990.
"Poetry, like all art, has a message for us. It says: care,
grow, develop, adapt, overcome, nurture, protect, foster, cherish. It says:
your reality is spiritual. It says achieve your full humanness. It invites us
to laugh, reflect, cry, strive, persevere. It says rejoice! Above all, it says
to us: be!
We cannot turn our backs on art. Art heals.
I am of the conviction that in the future, increasingly, one important measure
of the spiritual maturity and health of the Bahá'í world community will be its
capacity to attract and win the allegiance of artists of all kinds, and its
sensitivity and imaginativeness in making creative use of them.
Artists--not tricksters and conjurers, but committed artists--will be a
vital force in preventing inflexibility in our community. They will be a
source of rejuvenation. They will serve as a bulwark against fundamentalism,
stagnation and administrative sterility. Artists call us away from formulas,
caution us against the fake, and accustom us to unpredictability--that trait
which so characterizes life. They validate our senses. they link us to our own
history. They clothe and give expression to our dreams and aspirations. They
teach us impatience with stasis. They aid us to befriend our private
experiences and heed our inner voices. They reveal how we may subvert our
unexamined mechanistic responses to the world. They sabotage our smugness.
They alert us to divine intimations. Art conveys information about ourselves
and our universe which can be found nowhere else. Our artists are our
To the degree the Bahá'í community views its artists as a gift rather than a
problem will it witness the spread of the Faith 'like wildfire' as promised by
Shoghi Effendi, through their talents being harnessed to the dissemination of
the spirit of the Cause.
In general society's artists are often at war with their world and live on its
fringes. Their lack of discretion in expressing their criticism--which may be
hostile, vituperative, negative, and offer no solutions--may lead to their
rejection and dismissal by the very society they long to influence. Artists
are frequently seen as trouble-makers, menacers, destroyers of order, or as
frivolous clowns. Sometimes the kindest thing said of them is that they are
neurotic or mad. In the Bahá'í community it must be different. Bahá'u'lláh
said so. Consider that the Bahá'í Writings state that All art is a gift of
the Holy Spirit
and exhort us to respect those engaged in science, art and
The artist has among other responsibilities those of questioning our values, of
leading us to new insights that release our potential for growth, of
illuminating our humanity, or renewing our authenticity by putting us in touch
with our inner selves, and of creating works of art that challenge us--as Rilke
says--to change our lives. The artist aids in our transformation.
In the Bahá'í Order the artists will find their home at the centre of their
community, free to interact constructively with the people who are served by
their art; free to give and to receive strength and inspiration. It is my hope
that all of us who are gathered here will be in the vanguard of this
reconciliation between artists and their world. As Bahá'u'lláh foretells, the
artists are coming home to claim their place. I urge you: Be there! Welcome
them! Bring chocolate!"
White's views here had arisen out of more than forty years of writing poetry
and, now, he was going. Indeed, inside the cover of the copy of The Language
that he sent me in September 1992, six months before he died, he
wrote "with these lines I probably exit--smiling, waving, heading for
"There"......There is a consciousness of this theme of the afterlife in the one
hundred and two poems that make up this volume. It is the first major
published collection of poetry that White did not divide into
thematic-sections. Emily Dickinson is still there: White writes six new poems,
right at the beginning of the volume, in which her life and her poetry are
mentioned. To read Emily Dickinson had been for White, what Robert Smith said
it should be, "a profound engagement, an imaginative reconstruction, a
crystallizing of attitudes, on her flickering presence."
Her "arduous and lifelong pursuit of a speech
fitting to God...(to)...divine Unnameability" was, as Elisa New once wrote, a
thorny and difficult problem that she got around only by a genuine
White got around the problem,
for the most part, by his commitment to a religion which provided ample amounts
of that "speech fitting to God." He also got around the problem in several ways
which we can see by examining his poetry throughout his several volumes, but
particularly--and not coincidentally--in the last half a dozen poems in this
volume, his last published poems. I'd like to deal with these last "death"
poems, or perhaps I should call them "life" poems, here.
The Language of There
may well go down as one of White's most famous and
quoted poems. There is an optimism, a texture and context that appeals even to
the most hardened atheist or agnostic, to say nothing of the avowed believer in
virtually any religion. That in itself is no mean achievement. "The thing that
should eventually make him truly important," wrote the American poet James
Dickey speaking about the special poet in our time, is "the quietly joyful
sense of celebration and praise out of which he writes."
White had put this idea a little differently in one of his
first poems in which he was writing about "the banality of pain/and the
ordinariness of suffering." "It is joy that is remembered,"
he added. White certainly gives us a golden seam of joy
amidst his other contributions to our intellectual and sensory emporiums,
amidst the inevitable fortuitousness of his poetic impulse which the poet and
four time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Frost, says ideally begins in
"tantalizing vagueness" and then finds or "makes its thought."
The humility and joy that White apotheosizes in his penultimate poem
Learning New Ways
may not be everyone's long range vision in what may be
one of White's many images of an afterlife but, in its basic simplicity or,
perhaps I should say, profound simplicity, there is something deftly appealing
and-who knows-accurate about the picture it paints, however succinctly:
wanting and having, I shall only be.
Occupied with boundlessness
I shall yet divine your unspoken question:
Were you drawn away by the music,
the promised ecstasy of reunion?
Many poets after making immense imaginative efforts, such as Wordsworth and
Browning, seem to experience a certain psychic exhaustion. While such a sense
of exhaustion, of sadness, is not entirely absent from the last poetic efforts
of White written after the age of sixty and on death's door, there is also awe,
humour, joy, calm, peace, wisdom....These last poems are a study in themselves
and tell much of White's ultimate view of life and death. There is a delicacy
and penetration in White, a richness and power. His final production, far
superior to what his nature first seemed to promise in the late nineteen
forties and early fifties, was abundant and varied. He supplied to the Bahá'í
community what the poet Coleridge provided to England in the early nineteenth
century: "a stimulus to all minds in the generation which grew up around him,
capable of profiting by it."
of Coleridge, writes Arnold, inspires a certain repugnance as well as
gratitude. The behaviour and activity of White, at least as far as we know
thusfar, has a cleaner, more consistent record to underpin and invest his
memory as one of the founding fathers of poetry in the Bahá'í community in its
first two centuries. "Every poet," wrote the French poet Maurice de Guerin,
"has his own art of poetry written on the ground of his soul; there is no
White has left us with the ground
of his soul both in his last volumes of poetry written in 1992 and in the whole
of his previous oeuvre.
Before commenting on some specific poems in White's The Language of
I'd like to make a general point about his appeal to our human need
or impulse for novelty which stirs within us and often, if not always, provides
the necessary momentum and incentive for us to seek insight and a sense of
achievement in life. Our desire for novelty is part of the pleasure we take in
life itself and is, as Samuel Johnson once wrote, the only and real end of
This appeal to his readers' need
for novelty was there right to the end. The rich prism, the intensified record
that was his poetry, fluid and diverse as it was even to the end--and
especially in the end--in his last two books of poetry published in 1992,
seemed to be part of White's abundance. In the last few months of 1992 and the
first four of 1993, after the publication of his final two volumes of poetry,
there was somewhat of a husk of a man, a somewhat drained specimen. Weariness
began to prevail by 'silent encroachments'
but, again, I have little detail to go on and I leave the sketch of White's
final notes to his first and future biographer.
White writes poems about several departures: from the Bahá'í world centre, from
the intensive care unit, from this earthly life, from sadnesses, from joy and
laughter--all in the last nine poems. Ten poems from the end he writes of
"returning" to his home town which he had just done in 1991. The themes of the
poems that occupy White throughout the booklet illustrate his preoccupations in
the last year of his life. To comment on them all in a befitting way is beyond
the scope of this brief essay and would lead to prolixity. The poems have that
concision, that slight obscurity and illusiveness that is part of poetry's
nutritive function and a sensibility that Marianne Moore says "imposes a
silence transmuted by the imagination into eloquence."
Read with patience and receptivity they provide an
exercise in pleasure. I shall select two poems on which to close this brief
commentary on The Language of There
Since the first poetic writings in the 1940s of the two major poets associated
with the emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in world literature, Robert Hayden
and Roger White, the number of local spiritual assemblies had grown from
several hundred to many thousands. It is not my intention to expatiate on the
brilliant conception underlying the Bahá'í administrative Order, itself the
nucleus and pattern of a future world Order, but I would like to include below
one of White's poems that conveys the experience that many hundreds of
thousands of Bahá'ís have had serving on local administrative units or LSAs.
The Bahá'í system of decision-making is far removed from the western
parliamentary process and its debate oriented lance-and-parry thrust. The
Bahá'í administrative system is based on consultation in small groups and,
although apparently simple in design, it is a very demanding process for those
called upon to serve. Here is the poem:
Nine of us, equipollent,
in ragged semicircle
our eyes glazed by the impasse
we have reached
far from the decision
distantly drawing us forward.
Tension leaves us dry-mouthed,
chokes off the fatal sundering words
any one of us might speak
that will plunge us into the chasm.
This is a good terror.
With delicate calm
the Book is passed
hand to hand,
its words reweave
the disciplining cord
that binds us to our purpose.
Again the humbling summit is assaulted;
we make our verticle ascent
past fault and fissure.
Sing in gratitude
for the fragile resolution
that leads us in ginger circumspection
from the miasmal ooze
from which we so painfully inch
our consequential necessary way.
I have always been most moved, in the ten years since I first read this
poem, by White's use of the term 'good terror.' The reason I was moved by
these words is that I found they were so apt. They describe how I often felt in
the nearly forty years since I began serving on LSAs. This same 'terror' is
often part of the experience men and women have in secular organizations as
well. We are all in it together now as the world forges the instruments for its
salvation in the centuries to come.
Like so much of White's poetry there is a direct appeal in this poem to the
experience and knowledge, the convictions and commitments, of Bahá'ís the world
over. So many of the Bahá'ís, in the half century since both White and Hayden
began writing poetry, have been knee-deep in that "miasmal ooze" during the
consultative process while they inched their "consequential necessary way." It
is not my intention for this elucidation of White's poem to turn my comments
into evaluation. I leave that to readers, as I say so often in these essays.
But there is a power in this poem, as in so many of White's poems which makes
itself felt immediately. If I had to define this power in a word it would be
There is also a gentle undercurrent of humour, as there is in
so many of White's poems, which gives just enough leaven or lightness to
balance the outer seriousness of the poem. The style is so White: colloquial,
elevated even quirky, uniting opposites in his own unique way.
Many of the poems in this selection of nearly nine dozen pieces are salutes,
nods, waves, hellos and good-byes to famous and not-so-famous poets, writers
and artists who had influenced his writing and thinking: Ogden Nash, T.S.
Eliot, Keats, some Canadian poets, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Ovid, Walt Whitman,
Scott Joplin, William Sears, Anais Nin and the inevitable Emily--and others.
White's faculty for absorbing incidents from real life, his keen eye for a good
scene, his memory for detail, quotation and anecdote; in addition, his
knowledge of a remarkable circle, an extraordinary collection of intimate and
not-so-intimate friends and people from history, gave to White and to this
final collection of poetry the qualities his readers enjoy.
Many readers of poetry and literature may dislike my attempts to confine
White's free and varied insights within the limits of a system of thought that
is, perhaps, too ordered, too neat and tidy, too abstract for their liking.
They will want to read his poetry, but not analyse it. For me, the
generalizing faculty asserts itself and must find a hearing. The poetry
surveyed persistently raises metaphysical questions making some theological
discussion inevitable, even if not desired by some readers. Theological
discussion serves to deepen not restrict our insight and usually raises
questions of moral and humanistic interest which are of increasing interest to
even secular minds. But, however theological or philosophical a poem, there is
over any collection of White's verse some of that feeling, expressed once by
Carl Sandburg, that "poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."
Appreciation of a poem does not require
literary criticism, but it is often enriched by such criticism, if it is well
My final selection from among this rich repertoire of poems that gave me
pleasure in one way or another is called Sometimes The Poem...
quote the entire poem and make some brief comment as I go along.
Sometimes the poem is heard as a nighttime footstep
echoing from another room
or a creaking floorboard on the dim stairs.
Often it leaves a chair rocking silently
in an emptiness filled with dustmotes
and a sense of precipitate departure.
Later it may be heard in the kitchen
warming milk and rummaging for biscuits
or may mock with the banging of a door
and the crunching sound of retreating feet on gravel.
While I am writing this I am listening to a tape of the voice of Australian
writer Alan Marshall
who is talking about
the importance of small details, of writing down things that you might not
remember, because so many of the stories in life come from little things. Of
course, he is talking about writing stories and fiction, but the same applies
to writing poetry, as White indicates above. What Marshall tries to do, White
tries to do also--connect the microworld and the macroworld and in the process
of observation and analysis he gave it new life, significance, meaning. Poetry
serves the function, for White, of interpretress of life's many worlds. Poetry
helps White on his long journey down life's enchanted and not-so-enchanted
stream as it alternately rushes, meanders and winds its way to the sea.
White continues in the second stanza of that poem Sometimes the Poem:
Sometimes it huddles in shadow
outside the window or claws at the shutter
sobbing tormentedly in the wind and tearing its breast.
I have glimpsed its eyes, transparent and haunted,
beyond the rainstreaked glass
and heard it babbling dementedly in the poplars
under an intermittent moon that glinted like steel.
In the darkness it has whizzed past my ear
with a knife's chilling whoosh.
In this second stanza those "little things" seem to have moved inward in a
subtle way. White its writing here about what Robert Creeley says about a poem:
that it "can be an instance of all the complexity of a way of thinking....all
the emotional conflicts involved in the act of thinking."
Perhaps Peter Stitt puts it better: "Wherever real
liveliness of emotion and intellect is happening. I feel poetry is near."
With the glue of cobwebs
it has brushed against my sleeping face
awakened me with its distant cries of anguish
or taunting laughter only to elude me
in the hushed corridor or the deserted garden.
It has called me urgently from dreams
to rise and shiver at the desk
staring for hours at a blank page.
I've known it to watch from the corner
then creep up behind me
its breath smelling of wet leaves and apples
cold and moist on my nape.
I hear the call of life here in this third stanza. " A writer is not trying for
a product, but accepting sequential signals toward an always arriving present,"
as Stitt says again.
There are so many
ways of saying what White is saying here, as poets and critics at least since
Shakespeare and as far back as Pintar or the writers of the Wisdom Literature
in the Old Testament, have tried to express the poetic impulse. Perhaps "the
always arriving present," soon to be White's experience and calling him
urgently, is that boundlessness, music, laughter and "the promised ecstasy of
reunion" that he wrote of in his poem Learning New Ways.
A final five lines from this same poem:
Sometimes it stares
faint and helpless
from the mirror where
in a wavering aqueous light
my image drowns signalling
Befriend me! I am the poem you would write.
Perhaps White is referring here, partly, alluding as he does to an
'unwritten poem', to what that French poet Guerin describes when he writes:
"There is more power and beauty in the well-kept secret of one's self and one's
thoughts, than in the display of a whole heaven that one may have inside
The poet Shelley once defined the poetic Sublime as an experience that
persuaded readers to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. The
reading of the best poems, the best literature, constitutes more difficult
pleasures than most of what is given to us visually by television, films and
video games. Shelley's definition reveals an important aspect of what I am
saying about White and his poetry. For White is both entertainer in the finest
sense and intellectual provocateur due to the supreme difficulty that often
arises for his readers due to the power of his intellect and his capacity to
use words. He can hold you in a spell, but it is not the vacuous spell of
mental inactivity offered by electronic media, it is the spell that derives
from the indubitable powers of poetry. The refreshment White offers comes from
the pleasures of change in meaning each time you read his poetry. There is
often, too, a shock, a kind of violence, that we do not find in fiction and
certainly not on television. It startles us out of our sleep-of-death into a
more capacious sense of life.
It does not
find its origins in visual and auditory stimulation but, rather, in the powers
of the mind and imagination and their "new and wonderful configurations." They
are configurations, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá once wrote derived from "a fresh
grace...an ever-varying splendor....from wisdom and the power of thought."
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan
All references in this paragraph are from
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message, 1992
Coleridge put this a similar way. See
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism: First and Second
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.165.
Leone Vivante, English Poetry
Southern Illinois UP, Carbondale, 1963(1950), p.1.
Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in
, the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1973(1962),
R.M. Smith, The Seduction of Emily
, Alabama Press, 1996, pp.14-15.
Elisa New, The Regenerate Lyric
Cambridge UP, 1993, p.153.
James Dickey in The World's Hieroglyphic
Beauty: Five American Poets, Peter Stitt,
Press, 1985, p.11.
Roger White, Another Song
Robert Frost in Louis Untermeyer, The
Lives of the Poets: The Story of One thousand Years of English and American
, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959, p.633.
Roger White, The Language of
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Maurice de Guerin in Matthew Arnold,
Samuel Johnson in The Achievement of
, Walter Bate, Oxford UP, NY, 1970(1955), p.228.
This idea is complex and Moore discusses
it in the context of what she calls 'society in solitude.' See Marianne Moore,
"A Review of The Auroras of Autumn," Poetry New York, No.4, 1951
Roger White, The Language of
Carl Sandburg in Louis Untermeyer,
Alan Marshall on "Books and Writing,"
ABC Radio National
, 5 May 2002.
Robert Creeley in Re-making It New
Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition
, Cambridge UP,
James Dickey in The World's
Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets
, Peter Stitt, University of
Georgia Press, 1985, p.11.
, p. 57.
Roger White, The Language of
Maurince de Guerin in Matthew Arnold,
For some of the ideas here I want to
thank Harold Bloom and his section 'Poems' in How To Read and Why
Fourth Estate, London, 2000, pp.69-142.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine
, Wilmette, 1970, p.1.
NOTES POSTMARKED THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD
A second booklet of Roger White's poetry was published in 1992 by New Leaf
Publishing of Richmond British Columbia. It had already been accepted by Rob
Weinberg for inclusion in his forthcoming anthology of reflections on Mt.
Carmel. New Leaf Publishing reprinted the booklet, Notes Postmarked The
Mountain of God
, which consisted of one poem White had written in 1990. It
was the longest poem he had written. While not following strictly the program
of pilgrimage nor alluding to every point of historic interest visited by
Bahá'í pilgrims during the course of their stay in the Holy Land, the poem was
structured in nine parts following the nine days of pilgrimage.
What White brings his readers in this poem is what the poet Shelley said the
mind in creation must be if it is to be truly successful in the writing of
poetry. The mind must be as a fading coal which some invisible influence,
like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness. What he awakens to
a wonderful brightness for the reader is his experience of pilgrimage,
certainly one of the more introspective and thoughtful pieces written thusfar
on this important aspect of the Bahá'í life. White would write poetry for two
more years. He brings us, then, his fading coals. In 1990 he had his
quadruple bypass operation and he did not anticipate "an enthusiastic return to
a full life." At least the goal of a full life was one which he said he limped
toward "without much conviction."
mentioned in one of his poems from the 1980s his old friends from the forties
and fifties, in and out of the movie industry, started dieing and complaining
of their ailments. In September 1990 his old friend, the person from whom he
learned of the Cause, Winnifred Harvey died. As he wrote in the poem
in the last four
lines, as he was about to leave hospital:
No one had asked
him whether he wished to return
from his murky indolence,
human, hapless and vulnerable,
to this profane, irresistible confusion.
And so, this long poem written in 1990 entitled Notes Postmarked The
Mountain of God
might be seen as a transitory brightness, thirty-three
pages of a flash of brilliance, awakened as he was by some invisible influence,
some inconstant wind on the fading coals of his life. He had worked at the
Bahá'í World Centre for nineteen years. It was fitting that he should at last
have his pilgrimage although at sixty-one, as he writes in the first few lines,
a pilgrimage is a venture that tastes of beginnings. His plane touched down at
Ben Gurion airport and
The luggage he struggles with
bulges with untried convictions,
rusted resolve and unrelinquished disappointments.
Hope, his best provision,
is crammed in among random indiscretions,
outworn hesitancies and inappropriate tweeds
He has already won the heart of the reader by the time he gets to the end of
that first sixteen line stanza. "Poetic truth" as Wordsworth once wrote, "is
operative-it works on us, it carries its own conviction with it."
Part of the pleasure we derive from White, achieved for me
right at the start, is the pleasure I experience from having my "basic
psychological structure touched and illuminated."
Among the orange blossoms, the warm tarmac, the
Levantine confusion and the humid air are the normal internal complications and
conflicts we all have, we who are the followers of the Blessed Beauty trying as
best we can to live lives consistent with His teachings.
White gives his loyal readers what is by now a familiar language: the everyday,
the colloquial, the ordinary, packed in with the trenchant, the pithy and the
profound. Piercing, exact, coherent and complex: words I would use to describe
White's rendition of the vision of his Faith, part of his individuality, the
experience of one man who has served this new world religion over forty years.
His vision is not some set of dogmas saluted to but not contemplated over and
over again. It is the personal experience of one man with belief and doubt,
passion and thought, memory and desire so closely interwoven that is often
difficult to distinguish their separate expressions. White's poem is a whole
world of order and beauty; it has little to do with political and religious
formulae. White gives his readers what the great American poetry critic Ivor
Winters says a poem should give: "a clear understanding of motive and a just
evaluation of feeling; it calls upon the full life of the spirit; it is
difficult of attainment."
and what he writes I think applies to White's poetry of pilgrimage, an
experience that pilgrims so often have difficulty putting into words: "by his
art he makes clearings of sanity in the encroaching jungle of experience; and
because of his skill, these clearings are more lucid, more precise, more
generally meaningful than those of other people."
By putting his own passions, prejudices and human
weaknesses on the line White helps his readers to be more pleased and accepting
of their own while, at the same time, he gently encourages his readers to lift
White brings into this poem many stanzas of previous poems. He incorporates
into its text relevant passages from poems in earlier volumes, not so much to
attain a synthesis of his life's work, but rather to deepen the meaning and
affect of this particular poem. The opening section, entitled
' is stage one of his journey, a plane to Tel-Aviv and
a hotel. These were part of "the suburbs of authentic arrival" and "the
alphabet of homecoming" as he characterizes this "lightweight wardrobe of
The reader then proceeds on a poetic journey through nine days of pilgrimage
for some thirty pages. It is not my intention to take you through each day
step by step; for that you must read the poem. But I would like to comment on
some of the aspects of White's pilgrimage and the poem that stood out for me
and had a particular meaning. White's aim is not to excite, as T.S. Eliot once
wrote of the aim of Dante's poetry, but simply "to set something down." The
reader's task is to perceive "what the poet has caught in words."
At the end of Day Three
White includes a quotation which he first
'caught-in-words' in his poem A Sudden Music.
Indeed much of what White writes about Day
seems to have had its beginnings in that poem which also became
the name of White's novella. He writes about 'the choreography of
We deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
who had entered and then left
that rare Presence,
There is an honesty here which is central to White's whole poetic opus. This is
how so many millions of people, both inside the Cause and out, experience
prayer and much that is the routines of traditional religious experience. They
know of the words, they know the motions to go through, but little joy is
experienced in the process. This may not be as it should, but it certainly is
the way it is. And White's task is to tell it as it is or at least how he
experiences it. In the process he wins over many readers, for this is their
Twenty-one years before, in an article in World Order,
William Hatcher wrote about "the theoretical
uncertainty" that must remain "even with the surest of statements." For it was,
he went on, "our explicit awareness of this uncertainty which is our greatest
asset in adapting to our human situation."
The feeling of certitude, Hatcher pointed out, is a psychological state and can
be part of our life even without knowing much at all. He went on to say that,
if we accept something as true, then our emotions organize themselves around
that something. Then that something becomes part of the way we live. Faith,
here, is the process of organizing our emotional life around our
"No statement can be held to be absolutely true, for no statement is
independent of other statements and facts.....Our knowledge, then, is
relative." Hatcher writes again. So it is, when White refers to the believers
as "deft practitioners of protocols of piety" and says, in the next line, that
we "are stranded on uncertainty," perhaps he is thinking of the kinds of things
that Hatcher is saying above.
But uncertainty and doubt do not exclude the experience of certitude and
belief. In the first line of Day One: Visit to the Shrine of the
White refers to the sense of assurance the pilgrim gets when he has
his first glimpse of the shrines and the gardens. For they are as he or she has
seen them on postcards and they possess "a sense of familiarity." "Mingling at
Pilgrim House," more assurance and certitude are his with "expectations
peopled," a "sense of belonging"
him and the experience of "immediate acceptance" as familiar
s greet him with every step. Once in the Shrine of the Bab
the pilgrim feels even more assurance in the "awesome silence" and the
"mounting ecstasy." White describes the affect on his inner self of the
beauties and wonders of the threshold of the Shrine, its exterior and the
gardens. By the time the reader is halfway through the second stanza the issue
of certitude and doubt is not on his agenda, far from his mind and heart, as he
"longs to have his own heart break or conflagrate."
Before going to bed on that first night the Shrine of the Bab and some of the
Bab's life is permanently etched on his sensory emporium, freshly minted by the
pull of the "exquisite details" that had invaded him during the day:
He Who had no candle
has here, ensconced in circled circle,
amid adoring flowers
and green deferential trees,
this whitest marble taper
tipped in gold.
It gleams serenely from Carmel,
inextinguishably lights the world,
our reverential hearts
the willing wick.
And so the intellectual issue of doubt and certitude disappears in a complex of
experiences from Day One
: the heart's enthusiasm, reverence,
life's disappointments, a past he brought on his pilgrimage and a whole world
that he summarizes in a poem which, it appears, he has just written:
Tentative as commas
they balance on wind-swung wires
along which our voices speed,
So goes the first stanza and its allusion to the tentativeness of so much of
life, especially our thoughts which balance "on wind-swung wires/along which
our voices speed."
The poem goes on to
express a fascinatingly introspective piece of sociological and psychological
analysis. He begins this analysis, in stanza two, by expressing his
consciousness of presiding "with feigned indifference" over the things he sends
or others send to him(or that we send to ourselves) over those 'crackling
wires" with their 'garbled" statement of our anguish and with their news of his
triumphs and defeats. He continues referring to some of his writing, his
poetry, one of his tragic personal experiences in life and his own inability to
"soar." I did not find this section of the poem simple, easy to translate into
personally meaningful terms. I shall have to return to it again and again with
the years. But given the fact that this one of the few poems, few pieces of
analysis, about the inner meaning of a pilgrimage, and given the fact that I am
unlikely to go to Haifa again before I die, White's poem will be worth my
On Day Two: The Trouble With Mountains
White describes Mt. Carmel
as a whole. He goes on, as the poem develops, to mention his father, Shoghi
Effendi and Bahá'u'lláh before he ponders "why he has waited so long/ to
approach this unprepossessing hill" and "whether his commitment is adequate."
In the evening he writes a poem. The poem was written some ten years before
but, with poetic license, he indicates to the reader that he writes it in the
evening. One can only imagine that the poem's contents seem so perfectly
appropriate to this pilgrimage poem:
THE TROUBLE WITH MOUNTAINS
We come to this mountain late
in laggard wonder
and atrophied awe,
in distrust of the prompting of angels,
the voice in the thunder.
"Like the old plainsman brought dazed
to the coast to die,
needing to hate
Vancouver and his death,
who glared sullenly at its peaks
which to outwit death
he'd never try
protesting they block the view
and stifle breath.
"An ant's dusty truth. We gaze
at our thorn-stabbed feet.
It is too late, too late,
the bruising stones reveal
to follow to the summit
One Whose feet were steel.
"And do not hear the battered bird
high in the torturing wind: Pass! Pass!
With adamant soul
and sharpest sight
on feet of brass."
This bird comes into his dreams that night. This poem says so much about
White and, perhaps, about his readers, at least some of them. That he had come
on his pilgrimage too late
, that he should have come earlier in his
Bahá'í life. But still, whenever we come we must follow Bahá'u'lláh "With
adamant soul/and sharpest sight/on feet of brass!"
He finishes his poetic exposition about Day
by referring to 'hope.' He wants to explore its implications with
someone, anyone and discuss poetry but concludes "poetry has no place/amid the
clatter of cutlery," for "the insistent world is never far away."
And so, in this brief review of White's pilgrimage poem, I have taken you
through the first three days of his experience, his thoughts, his private
world. He writes on the remaining six days of: the meals, Bahji, Akka, the
house of Abbud, writing his poetry each night back in his room, the gardens,
the social exchanges with the other pilgrims, the Shrine of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the
inevitable Emily Dickinson, the gravesites on Mt. Carmel, the Pilgrim House
and, finally, the cab, "smuggling his convictions past Customs" and the
aircraft that takes him away.
White did not have to choose his poetic subjects. They chose him. On Day
, leaning against a tree at Bahji, "its walks the very corridors of
heaven," he writes:
"Is this then all there is, a simple garden,
And a silence that displaces need for words?
What portent in the blood-red wayside poppy?
What message in the music of the birds?
"The hero's heart is hoisted on a cypress,
the saint's is softly folded as a rose;
But mine lies shattered here among the pebbles
On the only path the fainting coward knows."
In these years at the dark heart of an age of transition, with the wider
society grappling with a torrent of conflicting interests in the most turbulent
period in history, at one of the great--perhaps the greatest--turning points in
history, attempting to grasp the significance of the historical transformation
that has been the twentieth century, it is not surprising that individuals in
the Cause, and poets like White, feel that sense of cowardice, that they have
not done enough, that they are far from the requirements of heroism or
saintliness they would like to exemplify in their lives.
The victories the Bahá'í Faith had won in the forty years or more since White
had joined its army of spiritual teachers in the late 1940s in Canada had
indeed been immense, "one of the most enriching periods"
it had experienced in its history. But White was giving
voice to an experience all Bahá'ís have given the immensity of the task, the
social paralysis, the tyranny and anarchy in the world and "the phantoms of a
wrongly informed imagination" that they have to do battle with daily in the
minds of millions upon millions who are "as yet unaware of the Day in which
they are living."
On Day Seven
which White describes and analyses in more detail
than any of the nine days he visits the Shrine of the Master. While alone here
he feels the Master's "warm laughter that offers renewal of courage." It is in
this section that one of his modifications of Emily Dickinson's poems is
included; the poet George Herbert is mentioned and he composes a poem while
"resting on a low stone wall" that he will later include in his last major
hard-cover book of poetry, Occasions of Grace.
The poem is called
The Desert Place.
This poem describes Haifa and Israel especially during the summer
"In the sandy convolutions of this landscape
grainy, parched and impersonal as God's brain
perception shifts and shimmers
and the crazed hot wind mutters apocalyptically:
Here, we are beyond the known and possible.
Israel is a difficult place with the heat; White asks:
"Can anything survive the unquenchable sun?
A solitary lizard darting from invisibility
to invisibility like a fleeting thought
leaves no trace.
Having describes so many of Israel's inhabitants succinctly, White goes on to
outline the affects of the heat:
"the stinging eye, amazed,
sees the heat as a solid malignancy
hulking on the horizon
mesmerizing the merciless.
Small wonder the Prophets were placed in this oven
where the heat consumes all but compassion.
Anyone who has been in Israel in the summer can appreciate these words. White
writes much of the setting, all the settings that are part of the pilgrimage
experience. But his autobiographical impulse is less a Lutheran 'I can do no
other' than a joy in the dead and a reaching out, a desire to accept, to
. "Waves of admiration sweep over him./For each dear name a smile of
recognition and a prayer,"
as he enters
the palm-fringed place of the graves of holy ones and their white tombstones
with familiar names at the foot of Mt. Carmel.
The many moods, emotions, feelings and thoughts that are the inner experiences
of the poet, these autobiographical writings, are as personal as White gets in
all his poetic journey. What Peter Steele says of the autobiographical
namely, that it "is a species of
play....an act of wit," is true of this five to six thousand word poem of Roger
White. White's desire in writing this poem is much like the desire of one of
his mentors, George Herbert, many centuries before: "to let the variable mind
and heart play out the drama of...psychic predicament and aspiration."
The examples of this 'psychic predicament
seem legion, but to choose one simple example: when he is at the Pilgrim House
an unearned excruciating happiness
Am I feeling this, or is it that
I feel I should feel it? an inner voice
White is in the last years of his life. Perhaps writing this poem is a means of
conversing with his soul, with the divine element in himself and in life. For
the Bahá'í pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the world seat of the wondrous System
he had been associated with since the Second Seven Year Plan(1946-1953), where
that System's heart pulsated, where the dust of its Founders reposed, where the
processes disclosing its purposes, energizing its life and shaping its destiny
contained "all the nuggets
his heart" could hold. His poem was, as he himself admitted, "a bulwark
against fanaticism.," as all art was. Of course, his poem was so much more: an
effort to make clear to himself and thereby to others the temporal and eternal
questions, as Ibsen would have put it.
was what the poem was to Albert Schweitzer "a poet talking to himself...to
grasp his experience in words...the sound inside his head...the record of an
White was suspicious of the
motives of the poet. He had written of this before. I think he would have
agreed with George Orwell, at least insofar as some writers are concerned, that
"at the very bottom of a writer's motives there lies a mystery."
The trouble with most poems is that they are not interesting enough, not
revealing enough to impart conviction, not surprising enough to keep a reader
reading and wanting more. They don't give enough pleasure. For most people
pleasure has moved over to the electronic media during the years since the
teaching Plan began in 1937. Print does not have the pull it once had for
millions. But in spite of this reality, millions more books are being read than
ever before, if only because since the late 1930s, when that great teaching
Plan began, the population has gone from about two billion to six billion
people. There are more people doing virtually everything.
I have written the above for the increasing numbers since 1980 who have come to
enjoy Roger White's poetry. White's audience was still a small vanguard of
people, far from that large readership which T.S. Eliot says arises when the
poet is not really doing anything new, just giving his readers what they were
I have also written the above
for those in the future who come across his work. White on occasion quoted the
poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The last time he
quoted him, before he passed away in 1993, White was writing about how works of
art should 'challenge us to change our lives.' Rilke also wrote that: "time
passed in the difficult is never lost."
Some of White's poetry many find difficult. But like Shakespeare there is a
reward for those who make the effort, for those who want to try.
In the end, of course, we can't all enjoy the same stuff, to each his own as it
is often said. I think reading the poetry of Roger White is an experience of
reading great literature. C.S. Lewis once wrote that "in reading great
literature...as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I
transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do."
Roger White, Letter to Ron Price, 25 July
Roger White, The Language of There
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.91.
Ivor Winters in Beyond All This Fiddle:
, A. Alvarez, Allen Lane, London, 1968, p.256.
T.S. Eliot, "Dante," The Sacred Wood
Roger White, A Witness of Pebbles, p.81.
William Hatcher, The Science of Religion, World Order, 1969, pp.7-19.
William Hatcher, The Science of Religion,
Bahá'í Studies, 1977, p.9. Reprint of the original World Order article.
Roger White, Notes, p.3.
The Universal House of Justice, Century
of Light, p.99.
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan,
Roger White, Occasions of Grace, p.97.
Roger White, Notes, p.29.
Peter Steele, The Autobiographical
Passion: Studies in the Self on Show, Melbourne UP, 1989, p.2.
Shoghi Effendi, Programme of Pilgrimage,
Hendrick Ibsen in The Poet in the World, Denise Leverton, New Direction
Books, 1960, p.44.
George Orwell in Decline of the New,
Irving Howe, Victor Gollanz Ltd., 1971, p.276.
T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poetry and Poets
, Faber and Faber, London, 1957, p.21.
Roger White, The Language of There,
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: 1892-1910,
WW Norton and Co. Ltd., NY, 1945, p.153.
C.S. Lewis in Through the Open Door: A New Look At C.S. Lewis, Dabney Adams
Hart, University of Alabama Press, 1984, p.96.
OCCASIONS OF GRACE
The major failing of Socrates, it has been argued, was that he
did not enact a genuine political irony. The overserious teacher, possessed of
an improvement morality, was put to death as the Athenian experiment in
democracy became unstuck. Socrates was a threat. His politics was
anti-democratic in a crucial period of the frightening anti-democratic
revolutions, 411 and 404 BC.
So, too, were
the politics of Socrates' student, Plato, whose visions of community grew out
of his fears of anti-community associated with the Peloponnesian War of 431 to
404 BC, of the secular humanism of the sophists and of the rootless
individualism of the masses. Plato wanted a new form of political community.
This same desire motivates the poetry of Roger White. White does not find his
political community in the Republic
but, rather, in the embryonic Order
associated with the teachings of the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith,
Aristophanes, the poet, writing in that same fifth century BC during that first
experiment in democracy, provided the western world's first political satire.
People laughed at themselves and their institutions as Aristophanes put his
society under his literary microscope. In recent centuries satire's rich vein
of intellectual freedom has been on the come-back trail after centuries in
which humour was seen as an expression of the devil. Since the Renaissance and
Reformation the congregation of satirists have made humour a part of peoples'
blessedness. As political philosophers have been struggling to articulate a
new basis for community in the last several centuries, a Voltairian
irreverence-as-antidote has come to occupy the public space. The smile of
reason has kept many people sane in what seems an insane world. To counteract
the excessive moralizing, the meretricious, the sanctimonious, the bitter
melancholy, the acids of individualism, and the stupidity of collectivities a
Comic Faith has grown in our midst.
Beginning, perhaps, with Erasmus, Swift, Rabelais and Sterne, four ordained
clerics, this vein of comedy has shown that the ridiculous can be sublime and
that the comic imagination can change our experience of reality. But the game
is deathly serious. Comedy seeks to transcend the tragic and overcome its
dominance and dangerous romantic grandeur that so often leads to fanaticism's
passionate intensity. Bertolt Brecht goes so far as to say that comedy deals
with the sufferings of humankind more seriously than tragedy. This idea seems
on the surface to be somewhat shocking. Hannah Arendt suggests that, although
it may be shocking, it is true.
is or is not, I introduce these ideas in an essay on White's Occasions of
because White's poetry is underpinned with a sense, a spirit of play,
a sense of homo ludens
, play as a way of establishing order in an often
complex, absurd and difficult world, play as a way of mastering experience by
combining the light and the serious in delightful juxtapositions, play in the
context of a tendency to apotheosise language, to give it a power not of God,
but a power which reflects His informing and transforming power. For some it
is the spiritualization of wonder; for others its secularization. But irony is
After a decade that saw two more volumes of his poetry, Occasions of
continues a poetic construction that is part of the slow growth in
the prestige of a prophetic message with an important role to play in creating
dialogue among presently competing creeds. His construction is clever. An
ingenious manipulator of words, he provokes admiration and titillates the
sensibilities. Of the nearly 200 pages of text, fifty are prose and notes on
the poetry. White divides his poetry into six major sections. There are more
than a dozen poems to and about Bahá'í martyrs. Another dozen or so, as we find
in virtually all of White's books of poetry, about major figures in Bahá'í
history. There are the familiar poems to friends, to actors, to Israel, to
to a pot-pourri of themes too long to list.
The reader leans forward to learn from White as he places his own frail
vulnerability on the firing line. His openness creates a bridge of trust. He
whispers in the readers' bones and arteries and one finds that his song is
often the hidden bird on one's own heart. But bring your dictionary along or
you may not hear any song at all. The Bahá'í Faith suggests an alternative
political order with the future in its bones. A phoenix which has been growing
slowly in the ashes of orthodoxies that have long held people's minds and
society's definition of reality. The lance and parry techniques of an archaic
tournament continue to fill the intellectual air and prevent fluid and
collaborative exchange. The jangling mockery of our own limited understanding
is paraded in the absence of an artistic and critical humility. In the
whirlwind of a distracted hour getting command over the craft of
self-expression has become an awesome feat.
This is true both for individuals and for society's institutions. An organic
change in the structure of present-day society and the profundity of a change
in the standard of public discussion is heralded in the poetry of Roger White.
The artist is predictive. In his language, his struggles and his joys White
allows the reader to see the texture of our age. The psychological problems of
people in this dark age of transition are a product of sociohistorical changes.
White charts these changes in his powerful poetic idiom. He packs a great deal
into his more than one hundred and thirty poems, his several thousand lines of
At the centre of White's perspective is an assumption, a philosophy, a
principle- that dissidence is a moral and intellectual contradiction to those
who would be peacemakers and unifiers of the children of men.
The charm of this perspective is present in poem after
poem in an etiquette of expression that possesses a candour, a tone, a motive,
a manner, a mode that takes the faintest hints of life and converts them into a
basis of dialogue. But the dialogue White apotheosises implies a nobler and
ampler manifestation of human achievement, a relationship between our outer and
inner selves not yet achieved. His vocabulary of humour and seriousness, of
joy and sorrow, which encompasses both the trivial and the profound, engender a
perspective that seeks both immortality and temporary pleasure. White's
readers must love words if they are to love White.
As wordsmith he works at his anvil. He plays with his own fears, his
loneliness, ignorance, despair, with the world's random sordidness, vulgarity
and sadness. He plays with his readers. He smiles. I enjoy playing with White.
It's a little like playing marbles when I was a kid. But you've got to like
playing marbles. His marbles are words. They bounce sharply into holes; they
scatter all over the place; they're bright, hard and clear as crystal. Art
forms are often best at their beginnings: Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dickens in
poetry, drama, art and the novel, respectively. The poet, the novelist, the
artist, the dramatist once commanded a respect. From a certain height of
grandeur they possessed a common touch. After two centuries of modernism the
intellectual elites have been overthrown. The cultural mandarins of
post-modernism do not possess any value system; much of contemporary cultural
production is scarcely different from commercials. Insidious shifts in our
value systems have vastly broadened the acceptable boundaries of high culture
and the nature of creativity that sustains it. The artist, the poet, is unable
to compete for public attention or favour with the new mandarins of public
entertainment, pop-psychology and the media. White's pages whirl about on the
wings of the spirit. He knows that for many they might as well be blank. You
can just about hear him say: 'Don't ask me what it means!'
White does not cultivate obscurity. But in his encounter with the reality of
experience--his and ours--he takes no little pain to inform his readers of the
asphyxia of soul, the offence against life that comes from a hedonistic
materialism which denies that at the heart of life there is pain. White offers
a challenge: to transcend the ordinary, the comfortable, the
protective-chrysalis of the contemporary, the corporate and the candy-floss
suburban mediocrity. For those who journey with White the spiritual texture of
our times takes on definition. History and sociology are poetry. It is
constructed of infinitely instructive surprises resulting from a systematic
introspection, an introspection which courts bafflement, misunderstanding and
In 1983, two years after The Witness of Pebbles
, his One Bird, One
Cage, One Flight
appeared. It was a gift to all those who find that they
must make everything out of their solitariness and the privacy of their
thought. Ostensibly a homage to Emily Dickinson, this slim volume was a
testimony to the confrontation with self and to the cry of all romantic artists
since the industrial revolution:
I don't want comfort; I
want God; I want poetry; I want real danger; I want freedom; I want goodness. I
People living out their lives in unobtrusive and quiet ways, those who
do want comfort and don't want sin, come under White's microscope. His
meditative eye looks at the microcosm of the human drama in all its detail and
provides a window for the reader to enter the cosmos. The ordinary person, the
boredom, the fragility, the doubts and the fears of people in their
ordinariness are paraded for us in all their panoply and pageantry. White has
married his words and out of this marriage poetry is born. He has married
solitude. So, too, has he married the social. I offer this one poem, chosen
somewhat at random, to give a taste, a texture, of White's solitude and social
and their juxtaposition:
Adolescence, I thought, and not for the first time, could be hell.
You sit hooded in discontent
oblivious of the sunlit garden
telling of the boy who has your heart.
It does not suffice you to be
young and bright and to wear
an innocent loveliness.
Love is too great a burden, you sigh,
I long to be happy; to leap, to fly.
I nod, sage to your novitiate,
knowing you would despise my shabby wisdom.
It is adequate heaven
that you are young and beautiful,
that the light so irradiates your flawless cheek,
that with moist lashes
you should sit with me-among the blind flowers
under a freshly-laundered sky-
yearning to be happy
and unaware of how effortlessly I soar
bearing the weightless burden of my love for you.
Emily Dickinson becomes, in White's evocation, a prototype of a path some must
take in their search for themselves, their God, or just a true friend. That
path is one of solitude. For it is in solitude that the richness of the inner
life is to be found. There is an awe, wonder and an awareness of the good and
the bad in all of us that leads to insight and prevents moral arrogance. The
reader finds it is in community where he locates his aloneness. White locates
this paradoxical home for us in all its perplexing complexity. White seems to
be saying that the future lies with that man or woman who can live as an
individual conscious of the solidarity of the human race. Within this
solidarity is a tension between individual and community that is the very
source of ethical creativity. The communication that binds people in
solidarity is conciliatory and restorative. The tension is seen in the
distinguishing characteristic of the artist--his restlessness.
In the day-to-day round of everyday existence the challenge and the risk of
life seem so often to leave us. White puts courage back in the game.
Experiences of meaning and significance are the heart of White's world.
Temperamentally unable to accept success and the ease it brings, he kicks
against the pricks. When one frontier is conquered he soon becomes ill-at-ease
and pushes on to a new one. He is drawn to unquiet minds with a rebellion that
helps define his vision. The humanity of this poetic gadfly, this Voltairian
rebel, lies in the fact that civilization will arise from the very needs he
exposes in his vulnerability. White's story, his poetry, is the agony of the
creative individual whose nightly rest only resuscitates him so that he can
endure his agonies the next day. But there are flecks of gold in a seam of joy
that comes from his passion, a quality of commitment, and a realization that he
is helping to form the structure of a new world.
White knows that he is working at the beginning of this new world and its
embryonic order. With all its strangeness, darkness and insecurity that all
true beginnings bring to those who search, White deals with the existential
questions of the human predicament with both timeliness and timelessness. In
the process he helps empower his readers to define who they are, where they've
been and where they want to go.
White knows there is no escape from living through the dialectical relationship
between individual and society. He points the way to live it through
constructively, with zest, with humour and dignity without wasting one's energy
on protest against a universe not organized to one's liking. The artist-poet
who lights up our world lives and breathes with the daemonic. The hunger for
meaning makes White appear like a bee fetching sweetness out of everything.
But he is not oriented to the easy. If something is difficult there is all the
more reason to do it. Love exerts an exacting claim on him and calls him to
vast things. Love, for White and for us, is both burden and apprenticeship.
His poetry, like that of any aspiring master-craftsman's, is the most valid
expression of his spirit.
There is a melancholy that haunts the isolation of genius. But in White it is a
melancholy that he does not carry about in order to drown people out. It is,
rather, a sadness that is lonely and attentive and waiting for the future to
enter in ways that transform. Our destiny, White knows, goes from within us.
Holding to the difficult, to what is most alien and strange, we must try to
love the abuses and dangers and, in time, they will be our trusted and faithful
friends. What we find most terrible is, perhaps, something helpless that wants
help from us. Sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of what
is foreign. Life never ceases to be difficult. One must move beyond the sense
of victory and loss, find the patience to endure and the simplicity to believe.
White has this simplicity but it is not compounded of innocence. His eyes are
wide open; he insists on arguments and won't give in.
The fine delicacy in human relationships is also at the centre of White's
poetry. He is never embittered, although he often shrinks and is appalled. His
awareness of human misery has opened him up and helped him to crystallize his
individual character: but infinitely slowly. This outburst of poetry has come
to a man in his fifties and early sixties. This anchorage in his poetic form
was denied him in Canada and Africa. But since 1979 an awakening creative urge
has found its outlet and the Bahá'í Faith has found a provisional
poet-laureate. He has found a happiness in being a beginner. But the longest
road through life is found in artistic form and White is more than a little
conscious of how beginnerish he really is. In writing about his first
publication Another Song Another Season
he said in a letter to a friend:
'I suppose it will look primitive to the next generation.'
White has been building, inwardly, preparing something invisible but
fundamental. The fruit of a constant introspection has resulted, for White, in
Occasions of Grace
and, for us, in a public resource of private
optimism. The bonds of community are mostly private renditions, private
perceptions, private needs and private strengths sketched out in a pattern of
interdependent other privacies. Private citizen White shares another view of
his life and his world--and ours. His poetry is exquisite and brings both his,
and our, highest faculties into play. Like good conversation it often seems
that he does it all for the sake of something quite evanescent: just for the
sake of pure delight.
It seems fitting to close this brief statement with the last poem on the last
page of Occasions of Grace
. It expresses so succinctly the reception
White knew only so well, of much of his poetry by most of his audience, an
experience common among poets:
REPORT FROM THE GRAND CANYON
Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand
Canyon and waiting for the echo.
So, don, you waited futilely?
Well, you expressed it beautifully.
But I find it's even worse
When echoes do attend my verse.
With every book of mine
Some excited pedant's on the line.
That he's noticed a misspelling
And, warming to the attack,
Listsa errors of mere fact
Relishing each transgression-
(Does he want a signed confession?)
How did you CLICK! like the poem?
I'm left listening to the dial tone.
Readers like that are obnoxious;
They should read only cereal boxious
Or be dropped into a canyon-
The Grand, or one chosen at randyom.
Or consigned, Don, to some tome-lined hell
that lacks your archie and mehitabel
Its books ponderous and fustian
and written in futhark or Etruscian.
"I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story,"
The New York Times Magazine
, April 8th, 1979, pp.22 ff.
Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith
University of Chicago Press, 1980.
 Letter of the Bahá'ís of the United
States of America: 29 December 1988
, The Universal House of Justice.
A poet's life, any life, is a process of unfolding
realization.....a responsibility for poetic values, poetry is a way not only of
knowing but also of living in the world, straining towards feelings of
consciousness in which what is outside is fused with what lies within the self.
-Veronica Brady, South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright,
Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1998, Introduction.
J.B. Priestly once wrote that "the true Shakespearian way of life was to
combine a scepticism about everything with a credulity about everything."
What one might call this 'modern attitude' of
having a theoretical uncertainty about even the surest of statements is,
perhaps, "our greatest asset in adapting to our human situation."
In approaching history White began with the assumption
that man's social evolution was due to the periodic intervention in human
affairs of the creative force of the universe by means of the Founders of the
great religions. White had examined this assumption in the light of the new
evidence for this phenomenon provided by the Bahá'í Faith. This had been part
of his investigation in the late forties and early fifties. White's approach to
history was the same as his approach to religion. It was based on the
scientific method. What White has to say in his poetic history, expressed over
hundreds of poems in several volumes and chapbooks, can be verified,
understood, only by individuals capable and willing to assume White's point of
view. His views can only be understood and appreciated by those who have
studied or are willing to study the history on which it is based. The element
of historical subjectivity that resides in White's poetry is the same that
resides in any other domain where the scientific method is applied. What White
is saying in the field of religion is not so private, so mystic, so
incommunicable as to be beyond scientific method. In exploring White's
understanding of history I invite readers to study the historical
configurations on which it is based. For, I would argue, it is virtually
impossible to appreciate that element of his poetry which deals with history
without knowing something about that history.
White's poetry, like the poetry of W.B. Yeats, is so filled with the people and
places he cared about, the beliefs and issues he was involved with as an active
publicist of the Cause he had identified himself with, that the events of his
life seem curiously inevitable, as we find ourselves accepting unreflectively
one striking event in his life and his poetry after another. White and his
poetry are part of the tissue, the very warp and weft, of the Cause in the
history of its Heroic and Formative Ages. White's way of writing, of talking,
sounded like the way historian of modern poetry David Perkins described Yeats
and his poetry: "the actual thoughts of a man at a passionate moment of
life.....compelled to speak directly from his personal self, writing of the
actual men and women in the actual world and in his own life."
With Yeats, White might have also written, as Yeats did in
his epigraph to his volume of poetry Responsibilities
in 1914, In
dreams begin responsibility.
White put words down on paper, but his moment in history, his society, his
milieux speaks through him. One could argue, and White seems to, that once
written, once spoken, the poem belongs to those who read it and authorial
intention and poetic ambiguities can not be resolved, although they can be
discussed. The literary interpretations of readers are seen as announcements
of who they are and what they believe. Readers shape the poem and are shaped
by it. Misinterpretation and distortion by readers are unavoidable, to some
At the core of poem after poem,
though, is what Mark Turner calls "narrative imagining...... the fundamental
instrument of thought."
relies on the readers' capacity to project one story onto another, to organize
the story of a life, say, in terms of a journey. The mind of the reader relies
on the story to interpret "the simplest quotidian acts to the most complex
The mind of the poet
relies on the story for a myriad purposes, often unknown to the reader. Perhaps
White was trying, among other things, "to preach some kind of self-effacement
to his own self-assertive age."
humility was not natural to White, or to many of us. Perhaps it was, as he saw
it, a mental need without which we would have difficulty seeing the world in
its proper light.
In the beginning was the Story, the Word--and White leads us back to that Story
and Word, into our Story, our Word: its sacred sites, its archtypes, its
culture, its map, its truth and its engagement with moral law. Readers can
tap into these eternal stories, find their relationship with them, their
meaning, illuminate what endures in life, place the ephemeral in its proper
perspective. White hounds us, tantalizes us, haunts us, with his rendition of
the Bahá'í Story. He is often obscure, does not give us a definite shape,
leaves us with an urgency in our drive to interpret, an urgency which is often
a symptom of our lack of knowing, perhaps even our insecurity. White reminds us
of where we are going and why. He gives his readers a range of vehicles to
take themselves and their lives seriously. One of the vehicles is history. In
an age when stories come at us until they are filling our eyes to overflowing
and coming out of our ears in excess from a print and electronic media, White's
Story, his interpretation of the Bahá'í Story has a particular and special
significance. His recreation is memory and soul, so unlike the big television
blockbusters which recreate history as spectacle, as body, which keep the eyes
busy but leave the mind, in the end, amused and vacant. White's recreations
help the Bahá'í community define who and what it is. Remembering is a
"fragile, heroic enterprise,"
poet laureate Robert Pinsky and poetry can teach us about this enterprise.
White is in the front lines of this fragile and heroic enterprise.
The Western Dreaming opens, for the Greeks and the Hebrews, on the plains of
Troy and in a garden laid out by the very hand of God. And now, after several
thousand years, we exist at a vast distance from the psychic universe of these
Greek and Hebrew writers. The Dreaming that White is dealing with in his
poetry is yet another severe historical landscape charged with the ethereal
brightness of dramatic Persian mountainscapes, great expanses of naked rock,
long green valleys and their rivers and deserts of searing heat, dust and
inhospitable emptiness, stone and brick villages and some friendly and
agreeable shores. White's poetic places of Dreaming also take readers on a
journey to Israel, Europe and North America, at least some of the places and
people there, where the history of the Bahá'í Faith went through its first
century. We have come closer to this Dreaming than we were, in recent times,
to Eden and Troy. There is no anachronism here, no abstruse language, no
arbitary and mythical eschatology. Here is a Dreaming which was part of Western
history just recently, was lived in just the other day. The steel of White's
genius strikes the flint of history and of our times and gives that Dreaming a
fresh spark and vitality. White would have agreed with poet and literary
critic Sir Philip Sydney who saw poetry as superior in some ways to both
philosophy and history, to the essential abstractness of philosophy and the
essential concreteness of history. Poetry is free to roam in a vast empire of
passion and knowledge which the poet tries to bind together.
Like Sydney, White saw poetry as the superior moral
teacher. The poet could, by a fitting selection and organization of ideas and
incident, achieve a reality more profound than that presented by quotidian
However recent, the Bahá'í Dreaming can slip into history beyond our meaning.
It is we who must recover our Dreaming. We have to discover our Story, our
Stories, and connect them to our everyday lives. White is helpful here. He
takes dozens of the stories from the precursors(1743-1843) of the Babi and
Bahá'í Revelations right up into our own time in the last years of his
life(1990-1992) before he was too sick to write--and puts his readers right in
the picture. He holds the hands of his readers, sometimes gently, sometimes
with an encouragement to 'come-up,' sometimes informing us that 'here is your
hero,' 'here is your soul,' 'here is the work,' 'this is the spiritual point,'
though he leaves his readers plenty of room to work it out themselves. All
they can do is wait and work, follow the path, try not to worry, have faith and
Be, Be like some or many of the souls, the people, White has given us in his
White gives us a neighbourhood to journey in for our Dreaming. Sometimes the
path is too hard to walk on; sometimes on the path our tentative moves will be
welcomed and our sure moves rebuffed. But for each of us, the Dreaming is
particular and we must work out our own narrative vehicles for gaining access
to the general sacred order that White gives us on page after page of his
poems. But the big Story, when it strikes, is a metaphysical cyclone because
it is particular to the individual, interpreted in a singular context and it
surges up within us. Some of the Story, the Dreaming, is erudite, some simple
and everyday. White's poetry is, at times, a complex virtuosity and, at other
times, the essence of simplicity like the Story he is conveying. White
provides what Dr. Johnson described in his preface to his edition of
Shakespeare, namely, a place for the mind to repose "on the stability of
truth." After the endless products of the mass media, what Johnson might have
called "the irregular combinations of fanciful invention...and that novelty of
which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest," White creates for his
readers "a golden world superior to the brazen world of reality,"
a world with a special kind of optimism, a
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
Are given as our library--
We, star-affrighted, gaze to land.
All roads in White's poetic journey converge at one spot: the teachings of
Bahá'u'lláh and His life. Bahá'u'lláh is not the hero, like Achilles in that
Greek Dreaming, simple and splendid. He is the eternal mystery, the enigma, but
His life takes place in a precise historical time and place where the
participants are real personages who were born, lived, suffered and died. They
happened along once upon a time. This time the physical Story, the historical
account contains a massive detail compared, say, with the account, the
Dreaming, of the New Testament
or The Iliad
White's stories seem to coalesce out of the primal mist, the clouds, the gold
sparks of Babi-Bahá'í history going back over two hundred years to, arguably,
say, 1793 when Shaykh Ahmad left his home to prepare the way for the Promised
White helps us to carry our stories within us, into the world and out of it.
In the end it is often, not so much that we read White's poems but, rather,
that they read us. Sometimes, as George Steiner says of Franz Kafka's works,
White's poems "find us blank."
away from his poems as we often turn away from the Revelation, from their
potential for enchantment, for exuberance. We turn away from his invitation to
explore our Dreaming. For in this world of confused alarms our sensory
emporiums are so bombarded that the best that is written and thought eludes us
as we settle for that which can not satisfy or appease the hunger.
White's poetry is, of course, more than Story. It is both praise and criticism
of life, social analysis and psychological diagnosis. It is the expression,
the result, of his search for unity. For many writers in the last decades of
the twentieth century, this search for unity was constantly frustrated in its
narrative, historical and subjective domains with the result that they often
reduced history to autobiography and society to their own consciousness.
Former and apparent blueprints for social change that many had found in
religion or politics became increasingly delusory. As the expressions of social
and political unity increased in the world so, too, did the expressions of
fractured, divisive, violent and anarchous activity increase. When White
started writing poetry the world's population had something less than three
billion; when he finished nearly fifty years later, that population had become
something less than six billion. To document the changes in that half century
are not possible in the context of this essay. But White's history, his view
of the past, is inseparable from the world he lived in and the changes it went
White's poetry is an expression of what for him was "true historical sense,"
of his existence among countless events and
of his definition of history's landmarks, points of reference and its
perspectives. In writing his poetry, his history becomes ours if we want to
share it with him. Among the multiciplicty and immensity of it all White finds
and preserves coherence, wholeness and unity. This, too, is our task. For we,
too, must mold our historical and personal consciousnesses, our historical
unity. We must make our own story into history, our multiplicities into a
oneness, our narrative into a portion of that "mass of billions of local
that is universal history. White
offers to us a series of synthesizing mechanisms that help bring together
history and our lives, the macro and the micro, as it is sometimes expressed
today. White would have liked to achieve, as any poet would, what Johnson
wrote in his life of the poet Gray: "Images which find a mirrour in every
mind" and "sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Still, he left his
mark. He gives us old knowledge, old history, rednered in new ways, the
familiar made unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar, as one writer once put
Roger White is one of the finest wordsmith's to have written in English in the
Bahá'í community in recent epochs. If you love literature, history and the
Bahá'í Faith, I could do no better than suggest you patiently pursue poem after
poem of what is an extensive opus and devour, as much as you can, White's
delicious instances of wit, wisdom and sheer genius. Hagiographers may indulge
the pleasing task of describing the religion they espouse as it descended from
heaven arrayed in its native purity; a more melancholy and at the same time
more joyous and intellectually satisfying duty falls upon the poet. The poet's
task, certainly as White sees it, is to discover the inevitable mixture of
humanity and ordinariness, vanity and weakness, heroism and virtue, which is
associated with the subtle and complex system of action and conviction in the
emerging world religion he was part of for nearly half a century. The given
moment of history, to White, is something more than a mere circumstance. It is
a moment he must seize as a moral, an aesthetic, fact. In seizing this fact,
the reader is often required by White to do a little digging, exert some
intellectual effort, exercise more than a little brain power and imagination.
If the reader is not capable of giving something of himself he cannot get from
White's poetry the best it has to give him. If that is the case he had better
not read White's poetry, for there is no obligation to do so.
White seems to have some of that "inexhaustible ardour for insight" that the
poet William Blake evinced and "his sensibilities so heightened that ordinary
events were translated into extraordinary ones."
The outward creation was certainly, from time to time
anyway, a transparent shell through which White beheld the fiery secret of life
and its burning ecstacy. It was a secret and an ecstacy that he had seen and
experienced thanks to the teachings of the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith
transforming influences. But it was a many-splendoured, many-sided, thing.
White knew that:
We court a miracle and see the
The petals rust. What do our hearts avail?
No sword of vengenace cleaves us as we stand,
Our supplication brings no answering shout.
An ant crawls by persistent as our doubt
And in the comprehsnding hush we understand
Our mediocrity and godliness:
White would have agreed with Jane Austen when she wrote: "Real solemn
history, I cannot be interested in. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars
or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing and hardly any
women at all." 
The record of the past
has never been easy to render; in some basic ways the content of the social
sciences in general is much more complex than the physical sciences and so the
telling of history, in or out of poetic form, is a difficult task. It helps to
know a great deal and it helps to have thought long and hard about it. So often
it is in vain that with retrospective eye we can conclude a motive from the
deed. For character is unstable, life at best only partly explainable and the
individual only understandable to a degree. It is not surprising that for
many, even the more informed, history still is what it was to Gibbon two and a
half centuries ago: "little more that the register of the crimes, the follies
and misfortunes of mankind."
History for White was also, as Gibbon put it much later in that grand work, "a
record of the transactions of the past for the instruction of future ages."
White knew what the American historian
Charles Beard once wrote, that "the writing of history was an act of faith;"
that the historian, the poet, indeed, all of
us, must makes certain assumptions, wind our emotions around these assumptions
and proceed through life. As far as possible we must ground these assumptions
in truth, in fact, but inevitably there is an act of faith involved somewhere
in the process. White knew that facts about the past "are no more history," as
historian of biography Ira Nadel expressed it in a light and perceptive way,
"than butter, eggs and pepper are an omelette."
They must be whipped up and played in a special
For White the writing of poetry, and his particular take on history, is a
'dance of life,' 
as the Australian poet
A.D. Hope once defined the art of poetry. Some pedestrian or not-so-pedestrian
person in Bahá'í history acquires a fresh, new, life with a compactness, an
economy of language, a concern for things as they really happened, as the
nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke would have expressed the
recording of history. White does what Karl Popper advocates in his The
Poverty of Historicism
. He consciously introduces "a preconceived point of
view" into his history" and writes "that history which interests" him,
but he does not twist the facts until they
fit a framework of preconceived ideas, nor does he neglect the facts that do
not fit in. Popper says that such an approach, that is the introducing of a
preconceived point of view, should be seen as one that begins with a scientific
hypothesis. Such a focus of historical interest, Popper emphasizes, is a
historical interpretation. Of course, one should endeavour, as far as possible,
to know the facts of history but, as Kant once argued, it is difficult if not
impossible to know the facts, the reality, of things. The real use in knowing
what happened in history lies in the interpretation of history's facts, its
The recreation of a life is one of
the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform.
White gains access to meaning by interpreting events, arranging patterns,
making descriptions, by actively engaging in practical rationality.
This is what is at the heart of hermeneutics
and phenomenology, sub-disciplines in the social sciences that have grown up in
the twentieth century and influenced philosophy and sociology among other
fields. In the process he brings forth hidden meanings, messages, as it were,
from the past and the reader engages in an endless chain of listening and some
essential thinking. For hermeneutics and phenomenology are both science and
art. They aim at the attainment of historically effective consciousness, at a
dialogue with the past, with those who lived in that past and those who thought
about that past. Understanding is the filter, the door, through which thought
passes. White attempts to open that door. And, in the end, he achieves what the
art critic and historian Herbert Read said that T.S. Eliot achieved in his
poetic opus: an enlargement or intensification of the "very consciousness of
the world in which we are vitally involved."
White writes each historical poem from "an exclusive
point of view," as Charles Baudelair once said that biographical work must be
written from, but also "from a point of view which opens the greatest number of
White attempts to create a narrative, a concept of the Bahá'í narrative, which
Bahá'ís can readily identify with. For without this identity time turns into an
unsolvable conflict of voices of authority, an antimony. Understanding, to
White, is bound and embedded in history and the meaning changes over time
according to how it is received and read. Meaning can never be fixed. From his
first chapbook in 1947 to his final published work in 1992, White gives his
readers slice after slice of history, of his interpretation of a shared memory.
It is useful for his readers to have read some of God Passes by, Nabil's
or any one of a number of books that explore the history of the
Bahá'í Faith. A sensitive appreciation of so much of White's poetry depends on
some background knowledge of the belief system, the points in time and place
that White is coming from, that all Bahá'ís are coming from. With this
background the reader can often gain an insight, an understanding, of Bahá'í
history and its teachings that many hours of patient reading of other volumes
will not yield.
Matthew Arnold once wrote that the Greek dramatist Sophocles saw life whole,
with its moral and emotional meaning inside it.
The modern world, the modern condition, on the other
hand acknowledges no publicly accepted moral and emotional Truth, only
perspectives toward it. But like Sophocles, White believed in submission to
divine law as the fundamental basis for both individual motivation and social
cohesion. To put it another way, both writers strongly believed that religion
should play a very large part in the way society should be organized. Both
writers had "a delicate sense of the complexity of experience,"
a sense of the tension between public interaction and
private life and a clarity of vision that came from the world of myth. "Myths
were a living body of meaning," for both Sophocles and White, "that illuminated
the essential processes of life."
each writer, of course, the mythic base is different. Sophocles was, arguably,
the last major thinker, certainly the last Greek dramatist of the fifth century
BC, to see the "need for a law-a divine law-above the state and its holders of
For both White, and Sophocles,
this mythic base, this common world view or cosmology and its accompanying
moral and spiritual system, provides the ethos, the overall dramatic context,
the external standard, the very structure for something ennobling for the
community, something that contributes to its well-being. Without this
commonality, people live with incompatible ends and develop political systems
in which the end justifies the means. As Ivanov contests in Koestler's
Darkness at Noon
: `The principle that the end justifies the means is and
remains the only rule of political ethics.'
Perhaps Ivanov puts the case a little too strongly but we
get the drift and it appeals to our skepticism about partisan politics.
This is partly why White sought to draw his readers away from his personality.
Indeed, he was downright embarrassed with the whole notion of drawing attention
to himself. This was utterly alien to what he was trying to achieve as an
artist, a poet. The voice that spoke in his art was not that of his limited
personality, but rather of a soul who had identified himself with divine and
Indeed, "the slightest
whisperings of self," the whole pursuit of self-expression, was, for White,
done in the context of the upturned mirror of his soul in which the light of
the will of God and His teachings were reflected, at least that is how he
envisaged the process.
helped produce, over time, White's voice. What underlies White's success,
indeed all success in poetry, is voice. It gives us confidence in what he
says. It is poetry's decisive factor. It is continuous and accumulates as he
writes and as you read.
Some things in life must be savoured slowly. White's poetic history is one of
these. The first poem in White's first major book of poetry Martha
begins with a conversational, a casual,
tone as if the poet was speaking to this famous Bahá'í teacher, as if he was
writing her a letter:
Have patience, Martha,
White is informal but serious as he continues with thirty lines of graphic
description which includes his depiction of Martha Root's inner mental state
and her motivational matrix in the years after World War I when the apocalyptic images
ineffaceably etched there-
the towers afire
the maimed trees
the human pyre
sent her "hurtling in exquisite arc/across the blackening sky,". And so she did
'hurtle' for two decades between the wars before she died in Hawaii in 1939.
Her life became:
..........a solitary warning cry
against engulfing dark
and ultimate night.
The darkness was so great during these inter-war years when millions perished
in Stalin's and Hitler's fiery death camps that Martha's efforts, however
heroic, are described by White as follows:
Your eyes were
used against the fire,
Apparently insignificant, her efforts, he goes on:
purchased brief respite
that on the ramparts might arise
the legioned guardians of light.
These 'legioned guardians' began to arise in the teaching Plans that the
Guardian initiated just two years before Martha died so that, by the 1960s,
thousands would arise 'on the ramparts.' By the time White was to write this
poem and by the time its first readers would enjoy his succinct and pithy
summation of her life there were indeed "legioned guardians of light." White
advised Martha, still addressing her in that colloquial and informal tone, to:
we may yet ourselves become
in conflagrant holy urgency.
And so in five lines, the last five of White's first poem in his first major
book of poetry, White gives his readers a vision, a direction, for their own
lives, linked as it is with the greatest Bahá'í teacher of the Formative Age.
He was not trying to renew "a decadent civilization,"
as Ezra Pound had tried to do and unsuccessfully as he
admitted in his epic poem The Cantos
, written over more than half
a century. But there is no doubt that White was trying to play his part, by the
time he wrote this poem in the late 1970s, as one among millions of his
co-religionists, in the construction of the new world Order associated with the
Faith he had joined some thirty years before. The part he played, par
, was the writing of a long series of statements, a dialectic, a
development, a form, which attempted to lead the mind to some conclusion, to
some affective condition, a quality of personal being judged by the action it
leads to. But the language he used, poetic language, was largely one of
indirection and symbolism.
There is an authenticity here, something behind and beyond the text, the life
of Martha as we know it in the extant biographies and histories, beyond and
behind the representation or embodiment of Martha Root in the photos of her
that are part of our history. White undertakes to reveal a Martha Root who is
doing more than looking past the camera into the distance with an air of
weighty seriousness, of farsightedness, a look which might strike some viewers
as anachronistic or too detached. Indeed there is no visual image consistent
with White's written portrait. There are many and whatever image one could find
would produce radically different interpretations.
Even the face of Martha, usually characterized as photographs of faces are by
its ability to convey the essence of an individual, her innermost nature and
qualities, its seemingly direct portrayal of the individual, of Martha and her
life, a vivid representation of the living being who was Martha Root, a
truthful picture, a genuine likeness, not just how she looks but what she is,
leaves us asking 'who is the Martha we look at and how may we know it'?
Martha's public persona was, as White notes in the epilogue to this poem, as a
dowdy girl, unattractive and unfashionably dressed, some might say plain. But,
White says later in the poem, we "cease to care/whether virtue be photogenic."
There has been a strong belief in the West since the early years after the
invention of photography, that the face and head are "the outward signs of
The human face
engrosses a large share of our thoughts, perhaps the largest share of all, and
White dismisses this tendency which is part of our celebrity or image culture
in its application to Martha Root. If Martha is to be transformed into anything
it will have little to do with the star or celebrity status of the western
What he projects onto our
consciousness is not a photograph, a visual image. If anything it is an idea, a
thought, that he foregrounds, not the visual, in the complex configuration that
goes to make up Martha Root, the hero. Martha does not fall from hero to star
with its concomitant emphasis on the visual. White confirms her heroic
Indeed, it may be more accurate to say that White clarifies Root's mythic
status. For there is an essential metaphorical nature to Bahá'í history, as
John Hatcher as describes in such a straightforward way in his book The
Nature of Physical Reality.
Myth has a multivalent function
this conception of history. "To limit an image" writes Eliade, "to the concrete
terminology, the physical form, is to mutilate it." In this view of
history--and the poetry White writes--based on this history, the reader must be
creative, must think, must participate, must transcend the physical and move in
a world of abstract thought. He or she must engage in what is often called 'the
analogical process.' Martha, in a poem like this, "becomes a mirror that
reflects insights," as Rollo May once wrote in discussing myth and its function
and her experience gives us "structural undergirding to (our) beliefs."
To put this another way, physical reality,
in this case Martha Root, is a veil that is one remove from the spiritual
reality she represents. And we must use our individual judgement and
discernment to properly utilize this myth, this metaphor, this spiritual
reality, to free us from blind adherence to dogma, to a physical reality and,
thus, to participate wisely in the physical reality that is our daily life.
In a second poem, the next one in Another Song
, A Letter to
, White continues with his colloquial, conversational idiom. We
learn a great deal about this attractive Bahá'í woman who made an outstanding
contribution of service to the Cause and who was the West's first martyr. But
this poem is no factual biography, no story of a life. It is a graphic
recreation not an impartial account. White is a poet with a belief in a
compelling vision, a principle, a dogma containing a great emotional and
spiritual potency at its source and in its history. White possesses a
technical virtuosity and he plots meticulously as he encourages his readers to
think for themselves. We see this in his clever and witty poem, his piece of
dramatic invention, based on the life of Keith Ransom-Kehler.
The poem begins by placing the reader right at the heart of the issue White is
Why did you do it, Keith,
And you a looker?
Not your usual religious dame
in need of a good dentist
and a fitted bra.
In White's response to a letter criticizing his poem's "stereotypical thinking
about religious women as rigidly pietistic," women "lacking in pulchritude who
seek spiritual consolation as compensation." White says "no slight was intended
to any woman." He continues in that same letter indicating that he sought "to
place in the mouth of the narrator of the poem, a fictitious peer of Keith's, a
man holding attitudes perhaps typical of his time and place, words of grudging
and bewildered admiration for a townswoman of his acquaintance, whose heroic
example of authentically-experienced faith forces him to reappraise those very
prejudices against religious women which he unsuccessfully masks behind an
uneasy, heavy-handed humour."
At the end of the poem Keith's sacrifice causes this anonymous narrator to
reexamine his own life orientation:
me a grown man,
three sons and a wife in the grave
and not what you call sentimental.
White concludes his letter by saying that "we cannot lose hope that even the
narrator of "A Letter to Keith" will grow to recognize the perniciousness of
the philosophy that governs the world of semblances." White wrote, again in
that same letter, that "I do not underestimate the power of slights of cause
hurt." And I'm sure he did not, having had his share of slights in life, a
share that I'm sure contributed in interesting and complex ways to his poetic
opus. It is a rare event for readers to possess an interpretation of a poem
given by this poet and had not a letter to the editor been critical of White
and his poem in the first place this opinion, this defence of his poem and his
intentions in writing it, would not exist. I can not think of another
commentary on a poem as extensive as this, at least not in White's published
Perhaps some of White's skill resides in that strange ability, as William Blake
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of (his) hand
And eternity in an hour.
Or as another poet, Browning, emphasized that
search should exceed his grasp
Or what's a heaven for.
White's poetic pieces of history are based on the view that human phenomena
must be interpreted. They don't just speak for themselves. Social reality has
become, in recent decades, very complex. The analysis of this social reality
by various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences has become
interdisciplinary and has expanded at a dazzling rate. The critical literature
is now burgeoning. It has become impossible to read it all, in any of the
As one of the twentieth
century's great social analysts Joseph Schumpeter once put it, even before this
late twentieth century burgeoning of analysis: to make a judgement about human
affairs, even one of the smallest moment, would require much study, much
And I would add, more study
than most of us are prepared, or desire, to invest. It simply takes too much
time and the disciplined exercise of our rational faculty. And there are so
For White, "the poem comes before the form," as Herbert Read described the
process, "in the sense that a form grows out"
of his attempt to say something. His poem becomes its own
universe with words "impressed like clay with the poet's invention,"
in a poetic tradition that began, Herbert
Read outlines, with the imagists in 1908, the year 'Abdu'l-Bahá was released
from confinement in prison in Akka.
White recognizes the complexity, the interdependence and the mystery of reality
I refer to above in the following poem, The Appointment
.52 I have
discussed this poem before in an earlier chapter, but it is worth quoting again
because what we have here is some of White's philosophy of history:
There is another kind of clock
its cogwheels fixed
in the unknowable convolutions
of God's mind,
perhaps our galaxies
its smallest jewels,
a clock that marks
some celestial piecing
one that runs silently,
fluidly forward or back,
cancelling our time,
its tick perpetual,
attuned to the omniscient
and eternal heart.
The cornerstone of the Bahá'í philosophy of history is a belief in progress
through providential control of the historical process. At the heart of this
philosophy is the concept of an ever-advancing civilization. There is none of
the historical pessimism and the contemptus mundi
of the old religions.
White's poetry and his Faith extends to humankind an immense hope and
confidence in the future, indeed, that there will be a blissful consummation to
In this same poem,
White quotes the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "From this
temple, thousands of temples will arise." Progress is not only the law it is
the prerogative of the divine ordering of history; or, as White adds near the
end of the poem, the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "The Temple is already built!" The
essential mystery of this divine ordering is echoed in the last two lines of
what clock or calendar keeps Him
and Who He is.
This teleological view of history, where "intervention/rises up to melt our
mathematics/or intersect our schemes," or, in the poem The Pioneer,
"The future is inestimably glorious,"
White expresses in poem after poem his view of man and his view of history. To
White, man is a composite being with a higher and a lower nature, with an
angelic and an animal side. Only through the exercise of his spiritual
faculties can a harmonious and beneficial world be created. We see Siegfried
Mortensen's permanent place in "Bahá'í history,"
Salman, the courier's courage,
the spiritual qualities of a host of others: Thomas
Breakwell, Juliet Thompson, several martyrs, people spread throughout his
hundreds of poems.
It is White's view that the revealed Word fundamentally affects the development
of social and cultural reality. Indeed the Cause of all creation and the source
of all attributes is the Primal Will which is manifested by the Manifestation
of God. All aspects of civilization are the result of the expression of this
Primal Will in the world of creation through the utterance of the Word, or
Logos. This interaction is perpetual and continuous. The following poem
illustrates my point. White makes the narrator of the poem, Lullaby
an old woman who is telling bedtime stories to children. She is telling the
story of the day she saw them take Bahá'u'lláh in chains to the Siyah-Chal. It
was years before and she had come
--------------as a young girl into the service of his wife
--------he was led through the rabble of the streets.
A strange sight indeed--like seeing a white rose
in a swarm of gnats. He walked in cream-like majesty
She describes how she was about to throw a small pebble at him but, in shame
and fear, she turned and fled and hid the pebble. Years later, as she is
telling this story, she says:
it was enough to have seen
Perhaps I should have cast it, but my hand was stayed.
I took it as an omen.
It grows, I think, more white each year
The silly amulet of an old fool, I suppose,
but when I am ill or sad it comforts me
So there you have it; it was his eyes, you see.
It was as though they gazed beyond us to another world.
Although this is a somewhat humble way of illustrating the whole notion of the
evolution of civilization that is at the heart of White's view of history, in
its simplicity it makes its point. The evolution, the progress, the development
of civilization, one of the many complex issues in the social sciences and an
issue that has found several major theoretical constructs to support various
interpretations, answers or explanations is explained in the Bahá'í teachings
by religion or, more specifically, the Manifestation of God. Economics,
conflict, reason, power, great men, all find their place in various systems of
explanation. White places the source of development of society squarely on the
person of the Manifestation of God; this is the cause and all else is effect.
By implication, then, "only those who are not interested in political power or
worldly glory are worthy"
of this Cause
and its message. There are so many illustrations in White's poems which
illustrate what I am saying here. I leave it to the readers to do their own
How does White express this interpretation of history in his poems? What are
the various stresses and strains that point to this reality, this philosophy of
In a poem about Ruhiyyih Khanum White refers to "history's hunkered
spectre/brooding watchfully in the shadows."
This 'helpmate' drowns, in the last two lines of the
poem, "in scarlet helplessness/at the marble column's foot." With Balyuzi "Pain
had softened the aristocratic outline" and his "will pinned furiously to one
And again: "the panorama
of the mountain/must not blind one to the pebble." White talks of "improvising
our lives from movies and pulp fiction."
I could list many more takes on history, on society, on life and its meaning
but, somehow, they do not carry the weight of several individual poems examined
in full. I shall close this essay with a discussion of these several poems.
For they each provide points of intensity at which the force of the emotions
fuse the utterance, or at least attempt, to a glowing heat. For me, White
provides poetry of this kind frequently. He is deeply concerned with our moral
sensibility but not in any narrow evangelistic sense with its accompanying
moral superiority. He comes at us and makes his greatest impress due to the
intellectual-aesthetic content of his work more than its moral, its religious,
appeal. "Intellectual assent in literature," wrote Lionel Trilling, "is not
quite the same thing as agreement."
pleasure often comes from White's intellectual cogency, his artistic and
emotional power, even when we don't agree with him.
The poem, The Gift,
is based on an experience Curtis Kelsey had in 1921
when 'Abdu'l-Bahá called him into his room in Haifa and sitting opposite Him,
'Abdu'l-Bahá just looked at Curtis for several minutes in silence. Later in
life when Curtis experienced difficulties that face would appear to him. White
writes the following sonnet:
With that face given to me had
Of other gift? With those eyes holding mine
The shrivelled earth lost power to incline
Me to its shimmering mirage, to heed
Its ashy course, its dimming stars' design--
In one long glance the light of sun was mine!
Embossed on all my days this best of gifts,
A compelling image me to virtue past my reach.
Thus comforted, upheld, the frail heart lifts
To meet the imprinted living goad again
And pluck sweet victory like the low-hung peach.
His countenance held heaven's very plan.
That message read, what other need I scan?
The 'shimmering mirage,' the 'ashy course' of earth and the 'dimming stars'
design' that White alludes to is a reflection of a view of life, expressed in
the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, that 'the world is like a vapour in the desert
which the thirsty dreameth to be water but when he comes upon it he finds it to
be mere illusion.' This is not to say that we should not strive in this
earthly life; indeed, as White points out in the first line of the sestet, the
image of the face of 'Abdu'l-Bahá rising in Curtis Kelsey's brain challenges
---------------to virtue past (his)
The torments and stimulants, the goads, of life must be met day after day and
we must strive to "pluck sweet victory like the low-hung peach," however
illusory life may be in an ultimate sense. And finally, the reader is brought
face to face with the core of the meaning of the poem, a core beyond the
dichotomy of meaning and illusion, in the poem's penultimate line: "His
countenance held heaven's very plan." This was 'the gift' that is the title of
the poem. Curtis had no need for any other gift after 'Abdu'l-Bahá had given
him the gift of 'his visage' whenever he was in need. History rests, as White
says in so many different ways in his poems, on the interaction of a
combination of several interrelated factors: the Manifestation of God and his
Covenant, here expressed in the person of "Abdu'l-Bahá, individual striving and
a detachment from the results of striving, here expressed by the sense of the
illusoriness of life.
One important part of White's view of history, White's view of some essential
perspectives on the meaning of history and of our own individual histories, is
found in the poem Distinction
With every breath to
celebrate breath's source:
Was merely this the perspicuous distinction,
To be as choiceless candle hastening extinction,
Burning with single purpose its brief course
Mindful of the wick, the hand that set the flame,
The oxygen it drinks to speed its end,
Casting its light for stranger and for friend
Nor caring were one beautiful, another plain?
The faithless mind contrives a thousand ways
To fit distraction to our fleeting days
Yet sorrows for the unnamed thing we lose.
What use were lungs unless in every breath
Life's source be remembered? Were all else death?
The purpose of our history, our life, White says is that "With every breath" we
"celebrate breath's source," that we burn "with single purpose" and that we
remember life's source with every breath in such a way that our days are not
filled with distraction. He asks the question, perhaps rhetorically, whether we
would consciously choose such a way of life, whether we would have it any other
way. This is the route out of the misery and woe, the darkness and the
coldness which fill this vale. This is part of that full participation in this
earthly life that will, in time, bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This
full participation, this singleness of purpose is, for Bahá'ís, the building of
a new society. The new man and the new society can not come about without
personal effort. A spiritual rebirth must occur in the individual and a
transformation of society in a new world Order. We all must become that
"choiceless candle hastening extinction" as we work toward that rebirth and
In some ways the centre of history is a spiritual path, a journey. The
, White describes
feel like "folly" and "a dim/Dangerous progress over untracked land/Ambushed
with bogs in which illusions mire." The whole poem describes the dangers, the
problems, the inevitabilities of the journey. "Reason is soon victim and then
desire," he informs us, if we don't already know. In a powerful series of
statements about the nature of the journey, as well as several other important
'journey poems,' White's poetry becomes part of a literature in the western
intellectual tradition going back to Homer's Iliad
among the Greeks and the wisdom literature of the prophets of the Old
. For the history of specific individuals and the history of a
people both occupy the stage in White's history and his stage is a rich and
engrossing one for the reader, if the reader will but give himself to White's
In the end, any poem's success depends on the reader participating in the
emotional life of the person/people/persona/event in the poem. Given the little
we know about White's personal history and given his own oft' expressed
emphasis on his poetry as the only significant and useful basis for really
knowing him, our appreciation of his work must lie squarely on his poetry--and,
of course, on Bahá'í history. This, ultimately, is the value of Roger White,
the value to the intellectual and community life of Bahá'ís around the world
both now and in the future. In this sense Roger White has played and will play
an important part in keeping history alive and well in our hearts and minds.
 Autobiography of John Cowper Powys
Picador, 1967, p.xvii.
William Hatcher, "Science and Religion,"
World Order,3, No.3
, Spring 1969, p.9.
David Perkins, A History of Modern
, Cambridge, Harvard, 1976-in William Pritchard, Lives of The
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.58.
Wayne Booth in "How We Read: Interpretive
Communities and Literary Meaning," Falling Into Theory: Conflicitng Views on
, editor, David Richter, Bedofrd, NY, 2000, p.247.
Mark Turner, The Literary Mind
Oxford University Press, NY, 1996, pp.4-5.
Alan Richardson, "A Review of Mark Turner's
'The Literary Mind,'" Internet
, 17 June 2002.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.viii-ix.
Robert Pinsky, "Poetry and American Memory,"
The Atlantic Monthly, Vol.284, No.4,
October 1999, pp.60-70.
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.67.
Roger White, One Bird, One Cage, One
George Steiner, 'A Note on Kafka's
Trial,' No Passion Spent
, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p.251.
Michael Foucault in A Poetics of
Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction
, Linda Hutcheon, Routledge, NY,
Francois Lyotard in Pioneering Over
, Ron Price, Unpublished Manuscript: Appendices, p.21.
Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), pp.19-20.
Louis Untermeyer, Lives of the Poets:
The Story of One Thousand Years of English and American Poetry
, Simon and
Schuster, NY, 1959, p.310.
Roger White, "In the Silent Shrine an
Ant," Another Song Another Season
Jane Austen, "Quotations on History,"
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire
, Chatto and Windus, 1960, p.30.
., Chapter 16.
Charles Beard in "Faith of a Historian,"
Samuel Eliot Morison, American Historical Review
, January 1951,
Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction,
Fact and Form
, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
A.D. Hope in Native Companions: Essays
and Comments on Australian Literature: 1936-1966
, Angus and Robertson,
Sydney, 1974, p.132.
Karl Popper, The Poverty of
, 1957, p.150.
Geoffrey Barraclough, Main Trends in
, Holmes and Meier Pub. Inc., NY, 1978, p.9. The whole
hermeneutical approach to human thought and institutions expounds a vision of
philosophy inseparable from poetic, artistic and historical culture. Hans-Georg
Gadamer, one of the founders of hermeneutics, sees the poet as "the voice of a
, Obituary, March 14th, 2002.)
 Sociological Theory in Transition
editor M. Wardell, and S. Turner, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p.156.
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1958,
Charles Baudelair in Baudelair
Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, p.xiv.
Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of
: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition
Penguin, 1974(1957), p.132.
P.E. Easterling, "Character in
Sophocles," Greece and Rome
, Vol.24, 1977, p.121.
Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the
, Harmony Books, NY, 1993, p.18.
See his play Antigone
quotation is from A. Bonnard, Greek Civilization
: From the Antigone to
Arthus Koestler quoted in The Pheonix
and the Ashes
, Geoffrey Nash, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.50.
See Tudwig Tuman, Mirror of the
Divine: Art in the World Bahá'í Community
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1993,
Roger White, Another Song Another
Herbert Read, op.cit.
Allan Sekula, "The Traffic In
Photographs," Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photoworks-
, Halifax Nova Scotia, p.85.
The transposition of the star system from
movies to literature was also well established and strongly lamented by 1937.(
Brenda Silver, Virginia Woolf: Icon
, The University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, 1999, p.88.)
For an interesting discussion of the
hero-star phenomenon in our culture see Silver, op.cit.
John Hatcher, The Nature of Physical
, Wilmette, 1987, pp.74-117.
This term was used by Mircea Eliade,
Images and Symbols,
Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, 1952, p.15.
Rollo May, The Courage To Create
G.J. McLeod Ltd., Toronto, 1975, pp.106-108.
Roger White, Letter to Bahá'í
, 15 April 1991, copy to the author.
William Blake, "Auguries of
Robert Browning, Collected
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of
: Vol.10, Oxford UP, NY, 1963, p.38 and Vol. 1, p.46. Toynbee
points out that Lord Acton was the last person who was able to read everything
in a field of knowledge before trying to write his book but, in reading
everything, he did not publish. This was in the 1890s.
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism,
Socialism and Democracy
, Harper and Rowe, NY, 1942, p.261.
Herbert Read, op.cit.
Herbert Read, op.cit.
52 Roger White, Another Song
Geoffrey Nash, The Phoenix and the
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.89.
Roger White, Another Song
Roger White, op.cit.
., p. 57.
Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization:
Spirit, History and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
, University Press
of Maryland, 2000, p.340.
Roger White, The Witness of
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal
, Secker and Warburg, London, 1951, p.291.
64 Roger White, Pebbles
A GALAXY OF CHARACTERS
The great bulk of the poetry of Roger White that was written and published came
in the last fifteen years of his life. Indeed, it was the culmination of a
life's work in reading, writing about, teaching and serving in various
capacities the religion he had joined in his late teens in southern Ontario.
This poetry will remain at the outer limit of human achievement: aesthetically,
cognitively and spiritually, as it came to be expressed in the last quarter of
the twentieth century in the Bahá'í community as it was just emerging from its
century and a half chrysalis of obscurity. Although at that outer limit, it is
also an important part of the permanent record or revelation of the nature of
reality, the history, in that quarter century. Much of the truth of life is
knowable only through the various cultural attainments of the mind. If White
had not come along, perhaps we would have learned the things he had to teach us
from others. Perhaps we wouldn't. His poetry is a magnificent ornament for that
unfailing occupation of our lives-the cultivation of our minds.
The galaxy of characters that White created, recreated, defined, gave birth to,
analysed with a brilliant clarity, penetrating detail, a compression of facts:
the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith, Ruhiyyih Khanum, Martha Root, Keith
Ransom-Kehler, Louis Gregory, Horace Holley, Marion Jack--are more than just
clever instances of how meaning gets extended, refined and elaborated upon,
they are expressions of how new modes of consciousness come into being. White
gives us a vivid, a graphic, impression of the multifariousness of life and the
many layers of the human personality. In some ways White is an enigma, a person
about whom we know only a very basic line of biography, a person who kept
saying, time and again, to examine his poetry not his life, if we wanted to
come to know him. But, if we do this, we find we have in our hands a person
who was everyone, a vision that takes in everything, an art so infinite that it
contains us and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us. His opus
may have been a small one, apparently minuscule, compared to the collected
works of many other great writers in history, but it stands on its own as a
significant body of poetry in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
White's poetry provides what Herbert Read called "a teleological function,"
a connecting link between transcendental being
and human consciousness. His poetry was also a connecting link, a transforming
medium, that took the pain and the joy of life, his and others, and turned it
into art. It is an art that is, for many, a sublime and moving testament to
many of the significant personalities in Bahá'í history.
Perhaps I am overstating the case. But once White's poetry floods your
consciousness and you find he is reading you better than you are reading him,
you begin to appreciate what you have in this subtle quotient, this wondrous
sifter of the Revelation and the history, the philosophy and sociology, of a
religion that claims to be the emerging planetary system of the coming
millennium. I find I am being read by a poet I cannot resist, who possesses
what you might call a `fatal attractiveness.'3 One must read White with a
certain exertion, a certain strenuous exercise of energy but, knowing this, his
poetry will read you even more. The reader has in White a poet who delights in
other people, who has an active and incisive mind and a practicality he brings
to bear on a range of personalities. I find him exquisitely tender. He deals
with the problem that Somerset Maugham says faces the writer: "that vice can be
painted in colours that glow, whereas virtue seems to bear a hue that is
He deals with this curious
trait of the human condition by presenting his characters as 'rounded' in E.M.
Forster's sense, with their mix of the good, the bad, the ugly and the
beautiful all in one poem.
Most cerebral poetry functions at such a level as to lose its emotive power and
I'm sure there will be many who will give up on White, as they give up on
Shakespeare or any other literature that does not come easily into the sensory
and intellectual emporium. Ideas have to be given what the poet John Milton
called a 'local habitation;' they have to be given shape and form before we
take them into ourselves. White does this with an artistry that is sometimes
gentle and subtle and sometimes graphically straight from the shoulder in
carefully crafted images. His poetry requires that you take a little time and I
think it is here that White loses many from the mass culture of the electronic
media where stimulation is instantaneous, visual appreciation highly refined
and busy, but a lively literary sense often dull and decaying.
After two decades of studying White's poetry I don't feel like Robert Bernard
Martin who wrote of Gerald Manley Hopkins that understanding his poems was "far
less difficult that getting to know the mysterious man who wrote them."
Indeed, I don't feel I need to read a massive
biography spread over say five hundred pages dutifully describing each stage of
White's life in great detail and analysing why he did what he did at each stage
of the game. Inevitably such biographies will appear, I'm confident. For me,
White's poetry provides a base line of understanding that is always there for
me to read: read myself, my religion, my society, my time and age. White flirts
with ideas, and values in an imaginative way that exercises my mind and my
heart; or, as Daniel T. O'Hara writes of the kind of imaginative portraits that
White gives his readers again and again, until they often lose their
appreciation in his liberal effusions, these portraits are "written as part of
a dialogue of the mind and the heart."
White's interpretations are part of a process by which his disclosures give to
his readers a new capacity for knowing themselves. His is the work of an
historical, a sociological, a psychological, imagination that revises the past
and imagines a myriad alternatives. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that
White, along with several other writers in the twentieth century, has begun to
create a critical language in which man will speak for a thousand years.
I have come to see White as one of those
midwives of an idea whose time has come. And what may that idea be? It is the
oneness of humanity and its institutionalization in a world Order. The past
cries to be recognized and the present to be transformed. White helps us with
this recognition, this transformation.
For this writer, the eminence, the genius, of White lies in the sheer diversity
of people: heroes, heroines, saints, martyrs, pioneers, administrators,
servants of various kinds to the work of the Cause, ordinary people both within
and without this newest of the worlds great religions. There are so many
separate selves and, if this were not enough, White also deals with a very wide
range of ideas from the landscape of history, society and the future. He does
all this with a gentle wit that is more than just a verbal flourish. It is part
of his poetic modus vivendi, modus operandi
. His wit and humour preserve
"the seriousness from sentimentality and overstatement, as the seriousness
keeps the wit from flippancy."
But, far and above, White's greatest faculty is unquestionably his intellect.
White does what 'Abdu'l-Bahá says the intellect must do in this age if ideas
and thoughts are to be the very soul of the world in a boundless sea that must
boil up "until the waves rise and scatter their pearls and knowledge on the
shore of life."
White creates "new and
wonderful configurations." He embellishes the world with "a fresh grace," "an
ever-varying splendour" which derives from his power of thought.
White, of course, is the first to admit that this gift,
this "sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace."
There are great poets in our time and in history who are not great thinkers and
there are great poets of conceptual originality. Each critic would make their
selection of poets to put in each of these categories. But there are very few
poets in all of history who are both great thinkers and in the possession of a
creative imagination that is highly original.
What White brings to life are, for the most part, not creatures solely of his
imagination. He does not create Falstaffs and Hamlets, characters who in some
ways are larger than life and live down the centuries in its imaginative
literature. The individuals who inhabit White's poetry are part of his
experience, his historical memory and/or part of the historical record of the
Bahá'í Faith. The presentation of human character and personality remains
always the supreme literary accomplishment whether in drama, in narrative or in
poetry. White presents people with sufficient meaning that one gets to know
them sometimes quite profoundly, as well or better than many in one's life.
Through the interaction White creates with this history, this memory, the
voices of his poetic narrative, the recreation and inauguration of personality,
of character, in history--as well as the person he is in his verse--readers
undergo slow transformations of their own. The deepest meaning of White's
poetry lies here. "It is who we have gradually become in reading this verse,"
writes J.B. White in his book about the poetry of George Herbert, "that we can
best call upon as our guide to understanding it."
It was not without purpose that White was attracted to
the poetry of Herbert.
Shoghi Effendi in his famous statement that outlines the key to our success in
teaching, namely, "the extent to which our own inner life and private character
mirrors forth in their manifold aspects the splendour of those eternal
principles proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh."
White renders the characters in his poetry with an uncanny power of
highlighting, mirroring, those eternal principles. The people in his poetry
seem so real. Their reality never leaves you, at least in the case of some of
the main characters. Each reader will have his or her favourites. This is
because White's creations are real
and because White gets on their
insides. They strut and fret upon the stage of life and walk proudly too, but
their brief candle, White ensures, colloquially, often in a quotidian way, will
shine in quite varied ways for us in his poetry. They will be heard from some
more, then, on this earth and in mysterious and unknown ways in the next.
White's compendium of characters are not unlike Geoffrey Chaucer's in his
famous Canterbury Tales
. A group of characters who, as William Blake
once wrote, exemplify "the eternal principles that exist in all ages,"
are described by someone who delights in
other people, who has an active and incisive mind, who dwells only on
essentials, whose feelings are sincere and intense, who is exquisitely tender
but clearly wily and tough minded enough to survive the late twentieth century
and its dark heart. Like Chaucer, White wrote most of his published poetry in
the last years of his life, in fact, just about exactly six hundred years after
that founding father of English poetry. The comparison is an interesting one
but I mention it here only in passing.
Like Chaucer's work, too, White requires some immersion on the part of his
readers if they are to gain some deeper appreciation of his meaning. White is
showing his readers what and even how to perceive, what to sense. He is trying
to enlarge their world, their perception. The problem is often simply how to
read a poem. Often the reader is left with a question, a puzzle, a mystery,
because much of the poetry is what you might call part of "a quest
He deals in metaphor and
readers must fill in meaning for themselves. It does not jump off the page as
it might off the TV screen in some straight action or passion shot. The
journey is described, the story told in what you might call a `hidden way.'
The tone is sometimes joyous and confident but the journey often possesses a
proportionate amount of danger and frustration, qualities that give the goal of
the journey meaning. For White's tale is not something "told by an idiot, full
of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The following poem talks little of the joy and confidence, although the reward
is clear in the last line:
And they will warm you,
children, as they stand
In wan ardour at the dense thicket's rim
That your pitch venture is folly, a dim
Dangerous progress over untracked land
Ambushed with bogs in which illusions mire,
Keen fang and talon glint from every tree
And murky bats career and lean wolves prey.
Reason is soon victim and then desire--
A sharp cry marks the kills no startled plea
Postpones. No one returns uncrazed, the cautious say,
And many perish. Who might guess
How few whose passion wins the sought caress.
Who counsel flight from Love's far lair are wise
But O! not they shall see the Lover's eyes.
There is a wilderness, though, through which we must blaze a new and individual
trail. Occasionally people try to mitigate the story of the pain by stressing
the hopeful vision, the positive side of the journey but few, White warns, win
"the sought caress." No easy wish-fulfilment here. Readers return again and
again to White's varied charactizations and his depiction of life's journey
because they find he gives them so much of the world they find to be fact. He
is not creating a world of fantasy to escape into with one's novel at bedtime.
He tells it how it is and he says it so well, with such articulateness, that
his readers keep coming back to hear it said so eloquently.
White answers the needs of this first generation of Bahá'ís in the tenth stage
of history, the first generation of pioneers under the aegis of the Universal
House of Justice, the trustees of the global undertaking which was initiated by
the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh in the nineteenth century. If White's poetry is to
endure it must answer the needs of future generations as well. Those needs will
vary but White is an international possession and his poetry, I would argue,
will come to transcend the generations, nations and languages. I do not think
he can be confined to the decade-and-a-half that he wrote and published in the
third and fourth epochs of the Formative Age and their historical, social,
political, economic, rational and poetic contexts. I do not think White can be
reduced to a time and place. His influence on his readers is unique and it will
continue into the future. The interpretations of the first quarter-century of
what you might call the White industry are just the beginning. Wonder,
gratitude, amazement at such a mind and sometimes shock are accurate responses
to White's work. White writes to be read, occasionally at public readings but,
for the most part, silently due to his subtlety and comprehensive and
omnipresent creativeness, to use Coleridge's term.
White, of course, will mean different things to different people, but he has
ensured that whatever he means it is to be found in his poetry and not his
biography. Unlike Shakespeare who seems to have had little influence on
religion over the last four hundred years, White's influence on the thinking of
millions of Bahá'ís even in the first generation of his readership has been
significant. I like to think that White was and is popular, although is not nor
will ever be 'popular culture,' at least not in our current sense of the
Much of our experience of culture, our reading of poetry or prose, our
attendance at the theatre, indeed a significant part of our religion, is a
search for ourself or a search for other selves. White gives us other selves
and he gives us ourselves. This is one, perhaps, the main reason, he is
important to us. Whatever the social, spiritual and intellectual provocations
that animated White in the years after the revolution in Iran, in that fifteen
year period when all his major poems were published--and there were many as the
Bahá'í Faith went through a period of significant growth and its spiritual and
administrative centre in Israel was embellished to an unprecedented degree--his
writing, as he himself says, "appears to be rooted in the need to shut off the
clamour of the external world....to enjoy silence and solitude."
In the process White enlarges our vision rather than
sorting out the problems we face. He helps us accept and outgrow what Carl Jung
calls the insolvability of so many of our problems while we move to "a new
level of consciousness."
In 1990 Geoffrey Nash suggested that our age with its fading systems of belief
has given to "those bats of the night,"
the materialists, the dominance of the realms of thought and action. A grossly
materialistic, utilitarian and atheistic world has the poet to keep alive in
man, as Schiller once wrote, aims that are higher than the material.
Nash, writing just as the Bahá'í community
was beginning to respond to the Universal House of Justice's call, in 1979, for
the "development and fostering" of the "intellectual....life of the
decried the absence of an
audience and the groundwork of shared values with those among whom the poet
dwells. The poet, he argued, has had no mooring and has floated adrift in an
amorphous and frightening ocean for more than a century. With Matthew Arnold,
the poet was: 'Still bent to make some port he knows not where.'
But even in 1980 Nash offered hope. He saw the poet, then, as an heir to the
Romantic artists who sensed the dawning of a new age in the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries. He saw the Bahá'í poet as raising his house on a
sure foundation, inspired by golden tapestries of the past. "The Word of God,"
Nash states, "has power to raise a score of fine poets from a hoard of
illiterates who now know nothing of philosophy, nor a word from our poets."
White is certainly a fine poet and in the
last quarter-century a host of others have started walking beside him. Some
have more talent than others and not everyone is a Roger White.
Two years after writing the above, Geoffrey Nash was to inform his readers that
"Roger White is a significant poet whose style and use of Bahá'í subject matter
heralds the development of Bahá'í consciousness in world literature."
White, like Shakespeare, thinks in terms of the lone individual but, unlike
Shakespeare, White also thinks in terms of community. The power of community
will, in the end, triumph over everything that opposes it. It will be as
natural to man as breathing, Alfred Adler once wrote.
The new ideology will utilize community for the first
time in history in a way that does not sound like the repeated sound of a
single boot. For the real problem facing our human community are not so much
to discover the norms for survival as it is to discover the true basis for a
revolutionary myth that will be adequate for our age, that will integrate human
behaviour into some group ethos and its patterns of interdependent privacies.
What White is suggesting in so many of his poems is that "concerted action
toward a single goal" must be taken. "Vague sentiments of good will, however
genuine, will not suffice. Some explicit agreement on principles will be
required for any coordinated progress."
Shakespeare's ambassador to that undiscovered country, death, was Hamlet. White
draws on the enigmatic and wondrous poet, Emily Dickinson. But far beyond and
above Dickinson, White has the writings of a powerful armoury of two
Manifestations of God, Their successors and now more than a century of
extensive and legitimate interpretation. Death, indeed, so many of life's
quintessential mysteries are framed in a language that transcends history. In
all of these things White is both entertainer and source of wisdom literature.
White gives us pleasure and bewildering intelligence.
By 1963 the charismatic authority that resided in the person of Bahá'u'lláh was
fully institutionalised in the Universal House of Justice, the elected body of
all the Bahá'ís of the earth. 1963 also marked the beginning of the last stage,
the end, of history. That the first decades, the first thirty years, 1963 to
1993, when these trustees of the global undertaking initiated by the Bab and
Bahá'u'lláh more than a century before put into action a series of Plans for
the achievement of that single goal--that these years should spawn such a poet
as Roger White is, I think, no accident, no mark of chance, no movement of the
wheel of fortune. As Shakespeare was to write in Hamlet "The play's the thing,"
White was to state again and again "The poem's the thing." For in his poems
readers could find the most succinct expression of the realities of the newest
of the world's great religions, the Bahá'í Faith, over its first century and a
'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to 'the cultural
attainment of the mind' as the 'first attribute of perfection.' See The
Secret of Divine Civilization
, Wilmette, 1970, p.35.
Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling:
Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1958,
., p. 157.
Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p.42.
Robert Bernard Martin, Gerald Manley
Hopkins: A Very Private Life,
Harper Collins, London, 1991, p.xv.
Daniel T. O'Hara, The Romance of
Interpretation: Visionary Criticism From Pater to de Man, Columbia UP, NY,
ibid., p.27. See also The Letter of the
Universal House of Justice, December 29, 1988 to the Bahá'ís the USA for a
discussion of this 'critical language.'
Alfred Alvarez in the Psychic Mariner: A Reading of the Poems of D.H.
Lawrence, Tom Marshall, Heinemann, London, 1970, p. 199.
Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, Wilmette, 1970, pp.109-110.
Roger White, Occasions of Grace, George
Ronald, Oxford, p.ix.
J.B. White, This Book of Stories:
Learning To Read George Herbert, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995,
Shoghi Effendi in Ridvan Message, 1988,
The Universal House of Justice.
William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer:
Penguin Critical Anthologies
, editor, J.A. Burrow, 1969, p.82.
Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson: Perception
and the Poet's Quest, University of Alabama Press, 1985, p.,183.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Soliloquy.
Roger White, Pebbles, p.51.
Roger White, "An Articulate Silence," Essay Sent to the author in April
Carl Jung in The Secret of the Golden Flower, pp.91-2.
'Abdu'l-Bahá in Geoffrey Nash, "Can There Be a Bahá'í Poetry?" Bahá'í Studies,
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan
Nash, op.cit., p.3.
Nash in Bahá'í Studies, Vol.10, p.23.
Paul Stepansky, In Freud's Shadow: Adler
in Context, The Analytic Press, Hillside, N.J.,1983, p.269.
Douglas Martin, "Bahá'u'lláh's Model for
Universal Fellowship," World Order, Fall 1976, p.13.
Two hundred years before the death of Roger White in 1993, Shaykh
Ahmad-i-Ahsai "arose to dedicate the remaining days of his life to the task" of
preparing the way, as one of the two critical precursors of the Bahá'í
Revelation, "for the advent of a new Manifestation." 
In the next several years he began to write a great deal
about the metaphorical nature of the prophecies relating to the birth of a new
and independent Revelation of God. Indeed, there was a strong poetic strain in
the Shakyh's writings: symbolism and metaphor abounded. Shaykh Ahmad was very
unorthodox and many "professed themselves incapable of comprehending the
meaning of his mysterious allusions."
poetic, symbolic, strand has continued through the two precursors of the Babi
Revelation, the Revelation of the two Manifestations of God and the writings of
'Abdu'l-Bahá, all part of what you might call the poetic tradition in the
There has been, too, a series of poets beginning with Tahireh in the 1840s, to
Na'im late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, to George
Townshend up to mid-twentieth century and later Robert Hayden, Roger White,
Bahiyyih Nahkjavani and Michael Fitzgerald who have made important
contributions to the literature and commentary on the Cause in a poetic idiom.
In some ways it could be said that the passing of Roger White in 1993 marks and
end of two centuries of intense and significant poetic writing in a tradition
centred on the appearance of two Manifestations of God in the nineteenth
century. It is not the purpose of this book or this chapter to describe this
long history, this tradition, of poetic influence, of poetic writing. The
experience of poetry begins anew with each generation. Since the first
teaching Plan, 1937-1944, poetry written by Bahá'ís has slowly become a part of
world literature, first through Robert Hayden and second through Roger White,
the subject of this study.
The poetry of
White is seen as continuation and development, as part of "the decisive, the
most significant, contemporary life of tradition,"
as poetry critic F.R. Leavis once described the poetry of
the present. White should be seen, too, as part of that rich treasure of human
life which is now stored within the pale of a new and emerging world religion.
White had much of the culture of this embryonic Force, this Movement,
fermenting, crystallizing, in his head and it took him on a voyage over the
deep of poetry with its delicacy and tenderness, with its inexhaustible
resources, infinitely new and striking. The world had been exploding with ideas
and inventions, knowledge and discoveries for a century and a half. The world
White was writing for was a part of this burgeoning. By the end of the
twentieth century it was teeming. White's timing was just right. If the world
was filled with practical people who did not respond to poetry, who had an
inveterate inaccessibility to ideas, who were impatient with them because they
were unfamiliar, it mattered not. In the burgeoning billions now on the planet,
there was a coterie for everything. White had his audience, an audience that
his ideas could permeate and vivify in a literary epoch that was just beginning
to reach to all the corners of the earth with audiences that were simply
unimaginable in the past.
T.S. Eliot once defined tradition as "a way of feeling and acting which
characterizes a group throughout generations; and that it must largely be, or
that many elements of it must be, unconscious."
Perhaps this is one way of summarizing the two century
old tradition which White is a part of and that I have just outlined briefly
here. There is little evidence that White was ambitious to be a part of this
tradition. There is in White's poetry little evidence of that attitude
expressed by British writer Martin Amis that writers who mean business need to
be ambitious and think they are the best.
Occasionally White makes some comment that bears directly or indirectly on this
issue but, for the most part, the question of ambition and the desire for fame
and success seems curiously or, perhaps, not surprisingly, absent from his
White's concern in his poetry is not
ambition or even utility but, rather, truth which is, as Emerson put it, "its
Part of the necessity of this
focus is, as Hayden Carruth writes eloquently, that lying "has become a way of
life, very nearly now the
way of life, in our society. The average adult
American of average intelligence believes almost nothing communicated to him in
language, and the disbelief has become so ingrained that he or she does not
even notice it."
While I find what Carruth
writes a little over the top there has developed a pervasive skepticism in our
society with its roots in many places: advertising, religion and politics,
among other sources. "Poetic truth," that which ought to be assented to,
serves as a partial antidote. The difficulty with this emphasis on skepticism
is that there is also an immense quantity of credulity in society as well;
millions will believe just about anything. The issue is quite complex. Perhaps
a good poem "enables us to notice and to judge...those aspects of experience
which an intelligent, curious, compassionate, sensitive, alert person would
deem worthy of attention." A good poem "earns our assent."
It's truth must be discovered afresh at each reading.
The future of the poetry of Roger White is so intimately tied up with the
future of the Bahá'í Faith that to discuss the one is to discuss the other. As
the world moves through its several stages, in the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries, of the necessary and inevitable political and religious unification
of the planet, from a Bahá'í perspective, having already experienced earlier
units of political and social organization: band, family, chiefdom, tribe, city
state and nation, it is useful to examine one man's poetry, apparently
insignificant in the large scheme of things, during one part of the great
turning point that has been the twentieth century. Although White's poetry
has attained a certain fixity now that it has been written, published and has
slipped into tradition's recent past, it has assumed the character of an
atemporal object which has broken free from its historical moorings and is no
longer closed in and restricted. It is free to be interpreted in relation to
the historical situations of future readers.
I'm sure the future will see new and sympathetic
appreciations of White's work and its creative invention that is beyond
explanation in terms of "influences." To ascertain the master-current in the
literature of an epoch, an age, and to distinguish it from the minor currents
is one of the highest functions of a critic; perhaps it is presumptuous to even
try. Arnold says the ability to do this requires "justness of spirit;"
the Universal House of Justice referred to
as an adequacy of "Bahá'í perspective" and "an etiquette of expression."
The future of the poetry of Roger White is also tied up with the search for
fresh answers to the eternal questions, a search that has been a principle
preoccupation of poetic minds at least from Wordsworth's time.
An introspective voyageur, White offers more than
stoical fortitude. He builds a substantial bridge between himself and the
natural and human world about him. At the end of that bridge White offers a
hope-bearing vision, a vision, a cosmic order, that is more than that legend
that goes: 'where the rainbow touches earth there is a pot of gold.' White
believes in the inevitability of an unimaginably glorious destiny awaiting
humankind. The door to this destiny is to be unlocked by a Divine Plan, one
that began unfolding in his lifetime and that he played a part in effecting its
achievements, one that will continue unfolding in the centuries to come long
after he has gone. It is a Plan that he cherished and that is presently the
labor and love of millions around the globe.
The ship of White's poetry does not suffer shipwreck at the entrance to the
harbour where the secular imagination so often fails to solve the enigmas and
contradictions of life, where it lives in a state of tension between belief and
disbelief. And so the pervasive melancholy and the aridity one finds in the
poetry of the Romantics is succeeded in White's poetry by what Geoffrey Nash
called that 'golden seam of joy' and what White himself referred to, among
other things, as a 'green and wiley succulence.'
But one should mention, if one is to be honest,
"despair's bleached skull" and "the heart's thin soil"
and that solemn consciousness wherein joy grows and has
its being. The enthusiastic critic of White's work must always hold out the
possibility that over time his poetry will come to be located in a predictable
and allotted portion of a progressive set of anthologies, a portion which
shrivels with the decades before disappearing altogether. For critics are not
seers, prophets or soothsayers. They cannot tell what the future holds. The
hopes which recent progress in the unfoldment of White's poetry has engendered
may be blasted by any number of future events.
One of the features of White's verse that made him popular while he was alive
was his capacity to generate light verse and to inspire laughter. In this way
he was somewhat like the American master of light verse, poet Ogden Nash, who
wrote prolifically from the 1920s to the 1960s. Nash, like White, distanced
himself from any sort of earnest literary ambition. White, I'm sure, would
have been comfortable with terms used by Nash to describe himself: a versifier,
a trifler, a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet, a devotee of the minor
idiocies of humanity.
This aspect of
White's idiom may not have the staying power as cultural idiosyncrasies and
their associated bases for humour change.
The whole problem of "the trustworthiness of the tradition of interpretation"
which comes up in any hermeneutical
tradition is not present with respect to White's poetry because it is not
present with respect to the ideological and religious framework within which
his poetry is written, namely, the Bahá'í world faith. This is not to say that
our interpretations of White will not have their prejudices; in fact, our very
prejudices may be our "best means of preserving the vitality and
of White's poetry in our
hearts. If there has been any incomprehension of White's poetry in his
lifetime, and there certainly was, I am confident he will emerge solidly into
the light of a universal acclaim as the Cause he was identified with virtually
all his life grows into the glaring light of public recognition. More and
more people will come to enjoy the poetic fashioning he made of his experience,
a process which engaged him for over forty years. The pendulum may swing as
the years go on, of course, from what I trust is a discriminating adulation of
writers like myself, to indifference, but I think it unlikely that White will
receive the extremes of denigration that some poets get in the periods when
their public reception swings into the negative.
Samuel Johnson's words, from his preface to
Shakespeare's plays, offer White a hopeful future: "While an author is yet
living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we
rate them by his best." I think, too, that White will be read, in part,
because his poems are a crucial index to the temperament and emotions, the
experience, of the last half of the twentieth century.
Literary critic Jonathan Holden offers a useful perspective that for me applies
to White and his future. Holden sees a poem as a method of analysis not "the
product of analysis." Holden sees the poem not as a vehicle for communicating
some already discovered vision, some already fixed position, but rather as a
means by which, through the act of writing, the poet might discover and clarify
his predispositions and the precise connections between his feelings and
troublesome facts." In this sense White points the way for us as we try to
clarify our own feelings and thoughts, rather than act from positions where our
minds are already made up. White's poetic form is more of a way of thinking
about poetic form. It is more process than product, more operation than
structure. White's poems 'discover' their form, develop their subject matter,
their content, as they go along. That's what keeps his poems going.
This approach keeps a certain openness
present in the overall tenor of his poetry. It helps to keep his poetry alive
and fresh for generations yet to come.
The individual and society have become, if they were not in the past, quite
complex things. If they are to be written about in poetry they must be
understood at a deep level by the poet. White possessed a critical perception
and understanding and it is this, as Arnold wrote, which gives poetry its
healthy relations with life.
possessed the genius of a great philosophic poet, not as one in mental repose
as perhaps Wordsworth was,
not as one who
enshrined the world of imagination at the apex of creation as Stevens did,
but as one who provided hundreds of lines of
poetry which possessed a philosophical and imaginative perception with humor
and wit, entertainment and edification. And while he did all this he gave the
Bahá'ís new music out of old stories. I'm confident that these lines and
these stories will appeal to generations, as Wordsworth's The Prelude
among his other poems have done for the last two centuries. Like Wordsworth's
poetry, too, White's poetry may well have its periods of popularity and periods
of less public enthusiasm. White's philosophy is embedded like gems, like
pearls, like a fine ore body, in context after context, in a great scheme not
of his own making, as was Wordsworth's.
With this philosophy he helps us clarify the complex and insoluble aspects of
our lives. I see no reason why this should stop with his death.
I should say something, too, about what seems to me to be a complacent and
uninformed view of modernist and contemporary poetry that it is endlessly
experimental or for others that it doesn't rhyme. If there has been a war in
the last two centuries between rhymers and non-rhymers, as some superficial
view might entertain, the non-rhymers have won hands down. The vast majority of
poetry written since Wordsworth got going in the 1780s and 1790s has not been
rhyming. Even some of the greatest of poets before that time, Shakespeare and
Chaucer for example, are essentially non-rhymers. Others see the modern vogue
in poetry as a superficial flouting of poetic convention, with coarse and
indiscriminate hacking up of prose into lines, without punctuation or
capitalization. White's poetry is experimental
in a much deeper and
non-trivial sense of that word and has nothing to do with experimental hacking
of words into lines. White's future will draw on these deeper roots, far
removed from any poetic superficiality.
I like to think that White's poetry will be, as Shelley once wrote in his
Defence of Poetry
, "a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of
wisdom and delight, and after one generation and one age has exhausted all its
divine effulgence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another
and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the unforeseen
and unconceived delight." For as a poet White is partly historian, partly
sociologist, partly psychologist, partly story teller. He has a foot in so many
camps, disciplines. In some ways he is an archeologist who digs until a portait
of the past is revealed to him and preserved for us.
I am not going to even try to begin to provide any examples here. I can only
suggest readers pick up one of the half a dozen or more books of his poetry now
available. His philosophic treasure-house has many rooms. White seems, to me
anyway, a fine example of the person and the process Keats wrote about in a
letter in 1818: When man has arrived at a certain ripeness of intellect any
one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all the
two-and-thirty Pallaces...The results would be a voyage of
conception....engender etherial finger-paintings arising out of the most
in that same letter: Greatness in art....involves losing the sense of our
personal identity in some object dearer to us than ourselves.
Much of White's identity was
unquestionably to be found in an object dearer to him than his life's vein: the
Bahá'í Faith. It's history was fresh and recorded in great detail under the
light of modernity. White, consequently, had a great deal to write about, to
sustain him, as a poet. It was a solid ground for the future. White's poetry
possessed what Irish poet Galway Kinnell said was essential for "true and real
poetry," namely, that it "tends to be more ordinary and close at hand."
As long as new meanings continue to come from White for generations yet unborn,
then his essence will not become exhausted and he will continue to be read.
"The grand power of poetry" wrote Matthew Arnold, "is its interpretive
power....the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully
new, and intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them." White does
this for me and for many others. It is my belief that he will continue to put
readers in contact with the essential nature of what the Bahá'í Faith, its
history and teachings mean, partly because he acknowledges in so many ways the
process between the discomfort in our lives and the joy, partly because he
deals with life's bewilderment and oppression and lightens the load and partly
because he brings us closer to life's secrets and helps us to be in harmony
with them. The result is a certain calm and satisfaction that, it seems to me
anyway, we can not find in quite the same way anywhere else.
After twenty-five years he appears to have the reputation of being both a
difficult poet, a critic's poet, as well as a popular or a people's poet. But
beyond his current reputation and the reactions of contemporary readers, White,
through his poetry, "defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the
accident of surrounding impressions," as Shelley wrote nearly two centuries
White created anew the world of his
Bahá'í experience after it had been, to use Shelley's words again, "annihilated
by recurrence, blunted by reiteration." We, too, must do the same. We must,
like White, redeem time, rescue it, reclaim it, renew it, by ransom, by the
payment of our lives. White helps us with this process in so many ways: in the
reconciliation of Truth and Beauty; by giving his readers a satisfying sense of
reality, of the real nature of things; by helping them reconcile themselves
with their society and the phenomenal world around them. When you read a poem
of White's his experience becomes your own. That may just be the core of
White's poetic longevity.
But whether White's poetry follows a downhill trajectory toward oblivion or an
upward one to some canonical, some classic, status will depend on canon makers,
publishers, editors, initiators, marketers, reviewers, teachers and,
ultimately, consumers, the current interests and cultural needs of the reading
public. For the moment White is marginal and only a slow but massive shift in
the value orientation of society, in its cultural capital will bring him from
the margin. For, in the end, literary works that become classic or canonical
do so "because the groups that have an investment in them are culturally the
A classic is a work
that stands the test of time, as Samuel Johnson once said, and the test is
determined by those who control the literary establishment. In the end, it is
the interests and beliefs of this group that define the classic. Toward the
end of the twentieth century this group became fractured and the whole question
of what constitutes the canon has been confronted and opened up to wider
It is not so much the text that endures but the literary and cultural tradition
behind the text. The literary and cultural tradition going back to the
writings of Shaykh Ahmad in the 1790s, a literary and cultural tradition
containing the immense body of Writings of two manifestations of God and Their
Successors, then, is the critical matrix within which White will survive,
disappear into oblivion or remain forever on the remote and obscure margins of
a contemporary culture. For literature and poetry are, in a sense, an organic
society all of their own, an organic society supported by a whole social
It is my belief that White will
survive as an integral part of that larger literary and cultural tradition.
Herbert Read comes close to telling us why White will survive. "Human nature,"
Read writes describing men like White, "saw something get a shock" and there
has been "a tremble ever since."
in that tremble. This tremble we are in from White applies to a much greater
extent from the Revelations at the heart of this new Faith. Another aspect of
White's survival quotient is the light that shines within him and which Matthew
Arnold said was so much more important than the pleasure a writer gives. It is
that inner light which is a rare and treasured thing and which depends on some
"children of light"
sharing that light and
on the Canaanite having left that land.
White's poetry will be, it seems to me, what Wallace Stevens called "the
essential poem at the centre of things" for a minority. His work will enable
future literary critics to establish a pattern of continuity between their
cultures and the part of their heritage that was alive and well in the last
half of the twentieth century. For White's work has a larger historical
importance in addition to the delight it provides readers. The ultimate
source of a poem is not only the individual poet but also the social situation,
the historical process, from which both he and it springs. Of course, White is
not alone in this exercise of providing historical continuity. He will have
the company of a vast range of people from the creative and performing arts and
the print and electronic media. Part of their role is and will be to preserve
the past and its stories, its beliefs, to be handed on to the next generations
for continuity and immortality, to keep holy, as Rilke says, all that befalls
us, even disappointment."
And I might add: especially disappointment. I think this is especially
important in an age like our own when "cultural memory is remarkably short" and
"communications are disintegrating" so quickly.
There is no art more stubbornly associated with group identity than poetry. No
art expresses the deepest feelings and emotions of a group than poetry. No art
provides that exceptional sensibility, that exceptional power over words, with
greater strength than poetry. Of course, in our time the electronic media in
its various forms provide for many that sensibility and that power. The great
majority of most groups, at least at this point in history, do not respond to
whether he be a Shakespeare or a
White, a Dickinson or a Hayden. "What matters," writes T.S. Eliot about the
future influence of the poet, "is that there should always be at least a small
audience for him in every generation."
White certainly has a small audience in this generation; time will tell as far
as future audiences are concerned. Inevitably, too, there will be varying
reactions to White's work. There will be many vocabularies of encomium and
opproprium that arise in reaction to White's poetry as the years go on.
Matthew Arnold's views in his "The Study of Poetry" help us gain a perspective
on White for the future. Arnold says there are three sorts of "estimates" we
make of a writer: the historic, the personal and the real. His contribution to
the study, the understanding, of the past; the contemporary relevance to the
present, the time the poet is being read; and the poetry "as in itself it
Often, the personal and the
real get mixed up. White was the first twentieth century poet I read who wrote
about Bahá'í themes and gave me pleasure, comprehension and responsive feeling.
Many of his poems are so well-anchored in my head now that the task of a just
evaluation may not be a realistic expectation. For I write to a large extent
out of gratitude. It may be too difficult for me to perform an unbiased
evaluation; I may need a lifetime.
The work I am doing here may appear too effusive to some readers. I think the
future will bring a balance to what some may see as my overly enthusiastic
reaction. As critical accounts of White's work by highly and not-so-highly
qualified students of poetry, as attempts at a definitive analysis of his
poetry by critics with pens abler than mine, and as full, unembarrassed
appreciations of his poetic virtues that do not repel more highbrow
sensibilities, become available in the years to come, the relevance of the
words of the great analyst of literature, Randall Jarrell, will be seen to
apply to White's poetry. "The most important thing that criticism can do for a
poet," wrote Randall Jarrell, "is to establish that atmosphere of interested
respect which gets his poems a reasonably good reading."
Put another way, criticism ought to be experiential and
pragmatic rather than theoretical. Such is the context, for the most part, of
this work in the tradition of Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt. I try to
bring White nearer to his readers and his potential readers. For if he is
nearer he can be put to greater use.
The situation of poetry, it has been argued by many, at the opening of this new
millennium has many facets which are not encouraging to the poet. It is almost
exclusively a non-commercial medium. It is not sustained by popular success; it
makes no best seller lists, is rarely found in the electronic media and, for
the most part, languishes as an academic specialization, in corners of the
Internet and in coteries where the enthusiasms of performance poets keep the
poetic spark alive. Given that poetry seems to be possessed of no laws, no
standards, no necessary forms, it is now the form that everyone may attempt.
Criticism is extensive but, again, confined, for the most part, to esoteric
corners of academia. Anthologies and surveys abound to cater to what has
become in the last century or two a boundless, formless, domain of an ancient
art. Publishing lists expand, vanity presses multiply, and poetry bloats like
the tentacles of a bureaucracy. Criticism is essential by its exercise of
judgement and thus quality control or a Tower of Babel results with its
inevitable anonymity from the sheer force of numbers. There are many
descriptions of this perilous state, some encouraging, some with tragic
If one accepted all that I write here, one could conclude that White has
already been lost, lost to just about everyone except a few, and these few are
so negligible as to hardly matter. White, following this line of thought, not
only does not have a future, he has already been lost, virtually. His days of
fame and glory have gone not with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes, but with
fifteen years. I take a more optimistic view. I think there may be many
different Whites to emerge in the decades and perhaps centuries ahead as a
thriving critical industry on White expands in English and other languages.
New kinds of poetry will provide new ways of reading White, ways that give his
poetry new life. In the meantime I hope what I write will serve as a catalytic
agent. The electronic media, still in their first century of popularity, I do
not think will hold their sway over the minds and consciousnesses of human
beings for the entire future of humankind. The life of print is healthy now
and its future, I think, is filled with hope. White's function in the future
for whoever his readership may be was described best and indirectly long ago by
Sir Francis Bacon. "Read not to contradict and confute," wrote Bacon, "nor to
believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and
White will give what he has
already given to many, spiritual and intellectual food to weigh and
The advice of Somerset Maugham with respect to novels, slightly altered in its
application to poetry, is pertinent here to would-be readers of White's verse.
Maugham encouraged readers to "learn the useful are of skipping."
To skip without loss, though, is not easy.
Some poems, I find, are absorbed easily. Others require two or more readings.
Most of us read for pleasure, for enlightenment, for diversion. When reading
becomes a labour, most of us only read for a time. When White becomes too
heavy going we need to read something else, come back to him later and, if we
are to really grasp his work, keep coming back again and again. Don't let his
books of poetry sit unread on your shelves for years. White is good on reruns,
second, third and more visits. Some of his poetry is hard work; some of it is
easy. Perhaps future editions of his poetry will be like that edition of some
novels which Somerset Maugham's publisher asked him to introduce with an essay
providing a context, a setting, a framework to take away some of the labour and
provide more meaning. I like to think White's popularity has just begun for he
is a good poet who never goes too far in his poetry, never claims an expertise
that is not his. He may write, for example, about the poor, the affluent, the
land, greed and money but he does not offer his readers economic theory or the
politics of poverty. He knows when to shut-up, when to be silent. I like to
think that White's poetry does what Emerson said the best books do: "impress us
with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads."
There are several Whites one can already imagine. There is the White with a
message to give his times, an engaged social thinker and responder, immersed in
his daily environment at the Bahá'í World Centre just at the time when it and
the global Bahá'í community was emerging from obscurity. Here the critic has
the primary role as interpreter and systematizer trying to figure out what
White means and where and how he fits in to the historical development of the
Bahá'í community. Then there is the caricature of White as humorous,
comedian, or writer of obscurities. Does his humor dominate and make him the
funny man, the funny poet? After readers have had their laugh, after they have
been entertained, do they put White down complacent and self-satisfied? Are
the complexities of some of White's later work, complexities which leave many
of his potential readers in the Bahá'í community puzzled and perplexed, quite
conscious parts of his poetic? Are these complexities the visible outcroppings
of some deeply laid poetic and geo-political scheme that was itself in embryo,
in its early stages, with a future connected with Bahá'u'lláh's Wondrous
Vision, the brightest emanation of His mind?
What White writes he writes with and from a bias and
everything he writes is conditioned by that bais. What he writes is part of his
personality, his idiosyncrasies, his taking sides, his loading of the dice his
way, his sense of the dramatic, his particular way of grabbing our attention.
For he is an artist, a choreographer, a director and producer--and a poet all
in one. He pleases and he informs. He is good at both.
I think White has developed an idiom that is at times so simple and childlike
and at other times so complex and dense that his poetry possesses a style of
such fundamental peculiarity and eccentricity that it will facilitate his
absorption by later poets, readers and critics. White gives body to the soul
of English, the language used internationally for dealing with our beliefs and
attitudes. White has passed on to the Bahá'í community of the twenty-first
century a more highly developed, more refined, more precise idiom for dealing
with its experience than it possessed before White wrote his poems. "That is
the highest possible achievement," wrote T.S. Eliot in his essay on what one
learns from Dante, "of the poet as poet."
There is in this idiom an intimacy, a familiarity, that adds to his poetry's
verisimilitude and gives his poetry much to recommend it to future epochs and a
wide range of readers.
White enables ordinary men and women to see and hear more in the ordinary range
of their experience. He enables them to experience a greater range of emotion
and perception, to interpret greater depths of meaning, than they otherwise
would have seen or heard without his help. He is like an explorer beyond the
frontiers of everyday consciousness. White helps them deal with the
incomprehensible, the mystery of life. His poetry is only one element in that
mystery which is the culture they live in and what he writes is dependent upon
many of their culture's elements, elements which are beyond his control. But
given the excellence and vigour of his poetry it can affect the sensibility of
the whole of the Bahá'í community.
course, the language of that community is affected by many other elements in
the wider culture. Eliot argues that the poet affects the many through his
influence on the few. What matters, he goes on, is that there always be a few
in each generation who will serve as the audience for the poet. What matters,
too, is that the topics White has chosen are of enduring interest. We can
never know enough people profoundly enough. It is one of our main routes to
self knowledge. If White's poetry is to endure an enduring interest in what
White writes about is fundamental. Given the topics and the community he deals
with, White will be around as long as the Bahá'í Faith is around. Given, too,
that there exists in his poetry what Harold Bloom calls "a pleasureable
difficulty," a kind of difficulty he equates with the sublime, the
transcendent, this generation does not need to complete the excavation of
White's poetic. White caters to this 'poetic sublime,' to the larger created
presence of the imagination; his work sustains close readings. Bloom says the
first principle for how to read poems is "closely." White's future may lie in
the creative exhuberance of packing of much into little.
Just after White was born Edmund Wilson wrote about what he called 'the dying
technique of verse.'
He said that verse's
role had grown increasingly narrow since the eighteenth century. It's territory
had been usurped, he argued, by prose. Just before White passed away essayist
Joseph Epstein updated Wilson's discussion of the death of poetry. He said
poetry was now confined to universities, poetry's professionals: teachers and
lecturers and their creative writing programs. Epstein is a brilliant
polemicist and he continues to describe the decline in the cultural importance
of poetry that concerned Wilson fifty years before. Poetry is certainly not
part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life today. It is the
occupation of a small and isolated group, for the most part an invisible
cultural niche. Ironically this reality has slowly been taking place during a
period of unprecedented expansion of the art of poetry: books, anthologies,
prizes, public readings, published criticism, newsletters and scholarly
journals. Nevertheless poetry's overall position in the culture and its
indifference by the mass media is, as both Wilson and Epstein have noted,
depressing. There is, too, paradoxically, so much poetry appearing in
journals, on the internet and in the poetry subculture that no one can evaluate
it, except perhaps the occasional critic. White's poetry needs to be seen
against this background of analysis by Wilson and Epstein. If the rest of
society has mostly forgotten about the value of poetry, an argument about the
virtues of some dead Bahá'í's poems may seem like an irrelevant concern for an
archaic art form, or a debate in some seedy café about some obscure and
tiresome social issue. That may be the perception, say, of a book like this on
the part of your typical suburbanite in these opening years of this new
The poetry on the Internet deserves some attention because there is a growing
subculture of poets there, thousands of them churning out their poetry:
atomized, decentralized, interdisciplinary, computerized and
anti-institutional, pluralistic, bohemian and middle class. There have never
been so many people writing poetry, accessing it and spread out over dozens of
websites as there is today. It is a veritable explosion. Perhaps White will
come to be seen as one of the few great writers of our time who has helped to
lead the way for that large body of secondary writers who, Eliot argues, are
essential to the continuity of a literature but are not necessarily read by
I don't know but, as a
practicing but non-professional futurologist, I think White has led the way
with the great Gestalt
that he made(that we all make) from himself and
all that is not himself, a Gestalt
given shape with what his natural
reticence would allow.
How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand
and appreciate, that poetry still matters, White's or anybody else's? The
difficulties of trying to engage an audience and of finding out what concerns
the great mass of the public, has become a major problem for the poet. The
poet is marginal. He has been on the edge, largely irrelevant, for half a
century, at least just about the entire time White has been writing poetry.
With the fragmentation of high culture, the arts are now isolated from each
other and from the general audience, although there are evidences of an
especially true of poetry, even with poetry on the Internet. There is an
audience there in their thousands, in the form of dozens of coteries, if you
want to plug into them. The Net is so different from the traditional poetry
reading. It's public and private all at once.
What will keep White and poets of his ilk from sitting in a remote perifery on
an irrelevant appendage of society will be what the poet Marianne Moore said of
the genuine poet. The genuine poet, she stated, is "a symbol of the power of
Heaven." Such a poet "lodges a few poems where they will be hard to get rid
of." Such a poet is part of the "felicitous phenomenon" that is literature.
Their poetry will be brought to the public
in new and fresh ways by people who take responsibility for bringing their art
to the public, far beyond the stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates
the public art of poetry today. The enjoyment of poetry can be a complex
experience in which several forms of satisfaction are mingled, in different
proportions for different readers. One way to keep poetry fresh is to memorize
it; it gives you the feeling you have written it; it comes close to your
psyche; it becomes like an old friend. There are special and critical insights
that a poem that gives itself to memorization can yield. Possession-by-memory
gives the reader the feeling that he or she wishes they had written the poem.
The poem becomes a part of the reader. Readers come to acquire an intimate
relationship with the poet. White's poems help us speak to ourselves more
clearly and more fully and, as Bloom says, "
to overhear that speaking." he helps us find
The White industry and the various critiques that arise from its several
assembly lines and production plants are bound to be influenced by major trends
and revolutions in intellectual and social thought. Already since 1960 there
have been several trends which could influence the interpretation of what White
has to say and why he says it: psychoanalytic criticism, structuralism and
post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, Marxist literary theory,
post-colonial theory, cultural studies and the new historicism, among others.
The influence of this efflorescence of literary theory on this evaluation of
mine is largely periferal. Perhaps this is because much of literary theory
"seems to entail an indifference to, and even a hostility toward,
Perhaps, too, the field of
literary criticism and some of the interdisciplinary influences on it like
those from anthropology, linguistics, sociology and psychology are simply too
immense to adequately deal with in an introductory book of this nature on the
poetry of Roger White.
Literary theory has to do with the way in which writers and readers interpret
their world and the texts in it. No single mode of interpretation that
literary critics draw on is satisfactory for my treatment of White. For the
most part the world of literary theory is confined to academic cloisters with
the general public either unable to engage in its specialized, its largely
arcane and depressing language or uninterested in doing so. After forty years
of what one writer calls The Age of Theory, literary theory does not appear to
be delivering the hoped for intellectual revolution; on the other hand it does
not appear likely that this Age of Theory will float away.
I see literary theory as a potentially constructive and
integral part of literary criticism, although a great deal of it causes
resistance from those in the very field it seeks to explore. It would take a
separate essay to deal with the relevance of literary theory and related
disciplines to White's poetry and its implications for this commentary.
Appreciation of poetry can be, and mostly is, quite independent of theory and
criticism, but there are several features of the literary theory I draw on for
my own personal literary architecture. First, mine is an individual synthesis,
drawing as it does on many literary theorists. Daniel T. O'Hara says that
literary theory and criticism are aimed at creating "the critical language in
which men will speak for a thousand years."
I like to think, although one can never know for sure,
that my work will fit into this futuristic perspective. I call the literary
theory underpinning White's poetry and my analysis of it Bahá'í literary theory
and criticism. It stands in contrast to Marxist literary theory and the other
major literary theories with their associated disciplinary support systems that
have arisen in the last half century, although it shares with them various
specific features. It really requires, as I indicated above, a separate essay
and it is not my intention to deal with it fully here, but I will sketch its
outline briefly because it seems to me that the future of the White industry
will be involved in an elaboration of this theory in different directions.
It is teleological; it is based on a belief in progress through Providential
control of the historical process. It views human beings as essentially
historically, socially determined in a complex interaction of genetics and
environment. It sees man as a composite being whose nature is basically
spiritual and capable of change. Primacy is given to becoming over being, to
relationships, to process, to diversity, to the relativity of truth as the
basis for and essence of any unity and harmony in human life.
Bahá'í literary theory possesses a vital and dynamic theoretical structure with
a deep historical consciousness which assumes athat all of reality is in a
continuous state of flux. It is based, too, on an explicit and unequivocal
dialectical method in which "a concept passes over into and is preserved and
fulfilled by its opposite."
philosophical principle of unity, a "structure of mutual and reciprocal
interdependence of diverse elements within a system," which transcends both
simplicity and diversity, "implies the dynamic movement of history in the
direction of increasing complexity and integration."
These concepts are the domain where the ontological and
normative principles at the base of the philosophy of history that this
literary theory draws on or is based on. These are some of the coordinating
principles behind my critical evaluation of White's poetry.
As I indicated above, it is not my purpose here to
explicate a detailed outline of Bahá'í literary theory and some of the other
literary theories behind which White's work and my interpretation of them. The
art of poetry is greater, I believe, than its interpreters; not even the
greatest critics can pin down the all its kinds of significance and value. In
the end, all criticism is tentative, partial and oblique.
"A work of literature-a poem, for example," writes David Daiches, "is an
immense complex of meaning which is nevertheless often simple and immediate in
its impact, and it is impossible to account for its impact."
Criticism and theory can help but, in the end, however
useful and helpful they may be, there is a larger truth unexplored. As
Bahá'u'lláh writes, "myriads of mystic tongues find utterance in one speech and
how many are the mysteries concealed in a single melody, but alas there is no
ear to hear or heart to understand."
Perhaps this is one of the meanings of this verse.
Beginning perhaps as far back as Columbus or Magellan sailing the ocean blue,
the planetary nature of human civilization, its interdependence and
interconnectedness, has been increasingly demonstrated. In the last century to
century-and-a-half this process, this planetization of humankind, at least our
awareness of it, has speeded up. This speeding up process has taken place, has
synchronised, at the same time as the emergence of a new world religion on this
earth. The fundamental teaching of this new world religion, the Bahá'í Faith,
is that phenomenal reality is one: humankind is one, religion is one and God is
one--the earth is indeed one country. White's poetry is part and parcel of the
global orientation that is the Bahá'í Faith. The teachings and history of the
Bahá'í Faith unquestionably inform the literary theory that lies at the base of
this analysis of White.
The realization of humankind's oneness has become even more a part of human
consciousness in the years since the 1950s when we began to venture into space
and could literally see the spherical shape that is the earth. White's poetry
comes at this time as does the poetry of Robert Hayden and, if it was the
intent of this book, one could line up their poetry with significant
developments in this increasing planetary consciousness. But that is not my
intention here. Rather, it is to note, as far as my own interpretive abilities
permit, those elements of White's poetic and his alone that serve the cause,
the development, of this political and religious unification in the years ahead
within the context of the evolving Bahá'í institutions, the nucleus and pattern
of world Order currently expressed through the instrument of Bahá'í
administration. Part of the reason I focus on White to the exclusion of other
poets and writers who have influenced this planetary consciousness is that
White's poetry helped me understand my own life, my own experience. "Is there a
better test of poetry?" wrote Ezra Pound is his tribute to Thomas Hardy's
As I have already indicated, this
study is an expression of my gratitude to White for the understanding, the
power of understanding, his poetry has contributed to the life I have lived.
When White was writing his first poems, the first poems that were clearly
influenced by the Bahá'í teachings, a process had begun that Shoghi Effendi
called 'the Kingdom of God on earth.' It had been initiated with the completion
of the Bahá'í Temple in Chicago in 1953. Indeed, many of the Bahá'ís in the
1950s and 1960s, thought that the approximately two hundred thousand members
who entered the Ten Year Crusade in 1953 would vastly increase their numbers in
the years immediately ahead. Although the process of entry-by-troops could be
said to have begun as early as the 1950s and although the numbers did increase
in the next forty years to several million, it is obvious in retrospect that
expectations for many were too high. For some disappointment was inevitable, so
tied were hopes to a vast increase in numbers.
The poetry of White reminds me of the Aeschylan drama which emerged in the
years immediately after the birth of Greek democracy in 462 BC. The drama of
Aeschylus, particularly the Orestia
(458 BC), deals with a new
understanding of personality, of law, of society, of political institutions, of
a transition from chaos to order. "Athena has to instruct them with a new
White's poetry emerged in the
years immediately after the birth of the democratic theocracy that is the
Bahá'í Faith, its fully institutionalized charisma, in 1963. His poem The
is one which, since I can't write five or six pages about its
theme, I will simply say it is full of the deepest, most touching and profound
wisdom vis-à-vis this newly emerging democratic theocracy. I will try
to convey something of White's sensitive, poignant and perceptive understanding
by quoting a few lines and commenting. He refers to the many years of
Revelation and authoritative interpretation, 1844 to 1963, in what is for me a
deeply moving metaphor:
Long she lay there and we grew accustomed
to the crystal concentrate of beauty
as the eye to any artefact, placed, marvelled at, forgotten;
He continues, noting that
.................some stopped to amaze,
And those that did were
grateful that grace be so contained
as to pose no threat.
Certainly this was the case in the first two decades after the election of the
Universal House of Justice. Even now, some four decades after that first
election, the beginning of the democratic theocracy that is the Bahá'í Faith,
there is a grace associated with this global institution. The "exquisite power"
also associated with these new, embryonic institutions, and the "intolerable
beauty" which may, one day, "disregulate the city's ordered ways," White
describes in oh so gentle, oh so touching metaphor:
"Many," White writes in the second stanza:
".....................................did not see
beneath the glacial shield the girl's mild bosom
swell with breath, or tears well in her eyes.
None asked what exquisite power she might wield
I don't think I can capture in prose what White has hinted at in strangely
allusive, strongly indirect, poetic metaphor. The poem is an immortal
masterpiece. If I murmer something about its possible meaning, history will
inevitably smile at my effort to convey its significance and lay me in the
corner beside those cultivated people from Oxford and Cambridge who thought
Shakespeare a Hollywood scenario-writer.
I sense, as I try to interpret
White, that these are the earliest days of the imputation of meaning to his
poems. The White industry will yield much more sophistication and depth in the
years ahead that my simple efforts.
As the voices of the sixties and what the Universal House of Justice called the
dark heart of the age of transition became more shrill and the noises of
society got louder, White offered many cautionary remarks:
Let us not stroke too swiftly toward
the green opposite shore
where death rehearses. We have tried
these pearl-promising waves
before and might guess the danger.
These pearl-promising waves were, it could be argued, the unrealistic hopes of
many in the Bahá'í community in the ninth(1953-1963) and early years of the
tenth(1963 to, say, 1979) stages of history. White wrote this poem, arguably,
about 1980. An aggressive or even an enthusiastic proselytism alienates people
and the Bahá'ís, for the most part, have avoided, such an overt approach to
increasing the size of their community, inspite of the fact that growth in the
West has remained, in most places, discouragingly meagre. The complex exercise
of achieving intimacy and harmony in their relationships, their marriages and
in their small groups, in their private and personal worlds, often resulted in
frustration and failure, often as much for members of their communities as for
the secular society they were part of.
White describes this process metaphorically in the same poem, The Other
, in imagery that is graphic, tender and so apt:
Recall how always we turn back spent
to the sun-warmed sand
and stand anguished in separate solitudes,
though hand in hand,
each to each grown stranger.
Of course, not every Bahá'í is going to agree with my particular interpretation
of this poem or the general tenor of my remarks, such is the nature, the fruit,
of individual interpretation. In reading Roger White's poems we all must deal
with metaphor in our own way, for it is a device in which we all must fill in
the meaning if we are to unlock the significance of the passage. To miss the
metaphorical significance is to miss the meaning. Metaphor is a safeguard
against literalism and dogmatism. It helps explain the unfamiliar in terms of
the abstract in terms of the
concrete and, in this case, the progress of the Cause and our own dear lives in
terms of swimming, waves and the beach. If readers of this essay do not find my
interpretation of the metaphor helpful, they can and should find their own
personal meaning. This is part of the challenge of White. His poetic presence
now is continuous and inescapable. His poetry, having become part of the
landscape of Bahá'í experience in the third and fourth epochs, will breathe new
life into many epochs to come. White will be with us for some time to come.
Goethe said there were two classes of great poets. The first, containing
Shakespeare and Homer,
were universal in
their outreach and did not bring their own individuality, their own selves,
into their poetry. The second category constantly exposed some trace of
individuality, some of the spirit of the poet, some of his character. Perhaps
White is here too. There is no question, for me, that White belongs primarily
to the former category. I give you here in this book my White
. It is
your task to find yours.
White appeals to us in that same poem, The Other Shore,
not to be too
hasty, to get our perspectives, our settings on social reality as accurate as
we can, to pursue a 'moderate freedom'
and, in our eagerness and innocence, our enthusiasms and excitements, not to
expect too much too soon:
we, young, too soon said
Land! Land! and, plunging, did not see
his torn pinion, his bloodied head.
Ease us, wise love, toward this wet danger.
Our convictions, our zeal, our desire to get things right, indeed our very
sense of wonder is but a starting point. White emphasizes that:
It is not enough to marvel: the sea asks more.
It does not casually strew enticing shells
There is calculation in its murmur,
frothed treachery laps its shore.
So many millions are not, yet, going to respond to our teaching efforts or, as
White puts it in the same poem in a fascinating turn of phrase:
who did not heed the hoarse and reeling gulls--
know that in our darkest incoherence
the ocean spoke
So much of our effort seems to be an experience of the 'darkest incoherence.'
But in that incoherence the ocean does speak, through our humble efforts and in
the context of the greatest metaphorical exercise on the planet, the
establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Some, a few, do respond. In time
millions, nay billions, will come under the shelter of this protecting wing.
White concludes his poem with several lines about the few among humanity's
billions who became enthusiastic believers in the decades he was able to
observe the teaching campaigns: 1950-1990. He writes, in lines that are among
my favourites in the entire White oeuvre:
Let the dreaming, lovely drowned
who loll and bob in bubbled wonder
tell us why, returning,
weeping without sound,
we stand, wistful and incredulous,
along the shore.
Among the hundreds of thousands, nay millions, who come across this new Faith,
and who have joined it in the last several decades, so many "stand wistful,
incredulous along the shore," while it is the few who "loll and bob in bubbled
In another poem this same understanding of what often appears as the slowness
of the process, the need for a cautious, quiet attitude prevails as White
encourages us, points us, toward wisdom. The poem For the Children
closes with the following seven lines:
It were wiser to stand in Magian silence,
reverent before the admonishing blackness,
and read in its long black reign
the gathering of an astounding dawn.
Let us watch the sky, children,
incautious with hope,
jubilant with wisdom.
Here jubilation is associated with hope and wisdom not with an evangelising
religiosity, a narrow ecclesiasticism, festive activities of various kinds or
some media event with its necessary hype and often genuine enthusiasm. Wisdom
and jubilation, conjoined by White here, are critical to his vision of the
years ahead and the times we live in at this turn of the millennium, this
'gathering of an astounding dawn.' White is writing about that "solemn
consciousness" that the Universal House of Justice said must be evoked as "the
wellspring of the most exquisite celebratory joy." For celebration "does not
mean merely festive activities. It is primarily a spiritual
celebration...occasion(s) for deep reflection."
White comes at this subject in an indirect way through
his poetry. But the point is clear. The fact that White expresses the question,
the problem, the issue, metaphorically forces his readers to think, to work out
the meaning for themselves. White provides no quick fix.
As "the plague" spreads "invisibly," as we "lean innocently to scoop our
marbles," perhaps we need to be more "reverent before the admonishing
blackness." Perhaps we need to base our jubilation in wisdom and hope's private
optimism that is, for society, a public resource and, as Lionel Tiger defined
it "a heightened form of gregariousness,"
a gregariousness that for White often requires that we "stand in Magian
White deals with this whole question of the spiritual journey and the progress
of the Cause in poem after poem. It seems to me one can often learn more about
teaching the Cause in so many of White's poems than in many a learned
commentary. I will site one more example here, parts of the poem The
. White begins by placing the believers in the role of children and
And they will warn you, children, as they stand
In wan ardour at the dense thicket's rim
That your pitch venture is folly,
I think most of the people I have known in my life would regard the exercise I
am embarked on as a Bahá'í as "folly," as an unrealistic utopianism. But as
Teillard de Chardin once wrote, speaking of realism, it is the utopians "who
make scientific sense."
by saying that others and sometimes ourselves, see what we are doing as:
Dangerous progress over untracked land
Ambushed with bogs in which illusions mire,
Keen fang and talon glint from every tree
And murky bats career and lean wolves prey.
Certainly the Bahá'í pioneer, and we are all pioneers in different ways,
experiences the above as the long decades become his journey. "Reason is soon
victim and then desire," White goes on succinctly summarizing two of the tests
that many believers experience. I will leave the rest of this poem to the
reader to play with intellectually. The poem is nothing less than brilliant,
from my particular point of view. For, indeed, the journey is long and "murky
bats career and lean wolves prey." As Shakespeare left behind over the decades
and centuries many hundreds, nay, thousands of interpretations, so, too, will
the poems of Roger White bestrew the minds of believers with many many views.
will be the one you find? Here is more of mine from that poem
Who counsel flight from Love's far lair are wise
But O! not they shall see the Lover's eyes.
So...reward there is, but there is a price and "many perish."
White knows, then, that jubilation is not an ever present emotion. Indeed,
Sparse nourishment the slow years give.
Hope beyond this life, a perspective of transcendence, is important to White,
to the survival ethic and the process and program of building the new world
Order. While we are all trying to build a society worth living in we must
remember that this "sparse nourishment" is a sign that
Tells timeless feast hereafter.
This transcendentalism, this strong conviction regarding the immortality of the
soul, is accompanied in White by the ordinary, the everyday and he would urge
us to be
glad of the predictable wonder
of our ordinary lives
unscripted, flawed and plausible.
He would urge us too, as he does in the last line of that same poem, to
appreciate as fully as we can
the incalculably priceless booty of our human joy?
But not to allow our joy and our knowledge to give us
A taint of preening calculation
(which) makes of our knowledge knowingness,
(and) carries us too soon from innocence
He knows that we so often:
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence....
We, deft practitioners
of protocols of piety
are stranded on uncertainty
It is important to keep in mind, when reading a poem, White's or anyone else's,
that "the recipient must abdicate for the moment--must surrender his
independent and outstanding personality, to identify himself with the form
presented by the poet."
Only in this way
can the reader penetrate to the heart of the mystery that is the poem.
Only then can White's attempts to reconcile, rather than resolve, the
contradictions of life have any tangible results in the readers' minds and
Those who have served in the Bahá'í community in the years from the 1950s to
the 1990s, the period during which White produced his poetry, have watched the
unobtrusively developing System of Bahá'u'lláh spread over the face of the
earth and, more recently, embellish its world spiritual and administrative
centre with an Arc of great beauty on Mt. Carmel. The emphasis, for the most
part, has been on establishing small groups at the local level and spreading
the teachings as widely as possible. Such an exercise has militated against the
emergence of large concentrations of Bahá'ís in one place.
In the fifteen years in which White's poetic output has
been most extensive, 1977-1992, the Bahá'í community continued its rise from
the shadows of an obscurity in which it had been enveloped for over a
"The process whereby its unsuspected benefits were to be manifested to the eyes
of men," Shoghi Effendi once wrote in analysing the growth of the Cause, "was
slow, painfully slow, and was characterized....by a number of crises which at
times threatened to arrest its unfoldment and blast all the hopes which its
progress had engendered."
this same theme in several ways. In Notes on Erosion
Neglect will foster, and dismay
but fertilize its thrusting growth.
Indeed, the potential of the Cause is immense; it
thrives in the desert
where the resolute verbena
unarrestably insinuates itself
through the socket of despair's bleached skull
However difficult the circumstances, the growing influence of the Bahá'í
community and its astonishingly creative Founder will:
with (its) fierce festoons,
with (its) green and wily succulence.
Down the road we are all about to travel we will find, as White emphasizes in a
poem which likens our experience to Noah on the arc,
the lean provision of devotion, of nefarious mutiny
the wild and mounting waters, the weeks and
months of never-ending dark. A deluge, folks,
is not a lark.
White knew quite well that there "is a tide both in public and private affairs,
which awaits both men and nations,'
Shakespeare wrote, which is not some cataclysmic overnight event but, rather,
some process which we are in the midst of and it may well take some time before
the tide has reached its high-water-mark, if it has not already done so.
White is, as Geoffrey Nash once described White in a pithy phrase, a
deceptively insinuating quotient. White has us laughing and with our guard down
he tells us we are heading for hell on earth. He does it with what might be
called "an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the
as the Universal House of Justice
described, in its discussion of the characteristics of a judicious exercise of
speech. As the decades in the last half of the twentieth century slipped by
the social and political landscape did get hotter or at least continued the
high temperatures already experienced since WWI. The tempest the Guardian had
described so vividly back in 1941 clearly continued into the twenty-first
century. As the Universal House of Justice had informed us back in 1967, we
had entered "the dark heart of transition" and it was getting darker with
century's end. White's interpretive schema was not wide of the mark.
Even the affluent minority of the planet were finding their
hedonistic-materialism paradigm and its success orientation as a recipe for
happiness was breaking down, first in the 1920s as F. Scott Fitzgerald showed
us in his classic novel The Great Gatsby
, then in the sixties when most
of the hippies who came from affluent homes rejected affluence as a raison
for living and yet again in recent decades as the world seemed to be
swept daily into a maelstrom.
White gently describes the struggle we have ahead. He does it with an honesty,
a subtlety and a tongue-in-cheek humour. At least that's how I read him. In
one of his many, what I call, arc poems, with a timing that is perfect for the
last generation of antediluvian's that we may be, we who have placed a heavy
investment in beauty and given the vision at the centre of the Cause a physical
apotheosis, White puts phrase after phrase in the mouth of someone who, so the
story goes, built an instrument for saving humanity and the life on earth from
total extinction: Noah--
Noah will say this journey is definitely not
for the timid and the overwrought;
not for the vainly pious,
the pusillanimous of spirit,
the bloodless prig.
Now that the arc is built:
.................This much is plain:
not for those weary and in despair of love,
this ardent voyage on the unvariable storm-lashed brig,
the unreasonable rain,
the long wait for the salient dove
to bring the living twig.
The darkest hours before the dawn have indeed arrived, as White prognosticated
in his metaphorical poetics, written for the most part in the third and forth
epochs of the Formative Age, with his gentle humour and his often simple and
sweet language brimming over with light. But there was in his idiom a solemn
consciousness, a poetic experience that allowed him, like the Welsh poet Dylan
Thomas, to tap into "a dark river flowing inside him to which he could lower
the bucket daily."
For poetry is not so
much a criticism of life, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, as it is "a look at life
from the abyss, the bottom. Few can do so for long. They don't know where the
depths are or they don't know quite what to say: or they are afraid."
But White knew, at least he had the
centring wisdom of over a century of infallible guidance and the interpretions
of history, society and the future in the endless letters and messages from
thirty years of a fully institutionalized and unquestionably legitimate
in the Universal House of
Justice. He had the example of thirty-six years of writing from someone whose
masterly grasp of the rich vocabulary and subtle nuances of English supported a
power of unerring perception.
And so White looked deep into the heart of the Revelation and at more than a
century of experience of the religion that was born from It by the time he had
become a servant of the Cause in 1947. He gave us what he saw and what he
thought but, in the end, we are only getting one man's views. They are not the
expression of an authoritative exegesis; there is nothing infallible about his
narrative style; however insightful his power of definition and however
meticulous his attention to the meaning of words, all we can enjoy is the fruit
of individual interpretation as it heightens our horizons and intensifies our
vision. They may satisfy and transcend the need of the moment and serve the
future of the Cause as well as the present; they may become part of a grand
design, carved as they are in the abiding stone of language but, in the last
analysis, readers of White are caught up in an individual "creativity,
characterized by an intensity of awareness and a heightened consciousness."
White is attempting what Plato wrote about
"discovering truth by reminiscence." He is moulding and remoulding his world
through his consciousness. He is not seeking authority. He is seeking meaning
within a structure of willing and wishing, a structure that he has been a part
of for over forty years, a structure that is the structure of freedom for this
In the process he gives us, at least
some of us, what Wordsworth once gave his readers:
....that which moves with light and life informed,
Actual, divine, true.
In presence of subline and lovely forms.
With the adverse principles of pain and joy....
.............all grandeur comes,
All truth and beauty, from pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
White is pointing his readers toward joy, toward wisdom, to many things. Among
the many points on the horizon he urges us toward is a cautious conservatism, a
moderation. Shoghi Effendi had, years before, pointed us toward a moderation
in his summary of the reasons for the failure of the Babi community nearly a
century before. Shoghi Effendi writes in the epilogue to The
that the moderation the Bab "had exhorted (his followers) to
observe was forgotten in the first flush of enthusiasm that seized the early
missionaries of His Faith, which behaviour was in no small measure responsible
for the failure of the hopes He had so fondly cherished."
For White the focus is on the inner life, "the extent to which our inner life
and private character mirror forth in their manifold wisdom the supreme claim
of the Abha revelation."
The success of
our teaching plans, White would argue, rests on this inner life far beyond any
set of new and noble principles, any staunchness of faith, any exaltation of
enthusiasm, any force of numbers. White expresses this idea of Shoghi Effendi
in a multitude of ways. From Emily's Song
Had heaven held sure solace
To hasten there were wise
But I, grown timid, cautious,
Search for ambush, man's and sky's.
One day I'll meet fate's boldest stare
And ask its harsh command
My apron full of gentian and
Lone daisy in my hand.
It was White's view that few rise to great heights of service and achievement
on the spiritual path. Unlike servants of the calibre of Martha Root
.................We, mincing few
Tenants of a grey plain, whose nervous eye
is peeled for tinselled honour will not trace,
Gasping, your pell-mell plunge from pride to grace.
Those few who take the plunge enjoy a spiritual banquet but, for the many:
The sour brew, the perishable flower
From which the mind weaves garlands, the vain meat
Of will that does not nourish.....
White concludes this apparently pessimistic or, as the voice of experience
might call it, realistic poem with a plea for help from heaven's great souls
..................From your pantheon
Unseat us from our thin feast to speed the dawn..
Bahá'u'lláh's vision of the 'Most Great Peace' evoked no response from the
rulers of the nineteenth century or, indeed, from the vast majority of people
who came in touch with it in His lifetime. This is not to say there was no
response for when Bahá'u'lláh passed away in 1892 He had, it is estimated, some
50,000 followers. The Faith He founded passed through its first century with
its unity firmly intact. That was, arguably, this new Faith's greatest
achievement. A global community has taken form inspired by and possessing a
certitude that the human race can eventually work together as one people.
But the Bahá'ís know and White puts it so well that:
Love offers first the suppliant at its gate
faith's bricks and planks and rusted nails that wound.
To fragile shelter built of love's spare plan,
gold-laden, comes royal lover's caravan.
There is always a golden seam of joy, of hope, and sometimes of sheer ecstasy
in the rag-and-bone-shop that is daily life in White's land or Whiteland as
some might call the spiritual and intellectual landscape he has created in his
poetry. But White would have us head into the future with our eyes wide open
and conscious that as we
........................ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies (our) doubt.
White has seen--and he hopes we too see--that within the religious and
non-religious circles we move in, that our:
makes of our knowledge knowingness,
carries us too soon from innocence
with our borrowed and embellished
choreography of reverence.
White selects many special themes and topics for our edification: marriage,
martyrs, faith, inter alia
. Perhaps in some future volume I may write
several essays around some of his selected themes, if others do not do so
before me. In the meantime we are warned by White that there are:
...............................a thousand ways
to fit distraction to our fleeting days,
that there are "few whose passion wins the sought caress," that "though
privately there swarmed/Martyrs in our dreams, publicly we warmed/To tenets
socially approved and fled rebirth."
the end, though, ours is not the role to judge but rather to accept, to be
easily pleased with others in community. If we do not, the troops that come
slowly into our community in the next few decades may find that we have
developed too critical a faculty with our intellects and use our knowledge to
judge and not understand. For knowledge needs to be about love as well as
understanding. Some of White's aphorisms and poetic injunctions may be useful,
if they are familiar, if they are ingrained on our emotional equipment.
White was only too aware that his poetry was not for everyone, although some of
it comes as close as one could possibly expect of poetry in a culture heavily
dosed on the products of a mass media and its entertainments. Although there
are more people reading poetry and buying books of poetry in these early years
of the twenty-first century, there are millions who never get near a book of
poetry and probably never will. One poetry critic recently argued the case for
advertising and sociology being the new forms of poetry, the former for the
mass and the latter for an elite. This kind of argument alters the whole
paradigm for poetry. Either way, White will not make it into any mass market,
not yet anyway.
I have met many Bahá'ís who just could not get onto White's wavelength. They
are not able to get the tuning-fork of their minds onto White's pitch. I'm not
sure how much one can will that tuning, but when the frequencies do meet the
effect is uniquely White's. I always find it slightly sad when I come across
others in the Bahá'í culture I am a part of, and of which White was a major
linguistic recorder only recently, who cannot read him. This is often due to
the densely woven web of his text in many of his poems. But he is nowhere near
as dense and impermeable as John Ashbery who, like White, raided the spoken
language of his culture. White, unlike Ashbery, is not suspicious of thought
and does not leave most of his readers unable to make out what he is talking
I find White's place in the poetic tradition of the West is not unlike
Ashbery's. I am speaking here in the broadest of senses because Ashbery has
attained a popularity that White has never achieved among the poetry
cognoscenti. They are both what you might call ruminative poets like Wallace
Stevens and T.S. Eliot going all the way back to Walt Whitman and Emerson. All
these poets tend to turn a few subjects over and over; they all tend to
aloneness and to the world of self as "solitary singers." Our world now is a
post-White landscape, a post-Ashbery landscape. Like Ashbery criticism which
defines the meaning and status of what it is to be 'American,' White criticism
defines the meaning and status of what it means to be a Bahá'í. For both White
and Ashbery their central concern, among others, was the self-world
relationship. This comparison is, for me, useful since Ashbery and White were
contemporaries, in the last half of the twentieth century and, despite their
differences or perhaps because of them, my view of White is sharpened.
Before I close I'd like to draw to your attention two simple stanzas selected
from one of many possible poems, in this case 'in homage to Emily Dickinson.'
They are symptomatic of the aphoristic nature of much of White's verse. For
poetry, far more effectively than any other art form, conveys the immediacy of
thought. And White is pithy, often with memorable lines, an effective
communicator, to use modern parlance.
I struggled with temptation,
Across his soul's
Denial was the cost.
Where all his
pride was slain
Finally I conquered
The legions of
Though heavy was the loss.
Prepare to strike
One of the factors that I think gives White a contribution to play in the
future is the sheer number of very fine poems that he has brought to this and
succeeding generations. His reputation does not rest, as say in the case of
Eliot, on a few outstanding poems which, with some persistence, can be read in
an evening. Rather, the sheer number of individual poems he gives us will
guarantee readers the experience of finding a poem they did not know was there
in his collected works. Like, say, the works of Hardy,Yeats or Stevens who
offer more individually appealing lyrics than our minds can take in, it is
difficult to know all of White's poems. He turned out a great deal of material
in his last fifteen years in slim and not-so-slim volumes.
On the other hand, it is fatally easy to decide that one "knows" the few poems
that one does, has heard them before and can't be surprised again. No matter
how much White you know or, in some cases, even have committed to memory some
of your favourite pieces, there will always be a poem there on the next page
that you know only slightly and delight to read as if for the first time.
White would have made a good poet laureate, an office that took on its modern
form in 1843
when William Wordsworth
was apppointed, although the office itself went back to 1668. It was an office
in England that was reserved for the greatest poet of the day as a mark of
public recognition of that poet's pre-eminence. It was the highest office that
a professional poet could aspire toward. Indeed, if a poet had achieved
distinction it was reasonable of contemporary commentators to speak of him as
`laureated,' even if he had not been formally granted a public laureateship
with its accompanying stipend. In 1843 there were "no specific obligations
laid upon the holder,"
although that is
certainly not the case today. White was often called, therefore, the
`unofficial poet laureate' of the Bahá'í community, an apt term given the long
and variegated history of poet laureates for some four centuries and the very
distinction that White achieved in his poetry in the last two decades of his
White liked the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Part of White's enjoyment of Eliot was an
affinity for both his life and his work, although I would have to engage with
the White archives if I wanted to substantiate this claim. Lyndall Gordon wrote
of Eliot's adult life that it could "be seen as a series of adventures from the
citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience."
Perhaps for Eliot this defining
experience was a commitment to the Anglican form of Christianity. White found
his 'defining experience' in a new emerging religion in his late teens and he
spent his life defining, studying and understanding it as deeply as he could.
Like Eliot, White often shuddered from his contact with the world and withdrew
to his citadel "where he could labour to record, as precisely as possible, his
I'm not sure White
would have liked the word "shuddering," but my own study of his poetry
suggests, like our own dear selves, he had enough of such moments to help give
his poetry the depth it attained.
Of course, in some ways, important and basic ways it is difficult to know how
White will be considered in the future because it is difficult to know where we
are at in history. Matthew Arnold thinks that the century ending in 430 BC was
the time when poetry made "the noblest, most successful effort she has ever
Toynbee, perhaps the twentieth
century's greatest megahistorian, saw 431 BC as the beginning of the decline
of Graeco-Roman civilization, the long decline of some thousand years.
Inevitably, this is all arguable. But Toynbee liked to think of himself as much
a minor poet as a historian; he liked to see the historial process as one
divinely inspired current, an expression of unity in the love of God.
There has been a theme, pursued for many a long year in the Writings of the
Bahá'í Faith and its interpreters in the twenieth century that we are
witnessing the dark heart of an age. Mixed with this view is the belief we are
in the springtime of a new age, a cultural and intellectual quickening the like
of which has never been seen. One could certainly interpret that century 530
to 430 BC as one which witnessed a similar quickening, a similar birth. The
fifth century BC has been viewed as the birthplace, birthtime, of our western
civilization. There is no doubt that these years were a climacteric of
It is not my intention here to examine this complex and fascinating historical
and poetic hypothesis, to compare and contrast climacterics. But it may be
that down the track of time historians of the future may look back on this
period of history as a period that witnessed the birth-pangs of a new
civilization. And in our time White, in the last decades of the twentieth
century, was there with his new poetic, a poetic that was highly accessible to
the embryonic new religion he had joined in the first years of its second
century. In that slough of despond which was part of this birth process,
something new was being born across the face of the earth and one of its
critical harbingers was the poet Roger White. Like Fugita who made
'Abdu'l-Bahá laugh, White made the Bahá'ís laugh and while they were laughing,
while he was making them glad, he slipped in some of the finest poetry of our
age. Like the religion he spoused which was becoming for an embryonic global
civilization "a source of joy so abundant that" it was to run all "over upon
the material world"
and transfigure it,
White's essential note, among so many of his essential notes, was joy.
And finally, with respect to White's poetry, I can only repeat the words of
Ezra Pound in relation to T.S. Eliot, with that same sense of urgency that
Pound voiced at the beginning of Eliot's poetic output, READ HIM. For White
is a poet of the future and that future is now. His poetry begins in a new
myth and ends in that myth and, if White's poetry survives into the future, it
will be because of this myth and its powerful metaphor embedded in history.
White was just one light in a long tradition of poetic lights shining upon this
history and radiating new meanings to his contemporaries. He was a voluminous
poet, an inventor on a large scale, especially during the last two decades of
his life. His was a marvellous poetic gift and had he lived into old age I am
confident he would have gone on concocting poem after poem. But what he did
produce, I'm confident too, will be enough to last into the future.
Such an article or book as this is not relatively but absolutely inadequate to
a body of poetry as great as White's, both in quality and quantity. It can be,
at best, as Randall Jarrell said of his study of Robert Frost's poetry, "only a
kind of breathless signboard."
as Matthew Arnold once wrote, humankind discovers that more and more it has to
"turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us,"
then what I have written here may find a
useful place in the burgeoning literature of this endangered species.
Nabil, The Dawnbreakers
I pointed out in chapter one of this book a
number of other contributors to the emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature. I pointed out, too, that this book deals solely with the
poetry of White.
F.R. Leavis, Revaluation
Tradition and Development in English Poetry
, Pelican Books, 1972(1936),
T.S. Eliot in "Lessons of the Masters: T.S.
Eliot," Garrick David, Contemporary Poetry Review
Martin Amis, "There is a Kind of
Meanspiritedness," The Times Newspaper Ltd.
, 4 August 1997.
One could list a number of quotations in
White's poetry that relate to this issue. Pebbles
, p.56 and
, p.82, among others.
R.W. Emerson in Jonathan Holden, Style
and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry
, University of Michigan Press,
Columbia, 1986, p.170.
Hayden Carruth in Jonathan Holden,
Philip Wheelwright in Jonathan Holden,
Dwight Poggemiller, "Hermeneutics and
Epistomology: Hirsch's Author Centered Meaning, Radical Historicism and
Gadamer's Truth and Method
," Premise, Vol.II, No.8
, 1995, p.3.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.110.
The Universal House of Justice,
Letter, 29 December 1988
James Benziger, Images of Eternity:
Studies in the Poetry of Religious Vision from Wordsworth to T.S. Eliot
Southern Illinois UP, London, 1962, p.4. By Wordsworth's time this search for
fresh answers became a more dominant historical note.
Roger White, "Notes on Erosion," The
Witness of Pebbles
, 1981, p.72.
Gary Cohen, "A Notorious Trifler," The
, July/August 2002.
Dwight Poggemiller, op.cit.
Some poets receive a wide swing of the
pendulum of popularity with the years. See Louis Untermeyer, The Lives of
the Poets: The Story of One Thousand Years of English and American Poetry
Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959, p.612 and his discussion of the poet A.E.
Jonathan Holden, "Discovered Form,"
Style and Authenticity In Postmodern Poetry
, University of
Missouri Press, Columbia, 1986, pp. 92-110.
Matthew Arnold expressed this basis of a
'healthy poetry.' See F.R. Leavis, Revaluation
, Penguin Books, London,
F.R. Leavis, op.cit.
Wallace Stevens in James Benziger,
James Benziger, op.cit.
John Keats, Letter to John Reynolds,
19 February 1818
, John Keats: Modern Critical Views
, editor, Harold
Bloom, Chelsea House Pub., NY, 1985, p.19.
Galway Kinnell, "Interview" in Greenwich
Village, NY, February, 2001.
Shelley, quoted in The Critical Path:
An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism
, Northrop Frye,
Indiana University Press, London, 1973(1971), p.96.
Jane Tomkins, "Masterpiece Theatre: The
Politics of Hawthorne's Literary Reputation," Falling Into Theory:
Conflicting Views on Reading Literature
, David H. Richter, editor,
Bedford, NY, 2000, p.138.
Terry Eagleton, "The Rise of English,"
Falling Into Theory: conflicitng Views on Reading Literature
NY, 2000, p.49: discusses the equation between literature and ideology.
Herbert Read, Poetry and
, Visions Pub. Ltd., London, 1967, p.118.
Mathew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p. 182.
R.M. Rilke in an undated interview with
poet Maxine Kumin.
Rita Dove, American poet, makes this
comment in an undated interview.
This is not to say that people do not
respond to many forms that various analysts of popular and high culture argue
are much like poetry, for example, songs, bedtime stories, advertising,
T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poetry and Poets
, Faber and Faber, London, 1969(1957),
William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, pp.112-113.
Randall Jarrell in Lives of the Modern
, William Pritchard, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.296.
I have drawn on the views of Garrick
Davis in this paragraph. See G. Davis, "The Breakdown of Criticism Before the
Printed Deluge," Contemorary Poetry Review, 2001.
Harold Bloom, How To Read and
, Fourth Estate, London, 2000, p.21.
Somerset Maugham, 10 Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), p.2.
R.W. Emerson in Harold Bloom,
Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of
, Wilmette, p.48.
T.S. Eliot, "What Dante Means To Me,"
To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings
, Faber and Faber, London,
See T.S. Eliot, "The Social Function of
Poetry," On Poets and Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1957, p.22.
Edmund Wilson in "Can Poetry Matter?"
Dana Gioia, The Atlantic Monthly
, May 1991, p.3.
T.S. Eliot, "The Classics and the Man of
Letters," To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings
, Faber and Faber,
London, 1965, p.147.
A German word with no exact English
equivalent. 'Pattern' comes closest. The motto of the school of psychology with
this name informs us here: 'The whole is more than the sum of its parts.'
This is quite a complex issue and needs
to be treated separately.
Dana Gioia, "Can Poetry Matter?" The
, May 1991, p.17.
Harold Bloom, op.cit.
Frank Kermode, An Appetite for Poetry:
Essays in Literary Interpretation
, Collins, London, 1989, p.5.
David Gorman, "Theory, Antitheory and
Countertheory," Philosophy and Literature, Vol.21, No.2
Daniel T. O'Hara, The Romance of
Interpretation: Visionary Criticism from Pater to de Man
, Columbia UP, NY,
Nader Saiedi, "Dialogue With Marxism,"
Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social Issues
Anthony Lee, Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1984, p.236.
Nader Saiedi, op.cit.
Northrop Frye writes that criticism
requires some coordinating principle. See Lionel Trilling, Beyond
, NY, Viking Press, 1965, p.58.
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.396.
David Daiches, op.cit.,
Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words
T.E. Rosenmeyer, The Art of
, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, pp.336-68.
Roger White, Pebbles,
John Hatcher, The Purpose of Physical
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980,
[5 The Universal House of Justice], Letter
to the Followers of Bahá'u'lláh in the USA
, 29 December 1988, p.5.
Roger White, op.cit
The Universal House of Justice,
Letter, 3 April 1991.
Lionel Tiger, Optimism: The Biology
, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1979.
Teillard de Chardin, The Future of
, London, 1969, p.74.
Roger White, op.cit
Herbert Read, op.cit.
, p. 197.
This has not been entirely successful as
concentrations of one thousand or more Bahá'ís have emerged in some cities in
Shoghi Effendi, God passes by
Roger White, op.cit.,
Shakespeare quoted in Herbert Read,
, p. 219.
The Universal House of Justice, Letter
to the Bahá'ís of the United States of America,
29 December 1988, p.10.
Donald Hall, Their Ancient Glittering
Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets
, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1992,
T.S. Eliot in The Echoing Wood of
, Jennijoy LaBelle, Princeton UP, NJ, 1976, p.87.
For an examination of this process of
`the institutionalization of charisma' see the writings of Max Weber
the last decade of his life 1910-1920.
Rollo May, The Courage to Create
1975. These are notes I made in the front of this book from reading about Rollo
The Universal House of Justice,
Letters to the Bahá'ís of the United States of America
, 29 December
William Wordsworth quoted in Herbert
, p. 211.
Epilogue, The Dawnbreakers
Shoghi Effendi, Guidance for Today and
and The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan, 1989.
Roger White, One Bird
Roger White, Pebbles,
Roger White, One Bird
Roger White, Pebbles,
Susan Schultz, editor, The Tribe of
John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry
, Introduction, Internet, 2002.
Roger White, One Bird, p.28.
Kenneth Hopkins, The Poets
, EP Publishing Ltd., Wakefield, 1973, p.211.
Lyndall Gordon, Eliot's Early Years,
NY, Oxford, 1977, quoted in William Pritchard, The Lives of Modern
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.200.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's
Essays in Criticism
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.153.
Arnold Tonbee, "Comment," Journal
of the History of Ideas, Vol.16
(1955), p.421 and Edward Fiess, "Toynbee as
Poet," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.16
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Randall Jarrell, "To the Laodiceans,"
Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays
, editor, James Cox,
Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962, p.100.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.