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Abstract:
Brief biography, written as an obituary, of a famous Baha'i poet.

Roger White: An Obituary:
Writer and editor, "poet laureate" of the Bahá'í community (1929-1993)

by Robert Weinberg

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 7
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1997
    "Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets."
    The Báb, quoted in The Dawnbreakers(1)
During the 17th century, it became the practice of English monarchs to appoint an official court poet who would compose odes to mark important state occasions including anniversaries and ceremonies associated with the sovereign and his circle. The term for such literary luminaries -- poet laureate -- arose from the ancient custom in universities of presenting a laurel wreath to graduates in the subjects of rhetoric and poetry. The position of poet laureate is one which still continues in Britain in our own time. But with the passing of Roger White, it might be said that the Bahá'í community lost its most recent poet laureate -- a singularly talented and humane voice who, writing from his home at the spiritual and administrative heart of the Bahá'í world, used his literary gift to celebrate the triumphs of Bahá'u'lláh and his community while perceiving within their victories the very human struggles which made their achievements all the more remarkable. The published works of this untrained poet, whose talents only really began flowering in his forties, are now enjoyed, recited, set to music and analysed throughout the world. Hasan Balyuzi likened White's works to those of the greatest of Sufí poets, saying White wrote "with an elegance and fluency reminiscent of Hafiz, and with a like power to affect the spirit."(2) But Roger White (2 June 1929-10 April 1993) was not only a poet. He was an historian, novelist, accomplished editor, imaginative visual artist, a lithe and graceful dancer, as well as a conscientious servant to Bahá'í institutions. To those of all ages who knew and loved him, he was a brilliantly witty mentor, a master of the kind word, an encourager and ennabler of the highest order.

John Roger White was born in Toronto on 2 June 1929, into a Roman Catholic family of Irish ancestry. His parents, John and Kathleen White (née Rogers), had a total of four children--two girls and two boys. While the family was not especially devout, Roger, the eldest of the children, regularly attended mass, often taking his younger sister Eileen with him. The White family appears to have moved around quite frequently during Roger's early years--from Toronto to Belleville, then to Sarnia and back to Belleville where Roger graduated from high school. After his graduation Roger left home to live in Toronto. It was during his early twenties that he confided to a close friend that he had doubts about the existence of God - a crisis of faith which he later was to draw upon for a young character in his poem, "New Song":

    The tempest came in your twelfth or fifteenth year,
    a clean cold wind,
    and you were left like a stripped young tree in autumn
    with a cynical winter setting in.(3)
In retrospect, Roger's declaration of non-belief was effectively a preparation for him to become a Bahá'í. While in Toronto, he was introduced to the Bahá'í Faith by Gary Rea-Airth. Attending fireside meetings in Kingston, Ontario, he became very attached to the prominent Canadian Bahá'í teacher and administrator, Winnifred Harvey, who, in his own words, "passed to him the chalice containing the immortal draught."(4) He became a Bahá'í in August 1951, deeply attracted to the universality of the Bahá'í teachings and its central theme of the earth as but one country and humankind its citizens. Winnifred Harvey had been taught the Faith by one Rowland Estall, who had himself been taught by May Maxwell. Thus, from these earliest days, Roger developed a deep, personal affinity with the early heroes of the Faith and dared to hope that he might enjoy some kinship of spirit with them.

Roger returned to live in Belleville after his declaration as a Bahá'í. It was there that he met Helen Owens who shortly afterwards also recognised Bahá'u'lláh. They were married in a Bahá'í ceremony in 1952. The newly-wedded couple became instrumental in confirming new believers and within one year, the first Spiritual Assembly of Belleville was formed, with Roger and Helen serving on it.

Roger worked as Clerk to the County Court in Belleville, progressing to the post of assistant editor of Hansard, the daily record of debates in the Canadian Parliament's House of Commons in Ottawa. He was also on call to the United Nations as a shorthand reporter. The Whites, having moved as a result of Roger's appointment, were soon elected to the Spiritual Assembly of Ottawa. In the ensuing years, they held regular firesides in their home and between them, served on four national committees. Their marriage, however, was not to last and in 1962, Roger moved to Vancouver to take up a position with the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

It was as a result of a visit to Vancouver by the Hand of the Cause, William Sears, and his wife Marguerite that Roger's professional life would change forever. One night, after Mr Sears went to bed having delivered a talk, Roger, Mrs Sears and another Bahá'í, Bill van Zoest, were discussing Mr Sears' health. Mrs Sears believed that if her husband's workload could be eased, he might live to serve longer. It was during this conversation that a plan was hatched for Roger to become Sears' secretary. For three years between 1966 and 1969, Roger devotedly served the Sears in Kenya. During this time, he also acted as secretary to the Hands of the Cause in Africa, and amongst his other activities, danced a leading role in a professional production of "Guys and Dolls."

Returning to North America, a further two years were spent with William Sears in Palm Springs, California, as secretary and research assistant. It was an amicable relationship, enhanced by the love of laughter the two men shared, and warmly recalled in a late poem: "You may alter my grammar and sentence structure," Sears had told Roger, "but don't rewrite my jokes!"(5) When William Sears planned a lengthy teaching tour in 1971 and Roger's services were not required for the trip, he offered to loan Roger to the Universal House of Justice for six months. Twenty years later, Roger was still serving at the Bahá'í world centre. William Sears would often later joke about the loan going on and on.

Roger's manifold services included serving as secretary aide to David Hofman (who coincidentally had also been taught the Bahá'í Faith by May Maxwell), additional secretarial duties to the House of Justice itself, and managing the publishing department of the Bahá'í world centre during a period when many important new volumes were published. Under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice, he was responsible for compiling and publishing volumes XIV to XIX of The Bahá'í World, the standard reference work charting the growth and development of the world-wide Bahá'í community, as well as editing the invaluable compendium of volumes I to XII, published in 1981.

Stimulated by his proximity to the Bahá'í holy places and by the vibrant atmosphere of Israel, Roger renewed an earlier interest in creative writing, particularly the composing of poems and short stories. Already in his early twenties, he had published at his own expense a book of poetry called Summer Window for which he did the drawing on the front cover. But now an innate and exceptional talent seemed to be bearing fruit. Roger was encouraged in this by David Hofman, and a succession of publications followed which quickly established his reputation as a poet of note, most importantly two major anthologies published by George Ronald: Another Song, Another Season (1979) and The Witness of Pebbles (1981). A tender and eloquent novel which presented a semi-fictionalised account of the early days of the Bahá'í Faith in Paris, A Sudden Music, was also published by George Ronald in 1983, followed by a biographical tribute to the poet Emily Dickinson in the form of more than 100 poems: One Bird, One Cage, One Flight (Naturegraph, 1983).

Also during this time, Roger wrote a short, historical account of the martyrdom of 'Alí-Asghár of Yazd, The Shell and the Pearl (George Ronald 1984). Indeed, the resumption of the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran following the 1979 revolution, with its obvious parallels to earlier outbreaks of opposition, moved Roger to pen some of his most deeply empathic and powerful work, many of which are collected in The Witness of Pebbles and in Occasions of Grace (George Ronald, 1992).

In addition to his touching and sometimes gently humorous tributes to the heroic figures of Bahá'í history, Roger White's poetry also explored the nature of committment, the challenge of relationships between men and women and the contrast between outward semblances and inner reality. A literary scholar, Geoffrey Nash, has described him, as a "distinctive poetic mind...His is a Bahá'í consciousness, conveyed with the utmost felicity in poetic expression...Roger White to my mind shows himself to be in many things the first Bahá'í poet."(6) In his foreward to Occasions of Grace, Australian Bahá'í poet Ron Price summed up the essence of White's poetry and its impact on those who read it: "White knows that he is working at the beginning of this new world and its embryonic order. With all the 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."(7)

Roger White's work has appeared in literary journals throughout the world. Some poems have become the subject of paintings; others have been used as the basis for firesides and for English classes from Canada to China; some have been performed by actors, with music and dance accompaniament; many have been set to music. This cross-fertilization of different art forms brought great happiness to Roger and strengthened his hope that his poetry might perhaps be considered as having the capacity to speak to the human heart despite differences of background, race, culture, philosophy or religion. It was his conviction that in the future, one of the measures of the spiritual maturity and health of the Bahá'í community world-wide, would 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.

Roger White believed committed artists would be a vital force in preventing inflexibility in the Bahá'í community. "They will," he predicted, addressing a group of Bahá'í youth in Haifa in 1990, "be a source of rejuvenation. They will serve as a bulwark against fundamentalism, stagnation and administrative sterility...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."(8) To this end, White encouraged hundreds of budding writers and artists around the world, and called upon Bahá'í communities to assist the artists to find their place. His influence extended beyond the Bahá'í community and into the environment in which he lived. For many years Roger was an associate editor of the first English language poetry journal of Israel, Voices Israel, founded in 1971.

Roger White retired from his service in Haifa in 1991 after undergoing major heart surgery. Returning to Canada, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Undeterred, he set about teaching the Faith through the establishment of a poetry writing group and speaking at firesides. In his final months, he taught the Faith to his surgeon, the nursing staff and social workers. He collected his last works of poetry into two volumes Notes Postmarked the Mountain of God (New Leaf, 1992) and The Language of There (New Leaf, 1992) and had them published himself because he was "running out of time."(9) He also completed the text for Raghu Rai's photographic celebration of the Bahá'í house of worship in New Delhi, Forever in Bloom.(10)

Roger White quietly accepted his approaching departure, saying, "It's really alright. I've done everything I've ever really wanted to do."(11) In one of his final poems, this craftsman of the English language contemplated what vocabulary might be needed in the place to where he was going.

    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...

    ...In time, our desire to speak will abandon us.
    All that need be said the light will say. Yes.(12)

Roger White passed away at 5.25 in the afternoon of 10 April 1993 in Richmond, British Columbia surrounded by his family, "drawn away by the music, the laughter, the promised ecstasy of reunion."(13)
    Robert Weinberg(14)

End Notes

    1. Nabil-i-Zarandi. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil's narrative of the early days of the Bahá'í revelation. Translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932) 258.
    2. H.M. Balyuzi, Unpublished review of Another Song, Another Season, included in biographical notes which were sent out to reviewers.
    3. Roger White, "New Song," Another Song, Another Season (Oxford: George Ronald, 1979) 117.
    4. Roger White, Notes Postmarked The Mountain of God (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 29.
    5. Roger White, "Remembering William Sears,"The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 62.
    6. Geoffrey Nash, Unpublished review of Another Song, Another Season, included in biographical notes which were sent out to reviewers.
    7. Ron Price, "Foreward", Occasions of Grace (Oxford: George Ronald, 1992) xiii.
    8. Roger White, "Bring Chocolate," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 79-80.
    9. Eileen Collins, Unpublished biographical notes on her brother, Roger White.
    10. New Delhi: Time Books International, 1992.
    11. Eileen Collins, Unpublished biographical notes on her brother, Roger White.
    12. Roger White, "The Language of There," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 78.
    13. Roger White, "Learning New Ways," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 77.
    14. I am grateful to Roger White's sister Eileen Collins, Ann Boyles, Sherna Deamer, Carol Allen, and David Hofman for their assistance in providing information for this essay.
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