Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
In a recent post including my conversation with poet Katie Ford for our Repossessing Virtue series, Ford talked about how in these hard economic times she finds comfort in literature, and more specifically, in the poetry of James Wright. During our talk, she mentioned a poem he had written, and the title was so compelling, I just had to dig around to find it.
"In Terror of Hospital Bills"
I still have some money
To eat with, alone
And frightened, knowing how soon
I will waken a poor man.
It snows freely and freely hardens
On the lawns of my hope, my secret
Hounded and flayed. I wonder
What words to beg money with.
Pardon me, sir, could you?
Which way is St. Paul?
I am a full-blooded Sioux Indian.
Soon I am sure to become so hungry
I will have to leap barefoot through gas-fire veils of shame,
I will have to stalk timid strangers
On the whorsehouse corners.
Oh moon, sow leaves on my hands,
On my seared face, oh I love you.
My throat is open, insane,
But my life was never so precious
To me as now.
I will have to beg coins
I will learn to scent the police,
And sit or go blind, stay mute, be taken for dead
For your sake, oh my secret,
Copyright 1971 by James Wright. Reprinted from “Collected Poems” with permission from Wesleyan University Press.
I’m struck by the lines, “It snows freely and freely hardens / On the lawns of my hope,” and how the speaker wonders “what words to beg money with” when hospital bills finally bring him to poverty. Yet later, the speaker says “But my life was never so precious / To me as now.”
It’s a sentiment I feel I’m hearing often in these Repossessing Virtue conversations and in listener comments — that despite the fear and anxiety of this time, this economic collapse has offered us an opportunity to reexamine and refocus our energy on what we really value.
We’d love to hear what you think of this poem, or what other poems and/or poets are you turning to lately. One listener said he’s been reading a lot of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue this past year. What other poets are offering you comfort or insight during these economic times?Comments
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
This past weekend, I kept mulling over the content of our recent show, "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness" — especially what Michael McCullough said about how easily parents forgive their children.
I forgive my seven-year-old son every day. … Because he’s an active, inquisitive seven-year-old who sometimes accidentally elbows me in the mouth when we’re cuddling and sometimes puts Crayons on the walls. And yet it seems demeaning to call it forgiveness. … It’s just what you do with your children. You know, you accept their limitations and you move on.
As a father of two toddlers, the thing that amazes me is not how easily parents forgive their children, but how easily children forgive their parents. Every parent I know has had moments of utter exasperation and impatience with their kids that they later regretted. But when our children are little, they have an extraordinary capacity to forgive our mistakes. Krista once wrote about a Hebrew proverb that says “just before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells her everything — all the secrets of God and the universe. Then he kisses her on the forehead, and she begins to forget it all.” So it seems that, though our children will forget it by adolescence, they are apparently born knowing the secret of forgiveness.
The poet Robyn Sarah sums it up perfectly for me in her poem Nursery, 11:00 p.m. The speaker of the poem describes coming to the end of a day when she’s been a terrible parent, wishing she could apologize for how she behaved, standing over her children as they sleep in their cribs. She likens the forgiving sound of their breathing to a shawl being knitted in the darkness.
How warm it is, I think,
how much softer
than my deserving.
One of the exciting aspects of my job as a producer is the opportunities our web site opens up for multimedia content. As soon as we started producing this week’s program, I wanted our audience to be able to see the Irish landscape John O’Donohue described in his conversation with Krista. I desperately wanted to see it. I’m of Irish ancestry (75%!, I’d proudly tell people on St. Patrick’s Day as a kid, dressed in my Kelly green shirt with a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button), and someday I hope to make it to that emerald isle.
When I asked John O’Donohue’s business manager, Linda, if she had any photos of John in Ireland, she graciously offered to put out a request to friends and family. Within days I’d received over a dozen photos of both the Connemara region where John most recently lived, and some of Fanore, a town in County Clare where John attended elementary school, and where he is now buried. Will O’Leary, a veteran Washington Post staff photographer and close friend of John’s, shared some of his photos. His wife, NPR reporter Jacki Lyden, was also a close friend of John’s (she recently offered a remembrance of him on NPR’s All Things Considered). Another longtime friend and professional photographer, Nutan, shared photos he took of John in 2005.
In producing the audio slideshow, I was struck with how well the photos illustrated O’Donohue’s language in his poem “Beannacht” — a word I’ve heard translated as both “blessing” and “passage.” It’s about finding comfort in loss, and I consciously tried to match the photos to the poem’s tone, mood, and pace. I learned that John wrote this poem for his mother, Josie, at the time of his father’s death. According to Linda, his father “…was a farmer and a gifted builder of dry stone walls — a dying art still much revered — from whom, John’s brother Pat said at his funeral, John learned the art of fitting words delicately and fittingly together.”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
One thing we know about our fan base — they (you?) love words, especially poesy. The response to Tess Gallagher’s poem about her time with Thich Nhat Hanh made that clear.
So, in one of Krista’s limited face-to-face interviews (see Shiraz’s post about what a more typical interview looks like), she was regaled by the lilting tongue and picturesque poetry of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue in September. Mr. O’Donohue passed away earlier this year, but his verse lives on.
Colleen crafted a lovely audio slideshow (keep your eye out for her post) of O’Donohue’s recitation of “Beannacht” threaded with phototgraphs of scenic Celtic landscapes taken by several of his dear friends. And, since many of O’Donohue’s recitations won’t make it into the final, produced program, I wanted to offer them up here for download — or, if you prefer a more expedient and organized approach, through our podcast.
All of them are mp3s you can download. Just right-click your mouse and select save as:
A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness
A Blessing for One Who Holds Power
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: The Caha River
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: Between Things
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: Body Language
Since You Came
And, my apologies for all the parenthetical comments. Yowza!
Krista Tippett, Host/Producer
I traveled this past weekend to the Guest House of St. John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. I’m about to head off on some travel for my book tour — part of me looks forward to this, part of me does not. It will be exciting and exhausting, and I have a speech to write. But really all that was an excuse to get back up to St. John’s, a place I visit periodically to get quiet inside. I did get a bit done on the speech, but more important than that I slept and read, prayed with the monks, and collected my thoughts.
Before I left Kate handed me a tiny book of poems by Freya Manfred. I’m nourished and kept alive by reading, and always have been. I came upon a couple of lines from Manfred that I’ll keep. The first is just half a line that puts fresh words to an underlying energy and tension of life that fascinates me — the concomitant separation and twining of what is personal and what is communal. Manfred refers to this as “our braided paths and solitary ways.”
I like this language. She also has a poem about fear, which I think about alot as a factor in our common life, religious and otherwise. Fear is the very human very powerful emotion that lashes out as anger, hatred, bigotry, violence. I try to hang on to this knowledge — difficult as it is in the face of real anger, hatred, bigotry, and violence — as a way to cultivate compassion as a primary virtue for moving through the world. Freya Manfred adds some poetic images to my cumulative store of intelligence:
Fear is a thirst for solid ground,
a cave and a fire,
with a way in, and a way out.
Fear is not always old,
but it’s always new.
When old, it can be ignored,
like the midnight keening in the houses of the sane.
When new, it’s nameless
something about to happen —
but all I can imagine.
Fear leaves and returns.
There are no words to keep it away.
If only there were words.
And yet, and yet — I persist in my faith that if we can at least name something — even the powerlessness of words in the face of the fearfulness in our world, we can begin to discern other ways together to approach and calm it.Comments