Humility & Poetry

Eliot says that humility is endless.  And Thoreau says that “humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.”  But I’ve been thinking lately about a book called The Wisdom of the Desert, translated by Thomas Merton, which is a compendium of meditations, lessons and parables by and for monks.  The story I’m thinking about goes like this.  A monk is robbed by two thieves.  He asks a holy father what he should do, and that father responds that he should discover of which sin is he guilty.  This is a difficult attitude for us to understand and, even if we understand it, it is almost an impossible attitude for us to adopt.  My first understanding of this, which I’m not certain is entirely incorrect, was that clearly the monk, to have been robbed, hadn’t abided by his vow of poverty or charity and, had he, what was a felony would instead be an opportunity to do God’s will.  However, the more I think about the story, the more I think this isn’t a lesson in what the monk failed to do.  The father wasn’t chiding the monk.  Rather, this is a lesson about a virtue the monk might practice more perfectly.  That virtue is humility.

No one would get far, especially because we live in a world which can be so sad and violent, trying to convince the victim of a robbery that somehow he might attempt to be more humble so that next time he won’t get robbed.  Then again, righteous anger and prosecution have never protected a victim from being robbed a second time either.  The point isn’t, in the case above, that the monk won’t get robbed again if he just does this or this better or more perfectly.  That isn’t the holy father’s concern.  No one but God – at least, from the monk’s point of view – can keep anyone from anything.  And this is especially true for a monk, who relies entirely on God’s will.  So the holy father’s concern, rather, is the well being of the monk’s soul, which is most in danger here because he may be tempted to abandon humility to seek revenge, though that revenge might masquerade as justice.

The word humble comes from the Latin word for ground or earth.  The concept of humility, therefore, implies a “grounding,” or at least this is how I like to see it.  Someone who practices humility practices an attitude which brings him closer to the ground, closer to where his feet are.  This is why, when we pray, we kneel.  This is why on Maundy Thursday, the priest washes the feet of certain members of the congregation.  The idea being that he has come to serve.  The idea being that one imitates the divine not with solar crowns, but with a crown of thorns.  The point then isn’t suffering or sacrificing necessarily.  The point is finding joy in serving others.  And if you are to seek to amend anyone’s life, it might as well – and perhaps best be – yours.  After all, this is work enough and one might never see an end to it.  Should you try sincerely to amend your life and succeed perfectly, then perhaps you may begin to “remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Until then, remove the beam from yours.

I’ve said a lot here about humility, but nothing yet about poetry.  In other posts, I have called for a poetry which is as vital as life, but I should revise that now.  This suggests that poetry is the rival of life.  That poetry competes with life.  It can’t, and it shouldn’t.  That poetry must fail, because the idea there is that life ought to change.  Or that poetry ought to be as cruel or disappointing as life can sometimes be, as if life were a thing we ought to criticize.  I am no more interested in criticizing life than I am in criticizing the people who live it.  Not anymore.  The proper attitude of the poet, and the poem, might be the same as that of the monk – perhaps for different ends, but they need not be different – and that is this: to aid the understanding so that the poet might come to accept life as it is, and – at least for me – come to rely on the divine, whatever his conception of that is, more perfectly.  In other words, poetry ought to bring one to an attitude which, finally, says not But, but; or No, no; but Yes, yes.

This isn’t to say that a poet ought not exercise his judgment.  Nor should this suggest that a poet dismiss ideas regarding the imagination for those concerning inspiration or prophesy or something else.  A poet isn’t speaking in tongues.  Rather, it means that writing a poem requires all the faculties and gifts given a person.  Writing poetry requires more than mere courage.  It requires more than mere intellect.  It requires more than mere imagination.  It requires all if it is to see, eventually, a glimpse of its object.

Neither do I mean to say a poem can’t be as vital as life.  However, if a poet’s poetry is ever to be as vital as life, it must be as clear a channel as possible so that life shines through.  A true life shines through.  A poem must serve as a frame, and the poet himself a pane of glass.  A good poem might simply say: See?  It asks the question.  It doesn’t argue.  A good poem, then, is like the robbed monk.  It sits on a precipice looking out, and perhaps doesn’t know how perilously situated it is.  A good poem absorbs the blows and shakes of a storm, like a tree.  It offers up its limbs, its leaves, its life.  Its roots dig down to its source.  It drinks.  And when the storm passes, it listens to God’s voice in the gentlest breeze.

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