I was feeling pretty awful the other day. It was the 17th. I know that because I picked up my Book of Common Prayer, turned to the psalm reading in the psalter for the 17th day, and read psalm 88. This felt serendipitous. Augustine, when he finally surrendered, heard a raggedy boy in the distance repeating, “Take it up, read it.” Augustine leapt for his Book of Books, opened at random and found the words he needed to find exactly. The rest is history. And Merton, I remember reading, desired desperately at one point – this is somewhere in the Seven Storey Mountain – a similar experience, but I don’t think it ever came to him. I’ve played before, during moments of crisis, with this, opening books to find a relevant and illuminating passage. Perhaps all readers, who read for help and hope, do this. The Latin word for reading means “to pick out,” and is related to our word “election” and “selection.” The idea being, I guess, in Augustine’s case and in Merton’s,too, that something divine selects the passages for us to communicate an eternal truth made now particular for our circumstances. It is perhaps easier to think this with holy books.
What interested me about psalm 88 is what always interests me when I read the psalms. And that is the psalmist’s stance. Anyone who reads the psalms closely can’t miss that the singer of these songs struggles and argues and attempts to persuade his God as much as he tries to appease and praise him. In 88, he comes to this:
I have stretched out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?
Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave?
your faithfulness in the land of destruction?
Will your wonders be known in the dark?
or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?
There is an irony in these lines, which strikes me. One reading, given the lines which lead up to these and the ones that follow, suggests that the psalmist wonders whether he is alive or dead. God has forsaken him, hidden his face, and placed the psalmist far from his friends and supporters. In this way he is like the dead, who can’t complain or praise. And this is the point of a second reading. The psalmist here also seems to be suggesting, because he sings God’s praises, that he can’t be dead. God doesn’t work miracles for the dead because the dead can’t fulfill their end of the bargain. The dead don’t sing.
Harold Bloom, in his book on Wallace Stevens, talks about three poetic stances, Pathos, Logos and Ethos. He claims that every poet moves between these stances, though each may name the experience differently. Emerson, for instance, called these Power, Freedom and Fate. To put it simply, a poet seeks for meaning (logos), experiences moments of success (pathos), but ultimately must resign himself to failure (ethos). The last failure, of course, is the failure of the flesh. I feel a great anxiety when I read the last lines quoted above and consider this. The palmist seems to be teetering on the edge of something dangerous. Ought one worry about “righteousness,” when one is going to “the country where all is forgotten”?
The last words of Whitman’s poem So Long are these: “I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.” I remember listening to a lecture on Whitman, where the lecturer concluded that the last word was ironic. Whitman wanted each edition of Leaves of Grass, following the composition of this poem, to conclude with So Long. He wanted the last word of his book of books to end on this note: dead. The irony isn’t, as the lecturer I heard suggested, that Whitman isn’t dead. He is. But that he considers this death, his particular one, a triumph. One must feel an overwhelming tenderness for Old Walt at the end of the poem. If he does stop somewhere, waiting for us, it is at the conclusion that, as Hamlet says: the rest is silence.
Success for the poet is different from the success of the saint. The saint wants to be one with the divine, but the poet – and I would say the psalmist is more poet than saint – wants to be alive. He wants freedom from fate, from death. The saint wants to be alive, but his “alive” and the poet’s differ as stars from shine. The saint’s freedom lies in a death of self, while the poet’s freedom lies in a fulfillment of self, even an exhaustion of self. When the poet surrenders he does because he hasn’t a choice. The saint gives freely what the poet gives begrudgingly. The triumph at the end of Leaves of Grass, then, and in Hamlet’s end, is that both seem to be surrendering what was never theirs to surrender. Their spirits are as unsponsored as anyone’s spirit can be. It is for this reason we can hardly approach them, however we try.
The psalmist’s triumph is incomplete from this point of view. He concludes his psalm in darkness, still reaching for his God. But where he does succeed as poet is where he questions, and almost concludes: that God needs him as much as he needs God.