Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #12: A rare double-dip!

That's right folks, this week I am featuring 2 poems from the chosen poet. This is primarily because I love both selections and had a hard time choosing between the two... but it's also my way of paying homage to a man who, if we can speak (figuratively) of the "relationships" we form with our favorite writers, has been my longest and most trusted "friend." I have been reading and heartily enjoying his works since the second grade -- and I still have the old book reports in my files somewhere to prove it! He was a brilliant thinker and world-reknowned literary critic, philosopher, theologian, essayist, novelist, orator, Christian apologist and, last but certainly not least, writer of childrens' books. I believe every single one, or darn close to every one, of his scores of books are still in print. His name? Clive Staples (better known as C. S.) Lewis.

"Uncle Jack" (as I jokingly refer to him with Mutt) is not as well known (or well regarded) for his poetry, though he did actually write quite a bit of it. His first book was a collection of poems (Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics), and throughout his entire career he would publish, always either anonymously or under a pseudonym (my favorite of the pen names he used is "Nat Whilk" -- old English for "I know not whom"), poems in various literary journals and such. Although his poetry has not always been treated kindly by the critics, I personally find it to be heartfelt and earnest, often very moving, imaginative, and (perhaps most interestingly, to me anyway) deeply insightful into the private hopes, doubts, fears and joys that motivated this great writer at the very core of his being.

The first poem here was a selection largely inspired by my recent (and first) viewing of the BBC film version of the hit play Shadowlands, which (as many will already know) was based on the late marriage and deep love shared by Lewis and Joy Davidman, an American poet and critic. If you've seen the later Hollywood version but have not had the chance to see the earlier BBC film, I highly recommend you try and find the latter. It gets much closer to the thought and writings of the actual man (read: an infinitely superior script), and seems to portray the love between the two much more accurately in every way. This poem could almost work as a perfect synopsis of the entire play/film. Lewis suffered greatly in sitting by helplessly and watching her die of cancer (obviously this was written either in the midst of or just after her dying), but he also came to realize the extent of the gift God gave to him in her love, and seems to have learned something quite profound about grace and redemption in the agonizing process. (I love his witty, honest self-effacement here too: "I talk of love -- a scholar's parrot may talk Greek".) I find the last two lines deeply moving, and worth reflecting upon for anyone who is bound by the chains of love to another person. ("Love is not blind; it is bound." -G.K. Chesterton)

As for the second, it is just one of my very favorite poems from Lewis. I find it a fascinating take on the psychology, for lack of a better word, of faith and prayer... an imaginative expression of how it feels at times to pray, to receive pardon and grace in small quantities in the midst of our doubts and fears. It seems to me to be very honest and real in terms of the way prayer often feels, and yet, it is also somehow encouraging, urging us not to give up on the practice, but to "consent/To weariness, and pardon's watery element". I'm not even 100% sure what that means, but it feels and sounds authentic to me, when I think about what a struggle prayer can be at times, and how necessary it is to believe in its efficacy even when it seems to be moot and powerless. "Arise, my body, my small body, we have striven/Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven."

I hope you will find these poems of Lewis' as inspiring and interesting as I have... or, at the least, that this post will provide a somewhat new or different glimpse than what you'd seen previously into the extraordinary genius of mind/meekness of heart of the great C. S. Lewis, one of my all-time literary heroes.


As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.


After Prayers, Lie Cold

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush'd mortal, in the sacred night, -
A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness' and pardon's watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.


Mutt Ploughman said...

O Mighty Altum! One-man poetry jam!! Human culture rejuvenator! Literary wrecking ball! Who knows how Duke finds time to feed the hungry with his well-selected poems. Why, I see anthology editing in his future, probably after his own first few collections. (Hey folks, if you don't believe me, I've been trying to get Duke to post his poems up here for months, but he feels that he can't compete with the poets he's already posted. He's an apprentice, not a master maybe, but that doesn't diminish the originality of his own vision.) Yes, I can vouch personally for Duke's long-time love of C.S. Lewis, which he followed to much greater lengths than i ever have, although I am also an admirer of Lewis' writing. These poems are worth reading and contemplating - which is pretty much the case for ANYTHING C.S. Lewis wrote. With mentors like Lewis, don't be too surprised when Duke Altum starts getting quoted himself by future young masters......

Duke Altum said...

Hilarious exaggerations abound here, Mutt... but with the uproarious title "Human culture rejuvenator," you at least touch on one of the lofty goals for this here blog... anyway I appreciate your championing my nursery-school poetry efforts... who knows, I may throw one up on the blog one of these days. Why not? Actually here is a tiny one for you now, pulled out from my archives. Consider this my tribute to the spirit of this entire enterprise, and also to your own passion for books and great writing. I dedicate this little ditty to the inimitable Mutt Plow-Man!

a haiku

coffee, rich and strong
words igniting heart and mind
relaxed, turning pages