Love and Truth
The prophets of Israel, the great Abraham Heschel, once indicated, suffered an exquisite divine pathos. He wrote: ‘The emotional experience of the prophet becomes the focal point of the prophet’s understanding of God. He lives not only his personal life, but also the life of God. The prophet hears God’s voice and feels God’s heart. He tries to impart the pathos of the message together with its logos. As an imparter his soul overflows, speaking as he does out of the fullness of his sympathy.’
In this regard, the canonical Hebrew prophets are like our best poets. The flesh of their hearts becomes word and dwells among us.
Many of us celebrated recently the naming of Louise Gluck (Gluck, with an umlaut over the u, pronounced like click in her family) as recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is no small event when one’s favorite poet receives such an honor. Her elegant thin volumes of poetry have traveled with me wherever I have gone. Often I recall being somewhere (a restaurant alone in Pittsburgh, or a pulpit in Austin, Texas) because I was there reading or quoting from one of her recent publications.
Like the prophets, the best poets live like wires stripped of insulation. This vulnerability is what gives Gluck the wherewithal to write: ‘Why love what you will lose?’ And she answers herself: ‘There is nothing else to love.’
I cannot but think she’s thinking of herself, the poet, when she writes:
But what really is the point of a lighthouse?
This is north, it says
Not: I am a safe harbor.
How like the prophets in condemning untrue prophets who, for a few favors, will tell the boatman, falsely, ‘All is well. There are no rocks along this shore. Come in. Come in. You are safe here.’ Destruction awaits, but the false prophets have pocketed their profits and fled by the time the boat and the bodies wash ashore.
Only because the poet has been brave and true enough to tell me, ‘You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared,’ can I trust her to speak of the hard redemption of nature, as when she speaks of the farmer at the close of life:
The terrible moment was the spring after his work was erased,
when he understood that the earth
didn’t know how to mourn, that it would change instead.
And then go on existing without him.
I’m reminded of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels telling the bewildered disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die and be raised again. ‘No. No. They say. God forbid it.’ The rebuke from Jesus, harsh as it was, said that the hope his followers clung to was too small for God.
The poet forces us to face reality, to allow reality to teach us.
Poets and prophets have this devotion to truth, irritating, a stone worrying a foot, and just as appreciated by the worried.
I think of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, when she writes:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment,
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go to know how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
Can you hear the disciples after reading the poem? ‘No. No. Lord. This must never happen to me. Surely there are other ways reality can muster kindness.’
Well. Must this be so? Must kindness lie hidden within loss? Must patience require a longing as deep as it is unfulfilled? Is this some law written in a book?
Of course not. The must is an is. That’s all.
And the poets try to explain this, as do the relentless prophets who say ‘If you defraud widows and orphans, deny the stranger at the gate; if you trade the burden of leading and governing and justly judging for the sake of personal gain; if you resign the love of kindness to receive the rewards of naked power; if you become so accustomed to lies that truth finds with you no home, then all you have built will come crashing down upon your head.
What you will call “the wrath of God” is nothing more than “Reality writ large upon the pages of history.” ‘
The credibility of the poets comes from facing life with nothing to protect them from its cold truth; the credibility of the prophets likewise comes from finding the lives of their people lived with such casual cruelty against the backdrop of divine love.
So, Jane Kenyon, not long before her death from wasting disease laments the homely pleasures she will lose in, perhaps, her most perfect poem, “Otherwise.”
Otherwise I would find the closing of Kenyon’s last poem incredible, when she writes:
and God, as promised proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
But here in the end I must return to Louise Gluck, who I cannot imagine writing those lines by Kenyon, who, nevertheless, I love more than any other poet. It is as though she looks into the face of existence, measures the toll it charges, and writes:
death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.
And, then, later in the same poem, she speaks the poet’s vocation, the prophet’s duty:
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.