and (Pre-)Postmodern Ways of Knowing
in the Writing of Kathleen Norris
"Last Lecture" Series
Springfield College in Illinois
March 9, 2000
During the 1999-2000 school year, faculty were asked by Sr. Suzanne Sims, O.S.U., then president of the college, to speak on "the wisdom of his/her life and discipline that he/she would share if indeed this was the last opportunity to give a lecture." Excerpts from this paper were delivered in the President's Room, Becker Library L-15, as part of that series. -- Peter Ellertsen
Kathleen Norris, poet, Presbyterian lay minister and Benedictine oblate of South Dakota, has a poem that I like a lot. She calls it "Hope in Elizabeth," and it's about looking out a train window in New Jersey at "bald men in spectacles / and torn shirts" tending roses in:
shadowed by refineries
and the turnpike.
still brown water, and poisoned marsh. (Little Girls 33)
From the backyards of row houses
they bring forth pink roses, yellow roses
and around a house on its own
green plot, a hedge of roses, in red and
Surely, faith and charity
are fine, but the greatest of these
Of course she's talking about more than roses here. She sets the poem up so we think about faith and hope as well as scrapyards, refineries and roses. And charity and stewardship, our duty to care for the beasts of the field and the green herbs that bring forth seed. And most of all, of course, she's talking about hope, too. Hope is a gift, and the roses are a gift.
Anyway, that's what Kathleen Norris sees in New Jersey -- it's part of what she calls her "spiritual geography." The poem is in a collection of poetry called Little Girls in Church, and in the back cover blurb Norris says: "... this volume of poetry is a spiritual geography. Its places are varied -- the grasslands and small towns of the western Dakotas, the industrial landscape of northern New Jersey, the quiet spaces of a Benedictine monastery -- but I find each inspiring in its own way." As far as I know, spiritual geography is a term of Norris' own coining. She titled her first book of meditations Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and she uses the term a lot. Once she was asked what she meant by it. "At its Greek root," she replied, "geography means 'writing about a place,' and the vast, almost sculptured landscape of the western Dakotas has a spiritual quality that I couldn't ignore. 'Spiritual geography' also describes the way a place shapes people's attitudes, beliefs, myths" ("Conversations").
My own spiritual geography is, if you'll forgive the expression, all over the map.
It includes the old Episcopal diocese of Tennessee; the university bookstore and All Saints' chapel in Sewanee, Tenn.; an inner-city ecumenical ministry in Knoxville; a tree-shaded, sun-dappled bend in the Oconoluftee River just above Cherokee, N.C.; several mega-bookstores and Starbucks coffee shops; Lutheran churches in Springfield and the suburbs of Atlanta; and, of course, Springfield College in Illinois, the Margueritte Matthews chapel and Ursula Hall. In East Tennessee I learned to love bluegrass gospel, Bach cantatas, Anglican chant and shoutin'-glory spirituals from shape-note songbooks.
Also a part of my spiritual geography is the 20th-century conflict between science and religion. That's what I want to talk about this morning. I think it's possible to reconcile some of the opposites.
In this "Last Lecture Series," Sr. Suzanne invited us to relate "the wisdom of [our] life and discipline that [we] would share" with our students if it were "our last opportunity to give a lecture." Well, that's a large order. As a journalist and now as a freshman English composition teacher, I've always been impatient with abstractions. I'd rather find wisdom in odd juxtapositions of concrete detail, in the here-and-now. But I do think it's possible to find a unified vision in our increasingly fragmented and scatter-shot lives through exercising what I'll call the poetic imagination. And I think exercising this imagination can go a long way toward resolving the apparent conflict between science and religion, among others. I imagine there are potentially at least 6 billion legitimate ways of accomplishing those ends, since the earth's population has now passed that mark, but I find one good way in the poetry of Kathleen Norris.
Faith, Hope and Subatomic Particles
Here's how conflict between science and religion got to be part of my spiritual geography. When I was in high school it was a criminal offense, by act of the Tennessee legislature recorded in the Public Acts of the State of Tennessee (64th General Assembly) to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
Well, that was the law, but I grew up in a scientific community, home to a Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric project and the World War II plants in Oak Ridge where the first atomic bomb was created. My father was a scientist, a TVA forester who worked with the genetics of white pine seedlings, and we talked about his work at home. But the basic scientific theory behind genetics couldn't be taught in my county schools. My ninth-grade science teacher got around the law by saying evolution was just a theory, and we didn't have to believe it.
Oh boy, I thought in the back of the classroom, what if I don't believe in the law of gravity? Does that mean I won't fall down?
At that time and in that place, you couldn't escape a sense that religion went hand-in-hand with enforced ignorance, with the coercive power of the state behind it. Even more damaging, I think, was a sense that religion had nothing to do with the "real world" of verifiable phenomena where trumpet blasts do not ordinarily topple stone walls, the sun does not stand still, pi equals 3.1416 and moral choices often lie hidden in a fog of ambiguity.
So I drifted away from the church. But when I was 16 or 17, I met with an Episcopal priest in Oak Ridge. He was Fr. William G. Pollard, a nuclear physicist and associate rector of the Episcopal parish in Oak Ridge. He was balding, he wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and he smoked a pipe. Even when he was wearing clericals, the kids all thought he looked more like a physicist than a priest. I don't remember much of our conversation, except right at the end when I said I didn't see how I could stay in the church. I’m sure Fr. Pollard fiddled with his pipe for a moment, and I know he paused for emphasis.
"Oh, well," he said, at last. "You'll be back."
Do what? I asked.
"Give it time," he said. "You'll come back to the church."
Well, that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear from a priest. But it was just delphic enough to keep me speculating on how and when, not whether, I might return. It turns out Fr. Pollard had made the same faith journey.
An Episcopalian by upbringing, William G. Pollard in college had rejected religion as "a fairy tale" preached by "Bible fundamentalists insisting that Adam was the first man and that the world was created in 4004 B.C." When World War II broke out, he left the University of Tennessee, where he taught physics, to join the atomic bomb project. There he worked with U235, the hot isotope of uranium used in nuclear warheads. Starting the same day Nagasaki was bombed in 1945, he began his return to the church. He later recalled it for Daniel Lang, a reporter for New Yorker magazine:
"After the Nagasaki bomb, my exuberance was replaced by something approaching
terror," he said. "I thought the bombs would be sprinkled all over Japan. When I
got back to Mount Vernon [on Long Island, where the family was staying] that
evening -- it was a Thursday -- I picked up a newspaper and saw on the religious
page that I had just enough time to get to a service in New Rochelle. I walked
out of the house alone and took a trolley to Trinity Episcopal Church there. ...
As the service progressed, I became conscious of a feeling that it wasn't just
an empty rigmarole, and when I got back home, I was no longer disturbed. I slept
calmly that night."
After the war, Pollard wound up in Oak Ridge. It was a raw, unfinished town, thrown up in a wartime hurry by the U.S. Army, and church groups met in the high school gym. "It was hard not to lend a hand," he said, "but if you did, you let yourself in for more than you'd bargained for." So he did, and so he chaired the fund drive for a church building, taught Sunday school, became a lay reader (Lang 193-96). In 1950 Pollard began formal theological studies, and in 1954 he was ordained.
In his interview with Lang of the New Yorker, Pollard suggested he had come to accept limits to what we can learn through scientific investigation. "I no longer believe that the approach of size-up-and-solve will produce a formula explaining all natural phenomena," he said. "If this sounds like heresy to any of my scientific colleagues, I can only say that the more I have learned of science, the more I have become convinced that the origin of the universe will forever remain a mystery to us" (188). Yet he retained his faith in the scientific method:
I decided that a person could, without violating his intellectual integrity,
both think within the framework of a Judaeo-Christian view and believe all
scientific knowledge of the structure of the world. ... I decided that science
was a way of investigating the wonders of God's creativeness, such as the
marvelous unity of a living cell and the intricate combinations of particles
that make up matter. That being so, it seemed to me irreligious to oppose the
work of science. (198-99)
From its establishment in 1946, Pollard headed the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (now known as Oak Ridge Associated Universities) until he retired in 1974. He served St. Stephen's Episcopal Church until he died Dec. 26, 1989, appropriately enough on St. Stephen's Day. In the meantime he wrote books and articles on the nuclear sciences, religion and, naturally enough, the relationship between science and religion.
His faith, in other words, wasn't so much something you have, as it is something you do -- a belief you live by. Fr. Pollard was not alone in that. The giants of 20th-century subatomic physics wrestled with issues of faith, belief and, almost inevitably, the scientific method.
One was German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg, who spoke of a faith in science in these terms:
I do not mean by that only the Christian faith in a God-given meaningful
work, but simply the faith in our task in this world. Having faith does not, of
course, mean thinking this or that true; having faith always means: This is my
choice; on this I will stake my existence. When Columbus set out on his first
voyage to the West, he believed that the earth was round and small enough to be
circumnavigated. He not only thought this theoretically correct; he staked his
existence on it. ("Atoms" 124)
Heisenberg's faith in science led him to a truly revolutionary idea known as the uncertainty principle. He expressed it mathematically, but its clear implication was that we cannot measure the speed of a subatomic particle without changing it by the very act of measuring it. Its effect couldn’t be more profound, since it undermines the Cartesian dualism that has been basic to modern science since the 17th century. The dualism is named for French philosopher Rene Descartes, who distinguished between human beings who think (res cognitans) and the rest of the world, which he classified as the objects of thought (res extensa). It may sound abstract and confusing, but it couldn’t be more clear-cut. Everything is one – res cognitans, I, me, us – or res extensa, the other. That’s how a dualism works.
But the uncertainty principle blurs Descartes’ distinction.
"Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning," says Heisenberg, in a 1958 book titled Physics and Philosophy. "This was a possibility of which Descartes could have not thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and the I impossible."
Heisenberg's principle provided one of the theoretical underpinnings for what is known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics -- the basic explanation of matter at the subatomic level reflected in so much of 20th-century science and technology, from nuclear fission to the microchips that made it possible for me to research and write this lecture on a home computer.
Postmodernity, Faith and Poetry
I don't think it's any accident that the postmodern age coincides with the nuclear era. In fact, I would make the case that both began at precisely 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16, 1945, as the first atomic device was exploded at a test site -- code-named Trinity -- in New Mexico. At that moment Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory that created the bomb, thought of a scrap of poetry from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One ...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of
worlds. (Lamont 235)
It is now difficult to recapture the feeling of awe that came with the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age. Writing in the heat of the moment for Time magazine in August 1945, journalist, novelist and poet James Agee put it like this:
When the bomb split open the universe and revealed the prospect of the
infinitely extraordinary, it also revealed the oldest, simplest, commonest, most
neglected and most important of facts: that each man is eternally and above all
else responsible for his own soul, and, in the terrible words of the Psalmist,
that no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him. (qtd. in Ellertsen 709).
More prosaically, Wernher von Braun, who had developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany and wound up with the U.S. missile program at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama after the war, decided the only hope of lasting peace was "to raise everybody's ethical standards" and became a regular church-goer. "Any real scientist ends up a religious man," von Braun told a reporter. "The more he learns about natural science, the more he sees that the words that sound deep are really poorly contrived disguises for ignorance. Energy? Matter? We use them but we don't really know what they are" (Lang 23-24). From the beginning, the nuclear age has been an age of skepticism, but also an age of profound searching and at times of renewed faith.
At any rate, we live in an age of diminished hope.
It isn’t my purpose here to offer a critique of literary postmodernism. Nor is it to indulge in a "PoMo" bricolage about science, religion, poetry or Kathleen Norris.
What I want to do, rather, is explore some ways in which Norris' poetry reflects what cultural analysts Steven Best and Douglas Kellner call an "era of postmodernity" marked in part by a retreat from the "search for a foundation of knowledge" and the "universalizing and totalizing claims" of the modern era. I think our new era – call it postmodern for lack of a better term – that brings science, philosophy and religion in closer accord each with the other.
In this context French philosopher Jean-Françoise Lyotard's dictum is often quoted: "I define postmodernism as an incredulity toward metanarratives" (qtd. in Formaro). By this he means something like a disbelief in of sweeping theories. It is not a bad idea. It was hard to sustain a belief in science and progress when Western technology brought forth the bombs and gas chambers of World War II, and Auschwitz grew out of the same German culture that produced Bach, Beethoven, Einstein's theory of relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Even Heisenberg, it’s worth remembering, worked for the Nazi war effort. Metanarratives can’t really explain things like that.
And it was even harder to believe in progress when the good guys, the guys who wore the white hats and won World War II, were the first to drop the A-bomb. The postmodernist L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Charles Bernstein suggests that World War II, the Holocaust and Hiroshima "undermined, subliminally more than consciously, the belief in virtually every basic value of the Enlightenment, insofar as these values are in any way Eurosupremacist or hierarchic" ("Second War"). In terms echoing Bernstein's, Philip Hefner of Chicago's Lutheran School of Theology says "the Enlightenment is [seen as] white, male, European and rationalist, and is regarded as a key agent in perpetrating imperialism, colonialism, racism and the exploitation of the natural environment" (88). More usefully, perhaps, Hefner says postmodernist thinkers have come to distrust the rational underpinnings of the modern era, especially the assumption "that we can possess knowledge based on publicly recognized fundamental principles that enable us to engage the world as an object of investigation" (89). Especially in popular culture, this skepticism is often coupled with an interest in spiritual matters.
Theologian Daniel J. Adams, of Hanil Theological Seminary in Korea, suggests there is a direct connection between the "rise of traditional religions," often fundamentalist varieties of Christianity and Islam, and a "decline and delegitimation of such quasi-religious movements as communism, secular nationalism, and the Western belief in the inevitability of human progress." In the United States, Carol Lloyd of the e-zine Salon.com speaks of a kind of "spiritual comparative shopping," with eclectic New Age gurus and fundamentalists competing for consumers who "mix'n'match outfits like they're trolling for bargains." The yearning that drives this spiritual marketplace is as much a part of the postmodern age as nuclear weaponry or Lyotard's distrust of sweeping theories.
All of which brings us back around to Kathleen Norris.
Norris is not by any stretch of the imagination a postmodernist poet. In fact, I can't think of any "-isms" that describe her. But her work shows what I think is a postmodern sensiblity. It also shows an interest in science that any kid who grew up around the atomic laboratories in Oak Ridge would find thoroughly congenial.
Considered an up-and-coming poet with a book in print at age 21, she left New York City in 1974. And for the past 25 years she's lived and worked in the Dakotas, where she's a poet in residence for the North Dakota schools and a free-lance writer. She writes in a contemplative tradition that joins a thoroughly contemporary eye for the telling detail with an intellectual and spiritual heritage that goes back to the Desert Fathers of the early Church.
At her best, Norris finds everyday metaphors to explain how communities work, especially small towns of the Great Plains and the Benedictine abbeys she visits as an oblate or lay associate. "As a married woman, thoroughly Protestant, who often has more doubt than faith," she once told a reporter for Minnesota's St. Paul Pioneer Press, "being an oblate surprises me almost as much as finding that the Great Plains themselves have become my monastery, my place set apart, where I thrive and grow. ... I didn't know beans about monasteries, and I was fascinated by the place; I just kept going back. I liked the liturgy, sitting and reciting songs with the monks" (Grossman). She came to realize at the abbey that scripture, worship and poetry share a metaphorical approach to language and -- through language -- to reality.
Norris' affiliation with the Benedictines, at Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, culminated a return to the church that began when she moved to the high Plains on her grandmother's death. Her forbears had been pillars of the Presbyterian church in Lemmon, South Dakota, and it was all but predestined that she join it. But it didn't come easily. "The services," she writes in Dakota, "felt like word bombardment -- agony for a poet -- and often exhausted me so much I'd have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn't glimpse the Word behind the words" (94). But in time, since she was a writer by trade, she was asked to serve as a lay preacher or homilist -- putting the Word into words. Again, it came hard.
"This sounds strange, even to me," says Norris, "but it was this wrestling with the language of faith, behind the scenes of my sermon, as it were, that helped to make me a Christian. It was not therapy for me, but hard work on behalf of others who had so recklessly entrusted me with a call to preach" (Amazing Grace 185). For Kathleen Norris, faith and poetry are inextricably interconnected.
In a poem titled "Vision: A Note on Astrophysics," Norris contrasts two, maybe three ways of knowing, ways of experiencing reality. "Learned men / of the twentieth century" with complex equipment, she says,
... measure the pulse of light
from stars beyond the range
vision, [and] conclude that this world,
all we call nature,
inside such a star. (Little Girls 38)
That's one way of knowing. She cites another:
and says, "I'm not sure
what an electron is,
but it's something like a cloud of possibilities."
And the third comes from the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen:
as a cloud,
containing stars ...
(Ellipses in the original.)
Norris' reference to Hildegard invites us to look below the surface. Now known chiefly for her music and her mystical writing, Hildegard was also a Benedictine abbess and the author of treatises on natural science and medicine in which she saw all of nature as "linked mutually and inseparably united in God" (Rath). Notice also that Norris set the poem up so that Heisenberg and Hildegard both speak metaphorically. The "[l]earned men" with their complicated technology do not.
To Norris, science speaks the language of faith and of literature.
"Once, when I was working with fourth graders in a classroom in North Dakota," she recalls in Amazing Grace, "I asked them if anyone could think of ways that poetry and science were alike. One little girl spoke up: 'They both tell good stories.'" (287). The kids went on to write a group poem about photosynthesis, and Norris found in their exercise an affirmation of the "metaphor of light as love, the catalyst that inspires this great green creation to grow." She also heard echoes of Hildegard, who "often used the word 'viriditas' (green) to convey the life force flowing from God." No inevitable conflict between science and religion here. Both science and poetry are about mystery. Norris said she also finds mystery in quantum physics:
... although I have very little grasp of how science is done, I love to read
about quarks, those subatomic particles that exist in threes. There is no such
thing as one quark, but only three interdependent beings; I picture them dancing
together at the heart of things, part of the atomic glue that holds this world
together, and to the atomic scientist, at least, makes all things on earth more
alike than different. The quark is a good image for the Christian Trinity, I
think; both tell good stories. (290)
The language is almost poetic. Scientists believe the protons and neutrons that make up an atom's nucleus are made up of triads called "quarks," and their components in turn are classified as up, down, charmed, strange, bottom and top quarks. In fact, the very word comes from a line by Irish novelist James Joyce, "Three Quarks for Muster Mark!" (Hawking 67). No less than in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, there’s a good story here.
So in "Vision: A Note on Astrophysics," Norris' problem with the "learned men" isn’t with their search for evidence of the origin of the universe. It’s with their reliance on "large / finite numbers and radiotelescopes / as big as football fields."
The problem would be with their literal-mindedness, I think, their Cartesian way of pointing telescopes at a res extensa somewhere out there in space. Norris once complained to an interviewer that, as he paraphrased her, poets are marginalized in our "culture of 'enlightenment fundamentalism' where nothing is acceptable that can't be explained by reason" (Kelleher 70). The men with the radiotelescopes are enlightenment fundamentalists. Heisenberg and Hildegard, at least in Norris’ analysis, are not.
In another poem, "Naming the Living God," Norris makes the parallels between science, worship and metaphor a little more specific. It begins:
"The Special Theory came to me,"
"as shifting forms of
Riemann once remarked, "I did not
invent those pairs of
differential equations, I found them
in the world,
where God had hidden them." (721)
As with Hildegard, the allusions here invite further inquiry. It was Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann, a 19th-century mathematician, who developed the system of geometry that makes possible Einstein's theory of relativity. Science, like an abbey or a small town in the Dakotas, is a community. But Norris' meaning is straightforward enough. She ends with a veiled reference to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and a very direct reference to communal worship:
All things change
when you measure them. You might as well
sing, the sound of your voice
joining the others, like waters overflowing,
the name of the living God.
Note that all three scientists in the poem speak in metaphor.
Finally, Norris has a poem in Little Girls at Church that refers quite directly to Heisenberg's principle. It is titled -- what else? -- "The Uncertainty Principle." She begins:
We change it
by looking: what's moving in the heart
or the farthest
and when people are true believers
we may know of the mystery
how it works
or if it does,
but not the two together. (39)
Bells mark the hours "[a]t the abbey," she says, though a scientist would think them inexact:
Time does not move,
the sky is not blue -- the end
of the spectrum
and beginning of light --
it is all in us, breathed in, let go.
I can't parse this. I don't even want to try. Instead, I am reminded of something Norris said in 1995 at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. "Poetry," she told the theology students, "is grounded in metaphor; it's ambiguous, troubling to people with literal minds. We think of metaphor as things untrue, but in poetry, metaphor brings things together in a unique kind of truth" (Spitler). Elsewhere she speaks of "incarnational language" -- of words that "resonate with the senses as they aim for the stars," of language that "goes against the modern tendency toward abstraction" that grounds itself "in bodily experience, the experience of the mouth and the ear, the sense of touch, smell, taste" ("Incarnational" 699; "Drawing" 842). Breath, she might have added. And spirit.
Norris concludes the poem like this:
Monks shift in their choir:
stomachs, and the old floor
Here in the heart,
where the hours keep,
we are learning
every step of the way.
There's something else Norris said at Emory that belongs here: Worship, like poetry, is a "metaphorical exchange" (Spitler). In The Cloister Walk, her book about following the Benedictine discipline of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, Norris says both the monastic world and poetry reflect "what I mean by a poetic way of knowing" (10). She speaks of spiritual reading at the abbey as "an attempt to read more with the heart than the head ... [that] respects the power of words to resonate with the full range of human experience" (xx). In the same vein, she says:
The discipline of poetry teaches poets, at least, that they often have to say
things they can't pretend to understand. In contending with words, poets come to
know their power, much the way monastics do in prayer and lectio. We experience
words as steeped in mystery, forces beyond our intellectual grasp. In the late
twentieth century, when speculative knowledge and the technologies it has
spawned reign supreme, poets remain dependent on a different form of knowledge,
perhaps akin to what Hildegard termed seeing, hearing, and knowing
That kind of knowing, I think, is what Norris is driving at in "The Uncertainty Principle."
Kathleen Norris' adult spiritual formation began, in a sense, with her return to South Dakota in the 1970s and her struggle with "word bombardment" in a small-town Presbyterian church there. It has led her to the quietness and solitude of the Benedictines and, paradoxically, to a highly successful literary career. She has won Bush and Guggenheim Foundation grants, she is in wide demand as a reviewer of religious titles and she is invited to speak at universities and theological schools nationwide. Her book sales, including Little Girls in Church, are respectable, and an excerpt from Amazing Grace, on the spiritual implications of doing the laundry, has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Yet Norris thinks of herself not as a literary celebrity but as a storyteller and a homilist.
In her blurb for a 1999 lecture at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, Norris said as "a literary writer, a storyteller," she tries to avoid "preaching to the choir." Therefore, she says, her language is incarnational. "That is, I have tried to describe Christian faith from the inside out, as I have experienced it, rather than employ religious terminology in an abstract or sectarian way."
Thus we see her in the Saturday Evening Post writing of the "almost religious importance" laundry can have: "In any city slum, it's laundry -- neat lines of babies' T-shirts, kids' underwear and jeans -- that announces that families live here, and that someone cares" (50). You don't have to go to small-town America or to the abbey in order to find community. You can find it in the slums of Honolulu, where Norris spent her high school years, or South Dakota or anywhere else that people care for each other. And Norris' image of T-shirts flapping from clotheslines reminds me a lot of her rose gardens in Elizabeth, N.J.
Faith, Hope and Poetry
In this series of Jubilee Year lectures, we are asked to imagine what we would tell our students if this were our last lecture -- our last chance to say what we'd think most important or most helpful to them. In thinking about what I might say, I was drawn to some of the events of my lifetime and the people who helped me. Well, it was clear right away that World War II and the nuclear arms race cast their shadow over my generation. It was clear, too, that my early interest in science became a lifelong thing, remaining an influence on me long after I flunked Algebra II and wound up studying literature. It was clear I was interested in religion before I left the church, during the time I was away from the church and since I returned to the church. And it was clear to me that poetry had to be in there somewhere. Then I panicked. My next thought went something like this -- how in blue blazes am I going to fit all that into one lecture?
Then I thought of Mary Schmich, and I felt better.
Schmich is the columnist for The Chicago Tribune who wrote a column on what she'd like to say in a commencement speech. It was an instant classic. It got on the Internet, as people e-mailed copies to their friends. Somehow it got attributed to the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Now it's out in book form -- I saw it at Borders on North Michigan Avenue, by the Chicago Water Tower -- and a musical version hit the airwaves in Australia and the United States. Not bad for a column she whipped out "one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M's." Here's how she begins:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:
There it is: In two words. Well, Schmich does offer more advice. Some of it, I think, is pretty sound.
Sing. ... Floss. ... Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If
you succeed in doing this, tell me how. ... Be careful whose advice you buy, but
be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing
it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over
the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.
But trust me on the sunscreen.
So here's my advice to the Class of 2000: Read poetry. Read the Trib, too, and wear sunscreen. But do learn to like poetry. It's good stuff -- it might save your life someday.
Now, I don't propose to turn my exercise in spiritual geography into a spiritual travelogue. But I do mean what I just said -- poetry can save your life. I don't recall ever hating poetry, like so many of my students do. I've written professionally for most of my adult life, and I've enjoyed playing with words. I remember liking Lord Byron in high school, and T.S. Eliot in college. You didn't study English in the 1960s, as I did, without making a diligent effort to like Eliot. And I can still close my eyes and hear the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko thundering out "Babiy Yar" – one of his masterpieces – and a minor poem called "Simbirsk Fair" during the mid-70s at Vanderbilt University. So we can add Nashville and the former Soviet Union to my spiritual geography. It’s fair to say hearing Yevtushenko put me onto poetry as a lifelong interest.
But, typically, I didn't act on it for years. Poetry, like so many things, was something I sort of drifted away from as I finished grad school and went into the newspaper business. There just wasn't time for it, and I never had the sense it had much to do with my world of county board meetings, trailer-park shootings, elections, pulling weekend shifts on night city desk and constant deadlines.
Then came a midlife crisis, and I needed to reorient my life along spiritual lines.
As I looked into Buddhist meditation, I learned the Zen masters often counsel Americans to come to terms with the Christian spiritual tradition. So I turned to poetry for starters, which led me to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and St. John of the Cross. Instead of reading about the via negativa, the descent into hopelessness that precedes the gifts of faith and hope, for a while there it felt like I was living it.
Working my way through the Quartets slowly, with the aid of a gloss by John Booty, dean of St. Luke's School of Theology in Sewanee, Tenn. (another point on the map of my spiritual geography), I came to this passage:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. (28)
And without knowing how or why, I felt comforted in the waiting. In the concluding section of "Little Gidding," the last of the four, Eliot writes:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right ...
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. (58)
And in the very last lines:
Quick now, here, now, always --
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. (59)
Booty says the fire here represents the Holy Spirit, and the rose is emblematic of love, of life and "the via negativa, new birth through death, the two symbols joined finally in the love that is their source and their fulfillment" (55).
And here's the remarkable part – reading along, I did feel like I had come back to the place where I started, and all indeed was well and all manner of things, in fact, were well.
Booty says, and I agree with him, that poetry speaks to us powerfully because its statement is artistic. "The arts," he says, "are a possible means to wholeness because they do not seek to analyze ... The poet uses words, which are parts and pieces of the whole. By arranging words in patterns the poet can reach beyond the words themselves to their ultimate, unified meaning" (16). At these times, poetry brings things together.
In much the same vein, Kathleen Norris recalls hearing pop standards played on a church carillon.
"One day," she writes, "I heard 'My Way' wafting down from the ethereal heights of the church's bell tower, and I knew that I had the making of a poem. This is how many of my poems begin, with a simple juxtaposition that seems too juicy to pass up" ("Sinatra" 301). Or, sometimes, a juxtaposition that goes to the heart of things.
Norris also has written of the via negativa and the gifts of faith and hope. One such poem is called "The Companionable Dark," and her images have almost a homespun feel, in comparison to Eliot's, as she speaks of the dark
... to which all lost things come -- scarves
and rings and precious
of course, our beloved
But Norris' dark is also
The floodwater dark
of hope, Jesus in agony
in the garden, Esther
pacing her bitter palace. A dark
by which we see, dark like truth,
like flesh on bone ... (54)
The poem that speaks most directly to me, however, is titled "The Monastery Orchard in Early Spring." Norris begins:
God's cows are in the field,
safely grazing. I can see them
through bare branches,
through the steady rain.
Fir trees seem ashamed and
tired, bending under winter coats. (45)
We're speaking here, of course, about early spring in the upper Midwest. Bleak and wintry enough to be at odds with Norris' desire to "push like a tulip / through a muddy smear of snow." Yet it is spring, however early and however far north. So I think the poem is about renewal and hope, in the face of that which makes renewal necessary and hope a gift we do not attain by ourselves. Look at the wealth of allusion Norris gets simply by setting her poem in an apple orchard:
Newton named the force that pulls the apple
And the moon with it,
Toward the center of the earth.
Augustine found a desire as strong: to steal,
To possess, then throw away.
Encounter with fruit is always dangerous
The pear's womanly shape forever mocked him.
I see here a double-duty reference to gravity, both in the story of Sir Isaac Newton and the apple and in the attraction of bodies in space to each other. I’m also reminded of original sin, St. Augustine's theory of concupiscence and the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and I suspect that doesn't begin to exhaust the list. And look what Norris does with the last image in the poem:
A man and a woman are talking.
Rain moves down and
branches lift up
to learn again
how to hold their fill of green
and blossom, and bear
each fruit to glory,
letting it fall.
Again, I can't parse this passage. But I'm reminded a little of Eliot -- in the end is a beginning and each beginning implies an end. And I'm lifted up every time I read the poem. To me it suggests life and hope, the struggle of creatures great and small to be whole, and the gift of wholeness in a fallen world.
Here's one last poem, also about cultivating things.
It's titled "Foggy," although I don't have the faintest notion why. Echoing the prophet Jeremiah, who commanded "Break up / your fallow ground," Norris sets about the job of tilling a garden. "It's a hopeless task," she says, looking ahead to breaking up "great clods of earth" and predicting,
First weeds will come,
then whatever it is
I've planted. I feel the struggle
in my knees and back. (71)
Then she envisions the monks who have "slouched, shuffled, stumbled, strutted, / and sauntered into church" day after day, and her mood lifts:
Isn't that something? I say
to myself. I have no idea what, except
that it's happiness, pure
and simple, and questions fade
as great clouds
descend, as furrows
reel beneath my step: no what, or how, or
where is your God?
Only return, come back,
cleanse your hearts.
Well, our exercise in spiritual geography this morning has taken us from rose gardens in Elizabeth, N.J., to some of the realms of advanced physics and postmodernist philosophy, and now back to a monastery orchard and a garden in Norris' home soil out in the Dakotas.
Here's something, I think, that holds it all together: In response to 20th-century developments in science, including positive steps like quantum theory just as much as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have come to question the linear, often simplistic thought that came out of Cartesian dualism. All too often that kind of thinking leads to what Fr. Pollard in Oak Ridge after World War II dismissed as a "size-up-and-solve" approach to scientific investigation. At the same time, I believe the openness to paradox that people like Heisenberg and Bohr brought to advanced physics has a great deal in common with the poetic imagination.
So do the traditional ways of knowing that Kathleen Norris discovered among small-town Presbyterians and Benedictines in the Great Plains.
I hope I’ll be forgiven if I get cute with parentheses and call them (pre-)postmodern. Anyway, I think they all fit together. And I'd like to think that's why Norris so enjoyed the image of quarks dancing together in threes, and why she was so moved by the gift of rose gardens surrounded by scrapyards and oil refineries in New Jersey. Deep down at the heart of things, poets and physicists alike tell good stories. And so do gardeners, monks and orchard-keepers and, perhaps, in our better moments, freshman English teachers.
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