Conversation with Aged
by Peter Menkin
I recite a long Psalm,
beginning as a confession
but lending my thoughts
and opening my heart.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
And I shall keep it to the end
Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law;
I shall keep it with all my heart.
Be gentle to memory: of failure
to seek God, and desire good
creates a long list of weakness
and mindless concerns that ignore
God for so many years.
Let your loving-kindness come to me, O Lord,
And your salvation, according to your promise.
Old ones I talk with as I read, speak
of their youth, and I think
"Is this what is on their minds?"
So I soothe and open my heart
to let in healing to younger times
in my life. Even to childhood.
Happy are they whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe his decrees
And seek him with all their hearts!
I say words for them, these old people, and
in thought before words,
in mind before thought,
present in the heart, and I listen,
always desiring to hear.
This talk with old people
leads me to gentleness with myself.
This is their message.
They say to me, "I am living
so long. I hardly think about it."
I continue my reading
I am a stranger here on earth;
Do not hide your commandments from me.
Let my cry come before you, O Lord,
Give me understanding, according to your word.
These notes about poetry I write were originally made for The Academy of American Poets writers workshop. As artistic statements, they are more that than they are apology. Thank you in advance for reading them. One reason for posting them with this particular poem, which is new, is that the poem uses quotations from the Psalms. The poem about the presence of Christ, in the previous post, also references the Bible. As well, just recently, this last Sunday, yesterday, I talked with Deacon Betsy Rosen on some of my reasons for writing religious and spiritual poetry. In a way, these artistic notes and statements touch on my intention to write poetry of praise and gratitude.
Artistic notes, a series of statements (referencing "Christ's Presence"):
A Biblical set of words enlarges the meaning of the poem by providing a larger sense of "generation to generation," at least to me, and has a kind of finality. I do hope it does these things, and I am working on that still. As in the Psalms, used in this poem posted here, and the "Dust to dust" reference in the posting just before this one, they have resonance.
It is as a statement, for me as someone familiar with some of the Bible, a resonance of God, and emphasizes that this poem is religious and spiritual with a given discipline and basis of concern and point of view, expressing as well some of the insight of Christian living, and an aspect of the visitor's reason for visiting, implied as a visit to the sick, or the aged, or the dying.
This charitable act indicates a certain kind of stance, specific to practitioners of Christianity, and certainly of my denomination, and demonstrates a kind of compassion and mercy with which the writer believes we live in the light and life of a God of goodness.
This is a Christian poem, and a poem of religious and spiritual dimension, as much as it may need some help and may be lacking. That is the effort. To avoid the Bible would be to deny some of the authority, purpose, and strength of the statement. At least for this writer. I am not making apology in the work. The work may lack, but the intention of the writer is hopeful for the work.
There you have my rant on the subject, and I could go on with a statement of my own personal intentions in poetry of this kind, but I wanted to stick with this specific piece and the use of the Bible in it. Though I do use various words or phrases, ideas of Biblical kind, including the Psalms in my poetry. At least I try. You'll see in my poem about an aged person, also posted on the site at the same time, I quote hymns. I think that works, hopefully, and is appropriate to the work.
But I am grateful to you for commenting. For you are not the first to raise the issue, not only of the use of the Bible in a poem, but also the need and correctness of form of a poem containing a Biblical sense, or religious and spiritual one that makes a statement. Hopefully, I'm in the realm of the okay with this kind of work.
Another artistic statement (referencing "Christ's Presence"):
You've hit a nerve with that one, how a reader may pass over the words, "Dust to dust," (in the poem posted previous to this one with its references to Psalms, also Biblical), because they have little in them to catch their imagination. I am looking for a way in my response to say that may be a problem for me, and I would like to think in context of the poem a reader's problem. For "Dust to dust" brings up thoughts of death and burial, at least for me. Age is certainly a thought, but in the context of the poem the certainty of mortality. In other words, I hope that the context of the poem brings out some kind of unpacking of the few Biblical words.
I think what I am trying to prove in my comments, or at least convince myself of if no one else, is that "Dust to dust," and in this poem posted here with quotations from Psalm 119, are good in the context of the poem. I did not think it would be a larger issue, but because we enter what is for me a realm of Biblical and religious concern, the vision as it were, of the poem, I am willing to focus more on Biblical resonance.
In the event you are interested in the Bible, and I hope I am not turning you off, I've discovered a wonderful paper by a British Bishop named Tom Wright. The link to his sermon, really an address before the Anglican Lambeth Conference 2008, is below:
I can't but help to advertise these wonderful remarks, which I find instructive, since my own work in Poetry is part of my relationship with God. I like to think, and do think, my motivation for writing religious and spiritual poetry is as praise for God, and in my wild imagination I think that others who write similar works are similarly inclined in their way to engage their spiritual relationship more fully.
Again, an artistic statement (referencing "Conversation with Aged"):
I did go with a number of other quotations than the one you suggested (from the dialogue on the poem), and they aren't in a particular sequence, as in sequence from Psalm 119. I chose to explore the text of the poetic statement, and maybe in its way, explore the texts I chose from Psalm 119.
I considered a number of translations: King James Version, Grail version, Vulgate, RSV, even the NSRV (because it is so modern). I decided to go with the Psalms as they are printed in "The Book of Common Prayer," the prayer book of the American Episcopal Church (Anglican), mostly because I use it when visiting the elderly. But also because the language seems more suited in its way of manner to the poem. I do use other sources when reading the Psalms, most often the second choice is King James, since the elderly I visit are more familiar with it. I think that is a good thing.
More artistic statement on the poem, "Conversation with Aged:"
This brief note is a response to my friend Jan Robitscher's comment that the poem seems to be two poems in one. Jan Robitscher was a teacher of mine when I attended The Episcopal School for Deacons. The School for Deacons is located in the buildings of Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California USA. Jan has been on the faculty there since 1991. She holds a B. Music (DePauw University), an M.A. in Liturgy (Notre Dame) and an M.Div. (Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary). She is my friend.
The response to her comment, sent to her home in Berkeley near the seminary, and UC Berkeley's North Gate area, by email today, Tuesday:
I am so glad you like this poem ["Conversation with Aged"]. Just recently, with this current poem just sent you, and the one previous ("Christ's Presence") I've been making more extensive artist's notes, in particular a statement on Biblical reference in the two poems. I did this as a result of discussion prompted on the Academy of American Poets writers workshop.
Your thought that I've two poems does strike a chord with me, and I thank you for taking the time to comment. It is helpful. In my same day response, not considering it longer (though I will consider your suggestion some more in days to come), I intend the poem to be a dialogue of sorts, as a statement of the relationship with the elderly, as well as a poetic dialogue of their own.
In short, the experience is two way, and I believe the relationship described in the poem, "Conversation with Aged" opens the way towards the generational experience. It also demonstrates that the visitor is also undergoing thought and expression, even if in a different way because of age, and yet in a similar way because both are human and engaged in what some call the "God experience." Christ is relational, one could say.
Is this a good answer to your comment, and it is intended as my considering what you've said rather than a conclusion? Thanks for the opportunity to make a return comment.
Yours in faith,
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