by Peter Menkin
This writer says as note, I have been thinking about how to make the Eucharist a Christmas 2011 statement, and also to introduce the article-interview with Maine poet Robert H. Siegel about his work which is a gift. [Certainly, Christ's birth is a gift to mankind—as is the Eucharist. In a manner, so is the gift of poetry a kind of birth in the poet’s life, as the poem does take on a life of its own after its “birth.” A poem requires nurture.]
The interview with Robert Siegel was conducted by email, and questions were answered in writing by the poet.
The following quote displays his poem about finches, and was one inspiration for the title of his book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems…” It is from the Houghton College interview conducted by John Leax and noted as partial reprint later in this article.
By Robert Siegel
It is morning. A finch startles
the maple leaves. Everything’s clear
in this first light before all thins
to a locust harping on the heat.
While day clutches at my pulse
to inject the usual anesthetic,
now, Christ, stimulate my heart,
transfuse your blood to fortify my own.
Let no light upon these sheets
diminish, Lord, before I feel you
burst inward like a finch
to nest and sing within this tree of bones.
For my way of thinking, the work of a poet is the result of a gift. This is especially true of Robert Siegel of Maine, USA ; he is a man with a gift. He is also a man who writes poetry that reflects his faith while writing about animals and God’s other creatures in a way that a naturalist can love.
This article-interview on Robert Siegel is another in the ongoing series of interviews with Anglican and Christian poets. The poet wrote in an email:
You asked about a person, or persons, who know my work. On my website (robert-siegel.com ) I’ve included six complete reviews of my last two books of poetry. You might want to look at Paul Willis’ review in Christianity and Literature, as he touches on the relationship of poetry to faith and the spiritual. So does Thomas Bontly in The Sewanee Review. Robert French in The North Dakota Quarterly comments on my animal poems, which I consider my most characteristic, and (it seems to me) gets at
what I’m trying to do in these and others.
I was raised Presbyterian but I have been an Anglican for 49 years this November, having been inspired to change by C.S. Lewis (and by my lovely wife, who preceded me into the fold).
POET PAUL WILLIS’ REVIEW, IN PART
Here is part of one review of Robert Siegel’s book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected poems,” Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts) from his website.
Professor of English and poet at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Paul Willis wrote:
Sometimes Siegel ventures into the realm of specifically biblical creatures, to fine effect.
In “A Colt, the Foal of an Ass” from the selected portion, the beast of burden reflects on “this moment of bearing the man, / a weight that is light and easy” (118). “The Serpent Speaks” which concludes the first part of the new poems, is perhaps the greatest achievement of the collection. This long, sinuous monologue tempts us all over again—”I am another vine”—even as it rehearses the infection of all of history and
the inevitable diminishment of the diabolical speaker (28). And yet the serpent is always a serpent, slithering side by side with the other natural snakes in this volume, all exquisitely observed.
To continue with a long quotation from the review written 2009, and appearing on the poet’s web page here, the review goes on in detail:
… I want to hasten to point out other glories of this collection. Prominent among them are the portraits of New Testament characters that comprise the second part of the new poems. These rough sonnets crystallize the inner lives of a whole array of individuals. Take, for example, “Perfection,” on Mary Magdalene, whose flask of perfume has been brought from Egypt by a Roman general and given to her with the command, ‘”Never age…. / Stay perfect. This will help”‘ (37). Or “Judas” who confides to us, “All along I was the only one who seemed to know / what the Man could do if he put his mind to it” (41). Or “The Epicure” who enjoys
… a pleasant life: at night the temple girls,Then, one day, happening to hear in the agora “one speak of a strange god,” suddenly he “heard Pythagoras’ // golden spheres turn for a second” (46).
occasionally, after lunch, the flute-playing boy.
A moderate life: poetry for the heart and prose
to temper the mind, though I found less and less joy
It is the turning of these golden spheres that points to Siegel’s abilities and aspirations as a poet. His way of seeing is not merely sacramental but ultimately mystical. In “Annunciation,” he marks the coming of Gabriel in the most homely and heavenly of ways:
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,Likewise, in “Patmos,” Siegel records the vision of John, “now in the blaze of noon and when the stars sang to his eyes” (47).
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever. (34)
This anagogic impulse is sustained in poems throughout the volume. Part three of the new poems begins with the shaped stanzas of “Peonies”: “we see in them absolute / fire at the center, stasis / of star’s core…” (51). They are as “Dante saw the stars in a glass, / a corolla of souls, / each reflecting / the other’s light / and charity…” (51-52). Not surprisingly, another poem in this section is titled “Traherne,” a tribute to and imitation of that supremely mystical seventeenth-century English poet. Siegel glosses him when he writes, “The smallest grain of wheat would light the ground…” (60). The very last poem in the volume, “Voice of Many Waters,” with an epigraph from Revelation and a dedication to Clyde Kilby, is reminiscent of Traherne as well. First to last, in poems that span perhaps forty years, Siegel has stayed wondrously true to this vision.
INTERVIEW BY EMAIL WITH JOHN LEAX RE ROBERT SIEGEL
John Leax: I was a student of Clyde Kilby at Wheaton in the early sixties. I believe he first told me about Robert Siegel, holding him up as something of a model for me, one of the times we talked about my ambition to be a poet. Bob, with his degree from the Hopkins Writing Seminars and PhD from Harvard, I agreed was worth emulating, but I couldn’t imagine myself following that path. I was too much an indifferent student to achieve on that level.
About ten years later, after I’d gone to the Hopkins Writing Seminars (but not Harvard or any other PhD) and had begun teaching I finally met Bob at a conference on teaching creative writing sponsored by the Library of Congress. I believe Mel Lorentzen, a former teacher of both of us from Wheaton, introduced us. Bob, who was sitting with Richard Eberhart, was very polite. I was a bit in awe, somewhat tongue-tied, and awkward. What contact we had following that conference I can’t remember.
In 1980 or early 1981 I invited Bob to visit Houghton where I was teaching. I think our friendship really began then. I was editing a small magazine then and interviewed Bob for it. (I’ll arrange to have it scanned and emailed to you tomorrow.) A couple years later when the group of writers that would become the Chrysostom society met at New Harmony, I was included at Bob’s invitation. (He had written an introduction to my first book of prose that had just appeared.) Our friendship, encouraged by yearly visits and the shared concerns of thesociety, grew from that time. I may have been on the board at the same time as Bob, I can’t remember.
For the last ten years, we have been working together with Jeane
Murray Walker on a collaborative poem on the seven deadly sins. The idea for this came from Bob and was worked on while hiking along the gorge in Letchworth State Park. This work has overflowed the boundary of the literary project and infiltrated my life. If I was in awe when I first met Bob, I am now deeply humbled by his craft, learning, wisdom, and generosity. In a strange way, largely because of my personality, our friendship while warm remains a bit formal. I still regard Bob with a bit of awe and can’t imagine imposing myself on him. (I know his character is such that he would find that sentence impossible.)
One thing that should be added: If one walks into a room filled with laughter at the Chrysostom Society, most likely Bob Siegel and Richard Foster are at the center of it. Somewhere in the archives is a collection of “roasting” limericks exchanged between them and others (often Luci Shaw) over dinner.
INTERVIEW WITH MAINE POET ROBERT SIEGEL
Peter Menkin: Take us down the road a little on the journey of the poet. By this I mean, what is it that the ear is tuned to, and the eye wanting to see, and the heart moved by when it comes to the life of a poet and the work of poetry in one’s life.
Robert Siegel: Even before I could read I enjoyed the sound, rhythm, and texture of words in nursery rhymes like the following:
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
Later I played with words on signs and billboards while riding in a car. Gulf Gas spelled backwards created the abysmal monster Flug Sag, and Standard Oil became Dradnats Lio a mythical half dragon and half lion. I wrote occasional rhymes As a sophomore in high school Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar inspired a somber sixteen-line poem called “Anthony’s Revenge” that began ,“My grief it knows no fathom, my wrath it knows no end,” It impressed my teacher, but chiefly I wrote poems as an adolescent to impress and woo the girl who is now my wife of 50 years.
In my college freshman comp. course I wrote a love lyric that came out of nowhere one lunch hour. The professor liked it well enough to read to the class and suggested I enter it in a contest. After that I was hooked. I took a couple of creative writing courses and every literature course I could find, and in my junior year started gathering weekly to workshop poems with other students, some of us bringing in three or four poems every week. We called it the Poets’ Corner, after that corner of Westminster Abbey.
During that time there was a definite moment when I felt called to a life as a poet. It happened in the fall of my senior year. I was in the Morton Arboretum looking at a spectacular array of fall foliage, when I rounded a corner and stopped in awe of a brilliant red tree—a crabapple, perhaps, or a Japanese maple. As I looked at its intensely red leaves they mesmerized me, as if they were on fire. And yet they were still, as if I ‘d stepped out of time. In that moment the thought came to me: “So this is Beauty and I am called to reveal it to the world.” It was very distinct, and after that I knew clearly what my poetry was for. It had the force of a religious vocation.
After that it was inevitable I’d apply to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. After taking the master’s degree, and a year’s teaching in Chicago, I enrolled in Harvard’s graduate school—partly because the poet Robert Lowell was there. I had read his early poetry, such as his elegy, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket. Lowell was a great inspiration and I worked with him my four years there, His approval confirmed my vocation. Early in my first term there I went to his office hours with nine poems I had written that fall. I found him alone, and had an hour and a half with him before another student showed up. I handed him one poem after another. After reading a few he said to me. “Other people have played this trick of handing me one poem to read and then another and another, but this is the first time I’ve looked forward to the next.” Obviously these words burned themselves into my brain, along with other very encouraging comments. Each fall from 1963 to 67 I attended his morning office hours, which by the second year had turned into an informal seminar. He urged me to send out poems and liked particularly my poem “Hanscom Air Field” so well he carried it to Robert Manning, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where it appeared in June of ‘67. Later he recommended to the publisher my first book, The Beasts & the Elders..
Peter Menkin: You have also been a teacher for many years. Some schools where you taught are these: Siegel has taught at Dartmouth, Princeton, and Goethe University in Frankfurt, and for twenty-three years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he directed the graduate creative writing program and is currently professor emeritus of English. He has degrees from Wheaton, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. He is married to Ann Hill Siegel, a photographer, and lives on the coast of Maine. So your website tells its readers. Is there a similarity to the work of teacher to that of poet? Or more, does being a teacher feed your poetry, and sense of the poetic?
Robert Siegel: I feel very privileged to have taught. Not only did teaching provide the time for writing, but it meant that I was always working with literature and with students
who were learning to write poetry or fiction.. It was wonderful to have the chance to teach Paradise Lost, King Lear, and Heart of Darkness to Dartmouth freshmen, Coleridge to seniors, and, later, Yeats to graduate students.
We were particularly fortunate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to have a large graduate program in creative writing with students in their twenties to mid-seventies. Not only did this mean we had mature students, but also ones with some life experience to write about. I had one lady in her seventies who had survived Hitler’s camps—though much of her family didn’t—and ultimately published two books of poetry about it.
I think writing and teaching draw upon the same energy, for I did not write as much during term time. But teaching a subject helps you to continue learning it, and you learn in various ways from students. For instance, I think the critiquing of student poetry in seminars no doubt sharpened my ability to revise my own work.
One thing I learned while teaching in our graduate program in an urban university is how much talent there is out there, and how many people with talent fail to fully develop it—often for understandable reasons. This has always seemed to me to hint at the reality of an afterlife—there is so much more to people than can be fully discovered and developed in one lifetime.
Peter Menkin: I think people believe the poet is like the philosopher, like the teacher, like the musician—also the painter. In essence, the poet is a writer. Will you tell us if you agree with these statements and talk a little about your own work, especially that of the religious and faith kind. Does it either increase for you and even others food for thought about the Almighty and his Son Jesus Christ? Do you think that there is a sense of the grandeur of life and that of the Almighty? If so, how and even why? I know these are pointed questions, especially regarding religion and God, but my work as a Religion Writer sometimes asks I talk about such things with people. I am hoping you will take some time and talk to us about such things.
Robert Siegel: Yes, there is a connection between the poet, the musician, and the philosopher. Also the painter. I particularly identify with the painter in the use of imagery. We have several artists in the family, including my wife, a truly gifted photographer. Walter Pater said poetry aspires to the condition of music, and music is certainly of the essence too. Pound said that in addition to visual imagery and music, poetry had to have substantive meaning (I think the exotic term he used for this was logopoeia) which certainly connects it to philosophy.
For me that meaning is ultimately spiritual. Charles Williams said somewhere there are four sources of natural revelation: Love, Art, Nature, and the City. I’ve never related well to cities but the other three have been the source of poetry for me and means of apprehending and expressing my spiritual convictions, however indirectly.
In college I was fortunate in my English major to take courses in the major poets, Chaucer , Spenser, Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, and Shelley and Hopkins, and Eliot. to mention some of my favorites. They presented love, poetry and nature to me as sources of the divine. I will talk more about romantic love later. But I’ll quote here two lines from Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” that struck me my freshman year in college:
What is this world, what asketh man to have,
Now in his love’s armes, now in his colde grave.
As for nature, they –even T.S. Eliot—found “splendor in the grass and glory in the flower,” as Wordsworth put it, and shared in various ways a neo-platonic view of the world where everything is capable of revealing the divine , no matter how lowly it is on the great chain of being. Hopkinscalled this inscape, and he found it in everything from an eyelash to a wave of the sea. Poetry then became for me a possible sacramental, a way of final participation in Owen Barfield’s sense, of “finding the presence of God in everything,”or in Browning’s “God is seen God, / In the star in the stone in the flesh in the soul and the clod.”
The experience of a calling I referred to earlier helped me to understand this. And before that, a conversion experience I had in college where God revealed His reality to me . Immediately afterwards I transferred toWheatonCollege a strong, non-denominational Christian institution , where I knew my faith could be nurtured and I might grow in Christ. There I encountered C.S. Lewis’s works and was confirmed in the Anglican Church. In the last decade I have started regular centering prayer, according to the method taught by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, and find this contemplative method has certain qualities suggestive of the act of writing.
In turn the act of writing poetry becomes for me a kind of sacramental experience. Bruno Barnhart, a Camaldolese hermit, says that the “unitive” aesthetic experience offered by literature and art—when we feel one with what we are reading, looking at, or hearing– is a step toward experiencing union with God and I would agree. Our best experiences with literature and the arts are contemplative, a union of ourselves with the beauty before us. Literature and the arts can help us to forget ourselves and experience a completeness, a wholeness, for a moment or an hour. We forget our incomplete, divided selves and for a time are made one with what we are contemplating. This unitive experience can lead us to see beyond the work of art itself to what may shine through it, the world of the spirit.
This unitive experience may often lead me to write a poem. As I’ve described it elsewhere: “Most of us [writers] share a desire to call up things into words. This is the alchemy that fascinates me. A sensation, impression, or image will step out from its surroundings and demand my total attention. the thing itself will appear to rise up as words and send me fumbling for my notebook or keyboard.. Here is the wonder of what Keats called ‘natural magic’ as the image reaches up toward the words, the words become the image, the thing itself. For one happy moment they are fused. Thing becomes word and word becomes thing. . . substance and meaning are fused. The terrible gap between experience and the articulation of experience is closed. The mind is one with what it perceives.”
In my animal poems, especially, I attempt to become one with the animal while remaining my human self, and thus, I hope to create a third thing or voice, which is something like a totemic presence. The act of becoming one with something as you contemplate it or write is what Keats named “negative capability.” Much of his poetry comes from this experience. He once commented that if “a sparrow comes before my window I take part in its existence and peck about the gravel.”
Here are several examples of what I do in the animal poems. In each case I’m quoting a short part of the poem (all from A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems. Copyright 2006, Robert Siegel. All rights reserved.):
from Deer Tick:
No larger than a period I scramble
among the sequoia of your armhairs
unable to decide in this vast wilderness
where to drill for the life-giving well,
the water of life, the warm blood.
For I am sick unto death: in my abdomen
the spirochete turns its deadly corkscrew
which I must shortly confess to the stream
pulsing from your dark red heart,
setting at liberty this ghostly germ
large in the deer’s glazed eye
and the mouse’s tremble. . . .
I am of two minds moving out of sync—
when one’s in action, the other’s resting,
and so I never come to a conclusion
though we move in the same direction
by separate steps, by little omegas,
yet neither end comes ever to an end. . . .
tasting the ocean
one mouthful at a time.
It is a slow rumination,
a reading of incunabula
in my cloister,
in this cell where light
fills me totally like an eye
then washes away. . . .
White, moist, orange,
I crawl up the cabbage leaf exposed,
too much like your most intimate parts
to be lovely, to be loved. I weep to the world,
my trail a long tear, defenseless
from its beaks and claws
except for my bitter aftertaste.
He who touches me shares my sorrow
and shudders to the innermost–my pale horns
reaching helpless into the future.
In plastic cups filled with beer
ringed like fortresses around your garden,
your lie of plenty,
we drown by the hundreds,
curled rigid in those amber depths,
so many parentheses surrounding nothing.
You do not understand nothing:
the nakedness to the sky,
the lack of one protective shelter,
the constant journey.
Millions of us wither in the margins
while food rots close by.
Nothing is a light that surrounds us
like the breath of God.
Peter Menkin: All of us who are fortunate enough have been exposed and even edified by the words of our teachings, what they teach, and even their presence in our lives. This writer is curious to know what you found in your own education that was special, and who among the teachers are remembered by you well. Tell us something of one or two of them, where they taught, and what as presence they meant to you.
Robert Siegel: I’ve been fortunate in the number of good teachers I‘ve had. I even exchanged Christmas cards with my kindergarten teacher for a number of years, and, as I recall, had a crush on my second grade teacher. Three who were indeed special include Eloise Bradley Fink, a poet in her own right, who was my language arts teacher in eighth grade. She encouraged my writing. One day she sent the class out into the field next to our school to “hunt metaphor.” Recently I came across a copy of what members came up with and was surpised how good they were. My own creation was quite forgettable. But over the years Eloise and her husband John supported my writing and we stayed in touch each year until a month before her death last spring.
A second was Professor Merle Brown at Denison, where I began as a freshman. I had him for lit classes for three semesters and he exemplified and taught us intellectual passion. I can still see him coming to class from the library, lost in thought, his brief case dangling from one arm, while he ambled along staring at the ground, deep in thought. He would give us a poem or section of prose, and mention three or four critical theories about it, then invite our own theories—often pausing and silently thinking while leading the discussion, his face marvelously expressive. I remember one afternoon when discussing Spenser I felt I had been translated into another world, what I can only describe as filled with something like platonic Ideas. They were almost physical—radiant and tactile, and we were all participating in a great dance of thought.
A third teacher I must mention is Professor Clyde Kilby at Wheaton, the man who founded the Wade Collection of the Inklings: C.S.Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Owen Barfield and others. Besides his enthusiasm for literature—especially the Romantic poets and the Inklings—he conveyed a greatness of soul. Literature was very much involved with life and his living faith and his love for students. You could drop into his office any afternoon—or his home on campus—and he would make you feel as if to him you were the most important person in the world at that moment . His wife Martha did the same; they entertained students in their home all the time. I can still hear his infectious laugh, as he told us how his grandmother used to sneak out of her bedroom onto the porch roof to read Byron, as her father had refused to have Byron’s poems under his roof. He was a lovely man, a man radiant with love.
And I’d like to mention Beatrice Batson, who taught Milton, Donne, Herbert, and Shakespeare with great love for them, and Helen Siml Devette, who inspired and taught poetry and fiction writing and brought cookies to the Poets’ Corner.
In graduate school, the great influence was Robert Lowell.
Peter Menkin: Okay. Let us broaden this issue of questions a little outside the boundaries of you as poet, to that of your wife. People are fascinated, frequently, by the life of the poet. It is considered special, gifted, and even a little odd. Talk to us about marriage, and tell us about your wife and how she lives with, helps, and maybe inspires you as poet. Do you think that this kind of married life has helped you with your work, enriched your life, found another way to love and responsibility and meaning that is reflected in either your life or work outside the time together in the home? Tough question, but certainly a question that says we do not live alone, and that one’s spouse is a great influence and part of each member of the married couple’s life.
Robert Siegel : Dante, when he at long last sees Beatrice again in the Paradiso, comments (to paraphrase) that from the first day he saw her face in this life, up to this present sight, he never failed to follow her step by step in his poetry. For Charles Williams, Dante’s quest for Beatrice was the prime example of how romantic love may lead to divine love. And as Beatrice led Dante to Paradise and beyond in the Divine Comedy, so did love for the lady who became my wife help move me, I believe, toward a higher, spiritual love. I try to express this in a poem “After Viewing the Bust of Nefertiti,” addressed to Ann:
Whether stooping among your flowers
or in more meditative hours.
the cup moving toward you at the rail,
a likeness of you will only fail
to reveal the je ne sais quoi that
grows where flesh leaves off—a light
Raphael released from paper, yet
beyond words startled into flight
by this poor pen—the shadow of one
who thought of you before the sun
was kindled, yet precisely here
and for this moment made you the dear
image of that beauty and grace
who loves us with a human face.
I told a classmate when engaged to Ann that I thought she was an angel sent to keep me on the right path. After 50 years of marriage I would still agree with that. (Interestingly, Wordsworth’s poem about his wife describes her as he first saw her, “a phantom of delight”, but later as “a woman too” though one with “something of angelic light.”) Our common faith, our belief that our marriage includes God and has been blessed by Him, has helped all the way along. Marriage to Ann has provided love, companionship, and stability. Our temperaments complement each other well; and our metabolisms match (for instance, we both like to sleep about the same number of hours). We share a number of interests, from hiking and camping and reading to a love of nature in photography and poetry. Ann has been able to pursue her photography more ardently since we retired and is hanging it in juried shows.
We have three beautiful daughters, Lenaye, Lucy, and Christine, all now in their forties. They’ve given us four grandchildren, ages 9 to 12. Two of our three daughters live inMaineand they and the four grandchildren visit frequently. They help keep us alert and involved with all stages of life.
Besides all this, I must say that Ann has a sweet and happy disposition, and is thoughtful and warm with people, putting them at their ease. People are drawn to her.( We have been active in various church groups over the years where this is especially evident.) We rarely argue very long about anything , though we may have differing views. We’re glad that we virtually grew up in the same town and knew each other as early as sixteen, which means we’ve developed interests and attitudes together. Our home life is tranquil, and for this I credit Ann’s abundant good nature.
Peter Menkin: Before getting to the sixth and final question, I’ve asked this kind of question of the different poets I’ve talked to about their work. Please give us some advice for the young poet, the young person on their own development and work as poet. What does the high school age, or the college age man or woman begin to consider when starting out as poet? But mostly, feel free to tell us what you would or do tell them of poetry and being a poet.
Robert Siegel: What would I tell young poets just starting out? Well, a number of things, as I did, and still do, in seminars or workshops.
Perhaps the most important thing I have to say is that the best reward for writing poetry is the act of writing itself. You should love it, including the revising, which can be frustrating at times. I love to tinker with] poems I may have been working with over years. Remember, you’ll probably spend nine hours revising for every hour spent in original composition.
The second greatest reward is to receive a response from a reader who understands what you are trying to do—in a review or a letter usually.
Everything else—prizes, positions, fellowships, the modest fame that poetry affords—are secondary to those first two things. When thing are going well with my writing, I feel I’m doing what I was made to do and that I’m right where I should be—in the center of the universe.
Read, read, read! –all the great poets of the past as well as your contemporaries. Don’t read just the current work. But do find a few contemporaries whose work you really like. You’ll probably find yourself imitating them unconsciously. When that occurs, trying writing a few deliberate imitations. That way you’ll be conscious of their stylistic features and can stop yourself from sounding too much like them. Gradually your own voice (or voices) will emerge.+
Write every day! even if it’s just for a short time. And carry a small notebook around to write things in when away from a desk. ( Theodore Roethke collected words and phrases in a notebook and then sometimes built poems out of them as if he were making a mosaic.)
Don’t worry about a message. If you write the best sonnet or story you can, your deepest convictions will come out unconsciously in your work.
Be concrete in your writing, prose or poetry. Appeal to the five senses. This is something we can continue to learn all our lives. As Pound said, “Go in fear of abstractions.” Good writing relies on strong verbs and nouns. Don’t over-adjective and be especially cautious with adverbs.
Don’t give up your day job. The famous William Carlos Williams delivered several thousand babies in his career as a doctor, writing a number of his poems on a prescription pad while waiting for his patient in labor. Wallace Stevens wrote poems in his head while walking to his job in an insurance company
.Don’t expect to make money from selling poetry. If you want to make money writing, focus on non-fiction and fiction. Most poetry books sell from 500 to 3000 copies and don’t make significant returns for the publisher or the author. Poets usually make their livings teaching, editing or at any number of other occupations They may also make something giving readings and lectures, or from grants and prizes. Robert Frost claimed he made significant royalties from only one book, published in his eighties, and that was because he’d read from it at Kennedy’s inauguration.
Peter Menkin: Here we come to the end of our conversation, which I’ve enjoyed much. I am glad to make your acquaintance this way, and hope readers have found this dialogue in questions to their liking. Is there
anything you want to add, anything I have missed, anything you would like to say on whatever comes to mind at this time that’s not been touched on, yet.
Robert Siegel: As I wrote in my introduction to A Syllable of Water, “Writing that appeals to the senses is more than vivid and memorable. For those of us who are Christians, it is incarnational. As in Christ the Word became flesh, so we hope our own best words become flesh. We trust they will incarnate the beauty, terror, and glory of this world even while they lift the reader’s gaze in hope beyond it. For we believe the incarnate Word, or Logos, of God is the transcendent element in every word.
The imagination can be a powerful key to the spiritual. Words, images, and music can catapult us beyond words, images, and music. The unitive experience of esthetic contemplation can be a stepping stone to contemplative prayer—but a stepping stone, not a stopping place. There is a real, spiritual world out there, more real than this we love so dearly, and poetry, art, and music can help us discover it.
She didn’t notice at first the air had changed.
She didn’t, because she had no expectation
Except the moment and what she was doing, absorbed
In it without the slightest reservation.
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
In a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
Yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
Gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
On the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
As if they were forever. When at last she saw
From the corner of her eye the gold fringe of his robe
She felt no fear, only a glad awe,
The Word already deep inside her as she replied,
Yes to that she’d chosen all her life.
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside. . . –Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
Once I am sure that something’s going on
I enter, tired of mere ritual,
of liturgy where no work is done,
of punctual repetitions. One can tell
by the face and gestures of the celebrant–
or, better, by the others celebrating
this continually renewed act
of grace (invisible except where a look can’t
hide the intimate and present fact).
I go forward, even though mostly summer
is sitting, damp and musty, in the pews,
to where a few in the mid-week evening glimmer
raise hands standing, while others move
to kneel where the priest lays hands on them,
often saying words better than he knows
to say. There I stay until the end
of the service–once more hear the strong love
commending me to eat that I might live.
And so I do. This church’s architecture
is nothing special. There are few monuments
or memorials present here.
Only the window in the sanctuary has yet
embraced stained glass. The walls are bare.
What happens here is rarely to be discovered
in anything but the people–well- or ill-favored,
oppressed by poverty, by wealth, by having spent
themselves to no purpose. None is good,
in our first understanding of that word. All come
with a sense, dim or clear, that what they amount to fails,
the intelligence that tirelessly adds up the sum
of things in a clear system, sparks, falters,
shorts out–leaving us to press the mystery
against the roof of the mouth, to hug the ghost
once fused with flesh and still enfleshed in us,
until our spirit answers Abba and we know
by living contact what we can’t deduce.
It is in the faces, and these come and go
like the spirit, which wanders where it will.
Even Canterbury’s merely a heap of stones
until the spirit enters there and wells
in living voices, and thirty bishops dance
gravely to a voice beyond the chancel’s.
Let no elegy hang here like the ghost of incense.
Rather, let walls tumble, altars grow wild–new
ones will be raised up in three days (or less)
of the sort the living spirit passes through.
(Note: The dance of bishops occurred spontaneously
in Canterbury Cathedral a few years ago.)
In June these
globes of white flame
swell, explosions so very
slow, we see in them absolute
fire at the center, stasis
of star’s core,
or a fragile
ghostly in each alembic.
From their green ambush these
unearthly aliens assault
us with color
for a week
then gradually fade
into another dimension. As
Dante saw the stars in a glass,
a corolla of souls,
the other’s light
and charity, so in these
low white spheres we contemplate
mirroring heavens: petals, tongues
stammering silent music from
one root of fire.
These above three poems and the following nine, together with those quoted earlier, are from Robert Siegel’s book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems,” Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts., 2006. Copyright Robert Siegel, 2006. None may be reproduced by any means, print or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
For permission contact robert-siegel.com.
Nothing tasted like a wafer on his tongue
It wasn’t new, he’d tasted it once before—
In the myriad of years before he was,
and that took no time at all, the nothing before
everything else. As a boy he’d thought about it:
Why was there anything at all? The feeling
it led to was pleasant and dark, detached as if
he’d suddenly expanded to fill the ceiling.
And then, of course, the debts, the illness, the quarrels
between his sisters that drove him up the wall—
he’d left all these, thank God! Relief had swirled
through him with the fever until nothing was all.
But now this traveling magician with his meddling work
was drawing him back to his body—cold, stiff, and dark.
(Welsh form: Cwyvdd Llosgyrnog)
A locust leaf quivers, is still.
He’s gone. I plunge through a well
of light, fall on a root,
leave beetles circling the broken
punk of a dead log. Twigs reckon
my eyes unwakened. Sly, mute
spiders apply theories, webs
that shrivel as I pass. Small dreads
hive in the woods, sting, smart.
A stream—bubbles bead his trail—
wading, images break—to fail
seems a good. Hell swarms with gnats.
Footfalls through long shafts of sun, moon,
Breathing loud, hands my only weapon,
I lunge at last. Self-cheated—
a reek of pelt, a glittering eye,
a chiding of birds. Undone I
Mouth wide, he leaps.
…fiercer than evening wolves. Habakkuh 1:8
Round and round they go on about nothing,
on the platinum compact disk of the moon,
the wolves. Their howls revolve about
the nothing that’s eaten your life to its skin
even as it eats the moon to a thin rind.
Each revolution of the sound has a silvery
quaver, a light dip and resolution,
a tremolo, like recordings from the Twenties
of voices sheer and faded as old silk.
Listen, the siren starts up again and circles
in its long ascent and decline about the rim,
its aria of desire and desolation,
a litany of memory and loss
and regret settled into like this broken chair
on a winter evening while the last light falls
unravelled by two flies at the window.
Cooling, they creep and stumble on the sill.
The wolves leave despair like a silver needle singing
in the blood, a fear of the blankness of snow,
of the hot slaver of hunger at your throat,
and the red eyes weaving a knot around you
while the fire gutters and you hear no answer
but a murderous vibration among the trees.
Worse still would be the absence of this fear,
locked in this cabin with yourself and the moon,
worse for the head lifted in ululation
to make no sound at all but a dry static,
the O of the empty mouth yawning, the vacant
syllable of the moon fading to a white silence—
no dark accusatory, no gathering of angels,
no judgment of teeth like a necklace of knives,
no unyielding jaws locked to your throat.
The last pain is the absence of all pain.
Just two winter flies, a jot and a tittle,
as the muffled clock beats against the silence
in the empty room, a jot and a tittle
against the solid glass
through which you might make a run for the river,
risking the swift analysis of the teeth
cleaving sinew from joint.
Better to be driven by the pack
through the trees toward the overwhelming sound of water
and, desperate, pitch yourself beyond yourself,
over the cliff into the cataract,
into the thrash and tunder of Niagara—
risk drowning and a quick oblivion that at last
you might rise again, broken and absolved.
Here comes a lusty Wooer,
My a Dildin my a Daldin,
Here comes a lusty Wooer,
Lilly bright and Shine. A.
fifty sows, all sizes, from purple majesty
to pink ninny,
fifty, sluttish, given to untidy houses,
the open robe of morning, flea in the air,
snorting, swilling the bay-strewn water,
some indifferent as the Sierra Madre
steaming over deserts, features lost
in foothills and ridges of fait,
others petulant, bristling
practicing the small clean bite.
The lean young boar, thick-necked
walks a plank from the truckbed,
razor-backed, tufted, tusks rounded to ball-bearings,
lord of the mountains, the hills of flesh,
the little valleys spread before him.
He is small, but the muscles of his neck
can break a hound, or a man’s leg.
First one, sullen, whitish-purple in the heat,
stands off, pegs the dirt—mean hussy—
grunts. Come show me. Bastard!
Grunts, and grunts again.
Though he doesn’t turn toward her, he sees her.
Still, he waits for her waddling run,
her little yellow teeth
bared for the swipe at his haunch,
swivels and knocks her off balance—
blood pudding, sack of fat!
Terror curdling from her throat, she
telegraphs herself to a far corner,
peg peg peg peg peg
The second, caught off-guard,
lies where she falls, croaking.
But the third,
mother of clouds and mountains,
400 pounds of mauve-and-pink repose,
feels their cries stoke and fire in her bowels,
a vein of lava creep from marble hams,
through vesuvial lungs,
to the flexing crab of her brain.
Uncertainly, on one leg, then two,
she jacks herself from the primal pool
where gnats nidder and dance.
Mud swings crusted on her teats,
falls in patches from her belly:
What are these that tickled the brain?
Love’s tiny cries? The yammering mouths?
Squeals that hang like sausages?
No, not those tender attentions.
Dimly, she remembers something
unlocked from her, a tremor, a quake
when once she opened and
free of her hulk
the delicate she of dream
danced like rain on a corrugated roof,
pooled in cool wallows,
sprouted under tender thistle,
rolled in goldenrod and clover,
frisked with cat and suckling.
Turning toward hm like a locomotive
on its turntable, the steam
of her memories creasing all her jowls
to one truculent smile, she charges:
Oh to be the blue fly, the bee, golden,
jigging above the ticklish purple!
Aye, this is the rub,
the tickle of love! she snorts, enamored
Oh honey bee! Sweetling,
hungry for my attentions!
Again she turns where the boar, dizzy
and sore in the neck, stands baffled.
Having assaulted with his head the Himalayas,
having not gotten over the foothills,
he staggers in disbelief
as Everest trundles toward him.
This is the one! Husband! she croons
full and resonant as a bullfrog.
Sweet chop, me porker, my honey cob!
O what a squall of pipers,
what a regiment of bloodcurdling love,
dooms over the highlands of her corpus
resounding from glen and hillside
as she advances on him to a corner,
stale and snuffed as Macbeth,
head slung low, as all the world marches on him,
to meet the fate, perilous, magnificent,
of fathering five hundred friskers.
These last five poems are from Robert Siegel’s book, “A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems,” 2006 first printing, Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts.ADDENDUM II
It lives in the damps of rejection,
in the dark drain, feeding upon the effluvia
of what we are, of what we’ve already been.
Everything comes down to this: we are its living–
the fallen hair, the fingernail, the grease from a pore,
used toothpaste, a detritus of whiskers and dead skin.
All this comes down and worries it into life,
its body soft as lymph, a living expectoration,
a glorified rheum. In the silent morning
when we least expect it, it is there
on the gleaming white porcelain: the silver scales,
the many feelers busy busy, so fast, it is
unnerving, causing a certain panic in us,
a galvanic revulsion (Will it reach us
before we reach it?), its body
translucent, indefinable, an electric jelly
moving with beautiful sweeps of the feet
like a sinuous trireme, delicate and indecent,
sexual and cleopatric. It moves for a moment
in the light, while its silver flashes and slides,
and part of us notices an elusive beauty,
an ingenious grace, in what has been cast off.
As if tears and the invisibly falling dandruff,
skin cells and eyelashes
returned with an alien and silken intelligence,
as if chaos were always disintegrating into order,
elastic and surprising,
as if every cell had a second chance
to link and glitter and climb toward the light,
feeling everything as if for the first time–
pausing stunned, stupefied with light.
before we, frightened by such possibilities,
with a large wad of tissue come down on it,
and crush it until it is nothing
but dampness and legs, an oily smear
writing a broken Sanskrit on the paper,
a message we choose not to read
before committing it to the water
swirling blankly at our touch,
hoping that will take care of it,
trying not to think of it–the dark
from which it will rise again.
Half a Second
A movement like a shutter’s
and I am outside the dark box–
the ship suddenly outside the bottle.
Instead of empty, everything is full.
There is no absence:
every sail luffs out, every rope sings.
There is no more to be said.
There never was,
but one goes on saying. It is
the hopeless addiction of the tongue
to an ecstasy of particulars:
the snap of young peas, the onion’s bite,
the tomato’s pulsing alarm
the lupine’s lavendar finial,
the white cat by the feeder
in a raptus of hummingbirds.
Not only this place, this time,
but all places, all time:
It is freedom, it is laughter.
Closing the eyelids and raising them.
That white cloud hanging there forever.
The Serpent Speaks
Soul: Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
Heart: What theme had Homer but original sin?
And three begot the ten thousand things.
I am another vine
in the great democracy of vines
part of the complexity that defies explanation
part of the tree you put your back to
alert, but never suspecting.
I am the cold coil around the warm trunk,
as your lungs, poor rabbits, twitch and swell.
I am a long story with lovely yellows
and dapples and shades
a beginning, middle, and end that you can get lost in
a sunny patch followed by a shadow
a green dapple and twist, the turn, the unexpected
When you come to the denouement
and my tail narrows to nothing
you wish to go back to the beginning and start over
where the red lie flickers in the leaves
beneath eyes like mica moons.
It is the old story, the beginning of everything
but really a long divagation and excursus
in which the woman naked and trembling
complains to the man, weeping over and over
and his voice rises in sharp jabs
while all their unborn children listen.
It is something that interrupts the afternoon, the first day,
and history begins and wanders off for millenia
missing the whole point.
It is these subtle shades on my scales
this maze of intricate lines
that lead back upon themselves in endless recursions
that fascinate you, that lead you endlessly
from my tail into my mouth.
In the moving light of the jungle I am a simple
body-stocking of shadows and weave
under a fritillary of bird cries to a sensuous music
a harmony to all your doings
promising you the ultimate knowledge in my belly
down the dark tube of years:
Light and shadow, light and shadow, the days and nights pass
with increasing speed like stations and their intervals
and you sway holding the strap
the car-lights flickering
wondering whatever was your original destination.
When fiction held out its red lie among the roses
you followed it down my dark throat.
It seemed utterly reasonable. Then you were Methuselah
carrying each of his 900 years like a brick on his back
Abraham’s wild surmise with a knife
Joseph starving in a hole
and Moses singeing his feet in the wilderness.
Next they hung you from two sticks and slowly
everything grew more dramatic:
Augustine heard the children in the garden
Aquinas fled from the naked peasant
and Columbus woke in a sweat, the voices still singing
of a lost world
of amber waves and alabaster
until Lord Amherst gave his blankets to the Indians
Franklinsaw the flashing key
andWashingtonsold his horse for pasturage
until the utterly reasonable Robespierre offered up his head
Lenin popped from a boxcar
and Einstein gave you the terrible secret
which I had promised,
a man of violins and God.
Now the story has gotten out of hand
as you swarm upon yourselves like maggots
on a diminishing dung-pile
and frenzied, move toward the catastrophe
history a string of boxcars
each a century stuffed to overflowing
until the last leaps the track.
Meanwhile I who am the truth move
scintillatingly, with grace in my own shadow
telling the story: There was a man, and a woman. . .
and the sun rose
and they went on a long journey
and night fell and they did not know where they were.
Such is knowledge, such is the fruit I offered
without the encumbrances of love, without listening
without the tree of fire that burns
below all movement, all shining, the tree below the bones
whose flames reach through the skeleton and hover
just over the fingers
and burn away the forest where the ego
goes crying, alone–one eye balancing the other
of what it has and what it hasn’t
until all shapes are shining and
fear falls away shriveling like a black net
and the wisdom of God dances freely before you
and the glowing fruit blushes for the mouth.
I see all clear and can tell you
the end of things, knowing you will not listen,
for my knowledge is cold here in the forest
and you will follow the shifting arabesque
of moonlight on my mica-glint, my scales
moving like the sequins of days, events,
the rise of stocks and the next presidential election
and the price of wheat futures in a drought.
So I go on, flowing into my own shape
into the darkness I have made, subservient
(and this is the bitterness beyond all blankness)
at the last to another purpose
which you cannot guess, which rings in these leaves
like the harps and fiddles of insects too high
for your range of hearing–a music which drives me
into the narrowing circle I have made
tail in mouth, swallowing until
and everything in this circle vanishes with me.
Rinsed with Gold, Endless, Walking the Fields
Let this day’s air praise the Lord–
Rinsed with gold, endless, walking the fields,
Blue and bearing the clouds like censers,
Holding the sun like a single note
Running through all things, a basso profundo
Rousing the birds to an endless chorus.
Let the river throw itself down before him,
The rapids laugh and flash with his praise,
Let the lake tremble about its edges
And gather itself in one clear thought
To mirror the heavens and the reckless gulls
That swoop and rise on its glittering shores.
Let the lawn burn continually before him
A green flame, and the tree’s shadow
Sweep over it like the baton of a conductor,
Let winds hug the housecorners and woodsmoke
Sweeten the world with her invisible dress,
Let the cricket wind his heartspring
And draw the night by like a child’s toy.
Let the tree stand and thoughtfully consider
His presence as its leaves dip and row
The long sea of winds, as sun and moon
Unfurl and decline like contending flags.
Let blackbirds quick as knives praise the Lord,
Let the sparrow line the moon for her nest
And pick the early sun for her cherry,
Let her slide on the outgoing breath of evening,
Telling of raven and dove,
The quick flutters, homings to the green houses.
Let the worm climb a winding stair,
Let the mole offer no sad explanation
As he paddles aside the dark from his nose,
Let the dog tug on the leash of his bark,
The startled cat electrically hiss,
And the snake sign her name in the dust
In joy. For it is he who underlies
The rock from its liquid foundation,
The sharp contraries of the giddy atom,
The unimaginable curve of space,
Time pulling like a patient string,
And gravity, fiercest of natural loves.
At his laughter, splendor riddles the night,
Galaxies swarm from a secret hive,
Mountains split and crawl for aeons
To huddle again, and planets melt
In the last tantrum of a dying star.
At his least signal spring shifts
Its green patina over half the earth,
Deserts whisper themselves over cities,
Polar caps widen and wither like flowers.
In his stillness rock shifts, root probes,
The spider tenses her geometrical ego,
The larva dreams in the heart of the peachwood,
The child’s pencil makes a shaky line,
The dog sighs and settles deeper,
And a smile takes hold like the feet of a bird.
Sit straight, let the air ride down your backbone,
Let your lungs unfold like a field of roses,
Your eyes hang the sun and moon between them,
Your hands weigh the sky in even balance,
Your tongue, swiftest of members, release a word
Spoken at conception to the sanctum of genes,
And each breath rise sinuous with praise.
Let your feet move to the rhythm of your pulse
(Your joints like pearls and rubies he has hidden),
And your hands float high on the tide of your feelings.
Now, shout from the stomach, hoarse with music,
Give gladness and joy back to the Lord,
Who, sly as a milkweed, takes root in your heart.
Wheaton College Choir
Advent Carol “The King Shall Come” Wheaton College Illinois Christmas Festival, Mary Hopper Conducting I, Michael Linton, am the composer/arranger of this music and own the copyright. You are free to down load the music and share it with others if you do so for non-commercial purposes. A reference score for the piece can be seen at the site refinersfire.us under the menu heading “scores.”
This article originally appeared in Church of England Newspaper, London and is still a part of its archives.