Archive for category: Poetry

Viral Blog Posts or Local Liturgy?

There was a time when I hoped to write the great American novel, the one studied by students in universities forty years from now. There was a time when I hoped to write the definitive poem on the present American context. And if these were too much to ask, I harbored a secret hope to write at least one viral blog post, a post that took on a life of its own, one that was picked up by CNN, or The Huffington Post, or Christianity Today. It’s the goal of every writer, after all, to have his words recognized.

Make no mistake, I would love to participate in the success of larger-than-life novels, definitive poems, and viral blog posts. These days, though, my writing goals have begun a sort of slow shift.

A few months ago, I was reading the Wendell Berry essay, “Wallace Stegner and the Great Community.” The essay, as the title denotes, is a celebration of Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and author best described by Berry as a regional writer. Of Stegner, Berry writes that he was a “naturally… reticent man, not given to self-revelation or self-advertisement….” From that humble position, Stegner was content to focus his literary efforts on the exploration of his local context, and wrote primarily of the American west. Of regional writing, and the lessons learned from Stegner, Berry writes, “if one both lives and writes in one’s region, one becomes aware of good reasons to be more watchful and more careful.”

This leads me to the crux of it. Once I hoped that I could pen a few viral words, and on some days, I still nurse those hopes. Lately, though, I’ve been considering the concept of regional writing. I’ve been considering working within the local church to create and curate readable, relatable, yet stretching liturgical pieces. These aren’t the words that will make a man famous, there is no doubt. But this quieter work feels small and right. It is the kind of work that gives a congregational artist “good reason[] to be more watchful and more careful.”

In the last month, I’ve written pieces for my local church body and for an ecumenical gathering. The pieces grew from a particular American context–the Ozark region to be exact–and were offered to the people of that region. I’ve had the joy to both read, and watch the pieces be read over those congregations. I’ve felt the deep sense of connection between the words and the people. I’ve had conversations after both services about the words, how the participants enjoyed them, or disagreed with them, or felt the tension in them. These interactions were not comments in a viral blog post; instead, they were honest-to-God, in-the-flesh human interactions. There was give-and-take, push and pull.

I was privileged to share two poems at my home congregation yesterday. We were in the gospel of Luke, and discussing the concept of the Kingdom of God. Had you been there, this is one of the pieces you would have heard:

“Cash is King,” they say,
and if this is so,
the kingdom is the market
where we, princes and paupers
are made subjects.
It is an envious,
green king,
which bends us
only to our own desire.

“Democracy is King,”
the patriot says;
this is coarse metaphor.
By it, he means only
that most effective
rule is best centered
in the will of the
majority,
in the ability to
judge ourselves
as just.

“Elvis is King,”
the folks from Memphis say.
He was a man
fueled by fried
peanut butter
banana, and bacon,
by Rock and Roll,
by pills.
He was benevolent?
Maybe.
A slob?
Perhaps.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not a green kingdom
that leads only to temptation.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not the kingdom of liberty
that knows only men’s will.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not the kingdom of suede,
of cardiac sandwiches.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come!
With reshaping power,
with glory to silence
all rock cries, come!

Come a conduit
from heaven’s coffers;
Come with a level
for the rich and poor
alike!

Come like the seed
of forgiveness,
the speck that’s
planted small and
sprouts into
the eternal tree of life
come!

Come with a new,
lasting language,
that bends every knee,
cypress and human alike.

It seems to me that the best use of our gifts is first within the local context. Perhaps those gifts will one day reach the masses, will spread far and wide and make our names and faces well known, but that isn’t the primary goal. The goal is something smaller, something eternally more humble, something that starts small like a seed planted in local soil (be it Ozarkan, Californian, or Appalachian) and grows into a well-rooted tree.

*****

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Two Cents Worth

I have a pocket
of unread poems,
one cent pieces,
which
on occasion
I fondle;
fingers in pants,
I imagine
highlights,
shadows,
the textures
of Honest Abe’s
emancipation.

While chatting of
God-cares what with
God-cares whom–
“cold winter coming,”
or “did you see
the jugs on that one?”–
I push
pocketed poems
against each other,
feel friction
of relief
against relief,
until the whirr
of words
is shushed by
hushed rubbing
of coins.

Poems are pocketed
like pennies,
distractions
of poor
purchasing power,
stamped with images
of ideals
murdered at
the best show;
they are good
for small things:
paying the
tag end of a tax;
occupation in the pocket;
distraction from
lazy words;
or, for spilling on
concrete and
counting people
passing,
unstooping,
unlucky.

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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America #2 (The Murder of Rest)

1.

All good things must come to an end,
and so, I murdered rest.
You read that right.
Read it again.
And for the sake of clarity,
at the expense of redundancy,
let me put it another way:
I strung up sabbath,
fastened a few millstones to its feet
(the neck seemed overly-dramatic),
and pitched it into the sea.

2.

This is hyperbole.
No, maybe it’s not.

3.

It’s the perfect crime if you consider:
the murder of constructed concept
produces no body, at least,
not straight-away.
There is a body in the end–
your own to be exact–
but a man’s gotta go somehow,
whether by the cigarettes,
the black-lunged cancer,
or the over-striving
of the green soul.

Come to think of it,
cigarettes might just
be the product
of over-striving.
Who knows.
I don’t.

4.

Anyhow, the death of
a middle-class over-striver
goes barely noticed by investigators.
They don’t come knocking
with warrants and inquisition,
but send the youthful eulogizers
who say things like,
“he was such a hard-working man,” or
“he had a real protestant work ethic.”
They mourn the loss of the salt of the earth,
ascribe virtue to accomplishment,
to the ability to take time
and turn it into loaves and fishes.

5.

Is this hyperbole?
I don’t know.
Maybe it’s not.

6.

As a child, rest was second-nature,
maybe even first nature.
There were twelve hours of stillness
in any given Tuesday.
I slept, sure, but even waking
watched the frogs blinking
milky filmed eye-lids
from just above the surface
of an Ozark mud puddle.

I watched and watched.

I closed my eyes,
breeze against blush,
and gape-mouthed, gulped
the wind on which
scissor-tailed flycatchers rode.
I sat in the hammock of mother’s apron,
head against beating heart
as the thunderstorm lumbered
quaking across the Texas plains.

At one point or another,
I slept in all these places–
on the river bank by the mud-puddle,
in the gentle winds of a Texas field,
in my mother’s apron hammock.

7.

It was with great deliberation
and malice afore-thought, then,
that I murdered rest.
You ask the murderous motive,
and this is not the proper question.

Haven’t we always wanted to be
limitless man, greater than even
God who rested on the seventh day?
Haven’t we believed
that we could shine somehow brighter
than even the morning star?

Yes, questions of motive are obvious.
It is the question of resurrection
that takes greater imagination.

*Photo by Flick, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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For Titus

For Titus:

I was da,
when the milk teeth first
broke ivory white
through new pink
and grew fast
from the floor up.

I was da,
a single syllable
like mild,
like love,
like peace.

I was da-da,
when the uppers
came screaming
through mouth’s roof,
when you learned
of night terrors
and sickness.

I was da-da
the complex,
the healer,
the big-armed
hero.

Today I am dad,
a one syllable wonder
yet again,
delta-alpha-delta,
the difference,
the beginning,
always the difference.

I am dad,
and in that
there is sorrow
and hope.
Sorrow that
by language
I have evolved beyond
single syllables,
and hope that
I might always
be the difference,
yes–the beginning of
all difference.

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America #1 (Thoughts from a Rocking Chair)

1.

It is pleasant to talk of
work, rest, personal spirituality,
of the tragedy of old Smith’s farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation,
or of morning prayers
and the flight of the gold finches.

2.

Here, in this pipe dream
of the American free,

I saw the children running
through water spouting sidewalks,
dancing the hokey-pokey
to radio-Disney,
learning the joys
of play-pretend wars,
of vigilant violence between
marines and jihadi militants,
or cowboys and Indians,
whichever;

I saw We The People
dancing to death
yet again, and buying news
like movies, like politics,
like bubblegum and Coca-Cola.

I saw this all from the
porch rocker at old Smith’s place,
from the farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation.

3.

I could sit here, in this rocker
overlooking fallow fields,
prayer beads in hand,
and dream pretty poems
of a people’s judgment.

I could watch the gold finches
come, and leave, and come again,
and call this contemplation.

I could name it Walden,
or Eden, or the Buffalo River Valley.

These, too, are
luxurious pastimes.

4.

Other-world children
marshal language like missiles
and speak of loosing fathers
and goats with the same
dry eyes;

I wonder whether they hope
to work their father’s fallow fields,
to consider again the morning prayer
of peace, to hear again
the gold-finch’s Spring song.

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