A few years ago, I stumbled across the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke. It’s a villanelle, a nineteen line poem characterized by rhyme and repetition. Roethke does something with the form, turns it into a sort of personal devotion, and when I read it for the first time, it seemed to work its way under my skin, got into my veins, did the thing any good drug does once it found the proper neural receptors.
This is your brain on poetry.
This spring, I spoke to a group of pastors in Kansas City. Before taking the stage, I sat in the greenroom, praying, light music playing over the speakers. A song began playing, and I recognized it two notes in (bass lines have a way of sticking with you; yes?). It was a deeper cut from Kurt Elling’s work. It was his musical interpretation of “The Waking,” and it seemed the perfect song for the moment.
“God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.”
~Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
The week after that conference, I sat in the quiet of my office and penned this homage to Roethke’s “The Waking.” I hope you enjoy it.
Ages and Ages (The Poem for Redeemer, Kansas City)
We watch for signs of life lived youngly sweet
and take by this some memory of being
too small to know the sun’s burning color.
Imagine soft clover on your laughing
cheeks, as a child, and in another age
remember signs of life lived youngly sweet.
Until this waking to noon heat, were we
smiling with carefree children faces raised,
too small to know how the sun’s color burns?
Now we raise cups to living old concerns,
like knowing good, evil, not remembering
to watch for signs of life lived youngly sweet.
Of all the things that come from forever
our laughing child’s shining eyes were most pure,
innocent to how the sun’s color burns.
Age brings knowing that cannot be unknown,
like how lovers hold hands, walking, silvered,
Watching for signs of life lived youngly sweet
And lifting eyes to sun’s burning color.
Now, enjoy this version of Elling’s “The Waking.”
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