Thursday, July 17, 2014

`Praise for the Names of Songbirds'

A friend told me recently, “Even if you don’t pray you can say thank you,” and not as an admonition. She was reminding me that life is good, I’m more fortunate than I deserve and our chief obligation is to be grateful. The rest flows out of that. Wednesday gave me another cause for gratitude when I spotted a new book on the library shelf -- Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale University Press, 2013), edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson. The selection through the first half of the twentieth century is exceptional, though, of course, the supply is bountiful (Shakespeare’s absence surprised me until I thought about it). The subsequent pickings are slim and the editors are more generous than I could ever be. They find room for Allen Ginsburg but leave out our greatest living devotional poet, Helen Pinkerton, who reminds us that “Grace is the gift.” The book’s most pleasant surprise is Katharine Jager, a medievalist who teaches in my backyard, at the University of Houston-Downtown. Her selection is “Vita Brevis, Ars Longa”: 

“Praise for the names of songbirds
for the edge of metal
Praise for the finger’s whorl of grease
for the traffic rattle. 

“Praise for fire’s raw alchemy
for the boiling lettuce
Praise for the border that invention serves
for the silt of rivers. 

“Praise for the dog retrieving geese
for the lathe-wrought vessel
Praise for the red barn’s poetry
for the work and wrestle.” 

It’s the seeming randomness and even triviality of the things Jager chooses to praise that I especially like. Anyone can write “Praise for good health” or “Praise for lots and lots of money,” but who would single out for praise “the names of songbirds?” Christopher Smart (1722-1771) might have, of course (Hopler and Johnson include him). His “Jubilate Agno” is comparably surprising in its objects of gratitude, though more encyclopedic, especially in the well-known section beginning “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” as in these lines: 

“For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.” 

Smart, of course, was often quite mad and several times was confined to asylums, but he was sane enough to praise. Boswell reports that Dr. Johnson, another sane man acquainted with madness, forcefully defended Smart:  

“My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place…’ Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a madhouse, [Johnson] had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr Burney… `I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.’”

No comments: