Tuesday, February 27, 2024

'Death Is Not Far From Me'

It’s in the nature of most writers to come up with their own rules and obey them when it serves their purposes. Even the strictest formalist bends a little in the service of what works aesthetically. The byproduct of that decision-making process is “style.” Good work can come out of the tension between codified rules and wayward inspiration. 

John Finlay (1941-91) was an Alabama formalist poet who worked in the tradition of Yvor Winters. R.L. Barth was Finlay’s first publisher, bringing out his chapbook The Wide Porch, and Other Poems in 1984. We know Finlay’s work thanks to Barth, a few other editors and especially his friend, literary executor and posthumous editor, the Louisiana poet David Middleton.


For years we had to rely on Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (1992) and Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought (1994), both edited by Middleton and published by John Daniel and Co. In 2020, Wiseblood Books published, in revised, attractive and much enlarged editions, “With Constant Light”: The Collected Essays and Reviews and “Dense Poems & Socratic Light”: The Poetry of John Martin Finlay. Both are edited by Middleton and John P. Doucet.


Middleton found “Notes for the Perfect Poem” in one of Finlay’s journals from the 1970s. Some of it is provocative and slyly romantic while masking as strictly classical, and don’t underestimate Finlay’s sense of humor. The very idea of a “perfect poem” is a joke, but a useful one. Some of his points are inarguable:


“It must be about the truth. It must give truth.” [Including the truth of fiction, I trust.]


“It must be clean and lean and have the supple, yet firm movement, of pure muscle.” [Nothing wrong with a little intelligent fat.]


“It must come from a man who is mature and has mastered himself so that he is calm in the good knowledge he has of our mystery, our language and history.” [Aiming very high, but he’s right. We’ve had enough poetry and writing in general by overgrown children.]


“It must be plain.” [In the sense of not gratuitously gussied-up.]


Finlay dictated his final poem, “A Prayer to the Father,” as he lay in a hospital bed at his family's Alabama farm, blind, paralyzed and dying of AIDS in spring 1990:


“Death is not far from me. At times I crave

The peace I think that it will bring. Be brave,

I tell myself, for soon your pain will cease.

But terror still obtains when our long lease

On life ends at last. Body and soul,

Which fused together should make up one whole,

Suffered deprived as they are wrenched apart.

O God of love and power, hold still my heart

When death, that ancient awful fact appears;

Preserve my mind from all deranging fears,

And let me offer up my reason free

And where I thought, there see Thee perfectly.”


In his Collected Poems (1997), Edgar Bowers included an elegy for Finlay, “John,” which alludes at its conclusion to “A Prayer to the Father”:


“Then, on his darkened eye, he saw himself

A compact disk awhirl, played by the light

He came from and was ready to reenter,

But not before he chose the way to go.

And so it was, before his death, he spoke

The poem that is his best, the final letter

To take to that old country as a passport.”


Thomas Parker said...

The end of "A Prayer to the Father" reminds me of Johnson's refusal of opiates when in his last crisis, the bravest, noblest words of a brave and noble man: "Then I'll take no more physick, for I hope to render up my soul to God unclouded."

Edward Bauer said...

I purchased Mind and Blood on your recommendation a couple(?) of years ago. I wasn't aware of the Wiseblood books. It looks like I have to get my order in. Thanks