Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cuz and "The Brewing of Soma"

People often ask me if I'm related to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The answer is that he was my 2d cousin 4 times removed, i.e. my great-great-grandfather's second cousin. According to my aunt Dorothy, the family genealogist, they had some sort of correspondence, but I don't think they were close—especially since my ancestor was not a Quaker.

I can't say that I've read much of Whittier. But there is one poem that I have tuned into, literally with a vengeance, because of my interest in Quaker attitudes toward the arts: "The Brewing of Soma" (1872), which is the source of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."

The poem begins with a long description of primitive peoples' religious use of hallucinogenic drugs. Excerpt:

"Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy."
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma's sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.

Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna's gate,
And sobered, sank to earth.

Then Whittier moves to a comparison with modern (19th-century) intoxicants:

As in the child-world's early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfill;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

and concludes with a prayer that God will remove our need for such intoxicants and "reclothe us in our rightful mind" by restoring us to the true religion of service and silent waiting on the Lord:

Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Frederick Charles Maker, a Congregational organist in Bristol, England, composed the familliar hymn tune REST to fit the concluding stanzas of "The Brewing of Soma" in 1887. Whittier—who, like most Friends of his time, regarded music as a particularly pernicious intoxicant—would have been eighty by then, and I have no idea whether he ever knew of what he surely would have regarded as a desecration of his poem. It is ironic that today it is this hymn for which he is primarily remembered. I daresay ol' Cuz has been spinning in his grave for lo these hundred years.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thank you, Unsplendid!

I do like to try new forms now and then.  When I'm participating in a challenge such as National Poetry Writing Month, trying a new form is an excellent point of departure.  The results tend to be, well, form-driven, and are best put away for a few months or years until I have enough distance to discern if they're worth posting to a poetry board for critique. 

Most journals devoted to poetry in forms to which I have submitted seem to favor a rather narrow range of forms; or maybe they just haven't thought my experiments in oddball forms were good enough. 

In any case, I was delighted to find Unsplendid,  "an online journal of received and nonce forms".  The editors will consider any form included in Lewis Turco's Book of Forms, plus nonce forms which you invent yourself.  When they accepted my rondel prime, Legacy, for their issue 2.2, I felt I'd found a friend.   

And now they have published Unjubilee — a favorite child that I've had difficulty finding a home for. 

This was a poem for NaPoWriMo 2007 which still mystifies me. It seems to be sort of an accentual-alliterative rondeau.  In writing it, I don’t think I was consciously going for accentual-alliterative, and am not sure I even realized until now how much alliteration is there.  But for some reason I felt it would be incomplete without the caesuras (indicated by spaces within the long lines). 

The Bible has always been a source of inspiration, though my use of it is hardly traditional.  "Unjubilee" builds on the idea of Jubilee described in Leviticus 27, which aimed to redress inequities in wealth every 50 years by canceling debts and returning land to its original owners.   I conferred with Douglas Basford, an editor of Unsplendid, about adding a note with the biblical reference, but we both felt that the page as set up was so beautiful and clean that we couldn't want to clutter it.