by Matthew Sitman
Readers continue to tell us about the writing that’s meant the most to them along life’s way. One nodded along with my description of Marilynne Robinson’s prose:
I had to smile at your explanation of why you reread Gilead, “just to immerse myself in the rhythms of its prose.” That is exactly why I regularly reach for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I often feel embarrassed that sometimes I don’t take much meaning from the words themselves; but there’s a certain zen to be found just in their tempo and cadence, and that’s what brings me back each time. I’ve always likened it to riding a wave. As I start in on a particular Tale, for a page or two it’s like swimming out to the crest of that wave. And then if I’m lucky, if I’m able to really let myself be pulled in, I can get up on that wave and ride it for awhile. Its exhilarating on a spiritual level to allow my mind to go on that journey, free of distraction. Also, it’s marvelous that the words a man wrote so many centuries ago can take me there.
Another reader finds a beautiful passage amidst the rather dry confines of academic philosophy:
This isn’t a passage from a novel, or a poem, but almost reads like one. The last lines of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. I read the book many years ago, but the passage has acquired new meaning for me after I became very involved in climate activism. I don’t know why I find it so touching and calming, or why I know it by heart and occasionally find myself reciting it.
“The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”
This reader points to a memorable poem from Milton:
One poem that stayed with me 11 years after finishing high school is John Milton’s Sonnet 23: Methought I Saw, written after his wife’s death during childbirth, and all the more poignant as he had been blind when they married. The passage:
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
Another reader finds these religious poems remain a consolation:
I would like to offer Naked Song by Lalla (translated by Coleman Barks). Lalla was a 14th century kashmiri mystic poet. These poems are beautifully written, and express an element of the divine that can be found in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, or any other religion. They were an incredible solace to me when I was young and struggling with my identity and faith.
I traveled a long way seeking God,
but when I finally gave up and turned back,
there He was, within me!
Now why do you wander
like a beggar?
Make some effort,
and He will grant you
a vision of Himself
in the form of bliss
in your heart.
Dying and giving birth go on
inside the one consciousness,
but most people misunderstand
the pure play of creative energy,
how inside that, those
are one event.
To learn the scriptures is easy,
to live them, hard.
The search for the Real
is no simple matter.
Deep in my looking,
the last words vanished.
Joyous and silent,
the waking that met me there.
Another reader writes:
Little, Big by John Crowley. A multi-generational epic of magic realism, rendered in prose that feels both totally immediate and totally timeless. It’s not super well known, but it is still in print, and a great work of American fiction.
Another reader can’t get enough of this ode to wearing shorts:
I feel like I could give you so many selections, but I’ll limit it to just one poem. It is easily my favorite poem, and sometimes I feel like it was written just for me. It’s called “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” by Les Murray. He takes such a relaxed, casual garment, and turns it into the sublime.
To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,
to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,
or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah –
I can’t select just one part…
shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!
Ideal for getting served last
in shops of the temperate zone
they are also ideal for going home, into space,
into time, to farm the mind’s Sabine acres
for product and subsistence.
Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts
I re-read it regularly, and it gets better every time I read it. You can read the full poem at the Australian Poetry Library here.
Another poetry-loving reader writes:
This love poem by e.e. cummings (1894-1962) never fails to haunt – one knows this is what he lived:Somewhere I Have Never Travelled
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
And one more poem:
When I was 17, this poem by Carl Sandburg helped me through a difficult time (leaving behind my best friends and my first love); it also inaugurated my love for poetry. Its effect for me has something to do with the way it begins so gently and ends on a note of defiance:
Yellow dust on a bumble
Grey lights in a woman’s
Red ruins in the changing
I take you and pile high
Death will break her claws
on some I keep.
You can read the entire thread, including previous reader selections, here.