Words strain,Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,Will not stay still.
(T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton V)
And puzzling about what gets in the way of living into courage: what keeps us from the hard work of whole-hearted living? What fears keep us silent when we know we should speak?
A friend posted about improvisation: the anxiety of attempting something new, the fear of rejection. And then she taped herself improvising on her harp, and posted in on Facebook. A lovely gift of courage.
Poetry is a place where my own anxieties bubble up. I wrote poetry as a kid, some of it awful, some of it moving toward something of value. Then I retreated from even the thought of poetry: too revealing, too threatening, too hard. I dip my toe back in now and then, shudder and turn away. And yet, I feel the pull of the struggle with words, the attempt to grasp something bigger than words and hold it, if just for a moment.
I recently agreed to review a new volume of poems for Speakeasy, an on-line review community, and then found myself wondering why I’d done it. I’m happy to pass along poems I love. But review poems? Critique them? Offer comment on anyone brave enough to assemble a volume of poems and display them for the world to see?
That seems a bit presumptuous.
But – I agreed to do it.
So here’s my review:
Help Me Be: Praying in Poems, is a slender paperback volume by Dale C. Fredrickson, with forward by Walter Brueggemann (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013; 48 pp.)
The cover displays three paintings included in the book: evocative abstracts by Lindsay McLean which highlight the collection’s three sections: Orientation (Or, Life is Good), Disorientation (Or, Life is Not Good), and New Orientation (Or, Life is Good Again).
“Prosaic” is the word that first comes to mind, both in considering the section heads and some of the poems themselves. They confront their topics head-on, with little of the expected stuff of poetry: metaphor, allusion, musical phrasing, memorable imagery.
Reading the author’s note on the back of the book, I was struck by the mention of spoken word, and turned to read the poems out loud. Suddenly, they came alive, with the passion of praise, the rhythm of complaint, a sense of verbal play:
We sigh. We cry. We ached.
Stunned. Numbed, Undone.
Erased. No one can be replaced.
Fredrickson’s poems don’t work, for me, as contemplative reading, as quiet reflections at the end of the day. But as spoken word, or “slam poetry” (poetry written to be performed out loud) they have an energy and rawness that would work well in a public setting, in a worship service, youth group event, shouted aloud on a hillside, read in call and response, or as a congregational chorus.
My first experience of this kind of spoken word was Amena Brown, a gifted poet and performer encountered at a youth conference several years ago. I’m not sure her poems would communicate well as flat words on a bare white page, but as she performs them, they dazzle, sizzle, sing. (Looking for her latest work, I find IVP just released her first book: Breaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God. Add that to the reading list!)
Looking through Fredrickson’s website, I found some of the poems from Help Me Be recorded as audio files. Another poem is available on youtube. It gives a glimpse of how the poems are used in the context of a creative worship service.
I admire the courage and creativity captured in Help Me Be, and the portrait of a life of faith lived honestly, with passion and real energy. At the same time, I winced at small mistakes a careful editing would have corrected, and the erratic capitalization and over-reliance on alliteration running through many of the poems.
On the back cover of his book, Fredrickson notes: “For me, everything is material for learning how to live well: family, friends,, kayaking, camping, music, surfing and good books. My desire is to engage people with words that shimmer and to ignite in them the desire to be fully what God has created them to be.”
The fear of being less than perfect too often keeps us from the kind of whole-hearted life Fredrickson’s poems model: honest, hopeful, fully human:
Your choice is not easy
Risky freedom or
Do you step forward?
Or do you turn back?
(Risky Freedom Safe Slavery)
My friend, considering the challenge of improvisation, wrote: “Sometimes these anxieties take on a life of their own.” And then she moved past it: “I want to be done worrying about this one thing. If only they were all that simple.”
To quote another poem from Help Me Be:
You say you want to live boldly purposefully without fear?
Push Beyond the Surface
Listen the Eternal Echoes in your heart.
You say you are ready?
Dive Leap Step Start . . .
(This Is The Year)
Well yes, I do want to live purposefully without fear. So, here’s my own attempt to Dive Leap Step Start: a poem of my own. Feel free to read it out loud, consider it silently, critique it, or applaud.
Poem of the ages,
macrocosmic enterprise -
equations thrown across the galaxies,
quarks, neutrinos, antiparticles,
drenched in joy, in love, in laughter -
How many yom spent painting sea shells
plying that pearlescent pink
and now, of course, you're picturing a paintbrush –
me! making mud pies!
balanced on a ladder stringing stars.I poured my very self into a hominid
and now you're searching out the bucket -
silly child.Say this –if you can speak at all -
the one who isdreamed, breathed, propelled, imagined, sang
this universe in place
across time, empty space,
in ways your physicists, inventors, chemists, poets
see as through a darkened cloud
wielding wordsso certain of the things you think you know -charash – be still, be formed,imagine,wait and see.Each word holds worldseach world a fragment
of the living Word.
Thank you, Dale Fredrickson, for embracing poetry, and challenging the rest of us to a life more full and fearless.
Message in a Bottle spoken word from Dale Fredrickson on Vimeo.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.