Tag Archives: poetry

Denise Levertov Sings a Mass of Doubt and Compassion

This piece remains a work in progress, but I’m publishing it now to show it to a friend.

St. Thomas Didymus

If the divine ever manifests in our lives, does it arrive like a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” performed in a grand baroque church, twisting gold columns ablaze with slanting light while choirs and brass instruments amaze the air? Does it arrive like an unexpected footstep behind us on a gravel path, prefiguring a stern reckoning, a sober and exhaustive telling of wrongs? Or, more terrible, as a vision of hellfire and ruin thrust into our minds like a dagger that sets us wriggling and thrashing the bedsheets? Or, is it both uncanny and more ordinary, explicable in retrospect only as a miracle—the wallet found lacking a driver’s license but brimming with much-needed cash, the stranger who offers the ride on an empty road mid-deluge, the X-ray suddenly clear of a foreboding blot?

Or, more simply, does it arise as a kindling of compassion within ourselves? Is the divine, sometimes at least, a humble thing, quiet, dim, bestirring not angels nor rejiggering the universe’s set order of probabilities, but merely eliciting in our hearts graciousness and concern, a pressing need to care for others, including—the sweep of this question will to some seem blasphemous—even the divine itself?

I’m struck by two poems about doubt and the divine by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), a British-born American poet who converted to Catholicism late in life. Both poems concern St. Thomas Didymus, also known as St. Thomas the Doubter, the infamously all-too-human apostle who said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John 20 (KJV) tells the story:

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

I have to admit to always having felt ambivalent about this passage. I have no doubt that over two millennia John 20:29 has been quoted by countless rhetoricians of far less merit than Jesus to beguile rightfully skeptical people who received for their confidence something far less than eternal salvation. If you’re going to start a religion, or sell a miracle cure, or fund-raise for a mega-church whose pastor needs a private jet and Brioni suits for trips to Ghana, canonically extolling the virtues of those who believe soley on hearsay is a powerful rhetorical stroke.

Levertov converted to Catholicism late in life, so one might explain her sympathy with doubters by her having lived much of her adult life drifting between Christianity, Judaism, and a humanist mysticism, the drifting being evidence that none of these creeds proved to be thoroughly convincing and hence impervious to doubt. I suspect, though, that doubt is even common among life-long believers of a single faith (and a recent Pew survey found that doubt or disbelief is more common than one might expect across all religions). The human mind naturally circles, wanders, and probes, and life’s evidence often lands outside the tidy boundaries foretold by calculating philosophers and confident preachers. In this world, belief and doubt go together.

In her poem “St. Thomas Didymus,” Levertov describes Thomas confronting his doubt as he reaches his hand into Christ’s wound. In this poem, Thomas’s doubt is not shamed as the craven disbelief of a fallen soul spurning God:

But when my hand
                 led by His firm hand's clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
                            my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
                           what I felt was not 
scalding pain, shame for my
                            obstinate need, 
but light, light streaming
                           into me, over me, filling the room
as if I had lived till then 
                            in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
                                 the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
            all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
            not answered but given
                                   its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
                               by a risen sun.

In this telling, Thomas is not shamed for his doubt, his “obstinate need” for physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection and divinity. Rather, his all-too-human doubt is “given its part” in a greater unfolding design. Receiving this gift, Thomas encounters—he “witnesses,” a verb that here straddles both awe and empiricism—a new world. He feels as though he is escaping a cold cave (which might be Plato’s cave or a burial chamber) to experience creation, marveling as the world assumes color and form in the light of a true, manifest sun. Doubt has been subsumed into a greater, glorious certainty.

For most of us, though, doubts persist. We can live long lives without experiencing any kind of glorious confirmation of a greater “unfolding design.” So let’s consider another of Levertov’s treatments of St. Thomas and doubt. She explored these themes in a longer poem, “The Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” whose six sections are named for parts of a Latin mass.

As with other masses, Levertov’s begins with a “Kyrie,” which traditionally is both an expression of thanks and an invocation of mercy. But this mass was written in the Cold War. The voices asking for mercy are filled with dread. The community may be the “first and last witness” of “the world’s death.” Whatever form mercy might take remains beyond the imagination of the community of believers, who lack the hard evidence of salvation inherent in a “vast, unfolding design.” Hope, therefore, can lie only in the unknown, in a salvation we can’t quite see clearly in the bleak world before us. And that same unknown harbors terrors. One can only ask for mercy.

We live in terror 
Of what we do not know,
in terror of not knowing,
of the limitless, through which freefalling
forever,our dread
sinks and sinks,
              or,
of the violent closure of all.

Yet our hope lies
in the unknown,
in our unknowing.

O deep remote unknown,
O deep unknown,
Have mercy on us.

In the next section, “Gloria,” the divine remains remote, though Levertov can sense its beneficial presence and power.

               Praise
the invisible sun burning beyond
  the white cold sky, giving us 
light and the chimney's shadow.
Praise
god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, that stays
our murderous hand,
                    and gives us
still,
in the shadow of death,
         our daily life,
         and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.

The divine is so remote that Levertov cannot make out how many gods she should be invoking. (Like a drowning woman, she thrusts out her hand, regardless of just how many rescuers she may have glimpsed at the pond’s edge.) Whether one or many, only this indefinite divinity can stay mankind’s murderous hand. Whatever dreams of peace and goodwill we have, we have because they have been given to us.

In a traditional Mass, celebrants profess their beliefs, typically in the form of the Nicene Creed, in the “Credo.” For Levertov, even her profession of faith is riven with doubt. She writes:

I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and 
interrupt my doubt with belief. Be,
beloved, threatened world. 
...
Be, that I may believe, amen.

As it did for Thomas in the first poem, the created world caps her belief, but hers is not a glorious world secure in a greater, vast, sunlit design. Threats remain.

In the “Benedictus,” Levertov praises that which comes in the name of the spirit. The spirit manifests itself in the world around us: in the ordinary material world, in language, and even in the world of carnivorous beasts. Her tiger springs on its prey, but it is not greedy or scheming or cruel; it is simply responding to its natural hunger—its own needs and those of its young. This is a moderate tiger, and because it is moderate, it is moral.

Blessed is that which comes in the name of the spirit,
that which bears 
the spirit within it,

The name of the spirit is written 
in woodgrain, windripple, crystal . . . .

In the lion's indolence,
   there spirit is,
in the tiger's fierceness
   that does not provide in advance
but springs
            only as hunger prompts
            and the hunger
            of its young.

And yet, despite nearly pantheistic manifestation of the divine, uncertainty remains. The word has become flesh (and woodgrain and windripple), but “in the blur of flesh, we bow, baffled.”

In the final section, “Agnus Dei,” the Lamb of God finally appears. It arrives not in triumph as an exemplary sacrifice empowered to set the world’s wrongs right and to illuminate the world with a dazzling clarity; no, it arrives instead as an object of pity. And we, recognizing the weakness and vulnerability of this still remote being (a “dim star” rather than a sun god), step forward as moral actors and rescue it. Finally we stay our own murderous hands and at last become care-givers of what we encounter. Experiencing God, we become merciful—to God and to creation.

Given that lambs
are infant sheep, that sheep
are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws, 
venom nor cunning, 
what then
is this 'Lamb of God?'

It is a creature:

     With whom we would like to play,
Whom we'd lead with ribbons, but may not bring
into our houses because
it would soil the floor with its droppings?

Incontinence is not a lamb’s only shortcoming. It also lacks intelligence.

What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, Oh lamb
of God that taketh away
the Sins of the World: an innocence
                    smelling of ignorance,
                    born in bloody snowdrifts
                    licked by forebearing dogs 
more intelligent than its entire flock put together?

Levertov asks:

                  is it implied that we
      must protect this perversely weak
      animal, whose muzzle's nudgings
      suppose there is milk to be found in us?
      Must hold to our icy hearts
      a shivering God?

And she answers:

So be it.
         Come, rag of pungent
         quiverings,
                    dim star.
                             Let's try
                 if something human still 
                 can shield you,
                                spark 
                 of remote light.

Shielding a spark as though it were a flickering match about to blow out—the lamb of God is quivering like that. Within our cupped hands, we rescue God’s light from guttering out.

For Levertov, the divine manifests itself in this world not (or not always) an all-powerful God rescuing abject sinners, but rather as compassion rising in the hearts of mortals to care for whatever appears before them, which might just be a quivering lamb.

Why do I prefer this unorthodox scenario of God the rescued to the traditional scenario of God the rescuer, God the omnipotent, disappointed, and wrathful restorer of a world mangled by sinners? In part, it’s because over the years I’ve noticed that many of the people who thunder on about God’s power and majesty have hardened their hearts to anyone who doesn’t praise their particular manger in their particular way. While their mouths sing praises of a pure, kind-hearted lamb, their boots seem always to be seeking whatever unfamiliar or unrepentant dog they deem deserving of a kick.

Whereas those people I’ve known who accept the “blur of flesh” and bafflement seem more readily to recognize and respond to those many dim stars around us that need shielding.

(And look around you at those stars. Just look.)

A Buddhist PostScript

On Facebook a few months ago, a Buddhist was describing how he explained Kuan-yin (Avalokiteshvara, a legendary bodhisattva revered as the manifestation of compassion) to prison inmates. In Buddhist art, Kuan-yin is sometimes pictured with a thousand arms.

“Why does she need so many arms?” one of the prisoners asked.

“Let’s see,” said the teacher, looking around the room and counting. “One, two. Three, four . . . .”

Because it’s we who do the work of the goddess of compassion.

And Another Postscript

In retrospect, my conclusion above seems rushed. There’s more to my preference than an aversion, developed over half a lifetime, to wrathful theologians.

Consider three possible relationships between God and humanity. In each, humanity has an obligation of gratitude and obedience to its Maker.

A wrathful God can order us to be compassionate. Our compassion, in this case, arises out of fear. We obey the commandments and muster compassion, while glancing behind us for thunderbolts.

A peaceful God can enjoin us to be compassionate. If means and ends are convertible terms, as Gandhi said, then the consonance of God’s behavior in modeling compassion might make it easier for us to practice compassion. We strive to imitate the Master who is compassionate to us.

In the third scenario, the Mighty becomes meek, and the responsibility for compassion is thrown entirely on us. We become the shepherd, finding the shivering, shit-smeared lamb in a snowdrift. We become the savior, saving the meek—not in any kind of Luciferian revolt, but through love. We rescue God, and the world saves itself. (This is hardly heretical from a Buddhist point of view.)

There’s no pride or defiance in this role. There is simply love, the love of “icy hearts” learning to thaw.

It’s a non-dualist vision (or nearly so). God is close, and when pressed, our hearts discover after all that they can glow.

Global Recession? Blame the Poets

NOTE: I wrote this in 2010 and posted it on open.salon.com. Thought I’d post it here, too.

I was sitting in a dark Irish pub in Portsmouth the other night, dinner rush finished, the place emptying out, just a few people here and there hunched over their pints, while Celtic fusion music blasted from the high oaken beams. At the next table sat a spry little man with short gray hair and a trim goatee. He was shabbily dressed: faded dark cotton turtleneck, dungarees, running shoes. A large leather bag on his table disgorged a heap of papers, which he was steadily working his way through. He’d pull out an envelope, rip it open, read its contents, and scribble some notes in a battered spiral notebook. Rip, read, scribble. Repeat. He muttered as he worked. His face was weathered, but his eyes beamed with an impish delight. He smiled to himself between gulps of his Guinness.

“Ho ho!” he exclaimed suddenly, sitting upright with such force that I felt the long bench we were both perched on rock and sway. “Oh no, you sly old dog! You scoundrel! I’m not going to publish your little villanelle. Oh, it’s a nice enough piece, but you caused the global recession!”

He chuckled to himself, tossed the paper aside, and sipped his stout.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Did you just say you weren’t going to publish someone because he caused the recession?”

He looked at me, beaming and bemused. Probably a bit drunk. He nodded.

“So you’re the editor of a poetry magazine?” I asked.

“That’s right.”

“And you received—”

“Uh huh.”

“So can I ask who the author is? Robert Rubin? Phill Gramm?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Alan Greenspan, then? Dick Fuld?! Did Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers send you a poem?”

“No, none of those guys are poets, so far as I know. They all read poetry, of course, but they don’t write it.”

“Then who?”

He named a name. I didn’t recognize it. My benchmate, who introduced himself as Jerry, explained that the poet in question was a middle-aged gentleman, decently respected in literary circles, probably best known for his work in the creative writing program at a small East Coast college. These days his work is mostly published in chapbooks put out by small regional presses; it’s been decades since he’s been published by a major New York house. Anything else? Paunchy. Gray frizzled hair. A heavy smoker. Twice divorced. Probably on the wagon again, which is a good thing. Pretty much your run-of-the-mill academic poet. Hardly a household name. For now, I’ll just call him Harold.

“And this Harold—he caused the world’s economy to melt down?”

“It was mostly his doing. Yes.”

“How in God’s name did a mere poet—”

“A mere what?” snapped Jerry. “Remember whom you’re talking about. Ever read Shelley? The Defence of Poetry? The last line: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.'”

“A fine sentiment, but—”

He pounded his fist. “Not a sentiment. Reality.”

“But how? So few people read poetry these days. Now if you had said rock stars and movie stars—”

“I’ll lay it out for you.”

He was already drunk, but in the course of the next few hours, we would both consume countless more pints, quaffing Guinness as though it were a balm for our fevered minds, our spinning heads, our jabbering tongues.

That big leather bag seemed bottomless, and from it Jerry produced chapbooks, bibliographies, newspaper clippings, and more scribbled notes.

He laid out his case as though he were a practiced trial attorney. Poets, he said, had always ruled the world, and they did so now, but in a quiet way. He showed me news clippings from mid-century in which headlines trumpeted, for example, the disapproval of well known poets for nuclear weapons.

Fine and good, I countered, but poets seem to have lost that influence now. The press might interview Brad Pitt about New Orleans or Madonna about Africa, but when was the last time you saw Louise Gluck or John Ashbury quoted about health care?

“We’re just working underground,” he said. In the early seventies, there was a joint effort to write an epic piece, a sort of William Blake-meets-the-Rand Corporation type of screed, but the authors intentionally stifled it . “Once Watergate came out, we decided not become a distraction. It just wasn’t the right time for a major new epic that would sweep readers off their feet and paint an entirely new destiny for humankind. Besides, some of the rhymes schemes were really hard.”

So the poets fell back, hunkered down, and they’ve been working in the shadows ever since. And Harold, our frizzy-haired, absent-minded poet, a man seen puttering on college greens and losing his way among library stacks, a fussy man known for his fondness for Herrick and diet cola, has been quietly and diligently poetizing to become nothing less than the Alexander of Our Age.

Imagine my skepticism. But Jerry drew a line down a paper and asked me to name the major events of the past 30 years. I rattled some off: the end of Communism, the growth of the Internet, the First Gulf War. You can imagine the list. Then Jerry dug in his bag and produced a stack of chapbooks, all written by our friend Harold, and all purporting to address these major events six months in advance. The correspondence was uncanny.

Even the real estate bubble of the past decade had been sung of by our paunchy, doddering swan. I read sonnets about interest rates and couplets about closings. And I even skimmed a minor epic titled Prometheus under Contract.

Jerry shifted uncomfortably. “Like a lot of people, Harold got swept up in the real estate thing,” he said. “I can’t say this is all his finest work.”

I can sate all man’s desires
With these re-fi’s in Fort Myers.

No, probably not. But apparently Greenspan lapped it up.

“All right, then” I said, my addled mind struggling to muster counter-arguments. “You’ve shown me that Harold wrote about all this. But if he’s so powerful, why haven’t I heard of him?”

“Because if you had heard of him, he would be acknowledged. Remember what Shelley said: poets are the unacknowledged legislators. Unacknowledged. Nobody knows.”

“Fine, but then how do they legislate?”

“With these,” he said, holding up a chapbook. “Look. You’ll see.”

He reached again into his bag and began pulling out photographs, big and small, color and black-and-white. You’ve seen these photographs, because they’ve run in newspapers and magazines and on television. They show presidents and prime ministers, statesman, senators, congressman, U.N. officials, surgeons generals—the whole worldly, powerful lot. And in every picture, unnoticed by me until Jerry’s crooked, leathery finger pointed it out, was a chapbook, or a copy of American Poetry Review, or Poetry magazine, lying on a desk, or peeking out of a valise, or being held, right there in Angela Merkel’s sweaty hand, while she shielded her eyes from the sun.

“How do I know these haven’t been Photoshoped?” I asked.

Jerry spluttered. “Because these are poets we’re talking about! Have you ever seen what poets do with Photoshop? Just look at some of these chapbook covers!”

Point taken. Professional grade forgery was out of the question. Except for one photo: an old snapshot of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Jesse Helms reading from the selected poems of Adrienne Rich.

“Yeah, that one was probably tampered with,” Jerry conceded, “but the rest are real.”

All right. So this doddering poet named Harold is ruling the world, and there are bunch of other poets also making their own contributions. But Harold is at the top. He probably made some good old-fashioned filthy lucre from all this unacknowledged legislating. What did he do with it?

Jerry looked sheepish. “Well, keep in mind, these are poets we’re talking about.” He shuffled his feet, drank from his pint glass. “Harold . . . Harold bought a sweater.”

“A really nice sweater,” he added. “Not one of those sweaters that you can buy from L.L. Bean or Macy’s. An extraordinary sweater. You know the kind where it looks like it’s made from six or seven different sweaters torn up and sewn together? They used to be quite fashionable with wealthy people in places like New York and San Francisco about fifteen years ago. Harold bought one of those. No one on campus had seen anything like it. He looked dazzling. Completely transformed!”

“That’s all he bought?!”

“It’s enough. More than enough, really, because the other poets thought he was showing off, parading like a peacock in his multi-colored sweater at readings and faculty meetings. People said things. Cruel things. They whispered in front of him. Harold became self-conscious, as poets are wont to do. He embarrasses easily, you know. So he took to wearing a trenchcoat over his sweater. Which makes him very warm. But at least he gets to wear his sweater.”

My head was spinning. I took a deep drink, and my eyes just happened to light just then on Jerry’s leather bag, which bore an embroidered patch representing the flag of a major European country.

“Er, yeah,” said Jerry. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that. This is an official diplomatic pouch. We must have gotten them mixed up the other night. It’s about the same size as my bike messenger bag, and the contents of the two are more or less the same.”

Contents more or less the same?! Foreign diplomats carrying poetry chapbooks?! The room seemed to lurch.

Jerry seized my shoulders. He pressed his florid, grizzled face close to mine. “Dan Brown’s got it all wrong,” he hissed. “The secret societies that rule the world are not Masons or Knights Templar. They’re poets! Poets, do you hear me?!”

“For thousands of years,” he said, “poets have been singers of the human song. In any society, they’re its most articular writers. Every society on earth has music and poetry. Language is just as important as it ever was. The human heart remains troubled and longing. Of course poets are this world’s leaders! How could it not be so?”

He turned away and whimpered. “How could it not be so! How could it not be so . . . ”

The room shifted. Lamps extinguished. Closing time. I felt my feet carrying me.

We were on the street, assailed by a bitter wind. Market Square in Portsmouth was nearly deserted. A couple of harsh spotlights shone on the white steeple that rose into the night.

I had something in my hand. It was Harold’s latest chapbook, Aubade to Thrace, which has precipitated the financial and political crisis in Greece. I curled the chapbook tightly. I held it close to my pants and tried to slip it in my pocket. I wanted to study it. I wanted to learn what else was about to happen in the world. What did the future hold for economies, disasters, and wars? Which countries would topple? Which would rise? I shifted on my feet, shielding the little book with my leg.

Jerry was staggering over to the little white ticket kiosk. He gave me a half-hearted wave, then lifted up an old black bicycle that had been lying on its side. It was a battered, old thing, just the sort of dilapidated contraption you would expect to be ridden by an aging, solitary poet who spends evenings stapling together a local poetry magazine in his apartment. Jerry raised his leg halfway over the seat and stopped. He lowered his leg. He stood.

“You still don’t believe me,” he said, glaring at me with a drunk’s belligerence. “I can tell. You don’t. Well, watch this.”

He laid down the bicycle. He walked to curb. He stood there, just stood there, gazing stupidly up the street. He closed his eyes, opened them again . The cold wind whipped around us.

“I want to go home,” he said. He spoke loudly. “I want to go home now.”

I glanced about. The square was still deserted. It was late, probably midnight. Who was he talking to?

Headlights appeared. A car turned the corner. It came gliding along Pleasant Street, a long, black limousine with tinted windows, and halted a few feet from Jerry. The driver, a burly, close-shaven man in a suit, sprang out and came scurrying around the front of the car. He opened the passenger’s door and stood at attention.

“Good night,” said Jerry, disappearing into the car. A moment later, they drove off and turned onto Congress Street.

Somebody bumped me, I nearly toppled to the ground. A big guy in a black wool coat, slacks, shiny shoes, was barreling along the sidewalk. I recognized the type. In Washington, D.C., you see such people standing around the cars of senators and judges, and walking warily through public squares, eyeing the crowds. This guy, a real hulk, stormed up the street and vanished at the corner.

But why did he have to bump me? There was plenty of room for both of us on this broad swath of sidewalk.

My hand twitched. I wasn’t holding Aubade to Thrace any more. I looked around me. I spun around, looking and looking. The chapbook was gone.

****

I woke next morning with an awful headache. I had the sensation of having inhabited one of Shelley’s visionary poems like Queen Mab or The Triumph of Life. What visions had unrolled through my mind! Was the night with Jerry simply a mad dream?

My wife found me in the living room, huddled in a blanket by the TV, switching channels from C-SPAN to CNN to PBS. I saw politicians, generals, bankers, doctors, and other experts talking about the great matters of the day.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m looking any sign of poetry. I’m looking for any sign that today we are being somehow guided by the wisdom of the ages, that we have learned something, remembered something true and beautiful and everlasting that has been set down before. I’m looking for a sign that we understand human desires and the horrors of war, which have been faithfully recorded for millennia. I’m looking for some indication, any indication at all, that we remember anything other than our own impulses and cravings, and that in some way, we hold this world and everything in it in reverence.”

“Well, good luck with that,” she said.

An Afternoon with Harvey Shapiro

I hadn’t heard of the poet Harvey Shapiro until a friend of a friend posted a note on Facebook about his passing on Monday and posted a link to this poem. That was enough: I’m ordering Shapiro’s book, The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems, which is published by Wesleyan University Press.

The Uses of Poetry

This was a day when I did nothing,
aside from reading the newspaper,
taking both breakfast and lunch by myself
in the kitchen, dozing after lunch
until the middle of the afternoon. Then
I read one poem by Zbigniew Herbert
in which he thanked God for the many beautiful
things in this world, in a voice so absurdly
truthful, the entire wrecked day was redeemed.

What a marvellous poem.

It’s starts out ambling. The poet tells us he “did nothing,” and very little seems to happen. “Aside from” introduces what should be insignificant achievements, and the activities that follow are described with hum-drum participles: reading, taking, dozing. The day is mostly gone. We’ve reached the middle of the afternoon. Then.

The line breaks are part of this poem’s enchantment. Everything is going along as expected, you’re being lulled, but it turns out you have no idea what’s coming next. The “Then” introduces a twist. He read one poem by Herbert; you can almost hear him saying “just this one little poem.”

The second great line break is “absurdly.” In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser writes about the way a good poet will choose a word you would never have expected to appear, and yet when it appears it seems marvelously descriptive and apt, not bizarre or strained. That’s how the phrase “absurdly Truthful” strikes me. A voice could be “absurdly” many things, but “truthful” lands like a shaft of light blazing through a window we had mistaken for a wall. (Absurdly truthful? Not just “utterly truthful.” The absurdity suggests, in a way that wrenches our thinking, the prevalence of pretense.) The day we had been dozing through has been transformed in the light of this truth. We should praise God for all around us, even the things around us in our day spent dozing, our day spent on nothing.

We now recognize this ordinary day as an “entire wrecked day,” not a “nothing” day at all. These are the harshest words—and the harshest sounds—in the poem. That trochee “entire” followed by a spondee “wrecked day” (or perhaps the antibacchius “wrecked day was”) sounds, after the smooth banalities that opened the poem as jarring as a garbage disposal catching on something.

And then the conclusion: “was redeemed” (a strong iamb after all that catching and stalling). (And the passive voice is perfect here. The emphasis is on the redemption. The concluding word of the poem is unexpected as redemption itself. The word fairly sings.)

The redemption comes from a recognition, which is triggered by reading a poem—Herbert’s poem. But Shapiro’s poem itself is also an act of recognition and thus another act of redemption. Just as Shapiro is awakened by Herbert, so we can be awakened by Shapiro reading Herbert. This is, after all, the use of poetry, as the title tells us.

Look! Give thanks!

The New York Timesobituary for Harvey Shapiro includes some other poems worth your time.