I would like to read more of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. My intent is on display in the form of four titles by him that I have had sitting on the mobile bookshelf here in my kitchen/family room, for a year at least. I guess if I could decide which to read that would be a good start. A biography of him I am not likely to get to, but who knows…? In the meantime, I am reading this homage by Dana Gioia in the form of a poem. Seems like after this I owe it to Kierkegaard to read at least one more of his own works, though not in hopes of explaining any “riddles.” Only God can do that, and we know that He will — all of them, all of us.
HOMAGE TO SOREN KIERKEGAARD
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. —St. Paul
I was already an old man when I was born. Small with a curved back, he dragged his leg when walking the streets of Copenhagen. “Little Kierkegaard,” they called him. Some meant it kindly. The more one suffers the more one acquires a sense of the comic. His hair rose in waves six inches above his head. Save me, O God, from ever becoming sure. What good is faith if it is not irrational?
Christianity requires a conviction of sin. As a boy tending sheep on the frozen heath, his starving father cursed God for his cruelty. His fortunes changed. He grew rich and married well. His father knew these blessings were God’s punishment. All would be stripped away. His beautiful wife died, then five of his children. Crippled Soren survived. The self-consuming sickness unto death is despair.
What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr. Soren fell in love, proposed, then broke the engagement. No one, he thought, could bear his presence daily. My sorrow is my castle. His books were read but ridiculed. Cartoons mocked his deformities. His private journals fill seven thousand pages. You could read them all, he claimed, and still not know him. He who explains this riddle explains my life.
When everyone is Christian, Christianity does not exist. The crowd is untruth. Remember we stand alone before God in fear and trembling. At forty-two he collapsed on his daily walk. Dying he seemed radiant. His skin had become almost transparent. He refused communion from the established church. His grave has no headstone. Now with God’s help I shall at last become myself.
She makes her way through the dark trees Down to the lake to be alone. Following their voices on the breeze, She makes her way. Through the dark trees The distant stars are all she sees. They cannot light the way she’s gone. She makes her way through the dark trees Down to the lake to be alone.
The night reflected on the lake, The fire of stars changed into water. She cannot see the winds that break The night reflected on the lake But knows they motion for her sake. These are the choices they have brought her: The night reflected on the lake, The fire of stars changed into water.
I spent quite a while looking for a nice piece of art, or one of my photos, to accompany the story of this woman’s walk. The trying had the effect of making me love the poem even more; I began to think that only Gioia himself might be capable of creating a visual graphic that wouldn’t actually detract from what he’s already given us in words. There are voices and movement and one thing changing to another….
All the pictures I looked at were still pictures, of course. And none of them could carry half of the feeling of even one material element as expressed by these lines, such as the woods in the dark, or the stars, the water. When there is a stop in the middle of the fourth line, I see her pausing to push aside fir branches. The whole is an elegant interplay of the forces of beings.
Those beings are not only material. For example, the heart and mind of the woman any of us might imagine. It’s a wondrous thing to be able to go with her down to the lake, and yet, not invade her privacy. To have the vicarious experience of being her. I follow the music, arrive at the lake, and find a solitude as full as the universe.
He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company—generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.
He noticed then that no one chose the way—
All seemed to drift by some collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
Poet and critic Dana Gioia devotes a whole chapter of his recent book to Elizabeth Jennings, whose name I did not recognize. She is “not the average professor’s idea of a modern poet.” Jennings was one of the Movement poets (and no, I don’t know enough about poetry to have known about them) but the only woman of her group.
She was Catholic, which also set her up for mocking. Gioia writes:
“Catholic iconography portrays martyrs in their heavenly glory displaying the instruments by which they were tortured and killed…. By the same method, is it possible to understand Jennings’s achievement by considering her supposed liabilities as defining virtues? …
“Jennings was a lyric poet. She mastered short forms. She wrote from an educated woman’s perspective. Her work is personal but not blatantly confessional. In a literary era obsessed with style, she focused on content. Her poems cluster around a set of recurring themes — love, religion, art, and relationships. Her poetry reflects her Christian worldview. Her stylistic approach was not to innovate but to perfect. When free verse represented the vanguard, she crafted her signature poems in rhyme and meter. She wrote prolifically.”
I haven’t read all of the title essay in the book yet, but that chapter is available here on First Things if you would like to read it online. It’s worth reading if only for his understanding of what characterizes a Catholic world view.
After reading about Jennings I wondered how I had completely missed her — but I hadn’t, only forgotten her name. Somewhere I’d run across “Friendship” and posted it on my blog. My library doesn’t have a single hard copy of any of her books, which is not surprising. This one below I found online.
I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.
Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow