World Poetry Day

Believed to have its origin in the 1930s, World Poetry Day is now celebrated in hundreds of countries around the world. World Poetry Day is on 21 March, and was declared by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999. The purpose of the day is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world and, as the UNESCO session declaring the day says, to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements”. It was generally celebrated in October, sometimes on the 5th, but in the latter part of the 20th Century the world community celebrated it on 15 October, the birthday of Virgil, the Roman epic poet and poet laureate under Augustus. The tradition to keep an October date for national or international poetry day celebrations still holds in many countries. Alternatively, a different October or even November date is celebrated.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll, e e cummings, Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats are just a few of the greatest poets of the English language.

I’d like to introduce you to Emily Dickinson, widely regarded as one of America’s premier poets of the nineteenth century, is in many ways a poet more of our time than of her own. In both style and content, her verse was, “revolutionary” in her day. Her carefully crafted, often cryptic and elliptical poems voice a deep concern with life’s most profound questions, many of them centered upon matters of faith: What is the nature of God? What do I believe? Why am I beset by so much doubt? What is the meaning of my doubt? These are questions growing out of what we often ascribe to “a modern sensibility.”

Emily Dickinson was modern in that she dared to question “the faith of her fathers” — the rather complacent orthodox tradition of the isolated, conservative community of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent her days (1830-1886). She was unable to emulate her neighbors’ easy acceptance of the patterns of traditional faith inherited from their Puritan forebears even though she was marked by the Christian ethic, the Biblical traditions preached from the pulpit, the cadences of the hymns sung in church, and the Puritan habit of self-scrutiny. These things not unexpectedly became part of the fabric of her poetry.

What is surprising is the intensity of the “rebellion” which poured from this frail, reclusive woman’s pen. She did not, however, completely cast aside the tenets of faith accepted by her family and community. Her revolt was more subtle and more complex, colored as it was by doubt about her own doubt. If she questioned the nature of God, she also questioned the legitimacy of her skepticism. In writing about faith, she could be, by turns, puckish, irreverent, defiant, resentful, wry, and anguished. Throughout the body of her work, some 1,775 recorded poems, she appears to be testing a variety of stances.

Indeed, one might say that Emily Dickinson embarked upon a lifelong journey which was her search for a new creed, a new “faith” of some sort to take the place of the Connecticut Valley Congregationalism which she could not accept. The record of her search — her poetry — invites, perhaps even compels, the modern reader to abandon his or her own religious complacency and confront the essential question: How firm is my own faith? Would our answer echo the lines Dickinson wrote in 1877: “How brittle are the Piers/On which our Faith doth tread?”

I cannot live with you

I cannot live with you, 
It would be life, 
And life is over there 
Behind the shelf 
The sexton keeps the key to, 
Putting up 
Our life, his porcelain,  
Like a cup 
Discarded of the housewife, 
Quaint or broken;         
A newer Sèvres pleases, 
Old ones crack. 
I could not die with you, 
For one must wait 
To shut the other’s gaze down,—         
You could not. 
And I, could I stand by 
And see you freeze, 
Without my right of frost, 
Death’s privilege?         
Nor could I rise with you, 
Because your face 
Would put out Jesus’, 
That new grace 
 Glow plain and foreign         
On my homesick eye, 
Except that you, than he 
Shone closer by. 
They ’d judge us—how? 
For you served Heaven, you know,         
Or sought to; 
I could not, 
Because you saturated sight, 
And I had no more eyes 
For sordid excellence         
As Paradise. 
And were you lost, I would be, 
Though my name 
Rang loudest 
On the heavenly fame.        
And were you saved, 
And I condemned to be 
Where you were not, 
That self were hell to me. 
So we must keep apart,         
You there, I here,  
With just the door ajar 
That oceans are, 
And prayer, 
And that pale sustenance,         
Despair!

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