While the accommodations and the surroundings at the Retreat Center of Manhattan’s Trinity Church were a pleasant bonus, we were assembled there (some 30 of us) for the weekend to examine the Biblical Song of Songs and related poems. We had an introductory session on Friday evening. The leader asked our names and where we were from, but also why we were there and about our spirituality. I was third to speak and a bit nervous since I could hardly claim religious fervor of any kind. I said that I read the Bible some and that I hoped that the weekend might help me understand poetry better. I continued by saying that I identified neither as religious or spiritual, and that a question of my spirituality just seemed irrelevant to me. No outcries of disgust or amazed looks followed. Whether with tolerance, understanding, or politeness, my comments seemed accepted. More than that, the eighth speaker said that she identified with and was adopting my comments.
It turned out that others were not connected to the church and only some were what I would describe as a “seeker.” Six women came as a group and seemed mostly interested in comradeship. Some of the others were regular churchgoers, and several were Trinity clergy. Even so, there was little formal religiosity. Of course, meals and sessions were preceded by prayers, but there was no formal or informal proselytizing. Optional evening and morning prayer services were offered.
The retreaters’ common thread was an interest in the topic; everyone sought a better understanding of a Book of the Bible. And all were sharp, maybe even perspicacious. When I have had occasion to travel on a group tour, there is always someone along who is the group idiot — a buffoon, or an ignoramus who might say something such as, “You mean to tell me there is a North and a South Korea.” This was not true at the retreat. Every comment about what we read — and almost every person spoke at some point — was not only sensible but worth pondering.
Our study sessions started on Saturday morning. We were fortunate, or should I say blessed, to be led by Nate Wall, soon to get his doctorate from a Toronto institution. His dissertation is on John Donne, but his expertise on the Hebrew Bible was what was most valuable for us.
He would start each session with a short prayer, give a brief background about the topic, and ask a question to get the discussion going. Nate did not have a lectern, which would not have contained him. As he talked, he took two steps forward, rocked on his heels, then a step back, paused, a step to the left, another step back. As he talked, his eyes were alive looking for anyone who wanted to say something. When someone did, his gaze did not waver from them, and he stood still and listened. He then seamlessly incorporated those comments into the flow of the discussion.
He made it seem easy, but I know it is not. I have done similar things in court, law school classes, and community forums. It requires the ability to listen, and few people truly have that. The mind must stay focused on what is being said and not wander even for an instant. The leader must have tremendous control of the subject matter to incorporate comments into the discussion. Flexibility is required. The leader cannot have a rigid notion of how the session should proceed because the questions and comments will always take it somewhere else. The leader must be equable and remain enthusiastic. A good sense of humor is often needed. And it is useful if, like Nate, the leader never says an um or its equivalent.
Nate was as good a discussion leader as I have seen. With his knowledge, ability, enthusiasm, infectious smile, and curly hair, I could see future college students developing a crush on him. The crushes, however, would go unrequited. Nate’s lovely wife Julia was also at the retreat. Almost eight months pregnant, she was even more attractive than Nate. An ordained Canadian Baptist minister, she worked for a Baptist nonprofit. The love between the two of them was almost a field force. The admiring looks from one to the other gave me a warm smile. I am often cynical, but Julia and Nate made me think that the future could be good.
In preparation for the retreat, I read Song of Songs a few days before we got there. This much was clear: it was a love poem. I know that I do not have a good appreciation of poetry. I may feel the aptness, power, or beauty of a single line or image, but I almost never enjoy or appreciate an entire poem. Poetry, it too often seems, must be approached as a puzzle but with no one solution or right answer. Any satisfaction I get does not seem to be worth the trouble. I read and stumble and then conclude that I don’t really care what Yeats or Auden is saying.
For years, I was fascinated with Pound and thought I might write about his imprisonment, trial, and hospitalization. I read books and articles about him, but I thought that to write well about him I should have some appreciation or at least understanding of his poetry. I started reading the Cantos and quickly concluded I was not going to be writing about Ezra.
As one fascinated by Brooklyn and Manhattan and beyond, I thought Whitman was a natural for me. I tried. A few lines stood out, but I soon became bored. Of course, I have enjoyed some Dickinson, and to my surprise, I seem to feel something significant when I read Wallace Stevens, but don’t ask me to explain what I have read. Only rarely do I “get” poetry.
(continued January 30)