Jean Talbot, NSW Regional Meeting.
What is it that typifies Quaker poetry, as opposed to that of others? Though in this we can say there are poems specifically about the experience of silence in Quaker worship – e.g. Gerard Guiton: “Stillness is the fathomless well” – even these could be about some other form of meditative reflection if seen out of the Quaker context. One of Norman Talbot’s poems in Les Murray’s Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry includes the lines: “People are in a springing space/ where to keep silence/gives Gregorian voices in another place”. However, in his introduction to that volume, Murray is at pains to indicate that he does not categorise the poems by theme or religious affiliation: “I have come to believe that too much labelling tends to entrap a poem and restrict its life”. We would generally want our poetry to reach towards universal experience rather than being confined.
However, our unique form of worship with ministry arising from deep reflection does have much in common with the creation of some kinds of poetry, especially that arising from the Romantic tradition, as two Backhouse lecturers have noted. Clive Sansom in his lecture “The Shaping Spirit” (1965), a title taken from the Romantic poet Coleridge, says:
Each Meeting is an experiment. Its success depends on the devotion and concentration of every member… When the experiment succeeds, we have confirmation at a very deep level, shared with our fellow men. We feel that somehow the divine spirit has shaped our spirits, and that our spirits may shape our lives. (p12)
Norman Talbot, in his lecture “Myths and Stories, Lies and Truth” (1999) quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, says, “Though a true symbol’ has its true sense [only] for a moment’ we do, Friends believe, share symbols, especially in ministry”. (p 47) Another American poet, Robert Frost, uses a similar description in “The Figure a Poem Makes” to explain how for him a poem is created:
It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love… It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life –not necessarily a great clarification, such as sect and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.
I can remember times when I was revolving some thoughts in my head for a few days, there would be a ‘eureka’ moment when I found a sensory image which clarified the thoughts in my head and, with any luck, could be written down in a poem. Some of my best poems came about this way, where a connection is found between the internal and the external worlds. The experience of writing haiku can be of this kind. This seems to amount to “a momentary stay against confusion”. I’m sure many other poets, Quaker or not, have had this experience.
Though in his lecture Clive Sansom offers Quakers a “spiritual Oscar for their special contribution to religion”, he goes on to identify a blind spot with reference to the arts, tracing this deficiency back to the time when Quakers, with other Protestants, reacted against the established church with its highly decorated churches, music, poetry and liturgy. (p13) He affirms the necessity of the break for Quakers “in their search for truth”, [but says] “their break with art was a denial of God.” Acknowledging that contemporary Quakers were no longer so strongly opposed to art, he felt that they still failed to take it seriously. One might think that as this lecture was delivered 47 years ago, the comments may no longer apply, but two later lectures, by J Ormerod Greenwood in 1982 and Norman Talbot in 1999 addressed similar issues.
The first of these particularly focuses on the lack of celebration in Quaker worship compared with other forms of religious expression. Ormerod Greenwood says: “Celebration lifts us out of the glass cage of personal experience, with its intense separation and inevitable uniqueness, and unites us in a common shared experience that transcends time.” It concerns him that Quakers historically have limited the range of experience they would allow to move them, though he makes exceptions for George Fox, John Woolman and Margaret Fell. He cites, for example, Margaret Fell’s castigation of Quakers for their “silly poor gospel” by which they differentiated themselves from others by their wearing of plain dress and refusal to join in community ceremonies.
This separation, persisting until the late nineteenth century, included their being forbidden to read novels or go to plays. The only admissible poetry would be devotional. Poetry of the imagination would seem too light and frivolous. Norman Talbot, in his lecture, felt that Quakers were still apt to assume there was no Truth to be found in fantasy. It is hard for us to recognise ourselves in the earlier strait-jacketed image, yet it lives on, at least in the popular perception. Lately I had a call from a woman who thought we were the same as the Amish, and she is not alone in that.
In preparing his Backhouse lecture, Ormerod Greenwood was looking for Quaker poetry of celebration, using Norman Talbot’s “Christmas Storm: Hunter Valley” for illustration. Norman, seeking to make sense of the Christmas festival in a very different climate and landscape from the one he grew up in, set himself the task of writing an annual Christmas poem. As Ormerod comments,”the ancient rites which have passed from one culture to another have been transplanted to a continent where they do not physically fit”.
Quakers now, with their increasing awareness of responsibility to care for the earth, to identify with it and the other life-forms which share it with them, are perhaps more ready to celebrate in their poetry and worship than they were 30 years ago. The poetry which comes to the AF through me is often poetry of celebration. In the words of Sue Parritt from the June edition:
Every day is sacred in life’s calendar
Welcome as pealing bells on that post-war April morning.
Clive Sansom, “The Shaping Spirit”:Backhouse Lecture 1965
John Ormerod Greenwood, “Celebration: A Missing Element in Quaker Worship” : Backhouse Lecture 1982
Norman Talbot, “Myths and Stories, Lies and Truth”: Backhouse Lecture 1999
Ed Les. A. Murray Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry Collins Dove,1986