Saturday, September 5, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 6: Praise in Yehuda Amichai and Gerard Manley Hopkins

So, now we’re going to move from the valley of lament to the plateau of praise. In many ways, praise is the more difficult mode to write well. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai discusses this in his poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” from his book Open Closed Open, beautifully translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000)
What Amichai describes so well in this poem is the way in which our psyches are hard-wired to record every detail of an unpleasant situation. This tendency may be a survival mechanism to keep us from repeating destructive experiences. But we humans are not well attuned to recounting the positive. That takes a different kind of attention.

Nevertheless, poems of praise are some of the most ancient in human culture. Many forms of writing or speech or song are traditionally vehicles of praise: psalms, hymns, odes, litanies, blasons (the blason is a form of love poetry that enunciates all of the beloved’s features one by one).

Just as the lament focuses on loss, on absence, the poem of praise focuses on presence. But the poem of praise is not concerned with something that is obviously present. It’s about drawing attention to something present that deserves or demands more of our attention.

One of the earliest forms of praise literature is the psalm. The Hebrew word for “psalms,” tehillim, literally mean “praises,” in this case, praises of God. Let’s say you wanted to write a poem praising God or the spiritual side of life and you wanted to do it using objects or things or creatures in the world that are the clearest manifestations of the divine. What would be the most obvious things to inspire a sense of spiritual awe? You might choose children’s innocence, sunsets, mountains, beautiful skies, rainbows, etc.things that are self-evidently beautiful or pleasant.

Well, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sort of modern psalm where he praises God through unusual objects or things in the world. Hopkins was a great poet and an Irish priest who lived from 1844 to 1899. 
Gerard Manley Hopkins
It’s very interesting what Hopkins chooses to single out as evidence of the divine. Here’s the poem:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

What sorts of things does Hopkins choose to praise, and therefore to connect to the sacred in his poem? He doesn’t focus on days when the heavens are a clear blue, but on mottled skies. He praises not constancy and perfect complexions but what is “fickle, freckled.” He spotlights grungy, physical work: “gear and tackle and trim.” In what way are these manifestations of the divine, if God is, as he says, “past change”? Don’t these things seem like the opposite of the divine?

When I taught this poem in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the summer of 2015, my colleague, the poet Anne Caston, had an interesting interpretation of Hopkins’ choice of things to praise in this poem: “Hopkins understood something about the nature of God to accept the ‘flawed’ and ‘marred’ things in His creation. I love that notion too, that there is a part of the spiritual that sees the beauty and elegance of the ‘flawed’ things.”

One thing writers can take away from this poem is that praise needs to have an element of surprise. There’s a goody-goody side to praise that can be predictable and cloying. Avoid crystals, butterflies, waterfalls, sunsets, and cute babies, unless you can find something to praise in these things that you’ve never heard anyone laud before.

The artistic context of Hopkins’ poem is also interesting. Around the time that Hopkins wrote this poem, the United Kingdom and Ireland were in the midst of a serious medieval revival. You’ve probably heard of the Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris, for instance. 


The families of Pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
Influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites took their name from the idea of going back in art to the time before the Renaissance painter Raphael, whose work they felt represented a sophisticated corruption of the innocence, sincerity, and freshness of medieval art. During this period of the industrial revolution, in literature as well, there was a yearning for a more innocent and pure art. Many artists turned to or imagined a period when art was inspired by faith and the importance of craft. That’s why this school in the visual arts was also called the Arts and Crafts movement.

In his poetry, Hopkins harked back to the rhyme and alliteration of the very earliest English verse, dating back to the Middle Ages. This was the period of Old English, the Anglo-Saxon roots of English before the influence of French and Latin became predominant in the era of the Norman conquest. You can listen here to a recitation of one of the greatest poems of Old English, “The Seafarer,” so you can hear the alliteration and strong rhythms that characterized the literature in English in its earliest days.


By using the sort of alliteration and rhyme from an earlier period in the history of the English language, Hopkins evokes the faith and values of that period as well. But I think one of the take-aways from Hopkins’ poem is that the thing that you are praising—or lamenting—can shape the way you praise or lament it. It has to shape the way you praise or lament it.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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