SharingPoets@StPaul - December 2020

Please enjoy the unabridged discussion starter for December below. More information about how to join SharingPoets@StPaul is at the bottom of the post!


Recently I came across this quote from Lao Tzu, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” As we end this difficult and baffling year, this is good advice for all and is especially important for the poet to consider. Art is always in danger of becoming an end in itself, but that is not what it is to be. In great ways and small art, poetry, is to show us the new, lead us beyond and, sometimes, to confer a respite in challenging times.


Maybe now we should revisit the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson. Some will recall his “Charge of the Light Brigade” – for years a mandatory selection in high school poetry texts. But I offer you two other poems in this, the last month of a fateful year. The first is his “Lady of Shalott.” You can read it at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45360/the-lady-of-shalott-1842

Most scholars consider the poem to be a meditation of the artist, the poet, as someone who has a choice: to stay in her tower weaving pictures of the world, or to get into the boat and float down the river of life. Since we are talking about poetry here, it is an impossible choice…yet it is one that must be made again and again in any artist’s life. The beautiful ideas we may “weave” can only have vitality and reality when they are lived out. Facing this lends gravity to our ideas.

In the poem, the Lady of Shalott literally freezes as she gets nearer to Camelot, the “world” for the purpose of the poem. Her predicament brings fear to most of the knights who see her – except Lancelot, another seeker for the ideal, who would also know human failing. At this moment in his life he sees something good:


But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, "She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

The Lady of Shalott."


Lancelot would need that same grace when he pursues the reality of his love for Guinevere. But he doesn’t know it now; he leaves “The Lady” to her fate with a superficial compliment. At this moment he will look and not see, but he will eventually put himself to the same test. And perhaps Tennyson is also saying that God will show him the same mercy he wishes for the frozen figure in the boat.

Writing poetry comes from reaching for the impossible. The concentration of thought, the symbolism, the desire to say what would otherwise never be said – all of this separates the poem from the realm of narrative writing.

And just a final exercise, if you have the time, consider reading Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” Yes, it is long…actually it is 131 poems (each headed with a Roman numeral). But the reward is that you are taken on a journey of struggle from loss to the coming of a new life. Tennyson wrote it after the sudden death of his 22 year-old friend, but it is aimed at all who suffer and find a way to hope. https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/memoriam-h-h-obiit-mdcccxxxiii-all-133-poems

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See the document attached below for a copy of our monthly discussion starter. And make sure to send your name and email to Fr. Tom Holahan, CSP at tholahan@paulist.org to be included in the discussion group if you haven't already done so!

SharingPoets dscussion starter Dec 2020
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