High On Poetry
I’m beginning to see the power of poetry – the power of saying truth in a way that can’t be quantified or argued, but suddenly laid bare, and so exposed, that it supersedes the chatter of opposing voices.
I’m partial to any art form, or artist, that can give me a taste of certainty – a true luxury.
Recently, I’ve encountered the poetry of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Hebrew scholar, philosopher and poet. He lived in Spain during what’s known as the Spanish Golden Age, a time when the Jewish community flourished in art and intellect, alongside the ruling Moorish or Arab culture.
To me, his poems have a double power. They’re an affirmation that the fusion of art and religion is not just possible, but sacred. And they give voice to themes – soul over body, spirit over matter – that are deeply rooted within me but thoroughly unpopular in the world I reside in.
When I Hunger To Praise Thee
When I hunger to praise Thee, I’m sated;
When to worship I thirst, I am drunk.
Then my heart is secure, when I fear Thee
When in terror and awe I am sunk.
When I bow to Thee low, I am lifted;
When I fall in Thy presence, I rise.
I am free when I serve, for Thy name’s sake,
My oppressors who Thy name despise.
All suffering is sweet to my heart,
When I know that My God Thou art.
In place of God
When I presented this to my class, I isolated the word [God] and wrote [insert something I believe to be greater than life here]. In place of God. I may have marginalized God right there, but it was an attempt to communicate words of Rabbi Ibn Ezra as a universal message. Partly because I wanted somehow to share my appreciation of his poem with a group of people for whom the connotation of the word ‘Thee’ is long and tired.
God can be the universe, the sense of something greater. To me God is a duty, a responsibility, a purpose actually. If you believe in any of these – that there’s some accountability, to grandchildren, to the universe, to the human race – it’s the same message. It’s the idea that there is something outside of you, probably greater than you, and it’s not an opt-in connection.
I have no argument for it. No way of knowing that we are not simply mistakes, born to live and die as prisoners of our own selves, observers of the world around us. Rabbi Ibn Ezra affirms my belief in it.
Rabbi Ben* Ezra made an appearance as the title of a 19th century poem by Robert Browning. The poem is best known for its opening lines:
Grow old along with me!
For the best is yet to be
It’s a love poem but its theme is a tribute to the ideas of Rabbi Ben Ezra. The message is a sort of anti “Carpe Diem”, a look back at the folly and transience of youth, and a call to recognize that there is more to life than can be experienced in a fleeting moment. An excerpt:
Ay, note that Potter’s wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,–
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
“Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!”
Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:
Time’s wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.
You can see the whole slideshow here.