About Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Reading (in) Walden

607px-walden_thoreauWhat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.… To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, it’s Thoreau. I’m re-reading Walden. Why? Because it’s on my bookshelf, and I’m in the process of interrogating each book there. The choice: either read it or get rid of it. I hadn’t read Walden in decades, so I pulled it from the shelf.

Though I admire Thoreau’s radical simplicity—if something isn’t a necessity, get rid of it! and my shelf-purging seems to be in Thoreau’s spirit—the book’s opening hundred pages lay it on too thickly for my taste; too much finger-wagging at people who are attached to even minimal property.

But this short chapter called “Reading”: this one is a treasure. [Read more…]

Looking for a Good Laugh

audienceIn his collection of delightfully reflective and paradoxical mini-stories, Espejos (Mirrors), Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano includes a sequence on jokes and laughter in various ancient cultures. In one of these reflections he refers to Jesus, “of whom the evangelists record not a single laugh.” Then soon Galeano takes the entire Bible to task, as “a book in which no one ever laughs at all.”

This isn’t quite true. Sarah laughed when the angel told Abraham that in her old age Sarah would bear a son (Gen. 18:12). But this laugh of Sarah’s doesn’t express joy; rather, it’s a laugh of almost scornful disbelief. Sarah’s second laugh a year later is joyful though. Having indeed borne a son, she says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).

There’s other laughter in the Bible, too. Jesus isn’t explicitly shown to laugh, but he enjoys many communal meals at which there must have been good fellowship. The explicit laughs in the rest of the Bible are a mixed bag. In many, the laughter is looked down upon. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The News”

11793323376_2b9390cd6e_zWhat do I do with the daily news of disasters? Do I mumble a quick prayer for the victims, then turn to my day’s to-do list? Do I ever pause and ponder: this disaster might have struck those I love, or even me? These are the questions that Shara McCallum turns over in “The News.” Her imagination doesn’t flinch from detailing the horrors. Yet she is also self-protective, and she knows this. I admire how she keeps her eyes both shut and open to the dreadful events that life can deal us. And I admire especially the painful closing two stanzas: the piercing image of that mother somewhere whose “hem of life” will be “snagged, /from here forward”: from the instant she learns of her child forever lost.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Margo Jefferson’s Negroland


In her photo on the jacket flap of Negroland: A Memoir,  Margo Jefferson looks to me like an attractive white woman in her late sixties.

In the chapter where she delineates beauty standards for African American girls in the 1950s, when she was a child, her list of skin color options astounds me:

“Ivory, cream, beige, wheat, tan, moccasin, fawn, café au lait, and the paler shades of honey, amber, and bronze are best. Sienna, chocolate, saddle brown, umber (burnt or raw), and mahogany work best with decent-to-good hair and even-to-keen features… Generally, for women, the dark skin shades like walnut, chocolate brown, black, and black with blue undertones are off-limits.”

Off-limits? As Jefferson knows, she’s slyly implying the impossible: that women have a choice about their skin color—that they can decide whether to stay within limits or not. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Embrace”

piano-by-Ralf-Nolte-on-flickrPoetry can recall us to the sensuousness of ordinary experience. Elizabeth Smither does this in “The Embrace” through the pointed choice of particular details. We are invited into a room in which almost nothing is happening, yet the room fills with sumptuously imaged life: two pianos which seem to be playing (though literally they’re not); two people leaning joyously into each other; a meal appearing in all its lusciously itemized dishes. All of this takes place in only two sentences—for it’s in the dashes that Smither makes the poem work. Each pair of dashes holds within it an instant of event, while holding still the surrounding objects. What these dashes manage to do, I’d say, is hold aloft the simultaneity of music and meal and human embrace. The poem leaves me feeling richer, yet also wondering what rich details I’m missing in each moment of my own experience.

-Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]