25 Years of Image, 18 of Glen Workshops

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays by people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the earlier installments, Stumbling into the WaterfallHenri Nouwen, Reaching Out, and The Notecards of Paradise.

I’m at lunch in a college cafeteria. At my table, the conversation goes like this:

“Have you heard John Tavener’s Protecting Veil?”

“Yeah, it’s like icon painting in music.”

“Icon writing, you mean.”

“When I listen to Tavener, I feel I could be immersed in George Wingate’s ethereal canvases—maybe his Earthhead.”

“Mmm, I saw his work in an issue of Image. I remember especially his Tree—it seemed to be breaking into the beyond.”

“For me it would be James Turrell’s amazing sky-spaces: the way he almost sculpts light. They give me the same feeling as Tavener’s music: of the divine mysteriously penetrating our world.”

“I wonder if there’s a novel that does that…”

“Well, this isn’t a novel, but Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being would be my call.”

I’m riveted by the creative energy of the conversation. But this isn’t at my college. It’s at one of the Glen Workshops I’ve attended over the years.

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Poetry at the Goodwill

When I was a soccer-obsessed fifteen-year-old, I had no use for poetry. I endured my school hours like a crated dog, waiting to get out on the field. One afternoon in the library, I picked up a random book of English verse and flipped through it. Eventually I landed on a song from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, offered most often now with the title “Old and Young.” The first stanza goes like this:

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

He was speaking to me, young blood, strong, moving among so many queenly lasses in my school that I could not think straight for more than a few moments at a time. Back then, I didn’t know what a sentimental piece of writing it is; I don’t care now.

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My Dinners with Philip Levine

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously claimed—famously and perhaps disingenuously, for if nothing else poetry makes people poets.

In the fall of 1991, in my junior year at Stanford, I happened to see a flyer on campus for a reading by Philip Levine. My only brush with poetry before college had been the ill-fated impetus to answer an essay question on my application for early acceptance to Harvard with rhyming couplets.

“Needless to say, that hopeless bard / never walked to class through Harvard Yard.”

Fortunately, my vain experiment in verse hadn’t stopped me from taking a workshop my sophomore year at Stanford, which left me with just enough of a bite from the poetry bug to want to continue.

But then a permanent infection set in thanks to Philip Levine. Having never heard of him before that night in Kresge Auditorium, I was riveted by the voice in his National Book Award-winning What Work Is, his New Selected Poems sharing the stage for having been published that same year.

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Letter to Stephen Dunn

Dear Steve,

I’ve had to look away for most of three decades now—away from your work.

“Why.” That’s the title of a poem, a poem in your book Here and Now, I read this morning.

“Because you can be sure a part of yourself is always missing,” the poem begins.

When I read your poems now, like when I read them regularly decades ago, when, for a brief time, I was your student, your friend, I discover a part of myself that, if not exactly missing, had been nagging to be recognized, acknowledged, expressed.

“If the imagined woman makes the real woman / seem bare-boned, hardly existent…” you write in “The Imagined,” and I nod, no, not nod, exactly, but soften, warmed by the companionship of a poem that knows me better than most people do, a poem that says what I’ve experienced but would never, could never say aloud.

At thirty-six, Steve, I married. You know this. I visited you once before the wedding. I said, she doesn’t read poetry. We won’t have that to talk about. You can find plenty of people, you said, to talk poetry with.

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Scott Cairns and his Idiot Psalms

Guest Post

By Angela Doll Carlson

W.H. Auden has said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Scott Cairns. Whether they are the words from his poem, “Loves”:

I have kissed
his feet. I have looked long
into the trouble of his face

Or those he’s translated and adapted from the writings of the early saints in Endless Life:

The soul that looks
finally to God, conceives
a new mouth-watering
desire for His eternal beauty

Cairns’s work is at once embodied and ethereal, finding its roots in the ancient soil of rich language and reaching its branches into the lives of the common man. His poems greet the reader with a familiarity that allows the poet to draw us ever nearer so that at any moment he might whisper one great truth into the ear.

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