The Epiphany and Poetry

The Feast of the Epiphany is a day that commemorates, among Western Christians, the visit of royal magi to the baby Jesus and, among Eastern Christians, the baptism of the adult Jesus by his cousin John in the Jordan River. The thematic commonality is the revealing of Jesus, son of God, to the world.

As one brought up in the Anglican tradition of Christianity (very Western), I associated the Epiphany with two songs. The first was the nineteenth-century church song ‘Three Kings of Orient’, perhaps better known today as ‘We Three Kings’, with its mention of the three gifts those royal magi brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I was taught that gold was for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a corpse. The second song was the twentieth-century Christmas ditty ‘Carol of the Drum’, also known as ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, about a humble drummer boy who, summoned by the magi, had no gift for the baby but his love of drumming.

In my teens, I rejected the ‘churchianity’ that treasured that story and those songs. But during my twentieth year, I returned unexpectedly to a countercultural, street level iteration of Jesus as Teacher. By then the only life goal I had was to write a good poem. Since then, my writing and faith have developed side by side. This past Epiphany, it occurred to me (call me slow) that the three gifts of the magi may serve as metaphors for types of poems one might make and bring as gifts to Jesus.

The gift of gold speaks of praise, and if the king or queen is truly good, then the praise is not the empty stroking of a royal ego but the overflow of a subject’s gladness for a virtuous sovereign. The praise would be not only for the person of the sovereign but also for everything regarded by the sovereign as good, true, and beautiful. In the world of poetry, the praise poem hit a high point when, in 1983, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Mary Oliver’s ‘American Primitive’. Though not religious, its conversational poems do the work of praise by virtue of Oliver’s loving attention to the small wonders and strangeness of nature and our being here:

…thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

(from ‘August’)

 

I took it out into the field
and opened the earth
and put it back
saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying, what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes

(from ‘The Kitten’ stillborn, cycloptic)

Frankincense implies intercession, the acknowledgment of the air’s foulness and the priestly act of sweetening it. Intercession calls to mind the long history of prayers on behalf of the needy and sacrificial deeds done to prevent or curtail the horrible. In the Christian tradition, the incarnation of the divine Word and Jesus’s entire earthly career, from birth through death to his resurrection and ascension, is regarded as God’s intercession on behalf of the whole world. The gift of frankincense suggests poems that acknowledge the suffocating profusion of wreckage within the human experience yet undertake to ‘tear a little corner off the darkness’ (Bono) and so let light – and sweet, fresh air – in. I think of John Berryman’s sequence ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’ as a place to turn for this type of poem:

Man is ruining the pleasant earth & man.
What at last, my Lord, will you allow?

(from address #2)

When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey.
Empty my heart toward thee.
Let me pace without fear the common path of death.

(from address #3)

Daily, by night, we walk naked to storm,
some threat of wholesale loss, to ruinous fear.
Gift us with long cloaks & adrenaline.

(from address #4)

President of the brethren, our mild assemblies
inspire, & bother the priest not to be dull.

(from address #10)

Myrrh, given to a newborn heir-to-a-throne in anticipation of the royal’s eventual burial, was used for embalming the royal body. Today, the denial of aging and death is a multi-trillion-dollar, multinational industry concerned with everything from cosmetics to transhumanist research into enhancing intellect and physiology to zombie films that grapple with how to defeat the armies of death. Myrrh signifies our inevitable return to dust and suggests poems that lament, eulogize, rant, or grieve in the wake of death; or poems that, however fearfully or courageously, look death in the face and, because they are not without hope, affirm the gift of life nonetheless. Jane Kenyon’s poem ‘Let Evening Come’, which anticipates her husband’s death, is brilliant in this regard:

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

(from ‘Let Evening Come’)

Within the Christian tradition, the Gospels’ record of the morning when God changed and raised the dead body of Jesus provides believers – and believer-poets – with a place to stand when responding to the big inevitables like brokenness and death. The resurrection is not glorious because it gives us permission to deny death and dismiss its power. Rather, the beauty of the resurrection is its proclamation of One infinitely greater than all the big and troubling inevitables. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the revealing of this ‘One greater than’ to the world. What a fine day it is, also, for imagining the gifts we poets and other artists might make and present to him. We who are, perhaps, less royal magi, more humble drummers.

 


Image Credit: Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi (1617-1618). https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Rubens-adoration_des_mages.jpg.

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