Like many churches in National Capital Presbytery, the Church of the Pilgrims is being intentional about racism during this liturgical season. A banner draped in front of the Communion Table proclaims "#blacklivesmatter," and each Sunday a member of the community gives testimony on "What 'Black Lives Matter' Means to Me."
As a contribution to the on-going discussion I moderated a 30-minute, after worship discussion of two poems, "ode to my blackness" by Evie Shockley, a black woman, and "Ode to My Whiteness" by Sharon Olds, a white woman.
Eight people came, men and women, white and black, 30-something to 70-something. We read each poem aloud, twice, and watched Olds read her poem on video (click here—the ode is 3 minutes in). Then we talked: "What is the poet saying?" "Have I felt that in my own life?
The discussion was thoughtful and frank. Everyone participated. Some people were moved, others not. Later I asked the participants to give me some feedback.
Bonny wrote: "After church I had put the poems you handed out on my desk at home, so I wouldn’t lose them. When I returned . . . I literally couldn’t wait to I reread them. I was surprised how good it felt to read them aloud …. several times."
Jenny, a newcomer from the UK, wrote: "I'm still new to this country and I'm struggling with the racism here, and shocked by how segregated society is, even in churches, so to find a discussion such as this gives me hope!"
The texts to both poems are below. Maybe you'd like to read them with people from your congregation.
Ode to My Whiteness
After Evie Shockley
By Sharon Olds
You were invisible to me,
you went without saying.
You were my weapon, secret from myself.
Whatever I got you helped get it for me.
You were my ignorance, because of you I was not innocent.
I did not see that.
You were my blinding light.
My dreams had a blank area in the center
taking up most of the screen they played on in my sleep,
a blazing circle that blanked out the core of the scene.
I thought it was my mother's violence, but it was you, too.
You the unseen fat which fed me in the wilderness,
you my Masonic handshake, you my silence,
you my collaborator,
you my magician's cloak of steam,
you my dissembler.
You mine, I yours.
Evie's blackness a dancer, you another,
the two of you shimmering together.
ode to my blackness
By Evie Shockley
you are my shelter from the storm
and the storm
and the troubled sea
* * *
night casts you warm and glittering
upon my shoulders some would
say you give off no heat some folks
can’t see beyond the closest star
* * *
you are the tunnel john henry died
i see the light
at the end of you the beginning
* * *
i dig down deep and there you are at the root of my blues
you’re all thick and dark, enveloping the root of my blues
seem like it’s so hard to let you go when i got nothing to lose
* * *
without you, I would be just
a self of my former shadow
By Gerry Hendershot
Some members of my church, the Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), profess a profound dislike of poetry. Not surprising for those generations whose first—and often last—encounter with poetry was in a 10th grade English class whose teacher taught, badly, the poems of Dead White Poets.
How refreshing it was to learn that my grandson was learning to write original poetry in Mrs. Warner's 4th Grade Classroom! Not only that, his teachers organized a poetry reading for the students at the Shirlington Busboys and Poets!
The room was filled to overflowing with proud parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends, as the students spoke their poems (learned by heart) with accompanying gestures before the open mike, and were rewarded with cheers and applause.
Here's a video of grandson Mike rehearsing his performance. In the super-imposed text I've retained his own original syntax, spelling, and lineation. Great poetry? I think so--but maybe not. Filled with joyful word play? Definitely.
Mike may never again write a poem, but he will forever be open to the possibility that poetry can enrich his experience of life. What can we learn from Mike and Mrs. Warner? Jesus said it best: ‘Let the little children come to me . . . for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.'
Many of us older folk need to unlearn what we learned about poetry in the past. In this regard, Billy Collins' poem, "Introduction to Poetry" is instructive. The text is below and you can hear Collins reading it here.
Introduction to Poetry
BY BILLY COLLINS
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
If you'd like to read more about "How to Read a Poem," Tania Runyon-- click here—has compiled a delightful little manual-cum-anthology of that title based on Collins' poem.