Sunday, April 11, 2021

Considering Cathedrals on a Sunday Morning—National Poetry Month 2021

Chartres Cathedral in France, completed in 1222.  Classic Gothic architecture and renown stained glass windows. 

Although the statisticians tell us we do it in ever dwindling numbers, many of us are still off to church this Sunday morning—or would be except for Coronavirus precautions observed in many places and to various degrees.  I have not stepped foot in my own church, the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois since mid-March of last year.  But I haven’t missed a Zoom service in all of that time until today when I ironically have my second vaccine shot scheduled.  A lot of other folks have Zoomed it as well.  In fact our log-in attendance has actually been greater than our usual in-person services.  Perhaps the pandemic will permanently change how many of us worship and how tightly tethered we will remain to our brick and mortar temples.  

Even before the emergency there was an ongoing theological debate about whether the church is the building or the congregation.  Let’s split the difference and say it’s both.

Many Protestants, especially those in the Calvinist tradition, preferred simple austerity in church architecture in which to contemplate God like this  Colonial New England Meeting House.

The buildings in which we gather and worship tell us a lot about the folks therein and perhaps their expectations and hopes.  Should the building be a hymn and monument to God, or should it be a humble house for the faithfulChristianity has tugged us both ways. 

Here are three takes on that.

Building Aix la Chapelle Grandes from the Chroniques-de-France

The 20th Century Welch poet John Ormond considered the masons and laborers who spent their whole lives building temples that their grandchildren might not see completed.

The Cathedral Builders


They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,
with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,
inhabited the sky with hammers,
defied gravity,
deified stone,
took up God’s house to meet him,
and came down to their suppers
and small beer,
every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,
quarrelled and cuffed the children,
lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,
and every day took to the ladders again,
impeded the rights of way of another summer’s swallows,
grew greyer, shakier,
became less inclined to fix a neighbour’s roof of a fine evening,
saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,
cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,
somehow escaped the plague,
got rheumatism,
decided it was time to give it up,
to leave the spire to others,
stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,
envied the fat bishop his warm boots,
cocked a squint eye aloft,
and said, “I bloody did that.”


—John Ormond


The American poet E. E. Cummings was the son of noted and scholarly Unitarian minister.  In his youth he rebelled against his father and his religion.  Late in life he reconsidered and re-connected with Unitarianism.  It was during that period he wrote this.


I am a little church (no great cathedral)


i am a little church (no great cathedral)

far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities

-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest

i am not sorry when sun and rain make april


my life is the life of the reaper and the sower

my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving

(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children

whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness


around me surges a miracle of unceasing

birth and glory and death and resurrection:

over my sleeping self float flaming symbols

of hope and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains


i am a little church (far from the frantic

world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature

-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;

i am not sorry when silence becomes singing


winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to

merciful Him Whose only now is forever:

standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence

(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)


—e. e. cummings


And finally, one from the Old Man,  the title poem in fact of my 2004 Skinner House collection.  This is the original version, slightly longer than it appeared in the book


We Build Temples in the Heart


We have seen the great cathedrals,

stone laid upon stone,

carved and cared for

by centuries of certain hands,

seen the slender minarets

soar from dusty streets

to raise the cry of faith

to the One and Only God,

seen the placid pagodas

where gilded Buddhas squat

amid the temple bells and incense.


We have seen the tumbled temples

half buried in the sands,

choked with verdant tangles,

sunk in corralled seas,

old truths toppled and forgotten,

even seen the wattled huts,

the sweat lodge hogans,

the wheeled yurts,

the Ice Age caverns

where unwritten worship

raised its knowing voices.


But here, we build temples in our hearts

side by side we come,

as we gather—


Here the swollen belly

and aching breasts

of a well-thumbed paleo-goddess,

there the spinning prayer wheels

of lost Tibetan lamaseries;

mix the mortar of the scattered dust

of the Holy of Holies

with the sacred water

of the Ganges;

lay Moorish alabaster

on the blocks of Angkor Wat

and rough-hewn Stonehenge slabs;

plumb Doric columns

for strength of reason,

square with stern Protestant planks;

illuminate with Chartres’

jeweled windows

and the brilliant lamps of science.


Yes here, we build temples in our hearts,

side by side we come,

scavenging the ages for wisdom,

cobbling together as best we may,

the fruit of a thousand altars,

leveling with doubt,

framing with skepticism,

measuring by logic,

sinking firm foundations in the earth

as we reach for the heavens.


Here, we build temples in our hearts,

side by side we come,

a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,

none shading another,

connected by well-worn paths,

built alike on sacred ground.


—Patrick Murfin

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Amanda Gorman Stakes Claim for Young Black Women Poets—National Poetry Month 2021

A young Black Poet on the cover of Vogue?  Something extraordinary is clearly going on.

This week Vogue unveiled its cover and a fashion spread by photographer Annie Leibovitz featuring young poet Amanda Gorman.  It was just the latest media coup for the 23 year old Phenom  who was profiled by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Time magazine’s 100 Next list and who rose to unprecedented public acclaim for her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration.  Although that may have been her introduction to many Americans she already had many noteworthy accomplishments under her chic belt.  Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC said in some awe  her “bio goes out of date every two weeks.”

The media savvy poet knows that in some circles her appearance as a fashionista will be attacked as “selling out” her professed themes of Black pride and empowerment, feminism, and social justice.  Gorman could not care less.  She had been interested in fashion and design since her early teen years, self-curated the outfits she wore at readings as she climbed to fame, and had signed a modeling contract well before the inauguration,  As for selling, out Gorman clearly is not in it just for the money.  Shortly after the inauguration she said that she had already turned down $17 million in contract offers and endorsement deals.

Gorman, influenced by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde more than the hip-hop poetry slam poets of her own generation, still has become the tip of a spear of young female Black bards who are making poetry an important and influential art form again after decades of being over shadowed by other literary forms and relegated to the margins of the culture.  Others in this new wave include international refugee poet Emi Mahamoud just a few years older than Gorman and several women who rose to attention as voices of the Black Lives Matter Movement.  If Gorman seems less radical than some and less strident, it is only by degrees and is the logical product of her unique biography.

Gorman was born in Los Angeles on March 7, 1988 and was raised by Joan Wicks, a single mother, a 6th-grade English teacher in Watts, She had two siblings including her twin sister, Gabrielle, who is now an activist and filmmaker She has described her young self as a “weird child” who enjoyed reading and writing and was encouraged by her mother.  She was brought up and remains a Black Catholic which has deeply influenced her social justice passion.

She an auditory processing disorder and is hypersensitive to sound and also had a speech impediment during childhood.  Gorman had speech therapy during her childhood.   Gorman told The Harvard Gazette in 2018:

 I always saw it as a strength because since I was experiencing these obstacles in terms of my auditory and vocal skills, I became really good at reading and writing. I realized that at a young age when I was reciting the Marianne Deborah Williamson quote that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” to my mom.

She also practiced singing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song  Aaron Burr, Sir from  Hamilton because “it is jam-packed with R's. And I said, 'if I can keep up with Leslie in this track, then I am on my way to being able to say this R in a poem.”

Gorman attended New Roads, a private school in Santa Monica, and as senior, she received a Milken Family Foundation college scholarship. She studied sociology at Harvard graduating cum laude in 2020as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

She was still in high school when she began reading her poetry in school and at community events.  She became a youth delegate to the United Nations in 2013 and was inspired and empowered to hear an address by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.  The next year she was selected as the first youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. She published her first poetry book The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough in 2015. 

In 2017 she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate and read her poem In This Place (An American Lyric) for her performance at the Library of Congress.  Shortly after she signed a contract to develop a children’s book which became Change Sings: A Children's Anthem which was released after her inaugural appearance.

Gorman's picture book for children.

While still at Harvard amid rising recognition she pointed out that her interests went beyond literary.  She wanted to be an agent for change and several times noted that she planned to run for President of the United States in 2036.  No one should discount her.  After hearing her inaugural poem Hillary Clinton  Tweeted her support.

In 2019, Gorman was chosen as one of The Root magazine’s “Young Futurists”, an annual list of “the 25 best and brightest young African-Americans who excel in the fields of social justice and activism, arts and culture, enterprise and corporate innovation, science and technology, and green innovation.” In 2020, Gorman presented Earthrise, an Earth Day poem focused on the climate crisis.  That May  she appeared in an episode of the web series Some Good News hosted by John Krasinski, where she virtually met Oprah Winfrey and issued a virtual commencement speech to those who could not attend graduation ceremonies due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Amanda Gorman in spectacular canary yellow with her high hair bound in scarlet wowed the nation with her poem and performance at Joe Biden's and Kamala Harris's inauguration.

After her inauguration performance The Hill We Climb was issued a slender stand-alone book and a collection of the same title is slated for release this fall and has already appeared on Best Seller lists in pre-publication sales.

She was quickly tapped to compose and perform an original poem, titled Chorus of the Captains for  Super Bowl LV’s pregame ceremonial coin toss featuring honorary captains who were essential workersJames Martin, a U.S. Marine veteran; Trimaine Davis, an educator; and Suzie Dorner, an ICU nurse manager.  It certainly was something most football fans had never experienced and there was some blow back by white fans.  Gorman was glad to break down the silos of culture which prevent people from communicating meaningfully with each other.

But even triumphs like this can’t prevent the daily insults African-Americans have to face.  In March  Gorman said she was racially profiled by a security guard near her New York City apartment home, and Tweeted afterwards, “He left, no apology. This is the reality of black girls: One day you’re called an icon, the next day, a threat.”  She later Tweeted, “In a sense, he was right. I AM A THREAT: a threat to injustice, to inequality, to ignorance. Anyone who speaks the truth and walks with hope is an obvious and fatal danger to the powers that be. A threat and proud.”

What’s next for Gorman?  Who know except that it will likely  be unexpected, surprising, and entirely true to special vision.

Gorman reading In This Place (An American Lyric) As the first National Youth Poet Laureate

Her inaugural poem has been so widely shared that today we will feature that 2017 Youth Poet Laureate verse.

In This Place (An American Lyric)

There’s a poem in this place—

in the footfalls in the halls

in the quiet beat of the seats.

It is here, at the curtain of day,

where America writes a lyric

you must whisper to say.


There’s a poem in this place—

in the heavy grace,

the lined face of this noble building,

collections burned and reborn twice.


There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square

where protest chants

tear through the air

like sheets of rain,

where love of the many

swallows hatred of the few.


There’s a poem in Charlottesville

where tiki torches string a ring of flame

tight round the wrist of night

where men so white they gleam blue—

seem like statues

where men heap that long wax burning

ever higher

where Heather Heyer

blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.


There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant

of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising

its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—

a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,

strutting upward and aglow.


There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas

where streets swell into a nexus

of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,

where courage is now so common

that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.


There’s a poem in Los Angeles

yawning wide as the Pacific tide

where a single mother swelters

in a windowless classroom, teaching

black and brown students in Watts

to spell out their thoughts

so her daughter might write

this poem for you.            


There's a lyric in California

where thousands of students march for blocks,

undocumented and unafraid;

where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom

in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.

She knows hope is like a stubborn

ship gripping a dock,

a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer

or knock down a dream.


How could this not be her city

su nación

our country

our America,

our American lyric to write—

a poem by the people, the poor,

the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,

the native, the immigrant,

the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,

the undocumented and undeterred,

the woman, the man, the nonbinary,

the white, the trans,

the ally to all of the above

and more?


Tyrants fear the poet.

Now that we know it

we can’t blow it.

We owe it

to show it

not slow it

although it

hurts to sew it

when the world

skirts below it.      



we must bestow it

like a wick in the poet

so it can grow, lit,

bringing with it

stories to rewrite—

the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated

a history written that need not be repeated

a nation composed but not yet completed.


There’s a poem in this place—

a poem in America

a poet in every American

who rewrites this nation, who tells

a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth

to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—

a poet in every American

who sees that our poem penned

doesn’t mean our poem’s end.


There’s a place where this poem dwells—

it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell

where we write an American lyric

we are just beginning to tell.


—Amanda Gorman


Just a year ago Gorman addressed the pandemic engulfing the world.


The Miracle of Morning


I thought I’d awaken to a world in mourning.

Heavy clouds crowding, a society storming.

But there’s something different on this golden morning.

Something magical in the sunlight, wide and warming.


I see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.

Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.

A grandma on a porch fingers her rosaries.

She grins as her young neighbor brings her groceries.


While we might feel small, separate, and all alone,

Our people have never been more closely tethered.

The question isn’t if we can weather this unknown,

But how we will weather this unknown together.


So on this meaningful morn, we mourn and we mend.

Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.


As one, we will defeat both despair and disease.

We stand with healthcare heroes and all employees;

With families, libraries, waiters, schools, artists;

Businesses, restaurants, and hospitals hit hardest.


We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof,

For it is in loss that we truly learn to love.

In this chaos, we will discover clarity.

In suffering, we must find solidarity.


For it’s our grief that gives us our gratitude,

Shows us how to find hope, if we ever lose it.

So ensure that this ache wasn’t endured in vain:

Do not ignore the pain. Give it purpose. Use it.


Read children’s books, dance alone to DJ music.

Know that this distance will make our hearts grow fonder.

From these waves of woes our world will emerge stronger.


We’ll observe how the burdens braved by humankind

Are also the moments that make us humans kind;

Let each morning find us courageous, brought closer;

Heeding the light before the fight is over.

When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing

In testing times, we became the best of beings.


—Amanda Gorman