books

In Harbors of Heaven I look at some of the poets who keep readers in place-Vassar Miller, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and others.

The title is from a poem that Richard Wilbur wrote for a Christmas play at Wesleyan University. It’s still around as a Christmas hymn. I like the paradox in it, and the hard-working biblical metaphors that carry meaning across the seasons and across the course of life.

A Christmas Hymn

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.

And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

-Richard Wilbur

Scott Cairns

Acquainted with the Night 2004 grew out of graduate study in literature and religion at Boston University. The theology of the cross from my Lutheran tradition brought me to a study of this strange and liminal topic. I looked at a collection of poets I admired and explored their work with the topic in mind. Here’s the publisher’s description:

R. S. Thomas

Acquainted with the Night is a study of death as it appears in the work of a handful of contemporary poets—Geoffrey Hill, Scott Cairns, Mark Jarman, R. S. Thomas, and Wendell Berry. The primary focus throughout is directed to the appearance of death, and to the physical and metaphorical darkness often associated with the thought of death, in their poems. Jeffrey Johnson’s commentary frames each poet’s work within observations by literary artists and critics, theologians, cultural critics, and scholars of religion, providing a Christian appreciation of each poet’s work within a context of tradition and circumstances.

Geoffrey Hill

Mark Jarman

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

The title, Acquainted with the Night, is taken from a poem of the same name by Robert Frost.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say goodbye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

-Robert Frost

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