Epiphany, or What You Will
It’s the eve of Epiphany, 12th night, the last day of Christmas. Epiphany is probably as big a holiday in Greece as Christmas (maybe bigger). As with the mornings of Christmas eve and New Year’s Eve, children are stalking the streets of Athens armed with jangling triangles to sing a carol known as “Kalanda” to unsuspecting adults, who must then give them coins. I already saw a band of children this morning hitting the toy shops with their pockets bulging with Euro coins (real money these days—not paltry drachmas).
James Merrill—who lived in Athens in a house on Lykabettos, not far from where we first lived when we moved here—has a poem that describes this tradition, “Chimes for Yahya,” which starts:
Imperiously ringing, “Na ta poume?
(Shall we tell it?)” two dressy girls inquire.
They mean some chanted verse to do with Christmas
Which big homemade iron triangles
Drown out and a least coin silences
But oh hell not at seven in the morning
If you please!
Epiphany as a religious festival celebrates several things--it was the original date in the Eastern church for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Traditionally this is also 3 Kings day, the day when the Magi arrived to give gifts to the baby Jesus (so many wonderful Magi and three kings poems out there—today I am thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s enchanting “Twelfth Morning; or What you Will,” with its deft observation and light touch and Sapphic-like grace of movement.) The religious festival celebrates the “theophania”—the showing forth of the divinity of Christ: at his birth, at his (adult) baptism by John the Baptism in the river Jordan, and his first miracle at the Wedding of Cana (some wonderful poems on that too, as Richard Wilbur's "A Wedding Toast").
Tomorrow, all over Greece, priests will go out to bless bodies of water—often by tossing a cross into the frigid waves, while youths dive in for a chance to retrieve it: the one who does so brings good luck into his house for the year.
How nice then that yesterday my copy of the January Poetry arrived (that was fast!), with the essay by Adam Kirsch on contemporary poems of epiphany, or poems of contemporary epiphany, “The Taste of Silence”. He talks about how three very diverse poets—Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic and Billy Collins—share a “metaphysical sensibility” for the “poetry of earth”—for a poetry of witnessing things as they are rather than a poetry of creating worlds--"poetry of world". As Kirsch writes, “What makes the poetry of earth so challenging to write is that poets are instinctive world-builders. The artistic imagination is instinctively imperial, seizing on things seen and turning them into occasions for symbol and metaphor.” . . . “Clearly, resisting this tendency requires an austere ethical discipline.”
I think Kirsch very astutely pinpoints the limitations and failures of this "poetry of earth" in contemporary practice—poetry that seems to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary, but that actually embodies complacence in it. (His example of this complacence comes from a Billy Collins poem. I would point out about a hundred examples from the typical contemporary selections on the Writer’s Almanac—which I nonetheless subscribe to and read in my e-mail on a daily basis—poems “celebrating” everyday suburban pleasures, in which the only artifice is a deliberate eschewing of trope and—the logical conclusion of that line of thinking—actual embrace of cliché—as a hallmark of “authenticity” or “sincerity”.)
Kirsch quotes Heidegger: “At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary.”
That is what is behind the 1st century BC poet Lucretius’ entire epic didactic masterpiece, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things)—the miracle of things as they are—motes moving in a sunbeam, the colored shadows under a bright awning, how moisture evaporates from laundry on the line, how wind changes the color of the water from blue to white, how our shadows follow our every movement, the pungent scent of herbs crushed in our fingers, the echo of a voice in a valley, how dripping water can wear away hardest stone, the carpet of flowers the earth spontaneously produces in the spring, what dogs are dreaming of when their paws are twitching in their sleep.
For me the power of this poetry however is not just that it is witnessing and celebrating things as they are—it is at the same time an embodiment--a re-creation of—the world. (Perhaps this is what the great “poets of earth” manage to do—both witness the world as it is and sing it into being.) Rather than making things into metaphors, Lucretius makes metaphors into things—the letters on the page become the atoms that build the universe. Lucretius “shows forth” the divinity of Nature herself. He wants us to wake up and open our eyes:
And there is nothing that exists so great or marvelous
That over time mankind does not admire it less and less.
Behold the pure blue of the heavens, and all that they possess,
The roving stars, the moon, the sun’s light, brilliant and sublime—
Imagine if these were shown to men now for the first time,
Suddenly and with no warning. What could be declared
More wondrous than these miracles no one before had dared
Believe could even exist? Nothing. Nothing could be quite
As remarkable as this, so wonderful would be the sight.
Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies.
The poetry of earth is never dead. This Epiphany, let us be alive to the world, the extraordinary mundane.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...