The Baha’i vision of the future is an important inspiration in the day to day life of Baha'is; indeed, I would go so far as to say that this vision is much more than inspiration. "Vision creates reality," as the once and long-time secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, Horace Holley, once wrote. And so it is or, to put it in the words of that paleontologist, philosopher and theologican, Teillard de Chardin, it is the utopians who are the realists. That idea may grate on the pessimists, cynics and skeptics among us, a mass of humanity that fills every corner of our world. And who knows, everyone makes assumptions about life, about history and the future. Assumptions are like axioms in geometry, they are given, not really proveable in any ultimate sense. We take these assumptions,wrap our emotions around them and walk the walk. That has always been, at least since my thirties, a definition of faith that I have drawn on in my work and in my teaching. For everyone makes assumptions; everyone has faith in something, some idea, concept, definition of history and meaning of life.
The poems here are an expression of this vision and some of my assumptions. There are several major statements of this vision in the Baha'i Writings. The Baha'i Writings offer a utopian view of the future in many different ways. Visions of the future are sharply contrasted and compared to the realities of the present. This section contains two essays on Baha'i biography. I place these essays in this section somewhat arbitrarily. When I think of the role that biography and history have in understanding man and society, as emphasized for example in the sociological classic The Sociological Imagination(1959), written by C. Wright Mills, I feel my placement of these two essays here in my section on "futures" is quite appropriate. For to understand history and biography is to understand the future, at least in some important ways.
There has been a significant increase in the biographies of Baha'is in the last quarter of a century. Here is a small, somewhat idiosyncratic, contribution. I think a sense of the importance of the present day and of the contribution of Baha'is in their lifetime is also an important part of that 'vision of the future,' hence my inclusion of these two short essays on Baha'i biography. And I begin with the contribution of 'Abdu'l-Baha and my analysis of His contribution to biography. For me, these biographies in miniature contribute more than a little to the Baha’i vision of the future in ways which I will expand on in the paragraphs ahead.
The best statement I have written, at least from my point of view even if not from the point of view of anyone else I know, on the subject of Baha'i biography is called Memorials of the Faithful: Revisited. It appeared in "The Newsletter of the Association for Baha'i Studies" Issue 35, Summer 2001. A more extended version of that article appears below.
MEMORIALS OF THE FAITHFUL: REVISITED
With penetrating detail, crisp style and emphasis on the compression of facts; with vivid images, usually not more than three or four pages, wit a concision of explanation or commentary, with a specific point of view, a style of biography has continued from classical times into the twentieth century. This is biography in miniature. It has a certain bias toward the person over the event, toward art as smallness of scale, toward structuring the confusions of daily life into patterns of continuity and process. There is a broad intent to sustain an interpretation or characterisation with facts teased, coloured, given life by a certain presentation and appraisal. Facts about the past are no more history than butter, eggs, salt and pepper are an omelette. They must be whipped up and played with in a certain fashion. -Ron Price with appreciation to Ira Bruce Nadel, "Biography as Institution," Biography, Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
Nadel goes on to say that the "recreation of a life in words is one of the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform."1 Freud said the recreation of a life, the getting at the truth of a life, can not be done; and if someone does do it, as inevitably biographers try, the result is not useful to us.2 People have been trying to write about the lives of others for millennia and, even if Freud is right, they will probably go on doing it. ‘Abdu’l-Baha gives the exercise a parting shot, to put it colloquially, in the evening of his life. His work, Memorials of the Faithful, is squarely in the tradition Nadel describes above: commemorative, didactic, ethical, psychological. His is a work of art as well as information, a work of pleasure as well as truth. His is a work of selection, as biography must be if the reader is not to be snowed in a mountain of useless detail. He unravels the complexities of seventy-seven lives and in doing so he answers Virginia Woolf’s questions: ‘My God, how does one write a biography?’ and ‘What is a life?’ If one can not answer these questions, Woolf wrote, then one can hardly write a biography.3
The act of reading Memorials of the Faithful is an opportunity to see how ‘Abdu’l-Baha answers Virginia Woolf’s seminal questions about life, how He answers them again and again in the more than six-dozen of His biographies in miniature. Biographers and autobiographers arguably have one freedom, a freedom that overrides the genetic and social forces that determine so much of human life.4 It is the freedom to tell the story, the narrative, the freedom to explain a life, any life, even one’s own life to themselves and others the way they desire. This freedom is part of that active force of will that ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote, in his pithy summation of the historic philosophical issue of ‘freewill and determinism,’5 is at the centre of all our lives.
Of course, it is incontrovertible that what has happened in a life has happened. There is no going back to change any one of the events, decisions or results. Life bears the stigmata of finality. There has been a relentless succession of facts, at once inflexible and in some ways arbitrary. All story-tellers are slaves to these facts, if their story is to enjoy the imprimatur of truth.
Charles Baudelair once wrote that a biography "must be written from an exclusive point of view, but from the point of view which opens up the greatest number of horizons."6 There are many ways in which one could define the point of view in this subtle and deceptively simple book. The point of view is that of a lover of Baha’u’llah, one who wants to be near Baha’u’llah, one who wants to serve Baha’u’llah. The point of view is really quite exclusive. All the men and women in this biographical pot-pourri were lovers of the Manifestation of God, the most precious Being ever to walk on this earth; and they all had some relationship with Him during the forty year period of His ministry: 1852-1892.
Restless is a dominant theme, a strong characteristic, in the lives of many people 'Abdu'l-Baha describes. They 'could not stay quiet', 'had no rest', were amazingly energetic', 'awakened to restless life', plagued by yearning love'. Nabil of Qa'in was 'restless, had no caution, patience or reserve'.7
Shah Muhammad-Amin "had no peace" because of the love that smouldered in his heart and because he "was continually in flight'.8
This restlessness 'Abdu'l-Baha sets down among a galaxy of other qualities and a multitude of other people. Some of the most outstanding believers had this restlessness. Tahirih was 'restless and could not be still'.
Quietness is also valued highly. One does not have to be a great talker to attract the attention of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Quietness also has its place in Baha'i community life. There are people who are 'inclined to solitude' and keep 'silent at all times'. They possess an 'inner calm'. They are souls 'at rest'.
The gregarious types and the type who keeps to himself are part of this quintessential dichotomy, a dichotomy that was as much a part of 'Abdu'l-Baha's world as it is our own, although there seem to be a slight preponderence of the gregarious person. Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad both kept to themselves and "away from friend and stranger alike". 9 Mirza Muhammad-Quli "mostly...kept silent". He kept company with no one and stayed by himnself most of the time, alone in his small refuge".10 The more sociable type, like Haji 'Abdu'llah Najaf-Abadi "spent his days in friendly association with the other believers."11 Ismu'llahu'l-Asdaq "taught cheerfully and with gaiety".12 "How wonderful was the talk,"says 'Abdu'l-Baha of Nabil of Qa'in, "how attractive his society".13
There are all of the archtypes that the various personality theorists have given us in this century. In addition to Jung's introvert and extrovert, there is the artist, the suffering artist-soul within us all, Mishkin-Qalam. He survives in all his seriousness, as we might, with humour. There are the types who William James describes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: the personality constitutionally weighted on the side of cheer and its opposite, the somber, more reflective even melancholic type. The two carpenters, Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad were examples of the former.14 The examples we find of the latter were often the result of the many difficulties these lovers of Baha'u'llah were subjected to and wore them "to the bone."15
‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses all of us, all of us on our journeys while He describes many of those He came to know in His life. For He is describing not only the lives of these men and women in the nineteenth century, He is describing us in our time. He is addressing us on our own travels. He addresses the restlessness in us all. He speaks to us in our victory and our loss. He speaks about what Michael Polanyi calls the tacit dimension, the silent root of human life, which is difficult to tap in biographies, the inner person. This private, this inner person, is the one whom He writes about for the most part. He sets this inner life in a rich contextualization, a socio-historical matrix. He describes many pilgrimages and you and I are left to construct our own. We all must shape and define our own life. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Intellectually provocative? Spiritually challenging? ‘Abdu’l-Baha shapes and defines these lives given the raw-data of their everydayness added up, added up over their lives as He saw them. How would He shape my life? Yours? How would we look in a contemporary anthology of existences with ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the choreographer and the history of our days as the mise en scene?
For He is setting the stage, the theatre, the home, for all of humanity. The extrovert is here, the introvert, those that seem predisposed to cheerfulness and those who seem more melancholy by nature. All the human dichotomies are here, at least all that I have come across in my own journey. They are the characters which are part and parcel of life in all ages and centuries, all nations and states, past, present and, more importantly, future. Here is, as one writer put it, the rag-and-bone-shop, the lineaments of universal human life, the text and texture of community as we all experience it in the crucible of interaction.
Memorials of the Faithful is what might well be this age’s Canterbury Tales, that compendium of personalities who exemplify, as William Blake once put it, "the eternal principles that exist in all ages."16 We get a Writer Who delights in other people but Who has an active and incisive mind, a practicality that He brings to bear on what are often difficult personalities. He dwells only on the essentials; His purpose is inveterate; His feelings sincere and intense; they never relax or grow vapid during His cursory analyses. He is exquisitely tender, but clearly wily and tough to survive in the burly-burly life of exile, prison and the unbelievable difficulties He had to bear along life’s tortuous path.
The heroic age was coming to a close when ‘Abdu’l-Baha put His pen to paper; and it was over by the time the Haifa Spiritual Assembly published His final book. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had played a prominent role in the epic that was the heroic age. He played a dominant role in writing that epic’s story. Memorials of the Faithful is an important part of that epic. This epic tradition was not essentially oral but quinessentially written: a written tradition par excellence. Since The Growth of Literature by the Chadwicks(1924-1926) the heroic epic has been seen in epic studies "as a cultural rather than a literary phenomenon."17 The Baha’i epic has grown out of a complex and fascinating set of cultural conditions. Indeed ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s work has contributed to the resolution of problems involving the relationship, the transition, between oral narrative and written text. But this relationship is a question to occupy epic enthusiasts and is not our principle concern here.
Within about twelve months, perhaps even less, of completing this last of His books, ‘Abdu’l-Baha had begun His Tablets of the Divine Plan, the action station within which the community He was addressing could put into practice all the good advice He had given it in His Memorials of the Faithful. Like The Will and Testament, though, it may take a century or more to grasp the implications of this surprisingly subtle and, deceptively simple, book.
We are approaching, though, in the next two decades the end of the first century of the Formative Age. Perhaps the time has come to begin to seriously grasp the implications of these shining pages of ‘Abdu-l-Baha and His interpretive genius.
12 May 2001
1Ira Bruce Nadel, "Biography as Institution", Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
2Sigmund Freud in Freud: A Life for Our Time, Peter Gay, W.W> Norton and Co., NY, 1988, p.xv-xvi.
3Virginia Woolf in Nadel, op. cit., p.141.
4‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 1978, p. 198.
5Arnold Ludwig, How Do We Know Who We Are? Oxford UP, Reviewed in New Scientist, 8 November 1997.
6Charles Baudelair in Baudelair, Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, London, p.xiv.
7'Abdu'l-Baha, Memorials of the Faithfulm Wilmette, 1970, p.
16William Blake in Geoffrey Chaucer: Penguin Critical Anthologies, editor, J.A. Burrow, 1969, p.82.
17Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World’s Great Folk Epics, editor, Felix J. Oinas, Indiana UP, London, 1978, p.1.
Addendum: the following addition did not appear in that ABS Newsletter. I include it here due to its relevance and, hopefully, to its possible interest to those who might want to extend the analogy between these two works. The analogy is a fertile one for this writer.
The following material was obtained from Derek Pearsall's The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, pp. chapter 6.
The whole organization of Chaucer's narrative is in the intersticies of a world of ecclesiastical routines and needs. 'Abdu'l-Baha's narrative, played as it is in the lives of seventy-seven souls, exists in the intersticies of lives transformed by a manifestation of God. Instead of the ubiquity of the Christian Faith and its practices we have a new religion emerging in the soil of people's lives. Both books gives us a narrative of faith. Women are dominant in Chaucer and men in Memorials of the Faithful. Both books provide us with a spiritual journey. There is a gusto and carnivalesque spirit, a contempt for marriage and sexual urges, in Chaucer while none of this is to be found in 'Abdu'l-Baha's work. There is no sense of social and moral commitment in Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's London is a turbulent and dangerous place; so too in 'Abdu'l-Baha's world. He writes of the domestic world rather than the politics of power. Both men possess a remarkable acuteness of observation; there is little of the sense of outrage. Chaucer makes a magpie-like raid on scholarly texts, perhaps more from conversations. The pilgrims are infinitely various.
The sense of dramatic vitality is so strong that the temptation to read the tales as principally an expression of the characters of their tellers is strong. Chaucer is a self-concealing and evasive character. His audience in the imagination is "a miscellaneous company, of lettered London men, to be appropriately scandalized and delighted by the Wife of Bath and the fabliaux, flattered by the invitation to share in a gentleman scholar's easily carried burden of learning and intrigued by the novel expose of London low life in the Cook's Tale. The audience is, probably exclusively, an audience of men. The Canterbury Tales are Chaucer's maturer reflections upon the life of men and women is society and in the Christian faith written in the last decade of his life. (1387-1400) He was almost entirely occupied with writing 'The Canterbury Tales' in the last decade of his life.
He refrained from direct allusion to public events and it is difficult, unsafe, to make any deductions about specific connections between life, works and times. Some scholars prefer to see his work as chaotic and inexplicable. I could compare and contrast ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá’is work here with Chaucer’s, but I will leave this activity to readers. I think they will find the exercise a heuristic one.
Essay Number Two: Biography
AN ATTEMPT AT BAHA’I BIOGRAPHY: 1993 TO 1997
After three three and a half years of attempting some of my own exercises in writing biographies ofsome of those I got to know in Perth; after several years of doing the same when I lived in the north and northwest of Australia, I have closed the book on the idea. I may take it up again one day, some future time; but, for now, the following essay marks my closing comments on the exercise. My Biography File, not on this web site, contains several essays exploring the idea of biography. It consists of a collection of notes and photocopies and perhaps two dozen pages of short biographical sketches on several Baha’is I came to know in Perth. Two other Biography Files are now part of my History of the Baha'i Faith in the North and Northwest of Australia and part of my Emergence of Baha'i Consciousness in World Literature: The Poetry of Roger White. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Three Epochs, 29 June 1997.
After a generation, some twenty years, of a great numbers of Iranians enlarging the face of the Baha’i community of Perth and a decade of my own presence here, I must content myself with some broad statements. These statements are not so much based on an intimate acquaintance with those whom I mention but, rather, on general impressions from simply being part of a metropolitan Baha’i community of over one thousand believers now.
"The great sources of the interesting" says A.L. Rowse in his Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet(Thames and Hudson, 1976, p.160) "are distinction and beauty." Many Baha’is in Perth have achieved distinction and I am confident when a history of this community is written in the years to come names like: Dr. Kamran Eshragian, Dr. Duane Varan, Greg and Melanie Parker, Kevin and Susheela Croft, Cy and Gary Olsen, Wing and Padma Wong, Quentin and Pam Lewis, Dr. Mehrdad and Nahid Meshgin, Keith and Fiona MacDonald, among many more I could list, will come to stand out. I could list at least another dozen or, perhaps, two dozen names. One could also go on to outline their various and several contributions to the Baha’i community during these past twenty years.
Someone who knows these people well I would hope will one day put pen to paper, as I have done on occasion with respect to some of this immensely varied community. Generally, though, readers will have to content themselves with biographical sketches immersed in poetic idiom. As my years in Perth come to a close it is obvious that autobiography and not biography has come to occupy the centre stage of my writing in the years to come.
Having arrived here in Perth in mid-December1987, after traversing two continents over two decades in my own life, I was disinclined, as I have mentioned in other places, to cultivate a high social profile; I found by the 1990s that to get through my week of teaching, usually some fifty hours, I had little energy or enthusiasm for anything else. Also, as the 1990s advanced insensibly, I found that writing poetry had become a serious artistic pursuit. Consequently, I have not had intimate acquaintanceship with many of the above personalities. In addition, there is something about Baha’i community life which puts the focus on the group in the first instance; and so it is that personalities, while important, do not become the centre of community life.
When the history of each of the Baha'i localities comes to be written in the decades ahead, the story of many individuals will come to the fore, for there are so many people in the Baha'i community of Perth with amazing stories to tell. Some Assemblies had begun to advance this process and had initiated histories of their communities. Belmont was one such community in which a brief history of the first fifteen years of its history: 1982-1997, or perhaps it was the first twenty years: 1979 to 1999, I can't recall now---had been started.
"A wide appreciation of individual difference and idiosyncrasy"(1) is also an important part of any biographical study, be it of an individual or a community, says Rowse in that same book. And so is a natural affection and attraction for the trivial and apparently irrelevant details of day-to-day existence. This would be a natural point of entry, for study of the Perth Baha’i community which even a peripheral participant like myself cannot but help to experience in even a cursory manner. It would be a point of entry that would allow comment on: the high degree of social interaction, the endless cups of tea, dishes of rice and chicken, the many very pretty girls and beautiful women, the very richly adorned homes, the intelligent and capable young men and women, the amazing stories of escape from Iran and adventure in countries like Turkey, Pakistan and India; indeed, a list of the quotidian aspects of life that are part of this metropolitan Baha’i community would be quite endless.
The fine structure of Baha’i experience, where the intellectual and institutional narratives could meet, might very well be in these primary materials of historical study. For me they meet in my poetry. Such a community experience would require a pen more worthy than mine, a biographer and historian who participates more fully in community life, who actively searches out the organic developments in the twenty-five, or so, Baha’i communities that are part of the Perth complex of human interaction. For such a study to be interesting, to be both perceptive and intellectually stimulating as well as human and personal, for such a statement or analysis to hold the reader the distance of time and the accummulaton of more experience may be prerequisites.
Most of the places I have lived as a Baha'i have been in the first half century of their history and, more often, in their first quarter century. These years were clearly first efforts at community building. It certainly requires some other person than myself to write the story, although I have tried from time to time, occasionally with success. After several years of contemplating the task, it is proving elusive outside my poetry and outside several brief attempts.(2) Certain gems of delight can be found there, but very little is going to be found here in this folio of attempts at biographical statement.
Perhaps the last two decades, building as they do on what seems an infinitely slow journey from the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s in the history of the Perth Baha'i community, are an inadequate time frame for a history, a biography of several individuals, a psychohistory, a sociological analysis. I’m sure someone will soon do it, at least one of these social scientific exercises. But it will not be me. My contribution will be what the reader finds here: some perambulating statement, some exploratory piece. The best I can contribute, it would seem, is the essential character of my own personality, a precious object, a possession that I can celebrate because I know it well. It is a source of both distinction and shame if I examine its history. It is a means of weaving the collectivity, the wider Baha’i community, into some kind of whole. The reader can find in my own writing, and largely in my poetry, the meeting point for mobile, effusive, processual influences that operate in the wider community. But such a reader will have to look elsewhere in my writings.
This reader will be unable to find here much of Baha’i biography, hagiography, the kind Edward Morrison describes in his history of Baha'i biography.(3) Indeed the kind of outpouring that readers found in nineteenth century biography: frivolity, gossip, egotistical narrative, scandal, raillery, elevated pretensions, ill-digested masses of material, slipshod style, tedious panegyric, lamentable lack of selection, detachment and design. I like to think the reader will find, instead, a most delicate and humane form of expression that neither sugar-coats people and experience, nor conceals the honest truth; that possesses something of the logical and factual in the Aristotelian tradition; and the literary and the metaphorical in the Platonic tradition. If such a reader does find such an expression, it will be in my poetry, for here biography and autobiography meet in gay, and not so gay, abandon.
Such a reader will find entertainment, a scholarly pursuit, a bedside companion, a source of a philosophy or religion, a psychology, a history and a sociology or religion; it is a window in which to tackle existential questions, through which a person can identify themselves with others and come to understand themselves emotionally and intellectually even, perhaps, change and create themselves. It is my hope that readers can find a reorientation in this poetry, a way of looking at the familiar in unfamiliar ways due to a power of a certain freshness, strangeness and uniqueness. Baha'i bookshops increasingly are enjoying Baha'i biography focusing on one person and some of it is of excellent quality. Perhaps I will venture down that lane one day. But it is a difficult road to hoe, biographers like Trolllope and James became disenchanted with their biographies and the historical narrative associated with them. They simply got bored.(4)
The inner life, as Michael Polanyi emphasizes, the private, the tacit dimension, the silent root of human life, is awefully difficult to tap. Writing in general and poetry in particular is the only way to find the real person, this private and inner experience. It is the only way an individual can be portrayed in any socio-historical context, in any rich contextualization, any sociological matrix, any literary discourse or situatedness. If someone does not write it for you(biography), you have to do it yourself (autobiography, poetry, novels). You have to define, to construct, your own life, your own spiritual pilgrimage, around some points of meaning, turning, Eureka experiences. In the process you deal with the discontinuities, the absenses of coherence, the essentially unknowable, the irrecoverable, the complex. I find poetry helps this task of defining my own meaning. Others, most others, must find other ways.
But whatever each of us does, we must each shape and define our own life. Even the smallest details, when they roll around long enough in our heads, can begin to form wholes that are aesthetically satisfying and intellectually provocative. But these details must be tied to some historical reality, some wider framework, within which the details find their home, so to speak. Most of this is done without recourse to writing it down. Most human beings leave behind them few solid artifacts. Sometimes a spark in someone's life is left by which a biographer can pursue the truths of that life. Sometimes that spark is hardly durable and in perhaps two generations it is gone; the light of their life goes out on earth forever. The artistry of biography may help future generations gain access to understanding a life, to a more congenial means of accessing the complexity of history and authenticating the facts and circumstances of the past by means of the realities of human behaviour.
Any vision of the future, if it is to be powerful and effective in individual lives and in the communities we experience, must integrate the ordinary, must find an eloquence that redeems uniformity, must be rooted in a love, a compassion, a tenderness for others, a spiritual depth that inspires the reader. So much of Baha'i biography that I have read in my pioneering lifetime is more hagiography than biography. Such hagiography is useful as factual statements of "who did what and when." They are essentially archives between two covers. But they do not emotionally individualize their subjects. A great life does not make a great book. A vision, a grand design must not eliminate significant and uncomfortable details.
The best summary I have read of Baha'i biography up to the beginning of the fourth epoch in 1986 is that of S. Edward Morrison: When the Saints Come Marching In: The Art of Baha'i Biography, Dialogue, Winter, 1986, pp.32-35.
I have found that it is, as the father of modern biography Lytton Strachey once put it, "as difficult to write a good life as to live one." Perhaps that is why I have had little success thusfar. But the goal is there, as it was for James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. I want to invite my readers, through a sensitive, sympathetic rendering of individual virtue and limitation, to embrace another human life. For that is what one does when one reads or writes biography and autobiography. Reading good biography or autobiography helps us to shape our vision.
Vision does not overcome the difficulties of human personality which we must deal with in the day-to-day round. But with the vision we have a crucial coping mechanism. I think I would have perished long ago without the vision provided by the Cause. With the vision I can struggle on to the end of my days. Perhaps that vision will one day provide the inspiration to work with my material, with the rag and bone shop of life and pen a biography worthy of the name. Thusfar, I have had to wait until the passing of the individual of Roger White to begin. This is usually the case: posthumous biography. For now, though, the workshop in which I did some writing of Baha'i biography, off and on from 1982 to 1997, is closed.
(4) Ira Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.137-8.
(3) S. Edward Morrison," When the Saints Come Marching In: The Art of Baha'i Biography," Dialogue, Winter, 1986, pp.32-35.
(2) I think my most successful efforts at Baha'i biography, all in miniature and following 'Abdu'l-Baha's model in Memorials of the Faithful, were in the Northern Territory. None of these efforts were published except for a series of 25 short 200-400 word 'instalments' in the RTC Newsletter Northern Lights from 2000 to 2002, about 7500-10,000 words.
(1) A.L. Rowse, Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976, p.160.
24 November 2001
A SENSE OF DESTINY
Catherine Anne Porter in her Notes on a Criticism published in 19401 writing about Thomas Hardy said that he believed that "neither act, nor will, nor intention will serve to deflect a man's destiny from him, once he has taken the step which decides it." In attempting to apply this thought of Hardy's to my own life, it seems to me there have been many steps which, collectively, have decided my destiny: joining the Baha'i Faith(1959); moving away from my home town and my mother(1966); coming to Australia(1971); marrying first Judy and then Chris(1967 and 1975, respectively); teaching in various places(1967 to 1999); and starting to write poetry seriously in 1992. These are certainly highlights, but there are also other factors, other steps, involved in determining this 'destiny.' The poem below tries to deal with what seems to me to be a complex issue with so much that is provisional, uncertain and dependent on those Brides of inner meaning.2 -Ron Price with thanks to 1"Notes on Thomas Hardy," Internet, 4 January 2002; and 2 Baha'u'llah, The Book of Certitude, p.175.
This sense of destiny did not begin
to materialize in my mind with any force
until the end of my young adulthood,1
at least two decades into pioneering
and, having begun, it has been slowly
evolving in these my middle years
connected as it is with the mystic world
at the very centre and ground of my being,
where archaic mysteries have been restored,
before my eyes with a revitalizing spiritual
energy released and wafted over all creation.2
I certainly see myself, now, after nearly six
decades of life, as the inheritor, potential bearer
and promoter of historical forces struggling for
emergence, consciousness, fulfilment, communication,
part of the greatest drama in the world's spiritual history
in which I arise resolutely and unreservedly to play my part;3
yes, indeed, in this strange eventful history which seems,
so often, like those illusory vapours on desert sands.
1young adulthood: 20-40; middle adulthood: 40-60.
2This idea comes from (i) the opening lines of the Tablet of Carmel and (ii) an article in World Order(Summer 1983) on the poetry of Robert Hayden.
3Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p.26.
4Shakespeare, As You Like It; and Baha'u'llah, Writings.
5 January 2002
THERE'S A LOT RIDING THERE
The past is the domain of contingency, uncertainty, in which we accept events and from which we select events in order to fulfill our potentialities and to gain satisfaction and security in the immediate future. It is there for our exploration and study, especially the autobiographer. We remember what has significance for our present style of life. This remembering is a creative process; it is a mirror in which we examine our lifestyle in the present. What we seek to become determines what we remember we have been. Whether we can even recall the significant events of the past depends upon our decisions with regard to the future. Our past will not even become alive if nothing matters enough to us in the future we envisage. If we want our uncovering, our examination, of the past to have reality we must possess some hope and commitment toward working and changing the future, toward integrating ourself for future creativity. -Ron Price with thanks to Rollo May, The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology, W.W. Norton and Co., NY, 1983.
We've got a lot riding on that vision,
those buildings of light up on the hill.
My life, all that's gone before, is riding
there in an aliveness, a reality born in
those very terraces, in that water trickling
down, in a tall marble column, in the spirit
and lives sown in a history oh so solemn
but with a consciousness, itself a wellspring
of an exquisite celebratory joy.
13 November 2001
BEYOND THESE FOUR EPOCHS
I feel that in some ways I am lobbing my poems into an unknowable future in the hope that my world of particulars will confer an increased sense of historical legibility on future readers. Those future readers will, I trust, complete my poems with meanings currently unavailable to me in my historically prior and epistomologically determined condition. For memory is more than the comfortable source of poetic emotion and lyric subjectivity that that term--memory--now evokes. Memory is slowly extending itself, I do believe, in our world of immense confusion and often anarchous conditions, beyond its present place of confession, reminiscence and the inviolable substance of individual identity, to a site where possible collective futures may be negotiated. At this site, this place of poetry, concrete ideological and theological issues will be expressed; collective emotional dispositions will also be found in a network of shifting and often contradictory values. An etiquette of expression and a fuller and more adequate perspective, more appropriately responsive to the complexity of current questions and questions, will be found beyond the horizon of these current epochs. Such expression and perspective will be more various, more capacious and more fully endowed with more solid thinking.
I feel like I am actively lending myself and my poetry to a future which is as inevitable as it is incomprehensible and unintelligible. This poetry, it seems to me, is the embodiment of a world of anticipated meanings which an emergent historical community may 'take up' with a view to practical action. -Ron Price with thanks to Joel Nickels, "Post-Avant-Gardism: Bob Perelman and the Dialectic of Futural Memory," A Review of Bob Perelman's The Future of Memory, Roof Books, NY, 1998.
We shall see what this emerging
world religion will do with this poetry,
this embodiment of anticipated meanings,
this site of collective emotional dispositions,
this network of shifting and contradictory values
which attempt: an etiquette of expression,
fuller perspectives, to create a place endowed
with solid thinking and point beyond the horizon
of these four epochs of this Formative Age.
18 July 2001
THE BIOGRAPHY OF A GENERATION
Price's autobiographical poem can be read, in some ways, as the biography of a generation, the generation that came of age in the sixties, grew into middle age in the eighties, into what the human development theorists call late adulthood, the years 60 to 80, in the first decade of the twenty-first century and into old age in the years beyond 2525. William Wordsworth's poem The Prelude could be read as the biography of the romantics of the 1790s who grew into old age, if they lived that long, in the years after 1850.
The case is obviously an arguable one and, at best, only partly true. In the case of Wordsworth or Price, the mind, the imagination, is a binding, sympathetic medium and the poems which come out of their poetic matrix speak with or against the historical grain, with their lives and those of their contemporaries or coreligionists and these poems are at the heart of an inner life which is given a primary place in the ideology of both men, in the creation of their personal identities and is the place where the important changes of life take place, albeit slowly and unobtrusively. --- Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 26 March 2001.
Yes, perhaps, in some ways,
to each man his own story.
Mine is quite precise in places,
but there's a matrix here for
everyone to tell their own.
Mine, growing out of the first
epochs of this Formative Age
has a certain: tone, mode, manner,
content, style, relevance, timeliness
and scope---bound together in this
sympathetic medium, this inner space
for and about the seekers among my
contemporaries--and me and what it
all means for, if it means nothing to me,
it is nothing, nothing at all.
26 March 2001
MAP FOR A FUTURE NOT-YET-ARRIVED
For years I used to read books of the self-help genre. I taught human relations or interpersonal skills for nearly a quarter of a century and read every book on the subject I could find. But after those twenty-five years, say 1974 to 1999, of delving into their content, I found I tired of the material and became more interested in writing, in language, in literature, in poetry. Occasionally I stopped by the section of a bookstore where this familiar old material sat waiting, for the market for these books increased with the years, indeed, the literature on self and others, human relations, et cetera, is and was burgeoning. -Ron Price with thanks to Kathleen Mary Fellon, The Australian, Review, p.8.
I’ve had this enormous map for years
and I’ve been describing its landscape,
its territory, its hills and valleys, inch by
proverbial inch, but so much remains
unknown and, if known, not understood,
and if understood, not practical, at least
for them. So, Mr. Eaden, my map is out
of date,1 ready for a future not yet arrived;
its symbols, places, names, play around in
the landscape of my imagination;
its territory drifts between sweet-scented
streams of some vast immensity, some paradise
of His reality and an emptiness of untracked
land not unlike the Arctic’s frozen wastes
or Australia’s hot, dry desert sands.
1P.R. Eaden and F.H. Mares, Mapped But Not Known, Wakefield Press, 1985, p.4.
22 June 2000
VISIONS ON AN EPIC SCALE
One of the features of art in the late twentieth century was a desire of some artists to create visions on an epic scale. I found one, at least it was a partial vision that began to obsess me back in the late fifties, and it has gradually been filled in during these past forty years. Still I can work on it for it is vast, a vision on an epic scale. -Ron Price with thanks to Robert Hughes, American Visions, TV Series, 1996.
Minimilist art came in, a do your own thing
mentality and some great and mighty wind,
rampantly blowing anarchy as we began
transforming The Mount. Art brought
everything under the sun: from tragi-pessimism
to new hopes and booms of Andy Warhols
and Jeff Koons with their peep holes into
decadence, modern issues, identity with other
visions on an epic scale. The best still seemed
to lack all conviction and the worst were still full
of passionate intensity: but tomorrow is another
day and with Scarlet O’Hara we all watch and wait.1
1 the last line of the 1939 movie "Gone with the Wind" was: "tomorrow is another day."
19 September 1996
VISION AMIDST COMPLEXITY
In the visionary poetry of the west since the early 1950s, say, since 1953 when the Baha’is believe the Kingdom of God on earth began, there has been an increasing and thoroughgoing rejection of much that was tradition in contemporary society; there was a search for a new vision with an emphasis on personal meaning with only thin threads to the collectivity. "Dreams press us on all sides" said Robert Bly, but for many of the so-called visionary poets it was not the wide socio-political world around them where visions and dreams found their chief expression. With an old world dying and with it old selves, antiquated inner sensations and meanings, outworn shibboleths and labels, with deafening withdrawal, with private experience as a touchstone for reality—an historical process and tendency that was, arguably, four centuries in the making—the new world of dreams and visions was incarnated in a morass of complexity.
As the Shrine of the Bab and the Mother Temple of the West were finally completed in the early 1950s; as the Guardian continued to expatiate on his vision of both our present society and its future; and as the Baha’i community expanded significantly in those same 1950s and 1960s, the vision took on greater and greater specificity. By the 1990s, after three decades of visionary exegisis by the Universal House of Justice; after a burgeoning publishing thrust that established a massive literature providing an increasingly elaborated and finely textured vision; after the magnificent architectural constructions of an unfolding splendour on Mt. Carmel and the confluence of continents into a neighbourhood by new communication technology extending to the remotest islands and mid-most heart of the ocean; and after the continued and steady growth of the community, the vision that stood before the believers and the seekers among their contemporaries was enthralling. But alas, still, there were few who listened and fewer who committed. -Ron Price with thanks to Hyatt H. Waggoner, " Prospects", American Visionary Poetry, Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1982, pp. 200-207.
Amidst a staggering complexity,
fragmentation, division, multipicity,
eclecticism, globalization, sensory
explosion, knowledge bubble-baths,
strains and stresses of incredible magnitude,
post-traditional experiment, absurdity,
brain heat, white-hot, blackness, dark heart
of mysterious transitions, post-modernism,
poststructuralism, pentapolar political
orientations, impoverished psycho-emotional
mental sets in a plurality of conceptual perspectives:
phenomonology, hermeneutics, psychoanalysis
and critical theory: mutually contradictory,
mutually exclusive, complementary, independent,
beyond arbitrary mixing, varying temperaments,
problems with deep intellectual shifts that could
not be settled—all of this lies behind and above
this vision which has been growing so unobtrusively
in our midst and now stands before us like a dream:
so new, so various, so dazzling, so alive, amidst this
tumultuous transition—going forward as never before.
24 August 1997
A SHINING TORCH
..........The days gone by
Return upon me almost from the dawn
Of life: the hiding places of man’s power
Open a... -English Poetry of the Romantic Period: 1789-1830, J. R. Watson, Longman, NY, 1992(2nd ed’n).
The following poem was written on the eve of a ten week teaching trip to Wagga Wagga, a town of some 55,000 people, three hours south of Canberra. It represents a reflection on teaching trips going back to 1962 and offers a promise, a hope, of things to come. -Ron Price, 9 July 1995, 11:00 am, Rivervale WA, Australia.
I see by glimpses into a mystery,
some hiding places of a power
that mostly is closed to me in meaning,
some evanescent stream of life which
I have rarely reached. It mostly seems
inaccessible like closing time when I try
to gain admission to its life. Now....
I remember youth’s golden gleam and
a host of remembrances bound to each
other by piestistic effort like some immortal
spirit growing amidst a so often visionary
dreariness: travel teaching’s spirit must be
restored for future understanding, here.
As I paint this memorial, enshrine in words
and feelings a certain power rusted in the
towns of time, in indisputable shapes
of streets, hills and endless, endless,
words, spots of time, making my spirit
more efficacious now and providing you
a glimpse into that still undiscovered
country--my travel teaching past.
What does it all mean, those forays
into indifference, apathy and immense
urban and rural agglomerations? Like
rolling a mountain away with a feather...
Why do I bother venturing into a cold town
in an Australian mid-winter? To hoist the flag?
Put up some posters? Help a Group struggle
to their nine? Have a change of scenery from
the current excess of familiarity, worn thin?
Bidyadanga, Kununurra, Darwin, Bendigo,
Warrnambool, Queenstown, Amherstburg:
places where I have left some seeds impure,
though, no doubt, with independence hardly
begun and only on my way to peace:
The intention of the teacher must be
pure, his heart independent, his spirit
attracted, his thought at peace...
A little more practice coming at me
on the way to an exalted magnanimity
looking for that shining torch.*
* Tablets of the Divine Plan, 1977, p.51.
9 July 1995
The poet must see things with his own eyes, hear them with his own ears; not with the eyes and ears of those who have written before him. -W.H. Davies in The World of Poetry, Clive Sansom, Phoenix House, London, 1959, p.140.
...know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour...justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness.
-Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words.
So the originality of a poet lies first and last in the audacity of being which permits him to be true to what he perceives, and to his own nature. There is no originality apart from this... -Stephen Spender, Life and the Poet, 1942, in Sansom, op. cit., p.141.
I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess...it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts...
-John Keats, in a letter, 1818.
The good poet, in writing himself, his poetry,
writes his time: connecting it to the remotest
past and the furthest reaches of a future cast
in the drama of eternity. Harnessing his genius
to his times, he runs through infinite space and
time seeking joy from an incorruptible Essence,
from the most manifest of the manifest and
the most hidden of the hidden and, when he finds
a glimmer, a trace, of the traceless Friend, he seeks
to share it as best he can as in a marriage of true minds;
he seeks the hospitable reader as tinder waits the spark.
This he may never achieve for such true minds are rare.
Knowing yourself is like knowing God and without
the manifestation this tinderbox is never lit. An iron
frost, a treacherously thin ice, a subtle veil-can make
poetry impassable, impossible, unrealizable, a "never."
20 September 1995
If poetry is an intellectual/intuitive act it is not a random indeterminate process, but is governed by a previsioned end....there must be a ruling conception by which it knows its quarry: some foresight of the work to be done, some seminal idea. -James McAuley, Meanjin, Summer, 1953, Vol. xii, No.4, p.433.
Don’t tell me about this extravagance!
Do you think it some kind of embarrassing
afterthought, a decoration? A propensity
for unnecessary embellishment? This is no
bedecking of some pretentious woman with
precious stones, Pericles-like, back then in
the name of an Athenian nationalism. Or did
he just want them to love Athens more?
Certainly an unusual and audacious exercise
by an unusual and audacious man who was
both powerful and unassuming as the earth.
Yes, you could call it ‘state art’ for a new
Order whose first stirrings are still a long
way off. This is no saviour-in-a hurry
like that Pericles of old or Augustus or
one of a host of modern isms that are
gradually and not-so-gradually burning
themselve up in the fires of a dieing old world.
This is not like those marble eccentricities
of old, big enough to be called vulgar--no way.
Big enough to be a vehicle for conveying the
powerful prestige of a spiritual message;
and small enough to be no threat, to be
the integral part of a future world civilization,
to preserve a beauty as old as our civilization,
and a religious message as far back as Adam.
No false starts here, no long delays like some
of those ancient temples.* The effect here is
as public as it was in Greece and Rome,
only we’re talking small beginnings for a
millennium and beyond. We’re talking
silent teachers, quiet messages, getting in
quietly like Augustus only straight, up-front
to anyone who will listen and no absolutism
embellished with some artificial divine afflatus:
this is democratic theocracy at its finest—yes!
*The construction of the Temple of Artemis at Sardis was worked on for 700 years, but was never really completed. It looked like a building site for most of this time. This fact would have helped make the Baha’is in Chicago more comfortable about their long-standing exercise with the Mother Temple of the West constructed from 1912 to 1953.
25 December 1995
How we understand and appreciate a work of art has much to do with how we understand ourselves and the world we live in; our relations to art determine in part our relations to a culture and its traditions. -B.R. Tilghman, But Is it Art? The Value of Art and the Temptation of Theory, Basil Blackwell, NY, 1984, p.16.
The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. -Jorge Luis Borges in ibid., p.76.
Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. -Terry Atkinson, ‘From an Art and Language Point of View’, Art Language, 1, February 1970, p.23.
This beauteous place on the hill
is unconsciously surrounded and
enriched by a world that is created
by speech, like this poetry, which
condenses and abbreviates making
an energy potentially explosive, a
universe in itself, in miniature, self-
enclosed, self-limiting, a little hypnotic,
but not as forcefully as music, giving
body and definiteness, vividness and
depth, even a purity and undefiledness,
to this major historic thrust of a mighty
process. The power to unite people
through shared celebration has profound
significance here among these terraces
and buildings. This poetic office reaches
out to all the scenes of life especially that
infallible touchstone of truth and beauty
in the word of the Mystic Herald rendering
people aware, as much as he possibly can,
of the unifying forces emanating from His
retreat of deathless splendour.
24 December 1995
A MORE SETTLED FOUNDATION
Passion does not make verses...poetry is built upon a more settled foundation. -July 6, 1852, Flaubert to his mistress Louise Colet in The Lyre and the Paunshop: Essays in Literature and Survival: 1974-1984, UWA Press, 1986, p.56.
While I was tasting love, a deeper root
than ever I had had and rolling over,
on and on, and drinking goblets full,
I was eating soils of future home where
I would lay my bones, where dust to dust
would fill my cup, that golden ring would
settle deep. Here, here, I would lay my gold
a tincture for a life, essayed in fire long enough
to mark my life as ‘Paid’. Paid in full, so said
my soul, one step away from heights, one step
away from celestial tree, one step away from
sights, from sights revealed with ink of light,
to clothe eternity, a pavillion just one pace
away from land with deepest roots and love
beyond these withered blooms.
10 September 1995
To be a poet is to have a soul....in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. -George Eliot, Middlemarsh, 1872.
Thank you, Roger, for trying to depict
your experience at the graveside of
the child Husayn, ambushed as you were
by that liquid rushing world, overwhelmed.
Yes, the heart’s frail craft coasts comfortably
unperturbed in a place like this Mountain,
as it must, braced to deflect those dips and swings
which always threaten to capsize it in those unforseen
eddies and perilous brinks, uncontrolled.
No, you would not have chosen any of it;
it was like some kind of divine seduction:
the most unobtrusive of the unobtrusive,
insinuating itself into the centre of your life,
wringing your spirit, the source of unquestionable
remorse, regret: too simple here, too ornate there.
It is all too humanly human, too divinely divine
and, as you say, ultimately right.*
Thank you, Roger, for teaching me
in time for some future call, how to avoid,
or at least arrest, inundation
by focussing on some birdcall,
or some dustmote, or perhaps
the traffic in town. For I, too,
can be just a sightseer,
safely distanced from
those tumultuous rapids
which in a potentially frequent invasion,
frequent storm of tenderness, could sweep
me, too, out to those lashing seas where
I would gladly drown, so gladly.
28 December 1995
* Roger White, "Sightseeing", The Witness of Pebbles, p.75.
As forests change their leaves with the declining years....so the old generation of words perishes, and those newly born blossom and flourish like young men -Horace in Enemies of Poetry, W.B. Stanford, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980, p.113.
Shakespeare has more meaning and value now than he had in his own day. -A contemporary critic of English Literature in ibid., p.114.
So may my words perish
after this spiritual springtime,
after the leaves of men’s lives
have been arrayed with fresh blossoms
and fruits of a consecrated joy;
but it may be, just maybe, that
they come to have more meaning in a future age
when the deluge has gone, the frenetic busyness
has abated, the mental tests have swept past:
purging, purifying and preparing us for the noble
mission which is our future as a race.
Then, perhaps then, there will be people
who can submit themselves to time’s process,
to this dance of words and ideas
that I have drunk with my mind
in these darkest hours
before the dawn of peace.
3 December 1995
Among those who visited...some were recalled to life...But others, in truth, have simply passed through; they have only taken a tour. -’Abdu’l-Baha
Not on the ocean, on a semi-circular bay,
always impressed me as a rather grotty place
in pictures except for those places on the hill.
Just another noisy, dirty city as far as I could see,
except, as I say, for that garden up on Carmel.
Recently, they’ve been building, building,
excavating, ornamenting, terracing, planting,
putting in more of that Pentelicon marble:
I tell you they’re transforming this old place,
giving it a future--Herzl’s ‘city of the future.’
I’ve never been here, as it would appear;
never touched down at Ben Gurion,
nor moved through the humid summer air.
I could be one of those tourists that the
Haifa Tourism Board is so keen on.
This journey has taken longer than I had planned
when I began to think about this place back in,
what, 1955? That’s as long as Moses took to
get to the promised land. Fitting really:
the whole thing tastes of new beginnings.
27 December 1995
YOU WOULD NOT WANT TO BE YOUNG AGAIN
Long leagues from senility,
Youth’s anguish left behind,
Lies a blissful, rich and golden stretch
To relish peace of mind.
To make a friend of everyday,
To sift the past with thought.
One well might wish for youth again
But wise the one who’d not.
-Roger White, "Wish", The Language of There, p.14.
This golden state you entered,
it seems just the other day;
perhaps it was a year or two
when those old pains moved away.
To make a friend of every day,
after you've had morning tea
and sift the past so gently
with your present, future--be.
As you leave old anguishes behind
new ones so often emerge.
You languish, as we so often do
in familiar haunts where
old problems still converge.
However gold the state of grace,
however full of joy, you can only
go for just so long before you’re
kicked like some old toy.
Then you must assess the scene
and neither fight nor flight, just dig
your heels in and think it out--
some you'll lose and some
you'll get just right.
And if you find things don't quite suit,
for this life has no guarantees,
just enjoy the colours and the hues.
Perhaps along the way
you’ll spot your needed cues.
These cues won't tell you everything
just a few things for the years ahead
and as you travel here and there
you'll slowly sort out what's said.
But given that there's so many words,
you're sure to miss some things.
For noone can absorb it all
And so--I wish your bird bright wings.
14 November 2003
That’s all folks!