We might observe on this Good Friday: we have a March Madness battle in which two poets bring lines springing up with a noticeable spiritual passion.

Philip Nikolayev wins every debate with his sword of logic, his shield of Aristotle, and his slippers sewn at Harvard University.

Nikolayev has a much better sense of humor than Waldo Emerson—and thank God Emerson remained frowning.  Had Mr. E. cracked a grin, the result would have been hideous. When Nikolayev laughs, it is all over for you: there’s nothing you can do.  Most American poets of note attended Harvard, as did Nikolayev—one listens attentively to the serious ones; the humorous ones, however, awe, and even intimidate us.  When T.S. Eliot tells a dirty joke, we are vaguely uneasy; what great poets do under the radar tends to stay under the rug, since greatness just will not be found there.

Nikolayev, now in youthful middle age (doesn’t it seem the world is getting younger?) found time a few years back to write a great “undergraduate” poem, with one part druggy danger, two parts innocence, and some sentimentality, and as we read this line on this day, it does advertise a certain spiritual largess:

I wept like a whale. You had changed my chemical composition forever.

Oh God. Beautiful.

But wait, here comes Chana Bloch, translator, professor, Judaic scholar, poet, with a line from a poem which was published in the 2105 Best American Poetry.  In the poem, the poet is observing a piece of pottery. The line soars with spiritual significance—how can you deny it?

The potter may have broken the cup just so he could mend it.

There is some poetry that puts you in church; you can’t help but think, poetry is just another way of being religious.

Which came first, the poem or the psalm?

Who can walk into a poem and not believe in it?

What makes the pleasing scent of a poem rise up into the air?

Is religion a shadow of poetry, or is poetry the shadow?

Is is possible for the poems of pagans to infect the holy, if the holy needs the poem—so the divine might sigh?



  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 25, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Incredibly beautiful essay, the whole of it. I put it on my Easter table with the lilacs and the holy poems of George Herbert. “that the Divine may sigh” what higher aspiration…?

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 25, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    The two lines of the two different poets seem to me equally and perfectly weighted. A difficult contest. In PN’s line no matter how many times I read it, it is Melville’s whale. I keep pushing the button over and over like a little kid just to see that whale pop up. It’s fun, I can’t help it.

    The line about the potter and the clay a deep image in the Old Testament and perhaps elsewhere is riveting, frightening and touching at the same time. The tenderness of God after the devastations “explained”. I wonder…the mysteriousness, unfathomable depth of that image.

    Poor Emerson (the never smiling). It must be hard to be venerable knowing that your portrait is going to hang in children’s schoolrooms for a very long time.

  3. noochinator said,

    March 25, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    The link below has the complete Nikolayev poem, “Litmus Test”:

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 25, 2016 at 11:41 pm

      It seems such a waste of such an inventive fantastical poet to chronicle a drunken party.

  4. noochinator said,

    March 25, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    Chana Bloch’s complete poem “The Joins” can be seen at the link below:

  5. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 25, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    This is a beautiful poem but it really ended at least to my ear before the last line.

  6. noochinator said,

    March 26, 2016 at 12:30 am

    The Messiah of Harvard Square

    Every year some student would claim to be the Messiah.
    It was the rabbi who had to deal with them.
    He had jumped, years ago, from a moving boxcar
    on the way to a death camp. That leap
    left him ready for anything.

    This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
    Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
    he shouted to a cheerful crowd,
    sang Hebrew songs to confuse the Gentiles,
    dressed for the end like Belshazzar.
    People stopped to whisper and laugh.
    “I have a noble task,” the boy explained.
    “I must prepare myself to endure
    the laughter of fools.”

    The rabbi was a skeptic.
    Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
    and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
    finish planting the tree. Then
    go see if it’s true.

    Still, he took the boy into his study
    and questioned him meticulously,
    as if the poor soul before him might be,
    God help us, the Messiah.

    Chana Bloch

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 26, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Like a legend, steeped in legend almost a Jewish folktale feeling.or several woven into one strand.

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