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?