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Inside NCR

Awards and appeals in prose and poetry

When John Wilkins, our journalistic cousin in London, was recently honored by the queen, we asked NCR’s poet laureate Arthur Jones to muse a bit about it:

In England,
Our friend at The Tablet,
John Wilkins, the editor there,
Is now on a par with the Beatles,
For a Catholic a stature quite rare.
The queen
In her wisdom will honor
Her subjects whose service doth please,
Our pal Johnny Wilkins among them,
He’s one of her new MBEs.

(MBE: Member of the British Empire. This most minor of the queen’s awards is an honorific worn as initials behind the name. The queen confers the title -- along with a medal -- at Buckingham Palace. The Beatles received their MBEs in 1965. John Lennon sent his back in 1969 because of British involvement in the war in Biafra.)

One thing I’ve learned from this page is that “third time lucky” is more than a cliché. People need to be reminded of things not twice but three times. When I first appealed for applicants for “Keeping Faith” , nearly nothing happened. When I tried a second time, there was a very gratifying response. With this third appeal we hope for an avalanche of entries. This is a unique opportunity to honor some soul you know who has made a difference, made a gesture, stood out from the crowd in some way. Get in touch with Teresa Malcolm and tell her about your favorite person.

Last issue, commenting on the brouhaha caused by our story (NCR, June 19) on the Philadelphia archdiocese and its archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, I cast a mild rebuke in the direction of editor Robert Rosenthal whose Philadelphia Inquirer had refused to run the story written by its own staffer. It’s only fair to report that, in a subsequent meeting, reportedly with 45 of his writers and editors, Rosenthal made a gallant effort to come clean. In effect, Rosenthal retracted comments made about the article’s author, Ralph Cipriano, and admitted he would have run the article, according to a report about the meeting published in the Philadelphia City Paper, an alternative weekly. Rosenthal also promised, according to the City Paper, that there would be no journalistic sacred cows in Philadelphia, including the archdiocese.

Poets don’t turn out epics like they used to. As the world turns faster, people want their poetry pithy. And the pithiest poetry you’re likely to find is the haiku.

Haiku originated in Japan: three lines of managed syllables intense with content. As this poetic form came west, the syllables loosened up a little, but the format is still very tight. As in:

What we do to our Mother Earth
Is just the way
We treat each other

This is from Tersely Yours II: Haiku Poetry in Defense of Nature for the Coming Spiritual-Ecological Age, by Vic Hummert (available from 122 Rosedale, Lafayette, LA 70508). Hummert, a former Maryknoll priest and missionary to Hong Kong, has long been an environmental activist. His little poems cry out to the nation to wake up:

We are “water thinking”
What we do to the rivers
We do to ourselves

“Haiku is cryptic. Its brevity has something of a shock impact on consciousness,” writes ecologist and theologian Fr. Thomas Berry in an introduction to Tersely Yours II: “It evokes a response before a person can engage in any logical process of apprehension. It provides inspiration before resistance can be activated.” This stealth approach is especially necessary in a complacent world going for the gusto while the environment goes into a tailspin:

Rejecting climate change
Is like telling a mirror
“My hair isn’t growing”

An ancient genre, maybe, but topical as today:

Since they are fading fast
Don’t miss your chance
To pet a neighborhood frog

Or this:

Long before Holy Books
Were written -- “pagans” knew
Our Earth is sacred

Never one to console the complacent, Hummert the salty prophet is salt of the earth.

No one will ever say Fr. Joe Gallagher’s was an unexamined life. The Baltimore priest, now retired, has been writing books and articles for a long lifetime. They are full of poetry and epiphany and insight, holding reality upside down at arm’s length and shaking it until a new version comes out. For example:

Does life persist beyond the grave?
Back and forth debaters go.
But those who hold the negative
Can never say, “I told you so!”

That’s the first poem in his new Statements at the Scene (100 pages, $10, The Bench Press, PO Box 50027, Baltimore MD 21211). This is followed by “A Work of Superirrigation”:

The cleanest feet in Christendom,
those least in need of soap,
must be the ones each Holy Week
denuded for the pope.

Those two are taken from the “Lighter Scenes” section, which is followed by “Shifting Scenes,” “Scenes Unseen,” “Behind the Scenes” and much more. “The Philosophical Scene,” for example, includes “Bifocal”:

A lifetime: too short
to be serious, too long
to be trivial

The next poem is called “Courage”:

A law of courage
to clip and save:
The fearless heart
cannot be brave.

Gallagher, who wrote a column for The Baltimore Sun for many years, writes frequently for NCR, most notably his end-of-year peregrinations through the events and pronouncements of the previous year.

Writes Josephine Jacobsen, former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, about Gallagher’s poetry: “It perceives the constant ironies of life and the way in which the beautiful can flash out of the mundane, like a brilliant bird from a shabby bush. He has the great clown-instinct, which perceives the enormous intimacy of the funny with the sad and even the grim.”

The poems are not all just frisky and fun. Some, such as “Missing,” are heavy as life:

He takes a lot of trips.
I ask his wife
do you miss him
when he’s away?
No, she says,
I only miss him
When he’s home.

It’s hard to stop quoting Gallagher, who also says this: “The pessimist thinks the earth is flat; the optimist thinks it’s bubbly.”

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998