April 2011 - Vol. 49.

Exodus Fifteen and the Christian Poet
.By Paul Michael Graham
Exodus Fifteen

The Lord is my champion!
 Goldplated bridles found void of integrity,
 Chariots jackknife impetuously.
 Warhorses buckle, disordered and bloodeyed,
 Foam of the mouth meeting foam of the sea.

     [Their conduct comprises (to me) an example;
     Where not to run when I find myself free.]

The Lord is a warrior!
 His fight is creating – His foe the destroyer;
 He grips him and 
                                       whirls him round and round round and
                                       flings him...

     [Hurling oneself from the fountain of life one finds
     Only the grave in an alien land;
     Carnival balls into prizewinning pockets have
     Rarely the accuracy of His hand!]

The Lord is my trumpet!
 His is a fierce and a beautiful music,
 The rhythm of history sings it unsolemnly.
 Shoreline parabolas change over centuries
 Still His consistency never concedes.

     [Remote Roman outposts are easy to come by,
     Moral authorities not in demand;
     The miracle is that it's me that this happens to,
     Moments there are when I know the same hand,
     That split chunks of water for Moses's feet's sake,
     That split in the middle, from nails, on a tree;
     One song that applies to our own generation,
     As Scotland, as Palestine, as the Red Sea...]

Some thoughts on the identity of the Christian poet

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, T.S. Eliot writes about how poetry should be accumulative;

[The] historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.(1) 

This idea is convincingly sensible. What intrigued me was applying it to devotional or religious (or religiously concerned) poetry. If a Christian is to believe, as Wordsworth does, that poetry is the first and last of all knowledge and that it is as immortal as the heart of man, then it exists coincidentally with that thing in Man, which is expressed as being made “in the image of God”(2)  - an essence we share with Him, and the accompanying struggle to realise this essence as matter-spirit hybrids, and ultimately be made like Him. Poetry is consistent and is written the same through history, like Brighton on a stick of rock.

In the Old Testament, the first real hymn or poem that glorifies and attempts somehow to describe God is Moses' canticle in Exodus 15, known as the Song of the Sea, that follows escape from the Egyptians by the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. The story of Exodus is traditionally read within the Church as a “type” of Christian salvation, prefiguratively symbolising humanity's slavery to sin and the liberation offered through Christ; in Lent the Catholic liturgy follows the story of the Israelites being led out of Egypt and at the climactic Easter Vigil mass the Exodus 15 canticle is sung. It is the first hymn in the Eastern Orthodox canon and is recited daily in Jewish morning shacharit services. In some sense, at least theoretically, according to Eliot, all Abramic devotional poetry - poetry of and to the One God, Yahweh, Allah - springs from the Song of the Sea.

This is what Exodus Fifteen is about. I tried to use language and images that bridged the contemporary and the ancient, trying not to alienate the two from each other; jackknifing is usually used in reference to motor accidents involving articulated lorries, but there is no reason not to apply the same term to a chariot accident.  Just as the poem is reinvented, made new in the Poundian sense, while still maintaining its essence, the same God-to-man relationship is in some way experienced today as three and a half thousand years ago, even while it is a deeply unique and individual phenomenon.

1. Eliot, T.S. 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' in Abrams, M.H. ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2 (London: W. W. Norton, 2000) (p. 2396)

2. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1.27

Paul Michael (PM) Graham, from the Community of the Risen Christ in Glasgow, Scotland, graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in English Literature in summer 2010, and sped off to serve on a GAP year in Lansing, Michigan, US. God knows what's next..
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