In principio erat verbum - John Samuel Tieman

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Jeanette asked about the words that moved me. I answered briefly. Mostly I talked about prose. There are pieces, that I have read for decades, which still move me. “The Declaration Of Independence”. “The Gettysburg Address.” “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” “The Sermon On The Mount”. Walt Whitman's preface to the first edition of “Leaves Of Grass” I have spent my life with words. For all the time I spend cleverly crafting, what often moves me are the simplest words. “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Thirty-two years ago, “I, John, take you, Phoebe, to be my wife.” A year ago, my sister-in-law phoned, and in sorrow said, “Your brother died this morning.”

Now, I need to give Jeanette a few words about poetry. I've heard a lot of great poets and heard them read some of the greatest poems of our era. I heard Allen Ginsberg do the whole of “Howl” from memory. I heard Yevgeny Yevtushenko recite “Babi Yar”. Yehuda Amachai and his “Seven Laments”. Richard Eberhart's “The Groundhog”. John Okai's “Aayalolo Concerto”, and his words which will stay with me all my life – “Between me and my God / There are only eleven commandments; / The eleventh says: Thou shalt not / Bury thy brother alive”. I vividly recall the first time I heard Sylvia Plath's “Daddy”, and that closing line, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

I've heard great poets. My list can fill pages. I haven't even gotten into that distinct yet related topic, great song lyrics. I heard Leonard Cohen sing “Suzanne”. And these lyrics which I heard him sing, these words which I take as sacred text. “There's a blaze of light / In every word, / It doesn't matter which you heard, / The holy or the broken – Hallelujah!”

But about Jeanette's question. Shortly before I retired, a student asked, “Dr. Tieman, when you were a kid, which poet influenced you the most?” I was surprised by my own answer. “St. Thomas Aquinas.”

I was born and raised in St. Louis. We used to brag that we were “The Rome Of The New World.” It's very Catholic. It is, after all, a city named after a saint. I attended a Catholic grade school, and high school, and got my Ph. D. from a Jesuit university, St. Louis University.

In grade school, we attended Mass each school day and, of course, on Sunday. We prayed in Latin. It never occurred to me, until decades later, that there's something exotic about having a language in which you converse, and a language in which you pray. I was an altar-boy. To this day, I can recite the “Credo”, the “Gloria”, and the “Sanctus”, all from memory. I say from memory because we didn't understand the Latin. We'd recite the Latin, and read the translation. We didn't own the language, but we did own the poetry.

Sometimes, I hear the “Panis Angelicus” by Thomas Aquinas. “Panis angelicus / fit panis hominum”. “Angelic bread / becomes the bread of humanity.” Perhaps I hear that hymn on TV. For those few seconds, I am back in that little church, Christ The King, the church of my youth. There they all are, my mother, Uncle Earl, Aunt Helen, my brother, my sister. Gramps and my grandmother. Neighbors both sinner and saint. Monsignor Ryan, Father MacCarthy, Sister Mary Amabilis, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Rosella. There they are. Sixty years wiped away by the lyrics of a medieval priest.

I learned that words matter. But there is more, much more than simply that, more than even the ability of words to transport us through time and space. Once, in a small church in the Midwest, we sang words, words beautiful, pure, holy. There I learned that these words, this poetry, this is who we are. Because we are in this poetry, and this poetry is in us.

2022.05.23 / 10:14
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