I want to sing for the praisers. For all the poets and artists and leaders who stop long enough to find the tune of what’s right and beautiful and real in the world, I want to climb the tallest maple in the Hudson Valley, lift my mouth to the sky, and churtle a few tunes carried on the backs of warblers. But that Whitmanesque impulse seems naïve to my friends. They think me daft, out of touch.
Praise peels back cynicism and reveals the small beauty
before us. But some of us – whether poet, practitioner, leader, entrepreneur – might find our praise quotient lacking. I admit, sometimes the weight of more poverty, of criminals and hatred, of dying trees and bats and languages makes me languish, and the only thing I feel in my throat is a huge lump of global grief. And, really, many days I’m just too tired to climb a tree anymore. Still, questions itch: How can we practice praise authentically in these times? Can’t we praise without appearing like a bunch of goofy-headed nuts? How can we wear the skin of praise without effort?
To praise has been among the poet’s oldest tasks, callings,
honors. Among murder, sacrifice, hardship, Aztec poets found reason to praise. The word for their poetry, cuicatl, translates loosely to “the song and the flower” or, as I prefer, “flower-song.” We hear it among some of the earliest Greek fragments, in the Dine’s song of walking in beauty above and below, in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon and Psalms, in the Indian Vedas. More recently, praise frames O’Keeffe’s canvases and Calder’s sketches and mobiles not to mention any poem by ode-happy Mary Oliver, many by Ted Kooser, a few by Billy Collins.
Praisers open to the world’s details. Praise is, writes Edward
Hirsch in How to Read a Poem, “a way of falling in love with the world again.” The afternoon light outlines the town’s gravestones. A favorite ink pen scratches its way across coarse paper. The postal clerk’s dog wanders across the road and into the coffee shop, unbidden and unperturbed. A child naps for a full hour on a Saturday afternoon. A colleague chips in on your project with no gain attached.
Surprise begets praise, then. That is, praise stems not just from being surprised but from being open to being surprised. Not everyone gives way to the unexpected. Some people think such openness unsophisticated, not cool. The know-it-all within each of us, hell bent on pretending to have everything figured out, shuts out wonder. No wonder, no praise.
Take elk crossing the road. You could get impatient. You
could say, “I have places to go. Don’t these elk have any respect for the flow of traffic?” You could talk to yourself or your poor spouse endlessly like that. But the elk wouldn’t care. Or you could just thank the elk for the surprise visit. Maybe your kids in the backseat who have been complaining for
the past two hours suddenly perk up and chuckle at the elegant beasts waltzing across the road.
Or you could be like Dorianne Laux who takes in their
movement in just such a circumstance: “each footfall/a testament to stalled momentum, gracefully/hesitant.” And as her husband of six months crawls out of the car to try to help them along the way, the poet takes in the moment when he cannot get a female elk to budge. The poem becomes a praise of her new husband: “One stubborn creature staring down another./This is how I know the marriage will last.”
The praising tongue comes from a disposition that does not
take for granted. It stems from relentlessly resisting familiarity or, rather, resisting allowing the eyes to float over the familiar without pausing and taking in. The praiser regards the sacred in a Daddy Long Legs, menstruation, or even dictionaries and language itself. Falling in love with the world again, yes, and falling in love with just our one singular quirky way of being in love with it and articulating, with whatever stutters and stops and momentary flourishes and pirouettes, that singular love with our own tongue. Because isn’t that what falling in love means? We see the beloved in particulars and in ways that no one else does?
A pause prompts praise. The day’s pauses – the lunch break,
the few minutes sitting on a bench before walking another eight city blocks, the afternoon tea, a couple of breaths without talking during dinner with someone you care about – invite us to absorb what is right around us. This is why Nicholson Baker’s digressive narrators either delight or irritate readers. His narrators ceaselessly praise minutiae with boyish exuberance. Some people can only take so much of that. I can take volumes. Praise, then, rises up from silence or at least enough space in the mind to allow something else to be welcomed in.
The throat especially holds the soil for praise. Think of
it: That tunnel connects the heart’s living room with the mouth’s front door and the head’s attic. Words of praise lift from the heart’s hearth without obstruction to the mouth. If the throat is storing loads of bile and phlegm, then you’ll probably just speak and sing and write from your heady attic, and we all know how dusty and musty or nostalgic or downright cranky words from the attic can be.
One way to stimulate, strengthen, and even cleanse this heart-mouth tunnel is to breathe by gently constricting the throat’s back as if you were trying to fog up a mirror. The throat’s muscles remain soft while engaged as if, in the words of my teacher’s father T. Krishnamacarya, you were smelling a rose with your throat. That’s an odd image, isn’t it, a nose in your throat smelling a rose? It makes me think of being a rose-throated bacard. You, too, probably. Regardless, it works. Try it.
Chanting, of course, stimulates the throat, strengthens
respiration, and connects you with your voice’s heartful rhythms. You might think chanting a little woo-woo. I used to. Then Ram Dass’s teacher Sruti Ram broke open my skepticism, and, really, my heart-strings became tuned to something else I can barely explain. So I won’t try. But in the old traditions of yoga, poets like Mirabai composed poem upon poem as song to the Beloved – the beloved with a capital “B,” the Big Love, the Divine Dancer, the wow-oh-my-god-that-was-the-most-amazing-sex-but-it-wasn’t-sex-it-was-just-ecstasy-with-the-universe kind of Lover. You know, that One.
If ecstasy’s a bit much for you, just sing without regard
for your ability to carry a pitch or not. Don Henley’s and Jackson Browne’s repertoire of longing will suffice.
Meals make an opportune time for praise. Gary Snyder recites
a Buddhist prayer before most meals that says, in essence, you’re eating for and with all creatures. Friends of mine sing a song of praise before meals. Another family I know just stops in silence before chowing down. A few volumes of poetry usually lay on our farm table where we eat dinner. Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, an anthology called Earth Prayers, and stray volumes by
Maxine Kumin, Marge Piercy, Jane Hirschfield, Collins. On most nights, my wife or I will take a book, open it semi-randomly, and read. Sometimes, the poem fits the moment; often, it doesn’t. Regardless, the practice makes us stop at least for a few minutes before we take a meal.
The other night, while my wife read a poem about getting
lost in the woods, my eyes rested on the food. The greens, the garlic, the carrots, the rosemary, the squash all came from her gardens. That’s nothing to take for granted even though our 16-month-old daughter released a spitting raspberry.
Ultimately, praisers don’t care if they look goofy to the
rest of the world. I imagine Mary Oliver’s Cape neighbors ducking into the house every morning as she hops past else they’ll be roped into going to see her latest ogle. But she doesn’t care. (Actually, I imagine Mary Oliver the person much quieter like wonder itself than the exuberance her her poems’ persona exudes.) Again, Edward Hirsch offers a prime example of what I mean: the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart. Hirsch shares a three-page passage
from Smart’s free-flowing ode to his cat Jeoffry:
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
I’m certain my wobbly, hair-knotted cat Miklos would appreciate such attention, and in fact this poem almost inspires me to try it, but I
won’t. Who can top Smart with what he called his “MAGNIFICAT”? The poem continues in this way, detailing ol’ Jeoffry’s every specific move as a form of prayer. Smart carried on writing and praising like a maniac (literally).
Stories of Smart remind me of a grungy, toothy-smiled fellow who sat down next to me on some steps in India. Years ago, while studying with my teacher in South India, I took daily breaks to the local candy shop (hey, my teacher’s father took his daily sweets, so I was just following tradition!). One afternoon, I sat on the steps in front of the shop and sampled my latest sugary goods. Then this fellow, tattered clothes and scabby arm and weathered bag, sits down beside me. I grin. He offers me a half-eaten sandwich. I decline. He offers me a nibbled apple. I decline. He offers me pages from yesterday’s paper. I accept. I offer him a piece of candy. He accepts and then breaks into song in his Tamil Nada tongue. He sings and raises the candy to the air and to the snarling woman passing by and to the pigeons flying overhead and to the boys running past. And then he takes a bite and tucks the rest in his pocket. I glanced at the newspaper he gave me and felt woefully inadequate and ungrateful. But my smile wide as the sun must have shown him some appreciation. It’s that sort of unbridled wonder and adoration of the small things that praisers risk exhibiting. I admire that.
This morning I played for my daughter two songs, delightfully juxtaposed: Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarazhustra” and ELO’s “Mr.Blue Sky.” (Listen to that tune and try not to spin around the room pretending you’re 16 again. Go ahead, just try.) As Strauss’s dawn-breaking horns and heart-beating drums rose in volume, Dahlia’s eyes widened, and I spontaneously got on my knees, lifted my arms to the ceiling, and melodramatically proclaimed, “I have been to the mountaintop, and I am here to tell you that this life is worth living! This life! Right here! Right now! Live! Live!” My daughter humored me with a smirk. I won’t even tell you what I did in response to ELO’s epic rock song. Jubilance is embarrassing if your friends are watching.
So, obviously, praise doesn’t have to be precious. It doesn’t
even have to be reverent. Find your way with it. We need more. Maybe I will go climb that tree today.
What are some of your favorite poems, prose, songs, or art
of praise? Any leaders you know of who understand praise’s value? What rituals of praise do you aspire to engage? Post some responses here.
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is Fiction Editor for Tiferet and is a creativity consultant for writers, artists, and entrepreneurs hungry to change the way creativity happens in this world. You can receive more of his free ideas and tips at his Tracking Wonder blog for Psychology Today, at his own blog A Hut of Questions, on Facebook, or on Twitter. He is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Monkfish 2008), City Reservoir (Barnburner Press 1999), and numerous tidbits published widely.
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