What good is poetry? What good are prayers?


by Richard K. Munro

About fifty years ago I heard a concert given by the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar.    He sang of course, mostly Scottish songs -some were fabulous poems by Burns, Scott, and Byron -others were fun ditties.    But one song he sang I will never forget as it made such an impression on me.  McKellar made some comments on Scots going to sea and ship building and that everyone in the hall probably had an ancestor or relative who was in the Merchant Marine or Navy.   I remembered that my Scottish grandfather had gone to sea himself on a tall ship circa 1895 when he was eight years old.   The song McKellar sang was Sea-Fever by John Masefield (music by Ireland)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

The first time I heard this song I did not understand it completely. 

 But I did not know that “a trick” was a sailor’s turn at the helm for a few hours.   

Later I realized the “long trick” was life itself and that the “quiet sleep and sweet dream” was death.    

 I have read the poem dozens of times in the last fifty years and heard the song in recordings by McKellar and many other times.   Today I appreciate the lovely imagery of the poem and the lure of adventure and excitement that is the sailor’s life but also how lovely it is to experience nature in person.   I know the word WHETTED means sharpened.   I know the whale’s way is the deep blue ocean. 

Reading the poem, I have some idea of what my grandfather experienced before the mast in the late 19th century. The song is forever linked to memories of my grandfather and to Kenneth McKellar and my parents who took me to see him perform at Kearny High School in Kearney New Jersey so long ago.

Poetry like prayer is important for our inner lives.   We will all have challenges and disappointments in life.  We will all know sickness (how dreary!) and the death of loved ones (how heart breaking!).  We will feel an intense emotion, but we won’t know what to say.  We will be at a loss for words or an explanation.  But the bard and songster can put our feelings into words and provide some consolation. In this poetry comes close to religion.    

Many times, people have come close to Sergeant Death in bombings of cities (I knew people who survived the London Blitz and one who was buried alive for three days).   Many times, in battle under a bombardment men huddled closely and put their hands over the bible in their front pocket or grabbed hold of their rosaries.   It is almost unbelievable to read that regiments like my grandfather’s (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) were under continuous attack for thirty-six days during 2nd Ypres (1915).   The soldiers repeated the Hail Mary and the Our Father over and over and Psalm 23.  The freethinkers among them did not argue, in fact one said “GIE ME THEM BEADS!”.    They repeated together an ancient poem that some had not said since boyhood:

1)The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

And they found great comfort in these words.  I am sure many thought back to their mothers and loved ones and quiet and safe times back home.    Many found comfort in those words as no words of their own could have brought them.  

 I remember the day my mother died at age 86.  On New Year’s Day she unexpectedly had a heart attack.   She lingered a few days in the hospital but before we knew it she was gone.    It was one of the saddest days of my life.

I will never forget when my mother said to us, “This time I don’t think I am going to make it.” 

My immediate reaction was to take her by her hand now cold and weak and say with her the OUR FATHER, the Hail Mary and repeat the 23rd Psalm that she had taught me as a child.   She smiled an angelic smile and was not worried about her death and her parting from this world.   She instead was WORRIED FOR US!    She said she would be waiting on the other side in paradise, but we would suffer many years of separation.   That was my mother all over always concerned for others more than herself!

My mother had a Good Death.  There is such thing as a Good Death.  She did not suffer.  She was not alone when she died, and he lived a long life mostly in good health. 

Before my mother’s death I found it very difficult to deal with the deaths of loved ones but after her death I found a new wisdom and a maturity to endure without losing control.

My mother was very glad to have met and known and loved her three grandchildren and only wished she had more time with them.  But she was happy to know they were safe and in happy homes and had a good start at life.    She was happy they knew their own father. 

My mother never knew her father.  He was killed when she was three years old so she had no memory of him. But she heard stories about him from her mother and aunt.  She had some of his books -one was a book with illustrations of Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in Africa and South America.   The book had his signature in it ERIC ANDERSON.   She also had his Bible that had some favorite parts starred or underlined in pencil.    She also had some of his record collection -he loved music.   Songs by John McCormack music by Rachmaninoff.   

My mother later saw McCormack and Rachmaninoff perform in person in New York.     She enjoyed the concerts very much and it gave her special pleasure to know her father had appreciated and loved those artists and now she was sharing that appreciation!

We all at some time in the mysterious future may have to endure some experience absolutely outside our present scope.   Many a man has lived happily until something made him for the first time think about committing suicide.  

Such a man or woman might be able to understand himself or herself and rise above such dark thoughts if for example he knows music Rachmaninoff wrote when he too had such self-destructive thoughts and conquered them.   Rachmaninoff had a happy, successful, and prosperous early life but when the Russian Revolution came, he lost all his savings and property and many of his friend were killed in the war or murdered by the Communists.  He came to America as a penniless immigrant without friends or connections.  Then he fell sick with the Spanish Flu and more of his friends and neighbors died including his son-in-law.  He recovered in 1919 and began to earn money as a concert pianist.  And just by dint of hard work and his musical talent he rebuilt his life and gained some financial security.  Before he died, he became a US.  citizen.

Even if we are not called to endure such extremes there are those about us, perhaps very close ,who will face situations: drug abuse, alcoholism, a car crash, mugging, sudden wealth, divorce, sudden unemployment, poverty, old age and humiliations.

  Poetry, I think, teaches wisdom and creates a deeper sympathy in our hearts.  

Poetry, like prayer, has a special power and is something we will need in our lives.   

Poetry, prayers, and songs have always been immensely valuable to me.    It is my antidote to depression, loneliness, and fatigue.  

I have often said the only time I forget that my mother is dead is when I play and sing the songs, she taught me.

We will all suffer personal loses in this life because no man and no woman are mastets of the line of his or her life. 

We are all mortal.  Genesis 3:19

 By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,

till thou return unto the ground;

for out of it wast thou taken:

for dust thou art,

and unto dust shalt thou return.

So here’s an idea.  Find a poetry anthology.  Find a poem. Find a quotation.  Perhaps a fragment of a poem or anonymous ballad.   

Any poem.  Any song.  Write it down. Say it.  Memorize it. Then when you feel down in a funk you can say it to yourself or look it up and find it and read it again.  You can say it in your head or on your tongue.   

And you will find that poetry is magic.  It restores love.  It restores joy.  It Connects to memory.  It gives us laughter and tears.   

It reminds us that life and love are just brief moments in time and that one day “the long trick” will be over. But we are not to be afraid for in our final sleep there is no pain or torment only deep peace.