Quaker Poems: The Heart Opened
Written by Stanford J. Searl
Reviewed by Donald W. McCormick, Ph.D.
Reading Stan Searl’s Quaker Poems is like peeking into the soul of the person sitting next to you in Meeting for Worship. It is a rare pleasure to get such an insight into a weighty friend’s spiritual experience, because Quakers don’t do a lot of talking about what goes on in us during Meeting for Worship or during our experience of the Spirit. Searl’s poems do both, especially in the first section. The book has four sections: 1) Quaker Worship, 2) Quaker History, 3) Activism and Outreach, and 4) Quaker Values, People and Themes.
Some poems are refreshingly cranky. Take the poem, “Singing With Lucretia Mott.” You don’t read very much about people getting irritated at a Quaker saint like her, but this poem starts with Searl complaining that Mott is “really annoying” because she finds it “just so simple” to divine the intent of the Spirit and act on it (see excerpts below). But to Searl (and to most of us), determining what the Spirit is leading us to do and then doing it is far from “simple.” It is refreshing to read about a weighty Friend’s annoyance because some Quakers condemn all anger, even though George Fox became righteously angry at times. Friends will find that Searl’s poetry reminds us that the Quaker soul includes the whole range of human emotion.
Searl’s poetry often focuses on sensual detail to convey spiritual experience. For example, in “Quaker Roots,” Searl portrays the Light in sensuous, bodily terms. This stands in direct opposition to that kind of weak, abstract portrayal of the Spirit that is captured by phrases like the famous description of God as “kind of a luminous, oblong blur.”
Searl reveals great vulnerability in these poems – especially in the ironically titled, “Doing Good.” This poem is about a horrible event that resulted in part because of actions he took with the best of intentions. The poem ends powerfully, with no happy ending and no resolution, just bare honesty about his deep self-recrimination.
Many of these poems are about tensions within Quakerism, as well as the tension between living a Quaker life and a conventional life. For example, one poem starts with the line “It’s totally hopeless to be a Quaker today because…” The poem goes on to say the reason for this is that the culture is soaked in violence, but the Quaker’s task goes against today’s culture, “The point is to be quiet, / Open to the Spirit…”
Reading Quaker Poems was reassuring, which surprised me. I guess that I worried that true Quaker worship transcended words or that I worried that during worship, others experience something beyond my capability, like an overwhelming sense of oneness with the Ground of Being or a deep connection with everyone else in the room (except me). My worries were calmed, and I felt reassured, because Searl’s experience of worship is clearly communicated through words and is not something beyond me.
Although Searl’s poetry is generally quite accessible, to understand it, you do need to know who Lucretia Mott is, what Swarthmore is, and other bits and pieces about Quaker history and worship. So, although Quaker Poems is not for newcomers to Quakerism, it is a wonderful book for the rest of us. ~~~
Don McCormick is a member of Santa Monica Monthly Meeting (PYM).
From “Singing With Lucretia Mott”
by Stanford Searl
It’s really annoying,
To read your sermons and addresses
Because for you
It’s all so simple:
God has come to teach us
Inwardly and directly;
The rest is all about fruits,
So that the ripeness is all.
The great principles of justice and truth and love
Imprinted onto our hearts
What’s the problem?
From “A Memorial Meeting for Worship”
by Stanford Searl
On the couch
In your tiny Montana Street apartment,
Looking up at visitors
As if you had become illuminated,
The Inner Light
Spewing out its Truth into Santa Monica and
Flowing with you
Into the Pacific Ocean.