On Literary Gifts and Giving: My Poet Friend John Finlay (1941-1991)

     The following mediation was written in the spring of 2013 for the monthly newsletter of my church,  St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Thibodaux, Louisiana. This revised version was published in The Anglican: A Quarterly Journal of Anglican Identity (New York City) in its 2013 Pentecost issue. The meditation tells a story from my life as a poet. Its point is that we should all discern our gifts (potentials, talents, etc.) and then develop and use them for the good of others as well as for the happiness and satisfaction that we receive ourselves from so doing. Do our gifts come from God? Some think so; others, not. However that may be, it seems important for each of us to to ask ourselves these questions: “What gifts do I have?” and “How am I developing and using these gifts both for the benefit of others and for my own sense of self-worth?”

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John: An Anglican Meditation on Literary Gifts and Giving

 

     One of the most moving poems in the Anglican tradition is “On Recovering the Use of His Eyes” by the great English man of letters and devout, lifelong member of the Church of England, Samuel Johnson (1709-84). Threatened in his later years with the loss of eyesight due to a serious infection, Johnson, in this poem, expresses his profound gratitude to God for curing his eyes so that he could continue to employ the literary gifts that God had given him. Translated below, the poem was written in Latin, the language into which Johnson often put his deepest feelings:

 

Universal Lord, who tempers the rife

Vicissitudes of everything in life,

Who bids the night, gloomy in gelid cold,

Be changed into the limpid morning gold,

Who willed it that, by humid clouds obscured,

Puffed up by stinging blood, my eyes be cured:

Where pleasing day but heightened my dark fright

You brought me health and gave me back to light.

Lord, how can I attend in prayer and praise?

A student of the Bible all my days,

O may I ever, rightly, in my station,

Honor you with useful application:

For, Father, proper thanks to you are given

By him who uses well the gifts of heaven.

 

This gratitude to God for the bestowing of gifts upon us all and, in Samuel Johnson’s case, for literary gifts sustained by a bodily cure calls to mind a story from my own life about similar literary gifts gratefully employed for the glory of God and in the service others. It is a story about sadness and loss yet also about triumph and fulfillment, a story in the Easter spirit of death and resurrection.

     During my years as a graduate student in English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1971-79), I became a member of a group of four poets who were afterwards called The LSU Formalists. Studying under poet and scholar Donald E. Stanford, editor of The Southern Review, LSU’s internationally known literary quarterly founded in 1935 by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, we younger poets decided to challenge the dominant modern poetic style of free verse by writing in traditional literary forms and in plain, accessible language on sharable subjects of universal human concern. One of the four graduate students in this group was John Martin Finlay. John was born at home on his family’s farm just outside Enterprise, Alabama in 1941. A lover of literature since childhood, John would recite passages from Shakespeare to the cows (whom he named after Greek goddesses) as he drove them to and from the pasture every day. All four of the LSU Formalist poets remained friends and served at times, in one combination or another, as critical readers of each other’s verse both during our years at LSU and after.

      In 1977, I left Baton Rouge to complete my Ph.D. dissertation in Thibodaux, Louisiana and to begin there what became a thirty-three year career in the Department of English at Nicholls State University. John returned in 1980 to his family’s farm in Enterprise. He had set himself a ten-year goal of writing two substantial books: a book of poems and a book of essays. During the decade that followed, John did indeed write what would be published after his death as Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay and Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought. (Gnostics believed that a non-omnipotent lower god bunglingly made the world of matter, an evil place from which the soul yearns to escape through hidden knowledge [gnosis] possessed only by initiates. Such a non-Incarnational view of matter meant that the body could either be ascetically denied or grossly abused — since it was a thing to be escaped from into a higher world of pure spirit.) Both John’s book on Gnosticism and his book of poems remained in manuscript at the time of his death. Some of the essays and poems had appeared in literary journals or in small chapbook collections.

     During his years back home, John’s health began to decline and in time he was diagnosed with AIDS. In those days when so little could be done medically to help AIDS patients, who often experienced social rejection and isolation as well as some people’s fear of contagion, John and his family had heavy burdens to bear beyond caring for John as his physical needs increased and his disease progressed. In such conditions, and with his health worsening to the point that in the end he was blind, feverish, and all but paralyzed — thus, unable to see to read a book or to lift a pen to write and wondering whether his poems and essays would be remembered or forgotten after his death — John was in need of loving support not only from doctors and family and lifelong Alabama friends but also from those poet friends with whom he had spent such intense and joyful years in Baton Rouge becoming one of The LSU Formalists.

     In those circumstances, it occurred to me that a garland of poems by various hands might be gathered up into a chapbook and published in honor of John, a “garland” of course being not only a collection of verses and but also a wreath of laurel leaves placed upon the head of a poet in ancient Greece and recalling the title “poet laureate.” And so, throughout most of 1990, as John grew ever closer to death, I was able — with generous help from Carolyn Portier Gorman, owner of Blue Heron Press in Thibodaux, and two poet patrons — to publish A Garland for John Finlay, which appeared in early November of 1990. Twenty poets from America and England who admired John’s verse each gave a poem for this small volume, most of the poems being previously unpublished or even newly written just for the Garland. Contributors included not only the other three LSU Formalist poets but nationally recognized poets such as Edgar Bowers (winner of The Bollingen Prize, America’s highest award for lifetime achievement in poetry) and Dana Gioia, later to serve as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush. Other contributors were equally distinguished.

     Originally, the Garland was to have been a complete surprise, but as John’s health deteriorated rapidly in the late summer of 1990, we decided to tell him about the Garland and its contributors. When copies of the Garland arrived on the farm in Enterprise on November 9, 1990, John’s mother, Mrs. Jean Finlay, read John a poem a day from it as her son needed all of his strength just to hear and understand a single poem at a time, read over and over again. He often quietly cried in his blindness, his mother said, at the thought of these twenty poets doing this for him. Thus, as death neared, John knew that his poems were admired by many poets whom he himself admired. (I myself also swore to him that I would see his two completed books into print with a reputable publisher — something that indeed happened — and would serve for as long as his family wished as his literary executor.)

     My own poem in the Garland retells the story of our first meeting and of our years at LSU — of Donald E. Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson who shared editorial duties at The Southern Review, of times when John and I spoke of writers we admired (including Samuel Johnson), of the old English building — Allen Hall, of walking from Allen Hall to the Student Union as we talked, of the fragrant smell of the sweet-olive trees on the LSU campus, and of the long sunny colonnades that seemed to promise us a never-ending youthful summer of friendship and poetry:

 

For John Finlay

 

I met you on Good Friday at the wedding

Of a friend, and struck by your strong voice, broad

Forehead, wiry build, and penetrating mind

Determined to know you better.

                                                                        Later,

In Baton Rouge, we read each other’s poems

Testing the rhythms, images, and rhymes,

Struggling to master this greatest of all crafts,

Craving the grace of one perfected page.

Truly a man of letters who could love

Blunt Johnson and the nuances of James

And ask how that which says “the mind is weak”

Can state its law and yet transcend the same,

You wrote clean abstract poems in plainest style

And sensuous descriptions charged with thought,

Probing toward the source and end of intellect

That marks our place in all the Maker wrought.

Both natives of the South trying to reclaim

Something of Greece and Christendom, we’d walk

To the Union from our desks in Allen Hall

Talking of Homer, Dante, Winters, Tate,

A ”Stanford” or a “Simpson” Southern Review,

Finding ourselves as poets and as friends

There, at LSU, in those sweet-olive days,

Summer seeming endless in sunlit colonnades.

 

     In the spring of 1990, some months before the Garland appeared, John, confined at home to a hospital bed, dictated to one of his sisters a poem he had composed entirely in his head. The poem is called “A Prayer to the Father” and was intended, as is often the case with older or dying poets, as a “final” poem, or “death” poem. The poem expresses John’s natural human fear of the body’s demise and its separation from the soul as well as a dread of the terrors death holds for the mind, yet the poem also affirms John’s belief in the immortality of his intellectual and spiritual being and his hope that, after death, he might gaze at last upon the face of God:

 

A Prayer to the Father

 

Death is not far from me. At times I crave

The peace I think that it will bring. Be brave,

I tell myself, for soon your pain will cease.

But terror still obtains when our long lease

On life ends at last. Body and soul,

Which fused together should make up one whole,

Suffered deprived as they are wrenched apart.

O God of love and power, hold still my heart

When death, that ancient awful fact appears;

Preserve my mind from all deranging fears,

And let me offer up my reason free

And where I thought, there see Thee perfectly.

 

Edgar Bowers (mentioned above), in a poem entitled “John,” refers to John dictating this final poem before he would return to the “old country” from which we all have come and to which one day we will all return: “And so it was, before his death, he spoke / The poem that is his best, the final letter / To take to that old country as a passport” (Collected Poems: Edgar Bowers, New York, Knopf, 1997). 

    John Finlay died in Flowers Hospital, Dothan, Alabama, on February 17, 1991, the first Sunday in Lent. His mother told me that in his last moments he seemed to see a figure coming from beyond this life as a guide (like Dante’s Virgil) to lead him home to God. His last word, spoken as a question, was “Plato?” Those of us who knew the depth of John’s Christian faith and who also knew how much he loved Greek literature and thought are convinced that “Plato” was sent as a guide to take John, not to the Greeks’ Elysian Fields but to Christ Our Redeemer in Heaven. (Raised a Southern Baptist, John was an Episcopalian from the early 1960s until 1980, the years of the beginning of his maturation as a poet and an essayist. He was Roman Catholic from Easter of 1980 until his death.)

   In the fall of 2012, over twenty years after John’s death and the publication of the Garland, I wrote a poem called ‘The Break-In.” The poem is about an event from the 1970s in Baton Rouge when thieves broke into John’s sparely furnished apartment, then left just as they came, not having seen anything that they considered valuable enough to take away:

 

   . . . you walked back one night to quiet rooms

From wine and conversation, new work shared

Through dinner with likeminded poet friends     

To spy a door ajar, a window prized                    

By thieves who’d broken in but then had found

Nothing worth stealing — old clothes, older books,

A manual Underwood, fair-copies typed,       

Ashes of finished cigarettes and thoughts,

No TV, radio, hi-fi, or cash —

And so fled empty-handed, cursing God.

 

And when you saw that all you had was there —

The cinder-block bookshelves’ unpainted boards

Still holding Shakespeare, Milton undisturbed —   

A poor man dancing past the robber band,

You knew you had been faithful to a gift         

The Holy Ghost as Muse bestowed at birth,      

Plowing by mind and hand down lines and rows,

True to the ancient sanctions of the land.        

 

At the end of “The Break-In,” a number of lines speak of John’s final years on the farm, his struggle against Gnostic impulses that plagued him, and the moment of his death. The poem closes with a glimpse of the Christian heaven (Christ as “Love”) in the form of a Socratic “symposium” or long, spirited discussion between philosophers (etymologically, “lovers of wisdom”):

 

You wrote late poems and essays to be whole, 

Returning to the house where you were born,

Full harvests of a Blood Moon in the fields

As you stayed up all night, suffering AIDS        

A decade while completing those two books,

Your story left for others who would strive

For mind’s integrity, which, years ago,

A break-in had confirmed, exemplified,   

As did your final moment’s final breath

When from your deathbed halfway rising up,     

With blinded eyes you looked beyond and said      

“Plato?” to one now sent to take you home 

To that last, great symposium of Love

At which the conversation never ends.  

 

     And so, both as poet and as editor, with God’s grace and guidance and with essential help from other people, I was able to use my literary gifts on behalf of a fellow poet in need. There is a fine line between self-congratulation and sharing with others for the general good in the retelling of such a story as I have just done here. I am very much aware of this fine line and sincerely hope that it has not been crossed in this meditation.

     May John Finlay, poet and friend, rest in light eternal, in everlasting peace, and in the hope of the Resurrection that we celebrate at all times but most especially during the Easter season. And, like both Samuel Johnson and John, who faced blindness and death with faith and courage and who made such good use of their gifts, may we all work to discern our own God-given talents and offer them up as best we may in the furthering of God’s Kingdom.

 

Easter 2013

 

Books for, by, and about John Finlay (all edited by David Middleton):

 A Garland for John Finlay (Thibodaux, LA: Blue Heron Press, 1990)

Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (Santa Barbara, CA: John Daniel

      & Company, 1992)

 Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought (Daniel,

     1994)

In Light Apart: The Achievement of John Finlay [essays and poems by various hands and

     a bibliography of works by and about John Finlay] (Glenside, PA: The Aldine Press,

     1999).

 

Note: This meditation is revised and edited from its original appearance in the April 2013 issue of The St. John’s Episcopal Newsletter, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Thibodaux, Louisiana.

 

David Middleton

–Parishioner, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Thibodaux, Louisiana

–Member, The Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church

–Louisiana Poet

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

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