KWH House Pick: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Posted on May 2, 2012


In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ll be bringing you ‘House Picks,’ featuring poets most read as contributors’ ‘best-loved’ selection. Spring has Sprung in the Knox Writers’ House. This week we celebrate Gerard Manley Hopkins!

Listen and then listen again after reading the ever generous poet Ava Leavell Haymon‘s charming exploration of Hopkins, recalling her first encounter with his now beloved work.

KWH reads Gerard Manley Hopkins:

[No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,] by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Emily Anderson in Galesburg, IL.

Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Emily Anderson in Galesburg, IL.

Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Mary Jo Bang in St. Louis, MO.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Kwame Dawes in Lincoln NE.

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Ava Leavell Haymon in Baton Rouge LA

The Windover by Gerard Manley Hopkins read by Adrienne Raphel in Iowa City, IA

Gerard Manley Hopkins tribute

Ava Leavell Haymon

I read Hopkins for pure sound, for density of language, for his utter seriousness about each poem and the craft of it.    I can remember perfectly, on a picnic table in Waco Texas, FIFTY YEARS AGO, studying “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and The Nature of the Resurrection.”  It was required by some class, I’m sure. I was a math major and comfortable staring at something a long time before I could understand.  I undertook the poem as I would a calculus equation.  I needed to cram all those convoluted sentences, those unheard of words and bizarre images into my brain all at once, to begin to wait for comprehension.

That particular Hopkins poem, and others such as “Pied Beauty” (which I recorded for Knox Writers House) combines the overall structure of a rhyming sonnet (on steroids, to be sure) with something akin to the rhythm and consonants of Old English strong-stress meter.  I saw that wild formal struggle first, and it gave me the curiosity to look further.  Struggling with dictionary and concordance, I began to penetrate the sentences.  I read it out loud, several times. And then, as I read it through silently for the umpteenth time, the fog parted: I saw the sky and earth, spirit and matter, all at once — the dichotomy Hopkins was struggling to resolve in every line.  The final two words, “Immortal diamond,” shook me awake, and can do that to me still, this fifty years later.

Worth the effort, worth it a hundred times over.