KWH Pick of the Week: “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins as read by Kwame Dawes, Chosen by Diane Seuss

Posted on June 18, 2012


Knox Writers’ House Contributor’s Pick of the Week 6/18/2012

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins as read by Kwame Dawes, Lincoln, NE

Chosen by Diane Seuss in Kalamazoo, MI who says:

My Knox Writers House Pick of the Week is Kwame Dawes’ reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.” I originally encountered this poem in my first poetry course in college. My professor, Conrad Hilberry, included Hopkins in a course called Modern Poetry, despite the fact that Hopkins died before the appearance of Modernism. Con was right; Hopkins’ approach to language was dizzyingly modern. He compares, for instance, the flame of God’s grandeur to “shining from shook foil.” “It gathers to a greatness,” he writes, “like the ooze of oil/Crushed.” I had to think my way through those images. They were so physical, so strange. Shook foil, ooze of oil, clogged my brain cells with their wacky music. I failed when I tried to approach the poem with my intellect. But I instinctively understood the ooze of oil followed by that devastating line break, and then crushed—it really was crushing. It directed us to “have trod, have trod, have trod” in the next line. My people were working people. I knew how life could be “smeared with toil.” I lived barefoot until I arrived at college. I knew the lack of feeling in my shod foot. Hopkins crushes us with despair and then resurrects us in the sestet with a warm-breasted Holy Ghost who broods over the world like a mama hen with her fragile, cherished egg. We’re pinched and then we’re kissed. Dawes’ understated reading gets at the sublimity of Hopkins’ music. The poem, with its obsessive alliterations, odd syntax, and Hopkins’ trademark “sprung rhythm” could be read in such a way that what we hear is the surface quirkiness rather than the underlying depth. Dawes reads the poems as it should be read—with warmth and naturalism. He soothes. His interpretation of a sonnet by the long-ago ascetic Jesuit poet who once refused himself water until his tongue turned black is so intimate, so fresh, it feels as if the poem were written yesterday. I am eighteen again, and poetry is new.

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