How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order?
April is poetry month, so here’s a musing on the funny-wonderful-wise Billy Collins and the fiercely playful poet who gave us Psalm 119. I came across Collins’s poem, “The Literary Life” (quoted above) on a sweaty morning in August as I sat at the kitchen counter and waited for the coffee to brew and wished somehow that my world would permit alphabetical arrangement. So, as the poem opens, the poet wakes up thinking for some reason of a literary figure, Coventry Patmore, the details of whose life he can’t recall. So, he sets off on a mission.
I’m coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.
If you’re like me, you’ve been looking a lot of things up lately. Lately? Always. But it’s the stuff we’re passing by on the way to the freight elevator of science and wisdom that’s as large as living.
But Collins gets me thinking about lifesize alphabetizations. Psalm 119, for example. Twenty-two stanzas, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Twenty-two stanzas, eight verses apiece, one-hundred-and-seventy-six verses in all. I have decided more than once in my life to commit this psalm to memory, only to get half a dozen stanzas in and lose my way.
How many things have I looked up,
in a lifetime of looking things up?
But it’s a grace that I’ve lacked the gumption to get this psalm down pat. It’s a good thing that its Hebraic alphabetization is foreign to all my customary patterns of organization. I think this psalm is just strange enough—certainly it’s long enough—to keep us from doing much with it by praying. It’s a good text for teaching us how to pray. It’s a good text for praying our teaching and learning our way into the odd blending of liberation and stability that is biblical wisdom.
Your word, O Lord, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
you established the earth, and it endures….
To all perfection I see a limit;
but your commands are boundless.
You hearing liberation here? Me, too. The psalmist celebrates the boundlessness of the word and work of God. It is not in our own efforts to achieve and accomplish and alphabetize that we find freedom. That comes in faithful cooperation with the faithfulness of God at large. Freedom for ourselves, freedom extended to each other, to our students, and freedom—please God—won for those whose poverty, disease, and political times stand painfully in need of liberation.
And, then, we’re hearing a poet praying into stability. “Your word, O Lord, is eternal,” says the psalmist, “it stands firm in the heavens.” This is not an impersonal fixedness or a precarious perfection—like a gradebook or a syllabus. This is a personal word, a promise that has gathered us, is gathering us, and always shall be gathering us into interaction with God. It’s also a centering word. As Derek Kidner points out, the psalmist’s pondering is not a contemplative escape from the world, but rather a way to walk in the world by the best available wisdom.
So, back to Collins’ question: “Who was Coventry Patmore?” Well, not having an alphabetized literary encyclopedia onhand, I did the next best thing: I Googled ole Coventry. Turns out, he was a nineteenth century poet, a convert to Christianity, actually, who gave a great deal of thought to marriage. He wrote a poem called “Married Lover,” which begins by asking about his wife, “WHY, having won her, do I woo?” He concludes the poem by saying, “because, in short,/ She’s not and never can be mine.” I think that’s roughly how Psalm 119 teaches us to pray for liberation and stability in this world. We pray not in order to win, but to woo. We pray not for a freight elevator out of the world to some vantage point that makes us feel in charge. That vantage point keeps us from seeing all the lifesize things that Collins learns to see: birds and horses, flowers and fish and silvery toasters and bowls of lemons
And the white cat, looking as if
He had just finished in his autobiography.
That’s a smug cat we too often see in the mirror, I guess. In any case, these and all the other things we are taken with are things to be wooed, not won, because, in a world made and sustained by God’s word, they are not and never can be alphabetically ours.