Versecraft

"The Birth of God" by Daniel Brown

November 14, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 5 Episode 2
Versecraft
"The Birth of God" by Daniel Brown
Show Notes Transcript

Text of poem here.

Mea culpa: Please read "tercets" for "triplets"
 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-J.V. Cunningham (see my episode on him here)

-The Tribe of Ben (Jonson)

-Check out Dan's books here!

-The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets

-Accentual or Accentual-Syllabic?

-Macro-rhythmic modulation

-The soul of wit?

-My episode on Emily Dickinson

-God Is Dead!

-The Lascaux cave paintings

-Genesis 2:7

-Allegory of the Cave 101

-The cry of Sex-Birth-Grief

-Ecclesiastes

-Voltaire (who was actually not an atheist, but a deist)

-"Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis

-"Is Theology Poetry?"  by C.S. Lewis

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My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 5-2: “The Birth of God” by Daniel Brown

 

            Hey everyone and welcome back or to the show. I understand there’s been some slight confusion and technical issues surrounding the releases of the last two episodes, and I apologize for that—I uploaded both parts of the “To My Artist Friends” episodes and my most recent Louise Bogan episode to my podcast host all at the same time, so even though I published the episodes weekly they might have shown up slowly or in odd places. Thing should be smooth sailing from now on though, and all of the episodes should be available wherever you get your podcasts. As always, if you like today’s episode and enjoy getting your verse thoroughly crafted every week, please consider purchasing some merch or leaving me a tip at my links in the show notes, leaving me a rating on Apple or Spotify, or simply passing this show through the grapevine to anyone you think might enjoy it. Thank you so much.

            Today’s poet is a man who, while contemporary, is old-school in at least a couple of senses: for one, unlike the typical contemporary American poet who lives and dies within the ivory mill of creative writing programs, he followed the path of Eliot the banker or Stevens the insurance executive in having a career entirely outside of literary academia, namely, a position at IBM. For another thing, not only does he usually write in meter and rhyme, but his poems, which often take the Renaissance form of perfectly lucid, plain-style arguments replete with playful, epigrammatic wit, are some of the most delightful examples since J.V. Cunningham of how poetry can be modern without being modernist, and how one can register membership in the Tribe of Ben even in the 21st century. One gets the sense in reading him that here is a man who not only writes in verse but thinks in it, and who writes less out of a sense of angst than exuberance. That man is the self-effacing and very charming Daniel Brown. 

            Brown, who was born in New York in 1950, originally had ambitions to be a composer, and spent his twenties studying musicology at Cornell, where he also briefly taught music theory. Though he ultimately abandoned this path, his learning has nevertheless borne long-ripened fruit: in 2017, he released a pioneering digital monograph entitled Why Bach? which has received critical acclaim not only for its eloquent defense and explanation of the art of Germany’s greatest composer, but its innovative combination of text and audio samples which create an immersive guide to Bach’s technique accessible even to the musical novice. Speaking as a fellow musician, it’s a wonderful accomplishment, and if you’re curious, you can find a link to it in the show notes.

            Despite leaving music mostly behind to pursue a career in I.T., Brown was not content to simply let his creative impulse atrophy. After toying with the idea of writing fiction, Brown began to devote his efforts to poetry, his initial enthusiasm inspired by the criticism of Randall Jarrell and the poetry of Frost. After a substantial apprenticeship to the writing life, Brown was finally able to break free of his influences and discover his own style through the practice of writing poems as if talking to someone directly in conversation. It is from this practice that we get the colloquial, clear, and winningly avuncular style for which Brown has become known. In 2008, at the age of 58, Brown won the highly coveted New Criterion Poetry Prize for his first book, Taking the Occasion, and he has since published a second collection, entitled What More? and a book of criticism, entitled Subjects In Poetry.

            Today’s poem, “The Birth of God,” was a work I first discovered in David Yezzi’s excellently curated Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. Despite stiff competition from a number of other very fine versers, including several I’ve featured already on the show, Brown’s poem stood out to me from the crowd due to its refreshing purity and playfulness of style, its thematic focus and directness, its unabashed devotion to ideas, and, most importantly, the simplicity with which it makes a complex and poignant statement about reality. The poem goes like this:

 

The Birth of God

 

It happened near Lascaux

Millions of dawns ago.

For dawn it was,

Infusing radiance

And cuing avians

The way it does,

 

That saw the two of them

(Odds are a her and him,

Though maybe not)

Emerging from the mouth

Of a cave a couple south

Of the one that's got

 

All that painted fauna

All but snorting on a

Wall. That is

To say, from the mouth of a cave

Unconsecrated save

By the sighs and cries

 

Of the night just past. The pair

Has borne the bliss they share

Out into the bright.

Where silently they stand

Thanking, hand in hand

Before the light.

 

Their gratitude is truly

New beneath the duly

Erupting sun.

A gratitude that so

Wants a place to go

It authors one. 

 

            We can already tell from the sheer sound of this poem that, formally speaking, it is something markedly different from anything we’ve covered thus far. We have five sestets, each of which rhymes AABCCB. What is remarkable is that this rhyme scheme is consistently and easefully maintained despite the fact that the lines are incredibly short, following a mixed meter accent scheme of 3-3-2-3-3-2 .To sound as if one is speaking naturally and yet rhyme so densely at the same time is intensely demanding, actually. It is a testament to Brown’s craftsmanship that he is able to pull it off throughout this poem, and what’s more, to do it within the parameters of meter.

            This brings us to an interesting question though: what kind of meter are we looking at here? I have already said that we have mixed meter stanzas, but is this accentual-syllabic meter? My friend Matthew has argued that when it comes to very short lines, because any variation tends to throw the accentual-syllabic norm out of balance, most metrical short lined poems which do include substantial variation are better described as accentual rather than accentual-syllabic. It would be easy enough to scan this as a purely accentual poem consisting of stanzas which run trimeter-trimeter-dimeter, trimeter-trimeter-dimeter. However, if we go to the trouble to scan the poem in terms of our good old accentual syllabic feet, we discover an interesting development that we otherwise wouldn’t— namely, that the rhythm of the poem follows an arc of tight to loose to tight again. 

If we look at the first stanza, we find that it is entirely iambic, save for a first foot trochee in the second line. In the second stanza, we again have one trochaic substitution, but also two anapestic substitutions. In the third stanza, all hell breaks loose, and we have just as many trochees as iambs, plus three anapests to boot. In the fourth stanza, we again have two entirely trochaic lines, but also three entirely iambic lines. Finally, in the fifth stanza, while we still have two trochaic lines, the other four have become perfectly iambic again. I don’t know whether this macro-rhythmic modulation was Brown’s intent or if he came by it natural, but realizing it adds to our musical appreciation of the poem, and it is only by scanning the poem according to accentual-syllabic feet that we detect it. 

A couple things remain to be said about Brown’s musicality. Other than the abundance of rhymes, why does the poem just sound witty, even if we aren’t really paying attention to what’s being said? Firstly, there is the inventiveness and multisyllabicity of rhymes such as “fauna” and “on a” and “radiance” and “avians,” the latter of which is a slant rime riche. These are the kind of rhymes we would expect more from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than a contemporary poem. There is also the mixed meter that I mentioned earlier: the play of trimeter against dimeter gives the sensation that the language is bobbing and weaving through the rhythm—every time a trimeter norm is established it is consistently interrupted by a beat of silence, until the interruption itself becomes a part of the pattern which is fun to anticipate. As I discussed in an early episode in regard to the ballad meter of Emily Dickinson, these beats of silence created by the thwarting of expectation also serve to place special emphasis on the short-line rhymes, and here, they have a caesural quality which sonically divides the sestets into triplets. Brown however sometimes further subverts these aural patterns through frequent enjambment, both between and in the middle of his stanzas. This surprise and rhythmic dynamism helps to lend the poem a witty quality. 

Let’s now go back and read the poem again:

 

The Birth of God

 

It happened near Lascaux

Millions of dawns ago.

For dawn it was,

Infusing radiance

And cuing avians

The way it does,

 

That saw the two of them

(Odds are a her and him,

Though maybe not)

Emerging from the mouth

Of a cave a couple south

Of the one that's got

 

All that painted fauna

All but snorting on a

Wall. That is

To say, from the mouth of a cave

Unconsecrated save

By the sighs and cries

 

Of the night just past. The pair

Has borne the bliss they share

Out into the bright.

Where silently they stand

Thanking, hand in hand

Before the light.

 

Their gratitude is truly

New beneath the duly

Erupting sun.

A gratitude that so

Wants a place to go

It authors one. 

 

The first thing to note of course is that the title, “The Birth of God” is a play on the Nietzschean notion of the “death of God.” Whereas Nietzsche lamented the fact that modern man had supposedly destroyed the possibility of belief in an objective higher power, Brown seeks to recall the dawn of civilization, and explore why humans deigned to believe in God in the first place. 

Brown sets his poem, “near Lascaux, millions of dawns ago.” Lascaux is a cave system in the Dordogne region of France famous for its artistically accomplished cave paintings, which are estimated to have been created around 17,000 years ago, which does indeed calculate to over six million days ago. The artworks at Lascaux are some of the oldest ever discovered, and Brown is here using Lascaux to stand in for the dawn of civilization, the time when humanity became sophisticated and self-aware enough to create art. Naturally the imagery of dawn, which appears throughout the poem, does not merely serve to paint a picturesque scene of antediluvian troglodytes, but figuratively serves to indicate the dawn of an advanced form of consciousness or enlightenment. The cute and wholesome quality of the statements that the sun infuses the earth with radiance and “cues avians” to awaken and sing characterizes the speaker as one enamored with the world, much like the cave-dwelling couple whom we are soon to meet. 

In the next two stanzas, the speaker describes a couple, probably of the heterosexual variety, emerging from the mouth of a cave, and already our Biblical and Platonic radar should be going off. As we shall see, the emergence from the mouth of the cave will indoctrinate the man and woman into a new life, a life redolent with perception of the divine. Much as God breathed a soul into Adam in Genesis, so too have the primeval couple emerged from a mouth and subsequently gain human souls distinct from their animal spirits. 

Moreover, many of you are probably familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and it is impossible to read this poem of walking from darkness into the light without immediately thinking of it. In Plato’s conception, the majority of mankind are like people who have been born and raised in a cave and never permitted to leave. Every day, these people sit with their back to a fire and watch performances of shadow puppetry splayed upon the cave wall, and because they have never seen any actual objects, not even the fire, they are convinced that the silhouettes they are being shown are real objects, are reality itself. Plato believed that the material world of perception which most of us take for reality is in fact just such a realm of insubstantial shadows.

 The philosopher is someone who is able to depart the cave of illusion and come into contact with the real world beneath the light of the sun, the light of truth. This light will be painful and blinding at first, but after the eyes adjust, it will become clear that here is a world far more wondrous, beautiful, and substantial than any encountered in the cave. Naturally, the philosopher will then seek to liberate his fellows from the cave, but because his eyes have been dazzled by the sun, he will be unable to navigate the darkness and read the play of shadows, the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as well as the others. As such, his fellows will assume that the philosopher’s time outside has merely handicapped him, and will be doubtful of any benefits he claims for the outer world. Such is the predicament of the spiritual idealist who would guide skeptical materialists to enlightenment. 

Imagining early humanity enacting a real-life version of Plato’s allegory, Brown has our cave-dwelling couple literally emerge into the light, an action which will in turn prove a catalyst for spiritual enlightenment. He specifies that the cave in question is not the one famous for realistic animal paintings, but one nearby that is “unconsecrated save/ by the sighs and cries/of the night just passed.” Brown wants to make clear that the experience of the divine which the lovers are about to feel has nothing to do with mystical visions, idol worship, occult ritual, artistic affect, or any other trappings of religion—instead, the religious sense is borne out of the inherent sacredness of love and the beauty of life. 

It is easy to interpret the “sighs and cries of the night just passed” as a sexual encounter between the couple, and this is almost certainly what Brown intended—he himself has written that he was inspired to write this poem by a personal experience of infatuation. We should note however that this is only one possible interpretation. Could not the “sighs and cries” also refer to the wondrous experience of childbirth? This interpretation would give the later phrase “borne the bliss they share” an additional resonance. We should also note that “sighs and cries” are exclamations more often associated with sadness than anything else. While in context it is unlikely that what happened in the cave was a matter of grief, Brown suggests the intriguing similarity between our response to sorrow and our response to joy, and insinuates that all our strong emotions may be more fundamentally alike than we think. 

Whatever sublime experience the couple have gone through, they now exit the cave and “stand, thanking, hand in hand before the light.” We can interpret the phrase “before the light” both in a literal-spatial and figurative-temporal sense. They are literally standing in front of the light of dawn, but they are also existing “before the light” of civilization, and perhaps, to take a certain orthodox viewpoint, “before the light” of true religion, their fledgling faith but a naïve intuition of a revelation yet to come. 

Brown goes on to say that their “gratitude is truly/ new beneath the duly/erupting sun.” Here he plays on the famous phrase from Ecclesiastes that there is “nothing new under the sun,” pointing out that some people did actually get to experience certain thoughts and sensations for the first time, a rare and exquisite yet potentially lonesome privilege. 

With “erupting sun,” Brown has happened upon a rich phrase. It not only, as he has said elsewhere, suggests a volcanic eruption, and thereby suggests the terraforming which such eruptions cause which in turn serve as a metaphor for the changing mental landscape of the couple, but it also could call back either to the eruption of orgasm, or, as a pun, the eruption of a son from the womb. These sexual and procreative associations are then reflected macrocosmically back upon the sun, and the notion that the cosmos itself is engaged in a constant cycle of sex and birth harmonizes with the couple’s physical bliss being transformed and projected into a spiritual bliss. The phrase also, we might add, suggests the ephemerality of all things: the sun is constantly exploding, destroying itself, and eventually it will burn out. As such, all the things for which we are grateful will burn out too. The presence of love and life is therefore something to be cherished right now all the more. 

The poem concludes with the lovely and provocative sentence: “A gratitude that so/wants a place to go/ it authors one.” What’s intriguing about this phrase is that it can be read both theistically and atheistically. On the one hand, it may recall to us the skeptical phrase of Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In other words, we can explain the widespread belief in God by acknowledging that human psychology and philosophy may requires the proposition of a supreme being in order to function in an orderly, healthy fashion, but this expedience does not make the proposition true. On the other hand, we could view the fact that humans have a natural impulse toward the divine as evidence of the divine. In his book of apologetics, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

 

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. ... If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthy pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

 

In these remarks, we hear again the ghost of Plato. Perhaps the best way to sum up the theistic interpretation of this poem is to paraphrase another beautiful remark made by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?:” 

 

“I believe in God as I believe that the Sun has risen; not only because I see Him, but because by Him I see everything else.” 

 

With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s go through this poem one last time, as an old friend:

 

 

 

The Birth of God

 

It happened near Lascaux

Millions of dawns ago.

For dawn it was,

Infusing radiance

And cuing avians

The way it does,

 

That saw the two of them

(Odds are a her and him,

Though maybe not)

Emerging from the mouth

Of a cave a couple south

Of the one that's got

 

All that painted fauna

All but snorting on a

Wall. That is

To say, from the mouth of a cave

Unconsecrated save

By the sighs and cries

 

Of the night just past. The pair

Has borne the bliss they share

Out into the bright.

Where silently they stand

Thanking, hand in hand

Before the light.

 

Their gratitude is truly

New beneath the duly

Erupting sun.

A gratitude that so

Wants a place to go

It authors one.