Recently on this site, Sean Fitzpatrick encouraged us to meditate on good poetry. He was writing on Easter and the Eighth Day, but it put me in mind of a local tradition regarding the celebration of Pentecost. Because the Holy Ghost inspired all the poetry of the Psalms, and because the three canticles in the Gospel of Luke are each preceded by the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Pentecost is the perfect time for a poetry reading party.
Forgive me for calling a “tradition” something I personally started, and only four years ago. I claim that title for it because, really, reciting poetry is one of the oldest cultural customs of all. If anything, I have simply revived it and connected it with Pentecost, that most underappreciated of the major feasts. I invited my friends, who enjoyed it enough to invite a few more friends the next year. I hope that when the custom grows too large to fit in my own home, it will multiply and become normal among Catholics everywhere.
The tradition goes something like this. Picture a fine evening in the late spring. The Pentecost vigil Mass, or perhaps Pentecost vespers, has just concluded. The parishioners hasten eagerly to the churchyard, or to the home of someone who has a fire pit, or any place where they can safely prepare a fire. A few of the young men, perhaps those who were not allowed to prove themselves with the Easter fire, jump at the chance to stack wood in the way they know to be best and set the kindling aflame. Soon, a merry bonfire crackles and snaps in the twilight.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Chairs are placed all around. Food is brought out. (I recommend platters of individual finger foods that can be easily passed around and eaten without the bother of dishes.) Foods that are either white (Pentecost is also called “White Sunday” or “Whitsunday” because catechumens were historically baptized at Pentecost and wore white robes) or fiery in color are preferred. Naturally, drinks are served as well. (Whitsun Ale is recommended if you can get it, but anything from mead to mint juleps to Pabst Blue Ribbon is acceptable.) Once everyone has settled into a seat and moistened the vocal cords, the real fun begins.
The host of the party (or hostess; in my case, that’s all I’ve got) should rise and gain the attention of the guests. He should lead them in prayer to the Holy Ghost and perhaps the singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus. He should then be the first to recite a poem.
The poem may be of his choosing, but I always, always begin with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which is perfectly suited to the occasion:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
Because the Holy Ghost, over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.
And then, the floor is open. I nudge a guest or two whom I know is partial to a certain poem, and they stand up and read it. There is no need to be dramatic, or even to have it memorized. Good poetry, proclaimed in a loud enough voice, can pretty much speak for itself. After the first one or two brave souls, the gathering warms to the task. People squint at books held in the firelight or look up poems on their smartphones.
They read short poems, mostly, like Chesterton’s “The Donkey,” or they warn the company that this one is “a little long” and read a selection of, say, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” One poem reminds someone else of another poem, which reminds someone else of another. A few shyly bring out verses of their own. They, and those who prefer only to listen, are treated alike with respect. A few claps follow each performance, yet the focus is not on the performers but on the poems themselves.
The evening wears on. One more poem, one more! Someone throws another log on the fire. Someone else proposes a song. Yes, let’s sing one of those Irish drinking songs or a sea shanty or even a hymn, whatever the mood requires.
The evening wears on further. Drowsy children sit in their parents’ laps, mesmerized by the fire. A few people reluctantly get up to leave. The lightning bugs have gone to bed. But those who are afire with the passion for poetry, drunk with the pleasure of singing, stay on. Humorous poems, loud songs, and finally, one final hymn to finish the night. The guests help carry a few chairs and put out the fire. Farewells.
This is an averaged but accurate retelling of three parties I’ve thrown the past three years. Yes, I’ve had a few guests come who have written their own poems, but I’ve also had guests come saying they don’t really understand poetry at all. And I’ve had guests come just because it’s a party with friends. All enjoyed it and looked forward to a repetition the following year—because good poetry and singing are natural human pleasures, just as much as fire and food.
We forget and pretend they are the domain of specialists, as Chesterton pointed out over a hundred years ago, but they belong to all of us. So does the Holy Ghost, that wild, beautiful, dangerous, and sorely underappreciated member of the Most Holy Trinity, whose gifts we have received at baptism and confirmation. Let us praise and thank Him in the Liturgy, of course, but also with a party in His honor.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]