The story is told con brio in Robert Rouse’s privately printed book The Making of a Book. Francis and Don Stevens as the two Westerners attending the 1955 Sahavas program in India were both handed by Meher Baba the task of commemorating their experience, Don to write Listen, Humanity and Francis Stay With God.
con brio = with vigour
In 1956 Baba asked Francis Where is my book?
Francis had been rather busy building Meher House in Sydney and organising Baba’s visit to Australia and could only reply I’m sorry Baba. I will start immediately after you have left. Not too much eventuated until at the Rouses’ suggestion he decided to work through his “poetic sensibility”. Francis who had been writing poetry for a long time decided to produce a major work expounding the theme and ideas of God Speaks to show that the real progress and discovery for humanity were through the fruition of the inner quest of selfdiscovery rather than in voyaging on to the stars.
The form of the book was, like Beethoven’s late string quartets, to be different movements based on a central idea. This idea was his daily experience of knowing and loving Baba. The artist makes art from his own experience, to refresh the spirit of others. His aim was lofty: “Art is the act of talking about love…in that act one uncovers love (one’s real self.)” He saw it as a series of variations on God Speaks.
The book grew over the next two and a half years until Francis was able to take the draft with him when he was summoned to India in 1959.
In India he had the task of reading to Baba from his book for an hour each morning.
Meher Baba’s Role
Baba was of course the muse and the sponsor of the project. He provided corrections and some new material as well as some new discourses for the ‘Foundation’ and two other prose sections.
Baba also gave the poem extraordinary endorsement. Francis wrote to the Rouses:
“The miracle that I hoped for and yet dared not hope for when I was writing S.w.G. apparently occurred. BABA apparently says that it is second only to God Speaks, that it supplements and even “gives life” to God Speaks.”
The whole book was read to Baba and most of the verses repeated “2, 3 + even 4 times”.
Baba even commented
“I feel so proud having written this book through you.”
He also said that it would be read for a thousand years and that there would be volumes written on and about it!
A few mere hints: best out loud but certainly at least for the inner ear, slowly, with each word clearly articulated, a bit the way Francis used to do it. Then because this is verse,. . a pause, often just small, after each line. As you practice reading it, become very aware that it is riding on patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. These get a bit more emphasis than if you were reading prose. By and large they follow the natural emphases you give when you are aware of the meaning of what you are reading. But there are generally the same number in each line. This gives the verse structure and balance. When read skilfully the verse has an incantatory feel, it sings along. The stresses are not of course in the same place in each line. So the poet can build up a balance between sameness, the number of stresses, and difference, their position in the line. And the number of unstressed syllables can vary a lot.
Wings toward the glaciers of Kailas where the first Fathers nourished
The seed of God; and Siva gentled Ganga, and Parvati
Walked by streams of living heart. For Siva was Jesus before him
And Parvati His loveliness in the earth — as was Rama, as was Krishna,
As was Abraham and Zarathustra and Buddha and Mohammed and their loveliness —
God’s Avatar: as is now BABA. Sing, Baba, your descent this time on earth,
Your Brightness in our night, your comfort in our separation.
For it is my love’s desiring, Baba, to compose a book on this theme
Which you set me and to this task my spirit spreads its wings,
Only to fall stifled and overcome, the song groaning within my breast,
Impossible of utterance. For only a Perfect Master can speak a book,
And saintship is the least qualification to sing of you, although
A profound scholarship is sufficient for the assembling of mere facts:
But I have neither devotion nor learning for the task.
You can see a lot of variation there so the utterance seems natural but the regular beat gives it weight and rhythm. Try it on the first ten stanzas of Book III where even the first short line
Once God, that Great Being
will bear five strong stresses to give it lofty emphasis
This is NOT free verse! Unless you follow the skills of Francis the wordsmith you will bore the socks off your listeners and yourself.
One day (one day!) we will have a full commentary on Stay With God but for now some suggested lines of approach to what is a formidable bit of verse by any standard.
Hopefully a brief introduction and appreciation will encourage some to perform it individually and in groups as vivid presentation, and to contribute to a full commentary which is owed to the world.
Slowly comes the realization that this is our story our own epic, blowing us out of our cosy individuality to feel the vastness of our history and of God’s love within us. Indeed not easy: in these postmodern times how hard for a poet to make us feel confidence in our own heroic and epic nature and of an all embracing sacred history. As Francis’ earlier poetry has insisted we have become dehumanized and isolated in our egoic fears and pleasures. Once we make the mental jump of letting the power of the verse involve us we become avid for more of our story. And when we have confidence in our own heroic nature we can perhaps believe in our divine nature! Real art doesn’t come to us on a plate ready for consuming; it is a challenge, we have to prove ourselves ready to receive it.
In having the guts to embark on the project he had to escape from this limited modern individuality as he says in the second and third stanzas of the poem. He was sustained by accepting that he was fulfilling Baba’s order. And also by the amazing conviction that is built towards in the poem – that ultimately art is “the loveliness of God embodied in man.”
Book I – Meher Baba
the occurrence of Reality in illusion
A challenging task – how to give a detailed picture of Meher Baba’s life in verse and to make it attractive and memorable. Francis goes about his task with great economy and he also breaks up the story with digressions. These are important. We are being educated to see the real history of humanity, heroes and saints little known in the West. Fun to look things up, these days with Google we hardly need the notes at the back. Nice changes of key too from the heroic to the humorous and vernacular.
Francis is claiming that like all sacred art, the poem is an offering to the divine power that has inspired it. His Muse is Baba and his powers are inspired by his faith in this guidance. This is why the poem carries such a convincing tone of prophetic confidence. As Judith Wright, one of Australia’s leading poets said, it has “the authority of real sincerity.”
Baba is displayed as the latest historic manifestation of the periodic breaking through of Reality into the illusory nightmare of history.
Book II – The Love Song of John Kerry
illusion singing to Reality
(Again just a quick preamble before one starts the poem.)
Take a look at the first two stanzas. In the first, the five beats per line are hardly noticed as the quiet narrative tone proceeds. Then in the lyrical incantation of the second an extra beat is added in each line and it become an inspiring chant. Then back to five beats again. By the way if the five beats don’t work in some places don’t worry about it. Just be aware that good poetry is magical.
Illusion here is singing; the illusion of us, caught in the small ‘I’ but aware that He alone is real. Francis makes it a dramatic struggle. John Kerry knows God is in and beyond everything, that he himself is naught, God is Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. Yet he has faith in the love of God as redeemer, as Baba. His faith illumines the dilemmas and makes shine what is usually opaque for us. Francis is more or less talking about himself here, but this persona enables him to speak with tenderness and detachment, without losing the personal note. He can unobtrusively step in and out of his character’s mind, which he does with subtle aplomb.
It is the world of the individual imprisoned in his ‘restless visioning’ but what a leap as a poet from Cantos of Wandering. Hardly any over dramatising and all confusions held in the limpid control of his verse, holding together a paean of praise and a litany of complaint.
Book III – God’s Speaking
the question which Reality asked Itself and the beginning of illusion and its end
A book of lovely variations on a theme – the awakening of Reality, through illusion, to Reality. Four sections, each of ten stanzas, each of ten lines, and then a short coda which repeats the theme. This theme comes from Meher Baba’s God Speaks where creation is seen as the answer to the original question ‘Who am I?’ and the path of the return of creation to Divine Self-Knowledge.
Each section tells the vast story of evolution, the drama of being human, progress through the heroic and the spiritual until the final returning to God. While Section 1 stresses the human Section 2 brings out God’s participation in all experiences with even more intensity.
However, the difference between them and also between them and the following sections eludes the verbal mind. They are more like musical variations with changes of mood and melody. As Robert Rouse has told us Francis was much preoccupied with Beethoven’s late string quartets.
In Section 3 the great drama of the Incarnation of the GodMan becomes central while in Section 4 there is the wonderful image of the Tree, an identifying of the Tree of life with the Tree of Knowledge
the Tree of Life kept living in the rivers of Necessity.
In section 4 there is a different line length and different stress pattern, generally four beats to a line. This section in particular takes us out of our lousy little houses of self, succeeding as few spiritual writers do, in conveying something of the wondrous energy and beauty of the creative process.
Takes his stand, at last takes his stand and rejects
The Moon-road to rebirth in form’s delight and pain
Of nights of cool breeze over warm sands curling
A wisp of fragrant hair across brow dreaming unseen light,
And near thunder of Poseidon’s horses on blue paddock of ocean;
And dawns; and disastrous days of ambition realized or thwarted —
The Moon-road to lovely form and fear and hope.
And takes the Sun-road, the death-road to immortal Self —
Unborn, undying abodeless Being, Knowledge, Bliss
Who built no houses, only dreamed a dream.
Francis is always pointing the way ahead. His poetry is a call to be satisfied with nothing less than with what is beyond, beyond our enjoyments, plans and imaginings, total surrender to the divine Beloved, for which it is always necessary to die to self. Poetry makes it an imperious trumpet call. The lovely coda to the book is full of peaceful assurance, a serene triumphant mighty chord to close.
Book IV – The Steps to His Feet
abandoning illusion for Reality
Here is the unveiling of our real predicament, for which there is only one cure. The supremely valid path is to accept the necessary help of the Perfect Master. Every stanza of the book ends with ‘Perfect Master’. Our predicament becomes a hymning of the Avatar which finally dissolves in a total affirmation of the Perfect Master as our own real Self.
In the great traditions this is often seen as the highest Guru Yoga.
This poem deals with faith but not the faith of blind belief – for
Pitiful the one who because of a dream
of an angel visiting him or Christ speaking,
imagines he is on the path. Sunk in a stupor
on the seashore watching a ship passing —
but not on its deck the lovely Person of the Perfect Master.
Francis is talking of the faith that comes from the stripping away of self so that the ground is cleared for an encounter with the living presence of the Master, his embracing love. This contrast is made a reality in the poetry.
Book V – The God-Man as World Axis and Living Perfection of Art
the Divine Sun of Reality shining through the mists of illusion
This Book is Francis’ ‘poetics’, his investigation of the nature of art.
Art is an act of devotion.
The Book consists of four parts each of forty stanzas of fourteen lines each.
The business of being human is to find the divine within us. We are taken through a mixture of various traditions. This might be a bit indigestible for the reader but he is trying to capture the sheer richness and abundance of the Great Tradition, the tradition of celebrating God in us, a tradition not even generally recognized in the West. Maybe we can allow him a bit of showing off his erudition (‘this bloke knows his onions’).
There is great vigour as he leads us from sacred history to the fall into our own world of ‘cement and steel’, condemning the greed, materialism and restlessness (ours) in no uncertain terms. There is even praise for dirt as against our obsession with inhuman cleanliness. How powerfully he argues, in this case with relaxed humour:
You should see an Indian village. How beautiful, God,
are your villages! how exquisite
are the flowers of children growing out of your dirt.
How beautiful is dirt. The mania for cleanliness
is the fury of those outside the enclosure of intimacy.
They even garden in gloves. Maybe some of ’em wear ’em in bed.
God is to be found in the heart of beauty; beauty
is dirt moulded by the hands of the sun and vivified
with His breath. Children and masts seek dirt
and in it discover their freedom, as in dust
Majnun found Leila. A mast in his dirt
is a challenge to God — a rose in dung challenging the sun,
and the sun electrifies its face in the contours of its own energy,
making ashamed all clean people who come near it.
How lovely is dirt from which emerges
the nightingale of a child’s eyes:
dirt in which Krishna played; with which
the child Eknath made images of God; with which
Sri Sankaracharya demonstrated before the unbelievers
the Oneness of God — supremacy of Advaita over Atheism.
He is able to integrate humour and the sacred; to bring in a championing of the natural as well as his symbol of becoming dust at the Master’s feet, mocking the false pride in separateness.
He gives our modern ‘progress’ a drubbing. Even love between men and women needs restoring, women seen as trivialised by men who are not men. The human world is making us the slaves of our sensations. It all might seem like strident soapbox talk at times but he is speaking from the widest perspective . For real art and real humanity the idolatry of the self has to be got out of the way.
The world of time and space is all a dream. Francis is not trying to lecture us. He is a finger pointing to the moon, the moon of God Speaks. Poetry has, he claims, the resonance to make us remember, to point us towards realisation, not knowledge. Art created in love for God is eternity in time. It is an act of love. It is a bit less formal than the previous part. Stanzas have shorter lines and fewer stresses and there is some dabbling in the vernacular and at times a jumping about impressionistic technique. The lack of capitalisation at the beginning of lines encourages a more conversational reading. But he is still developing the great and tense confrontation between the worldly and the divine.
Shave your head, and pour dust upon it and wait
until He calls, for any other mirror but Him will deceive you
and keep your ass plodding up the dusty road. Sit down
like a plant and wait His sun, for all other suns rise only to set.
The lover waits for the night, for only then does beauty become visible
and his ardour is decorated with kisses. To him
day is night because its light leads into darkness; whereas
night is day because therein shines his true love.
It is because the lover is immature that the Beloved
draws a veil of beauty over the face of His truth —
it is because of this veil that anguished idleness begins.
But when the lover sees Leila’s face in the roadside dust
the Beloved weeps one tear in which the lover is drowned,
smiles one smile which becomes the lover’s illumination.
What a great call to bow to our real destiny!
And of course it is the agonising gap between human and divine which, wonder of wonders, brings down the Avatar, He who has “established divinity in the midst of barbarism.”
The role of such prophetic poetry is to kindle a possible eruption of the Word in the heart of the listener. Real being is awakened by our passion to know rather than by knowledge itself.
Responding will always involve exposure and risk.
God is the real creator of both life and art. Francis is again reminding us of our creaturehood, of our dependence upon the giants of the spiritual path and finally on the Avatar. Praise of the true is accompanied by condemnation of the modern false worship of power, personified in the Greek god of war Ares. Francis hammers, and hammers, his view that genuine history hinges upon the Incarnations, the necessary founders and sustainers of the path to freedom. He insists that we remember that which we already know, “GOD ALONE IS; and I am HE.”
One rather feels that the pounding rhetoric is meant to be a communal thing, not to be read in an armchair or for private devotions. Perhaps it should be chanted antiphonally, poetry like love being performative.
Again variety saves the day and stops things becoming preachy. Thus a short lyrical plea to the God Man is inserted:
O Sun! when will
you break through the encircling night of our day,
cherish our hearts, spill
gladness and set our feet dancing in your holy Way —
blossom your azure?
O Sun, burn with your diamonds our web of fears —
not our tears
alone our full cup and measureless measure.
O Sun the earth is ripe for budding
the heavens await a new studding
of instant pleasure
of your light for you. When will you break
our sleep and dreaming; our holy feet awake?
This begins with a great metaphor. Just as the Kailas cave in Ellora is carved from solid rock so that form emerges from the stone, thus God creates us from stone through evolution. In addition art has to hew away on our sanskaric legacy to make the real Self emerge, a removal to reveal what we already are.
All the false worshipping of modernity creates a great burden on God and obscures His form.
Modern art arbitrarily seizes on bits of the real art of the past. Francis humorously reduces all art to an ideogram of creation, vanishing as soon as drawn by a Zen master (stanza 12). He is still waging a one man crusade against the blindness of his age. Yet all his ranting is beautifully offset by his affirmation of the beauty of truth telling as in the lovely image of releasing light from matter:
Light. Light in a loaf of bread baked with love;
light in a cup of water in the name of God’s poverty;
tear-light and sweat-light and eye-light
shining out through crack in heart walls.
Wave-beating and land-roving for light; digging in earth
examining stone, metal, for light, examining
the shadows of form, the forms of shadows, words, sound
for light. Light of the saints nourishing Art.
Light of the Perfect Masters supporting the world and directly piercing
heart and awakening soul to journeying, and God-bestowing.
Light of Avatar in all things — ant-light, tree-light,
man-light — cutting their paths for them. After Him,
the beginning of poetry and stone-cutting to commemorate light —
to feed our daily lives. Light. Light the dream. Light the Reality.
and straight after this another affirmation composed in a totally different register which brings it down to earth cutting off any temptation to waffle:
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to have a friend
who wouldn’t want one to beguile time
but would turn on one in kindly anger, “You bloody loafer —
whatya foolin’ about doing instead of being occupied with His Name?”
Who would bang on one’s door in the middle of the night,
“Up there, lizard! wastin’ ya life in sleep and dreaming.”
Who would mock one’s hypocrisy and posturings
and laugh his sun-laugh at one’s shadow-earnestnesses.
A friend of knowledge, who, when he spoke, you would be listening
to little songs; and when he was silent, you felt home-sickness
as though you both came from the same Place. Who,
before the final courteous closing of his door (when he would be
wholly about his Father’s business) sang you a special song
which would break open in an intense flower the secret of music.
Urging and urging us to escape from the wheel, to get off the treadmill of illusion, to become alive in the GodMan.
In this last section there is a relaxing of formality, different line lengths, flexible stress patterns, as Francis directly addresses us and calls for our metanoia, the term used in the New Testament to express that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.
With great tenderness Francis bids us humble farewell in fluent verses. Notice how the rhyme scheme of the final verse is the only rhymed verse except for the Dedicatory right at the very beginning of the poem
So have I writ what love told me to write,
And every line betrays my poverty
Of love, as a poor man asked his charity
Displays a single shilling to our sight.
Yet I’m somewhat contented of my plight
In that rich love stooped down to ask of me —
Thus honouring me in whom no others see
Worth, myself, the least. Thus does love with light
And gentle grace encourage on his way
The least of us: taking each by the hand
He’s laboured with, using the same labour
To raise him to still greater favour —
Even perhaps to love’s own path: to stand
In light when Silence speaks its shining Day.
The primary thing is that it is imbued, saturated, with an accurate and thorough understanding of the journey of the soul from eternity through time to eternity, the great theme of God Speaks by Meher Baba.
In presenting it as a poem, as a work of literature, Francis is building a bridge between what he saw as divine Revelation, and what he saw as a still living cultural tradition in the West of Epic, Romance and Bildungsroman.
[Author: Geoff Gunther]
Bildungsroman = “novel of education, or coming-of-age story”