ART: On Making The Martyrdom Of Saint Polycarp — Writing the True Icon by Scott Cairns

On Making The Martyrdom Of Saint Polycarp — Writing the True Icon by Scott Cairns

From The Image

(The parts of the oratorio are: Prologue; Scene I – At the stadium; Scene II – A bedroom in a farmhouse outside of Smyrna; Scene III – The kitchen in another farmhouse nearby; Scene IV – On the road to Smyrna; Scene V – At the stadium)

When a friend asked if I’d mind his passing my contact information along to a J. A. C. Redford, he explained that J. A. C. was looking for a librettist for an oratorio on the life of Saint Polycarp.  My first – unuttered – response was something like, “Sheesh, good luck with that.”  In a subsequent email, my friend outlined the project, wised me up about J. A. C.’s many prior successes, and got me thinking about the possibility of giving this new genre a shot.  He warned me that J. A. C. would call me soon to talk it over.

In the meantime, I began attending to my own ignorance regarding Saint Polycarp, his life, and his martyrdom.  As I pored over the few extant documents from the period – primarily Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians and Markion’s epistle to Smyrna – and several more contemporary accounts cobbled together from those historical accounts, I felt chastened for my previous ignorance and exhilarated by what I was reading.  In particular, these famous words of his caught me immediately and brought me to sudden tears: “For eighty-six years I have served Jesus Christ, and he has never done me wrong.  How can you expect me to betray and blaspheme my king who has saved me?”

The accounts provided other words from the saint during this time of trial, words that continued to resound with calm, unwavering faith, and, most importantly, charity for those around him, even and especially those who sought his death.  Also, subtly laced within these phrases were traces of wit, of generous, even playful, humor.  On one occasion, in the midst of the crowd, the proconsul encouraged Saint Polycarp to say, ostensibly in condemnation of the Christians, “Away with the blasphemers”; Polycarp, gesturing toward the mob instead, says boldly, “Away with the blasphemers.”  I would cling to these traces of personality later on, as the project developed, and I sought to find what I would call a true icon of his voice, his person.

When J. A. C. called the following week, I was immediately struck by his warmth and wit, by his candor, and by his willingness not only to tolerate but to participate in my inveterate fondness for puns (or what my wife calls “half-witticisms”).  That is to say, we hit it off.

To be absolutely candid, I was unsure about accepting the commission.  I was eager to attempt it but anxious that I would fail, letting down J. A. C., our mutual friend, and Saint Polycarp.  In the past, I had read with pleasure verse libretti by Auden, Ashbery, and Wilbur, among others, but had never imagined attempting one myself.  Still, as J. A. C. talked me through his vision of the structure (citing the various scenes he’d already glimpsed as necessary moments), I too experienced – even as he spoke over the phone – a developing vision of how my beginning with individual, discrete lyrics – dramatic monologues, actually – might at least get me started in the right direction.  I didn’t know beans about writing libretti, but I knew how to make a lyric poem.   As J. A. C. continued to describe the scenes, I began imagining the individual lyric utterances that might occur within those scenes.

Fortunately, J. A. C.’s composition habit – when working with lyrics – is to settle on the words first and develop the music thereafter.  I wouldn’t have been able to work the other way round.  For me also, words come first; in my experience, meaning is spoken (or written) into being.

Among my long-established habits of composition, several proved to be ideal preparation for this challenge.  Since my earliest work in poetry – including many of the poems that comprised my early books – I had been drawn to, had even come to depend upon, the unique freedom of writing dramatically, of writing monologues in the voice of another.

Even today, one of the first lessons I try to teach my beginning students is to resist the notion that poetry is a documentary enterprise, to resist the error of thinking that poems are about the poet.  Most young writers come to the task loaded up with misunderstandings about what poems are, misunderstandings about what poems do.  Most arrive in class absolutely convinced that poems are the means by which poets communicate their experiences and their received wisdom to the masses.  There are at least a couple errors in that notion: 1) that a poem is a vehicle for some prior understanding the poet has arrived at, and 2) that the masses give a damn.

In my case, the dramatic monologue has become – both in my own work and in my pedagogy – an invaluable means for skirting the liabilities of the personal mode and its attendant, terminal ennui.

In the past, the “others” speaking in my poems were sometimes mythic or historical figures, oftentimes scriptural characters, and, on occasion, purely fictional constructions of my imagination.  In each case, the inevitable tilting of the head that occasions the adoption of a mask, the imaginative move of speaking in another’s voice, brings with it an exhilarating liberty, a freedom from the more narrow concerns of the self.  For this project, I would be more than willing to surrender – as much as I was able – my own personality in the search for Saint Polycarp’s voice.

Another long-established habit – that of working off prior texts in the manner of rabbinic midrashim – had also prepared me for leaning into the spare and fragmentary documents regarding Saint Polycarp in order to press them imaginatively for subsequent development and coherence.  In this business, gaps are good; they are, in fact, opportunities.  Of the many epistles Saint Polycarp is supposed to have written as bishop of Smyrna, only his letter to the Philippians survives.  Virtually the only other matter that witnesses to the voice and manner of the saint is the better-known epistle to Smyrna, attributed to a certain Markion, and providing the account of the saint’s last days and martyrdom.

The rabbinic disposition toward sacred texts – that they are the beginning of the story, rather than the end of it – is one that has come to infuse all my creative work, my reading, and my writing.  It is a disposition that, on the one hand, witnesses to the generative power, the life and agency of the word, and, on the other hand, effects a level of attention, concentration, and meditation in the reader, so much so that the reader attains a collaborative relationship with those words as meaning is made.

Finally, a third habit proved invaluable: while I am no iconographer, I had come to appreciate the seriousness and humility with which the “writers” of icons approach their sacred undertaking.  Their rules are these:

  1. As you approach the work, make the sign of the cross, and pray silently to forgive all who have offended you.
  2. Work deliberately, taking care with every detail of the image, as if the Lord himself stood with you, for he does in fact stand with you.
  3. Keep praying, to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually, avoiding useless words, honoring silence, into which you must enter.
  4. Pray especially to the saint whose image you are writing.  If you keep your mind from distractions, the saint will assist you toward a true likeness.
  5. When choosing a color, stretch your hands within, seeking to touch the Christ who lives in your heart, and ask for his leading.
  6. Do not covet your neighbor’s work, but rejoice in it: his success is your success, too, and the Lord’s as well.
  7. When your icon is done, offer sincere thanksgiving to God for his mercy in granting you the grace to write the holy images.
  8. Bring your icon to be blessed, putting it on the altar, as the first to pray before it before passing it to others.
  9. Never forget the joy of spreading holy images in the world, the joy of laboring in icon-writing, the joy of using your accomplishments to offer each saint the ability to shine through his icon, not for the joy of being in union and communion with the saint whose face you are writing.

These rules have become part of my daily work in poetry, especially when I am working – as now I most often do – on meditative verse or prose regarding one aspect or another of scriptural or theological enigma.  My purpose, in these cases, is to press the language into yielding further, speculative insight.  In the case of Saint Polycarp’s oratorio, my purpose was to find a voice, a demeanor, a character that was, on the one hand, available and engaging for the audience; this challenge is always in mind for any dramatic lyric, but for Saint Polycarp, I was cognizant of an overriding other hand: the voice, the demeanor, and character had to constitute a true icon of the blessed saint.  I didn’t want to make him up; I didn’t want to create a man in my own image, being no saint.

So I prayed the iconographer’s prayers, followed – as much as I was able – the iconographer’s rule.  I read, and reread, and read yet again (and daily) the existing documents, focusing primarily upon the words attributed to the saint, listening for any subtleties of character that I might embrace and develop.

As it happened, much of this was immediately preceded by the events of September 11, 2001.  On the morning of that tragedy, I met with a pastor friend, as I regularly did.  Most often he and I would compare notes on matters of theology, poetry, and fiction; we would discuss matters of the contemporary church; we would swap books.

On that day, we landed, in a state of bewildered numbness, in our familiar corner of the Coffee Zone.  Stunned, with almost nothing to say to each other, we nevertheless decided to stay put, to hang out together, if only for moral support, working in silence toward some articulation – he working on his sermon and I working on scraps of verse – of what we were feeling.  Rather, I’d say now that we were turning to language in order to find feeling.

In retrospect, I realize that I was again, as if by default, trusting in the rabbinic approach of midrashim as a way to proceed through enigma.  In the case of actual midrashic text, the darshan (the writer of midrashim), confronted by a dark saying – an enigmatic passage with which he is at a loss to deal – will have recourse to another text, a verse from afar, which is able to supply some sense to the apparently senseless matter before him.  In this case, the events of 9/11 were my dark saying, and miraculously my verse from afar, Exodus 13:12-22, came to the rescue:

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.

Over the course of that hour, I didn’t come up with much, just these eight lines – two squat quatrains, like columns lying down.

According to the promise, we had known
We would be led, and that the ancient God
Would deign to make His hidden presence shown
By column of fire, and pillar of cloud.

We had come to suspect what fierce demand
Our translation to another land might bode,
But had not guessed He would insist our own
Brief flesh should bear the flame, become the cloud.

Weeks later, as I read about Saint Polycarp’s dream of a flaming pillow, a flaming bed, as I read his subsequent words to his friends, “I must be burned alive,” and as I read the account of his willingness to receive the martyr’s flame untethered, my own words returned to me as being germane to the heart of the matter, as being suggestive of the heart of Saint Polycarp, whose image I was hoping to find.

I am often telling my students that the key to strong writing is strong reading.  We talk, most often, about how essential it is that they develop a curious, conversational attitude toward prior works of literature, learning to take the cues for their performances from the language of those who precede them to the stage, as it were.  Less often, we talk about developing a similar disposition to our own, prior words.  It is nonetheless an invaluable lesson.  If we can approach any prior text – the work of another or our own work – as it were being witnessed for the first time, we can glimpse much that we hadn’t anticipated, much that can then lead us into further making.

In the case of my quatrains, I found a disposition – a resigned, if baffled, willingness – that would continue to serve my finding the right tenor for Saint Polycarp’s voice.  He would become for me – as, I trust, he was – not so much predetermined as faithful, trusting, willing to see what would come of his honoring God, of his saying yes to whatever befell him.  I began to understand that the unfailing courage he exhibited at the end of his life was not a static perfection, previously attained, nor a miraculous trumping of personality by an omnipotent God with heavy thumbs, but was a maturity that the bishop of Smyrna had grown into.  His serious questioning of what God would have him do became, for me, absolutely essential to that growth, and I was determined to honor this gradual development over the course of successive soliloquies.

Equipped with this hint of his voice, prepared with the prayers of the iconographer, I focused next upon the words of the saint that have been retained in the historical accounts – in particular, the two epistles mentioned above.  In the case of Polycarp’s own epistle to the Philippians, I learned a great deal about the saint’s character from what might seem the absence of character; the letter is virtually a pastiche of Pauline or Johannine exhortation, with hardly a word of modification, hardly a word that might be helpful in revealing Polycarp – or so it seemed.  The more I read that letter, the more I realized how beautifully the saint’s humility showed through his unwillingness to spin the message.  I’d say it like this: his personality shows through those immediate, spoken moments recorded by Markion, and his character shows through his humble retreat into the language of his teachers.

And as I moved from scene to scene, I came to think that I knew the man, and was therefore able to imagine some of the interior struggle he might have undergone, including his concerns for his people, his church.  I imagined that, among his concerns, he would be cautious about what sort of witness he was being, cautious about what sort of sacrifice he was asking his flock to accept.   I believe, as the documents suggest, that Saint Polycarp received mystical assurances from our Lord, but I developed a strong sense that these assurances did not come all at once, but were the increasingly complete answers to many hours of concentrated prayer.

Finally, when most of the lyric moments – the dramatic monologues in the voices of the various personae – had been finished, I was at a complete loss as to how to supply the connective tissue that would avail a coherent narrative.  J. A. C. came to the rescue here.

He was the one to seize upon the existing narrative shape of the oratorio, adapting portions of the letter to supply the story.  This was an absolute blessing.  Once the challenge of producing the narrative thread was solved, I was all the more free to pursue revisions – subsequent drafts – of the monologues without the burden of narration.  To my ear, the monologues immediately improved, becoming purer, lighter, more suggestively poetic.

And so, as I sent the more-or-less final drafts to J. A. C. in early 2003, I felt my part in the process had been completed.  J. A. C. and I continued to visit off and on by phone or by the occasional email, tweaking a line here or there, modifying a minor character now and again, but, to be honest, I turned my attention to other tasks.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2004, as I was making preparations to attend the premier, that I became reengaged in the project.  I listened to some of the synthesized tracks J. A. C. had sent me, looked over the scores he’d been sending in intervals; I even tried picking out some of the melody lines on the keyboard, but my ineptitude pretty much kept me from appreciating what J. A. C. had accomplished until I sat in on my first rehearsal.

J. A. C. had told me how he’d altered – for what I would call matters of rhetorical concern – the solo narration of Markion into sections of recitative by a children’s choir, but until I heard the result I didn’t fathom its effects.  In the letter of Markion, certain miraculous events are attested to, in particular the way the flame of the pyre surrounded, but did not harm, the saint, and the presence of a dove flying from the saint’s body as he is pierced by a lance.  While Christians who are familiar with hagiography would not have blinked at these elements, J. A. C. feared that an audience comprised of evangelical Christians might be put off by these assertions; his solution was brilliant: he established the voices of children as delivering this narration, effectively mitigating resistance in an audience uncomfortable with mystery and miracle.  But more than this: the added texture of the children’s choir – sometimes reciting, sometimes intoning, sometimes singing connecting elements of Markion’s narrative – brought a deliciously fresh aspect to the overall composition.

As we worked with the university choir and with the children’s choir in rehearsal, we continued to fiddle with wording and with presentation, even as final rehearsals were under way.  This part of the process was absolutely new to me.  As a poet, working in solitude – with no collaborator and with, frankly, hardly an audience – I had never before experienced the excitement of working with others to bring a complicated production together.  New or not, it was delicious, thrilling.

I stayed away from the orchestra rehearsals, so when the actual premier rolled around, I was as new to the complete production as anyone there.  To say I was moved is a paltry understatement.  I was shaken.  J. A. C.’s orchestrations were soul-stirring, the performers were astonishingly accomplished, and to be honest, the words became what they were all along: someone else’s.


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