There is another world, but it is within this one.
I LIKE TO SING. Singing, like poetry, enables us to enter experiences other than our own. I sing lively Elizabethan songs by Thomas Campion, melancholy ones by John Dowland, gems from Shakespeare’s plays, “Greensleeves,” and the medieval “Cherry Tree Carol” in which a pregnant Mary confronts an angry Joseph, and an unborn Jesus solves the conflict. I sing popular songs from the thirties, learned from my parents. Does anybody remember “A Bicycle Built for Two”? Then there are showtunes, folksongs, protest songs, spirituals, blues. I liked to belt out “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” when I was six or seven and had no idea what it was all about. When my dad came home after union meetings, we used to sing, “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union,” banging our fists on the table. In chorus in high school we sang Fauré’s Requiem and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. In chorus in college we sang Beethoven’s Ninth, and I could climb up to high C with the rest of the sopranos and sail along there as long as Beethoven and Schiller needed me to.
Once I could sing along with the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. Those were the days. Now I am a moderately passable alto in my local amateur chorus. I’ll sing in the shower, doing dishes, hiking, biking. I sang in my head when I was in labor. I’ll sing in my head when I’m sleepless. The text might be Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” brimful of longing. It might be cool Dylan, slick Joni Mitchell, or magical Leonard Cohen.
The dimension of spirituality in poetry and song has always drawn me in. Why is that? My lefty Jewish family raised me to be an atheist; my spiritual training consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the masses; never have I literally experienced anything that might be called “belief” or “faith” in a personal God. The violent and punitive God worshipped in Judeo-Christian traditions is a figure I have wrestled with in book after book. And yet the idea of a world of the spirit existing within, or beneath, the material world, the world of our bodies, seems real to me. Not above us, dispensing rewards and punishments. Nothing to do with dogma.
The one hymn in my repertoire is “Amazing Grace.” Part of what’s lovely to me about “Amazing Grace” is the melody, those smooth waves rising and resolving. Partly it is the sweetness of an achieved serenity, in which a “lost” and “blind” past has been absorbed into a present that ripples with goodness and peace.
As a pinch of salt accentuates a dish’s sweetness, or a dash of black makes a gallon of white paint more vividly white, the song makes me appreciate being found as a child in a game of lost-and-found might appreciate it, or as a child who has accidentally strayed might be extra grateful when family shows up and dinner is waiting. Although the song does not explicitly say so, to be lost to oneself—and there are so many ways for that to happen—and then to have found oneself, is to be at ease in body and mind. Blindness, though—or so it seems to me—is something one wills. A hardness, an armoring of the self, a deliberate not-knowing, not-feeling. A refusal to recognize reality. We all suffer some blindness, and we know we do, and can’t help it.
Grace does the helping, the achieving, the accomplishing. Amazing grace, with its lovely assonance, surrounds us with safety and enlightens our minds. We need do nothing; it just happens—happens miraculously. Grace touches the heart and teaches it to fear—fear what? Punishment, eternal punishment? Or staying lost forever, without a family? Or being mired in self-hatred? Yet almost the instant this fear is felt it is relieved, in the world of the song.
A friend of mine was an alcoholic, and he knew it, knew his drinking was wrecking his life, wrecking his family. His wife was going to leave him; he couldn’t stop. He tried and tried and kept on drinking. One day during a long drive heading north through empty Michigan countryside, he heard himself saying, out loud, “Jesus, Jesus, I can’t carry this. You take it.” And, he said, Jesus did take it. Some kind of space opened, and he was sober ever after.
That’s grace, obviously. My friend deeply knew himself to be a “wretch” as a drunkard. John Newton, the reformed slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” was telling his own life story. But something else is happening in the opening line of the hymn as it performs what it describes, even for a relative non-wretch like me. There is a sense that prayer is itself the answer to prayer, and in just the same way, “Amazing Grace” becomes operative. When I say, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” the phrase “how sweet the sound” is at once self-reflective, meaning the sound of the words just said, just being said, and it also means the cosmic sound that is a divine emanation, a force one can feel entering one’s body as it is invoked. Pythagoras and others have believed in the sacred music of the spheres. Buddhist philosophy speaks of a cosmic sound, nada, that may be heard within in utter silence. Did the sound save a wretch like me? Just so, it is a paradox, and I have long thought that paradox is the only proper way to speak of the divine.
Beyond the mystery of grace causing and relieving fear, I become engaged in the “I” of the hymn shifting to “we.” We’ve come through a lot, with the help of grace, and grace “will bring us home.” This brings us to the country of Pilgrim’s Progress, where the saved are gathered by the river they are about to cross. The final stanza’s invocation of time, ten thousand years as a portion of an eternity spent in singing God’s praise, is lifted into ecstasy by “bright shining as the sun,” which may refer to what it is like “there,” or to how brightly we ourselves will shine. Past, present, future, and finally eternity become encompassed in brightness.
But it is the return of the refrain that I most truly embrace, or that embraces me. And how this can happen without a trace of Christian “belief” on my part is itself a mystery. Something to do with Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief,” I suppose. Happily, this is not a mystery I feel any need to solve.
Alicia Ostriker has published sixteen volumes of poetry, most recently The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog and Waiting for the Light (both from Pittsburgh), which received the National Jewish Book Award for poetry. As a critic, Ostriker is the author of several books on poetry and on the Bible.
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.