Years ago, long before I joined the church of radio, I was a Benedictine monk living in a monastery in Missouri. I spent five years in the community. We looked after a parish church and ran a prep school, and some monks served as chaplains for nearby convents and hospitals.
Some of the monks were scholars. Some were gardeners. We had a few artists and musicians in the community, a scientist or two, and a greater than average collection of philosophers, theologians, linguists, and poets.
It was, perhaps, thanks to the poets that a piece of art was hung in the refectory, the room in the monastery where we took all our meals. (We didn’t talk during meals. One of the monks ate later and read to us during supper.)
The art on the wall contained this line of text: “These I have loved: wet roofs, beneath the lamplight; the strong crust of friendly bread; and many tasting food.”
I stared at those words month after month, year after year.
Language is distilled in poetry in almost the same way as grain is distilled to make alcohol: you wind up with something much more powerful than what you began with, but ultimately — and somewhat magically — it’s the same raw material.
This is something Gwen and songwriter Jim McCormick talked about a few months back, the way a poem’s language can accompany us through life.
Like all great poems, some of Rupert Brooke’s language has made its way into my mind where it rests, quietly for long stretches, until it gets called forth to comment on my own life and my own loves. Brooke was an early 20th century English poet who is best known for his poems about World War I.
His poem “The Great Lover” is a long catalog of things Brooke loves:
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
This week on Music Inside Out we dedicated the show to songs about food. That’s just good great fun, I mean how can you go wrong with a song about all the good parts of a hog? But it’s also true, I think, that it touches on a foundational part of being human: the table.
It’s the place of welcome in human societies across the globe and the very heart of domestic life. I think that’s half the reason we respond as we do to music about food: it gets us where we live.
After a bit of long-winded preface, Brooke finally gets to his list of things he loves in life, and the very first thing out of his mouth is:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines…
Think about that the next time you sit down at a diner with a clean white plate ringed with a blue line. And think about the holy place the table has in our culture and the responsibilities that should derive from that.
Seán Collins is a former producer of NPR’s All Things Considered and the web producer for Music Inside Out.