Below are two poems that are really the same poem, written nearly forty years apart. In the summer of 1975 I was trying to start an organization called The Small World School of Poetry. (I am still trying.) I meant to write a text for a poster to put up around the university, but when I set pen to paper, out came this poem. It has remained my “signature” poem over the years, and there have been several “remakes” of it—”Desperate Love for Pirkei Avot,” from in the winter of 5774, is the most recent.
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life —
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world’s fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.
Desperate Love of ‘Sayings of the Fathers’
The other day I found myself saying to someone,
“I have a desperate love for ‘Sayings of the Fathers.’
Then I realized this was not understood.
Sayings of the Fathers, i.e. Pirkei Avot
is in the prayerbook for Saturday afternoon,
but maybe no one has encountered it quite the way I have.
It really began in Berkeley, in the ‘60’s,
that moment which is getting so hard to recall
(try to explain what you think has been going on
to someone born even a few years later).
It was a time of earnest conversations
in which we believed that we were figuring out
what was wrong with the world and how we were going to fix it.
Of course I view it now as a time of breakage.
The forms in which we had lived were gleefully broken
and this very exciting energy was released
which I for one hoped would go to the making of new forms
but it didn’t, and so instead it dissipated
and nothing happened, except everything got worse.
But just at the point where I sensed things would go that way
I was prompted to read Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim
which threw me into a world where such conversation
was seemingly a regular part of life,
and since this was associated with Judaism
I too became associated with Judaism
and someone I met at Hillel presented me with a prayerbook
and called my attention to Sayings of the Fathers
and I understood that this was the original
of that conversation I wanted to reconvene.
That is: I heard not just a collection of sayings
but a deposit of understandings of how
those involved in such conversation should relate to each other
so as to cut out all the noise of ego
and come together on what could still be done.
I have a friend now who wants to convene the Sanhedrin.
I’d like to start a kind of Twelve Step Foundation
focused not on our personal addictions
but on the parts we might play in representing
the possibility of repairing the world.
It seems a wilder fantasy than ever
but since the next major holiday is now Purim
I thought I’d bring it up. My friend says the Sanhedrin
appoints the Mashiach. If the world turns upside down
even for a moment this next full moon of Adar
maybe someone else, somewhere, will think it could happen.