November 25, 2022

The tradition of Pentecost poetry reading evenings

Recently on this site, Sean Fitzpatrick encouraged to meditate on good poetry. He was writing about Easter and the eighth day, but it reminded me of a local tradition regarding the celebration of Pentecost. Because the Holy Spirit inspired all the poetry of the Psalms, and because the three canticles of the Gospel of Luke are each preceded by the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit”, Pentecost is the ideal time for an evening of poetry reading.

Forgive me for calling a “tradition” something that I personally started, and only four years ago. I claim this title because, truly, reciting poetry is one of the oldest cultural customs of all. Rather, I simply resuscitated it and linked it to Pentecost, the most underrated of the major feasts. I invited my friends, who enjoyed it enough to invite a few more friends the following year. I hope that when the custom becomes too big to hold in my own home, it will multiply and become normal among Catholics everywhere.

Tradition goes something like this. Imagine a beautiful evening in late spring. The Pentecost Vigil Mass, or perhaps Pentecost Vespers, has just ended. Parishioners hurry to the cemetery, or to the house of someone who has a hearth, or any place where they can safely build a fire. A few of the young men, perhaps those not allowed to prove themselves with the Easter fire, are jumping at the chance to stack wood in the way they know is best and d light the kindling. Soon, a cheerful bonfire crackles and rattles in the twilight.

Chairs are placed all around. Food is brought. (I recommend trays of individual appetizers that can be easily passed around and eaten without worrying about the dishes. (White dresses) or fiery colors are preferred. Naturally, drinks are also served. (Whitsun Ale is recommended if you can get it, but anything from mead to mint juleps to Pabst Blue Ribbon is okay.) Once everyone has settled into a seat and humidified vocal cords, the real fun begins.

The party host (or hostess, in my case, that’s all I have) has to stand up and get the attention of the guests. He should lead them in prayer to the Holy Spirit and perhaps the singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus. He should then be the first to recite a poem.

The poem may be of his choosing, but I always, always start with “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which suits the occasion perfectly:

The world is charged with the greatness of God.

‘Cause the Holy Spirit, above the bend
Broods of the world with hot chest and with ah! Bright wings.

And then the floor is open. I nudge a guest or two that I know have a thing for a certain poem, and they get up and read it. There is no need to dramatize it, or even memorize it. Good poetry, proclaimed in a loud enough voice, can pretty much speak for itself. After an initial Brave Soul or two, the gathering warms up to the task. People squint at books held by firelight or search for poems on their smartphones.

They read short poems, most of the time, like “The Donkey” by Chesterton, or they warn the company that this one is “a bit long” and read a selection from, say, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. A poem reminds someone else of another poem, which reminds someone else of another. A few timidly release their own verses. They, and those who prefer to just listen, are treated the same with respect. A few rounds of applause follow each performance, but the focus is not on the performers but on the poems themselves.

The evening progresses. One more poem, one more! Someone throws another log on the fire. Someone else suggests a song. Yes, let’s sing one of those Irish drinking songs or a sea shanty or even an anthem, whatever the mood calls for.

The evening continues. Drowsy children sit on their parents’ laps, hypnotized by the fire. A few people reluctantly get up to leave. Lightning bugs went to bed. But those who ignite the passion for poetry, drunk with the pleasure of singing, remain. Humorous poems, loud songs and finally, a final hymn to end the night. Guests help carry a few chairs and put out the fire. Farewell.

This is an average but precise account of three parties that I have organized in the last three years. Yes, I’ve had a few guests who wrote their own poems, but I’ve also had guests who said they didn’t understand poetry at all. And I had guests just because it’s a party with friends. All enjoyed it and looked forward to a repeat the following year, for good poetry and singing are natural human pleasures, just as much as fire and food.

We forget and pretend they are the domain of specialists, as Chesterton pointed out over a hundred years ago, but they all belong to us. So it is with the Holy Spirit, that wild, beautiful, dangerous, and sorely underrated member of the Most Holy Trinity, whose gifts we have received at baptism and confirmation. Let us praise and thank Him in the Liturgy, of course, but also with a feast in His honor.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]