So Much to Read

Buechner is remembering his Princeton school years:


I TOOK GERMAN LIKE medicine, hoping that it might land me in Intelligence when my time came instead of the Infantry, and almost flunked it despite artful cribbing from Rainer Maria Rilke in my German compositions. I took medieval history, I no longer remember why, and out of it all, the one thing that stuck by me was Saint Francis of Assisi and his Canticle to the Sun. "Laudato sie, misigniore," he sang—praise to thee, misigniore, for Brother Sun, for Sister Moon, and though there was much in it that reminded me of the creaking baritone in the Tryon church where I sometimes went with Naya, there was a passion to it that was new to me and a mystery too because it was not just Brother Sun and Sister Moon that he was giving praise for in his canticle but Sister Death too, of all things, death no less than life as sister and friend. I had heard before of praising God, but the madness of Saint Francis' praise was new to me, the madness of throwing away everything he ever had or ever hoped to have for love of the creation no less than of the creator, of making a marvelous and holy fool of himself by tramping out into the fields to tell swallows and skylarks and red-winged blackbirds that they ought to praise God too for the air that bore them up and for their nests in the high trees.

I took creative writing, too—wondering, as I still do, what other kind of writing there is—and wrote poems about Saint Francis, about flying kites in Bermuda on Good Friday, about war and love, but in all of them I think my chief interest was less in trying to tell some kind of truth, if only a truth about myself or what I had seen, than in trying to make an effect. "You have a way with words," my instructor, the critic R. P. Blackmur, told me, and although at the time it was like getting the Pulitzer Prize, it seems to me now that there was also a barb to his remark. I wrote poems with punch lines, had a way of making words ring out and dance a little, but there was little if any of my life's blood in my poems. I was writing for my teachers, for glory. I had not yet started trying to write either out of myself very much or for myself, partly, of course, because I had only a very dim sense of who that self was, and what with both the war and my eighteenth birthday bearing down on me hard, there was precious little time to find out. We had the sense—all of us, I think—that our time was running out, and that was why we tried to fill it as full as we did with whatever came to hand, why in the face of death it was a time with so much life in it. There was so much to do, so much to be, so much to read. John Donne I read especially, and William Blake, and T. S. Eliot, more carried away with the sound of their voices than with what they said—the stammering intensity of Donne, the toying, crazy innocence of Blake, and Eliot so weary and civilized and under control, the wisest old possum of them all.

-Originally published in The Sacred Journey

To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.