In Memoriam: Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle, the celebrated author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other books of fiction and Christian essays, passed away on Thursday at the age of 88. From the New York Times, Sept. 8:

Madeleine L’Engle, an author whose childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation, most memorably in her children’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” died on Thursday in Litchfield, Conn. She was 88.

Her death was announced yesterday by her publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A spokeswoman said Ms. L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had died of natural causes at a nursing home, which she entered three years ago. Before then the author had maintained homes in Manhattan and Goshen, Conn.

“A Wrinkle in Time” was rejected by 26 publishers before editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux read it and enthusiastically accepted it. It proved to be her masterpiece, winning the John Newbery Medal as the best children’s book of 1963 and selling, so far, eight million copies. It is now in its 69th printing.

In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Marygail G. Parker notes “a peculiar splendor” in Ms. L’Engle’s oeuvre, and some of that splendor is owed to sheer literary range. Her works included poetry, plays, autobiography and books on prayer, and almost all were deeply, quixotically personal.

But it was in her vivid children’s characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for answers to the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.

“Of course I’m Meg,” Ms. L’Engle said about the beloved protagonist of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The St. James Guide to Children’s Writers called Ms. L’Engle “one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades.” Such accolades did not come from pulling punches. “Wrinkle” has been one of the most banned books in the United States, accused by religious conservatives of offering an inaccurate portrayal of God and nurturing in the young an unholy belief in myth and fantasy.

Ms. L’Engle, who often wrote about her Christian faith, was taken aback by the attacks. “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it,” Ms. L’Engle said in an interview with The New York Times in 2001. “Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.”

The book begins, “It was a dark and stormy night,” repeating the line of a 19th-century novelist, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. “Wrinkle” then takes off. Meg Murry, with help from her psychic baby brother, uses time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her father, a gifted scientist, from a planet controlled by the Dark Thing. She does so through the power of love.

The book uses concepts that Ms. L’Engle said she had plucked from Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory, almost flaunting her frequent assertion that children’s literature is literature too difficult for adults to understand.

“Wrinkle” is part of Ms. L’Engle’s Time series of children’s books, which includes “A Wind in the Door,” “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” “Many Waters” and “An Acceptable Time.” The series combines elements of science fiction with insights into love and moral purpose….

Her deeper thoughts on writing were deliciously mysterious. She believed that experience and knowledge were subservient to the subconscious and perhaps larger, spiritual influences.

“I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him,” she said in an interview with Horn Book magazine in 1983. “I know that is true of ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.

“It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”…

Much of her later work was autobiographical, although sometimes a bit idealized. Some books, like “A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys With Jacob” (1986) and “The Genesis Trilogy” (2001), combined autobiography and biblical themes. But she often said that her real truths were in her fiction.

“Why does anybody tell a story?” she once asked, even though she knew the answer.

“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

Like many other children of my generation, I read all of L’Engle’s young adult novels multiple times. I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet last year and found that it stood the test of time even better than the Narnia books (heretical thought!), which seem to have eclipsed her work in popularity among contemporary Christians. Why is that? Are her books unfairly associated with the spaced-out spiritualism of the 1960s? Is it that, like the Harry Potter books, the Christian lessons are more subtly concealed in characters’ moral choices, rather than in an obvious allegorical package (sorry, Aslan) that tames the story’s potentially “pagan” magical elements?

I often think of this passage from A Circle of Quiet, the first of L’Engle’s trilogy of Christian essay collections known as The Crosswicks Journal, as a touchstone for my relationships. L’Engle is musing on what she says to her young students when they seek her advice about their budding love affairs:

I ask the boy or girl how work is going: Are you functioning at a better level than usual? Do you find that you are getting more work done in less time? If you are, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you can’t work well, that you’re functioning under par, then I think something may be wrong….

The other question I ask my “children” is: what about your relations with the rest of the world? It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong. (pp.109-10)

Robert Bly Interviewed on PBS

Last week the venerable poet Robert Bly was interviewed on Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS. Some highlights from their witty, uplifting conversation are below. I recommend watching the video online rather than simply reading the transcript, as Bly’s joie de vivre is an essential part of the experience.

BILL MOYERS: You know, when I first met you, you were just barely 50. And you read this little poem. You remember this one?

ROBERT BLY: “I lived my life enjoying orbits. Which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can’t tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place.”

Well, that’s very good you find that because when you say, “What is the divine,” it’s much simpler to say there is the body, then there’s the soul and then there’s a third place.

BILL MOYERS: Have you figured out what that third place is 30 years later?

ROBERT BLY: It’s a place where all of the geniuses and lovely people and the brilliant women in the– they all go there. And they watch over us a little bit. Once in awhile, they’ll say, “Drop that line. It’s no good.”

Sometimes when you do poetry, especially if you do translate people like Hafez and Rumi, you go almost immediately to this third world. But we don’t go there very often.


ROBERT BLY: Well I suppose it’s because we think too much about our houses and our places. Maybe I should read a Kabir poem here.


ROBERT BLY: Kabir is a poet from India. Fourteenth century.

“Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you’re alive. Think… and think… while you’re alive.
What you call salvation, belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
you think that ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body’s rotten–
that’s all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
And if you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.”

I was going through Chicago one time with a young poet and we were rewriting this. And he said, “If you find nothing now, you will seemly end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death.” That’s very interesting to see how that thing really comes alive when you bring in terms of your own country. You’ll end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is, believe in the great sound. Kabir says this, when the guest is being searched for – see they don’t use the word “God”. Capital G, “Guest”. When the Guest is being searched for, it’s the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Then he says, “Look at me and you’ll see a slave of that intensity.”


BILL MOYERS: You’ve been talking and writing a lot lately about the greedy soul.

ROBERT BLY: I’m glad you caught that. Read this.

ROBERT BLY: “More and more I’ve learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It’s the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It’s the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the “nafs,” also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The “nafs” is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise.”

I wrote these three lines. “I live very close to my greedy soul. When I see a book published 2000 years ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.” This is really true. I’ve really done that. Yes, I’ve said that. So, in writers, the “nafs” often enter in the issue of how much– do people love me? How much people are reading my books? Do people write about me? Do you understand that? It probably affects you too in that way.

BILL MOYERS: Us journalists? Never.

ROBERT BLY: Never. Okay. “If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul.”


BILL MOYERS: Are you happy at 80?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy at 80. And– I can’t stand so much happiness as I used to.

BILL MOYERS: You’re Lutheran.

Resources for Postmodern Preaching

Dr. David Teague, a former missionary who teaches at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts, has started the website Postmodern Preaching as a resource for pastors and others who find the old methods of Christian apologetics irrelevant to a culture with postmodern ideas about truth and knowledge. The essays on this site are succinct and readable, providing a good starting place for the would-be evangelist. Here are some highlights from his article on Cultural Pluralism:

In the postmodern world, all beliefs and belief systems are considered to be relative. We are told that there is no absolute truth. Faith is just a matter of private opinion. One person’s faith is no more valid or unique than anyone else’s.

So, how do we preach in a world that is culturally pluralistic? We do so by being aware of:

1. The spirituality of postmodern people
2. The uniqueness of Christianity
3. The need to be spiritually faithful yet also socially tolerant


… Cultural pluralism…suggests that the difference between world religions is superficial. It makes us feel that our choice amongst these religions is as trite as choosing an item on a restaurant menu.

Dr. Daniel Brown argues that the difference between the world’s religions goes much deeper than that. Each religion represents a different worldview that affects all of life.

For instance, postmodern spirituality often confuses God and the created world. This makes people confuse psychological self-actualization with God. But this understanding is based on a worldview called pantheism.

It’s wrong to simply think that all religions are the same. Each religion is unique because each reflects a fundamentally different worldview. The process of choosing a religion, then, involves understanding which world and life view one wishes to adopt. It is in this way that we can understand the uniqueness of Christ….

Christianity is unique among the religions of the world because in it the transcendence and the immanence of God — his holiness and his love — become perfectly blended. As a result, the Christian worldview teaches that God is not the created world, but God can be known because he entered into the created world.


…The cardinal sin of the postmodern world is intolerance. Yet, through the centuries, intolerance has characterized the followers of Christ. This is a handicap to the Christian message in a postmodern world.

Some Christian thinkers, to avoid being intolerant, have bought into the pluralistic vision that all religions are the same. But pluralism undermines Christ’s claim that he is Lord of all. When we adopt a pluralistic vision, we end up respecting other religions but not our own.

Is our only choice, then, between faithfulness and intolerance?

David Clendenin thinks not. He points out the difference between what he calls “social tolerance” and “intellectual tolerance.” (David Clendenin, “The Only Way,” Christianity Today, 12 January 1998, 40). Intellectual tolerance is when we say that all beliefs have to be respected as valid. This is the typical postmodern view. Social tolerance is when we say that all people have a right to their own belief, but not that all beliefs are valid.

Clendenin’s distinction helps Christians to be tolerant toward others, yet without fully buying into the pluralist vision. Being socially tolerant does not mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity. We can show respect toward all people while still disagreeing with them.

When we adopt an attitude of social tolerance, it enables us to discern the good in other religions. As socially tolerant people, we are free to find common ground with those of other faiths, even as we also affirm the uniqueness of our own faith….

The Bible is very clear that Christians are not to judge others. Judging is God’s right alone. When we truly understand this, it frees us. Our job is just to be faithful to God and to love people and to leave all the judging up to God.

Sponsor “Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights” at Soulforce

Interfaith GLBT activist group Soulforce is coordinating a nationwide vigil for straight allies, called Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights. From the mission statement on their website:

Seven Straight Nights will consist of a coordinated campaign of overnight vigils led by straight allies. It will sweep across capital cities throughout the nation during the week of October 7-13, 2007, gaining momentum in the national media as more states participate in the event.

The vigil will be coordinated by a family, individual, or group (such as a church or student organization) who become the face of Seven Straight Nights in their state. Whether the State Leader is a single person or a group, the focus of the vigil, and the media coverage, will be the story of the State Leader’s personal decision to speak out on behalf of LGBT equality. Depending on the state, the leaders will either offer thanks for the state’s positive policy record or issue a call to action on pertinent issues such as hate crimes, employment discrimination, or marriage equality. The vigil may take place at the governor’s mansion, capitol building, courthouse, or any suitable location that resonates with the issues.

Just this week, Jessica Doyle, wife of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, announced that she would be the vigil leader for Madison, Wisconsin. Find out how to sponsor or participate in this vigil, and others around the country, here.

So far, there are no vigils scheduled for my home state of Massachusetts (a/k/a “the gay marriage state”). Are we becoming too complacent? Rise up, Bostonians!

Christian Wiman on the Blessings of Writer’s Block

This spring, Christian Wiman, the editor of the venerable Poetry magazine, published a controversial essay in The American Scholar, where he revealed his diagnosis with incurable blood cancer and how he had found his way back to both faith and writing after a period of darkness. Now, in an interview with Poets & Writers, Wiman shares updates on his condition (much improved, fortunately) and more wisdom about the spiritual side of writing. Highlights:

P&W: How is the essay, which is very personal and intimate, different from confessional poetry, which has a bad reputation in some circles?

CW: Among certain people, yes. With poetry about a very personal experience, for me, it usually gets transformed in some way by the form of the poem, just the demands of the art. I find that the essay is similar, actually—it requires a kind of discipline that removes you from the intensity of the experience, and helps to alleviate the intensity. I think it is possible to be much more personal in prose than in a poem, at least for me. But I was still aiming at making something structured, a formal work, not just my heart bleeding out on the page.

P&W: You’ve also written about prose being less precious than poetry.

CW: I find I can always get prose written, whereas in poetry, there is some element of givenness that you have to depend on. I’ve gone away for a month or two months or six months, and not been able to write. In confessional poetry and prose, what’s bad is when it seems like what you’re getting is just the person’s experience, and it’s important only because it happened to them. What I respond to, and what I aim for, is to try to get something that speaks to experience itself.


P&W: Another interesting part of the essay has to do with your having stopped writing poetry, and then starting again, and the connection of that to your rediscovery of religion.

CW: I stopped writing poetry for a full three years, starting about a year before I became editor of Poetry. I think I had pushed things in one direction as far as I could. For a long time I was writing poems that circumscribed an absence that I couldn’t define, and I think this was the absence I was feeling. I hope the poems I’m writing now, and am trying to write, are more filled with presence. I don’t just mean the presence of God; I mean just simply being present in the world. The earlier poems, particularly in my book Hard Night, are often about not quite experiencing the world, about that absence. And I consider not being able to write as a manifestation of grace; I think grace sometimes can be anguishing.

P&W: Not being able to write was a manifestation of grace?

CW: Yes, because I was having the thing that I thought was most important in my life taken away from me, and so I was forced to cast around. In some way I had to become destitute to realize what mattered.

Read the whole interview here.

Renee Ashley Interview: Thoughts on the Writing Process

Wild River Review, a progressive e-zine of literature and politics, has an interview in their new issue with award-winning poet and fiction writer Renee Ashley, whose collection Salt won the 1991 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. The excerpts below particularly resonated with my own experience of the writing process, as well as my preferences as a poetry contest judge:

WRR: Do all of your poems surprise you?

RA: If they don’t, they get thrown away. The idea for me is to never settle for what I meant to say. And I seldom start out meaning to say anything. I wrote one poem trying to do something specific-from an idea. I wanted to recreate the rhythms of the gospel church I grew up in. Ma used to drive me there, drop me off, and I’d walk home. But that poem was a booger. The poem is fine. I stand by the poem. But the process was hell. I hope I never have another idea. Shoot me if I have an idea.

I like it much better when I find out what the poem’s trying to say and then start aligning the images within those terms. If I have a premise, it’s time for me to write an essay. And I do love to write essays. But in a poem? I think surprise is essential. Otherwise you’re just taking notes or you’re just talking. Too many poems are just talking. If I want talking, I can call my mother.

WRR: Tell me three cardinal rules you have for yourself. What makes a good poem?

RA: You mean in process or after the fact?

WRR: Well, okay, both…

RA: In process, I would say that there must be an engine driving the poem that is not the writer. A rhythm, an image, an impulse, but not merely the writer’s will.

I would also say the poem is not done until it says more than you meant to say.

And everything has to be set up so that it rolls down the page seamlessly.


RA:  …I definitely don’t like things that reek of competence. That’s a problem. If competence is so evident that you realize it’s competent before you realize what it’s about or what you might experience, that seems problematic to me. Problematic, anal-retentive, and boring. Of course there are exceptions to everything. But I do hate boring. Anal is easier to live with.

WRR: Like an over polished stone…

RA: Yeah, I mean let’s just polish it down to dust, or kill it and pin it to a board! Beat it to death with decorum! Even if the meter is perfect and it makes perfect sense. Or when it’s infused with prose logic as opposed to a poetic logic, which relies on very different things. It’s easy to tell way too much in a poem.

I think people very often mistake their impulses. In the abstract, romantic notion, they want to be a poet, so they think their impulse to write is a poetic impulse. Very often they’re wrong. If being a poet is the issue, a writer’s in trouble. If making poems is the issue, you’ve got a better chance at doing something of interest.

I think a lot of the pseudo-autobiographical poems are prose impulses because the poem never gets bigger than the poet. It has to… by my definition… get bigger than the poet… to be a poem. Otherwise it’s prose. And prose broken into lines is… a kind of sad happening.

WRR: Although maybe some prose writers feel that the writing has to be bigger than the author as well?

RA: And I think they do and I think it does. But, they’ve got a lot more room to play. I mean, we’re [poets] really working in a bell jar…

For instance, we’re working on some exercises in our MFA’s forthcoming residency on the issue of backstory. And I think that in a lot of poems there’s too much backstory. They’ve had something they wanted to tell. And the problem is if the thing that they wanted to tell is about themselves and they stand in front of the writing, I’m already bored. The poet stands behind the poem. The poem is the center of attention. I just want the poems to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, or at least show me a familiar place in a new light.


WRR: I’m going to switch gears a little. Emerson wrote that poetry is a confession of faith. Do you agree or disagree and why?

RA: Well, those are two great big abstractions, confession and faith. I guess it is a confession. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a public confession. I could get off on a real toot about this, but I think too often confession is equated with art. Art is not confession for me. Was it Ad Reinhardt that said, “Art is art. Everything else is everything else?” I think so. I guess my point is that we’re not as interesting as we think we are. Confession is confession. Art is art.

I do have faith, though, that the act of writing will help me articulate what I don’t already know about myself. I think a lot of people misconstrue the meaning of risk in poetry. Risk isn’t telling your story. Risk is finding something new out that happened to you because of the story.


WRR: Can writing good poetry be taught?

RA: Talent can’t be taught, but craft can and should be taught. Because the talent can and usually does let you down sooner or later. And when you run into that pothole in your poem where something sucks or is loose or just plain wrong, you’ve got to know how to locate it, identify it, and fix it and that’s where craft comes in. Like a tool box. Quite handy.

Read the whole interview here. Read a review of her first novel, Someplace Like This, here.