If I speak with the
of men & of angels
but have not love
I am nothing.
-- 1 Corinthians 13:1
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The poems in this collection were composed over a twenty-five year period, from 1961-1986, and are gathered together here for the first time.
The first four on the chronological index were previously published in ---the magazine of the Methodist Student Movement from 1940 to the mid-sixties---and copyrighted by the Board of Education of the Methodist Church. They have been out of print for more than 40 years, are shelved in the historical archives of only a few seminary libraries, & are long forgotten in this millennium by all but me & few other senior citizens. Moreover, since both & the Methodist Student Movement have long been defunct & the Board of Education of today's United Methodist Church has given me no indication it intends to republish these pieces, I have asserted my rights of authorship by reclaiming copyright of my works for publication on these electronic pages.
Fifteen more poems were previously published privately by my father & myself and distributed as Christmas cards to family, friends & professional contacts. In the early 1950s my father, a Methodist pastor, decided to personalize his annual Christmas greetings by printing them himself. Having no artistic talent, he commissioned his son---who since early childhood had shown some interest & competence in visual arts---to design the covers. Over the years these cover illustrations evolved from simple line drawings to linoleum blocks to silk-screens to professionally printed pen & ink sketches. In the early 60s, noting that his son had become a published poet, he asked me to write a poem for the annual family Christmas card as well. Two years later, however, he decided to return to writing his own messages, since he regarded my poetry as too non-traditional & tinged with existential Angst to send to his parishioners during a season of celebration. Nevertheless, he continued to underwrite the publication costs of my poetry in cards that I could distribute on my own. Freed from the constraints of having to conform to conventional themes & images of Christmastide, both the subject matter & illustration of my poems came to represent more my personal mediations on current events in the light of passages of scripture .
Since the 1960s---the era in which I was maturing as a person, student, preacher & then teacher of religion in a state university---were years of dramatic social change & crises that repeatedly challenged the structure of traditional institutions & worldviews, my poetic meditations on scripture were bound to reflect my wrestling with the question of the relevance of biblical theology to current existence. In college I had been exposed to the writings of European existentialists. In seminary I was introduced to dialectical theology and demythologization hermeneutics. These combined with my undergraduate training in English poetry---particularly that of T. S. Eliot---to lead me to experiment with poetic word-play as intensified inter-personal conversation.
In 1963, as a senior at Drew Theological School, I became editor of a moribund student publication, The Dialogue, inherited from the peak era of dialectical theology. The new editorial staff simply could not locate enough high quality student essays on academic theological topics to publish one solid issue. So, I suggested that the only way to justify continued publication was to solicit original contributions from fellow students on an unrestricted range of personal insights & commentary on any aspect of current religious concern. What we received was a hodge-podge of works in various genres including a number of pieces from amateur poets like myself. To select the best works, my fellow editors & I decided to abandon the format of an academic theological journal & adopt that of a literary magazine. Since many of the pieces were meditative soliloquies, Dialogue was no longer an appropriate name for the publication. After debating alternatives, one of us ---I recall it was me, but cannot vouch for the fact---suggested that we entitle the journal Other Tongues, in allusion to the description of the novel charismatic babbling & prophesying of Jesus' disciples at Pentecost in Acts 2:4. The suggestion was adopted, my co-editor, F. Russell Mitman, designed the cover & a new publication was launched with great fanfare. Actually the format was not entirely new, since (which was then still going strong as a nation-wide publication for university students) had long juxtaposed poetry & avant-garde artwork with cutting-edge social commentary by young theologians. But this was going to be a new venue for our own voices, not those of our teachers (as much as we respected them) or of some official student organization controlled by graduates. Like the early Christian movement that emerged at Pentecost, this was to be as varied & spontaneous an expression of unscripted ground-roots youthful charisma as we could find. Spiritual honesty, not theological learning or doctrinal orthodoxy, was the sole criterion for consideration.
Other Tongues continued to be published by the student council at Drew Theological for at least two years. But that project was abandoned by the student association decades ago. Since no one ever thought to copyright the title of that publication, I have presumed to revive it as the title for this collection of my own poetry. Even though these are the product of a single mind, the suggestion of a multitude of disparate voices saying what the spirit moves them to say is an appropriate description of a body of work that attempts to give new voice to a number of different personae from classic texts. Insofar as I have tried to get into each character's situation & rethink what each of these might say in a modern context, these are indeed Other Tongues---they are assumed roles, not just me speaking. Or rather, since---contrary to the claims of many modern artists & literary critics---there is inevitably something of the personal experience of any author in everything he or she writes, many of these poems reflect an encounter between my mind and a world or scenario or character created by some Other author. Insofar as that other mind is brought to speech through mine, the voices in these poems are still Other Tongues.
Just at the charismatic preaching of Jesus' apostles at Pentecost (according to Acts) was different enough from their customary discourse for many of their contemporaries to consider them drunk, so some who are acquainted with me from my other works---or academic, ecclesiastical or everyday encounters---might regard some of the things expressed in this collection as evidence that I am---or at least was at times---out of my mind. But my thinking has developed & changed so much over the past 45 years, I am not exactly sure that my mind can be identified with my thinking or discourse at any one point or in any particular situation. The fact that I have collected & presented these pieces here is evidence that they are representative of the workings of my mind at various points in its development. They are presented here as traces of a spiritual & intellectual journey rather than as a unified philosophy. I leave it to others to decide whether there is a single coherent vision in these poems or whether they are witness to my spiritual schizophrenia.
The selections in this collection that have not previously been published are drawn from the pages of a private journal that I began in seminary & continued until 1975, when professional & personal exigencies conspired to leave little time for poetic musing. Some poems were composed for & addressed to other particular human individuals, including the friend who became my wife. Others simply presuppose a transcendent partner in the dialog & dance of life, a cosmic Thou whose immanent presence still constitutes my conscious I and moves me to speak---occasionally in poetic form.
Although the pieces published here are bound by no traditional poetic conventions, they are united by a single principle and goal. The principle is simply honest observation. The goal is to make word-play---rhyme & rhythm---serve insight rather than promote itself. Hence, except for a couple of works composed as songs, rhymes are not forced & are often buried at unobtrusive internal points rather than at line ends. Rhythms, likewise, are often as irregular as natural dialog would require. Several of the short pieces have neither obvious rhyme or set rhythm. In some cases, the poetry is little more than punning or repartée. It is simply the playful expression of an insight into existential truth that justifies its inclusion here.
Why bother to take time to collect these shards from the past & prepare them for exhibition in cyberspace? I can no more explain that than explain what or who moved me to give voice to these thoughts in the first place. What use or value they may have is for you to decide for yourself.
I conclude as I began, by rehearsing Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3a):
Here, I've simply offered you
a taste of insights I myself
received, by probing what I've heard
or seen somewhere along Life's way.
-- Mahlon H Smith
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Mahlon H Smith
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