Owen Dodson’s Knowledge of the Mystical Psalm Structures Revealed in “Powerful Long Ladder”

 

This is the first of two introductory essays that will discuss Owen Dodson’s Powerful Long Ladder, and show how this volume of poetry is in deep dialogue with the Psalms and with William Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

However, there is a difficulty. Dodson’s poetry is so powerful, and the dialogue with both the Psalms and the Mystical Psalm Structures is so intricate and profound, that I purpose to begin with a small section of his book in this first brief essay, and then, after having made some relatively basic observations, proceed to the more massive part of the task at hand in the second essay. (Additionally, the next essay shall serve as more of an introduction to Dodson and his work.)

The Book of Psalms of the Bible comes to us in 5 parts. The final redactors (editors) of the Psalms almost certainly did this intentionally. On the one hand, it echoes the division of the Torah (Pentateuch, 5 Books of Moses) into 5 books. And Psalm 1 mentions the Torah twice. Therefore, the Psalms are recommending themselves to intertextuality, that is, to conversation with other texts. The Book of Psalms is saying that the Psalms, or any book of Scripture, is meant to be in living dialogue with other books of Scripture. Without experiencing this powerful but often hidden dialogue with other books, we miss huge realms of meaning within the Scriptures.

This is perhaps why Owen Dodson’s incomparable Powerful Long Ladder is also given to us in 5 books, 5 sections. That Dodson is speaking directly to David and the Psalms is clear from the fact that he quotes the Psalms several times, alludes to them many other times, mentions the memorizing of the Psalter (Book of Psalms), and has a poem entitled Jonathan, who was the best friend of David, the mythical author of the Psalms.

Dodson, who knew the Bible extremely well, would have, with his poetic mind and acting skills, have been very attracted to the Psalms, those amazing poem-prayer-songs.

Another person who was both an actor and a poet was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s entire main book of poetry, his Sonnets (which number 154), are also in a hidden dialogue with the 150 Psalms of the Bible.

And Owen Dodson broke the code. He broke several codes.

He knew the Mystical Psalm Structures. And he knew, profoundly, what Shakespeare was secretly doing in his Sonnets.

Dodson’s knowledge of the Mystical Psalm Structures will be more fully discussed in the next essay.

In this essay, I shall focus on the central section, the 3rd of 5 parts, of Powerful Long Ladder. This central section is entitled Poems for My Brother Kenneth. There are nine (9) poems in this part of the book, and they are simply titled by Roman numerals, from I to IX.

One more poem is connected to this group. After the 3rd part of the book, the 4th part of the book is entitled All This Review. And the first poem of this section is Countee Cullen. (The poet Countee Cullen was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.) For reasons that shall become obvious, this poem is connected powerfully not only to its own Part 4 of the book, but also to the 9 poems that make up Part 3 of the book.

This essay shall consider only these 10 poems. (There are 48 poems in Dodson’s entire book, and some of them, in other sections, are quite longer than those that we shall be discussing here.)

The Interwoven Menorahs

of the

Mystical Psalm Structures

Dodson and Shakespeare are both aware of the Mystical Psalm Structures that are hidden in the Book of Psalms. One of these hidden realities is the Interwoven Menorahs. These are two candelabras, menorahs of 9 branches each, that are intertwined with each other. These amazing menorahs are hidden in the Psalms. They were placed there not by human redactors (editors), but by the Holy Spirit.

The following essay introduces the Mystical Psalm Structures, and in its discussion of the Interwoven Menorahs, discusses Jesus’ Beatitudes:

https://www.academia.edu/16106922/The_Mystical_Psalm_Structures

One of the amazing features of the Interwoven Menorahs is that in the 18 Psalms that form the 2 menorahs (9 Psalms form the 9 branches of each menorah), there is a 350% greater appearance of the word “light” than in the other 132 Psalms of the Psalter. This is an amazing statistic, especially because “light” goes well with candles. Additionally, these 18 Psalms emphasize loving couples, children, families, and community.

The 9 poems of the central section of Powerful Long Ladder dialogue with, and re-present, the Mystical Psalm Menorahs.

But there is much more. Jesus’ first real, public words in the Bible are the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7, and this great discourse begins with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes, therefore, are Jesus first real public words. And what he does there is amazing. He re-presents the Mystical Psalm Menorahs in his own words.

Dodson knows what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes. He knows that Jesus is making a new word-picture of the Interwoven Menorahs.

Dodson does this too. After his 9 central poems have replicated the Interwoven Menorahs of the Psalms, the first poem (Countee Cullen) of section four (All This Review) of his volume imitates and replicates the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The purpose of this essay is to show these 2 maneuvers of Dodson.

The Interwoven Menorahs in the 9 Poems of

Poems for My Brother Kenneth

The menorahs of the Mystical Psalm Structures have 9 candles each. Powerful Long Ladder has a central section entitled Poems for My Brother Kenneth, and there are 9 poems therein, numbered from I to IX. These poems are making a picture of the Psalm menorahs.

Poem III gives us just a hint of the Menorahs with its phrase, “blow a candle out.” Psalm 112, a Menorah Psalm, shows three of the candles of a menorah being lit, in an artistic way. Dodson is performing a mirroring, opposite action to the Psalms here.

In Poem IV Dodson tips his hand, giving us hints about the languages of the Holy Spirit. In verses 13-14 he says, “There is a new language to learn/ And I am learning like a truant child.” This new language could be that of the Holy Spirit, which we may actually begin to learn in this life. As Dodson knew the Mystical Psalm Structures, and as his life knew much suffering, he most certainly had entered such a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. Yet Dodson admits that learning this language is either more difficult, or very different, than the kinds of learning he has hitherto engaged in: “And I am learning like a truant child.” What does this mean? He could be chastising himself for playing hooky and missing school. Or, it could mean that the Holy Spirit is teaching him in entirely new ways—as if the Spirit has ordered him to depart from standard paths, to “play hooky” and to skip normal routines, so that the Holy Spirit could have all his attention. The Spirit can be demanding like that.

Or, the “truant child” could mean that on occasion the Holy Spirit browbeats us humans, and reminds us that we have to grow a great deal. We are all like children when we start learning the deeper ways of the Holy Spirit.

The next verse, 15, begins, “I do not understand this code . . . .” Well, it’s clear that Dodson had already learned much of the some codes, because he’s broken codes in the Bible and in Shakespeare. However, as he knows too, there’s always more to learn. Sometimes the communication of the Holy Spirit can be difficult to grasp.

Jumping almost entirely over the first four poems, we shall consider poem V, which is the center of this collection and perhaps the center of the entire book:

 

V

If we had counted all the stars

And made each constellation clear,

I’d recognize more than this spear

Swinging from the solid side of Mars.

 

But when we went, not long ago

Exploring all that silver land,

I would not stay because the snow

Turned ice within my hand.

 

 

Here is the poem again with emphasis placed on words that we’ll discuss:

V

If we had counted all the stars

And made each constellation clear,

I’d recognize more than this spear

Swinging from the solid side of Mars.

 

But when we went, not long ago

Exploring all that silver land,

I would not stay because the snow

Turned ice within my hand.

 

We have 8 lines of poetry here, like the 8 regular branches of the 9-branched menorah. The ninth branch, the movable lighting rod, is called the shamash. And it is clearly present in the word “spear.”

The menorahs may also have sexual imagery. The 8 candles, 4 on each side, are the female sexual organ, and the shamash is the male sexual organ. In the center of the poem is a gap, and, heavily swinging next to this gap, is “this spear/ Swinging from the solid side of Mars.” This is the center of the poem, the section, and perhaps the entire book, Powerful Long Ladder. As we’ll discuss in the next essay, the “Ladder” can be seen as feminine too.

Back to the spear and the partition, or gap. After the “spear,” i.e., the lighting rod or shamash, lights the menorah’s candles, it is returned to its own place, which is often in the center of the menorah, with 4 candles on one side and 4 candles on the other. If the spear would be placed in the center, then we have exactly that image here.

Additionally, “counted” and “silver land” refers to Sonnet 12 and Psalm 12, respectively. These are important for the Psalm Ladder, and for Shakespeare’s discussion of it. “Snow,” “ice,” “side,” and “Mars” refer also to Sonnets 153 and 154, which conclude the Sonnets in a secretly shocking, evolutionary manner. Future essays shall discuss these. For now, we’ll just say: Dodson knows precisely what Shakespeare is doing.

Poem VI takes up this development, and also has allusions to Shakespeare. The Sonnets are engaging in multiple conversations at once. So when Dodson writes, “The two shine contrapuntally . . . ,” he is referring, among other things, to Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ ability to speak in multiple themes at once. He is doing the same himself in Powerful Long Ladder. The word “contrapuntally” relates to “counterpoint,” which Merriam-Webster defines as:

-a combination of 2 or more melodies that are played together

-a melody played in combination with another

-something that is different from something else in usually a pleasing way.

Shakespeare and Dodson are both doing complex feats with counterpoint, with the Psalms and with other themes.

This part of the essay has briefly considered some links between the Interwoven Menorahs and the central section of Dodson’s volume. There is much more to discuss, but we must proceed to the next section, which is the main part of this essay.

 

Part II

Countee Cullen and the Beatitudes

As mentioned above, the first 9 lines of Countee Cullen re-present the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew’s Gospel.

The Beatitudes themselves are in the shape of the Interwoven Menorahs. Just as Psalm 1 discusses the Torah, so do the Beatitudes discuss the Mystical Psalm Structures. Intertextuality includes the conversation, clear or hidden, between various texts. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Dodson’s Powerful Long Ladder continue this great and long ongoing conversation.

For ready reference, here are the Beatitudes of Matthew’s Gospel, with emphasis added:

 

Happy/Blessed are the poor in spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy/Blessed are those who mourn,

For they will be comforted.

Happy/Blessed are the meek,

For they will inherit the earth.

Happy/Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

For they will be filled.

 

Happy/Blessed are the merciful,

For they will receive mercy.

Happy/Blessed are the pure in heart,

For they will see God.

Happy/Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they will be called children of God.

Happy/Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

Happy/Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

These nine (9) Beatitudes are 8 + 1. There are eight (8) “3rd Person” Beatitudes, which begin, “Blessed are they….” But then the 9th and final Beatitude shifts to direct 2nd Person address, “Blessed are you….” This change in person clearly differentiates the 9th Beatitude from the previous 8. In a similar way, the menorah’s 9th candle, which is the lighting rod or shamash, is different that the other 8 candles, which do not move (or which are added and lit over a period of time). In fact, this 9th Beatitude is the shamash, the lighting rod, to the other 8 branches of the menorah, the first eight (8) Beatitudes.

Other literary clues indicate that the Beatitudes form a picture of the Interwoven Menorahs. The “promise,” or, the second strophe, of the 1st and 8th Beatitudes are identical: “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This makes the outermost Beatitudes a pair, just as there is a pair of the outermost candles in a menorah.

Additionally, Jesus himself mentions menorahs in his next breath. Two verses after the Beatitudes, he says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it give light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-16)

In the original Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the word for “lampstand” is luxnian. This Greek word luxnian is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew word menorah. In fact, in the first ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) into Greek, the Greek word luxnian always translates the Hebrew word menorah. Jesus is clearly beginning his public speech in the Bible by painting a picture of the Interwoven Menorahs of the Mystical Psalm Structures.

Dodson knows this, and is commenting on this Biblical reality in his poem Countee Cullen.

Countee Cullen is the 1st poem of the 4th part of Dodson’s book. Before getting to the menorahs that he places in this poem, it is necessary to discuss how Countee Cullen is powerfully connected to the last poem of the central section of the book, the poem entitled “IX.”

The following important words or thematic vocabulary groups appear in BOTH Countee Cullen and in “IX”:

Earth, blanket, cold, hemlock are words that appear in both poems.

-Both poems have varieties of birds, and varieties of plants.

-Both poems have time units: “IX” has “day” and “month,” while Countee Cullen has “year.”

 

Obviously, these poems are connected with each other, and form a strong thematic and linguistic connection between the 3rd and 4th parts of Dodson’s book.

Here is the first poem of the section entitled All This Review:

 

Countee Cullen

(1903-1946)

Now begins the sleep, my friend:

Where the cold dirt blanket is, you will be warm,

Where seeds begin to root, you will flower.

The dilapidation of our earth is left for us to order.

Your heart that was strong will help us carry

Whatever trouble springs to hunch our backs,

Whatever anger grows to sty our eyelids,

Whatever unexpected happiness comes like hope to smile our lips

—We would be ugly now except for hope.

 

Now begins the sleep, my friend:

You showed us that men could see

Deep into the cause of Lazarus,

Believe in resurrection.

You come back to us

Not unwinding a shroud and blinking at known light

But singing like all the famed birds,

Nightingale, lark and nightjar.

You come back to us with the truth

Of your indignation, protest and irony.

Also in your brave and tender singing

We hear all mankind yearning

For a new year without hemlock in our glasses.

 

The nine (9) poems entitled I-IX form the Interwoven Menorahs, as discussed above. The 1st nine (9) lines of Countee Cullen re-present the Beatitudes of Matthew’s Gospel. This is the topic of this part of this essay.

The 1st eight (8) lines of the poem echo the 1st eight (8) Beatitudes.

The 9th line is in the place of the 9th Beatitude, and is the shamash of the menorah, and even has a dash, “ — ” to signal its uniqueness and its role.

Here are the 1st nine (9) lines of the poem again, with emphasis and notes added to show the Beatitude-like and menorah-like qualities of the poem. The lines of the poem are generally to the left, and the commentary is added to the right, in italics:

 

Now begins the sleep, my friend:                                 fulfilled promise of Beatitudes

Where the cold dirt blanket is, you will be warm,         sounds like a Beatitude

Where seeds begin to root, you will flower.               promise of Beatitudes

The dilapidation of our earth is left for us to order.   3rd Beatitude, inherit the earth

Your heart that was strong will help us carry         6th Beatitude, pure (strong) of heart

Whatever trouble springs to hunch our backs,         8th, 9th Beatitudes

Whatever anger grows to sty our eyelids,           7th Beatitude, Happy the peacemakers

Whatever unexpected happiness comes like hope to smile our lips       Happy” is

       in all Beatitudes

—We would be ugly now except for hope.               Hope: In Dodson’s 8th and 9th lines

 

The word “hope” in lines 8 and 9 clearly echos the Beatitudes, as Matthew’s 8th and 9th Beatitudes share words with each other.

We see here many connections between Dodson’s lines and the Beatitudes.

Yet there are more ways in which we can analyze and study this poem. One of these ways is to also look at the chiastic connection, the mirror images, of the 1st eight (8) lines. In a similar way, the branches of the menorah form pairs with their opposites:

Branches 1 and 8 form a pair, as do 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and finally, 4 and 5. Here are these lines presented in a different format, to show how they balance and mirror each other:

 

Now begins the sleep, my friend:                                                                -friend

Where the cold dirt blanket is, you will be warm,                                           -warm

Where seeds begin to root, you will flower.                         -seed, root, flower

The dilapidation of our earth is left for us to order.                   -dilapidation

 

Your heart that was strong will help us carry                            -strong, help,

Whatever trouble springs to hunch our backs,                  -blossoms in spring

Whatever anger grows to sty our eyelids,                                                        -hot anger

Whatever unexpected happiness comes like HOPE to smile our lips     –happy, smile

 

—We would be ugly now except for HOPE.

 

Lines 1 and 8 have “my friend” and “smile our lips”; friends often smile when they see each other.

Lines 2 and 7 “blanket” and “eyeLIDS,” both of which cover things. Additionally, verse 2 has “warm,” and verse 7 has “anger,” which can make us “hot.”

Lines 3 and 6 have “root,” “flower,” and “springs.” However, in poetic reversal, Dodson notes that when “trouble springs” it does not raise the person, rather, it can “hunch our backs,” thereby lowering the deforming the person.

Lines 4 and 5 present “dilapidation” meaningfully set against “Your heart that was strong will help carry us.” Such is the work of heroes such as Countee Cullen.

This has shown chiastic, or mirroring, connections among the lines of the poem. In the same way, the candles of the two sides of the menorah are connected to each other in pairs.

 

Returning to the Beatitudes, there is another way of analyzing the relationship between the Beatitudes and these lines of the poem. As mentioned above, the 1st eight (8) Beatitudes are indirect 3rd Person address: “Blessed are they….” But then the 9th Beatitude turns and engages direct 2nd Person address: “Blessed are you….” In a similar way, Dodson changes “person” in his nine (9) verses. He picks up where the Beatitudes left off, utilizing direct 2nd Person address; but then he changes person to 1st Person, the most inclusive form of speech: Us, our, we. Just like the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. Here is a chart to show the transition from 2nd Person to 1st Person in these lines, and to compare this to the Beatitudes:

 

 

Matthew’s Beatitudes       Dodson’s Beatitudes

1st                    3rd Person                  2nd Person (1st Person Possessive Pronoun)

2nd                   3rd Person                  2nd Person

3rd                   3rd Person                  2nd Person

4th                   3rd Person                  1st Person

5th                   3rd Person                  2nd Person, 1st Person

6th                   3rd Person                  1st Person

7th                   3rd Person                  1st Person

8th                   3rd Person                  1st Person

 

9th                   2nd Person                1st Person

 

What is the purpose of this transformation? Perhaps it shows the ongoing working evolution of humanity. Perhaps it shows the necessity of us, all of us, becoming more like family and less like enemies. It shows our unity.

 

There are more connections between these verses and the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes have obvious and subtle repetitions murmuring through the stream of nine (9) units, and so do Dodson’s verses here. This shows some of the repetition occurring in this part of the poem:

Now begins the sleep, my friend:

Where the cold dirt blanket IS, you will be warm,

Where seeds begin to root, you will flower.

The dilapidation of our earth IS left for us to order.

Your heart that was strong will help us carry

Whatever trouble springs to hunch our backs,

Whatever anger grows to sty our eyelids,

Whatever unexpected happiness comes like hope to smile our lips

—We would be ugly now except for hope.

This shows some of the obvious and subtle forms of repetition that are happening in these verses. As mentioned above, the repeated “hope” in verses 8 and 9 echoes the shared words between the 8th and 9th Beatitudes.

Verses 2 and 3 of the poem have a “Where . . . , you will . . .” formula, which directly mirrors the “Happy are those . . . , for they will . . .” statements of the Beatitudes.

Additionally, the repetition of “Where” at the beginning of these verses, and the triple repetition of “Whatever” at the beginning of verses 6, 7, and 8, most powerfully form a parallel response to the formulaic beginnings of the Beatitudes.

And the two appearances of “Where” appear in the first four lines of the octet, and the three appearances of “Whatever” appear in the last four lines of the octet, which again emphasizes the two distinct halves of the menorah.

 

Very briefly, here is the rest of the poem Countee Cullen, with notes added in italics:

 

Now begins the sleep, my friend:                     repetition of line 1

You showed us that men could see                     cured blindness

Deep into the cause of Lazarus,                           resurrection

Believe in resurrection.                                         Mary, sister of Lazarus, believed

You come back to us                                          Lazarus, Jesus

Not unwinding a shroud and blinking at known light -(shamash candle, again,

         physically much longer than all other lines of stanza)

But singing like all the famed birds,             singing, Psalmody, poetry, music

Nightingale, lark and nightjar.                     2 of these are birds of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

You come back to us with the truth             Shakespeare’s hidden knowledge of Psalms

Of your indignation, protest and irony.       William S hid facets of his life in his Sonnets

Also in your brave and tender singing         David, Shakespeare, and Countee Cullen

We hear all mankind yearning                     David, Shakespeare, and Countee Cullen

For a new year without hemlock in our glasses.

 

There are many themes herein that connect to both the Psalms, the New Testament, and Shakespeare. These shall be addressed in future essays.

(There is much more going on in Matthew’s Beatitudes, which we cannot discuss now. There is also much more going on in Dodson’s poem, and we can only present certain aspects of his poetry now.)

This paper has merely presented some of the literary structures in a small portion of Powerful Long Ladder. The meaning of the poems has hardly been addressed at all in this initial essay.

The next essay will be deeper in scope, and will be more complex in its treatment of the literary structures that Dodson employs, and their connections to the Mystical Psalm Structures. And a caution: The next essay might be more emotionally evocative. (It may be very emotionally difficult reading for some.) It will also discuss the commentary that Dodson offers on the situation of African-American people in late 19th century and 20th century America.

Although he chose to keep his dialogue with the Mystical Psalm Structures and with Shakespeare’s Sonnets hidden (or was instructed to do so by the Holy Spirit), Dodson now clearly has placed himself as a vital stage of the secret mystical river of great poets who are engaging the living mysteries of the living God.

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