Poet attuned to the daily miracles in life

Richard Wakefield at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, N.H. (Catherine Wakefield)

"It's a paradox, but constraint can often be an aid to creativity," explained Richard Wakefield, a nationally recognized poet based in Tacoma, Wash., when asked why he prefers to write poetry that's bound, unlike free verse, to structural parameters of form, rhyme and meter.

His response is tied to personal experience and the writing process, yet also hints at a wider experience, one that words, whether spoken or typed, can only brush the edges of.

A Catholic since 2000, Wakefield is a literature and writing professor at Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington Tacoma, as well as a longtime literary critic for The Seattle Times. On a brisk evening in late November, he read from his body of work and discussed "Spirituality and Poetry" at Seattle University with roughly 30 students, staff and local residents attending.

Poems read for the event included selections from two poetry collections: A Vertical Mile, published in 2012, and East of Early Winters, which received the coveted Richard Wilbur Award in 2006. A poem in A Vertical Mile, "Petrarch," also won the 2009 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award.

His poetry's frequent subject matter -- rural scenes of discovery or loss marked by the passing of time and industrial "progress" -- and his use of set rhythms and rhyme schemes have led some critics to refer to Wakefield as a modern-day Robert Frost.

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David Horowitz, a Seattle-based publisher who has described Wakefield's work as "accessible yet not simplistic, clear but not too obvious," attended the event. During a Q&A following the reading, Horowitz asked a question that "focused on the relationship between formal poetry, ethical engagement and Wakefield's Catholic commitment."

Struck by Wakefield's "measured response, which showed him wary of relying on either conveniently vague 'spirituality' or overly prescriptive religious dogma," Horowitz noted that Wakefield's "appreciation of poetic form, and to a degree religious commitment" comes from the realization that they both "offer guiding restraint yet sufficient freedom to blaze a distinctive path."

Another attendee, Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Sr. Judy Ryan, appreciated Wakefield's "wonderful ability to bring to life visually, sensually, tactically the feel and smell of nature in the rural Northwest … the experience of hands-on farming, making the earth fruitful, driving the tractor, lying down in the fields close to the horses and sheep."

When she asked how he conceives of the connection between the human and the divine in his spiritual search, Ryan recalled that "he spoke of moments when the 'veil' between the earthly and the spiritual is almost transparent, moving you beyond yourself to a sense of 'knowing' beyond cognitive understanding."

Manon Cypher, a Seattle University graduate student who is also a parent to three young children, agreed. "Listening to Richard Wakefield read his poems was like coming home to a full range of human emotions," she said. "The pain of loss, the joy of homecoming, the excitement of becoming more completely oneself are all conveyed in his work. His deep faith shines through in his poetry and inspired this listener to notice more deeply the call of the holy in her own daily life."

As a poet attuned to the daily miracles in life, Wakefield appreciates that "Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, emphasizes that words are not incidental, that the liturgy is genuine substance."

Even so, he and his wife, Catherine, have stopped attending Mass over the past three years due to discomfort and disagreement related to tradition and teachings that impact inclusivity, accountability and power structures within the Catholic church. Though the "church was, is, even now the venue for exploring that spiritual dimension ... the place that has given me much of the language for that exploration," Wakefield notes that "exploration also involves questioning that language."

One of his poems, "The Bell Rope," describes a young boy's call to ring the steeple bell at Pentecost and "send its tolling through the Sabbath calm/to call the saved and not-so-saved as well."

Through words that swing in their enclosed space -- evoking the tension felt when pulling down a high and unseen weight, only to let it go -- Catholic readers in particular may hear an echo of the familiar, especially at the end when the boy, now grown, confesses that "some nights when sleep won't come I think of how/just once there came an answer, clear and sure./If I could find that rope I'd grasp it now."

Wakefield shared that "The Bell Rope" is "one of the most personal poems I've written, and one that a lot of people respond to. The poem really does capture some of my religious life. Sometimes my grasp of spiritual matters is so tenuous that I can't quite believe anyone believes, but I can always grasp how desperately people want to believe. And when I do believe, it isn't a doctrine or a specific teaching that I believe, but rather the feeling. In the poem, it's a feeling of being moved, literally, and of having the world seem to confirm it as real, as with the sound of the bell."

Another poem exploring spiritual matters is "Transfiguration," a mirror-like reflection on a life-sized canvas of Christ in Gethsemane painted by Wakefield's grandfather, Paul Herzberg, a noted landscape painter. After the painting was discovered years later in the basement of a decommissioned church (it had originally hung in the church's vestibule), it was donated back to Herzberg's descendants. That led to Wakefield's poem, which ranges from a close study of the savior's pulsing veins to the conclusion that we see "how we are blessed by what we bless/and made a part of what we hold in awe."

Wakefield, an avid runner who has averaged 50 miles a week since 1974, finds other ways apart from writing to nurture his inner life: time spent with his wife and their two grown daughters; mountain hikes to photograph wildflowers and contemplate the natural world; and conversations with longtime friend and deacon Chris Anderson of Corvallis, Ore.

Asked if he'll return to church someday, Wakefield's response suggests, again, an individually centered yet far-reaching tone. "I think it will happen that I'll go back," he said. "I miss the power of the liturgy and the community ... and to some extent still yearn for it."

Then he paused, abrupt and thoughtfully deliberate as a line break. "But it would be hypocritical of me to present a criteria, a checklist [for returning]."

[Julie Gunter is a freelance writer based in Seattle.]

A poem by Richard Wakefield

Her father's painting graced the vestibule.
The passing congregants would pause to gaze
at Jesus in the garden; the Sunday school
was brought to see how one who humbly prays
will gain God's guiding hand through any trial.
Blue veins embossed the savior's folded hands,
so real they seemed to pulse, though in a while
that blood would spill upon the arid sands
of Golgotha. The brow the priests decreed
be pierced by cruel thorns, so smooth and white,
immaculate but human, soon to bleed
for others' sins, seemed bathed in holy light.

She wondered that they failed to recognize
her father's face, for she had watched him stare
into a glass: his mouth, his nose, his eyes,
the look of resignation and despair
he'd given to the Lord. That holy glow
was attic light by which she watched him limn
the son of God. It was for her to know
that in his image he created Him.
And yet to her the painting was no less
a miracle, and maybe more. She saw
in it how we are blessed by what we bless
and made a part of what we hold in awe.

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