Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Poet Rediscovered?

In 2003 I was asked to help compile a book of readings on heaven, to be titled The Contemporaries Meet the Classics on Heaven. My responsibility was to collect readings from the “classics” — which, essentially, covered everyone before C. S. Lewis! The book was eventually published, late in 2007, by Howard Books (Simon & Schuster) under the title A Glimpse of Heaven (see panel at right).

In my research on this book I encountered the devotional writings of Anna Shipton (1815-1901), who flourished in England the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century. She published more than a dozen works of devotional narrative or poetry. C. H. Spurgeon included texts by Anna Shipton in a hymnal produced for his church in London, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and D. L. Moody was fond of quoting her verse. Her best-known title seems to have been Whispers in the Palms, a book of hymns and meditations, which first appeared in 1855 and was reprinted at least four times. Other titles include Hidden Springs, Precious Gems for The Saviour's Diadem, The Sure Mercies of David, Watch-Tower in the Wilderness and Waiting Hours.

The popular devotional Streams in the Desert (first published 1925) includes a selection by Anna Shipton, and a translated text of hers even found its way into a German hymnal published in 1931. The twentieth century, however, seemed to have largely forgotten this author. At the time I was researching what became A Glimpse of Heaven little information about her was available on the Internet, or even in the Wheaton College library (although the library did have a copy of Whispers in the Palms). I could not even track down the year of her birth.

Now, five years later, Anna Shipton’s fortunes seem to be recovering. A search engine query on “anna shipton” yields seventeen pages of links, most of which refer to this writer. Her book “Tell Jesus”: Recollections of Emily Gosse is available from Greater Truth Publishers, and Whispers in the Palms is available online from Google. I was even able, finally, to discover the year of her birth though I have not encountered any biographical information.

One would not be inclined to number Anna Shipton among the great writers of the nineteenth century, but her work was well known in Christian circles in both Britain and the United States and was, evidently, a blessing to many. What I wrote of Fannie J. Crosby in A Glimpse of Heaven might well be said of Anna Shipton: “Although she is not judged an outstanding poet, the simplicity and earnestness of her verse have endeared her songs to Christian worshipers.”

So it is good to note some renewed interest in Anna Shipton’s work. The following is an example of her devotional poetry, from Whispers in the Palms:

          The Soul’s Alarum

     Arouse thee, laggard Soul — awake — awake!
          Rise and depart, for this is not thy rest;
     Bend meekly down, and then as bravely take
          The Cross, God lays on thee. Tho' sore distrest
     And weary be thy way, fear not ! Look up —
          He mighty is to save! He whispers, “Come.”

     Another wine shall fill thy brimming cup,
          In the bright mansions of thy Father’s home.
     To hosts of Heaven, unseen by mortal eye,
          He giveth charge, to fence, to guard thy ways:
     They do their Master's bidding joyfully,
          And mark each triumph with a song of praise;
     Not for their sins He died — He did not take
     His cross to bear for them. — Arise, oh Soul, awake!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Reader as Co-Creator

When I was a child—in the late 1940s and early 1950s—I used to enjoy listening to the radio on Sunday evenings. That was back in the days when radio had "programs," and my ear was glued to the entertainment parade headed by The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Because this was radio, I had no idea what the scenes or the characters looked like. So I had to imagine them for myself.

Later on, when I saw movies of Harold Peary (or his replacement, Willard Waterman) as Gildersleeve, I had to adjust my mental images of him and the other characters in the show. But, interestingly, the adjustment was not a major one. What I, as the listener, had created almost matched what I saw on the screen.

I think a good novel is like that. The author doesn’t need to describe everything. He or she is "telling a story," not writing a screenplay. It is the reader’s responsibility to fill in the gaps with his imagination. The reader cooperates with the author in creating the story.

In Walking on Water (Harold Shaw, 1980), Madeleine L’Engle wrote: "The reader, viewer, listener usually grossly underestimates his importance. If a reader cannot create a book along with the writer, the book will never come to life. Creative involvement: that’s the basic difference between reading a book and watching TV. In watching TV we are passive; sponges; we do nothing. In reading we must become creators."

I belong to a critique group, and frequent comments about my fiction writing could be, "Don’t tell me, show me," "Nothing is happening; I’m pulled out of the story," or "Let me see his reaction to what she said." I am very sorry, dear friends. The reader who is easily "pulled out" of the story, or who has to be "shown" everything, isn’t the reader I’m writing for. I’m writing for the reader who will be a co-creator with me, who will involve himself in setting the scene and thinking in behalf of the dramatis personae. Only in this way would my novel be a memorable one.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill, 1964), distinguished between "cool" and "hot" media. His intuition runs counter to what we might suppose. Television is a "cool medium" because it presents itself to both sound and sight, limiting the need for the viewer’s creative involvement. Radio, on the other hand, is a "hot medium" because it encourages the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that explains why TV today is such a wasteland of sensationalist "news," shallow comedy, predictable suspense and pharmaceutical ads—while "talk radio" has captured the attention of millions.

A screenplay is "cool;" telling a good story is "hot." When the reader participates in the creative process he takes away more from the story than he would if everything were laid out for him, because he has built part of the story in his own head. I can still remember the "scenes" I mentally created for The Great Gildersleeve; Fred Allen and Allen’s Alley; Mr. Keen; Tracer of Lost Persons; The Shadow; Fibber McGee and Molly; and others. They live on in my consciousness because I was involved in creating them.