Sparks will fly like a kingfisher
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote without renown for most of his life. The High Anglican turned Catholic turned Jesuit priest published only a few poems in his lifetime before he died of typhoid fever in 1889 at the age of 45. It’s his modern popularity that has joined him to the ranks of the leading Victorian poets such as Tennyson and the Brownings.
Hopkins’ poems are packed with dense imagery— as a young man he was torn between the path of painter and poet— and he tackles some big subjects: religion, nature, ecology, and spiritual crises. One poem will often combine all of these themes and result in a tightly woven work that needs careful unpacking. Hopkins fuses sprung rhythm, invented words, and compound adjectives in a way that gives his poems a contemporary sound. He didn’t invent sprung rhythm, but he renamed this poetic style, which attempts to imitate the natural patterns of speech and music by interspersing stressed and unstressed syllables. Hopkins himself said: “No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness.”
His work is celebrated on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 19 and 20, at the James A. Little Theater in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, a Theaterwork production that features nearly 30 Hopkins’ poems in recitation and set to dance and music plus works by other poets written for the occasion.
Theaterwork’s artistic director, David Matthew Olson, grew up attracted by the sound, intensity, and inwardness of Hopkins’ poems, but it wasn’t until he met Santa Fe poet David Markwardt that Hopkins moved to the front of Olson’s mind. “We started talking about poets who had influenced us, and Hopkins’ name popped out of both our mouths practically at the same time,” Olson said. “We said, wouldn’t it be wonderful to put Hopkins’ poetry out there for people to enjoy?”
The idea of making a multimedia presentation of Hopkins’ work came quickly to Olson. “I thought it would be interesting to really have it be performed— the whole production woven together so the audience can travel through the poetry,” he said. It turns out that in Santa Fe you can’t swing a sonnet without hitting someone who has been inspired by the poetry of Hopkins. This is evident in the diverse group of artists who have collaborated to produce As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
Olson asked choreographer Audrey Derell to participate after he saw her rehearse with her students at Derell’s Charisma Dance Studio. “She had the titles of four poems she wanted to do. It was really wonderful to discover someone who must have had a Hopkins book on her bookshelf,” Olson said.
“Working with spoken word is my very favorite thing to do, because there is no driving musical rhythm,” Derell said. “You start to tune into your own internal rhythms, your own heartbeat, pulse, your own breathing and you start to synchronize with the poem.” Hopkins’ sumptuous images of nature and his unusual turns of phrase stimulate her dancers— 15 students between the ages of 14 and 17 — to be more creative in their own work and to invent new ways of moving, she said. “We really feel we’re being
drawn into this incredible creative context. I’m really excited about the combustion that will happen. Sparks will fly!”
Catherine Donavon, a Santa Fe actor and musical director for the Zia United Methodist Church choir, is musical director for As Kingfishers Catch Fire. “Just to have poetry read is a wonderful thing,” Donavon said. “Adding music contributes a really wonderful element, and adding dance will make it live in an entirely different way— a visual way.” Donavon has put together an octet of singers to perform a cappella compositions by Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Robert H. Young, and others. The compositions are vocal settings of Hopkins’ poems.
Poet and educator Joan Logghe is one of the local writers who will read from works written in response to Hopkins’ poetry. Logghe said that she loved the work of Hopkins as a child: “He’s kind of over the top. There’s something about his energy that I love, the extravagance of his work. My response is much more gushy than I would normally be.”
Logghe took the Hopkins poem “Binsey Poplars” into her seventh-grade classroom at the Santa Fe Girls School and asked her pupils to respond to the poem. As they wrote, she wrote, giving her poem a New Mexican spin by substituting cottonwoods for poplars. “I wrote about the ecstatic cottonwood yellow outside the windows,” Logghe said. “[Writing with the girls] charged my own battery and gave me this live situation, so that it felt like it was a relevant and real part of my life, rather than something I was forcing myself to do.” Then she took the poem home and completed the last stanza.
Organizers of the event have scheduled a lecture, “Echoes and Reverberations: A Presentation on the Musicality of Hopkins,” on Saturday, Dec. 19, and an informal conversation on Sunday, Dec. 20. Both events feature Hopkins scholars Frank Fennell and Joseph Feeney.
Feeney is a professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and has edited The Hopkins Quarterly since 1994. He had read Hopkins in high school, but in 1977, when he was preparing to write an article for the Jesuit journal America, he read everything Hopkins had written on priesthood ordination. He was hooked.
Feeney told Pasatiempo that he suspects that people love Hopkins for several reasons: “The poems are so packed with sound, idea, image, thought. He’s a sensational nature poet, he’s an important ecological poet, he’s very human as a poet, and people identify with him as a poet about God and religion.” Feeney said Hopkins went through a year of severe depression in which he produced the “terrible sonnets,” a series of astonishing poems that Feeney said are among his most powerful.
Olson has his own reason for producing As Kingfishers Catch Fire. “Hopkins appeals to me as an artist working in a field that is shaped by poetry,” he said. “There are other poets, but he’s the one I keep coming back to.”
Kingfishers of men and women: from left, Monica Lee, Catherine Donavon, Barbara Grassia, Michael Alexander, Robert Thorpe, and Leslie Harrington Above, Jonathan Dixon, center, and other members of Theaterwork’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire cast
From Charisma Dance Studio: front, Kelsey Currier; back, Alejandra Baur; left, Taylor van Camp; right, Annabel Purvis