The following is an excerpt from the review of the presentation by J. Chester Johnson on his two recent books, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems and Auden, the Psalms, and Me, held at The Culture Center, New York City, on November 28, 2017. The review is from Literary Matters – The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers. written by Noah Jampol. To read the full article, click here.
When we turn to the psalter, we do so because it is a part of our current service. But it remains a part of our worship because of the transportive power of the psalms. Because they make us feel a bit less lonesome, they make the abstract more specific.
Chester, speaking on the psalms, noted this very power – that psalms (though most certainly from another time) speak to our time. They speak to both “our individual and collective suffering, the need to praise, the healing power of praise.”
Our moment is one in which the verities may at times seem distant, almost relative. But by connecting our spirit, both individual and collective, back to the headwater of our humanness we may redeem ourselves as well as our fellow man. This is why we go back to the psalms. It was, per Chester’s observation, Psalm 13 (“How long”) that informed the modern civil rights movement.
And he would know. Both as a deft poet and committed heart and hand for the civil rights struggle, Chester’s life has been one of liturgy – one of public service – one of common prayer. The New York Times got it right when covering Chester and Freda working in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Chester observed the “Eucharist as a mode of reconciling.” So is the sort of service practiced by Freda and Chester.
Chester surmised that the audience came out for the Auden, though if you asked, I think most would have said they came out for Chester.