It’s a brave poet who writes about Pentecost – often called Whitsun in Britain – in the wake of Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” one of the greatest poems of the middle decades of the 20th century. But David Wojahn succeeds beautifully in his “Pentecost,” which you can listen to in a podcast on the Poetry Foundation site.
“Pentecost” at first appears to be about the human inability to comprehend the divine. An American soldier in Pisa in 1945 sees in a piazza a light “infinitely brighter than the light he woke to” and imagines that he has “the power to speak in Greek, Italian, and Chinese.” But he blames “the oddness of his thoughts” on grappa he’d been drinking. He can attribute his glimpse of transcendence only to the Italian brandy.
But Wojahn says in the Poetry Foundation podcast that some of the inspiration for “Pentecost” came from his father’s wartime task of guarding the poet Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned for treason in a wire cage in an American detention camp near Pisa and had a nervous breakdown there. So “Pentecost” is also about the link between what are perceived as spiritual and mental “derangement” : What is the difference between the speaking in tongues that occurred on the first Pentecost and the strange words that Pound uttered in his cage, or wrote in his Pisan Cantos?
Quotations are from the podcast — I couldn’t find a copy of the poem to read — and line breaks or other elements may differ in the printed version.