November 27, 2009

Well, the end of the semester is nigh upon us, so I wanted to add more to the discussion. In our "Contemporary Christian Poetry" class, we went over a slew of people. And the best of the lot: Thomas Merton, hands down. And who has been vilified like this guy? Charismatics and those from the creakily Catholic right have all just assumed that the guy was a Buddhist of some sort, seduced by the 60s. (Maybe God even took him our early because he was unfaithful!) Personal revelations can be such rubbish.

First off, before trashing someone, a poet, read the poems! It's not asking too much. And that's where the reward is. What poet loved our Lord, our lady, the Eucharist, the Mass more! And the poetry is beautiful. (A few misses in the new "Selected," but you've got to expect that.) Merton was interested in Zen Buddhism, yes, but why wouldn't he be? He was a monk himself. As mixed as my feelings are about Mott, his bio. is very good, very comprehensive. Merton chafed against his bosses; though had he been a canonizable saint . . . No kidding, Sherlock.

I don't know any saints. I met Catherine Doherty, and she's at the Servant of God stage, and Fr. Flanigan of SOLT who's got the same mojo going, but surely no poets. They tend to struggle with the most basic things. But check out the poems: the joy, the wisdom! They're gorgeous, and faithful to boot. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against Tommy in some way. The secular left, the squishies who give the Merton prize, those types, they like the Buddhist thing just fine. It's a story they can live with! (Read the intro to the new text.) And our faithful brethren and sistren, they're still reading trumpeting "faithful" drivel.

Robert Cording was the next guy we did. Robert is a great human being and a first rate Protestant poet--but as you might guess, the latter creates problems. Because our separated kin don't have the same sacramental sense we do, the poems, beautiful though they are marvelously executed, move on a shallower level. Protestants generally speaking are concerned with a disembodied intellect, with obsessing about appearances, so they aren't as comfortable with the body, our fallenness, the unconscious--so the poems pay. However, given all that, the man is good, and I bet you enjoy the read.

Levertov became a Catholic near the end of her life, and her Black Mountain style can make for dense reading. The only problem is a kind of social/moral superiority can get into the poems, part of that anti-war thang perhaps. (She met Merton.) I liked the poems--we used THE STREAM AND THE SAPPHRIE--but some of the selections were real clinkers. You take your chances spiritually with New Directions--they also did the new Merton.

Gioia. The class loved him, and he is very good. He's suave, in a kind of Gatsby sort of way, has a master's way with numbers, and the sensibility is Catholic. I like him a lot--though my forebears were more blue collar. The only problem I have with the poems is that you have to dig or be patient until you hear the Catholic knell. Now I know Dana, like every public poet, has to deal with the audience thing, few of which are orthodox Catholic. But Jesus is Jesus, and the Church is the Church. How can any Catholic really write about anything else? What we are called to be has been spelled out by the saint. There is no new way to do this--outside of the new personalities involved. (Gerald Stern ounce said "A poet isn't always Jewish. Sometimes he just has an itchy back." But I don't agree. Don't we take a dump in the presence of God? And of what value are our lives if we don't give glory to God with them?)

The most intriguing voice I've heard as far as straight forward literary and good Catholic poetry is probably someone you're not familiar with: Father David May of Madonna House in Canada. Fr. David's poems are about trying to be a saint--and what's nice is that he's nicely along the path; unlike the rest of us! We did him in our chapbook series--gone quickly, all of them.

John Hodgen's GRACE came nest. A fun read--one of the reasons I chose him, Christian in its way. Then we did Jorie Graham, who's always tough, so abstract, Platonic. I always love doing "Noli me Tangere." Jesus comes up often in her work, but after having read a lot of it, I remember thinking that He seemed more valuable as convenient metaphor than He did as King of King and Lord of Lords.

Jane Kenyon is always wonderful to read, a little reminiscent of Frost in the New Englander pose, but she's a squish whereas he's not. She's kind of monosyllabic too, a delight in so many ways, but like Levertov, we too often get the "I have a liberal sensibility and am more socially conscious than so many people, so I must weep in public" thing. I like her though, a rich simplicity to her. I will do her next time too.

Franz Wright is a fine Catholic poet. Wonderfully dense sometimes, wise. Very good. He misses on some poems like "Rosary." You wonder who the heck he's talking to. We actually spent a lot of time on him in class--he's got that "I've been in the gutter" grit, so the reader listens. No small feat. I'll do him again next time as well.

We're ending up with Murray, the Australian comet (or not). He's always fun, difficult because you got to get to the outback in some way to pick up some of the language. Like Wright, he's got an edge, but Murray's is national, not gutteral (gutters can be fine and instructive places). He's a poet you would love to have a beer with--actually this is true of most of the Catholic poets we read. (More of than next semester when we do fiction--Robinson's GILEAD set against Hansen's EXILES). Very Catholic, Murray, and very good, a fine choice to end on.

Other poets we covered in one way or the other: SASANOV--why isn't ALL THE BLOOD TETHERS still in print? Now that's a crime. A great Catholic book. I've learned so much from her, even though she's (disgustingly) younger than I am. She never lets the first person singular speaker off the hook in her poems. No subtle I'm a nice guy/gal stuff. No PR for Jesus. She's a find! (Though she says she's having some trouble with the faith just now, so pray for her please).

DANIELS, ANDREWS, JACOBSEN, BODO, SAMARAS, MARIANI--love Paul, great Catholic poems. Give us more in the collections, Paul. Also Paraclete needs to hire a better editor or something. Mariani has done a lot better work than some of the poems that appear in his last book. We also looked at CAIRNS, EVERSON, SIEGEL, BERRY, HOWE. And we could've included Zagajewski, Wilkerson, Tolides, Serpas (squishy Catholic), Karr (another squish), Riley, O'Donnell, Norris, Pollard (with a large caveat: "I will teach you poetry"), Miller, Maddox, Lietz, Lea, Hill, Ursu. Others no doubt as well.

Happy Christmas!