November 25, 2010

A Poetry of Discipleship
The field of Christian poetry has broadened so much in the last thirty years. Flowers everywhere. Helen Vendler’s comment that she could not find a concern for the transcendental anywhere in contemporary American poetry seems hopelessly outdated. But where are we exactly? What does the phrase Christian poetry mean anyway, and what obstacles stand in the way of whole-hearted poetry of discipleship?
Mother Theresa used to urge “Faithfulness, not success.” And this understandable worldly concern is perhaps the best place to start. Secular editors (and many Christian ones as well) are so wary of the Absolute side of Truth that they will reject anything that smacks of that out of hand. Because of that prejudice, poetry which reveals an appreciation for a genuinely sacramental poetic, one that includes both the demands of God and our journey through the minefield of life, is immediately tossed into the slush pile. Poetry, it seems, must reflect a sensibility which lines up the prevailing secular heart.
There are good journals, of course, but their numbers are few. As a result so many published poems seem solely concerned with the horizontal part of the faith experience, often including a sideways jibe at those who look upward as well! How many good poets can you name who are willing to forego laurels to praise our Lord in the manner of Merton or Eliot?
A second obstacle is second-hand piety. Many fine believing poets are put off track because they are simply not yet willing to go into the believing unknown. Warmed over Holy Spirit poems which deliver the same “fresh” vision twenty years later help no one. Poets have got to work the soil, break new ground, every time out. Some evangelical poets, Protestant and Catholic, simply chose not to do this. This is sad because it turns Christianity into slightly dirty dish water. Who cares? No one is freer than the Christian poet, so our work should reflect that.
A third problem is that too many Christian writers of poetry and fiction are simply in too big a hurry to publish. One study revealed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to produce an artistic master in any of the arts. That about three hours a day for ten years. Writers have to be slow—like workers when they come into your home to fix something. They never hurry because they know what they are doing. So it must be with us.
Fear is part of the difficulty here too. The faith we have has served us pretty well, so why should we grow, especially if it’s going to cause us pain? We all resist, except for the saints among us. But there’s no other way for an artist, for any Christian to proceed. What is the expression: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”? Each time out, with each new blank piece of paper we learn what we have learned again. And that’s a blessing because our ignorance allows God room to move, to get in there, to make us new and teach us. And isn’t that way all this is about?

November 9, 2010

A poetry of discipleship. That's what I'm interested in. How do we do it?

October 1, 2010

A friend of mine has just written to me, telling me that I've been too hard on Hollywood. While I don't know it that's really possible, her corrective impulse comes at just the time J.J. Abrams is finishing up shooting scenes for a movie in our fair town, Weirton, WV. And since I've been thinking about this event, too, perhaps the whole confluence is a knock from the Holy Spirit. So I dive in.

I was amazed at the size of the operation. Paramount set up a base camp two blocks from us, in a lot by the park, and when Linda and I drove through we saw about ten tractor trailers in neat rows. They were shooting up in a convenient mart lot, and there were two more up there. And since I was covering the paper route for my limping son, I had to drive around the ensuing jam, finding two more trailers on a side road. The people seemed very nice, and they did such a nice job with everything (no surprise since movies--if you don't count scripts--are so well made these days). It's been fun to walk downtown, see how they've altered stores, added 70s gifts, a date specific used car lot.

But the thing that got me was that the whole enterprise is such a heady thing. All that money, effort, time, and, scope--as well as the exhileration involved in the creative process. It would take a great deal of humility to deal with that. More than I have, no doubt.

God bless Hollywood.

Which reminds me, Dr. Mark Adderley from Wyoming Catholic sent me his new book: THE HAWK AND THE HUNTRESS. Very nice, Catholic in Arthurian dress. It's very good. I think it will be released in November. If you like action, romance, and a great take on sub-Roman Britain, do get it.


August 16, 2010

It stuck me recently that our political system could be categorized very simply: secular purtians vs. religious puritans. (I remember a bumper sticker: JP II for president!)

Also, I wonder if there is anything more harmful to Christianity than leadership training. Charismatics can especially be annoying in this area. I know a guy who runs a gym, and during basketball pick-up games, he assigns fouls--or rather delegates them--according to what each person "needs" spiritually. What ass-like behavior: but a true leader.

Of course, if you've ever seen me play basketball you'd know that the carnage engendered does cry out for a little order. Still, these people show up wherever Christians gather (with their Protestant perfectibility) and everyone with any sense has to run for cover.

I think Charismatic, and other, "leaders" should grovel, get all fawning over the fact that they have been included at all. After all, no one more clearly deserves not to be.

August 2, 2010

We're watching Michael Wood's video IN SEARCH OF SHAKESPEARE again. Great enthusiasm and cinematography, fun. The phrase "Secular wisdom" occurred to me. I don't know if we'll be around on this plane for the Catholic version, but that will be a sight to see. Someone with that honeyed tongue and insight delivering plays which embody a more heavenly/sacramental version.

I wonder what it was like, being in the room when he came up with that stuff. It's like St. Francis. How cool would it have been to take a two mile walk with mr. four foot ten?

July 28, 2010

Another last word on Lebron.

When I was up at Madonna House in the late 70's, Elvis had just died of his OD, and one of the guests made some young remark about the spiritual truths beneath his demise. A staff member, though, I remember, responded by saying you just never know. How many of us have to deal with what he had to deal with?

And so it is with Lebron. I've just finished the pulled ESPN article about his Las Vegas party. What a nightmare, all of it disguised as the man with everything. Here's this overgrown adolescent (if that), living in a imaginary world that may well kill him, if it hasn't already. Who could deal with that? What chance does he have?

God have mercy on all of us! Let's pray for each other.

July 24, 2010

A last word on LeBron.

Cleveland's psyche has been the subject of much speculation on the net lately, so as a native, I want to defend. I think what really bugs most people is the bubble jocks can live under. "I've got to stay humble" they say; as if one can put that cloak on and be right on a spiritual level. But the spirit is inside. And who ever has enough to say "stay"? You can see why "it's harder for a rich man to ge through the eye of a needle." Money and fame can isolate, insulate one--though so can the intellect, any gift.

No one can know James' soul. We've all got enough to worry about with our own. But other people do matter. How else will we be measured?

God bless them all. I know for myself I take pro sports way too seriously some times. We the fans have given them the power, raised them up. And in the end we don't matter. "It's a business," they always say.

The sordidness makes one happy for the NCAA, who actually has a committee which tries to keep people in line. So does God, of course. We can all wear LeBron masks as we wait in line!

July 21, 2010

Our Down's guy Jude gets in a groove and likes it, stays there. So he's always, at intervals bringing home LOR extended videos from the library--THE RETURN OF THE KING this time. In the past, I've recommended them to students as they go into great detail when it comes to production, just what it takes to do these things. Great stuff for young writers to see. Good work involves lots of it!

And it's such a blessing for me too. So many extraordinarily talented people in the world! It's amazing. So as much as I occasionally recoil from Peter Jackson's penchant for anvils when something lighter might've worked better, man is the guy gifted, and they all are. The sound guys really love and are great at sounds, Howard Shore; all of them. It's a shame Hollywood so often has to ruin all that talent with airheaded polemics.

Linda and I were watching ADAPTATION with Meryl Steep in it the other day. She's so good, but boy, who's been in more bad political movies? It makes me appreciate poets like Berrigan and Merton: Catholic and excellent, the truth in all its humanity.

What's it going to be when all the new Catholic voices hit the fan? Voices not longer concerned with making Jesus and imitation of themselves, with turning Him into a liberal (or conservative) poet. May we live to see a greater turning of that tide.

Come Lord Jesus. Infect us with humility! Let its dark (and happy) flower grow!

July 20, 2010

Over the last few years I've had to endure my kids listening to some concertedly nasty reviewing of the STAR WARS, especially on the pre-quels. And as anyone knows who's seen them, they are real bad. But just this last weekend we took out the older trilogy. (I wanted to hear them make fun of them: summer weirdness or something.) Silly me. I was the loudest, and we only got part way through the first one. The guy who plays Luke is @ 22 or so by the look of him, but his dialogue makes him sound 12. Really bad stuff. And if you add the fact that neither he nor Carrie Fischer can act a lick. Geeze. The thing is poorly written, the dialogue, stilted.

But Bunks, you might say, this is landmark material.

Like AVATAR, the only thing it really has going for it is the world-making, the cool machines and stuff. But what complete crap. The popular culture has to eventually collapse under its own paper mache weight. Hollywood types are always standing tall for Lucas. (Who can watch the Oscars, really!)

The whole thing reminds me of a list my son got from his film making class in college. The American Film Society, or someone like that, listing their 100 most important (or was it best) movies.

The directors there must be monkeys.

But then I think of the Pulitzer committee for poetry. Before the war was bad enough. Robinson won three times. (He's from Harvard, you know, so he must be good.) Eliot didn't win for THE WASTE LAND, Stevens had to have stomach cancer, Williams had to be dead. It's hard to tell after the war because who knows if we've had any (or much) lasting poetry. Writing programs and the content police have in all probability killed originality.

Let's solve the problem! (We'll make a list of the good ones.)

But enough of that direction. I picked up Daniel Berrigan's RISEN BREAD selected poems recently, and have loved what I've read so far. Fine imagination, language play, thoroughly Catholic. Yea! I also picked up Pope Benedict's first book on Jesus, and have been so soothed. The modesty, intellect, scholarly insight and writerly skill (though it's a translation, I'm sure) make it a wonderful read. It makes me glad that the church is in such hands.

Praise God! Which reminds me, I picked up that Rossini video (I might have the name wrong), the one based on the FIORETTI, done in the 50s, black and white. Great stuff. The FIORETTI still inspire. It would be nice to have that kind of humility.

Well, Linda's in the background finishing up her cello practice. Almost time for my banjo!
Just one more note on the priest thing. This good cleric told me in Confession one day that his own father would not attend his ordination in Africa. And now I learn that this family with whom he was staying in Virgina was in fact his real family. (I had just assumed it was an "adopted" one since he was from so far away.) And the little girl in question is his niece.

We've just crossed over into THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Has the other son carried on the wishes of the father--as so many sons do? Is this a heroic thing or just another abuse scandal? I wish I could be on hand at the trial.

But who knows?

As most male friends would do in these circumstances, I think of my own sins. Like the majority of us, the phrase that comes to mind is "too many."

On the other hand I think that if God could give me a life, as he has, a family and what passes for a career, he can certainly make me into something good, a saint even, as well.

The thought of paying what the good priest may be paying is enough to make one shudder, though, no?

July 17, 2010

Our parish is still in shock. An amazing Kenyan priest has been charged with a child sex crime in Va. while on vacation there; everyone is disturbed. No one knows what to make of it. We've had said priest over a few times for dinner, and I really liked going to him in Confession. Very insightful. A gentle Ph.D. in philosophy. So I'm anxious for the whole thing to shake down. A neighbor couple told Linda they think it might be a set-up, though of course no one knows?* The local paper and the people from SNAP--one crusader was kind enough to come in from Missouri (another few from the "eparchy" of Steubenville) to paint the priest in the most pernicious terms possible--both have jumped on the AP band-wagon: the diocese was too slow, potentially allowing for strong-arm tactics or (and this is the one that really gets me) for time so the guy can skip the country. Yeah, I can just imagine the priest in jail, chewing on his cigar, making his contacts with Guido, the bishop too. These people are asses, all in the name of justice. And if the guy ends up being innocent, we can expect an equally pointed attempt to secure justice and broadcast that, right? They will do a front page story on that too, no? SNAP will throw a party.

If the guy's guilty, he needs to pay. There's no argument there. But the word is "alleged," people. You can spell it, say it. Meanwhile the guy sits in jail for a month, having to bear this on every level. If you have a moment pray for him, the child and for her family.

*Sounds far-fetched, I know. But I also know that a prof from our Theology Department was once perhaps saved by a secretary who found a nude woman in his office!

July 9, 2010

Since it's LeBron day, and since I'm a Clevelander at heart, we got to say something. I don't feel much one way or the other about it really. It's good to see an Afro-American have such power, sway, money. (It's a little late for Andrew Jackson's Cherokee Appalachian nation in 1838, but we'll take what we can get.) And if there's a sin here on his part, it seems almost childlike. These professional athletes never get the fan part of the equation. I think of Cliff Lee's comment that Cleveland baseball loses players because the locals don't buy enough tickets. Completely clueless, but in a stupid and forgivable way. Bread or tickets, the heating bill or tickets. A tough choice.

Pro sports/ESPN, and they really seem to be the same thing, are the world in the Biblical sense. Aquisitiveness gone mad as the seed for it. The Cavs will stink. So what, really. Miami and LA can vie for glitziness until both are washed into the sea.

But we each have sins enough. Dear old Cleveland, you will have my heart right down to the empty blast furnaces, to d. a. levy and the vast steel gray lake on a winter Browns afternoon. Give me the orchestra, the theater, Mark Stieve's book store. Give me old friends and classmates, decimated public golf courses after an outing; give me the parks, the memories. Pro sports is something we do to celebrate the rest. Beer will do just as well.

July 4, 2010

I was just looking at a new Christian poetry journal, and while I like the list of impressive poets, I wonder still. Why do we just assume that the way we see the world is a given: that's the way it is? Clearly, this is not so. How did St. Francis, Brothers Ruffino, Masseo, Bernard, Juniper, and Leo see the world is the better question? Our poetry should reach for that gift. What we've gotten since the Reformation has been a movement toward enlightenment stuff: Shakespeare was right! He WAS brilliant, of course, the best, but was he right? He had a great heart for suffering, humanity, issues, but was he spot on about the human condition? For one, I'd give just about anything to walk two miles with St. Francis, to somehow change my life's vision for the saint's. That's what it's about. Frankly, I'm getting a little tired of either hearing slightly bored Christian poets lecture us about the horizontal dimension in their poems when they have so little of the vertical going on, or of them doing the same old metapoetical tapdance, or of them delivering the same Holy Spirit Protestant elevated "saved" stuff (fifteen years on). The first two are beyond mundane. They're boring. And the third, though blessed, ends up being just more of the same old bidness.

Jesus, change us so we see the world as we ought to, if you can change us that much?

The danger here is, of course, sounding falsely pious (or rah, rahing it like Chesterton). How can a poet sound like what he doesn't have access to? Pray, pray, pray. It must be possible. May we all be part of a new poetry.

June 14, 2010

Three observations:

Been reading Ralph Martin's THE FULFILLMENT OF ALL DESIRE. Wonderful stuff--the Fathers of the Church (and Mothers), so many of them talking about holiness, the signposts, the stages. I'd started it some time back, but bogged. And the prose style can occasionally get in the way, but now that I'm back in I'm very grateful. Growth! I can feel it. The little tubers! I'm into the second part, the Illuminative Way (is it?). Don't get ahead of yourself.

Run you tubers.

And speaking of not getting ahead of yourself, I've been rereading the FIORETTI, trying to get more poems from the same sources I used more than thirty years ago. One of the things that I really like about the text, XXVI today--and the early prayer ("Those who do not do penance") in THE SAINT, EARLY DOCUMENTS book of the scholarly trilogy on him, is the emphasis on hell, justice. We don't hear enough about it, the cut corners that come back. Lots of people are paying for that, I'm sure. I don't know about you, but I rely on mercy so easily. Perhaps that's not a good thing. I need to feel what I am the way the saints did/do.

And the last thing is the Duke. Saw THE SEARCHERS today. It's funny, how Wayne was run out of town in the late 60's; but when you go through everybody's 30 best westerns, the guy keeps showing up. A main--to quote Sam and Dave. (Though the actor who later played Jesus--Jeffrey Hunter, really pales compared to Montgomery Cliff in RED RIVER. Cliff is a good male lead there too.)

Christ is Risen!

June 13, 2010


Since there's so little at Blockbuster, we usually get our videos from the library. But even there I have to pray for guidance. Something good, Lord! Does He answer is often the question, though my stockpile of virtue may have something to do with that. Anyway we picked up THE SOLOIST with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Great movie for the most part. "Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon. . . . He's gonna cover us up with leaves, with a blanket from the moon," or so goes the Tom Waits song. So much destitution, lost folk. But what great heart on the part of the squishy LA Times reporter. Moving stuff. Of course, like any Hole-ywood film these days Christianity must be assaulted. Fundamentalism in this case, the invader with no compassion, just his body-less cross. I suppose I could be happy that the other enemy wasn't involved: the Church. But why so these secular Puritans feel this need?

Oh well, take what good you can find. Nice movie. Praise God for the "wound of love."

June 9, 2010

And speaking of Rowling, Columbus's great picture of Fudge in the sixth movie reminded me of the Star Trek Borg in that the first is so British and the second so American. That great likeness flapping in the breeze brought fascism to mind, uncles Adolf and Benito, always fresh in the British consciousness. But for us, the specter is communism: the red scare, Kruschev's shoe on the UN table, the Cuban missile crisis. That's our base line--at least until 9/11.

But Obama's going to change all that.
Having been summoned before the bar of inquisition, I must clarify. In an earlier post when I alluded to Westerns in Rowling and Tolkien, I was talking movies. Jackson and Columbus--those directors. (Unless we want to talk James Fenimore Cooper, whom Tolkien liked very much, since Jackson rips him off too: Aragorn as Hawkeye, ear to the ground.)

All art is collaborative, of course. As Frost says, "Good poets borrow, great ones steal." But the old misdirecting tossed rock was ancient when Roy Rodgers did it (or whoever that was in my foggy youth).

June 7, 2010

Is the Domino pizza/Ave Maria guy trying to use his money to legislate Catholic culture? To what extent is EWTN part of that?
“Catholic poetry,” “Poetry by Catholics.” Thanks largely to Flannery O’Connor we may never be able to untangle what those two phrases actually mean. But one thing is clear, and that is that the lives of the saints are always in front of us. They are who we would do well to model ourselves after. That is true for every Catholic, poet or not. And the one defining characteristic of those who were or who would be saints is an absolute obsession with Jesus Christ: who He is, what he wants. So it would follow that every Catholic poet’s work should likewise reflect that pre-occupation, whatever he or she is writing about. I mean if St. John Vianney rode a bicycle down the cobbled roads of France, he was surely enjoying the presence of God as he put out his feet, perhaps even talking to his Lord as his cassock and hair flapped in the breeze.

But how often does Catholic poetry center itself on the Christ who defines us, who pumps the blood, spiritual and physical, into our veins? He gives all pain expression, and meaning. He is the reason we get up each day. Granted the world does not want to hear this. Oprah would find it excessive. Some would argue as Gerald Stern does: one is not always a Jew or a Christian; some poems are just about an itchy back or a fear of death. “Everyone fears death.” But for the Christian, again, we do everything in God’s contemplative presence, and that should express itself either explicitly or implicitly.

As I say, the world does not want to hear this. And it is this very tension which creates the contemporary literary landscape behind the Christian poem.

And so how can one be true to his or her vocation and still get published in “group mind” POETRY magazine? What kind of Catholic poems can get into little magazines, any way, and which kinds can not? These are good questions, reflect the difficulties. But there is more. Even on friendlier turf, there are other problems. Many overtly Catholic “literary” journals make demands which seem to come short of the liberty offered by the gospel, insisting as they do on a mahogany old-world European-laced perspective. Quality does not seem to be an issue for some of these editors, either. They seem more concerned with formula and the catechesis involved. Art, literary value, seem secondary. (Though we do need to tip our hats to Philip C. Kolin for his good work with VINEYARDS.)

This leads me to Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s wonderful book MOVING HOUSE by Word Press, 2009. It reflects both some of the problems and something of a solution to “the world” problem mentioned above. Broken up into seven sections, she delivers some fine Catholic poems here—though she, admittedly, does not spend a lot of time directly concerned with the King. Still, many of the offerings are wonderfully and overtly Catholic. The strongest of O’Donnell’s pieces in this book for my money revolve around her childhood coal town memories and those concerning her contemporary domestic scene. Some of these are so powerful that I feel they may still be around well down the road—a rarity, I think, in this postmodern world.

The poems I liked less might be said to edge either toward the coffee table variety or toward the herd mentality of the literary magazines. Such poems, when they fail in the large, usually acknowledge some pain, but it is controlled by wit, resource and a saving last line. In Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s defense, however, even when she verges in that direction, her judgment, sense of surprise usually saves the day.

Still, I prefer the poems that shake my bars, punch me in the mouth to put it baldly, poems that make me profoundly grateful to the poet for giving me real news. “Breaker” is one of those first-rate poems about her youth. In it we’re brought into a dark and damp coal town world, “A town of heaving men/who slept upright in their darkened parlors.” It’s a place I’ve never lived, a place where we later learn the kids must sleep wearing coats. The next poem “Northern Lights” does it again: mom and dad up early, after Robert Heyden, trying to breathe life into the soot-dark cold of the house.

“In “Grandmother’s Living Room” we learn “The floor sloped sharp/in the cavernous dark” and that abandoned shafts ran underneath the house. The kids squeal in delight because they are kids:
Still we braved it all the same,
The crazed plaster and warped floor boards,
The chill smell of sulfur,
The gray-tasting dust,
And holy Mary on the western wall
Suffering her sword-pierced heart.
The poem ends in delight, but a wise delight.

“Staking Claim” features the speaker as mom, delivers much. And “Division,” which follows is a fine, fine poem. The speaker, a mom, is Gertrude from HAMLET in the latter, can feel with the woman because she is a mom. This is the kind of thing Angela does best, though I liked all the poems about art as well. Still, it’s the poems like “Division” that really punish the reader. (Jorie Graham once said that it’s the poet’s job to break your heart.) This is a mother’s pain. The two which follow are marvelous too: “Dante in the Kitchen” and one of my long-tome favorites of hers, “Waking the Children.” There the mother knows, fore-suffers because she knows what days always bring to the young, to all of us.

Part VI has many wonderful poems around moving from one place to another: again, a woman’s take—as is fitting, since as Proverbs tell us, she is the heart of the home. There are other fine poems, too, ones which do not deal with my two favorite topics: childhood and motherhood/wifedom. Anything on Melville is going to be good because she clearly loves him so much, gets him in some powerful way. The death poems also really catch you up short.

There’s much to like here, which is a good thing because Angela is such a quality person, and it’s good to be blessed with that on the page. In parting, I would encourage here to write a book just on family. That is where she shines brightest.

Of course, God only knows where future poems will venture, or where they come from for that matter. May He have mercy on us all as we struggle to fit more snugly into obedient lives.

May 31, 2010

Over a good friend's house, I saw this Bob Dylan video. Now I know Bob plays Mr. Chameleon, has done so forever. (I looked at his two volume autobiography a few years back and was not surprised to find that he was totally absent.) In the video I was watching he was doing this Chaplin thing with a straw hat, with Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Douglas. Where was Bob? Again--in the poses, in the poses: all lies, all the truth. But it struck me as weak and loud too.

He refuses to be counted, and he does go on about it. (What was with all those teeth shots?)

I like the guy, always have, and I know he's trying to keep his fame, his notion of being an artist. He has to stay on top. But on some level the guy's weak.

Why not just be what you are?
Having long insisted to my my son that both LOR/Peter Jackson and HARRY POTTER ripped off Westerns shamelessly, I checked on the net for the top 30 and have started watching them. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, HIGH NOON, and RED RIVER first; I was struck first off by the men. Stewart, Cooper, and Wayne--each had a sense of heroic virtue: of what is required of men. A little WASP-ish probably, but they get the good. I mean, could you imagine Brad ("Who's your daddy?") Pitt playing any of those roles? Or to put the shoe on the other foot, imagine some super model with four inch biceps saying that to the Duke!

Our culture has no sense of what it means to be a man or a woman. Females are now ordinarily physically superior to men in action movies, infinitely brighter on tv commericals; and all sensitive men have become feminists. I saw that in grad school: the pansy patrol. One of the reasons they have men sporting events separate from women's is because men are, generally speaking, broader at the shoulder, more narrow at the hip. They run faster, jump higher.

Hollywood is pretty clearly the land of idiots, followed closely by the arts community in general. Yes, women can kick your butt, but it seldom happens in the sprints. "You said you'd do this?" Yes, I did, so now I will do it.

And who doesn't value women's opinions, sensitivities?

But men have them too. David tells Solomon to play the man. John Wayne got that. Our culture does not.

As far as cliches go, I haven't seen them yet. RED RIVER surprised throughout. Maybe I'll have to go to Roy Rogers and SKY KING re-runs.

May 19, 2010

I want to post this because these issues always come up in Christian (and secular) literature classes.

Hinging Hejinian: When "Openness" is not Enough

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a Contemporary Christian Poetry class. It was something I felt ready to do as I had just completed co-editing ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN, but I felt I needed to supplement those poems with some representative essays on the poetics of the Post Modern and contemporary periods. Paul Hoover's POSTMODERN AMERICAN POETRY, A NORTON ANTHOLOGY, which I had just gotten in the mail, seemed like an ideal text. And it proved very useful as it contained not only some golden oldies--Creeley's jazzy poetic, Olson's justly famous "Projective Verse"--but it served up, as well, a good (and expected) menu of some of the newer poetics. State-of-the-art feminists, anti-capitalistic Language poets, and performance po-bizzers all got their turns at bat, each trying to create a new pagan aesthetic, each tying to knock the stuffings out of the, if you will, straw man patriarchal.

But it much of these writers' insights contained a little too much of the screeching foolishness many people have come to associate with Bill Moyers' most recent videos, some of the writing proved very thought-provoking as well, some even eye-opening. I was especially struck with how often these poets as essayists reflected the apparent poetics of many of the Christian poets in our anthology. That is, they could see and expound brilliantly on open-endedness,or, to put it in more overtly Christian terms, on the tenuous dark night of faith experience, on the working out of one's salvation with fear and trembling. But what neither camp could seem to come to grips with was the fact that "openness" is not the whole story, especially for the Christian poet. for us there is more, much more. An that "more," I would like to assert, has everything to do with what has come to be pejoratively called "closure." What I hope to show is that this whole other level of poetry writing, indeed, this whole other level of personal experience offers the other half of a GENUINE wholeness, one that is not available to those who choose to ignore it.

I would like to quickly emphasize here as well that neither of these forms of discourse: "openness" or "closure," negates the other form when it comes to creatively giving utterance go the Christian walk. The "openness" or sense of absence experience which makes up so much of our Christian days does not in any way contradict or make void the fact that it is often possible for us ecstatically and obediently bask, through infused grace, in God's absolute presence. And, at the same time, neither is it true, I hope to show, that the language of the one experience is sufficient to express the other.

It seemed to me as I was working on the anthology--and it still seems so--that today's Christian poets have been, perhaps, overly influenced by the contemporary, largely politically motivated notion that "openness" does, in fact, refute and negate closure. And it also seemed to me that the best place to respond to this error was where its point of espression was strongest. And that led me to Hejinian.

She is a very eloquent spokesperson for the notion of openendedness, and I would, to a very large extent, agree with what she has to say about that in her essay, "The Rejection of Closure." There she tells us that language encourages and partly answers a healthy longing we all innately have for wholeness, and that any kind of imposed closure, be that from the God the Father machine, or even from the purely sexual interpretations French feminists have put on that longing, is limiting. She tell us, too, that this very inability in language is helpful because it provides a medium of differentiation, and that through it we can come to grips with a world in flux.

Most of this, in its place, seems very good to me. But it's her larger take on the writing experience that I have trouble with. She very strongly states that no other way of seeing, writing is possible. Why, I had to ask myself, does she have to have such an either/or perspective? And how would she know that "closure," or life in God the Father, if such a life were to exist, limits anyone? Those of us who have, to some extent, experienced what we call His love would say that, on the contrary, He frees people, both in the living and in the writing. The limits she has set for us, I would like to argue, are simply not sufficient to contain our experience.

First, a closer look at what she does well. She provides keen insight into how poets attempt to find meaning within the very clay and process of composition itself. And further, she correctly points out that there are no easy or final ontological answers within the borders of that process. This is a crucial notion for us as well, because as Christians, Christian poets, we do the same thing in OUR search for the Truth in the complex situations we write about. It's the very process of composition that allows us a place and mean to myll over life in the darkness of faith in our efforts to make Williams' machine made of words.

And while it is true that a Christian might choose different language to express the same process, St. Paul's phrase "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is the one that always comes to mind for me; but at his or her core, heart, the Christian poet usually engages in exactly the same enterprise. He, like his more secular counterpart, wrestles with language, with meaning as he attempts to apply the Gospel to his work and life, as he struggles to find Jesus in what he is doing. But Hejinian makes the crucial mistake of thinking that that wrestling makes up the entire poetical process for everyone. It does not, at least for the Christian.

For us there is even more "openness." And that "more" can be found, oddly enough, within her very notion of "closure." Faith is the result and the precursor of presence, and the boundaries it provides, along with the Presence make it possible for poets to lyrically express a truth that is purely given. And while this apparent contradiction might seem confining to the uninitiated, it is in reality anything but. It is, rather, freeing in the extreme. A poet can emanate truth, reveal something of God's own heart. he or she can occasionally live in that overwhelmingly illumined peaceful place of absolute Presence, in complete freedom, and, if lucky, he or she can find a "closed" group of words and symbols to express the joy in that experience. This is a paradox, granted. But Christianity is loaded with them.

Moreover, I would argue that this life of faith, this "closed system" is the ONLY place that can offer us this kind of freedom. It's a good place, a joyful place; it's a place so full of joy, in fact, that it has its own subjectively mimetic lyricism; it's a place where the expression of the interior presence, where a given reality can, at times, give actual form to that Life with a capital "L," at least as close as we can get to It given out still, though saved and being-saved, good natures. (It could be convincingly argued, I think, that the only place where "essence" and language perfectly reflect each other, where they become one in fact, is when the word "Jesus" is used to heal someone--the Eucharist being the material manifestation of that union.)

It's interesting to note that there's a delicate irony in Hejinian's perspective here. one could argue that this reality evades Hejinian and many others, at least in part, because they think too much like they might accuse a Christian of thinking, a curious twist considering the title of her essay. Her thought process, upon close inspection, reveals a "closed" either/or tendency which could well be seen to have its roots in Puritanism, whatever spin latter-day Transcendentalists try to put on it. Writing and the spirituality connected with it, for her, provide only two ways: "closure," the bad thing, the place of the damned, or "openness," the good, the place of the elect. For her, if one is unfortunate enough to fall among the "closed" crowd, well, there is not room for him in her heaven. Let me take you through some of her essaygs to show you what I mean.

She says, early on, that "the world" is "vast and overwhelming," that "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete" (653). And while her us of the "certainty" may suggest some hostility toward a perceived Christianity here, I would argue that she is not far from us in this statement. The recorded lives of the saints are full of similar dark night of faith experiences. It would be short-sighted, unchristian of us finally, I think, to dismiss her observations out of hand, as many knee-jerk conservative Catholics would, because they, on he surface, may seem a rather pagan take on the human condition. There is much truth in what she says. How, after all, do we love in every situation we find ourselves in? And how exactly do we make our lives a prayer anyway? Not easy things to answer given the often tangled days within which we find ourselves. We pray, stumble, imitate the saints, do the best we can. And through grace, God turns our lives into something good.

Not that all this uncertainly need get the better of us, of course, nor is it the whole picture. We have a Church to guide us. God, Emmanuel, is with us, in the Eucharist, in the praise He inhabits. And this is precisely where Hejinian misses the boat. She has no concept of the absolute side of things, of God's nature, His presence. For her, longing and language are pretty much all we get. There is no inner separate transcendent reality which can use language to make itself palpable, that seeks to use it to place people in a communion of love. there is only a heavy-footed rummage through a void as the artist searches ponderously for meaning.

"Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual condition" (654), she says. Hejinian clearly is something of a language behaviorist here. Language, the clay, is the only means we get to shape our realities, and one would assume, with those shapes, to "know" anything. That is, what it gives us is the only tools we'll ever wrestle with to find out what it means to be alive. And here, as I feel I must repeatedly emphasize, she's not far from the truth.

"This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of
the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it." (654)

This is well said and certainly accounts for the struggles of any writer who labors through the hard critical work, the discursiveness, the first person spirituality, self-absorbed or otherwise, associated with the craft. But again, these things do not make up the sum of the process. There is an area of pure lyricism available to poets as well, an area in which writing can be animated by, and reflect the surety of the Holy Spirit. And while Hijinian later in her essay does come to an intuited sense of this truer other-centered spirituality, she doesn't really know to contextualize it and leaps to the easiest, most comfortable port in her storm:
As Francis Ponge puts it, 'Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.' Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward. (654)

Drawn though she is toward the real Center of things, she veers off, insists on mistaking the created thing, language, for the One who ultimately deserves credit for giving it form. She does, thankfully, if only for a moment here, move the focus from herself as shaper of the only valuable and provisional meaning possible in her world. And she's right, too, in insisting that language does offer a valuable working place, a place where we can find some tentative solutions to temporal )and therefore temporary) problems. But what she missed is that language can give us so much more than just that. Words, besides offering their own beauty, offer us the closest non-sacramental correspondence possible to who God is. And in the language that praise gives to us, we are free to bask in the cherubs of an attendant joy; we are free to be God's little trumpeters, His holy noise!

To put it baldly, there is no such pervasive good fruit to be found in Hejinian's kind of language materialism. Creatures simply can not offer it. Instead, she's too often only left with club-footed phrases, words like "overwhelming," "uncertainty," "inadequacy," "off-balance," "heavy at the mouth," and "are pulled forward."

And while it's true that we as Christians can experience all that too, it's absolutely vital to note that is not all we get. The very fact that we, not to mention language, are not the center of our lives is ultimately a cause for celebration among us, not heavy-mouthed despair. We need and are grateful--gartitude is the mother of joy--for God's response: revelation, direction. and that's what makes us wax lyrical. Gratitude moves in us and the right words can be there, at least for that portion of the process. this is the half that Hejinian misses.

Again, I don't want to give the impression that language is all roses for the Christian poet. It is not. There is much tearing that goes on--and language bites back. But it would be an even greater crime to leave the giver of the gifts available unacknowledged. With Him comes a grateful spirit, and with that, praise, unreflective poetic movement; God Himself can dance on bright waters. And it is in those moments when words, purely given (almost purely taken), can appear, because it is in that place, if only for those moments, that can finally feel Integrity, Wholeness. We are able to respond with our whole beings, as free and nearly complete men and women; we are able to almost perfectly express that. That given state doesn't last, of course. heaven can not be totally here, or yet. But it is, as some saints have said, all the way there as well.

There is no corresponding joy in Hijinian. She has nothing to be that grateful for. There is only the language, for her, a suit with nothing in it but a fine weave of cloth. Granted, that's a fine thing. But for the Christian, that's only one of its properties. Language is the timbrel and harp, and in the hands of a Christian it can reflect that "still point," that fleeting moment of ecstatic repose that is a promise as well as a partial fulfillment. Hejininia misses that.

"Language itself is never in a state of rest" (654), she claims. And she's right, at least a good deal of the time. Language has a fluid quality that makes it marvelously tactile. It can help us work through the stuff of our daily lives. It can help us come to tentative meaning, closer to Meaning, yes, and we should be thankful for that. And because we are not medievalists or Puritans, we can appreciate its more-then-symbolic properties as we would any gift. It is a thing to be enjoyed. there is the pure joy of childhood here, as there is in any gift, a joy Hejinian can never really fully appreciate, I would argue, because she can never stop along the side of the road, because she keeps mistaking language for God. "The 'rage to know,'" to use her words, "is one expression of restlessness produced by language" (655).

She's so hard after meaning on her own terms, in fact, that she misses the fun. And though she has an intuited sense that the Knowable might be had in a more spiritual realm, she doesn't quite know how to get there. The extent to which this is so can be found in her description of how the very real sense of absence inherent in the discursive or self-ish use of language pushes us toward meaning. "The knowledge towards which we seem to be driven by language, or which language seems to promise, is inherently sacred as well as secular, redemptive as well as satisfying" (655). I would have used "reflects" rather than "seems to promise," but she's not far from the kingdom. She actually values the redemption at some deeper level.

But what really surprised me in all of this was how she manages to refute the real redemption through her discussion of language. She does so by playing the Puritan, the stereotypical Calvinist! Like the American Transcendentalists who came before her, whose zealous banner she continues to raise, she can't shake who she is reacting against. She's as much a Puritan as Whitman:

"The NOMINA SIN NUMINA position (i.e., that there is an essential identity between name and thing, that the real nature of a thing is immanent and present in its name, that nouns are numinous) suggests that it is possible to find a language which will meet its object with perfect identity. If this were the case, we could, in speaking or writing, achieve the at-oneness with the universe, at least in its particulars, that is the condition of paradise, or complete and perfect knowing--or of perfect mental health." (655)

This is classic either/or thinking, the kind we would excoriate our Freshman Composition students for engaging in. but here she embraces it with both arms. Either one is "saved," completely and forever from the dunghill of the her nature, or such a thing is not possible. (Here, as with so much of the criticism regarding Christianity in American literature, this stereotypical Calvinist notion is taken as the defining Christian position!) Amazing! We are fallen, yes, but we still sin. But that does not mean we are not well-intentioned now, nor does it mean we were without some good--the natural law, in itself an expression of a salvageable nature--before. We, as St. Paul says, will continue to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling" for the rest of our lives because in the attempt to apply Christ's saving work in our lives we still fall so often. this does not mean we need to scupulously examine our every movement as a Puritan might. No. Rather what we do need to be aware of it our need for a continuing grace, mercy. And as St. Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight. We can't depend on our sense to ascertain anything. What we can do, rather, is be confident because of who God is, because of how He is. Really, would you give your child a stone if he asked for a fish? All this is cause for even more praise. Poets can come as close to that perfection as grace and talent and openness will allow them as it changes their lives, and to the degree that they ask a love Father for that perfection. But that doesn't mean that every word will reflect a continually experienced personal paradise. Nor does it mean that writers will lose their stories in the process either. Rather, each individual and pitched personal story serves to magnify the Lord in every person's telling. We can rejoice because God continues to show us such mercy, all the while giving us abundant life in the process.

All this is nowhere in Hijinian. She, rather, having thus short-circuited her own direct search for meaning with the either/or fallacy, leaves herself no option but to seek her naming, structures, where she can not so perfectly find them. Her context remains spiritual, yes: Benjamin Lee "Whorf goes on," she says, "to express what seems to be stirrings of a religious motivation: 'what I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense.' There is a a 'PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown vaster world'" (656), but she has given up on sign posts--fallen creature that she is--and predictably, soon begins to wander all over the road.

Instead of realizing that the center is a redemptive God, the One who gives all things meaning as well as identity, she, as I have said, focuses on the created thing itself, its potential: language and what the process involved in using it can never, by her own admission, adequately reveal.

What she doesn't seem to realize is that finding what matter in life, in language, is not a matter of choosing some self-serving sense of "openness" over an equally skewed notion of closure. It comes only through the ruthless pursuit of truth. We can love the Absolute, live in that love, in, at time, that praise, and we an enjoy the gift of language, purely, in ways that are ecstatic. But we have to apply what Love teaches us in our lives as well; and we have to do so often in "fear and trembling." Both aspects are part of the Christian experience. Hejinian, chooses rather, for her part, to be true to only what she can generate, sense.

She speaks about the potentially curative language theories of French feminists, yokes them with the spiritual "rage to know," which for her is "In many respects a libidinous drive," one which "seeks also a redemptive value from language" (656). In short, she tries to help initiate a newer Pelagianisitic Solipsism, a more comfy revelation. She quotes Elaine Marks.

"The project for these French feminist writers is to direct their attention to 'language and the unconscious, not as separate entities, but language as a passageway, and the only one, to the unconscious, to that which has been repressed and which would, if allowed to rise, disrupt the established symbolic order, which Jacques Lacan has dubbed the law of the Father.' "(qtd. in Hejinian 656)

Each to his or her own evangelization, gospel, no question. But it's important to map the distinctions. These folks would judge the Gospel by psychological or political theories, not the other way around. This is a fundamental flaw and is based on a misunderstanding regarding the human condition. They, like other Enlightenment folk, believe they can perfect themselves without the aid of revelation. And beyond even that, were one to look on a purely physical sense level, there is another, more direct consideration: which offers the better fruit?

Hejinian pulls back from making the rage to know quite so blatantly sexual as the French writers in question seem to, but it's clear whose ax she's grinding and in which direction she intends to aim it. No surprises there.

It becomes a matter ultimately, I think, of do you want the truth or do you want yourself, do you want God or do you falsely want to be Him. It's something we all have to fight with in one way or another, whatever side of this fence we happen to be sitting on. You can see this struggle in Hejinian when she makes an attempt to line up with "avant-garde" writers. (I don't know about your experience, but no one I know could ever get away with actually using that expression seriously: "the avant-garde." Cream pies have always been in order.) Hejinian, however, has no such qualms; she tells us in the most serious tones that

"What is striking to me . . . was that the kinds of language that many of these writers advocate seems very close to, if not identical with, what I think of as characteristic of many contemporary avant-garde texts--including an interest in syntactic disjunctions and realignments, in montage and pastiche as structural devices, in the fragmentation and explosion of subject, etc., as well as an antagonism to closed structures." (657)

This concern with limits, being on the edge of things brings mind some comment I heard by a fellow named Miller on PBS concerning the difference between Mozart and Salieri. The gist of his comments went something like this. Salieri was always concerned with being original, and because of that, he never was. Mozart, on the other hand, never gave it a thought. It also brings Pound to mind--his comments about innovators and imitators.

All this, again, in not to dismiss Jejinain. (We all have to wrestle with out egos.) When it comes to language and the ordinary, she has much to say:

"In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceived there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world--to close the gap between ourselves and things, and we suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language itself." (658)

She's on the money here. (I think of Eliot's complaint in THE FOUR QUARTETS.) Whatever our poetic high points, our moments of infused contemplative experience with the God who made heaven and earth, who is absolutely holy, who is the same "yesterday, today, and forever," knuckleheads that we are, we still have to work out our day-to-day salvations in the present moment, with all the uncertainly that entails. As poets we still have to marshall our critical abilities, make tough choices, go with faith to where th process leads us.

It would be a mistake to fall into the stereotypical Calvinist trap ourselves. What is missing in our experience as we wait and work for heaven, after all, allows us work and the good room to do it in. And as we do so, we will "discover," in her words, "structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things" (658) in a way that those who don't believe in an absolute Lord never, in my opinion, really can. That, along with the personal gratitude that comes from it, is our gift to give. I can only hope that all of the marvelous Christian poets I have been fortunate enough to work with, can add something of this Absolute sense of god in their, in many cases, breath-taking ruminations on the "fear and trembling" level. Many already have. I think Denise Levertov, Luci Shaw, Richard Wilbur, perhaps some Kelly Cherry--I'm sure there are many others. After all, if we don't speak the Gospel, who will?

May 12, 2010

Here's a paper I gave a few summers ago at the West Chester Poetry Festival.

A review of Marjorie Maddox's WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL

In George Walton Williams' introduction to his 1970 edition of THE COMPLETE POETRY OF RICHARD CRASHAW, he begins with a startling sentence: "Richard Crashaw may be considered the most un-english of all the English poets." And later on in that same paragraph he points out that Eliot, still something of a cultural force at that time, similarly found Crashaw's style "fundamentally foreign to the spirit of English poetry." I bring up these observations for two reasons. Firstly, I think Crashaw's "A Hymn to Sainte Teresa" may well be the most exquisite mystical poem in our language, not a good sign than if it is un-English and, perhaps by extension, un-American; that is, if it is something we cannot of simply choose not to do--write mystical sacramental poetry which actually includes the body. And secondly, I think those sentences and what follows in this review will help me to demonstrate that the largely incestuous American literary Christian party generally speaking simply will not embrace poetry which actually points out that God has a pretty traditional notion of sin, nor that he makes serious demands on His people.
Marjorie Maddox's latest book, WEEKNIGHTS AT THE CATHEDRAL, is in many ways a tonic for this kind of religious block-headedness. She offers up a poetry which moves in the direction of the body, a poetry which stands up for the whole truth of the gospel. As a result, though, as a Catholic now--she has just converted, she will probably never get invited to "Prairie Home Companion," "Fresh Air," or "All Things Considered," nor will her faithful work ever get published by "The Atlantic," "Poetry," Norton, or HarperCollins, she will have the gratitude of many earnest and genuine pilgrims. (WordTech editions, a smaller, bolder press gets the credit here.)
Crashaw's poetry, my primary example, includes the body--in spades; it is profoundly and authentically Catholic in that regard. In fact, it finds its most exalted mystical utterance when speaking from a place where mind and body are, in fact, one. Great overt American Protestant verse, generally speaking, while it can be very good--think of religious poets as diverse as Richard Wilbur and Luci Shaw's--seems to spring from a cultural sensibility which reveals itself more through both an exalted, disembodied intellect and a concern for blessed perserverence-of-the-saints conduct than it does through a contemplation of mysticism wich is centered in the body.
And just to give you two other more extreme example of that sensibility which places a very high value on disembodies intellect and blessed conduct, though neither have to do with poetry directly, allow me to point out David L. Edwards' narrative voice in JOHN DONNE, MAN OF FLESH AND SPIRIT and the main preacher character in GILEAD, Marilyn Robinson's justly-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel (in this latter case versus say Greene's THE POWER AND THE GLORY). Both speakers are as moral as God, or darned close: admirable, people you would like your children to grow up and be like in many ways, and yet, as I read the books, I couldn't imagine actually having a beer with either person. One would have to run out of the bar. Each lives so far above the body, in a place so full of "coulds" and "shoulds" that it might prove exhausting just to try and get a belly laugh out of either.
And if one were to compare those largely admirable sensibilities to someone truly embodied, radically sacramentalized like, say, St. Benedict Labre, he'd have to scratch his head, ask: where would this flea-bitten saint, this Christian loser come down on the conduct scale? Would he pass the "We are blessed" test" I don't think so. And neither would St. Theresa of Avila come to think of it. She was an odd bird as well: an introvert, a contemplative; she longed for martyrdom even as a child, actually marched away to find the Moors. She'd be under McCarthy-like suspicion in literary America, I think: she just didn't behave in a socially acceptable liberal, Christian or secular, way. And yet, as we look at Teresa's life, at these lines in Crashaw's poem about her, we see someone who was much MORE human than most of us are, someone who had been truly set apart, but always within a feeling, important body:
Blest powers forbid, Thy tender life
Should bleed upon a barborous knife;
Or some base hand have power to race
Thy Brest's cabinet, and uncase
A soul kept there so sweet o no'
Wise heaven will never have it so.
Thou are love's victim; and must dy
A death more mystical and high.
Into love's armes thou shalt let fall
A still-surviving funeral.
Crashaw then drives the message physically, painfully home.
O how oft shalt thou complain
Of a sweet and subtle Pain.
Of intolerable joyes;
Of a Death, in which who dyes
Loves his death, and dyes again.
And would fo ever so be slain.
And lives, and dyes; and knows not why
To live, but that he thus may never leave to dy.
How kindly will thy gentle heart
Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!
The saint longed for the excruciating experience, because, as Catherine Doherty has put, pain, rightly understood, is the kiss of Christ. Teresa understood that. Most of us don't. She was an embodied person who would've agreed with Doherty's exhortation that each Christian needs to learn to "fold the wings of his intellect," to experience life holistically, sacramentally. Or, to put that idea into the words the larger scope and goal of St. Theophane the Recluse: "The principal thing is to stand before God, with your mind in your heart, day and night, until the end of your life." (No one of "Fresh Air" or "prairie Home Companion" does this.)
Crashaw achieves this in these great lines. His character lives and breathes where she thinks. there is no "dissociation of sensibility" in the words of Eliot--something he himself could not avoid, brilliant though his work is.
And that brings us to Maddox, a fine Christian poet whose overtly religious work seems to occupy a position part way home. (As I say, she became A Catholic shortly after this book was published.) The poetry in this book is marvelously metaphysical, both as far as technique and sensibility goes. She places a great deal of stock in the embodied spiritual life, too, mostly when she's feeling joy and repentance--though, thankfully she doesn't limit herself to those. And even if she doesn't examine deeply-rooted, embodied sin or a mysticism which includes the body to the degree we might want, still, we should remember that it is not yet her rhetorical project to do so. She writes to bring the light of the Absolute Christ to the literary masses, and has justly had much success in doing so. Her poems are often very funny, too, revealing as they do a profound knowledge of the human condition; they hit squarely home because she knows who and what we are, and she knows who and how God is--what He demands from us.
The conduct part, no surprise, is very much in evidence here as well: she is well-behaved, has a healthy psyche and well-directed will--it would be silly to speak of such thing in a negative light. She may, in fact, be as close as our Contemporary Puritanically-soaked American culture and publishing world (secular or sacred) can get to offering a fully embodied Christian voice, one that recognizes both sides of the Christian experience: on the one hand, justice issues and the moral nuances involved in any healthy relationship, and on the other, the awe-ful holiness of the living God, the black-and-white demands He makes on his people. To her immense credit, she realizes that the real trick in pilgrimage is not to find a place for God within a secular perspective, but rather, to attempt to turn our self-serving perspectives into Christ-centered spiritual ones.
This takes courage. After all, will the more powerful literary world ever accept a vision which in any way indicts it? Probably not. Still, she stays her admirable course: she never neglects the absolute holiness and demands of God--as so many horizontally-obsessed Christian poets seem to do.
The first section of this book is wonderfully direct in revealing what it's up to In fact, her whole project is nicely summed up in the title of the first offering: "How to fit God into a Poem." Here she's at her comic and metaphysical best, doing what she can to take the reality of Jesus and church to a very dim world. Part I begins with this stanza:
Read him
Break him into stanzas.
Give him a pet albatross
and a bon voyage party.
Glue achetypes on his wings with Elmers,
or watch as he soars part the Slough of Despond
in a DC-lO.
The approach is very typical, canny. We get Coleridge, Jung, and Bunyon, all alluded to in a very funny stanza. What secular person could object: the thing is so absurdly apt. Imagine: God, in the present postmodern age! He does not fit--but wait. He's never fit before either. Bunyon wrote his poem in jail, and Coleridge, Christian though he was, could only struggle to formulate a way to get Christ into his life, or was that his life into Christ? The Jung reference serves a slightly different purpose. It demonstrates to the reader that this in no knee-jerk fundamentalist Christian poet. Depth psychology is embraced, as is the contemporary world, including postmodern poetic concerns: "Break him into stanzas." Clearly Maddox's goal her is to move as far away from Stevens' "high-toned Christian woman" as she can, and in doing so, away from what any editor might ruefully expect in the way of cliche Christianity. She turns the expected on its head, and does so with metaphysical humor, regularity. What other poet, after all, would yoke "the Rime of the Ancient Mariner" with a "bon voyage party," Bunyon's "Slough of Despond" with a jet?
Maddox's method is clear: present Jesus in a way that says yes to what we are, stopping the reader in his tracks as she does so by insisting that these Christian poems resist the cliche. Other examples can be found throughout the poem: most people might expect the traditionally religious poet to be conservative, a formalist. But Maddox will have none of that. Speaking of God, she derisively says, "Cram him into iambic pentameter"; and then to show us she is not literary snob: "publish him annually/in the new yorker"! (In the next poem she brings in Richard Simmons! Remember that guy!)
God plays trick or treat, hide-and-go-seek in these poems. He goes fishing, He walks a tightrope. And why wouldn't he? She's clearly having fun, but her mind is always engaged as she's doing so, snackling with noise, like it's charged with static electricity. Near the end of the section, for example, she shifts gears a bit on her reader. She moves from talking about God to talking about angels. and for a very good reason--because any attempt to put in a box must necessarily fail. This shift emphasizes this point because these angels are not theologically correct angels. They are, rather, her very self-consciously produced, slightly oddball poetic creations. They are, to put it another way, quite literally, he imagination, her self on the page. In fact, she comically merges with them, presenting a world of imperfect praise because that is all the language will finally allow her to do. (In smaller letters, she co-creates the world and finds it good!)
And the angels are delighted to find this imperfection. consider one of them wo ends up in the women's section of a department store.
You try on a bra that's too big and charge it.
Shaking hands with girdle-clad mannequins,
you saunter from aisle to aisle,
dressing room to dressing room.
Naked, you stand before mirrors
searching for stretch mark.
You press pale hands against breasts and smile.
Since the angels here are so obviously products of her imagination, they give her part of the stage: the two of them, angel and woman poet, are one created fictional person. And by moving in this way to angels/herself, again, she accomplishes two things: firstly, she has necessarily distanced herself from any claim to absolute theological accuracy and perception, and secondly, she has emphasized the process itself. All this writing is an exercise in searching as well as finding after all.
I once heard an Archbishop say that the angels must envy us because they cannot love a God who is invisible to them. they cannot offer Him that gift. And so though we may be a lower order, Maddox is emphasizing, too, that ours is a good (if fallen) one. Our sad and imperfect bodies are beautiful for the same reason that our lives are. We are imperfect, but we are a created order, just like the angels, though unlike them we have an advantage in that we can migrate toward God! So here Maddox, a mother herself, rejoices in her journey, her own flawed body, the once she begins to thoroughly inhabit, stretch marks and all.
The second section is big fun as well. It is composed of mostly personal poems which then slide into overtly metaphysical ones about the high Protestant sacramental life. In the first poem of the section, entitled "Weeknights at the Cathedral," the name she's given to the whole collection, she gathers us, the body of Christ, into the text. The characters in this particular narrative are a soprano boy who can't sing, a priest who suffers through every minute of that, and a beggar woman in the fourth pew. Which are you? Which is Christ? All of them of course. And this is a note she sounds often in the collection. We are where we start with our charity: "love your neighbors as yourselves." And who is every beggar we ever meet by Christ, a Christ who is also miraculously present in an absolute, palpable way in us, in His Mystical body, in the now. All all of this is delivered with the earnestness of a believer who realizes the extent of her/our need. This isn't Sunday at the cathedral, after all, it's "weeknights."
In the second poems of the section, she delightfully moves against Stein (Gertrude, not Edith) in her praise of a comma, here found in the "Apostle's Creed": "of all that is, seen and not seen." It's a very nice poem. Like Paul, we know that "we walk by faith and not by sight." And we know too that to hurry anywhere is a mistake in the spiritual life; we need to live in God's infused contemplative presence. The first step in any spiritual wealk, after all, is always learning how to stand, and still.
Maddox is still strongly Protestant, too here, in a good way. Her poems reveal the strong will of a healthy person, a sense of decorum too. These poems have good posture. And she's a nice, almost equal mix of the two sensibilities: the intellectual Protestant and the contemplative Catholic.
Throughout the collection, two things remain constant: Maddox is an orthodox Christian, and she knows how to write outside the expected Christian box. She usually does so, as I have noted earlier, employing humor, but not always. there are other edges as well. Look at the two poems about abortion. These are entitled "Dread Is the Language by Which We Disguise Our Deeds" and "The Third Day of Christmas." Both poems are written from contemporary woman's point of view--something of a surprise in itself (Doesn't she ever want to win a Pulitzer?)--and take on society's sick and pressing need to divest itself of its children.
In the first poem "Dread" may be a typo for "Dead"--or it may not. It's no secret that we have to kill language in most instances before we kill innocent people (or savages):
. . . the two dead children alive
again for the ten seconds it takes to read
in newsprint the absence of their breath

a mistake of transposition
A Down's Syndrome child is mistakenly identified, and her "healthy" twin is aborted first. the correction, happy day, is made, and now everybody can be normal again:
. . . the mis-filed, the not-
chosen, the-accidentally-left--
for, inconveniently worded, dead.
The anger is just, and the pome accurate in its way--since the actual dead have been so for some time, walking around like that, trying to have perfect children.
How can one be too angry here? As the father of a lovely Down's boy, I can't express the extent of cultural sickness completely enough. If you want to know joy, have a Down's child. You can take that sweet and wide chubby hand in yours, cross the street for many, many years if you're lucky.
To Maddox's credit, she's fierce here. And she doesn't stop with the elimination of "imperfect" children. She bemoans the act itself, for any reason:
In Rama there is weeping,
in Charleston, in Bismark,
in Portland, in Trenton,
in Pittsburgh, in New Orleans,
in Santa Rose, in the thin sac that holds us
from heaven. . . .
This is very bold, and welcome--especially gratifying from someone who's so set on reaching the popular culture.
Maddox knows there is only one way to be saved: "the icons waiting" as she says at the end of "The Episcopal Priest Cleans Out His Office." We know the truth and must wait of It, live a life of self-sacrifice which is love. This is what we are all called to do; this is the nature of love, both human and divine.
I must say, again as well, that I really enjoyed Maddox's healthy Protestant sense of self, will in these poems. they brought sister's Wendy's painting videos to mind. At the beginning of the one of the Renaissance, the good nun tells us that the period really begin with Masaccio. And as she looks at his picture of Adam and Eve being turned out of Eden, or rather, turning themselves out, she tells us that here is the Renaissance: "Humanity, as upright, suffering but responsible." That's Maddox. she asserts, has a will to believe. A short poem, "The Existence of," demonstrates as much:
It has nothing to do with moon.
Even a sliver of night punched out
is you looking through
from something not-quite day.
A slow blink. A slice of sleep.
An opening into Eden. A closing.
It lasts as long as the earth
drips from your fingertips,
was once said to be good
by you. What it is
not is the line that divides,
the wrong edge of belief,
the thread of horizon I wake to
when everything is gray.
The poems have a strong Protestant feel, though they are too lively, technically interesting and body-centered to be boring. Look at the striking metaphysical imagery in "Substantiation":
Such swallowing of limbs,
ingestion of veins, begins again in us
his resurrection, the rough
rock of our unworthiness
rolled away
on the red carpet
of tongue.
Or "Concomitance":
Nailed now in our throats,
miracle and man stirred
into morsel and sip,
his Lama Sabachthani's flatten
the bricks of our teeth,
rend in twain our tongues,
commission our lips to leave
bleeding for more.

And of course there is always the humor. Christ eclipses all our sorry expectations. You can get a sense of that just by looking at some of the titles in the third section: "Fiacra, Patron Saint of Cab Drivers," "Patron Saints of Baseball," "Vitus, Patron Saint of Comedians," "Nicholas of Myra, Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers."
This is where we live, in a Nazareth where we find our lives--inside our good and fallen bodies; in the ordinary, yes, but in a world which also offers us enough joy, humor and chances at repentance to make the days "abundant," exquisitely worthwhile. After all, that IS why Dante called this crazed pilgrimage THE COMEDY.

April 6, 2010

Welcome to THE SLUMDOG SCHOOL OF CATHOLIC POETICS--a necessity, given the old money wanna-be purveyors of false Catholic mahogany culture everywhere in evidence.

How to recognize the virus:

If you are drawn to an authentic blue-collar (edged) Catholic poetic while others have either joined the squishy secularized herd or cling to a notion of prosody that is no longer fully alive;
If you come from lower-middle stock or have a friend or relative who has, or if you've actually worked with your hands at some point in your life;
If watching 2 hrs. of consecutive talk shows on EWTN would constitute torture for you;
If you actually like the "Who-ville" quality of the English-speaking Mass, some contemporary liturgical music;
If you are wary of Catholic cultural (pizza) money, doilies and glass cathedrals in general;
If you've ever--with head held high--bought kitchen plastics (or anything else) from Walmart;
If Catholic sycophantic literary mags, east coast intellectual privilege make you want to hurl;
If you distrust MFA programs and the content police, and if you try to hold a faithful course;
If you have withstood the Catholic home-school fashion mongers;
If hearing Chesterton's poetry read aloud makes you want to hurt yourself;
If you profoundly distrust the generic Catholic Renaissance/great books/back-to-the-land "I am the orthodox answer" man;
If you are a theologian or catechist who likes Harry Potter or Thomas Merton, or a historian who doesn't much care for Dawson (honorary membership);
If you've ever read ON THE ROAD, hitch-hiked, or are not sure what the second fork next to the dinner plate is for;
If you've read a book of poetry published after 1962, or if you've ever thought of living in a commune;
If you've ever feel like the Catholic barbarian at the gates--and were thankful;
If you find many conservative Catholics tiresome, still communicate with liberal writers because they have more welcoming souls;
If you don't confuse deconstruction with the devil;
In short, if you can keep your head while all about you are stuffing theirs with straw;
If you will not be deterred, either by "originality" or by "tradition";
Then, then you'll be a "main" my son (to quote James Brown).

March 21, 2010

Just a quick word. Dane's book THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT does deal with the blues--I've just been looking it over! Though given the sub-title, I doubt he'll mention Whitman: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO EUROPEAN VERSIFICATION SYSTEMS. On the other hand, the Blues are American.

Can one really talk music without the gorilla in the middle of this hemisphere's living room banging on his drum? In any case, I look forward to the read, despite the Turco-ese introductory posings: "Boy, aren't you guys lucky I came along." (Big boat, I know.)

March 18, 2010

Just saw 9 over break. "My people perish for lack of vision." Isn't there some verse like that? Though Burton and the boys try to save their show with four spirits giving up the ghost to green up humanity near the end. And why attack the Church anyway? It had nothing to do with the whole science/inhumanity thingy. But this one dogmatic doll who's taken control wears a steepled hat, has a miter, and for some reason has set up shop in an old church whose angelic stain-glass windows haven't been blown out by the world-wide rage. Ah, Hollywood!

It makes me think that when the wave of great Christian fantasy comes, it's going to blow this weak stuff out of the water.

Keep writing, people.
American Poetry, just past the midterm. We're using Lehman's OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN POETRY, and it's okay for the most part--if you don't count the Merton gaff. It's kind of amazing who he has in here in that light: a march of postmodern trivia.

Bradstreet is always a joy. The Mother of American poetry indeed, who delivers a kind of humility we never really see again. On the one hand, I think that's the trouble with the feminist influence--it's tough for even believing women to embrace humility (in the face of injustice). And here I'm thinking of all the believing women poets whom I like. But on the other hand, men don't do so well with that either. And what excuse do we have? I think Bradstreet's "Before the Birth of One of Her Children" is a great, great poem. It's embodies that humility, but there's also just a tender affection for her spouse: Aquinas's deep friendship.

The funny thing about the Bradstreet entry is that Lehman has Berryman comment on her. Is that a little like Daffy Duck commenting on Chopin? Overstated a bit, perhaps, but the editor does that a lot. Later Yvor Winters comments on someone else, I forget whom. If Mary Karr is right about Lowell (Who reads him now?), how much more could we say the same thing about Winters, who certainly made up for any shortage of critical acclaim by striking up his own brass band. (Big boat there, of course, captain . . . arg.)

Taylor is harsh, ok, and Freneau brings Burroughs and Dillard, that peculiar and wonderful brand of American nature writing to mind. But after Bradstreet, not much goes on until Wally. The (fireside) poets, those of the three names: Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Poe, and Lowell always remind me of today's politically-charged poetical landscape. A heightened civil mediocrity, patrolled by the content police. Great poetry, but written in an accepted way, with an accepted POV, poetry that probably will not stand because of that fact. "The company of poets," as Boland puts it. Could you imagine Wordsworth saying that--at least speaking of the living in those terms?

(Which reminds me, I went to conference on Christianity & Literature this last weekend, and I wonder why people so take to Seamus Heaney. For a man bred near the bogs, there doesn't seem to be a lot of depth to him.)

But back to America, I liked Poe this time, at least in his "fairy" poems. He fits nicely there, into that whole fantasy wave. (Like Jerry Lewis, his value to the French is probably what most sets him apart.)

Whitman is the nine hundred pound gorilla that sits in every formalist's living room. I just picked up Dane's THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT, A PRACTICAL GUIDE OF EUROPEAN VERSIFICATION, something I want to read before doing Poetic Forms again. But Wally influence is (justly) ignored here--since it's the Euro. But a quote on the back got me. Seth Lerer, who I think has done some nice work for the Teaching Company, says" ". . . Students of literature, and of creative writing, need to understand that verbal expression is not the unmediated release of sensibility but the crafted and highly nuanced organization of that sensibility in forms." He can be right, if the student wants to go the old world way. But I always stress Whitman and the Americas, plural, because no one has had a greater influence in the Western Hemisphere than Wally: Mr. Release of Sensibility. Mr. Lerer, who comes across in his audios as something of a squish should be horrified that he is on the side of privileged colonialists here! (Strike out the Beats, all blue-collar usurpers of culture!)

As for myself, I love formal poetry, (though I am against it personally--no, no, I've got that wrong. I mean I'm against anything that would hurt me in any way personally. No. . . no, oh cue the clone.)

I've work with forms, mostly with the one most abused: the sonnet. And along with many others, I would argue that free verse is just harder to write. One never knows if he's done enough in a line, or too much. There are no markers.

I always tell my students that poems are like people. You have to take them one at a time. It doesn't matter what kind of poem the thing is; if it brings us joy on both the form and content level, we should rejoice.

In the class, we got Tuckerman and Very in there before Emmy. Tuckerman is beautiful, a deflated romantic, a dazzlingly good formalist, but there isn't much new to him, so he's generally given a second rung. And Very is fun, a real religious wack job, on the Calvinist el-train. (I bet he was Republican "in spirit.")

Dickinson is always a delight: "I taste a liquor never brewed" and "There's a certain slant of light!" are two of my favorites, though there are so many. She would've made a great Catholic. (Think how it would have irritated her family.)

Master, Sandburg, Robinson. Eh. Critics from Harvard always try to blow up Robinson, and he's okay; but the tube won't hold the air. He's just not that interesting.

And then to the moderns! HA! Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot. America: "flexibility," to quote Dana Carey. Great poets do so many things. Lesser poets do less. I think of Chesterton and H. G. Wells. They do what they set out to do, and that's a good. But Frost and James, they go on! Jeffers I like a lot too. He's fun. There's a real depth to him, a bass resonance. Akin to sacramentality, maybe more than all the modernist greats--except late Stevens. Which raises a question, "Is America too Puritan to have much depth in its poetry?"

We often do a quick classroom dip into Loy, H. D., though we didn't get there this semester. I won't do Stein, even though I probably should. (Outside of her Pound quote, I don't find her worth my time: "Ezra is the village explainer, which is okay, if you're a village.") Besides, she's just the first of many. We'll pick up all that stuff when we get to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry.

We ended the time before break with the Harlem Renaissance. Mr. Lerer, does the blues have form, or form enough?

February 8, 2010

Contemporary Christian Fiction has been a real eye-opener so far. We started off with O'Connor, Spark and Powers: three great Catholic short story writers. I like to do "The Geranium" and "Judgment Day" together since the second is a rewrite of the first, an attempt to move beyond God as purely reactor (see her letters). "The Portobello Road" and "Prince of Darkness" are also part of the biannual fun. But then we did Ann Rice, her ROAD TO CANA. Great for discussion. She has zeal, faith, and earnestness, plus I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to more from the density of more academic prose--though the three above are nowhere as painfully self-conscious as so many of the Iowa/Carver MFA types can be--to Rice's rich and airy style. Very poetic, beautiful, and nothing was lost really. Depth of perception, James' "lived life."

The rich part of that experience was seminar discussion. How she sees scripture, the deposit of faith and tradition all came up--no surprise. After all, theologically she's a squish, big-time, is basically defending her son's sinful homosexual lifestyle in the book. I say sinful for a reason--besides the fact that any premarital sex is so. The biggest failings in the book are 1) just what her sense of sin is, and 2) how she perceives Jesus. In the first case, she's a typical Obama, Winfrey, Keith K (my cousin) self-regulating kind o' guy. "Step aside church, I'll figure this out." Stating it baldly, for her, sin is anything that goes against the PC code. So taking issue with homosexuality or extra-marital sex or abortion would constitute the sins of homophobia, a repressed psyche, and misogyny.

Praise God for the Church--the real (and entire) Roman Catholic Church, the magisterium.

The second failing has to do with Jesus. She actually does a nice job of presenting Him in many ways. He's given to wisdom, not learning. He has a zeal for the Father's house, and he takes great pains not to hurt people, even if the expected response would not have appeared sinful. But I kept waiting for the power of God to show up in her Jesus. Maybe after He discovers that His time has arrived (with His fourth public miracle--at Cana!). But nope, Jesus is a squish, made in her own image. "We'll let the road surprise us!"


It got sad for me. What is the Eucharist if not to power of God breaking into the physical word, doing violence to it because He is God and wants to literally feed us. Jesus is heaven, He is power.

This became very clear for me when I was working on some sonnets based on the Gospel of Matthew. If you pay very close to the language of those passages, all you'll hear is power. No one has ever spoken like that, no one else has ever built the portico of heaven in words. And He just uses words like "fish" and "wind" and "God" and "love." It is a stunning piece of work--I know that's obvious to the informed, but how often do we miss that? Rice and the Hollywood squishies certainly have. Robinson too.

But I don't want to make this political. I'm no Bushie, republican. I grew up in Cleveland, in a union home, so I'm familiar with their solid critique of Glenn Beck and Co. If you don't think the poor matter you're just not paying attention.

GILEAD is a fine book, too, though I'm only 100 or so pp. in at this time. But it fails to comprehend the power of Jesus as well, probably because squishy Protestants (and non-squishies) don't have the Eucharist. What a great loss that is! I also object to the Quaker feel of the thing. My time at the Earlham School of Religion showed me that Quack-ers are in the main people with great heart, people with a real concern for the victims of war. But the down side of that is that they also could get pretty smug about it. (As I suppose is natural for anyone who wants to point to themselves as they dictate morality.) A liberal purtian take in the end: we elect, you not.

We all have our own sins, of course, but the last thing any of us wants to do is make Jesus the less because of that.

Anyway, it's been fun. I look forward to seeing what the students have to say about Robinson's richly poetic text.

January 1, 2010

Words for me in the new year:

Sirach 51: 23-30

Come close to me, you ignorant,
take your place in my school.
Why complain about lacking these things
when you souls are so thirsty for them?
I have opened my mouth, I have said:
'Buy her without money,
put your necks under her yoke,
let your souls receive instruction,
she is near, within your reach.'
See for yourselves: how slight my efforts have been
to win so much peace.
Buy instruction with a large sum of silver,
thanks to her you will gain much gold.
May your souls rejoice in the mercy of the Lord,
may you never be ashamed of praising him.
Do your work before the appointed time
and at the appointed time he will give you your reward.

"Within your reach" or in another version "near at hand." What is necessary to live a fasted life is always so close, isn't it? Get out of the chair, help, or don't eat something: the little thing, always the little thing, because that is all we get.

My God bless us. May we live like John XXIII did, in simplicity and humility, obedient.

"Put your neck under her yoke."