Once or twice a year I notice the Church picking up its binoculars and scanning the cluttered horizon, looking for Christian poets. For the moment that the search is going on, it is made to look almost urgent. Up until the time that I began really writing poetry I used to busy myself periodically in the same little ritual. Whack through the underbrush of the little magazines, professor, and see if you can find some poets who are on our side. But why? I confess that I understand less and less what this search is all about.
Now that I’m out there in the underbrush with thousands of other published poets, I want to get some focus on the flow of energies among three troubled landscapes: poetry, the Church, and the world in which we live.
I don’t think the Church seriously wants “Christian poetry”—except in the rather vain way in which it is pleased to display a little Christian anything in a secular world. How can we judge its sincerity? Well, look, if you say you want Japanese food, you must first want food; if you want a three-power microscope with oil-immersion lens, it is implied that you already have some working interest in microscopes and what they can do. Likewise, if the Church wants Christian poets, it should be apparent that the Church is tuned to the vision of poetry generally, and finds poetry valuable in its rendering of human experience. But it is not at all apparent to me that this is so.
I know that poetry does have that kind of value. It broadens and deepens human experience. I’m going to promote that argument further along. Right now I only want to question how seriously the Church is looking and longing for its poets.
There are isolated exceptions, but generally the Church gets its data about the world from political machinery, the press, and the social sciences—very little of it from the arts. This is expected; it is the way our culture is structured. We mistrust the creative imagination; if we deal with the products of the imagination at all, we deal with them as cultural ruffles, diversions, nice fancy desserts. Let’s be honest: most of us who read CHRISTIANITY TODAY wouldn’t know a good poem, not even a good “Christian poem,” if we fell into it.
Actually, poems are hard, concrete things. It is our thinking about them that is misty and wistful. When church people say they want poems, they want poems destined at once to open up the heavens and bring down the house. They aren’t going to get them.
Part of the reason why the Church looks for poetry is that poetry might be useful—in the liturgy, on printed programs, for sermon illustrations. That makes some sense. But it is not a pressing need at all. Over the past twenty centuries quite a few poems have been written that are “useful” in this very limited way. The good ones are seldom used. Slick but devout bad verse—that ought to be a contradiction—is probably more “useful” in this way than good poetry is. To commission such work from poets is equivalent to asking a composer (Elliott Carter, say, or Aaron Copland) to interrupt work on his symphonies so that he can compose “useful” singing commercials for General Motors. The Church would have nobler intentions than General Motors, but the degree of impropriety is about the same. Works of art are not useful in that quick and mechanical way.
What A Poem Does
A big part of the problem is that most people in our world are huddled captive to so much else that they do not discover what poetry really is. I cannot break through that dark tangle in the single paragraph I’m allowing myself, but I will try to throw off, in one mad dash through rough terrain, whatever glints and flashes I can of what it is in poetry that tugs and dazzles and pricks and soothes human consciousness. Head down, and here goes:
You have to know right away that poetry is not eloquence or decoration or a nice way of saying things. It is a way of seeing, a way of discovering perceptions, moments of awareness that were not there before. The poem is the body of a different kind of “knowing,” a kind of awareness that the conscious intellect by itself cannot get to. But the poem is also the process of its own little discovery: it leaves its footprints; the reader can follow the creative process step by step, feeling the swerves and leaps and undertones and soundings and strange connections in the language that got the poet’s imagination into that unified awareness, that little incarnation, that poem. Its “message” was not there at the beginning (otherwise the poet could simply say the message and would have no reason to create the poem); if the poem has a “message” now, it is in any case inseparable from the process, the body of awareness, the incarnated poem. The above might help to explain why poets say all those spooky things about poetry: it “tells us … what cannot be said” (E. A. Robinson), helps me to remember “something I did not know I knew” (Frost); the poem “is what ideas feel like” (Karl Shapiro), “is the feel and body of the awareness it presents” (M. L. Rosenthal), “is a pheasant disappearing into the brush” (Wallace Stevens), contains “no ideas but in things” (W. C. Williams). Poems expand consciousness, deepen human awareness, get us beyond understanding into layer upon layer of the exact feel of “thingness,” grief, exaltation, loneliness, love, fear, mystery, stabs of joy. The poem is a thousand times closer to the concerto or the painting than it is to the sermon, speech, article, editorial, or discussion. The imagination rides out the play that can exist among words and images until it makes a living body that shows and is but “cannot be said.” What it embodies has little to do with the poet’s opinions or even his beliefs, and almost everything to do with his growing creative vision. (Randall Jarrell says somewhere that the poem transcends, and sometimes even repudiates, the mind behind it.) In the vernacular of the kids, a poem is a trip. It’s a trip for the poet, too; if he thinks it clarifies something or catches something worthwhile, and perhaps links to themes he has been seeing and developing elsewhere, he sends it out, invites us to ride along.
So what the poetry of our century is after is breakthrough perception. It does not draw us away from the world we live in and dream us off to some isolated place called the “poetic”; it pulls us into sharper and fuller encounters with our life in this world. It is a stirring of conscience. Most poems (modern poems especially) begin not with ideas but with things and their relationships. Imagination (image-making) begins its work with surfaces, with what the senses are in contact with. Art is fed by the experience (not very much by the social-science data) of the everyday world. The poet then feels obliged to earn his way, step by step or leap by leap, to what is beneath or beyond or mysteriously manifested in that surface.
I hope those last two paragraphs are somehow effective, because they have moved me into talking about poets and the world. Before I go back to matters of the Christian community and the poets, I want to say something about the significance that this stuff called poetry might have for the world.
Ezra Pound called poets “the antennae of the race.” If you look at past masters or the good moderns, the poets who are really breaking through into experience-beyond-statement, I don’t think you’ll find Pound’s claim exaggerated. Through a kind of double vision, they are looking at the things and lives and attitudes around all of us. They see specifically the same things that all of us can see but tend to generalize: guilt-ridden faces, our fascination with violence, “the inexorable sadness of pencils” (Roethke), the glow of young love, the fear of loneliness, cheap manufactures, the loyalty of dogs, the plumpness of ripe fruit, our helplessness, the good feeling of skipping down a busy street, the fear of death, Viet Nam, laughter from playgrounds behind a news report on the CIA, drugs, washing dishes.… This is everyone’s world, and it is the world that modern poems spin off from and connect to.
When you encounter that world again in poems, you find that it is more terrible, more beautiful, more intense, more everything than it is on TV or in the newspapers or in your own memory of it. In the poems you ought to recognize moments that you have almost felt but could not quite get to. Strange connections have been made, unexpected patterns have clustered. Sympathy has deepened somehow, and the senses are more alive—more alive, even if sometimes to things you would rather not think about. Consciousness widens; conscience deepens. Though it might be painful at times, you feel more human. Sometimes you want to sing, or to cry, it doesn’t matter which.
Not much of this is going to happen if you lunge at the poems, trying to rip out of them messages and meanings. But if you read poems as poems, the “meanings” of things and lives around you can sharpen and deepen in profoundly human ways—in ways that the social sciences cannot achieve.
Are There Christian Poets’?
The Church should have some interest in the signals and vibrations that the poets of our society are sending out since poets are “the antennae of our race.” Poetry is intensified awareness. It is society’s conscience. The Church is trying to address its compassion and love and reconciliation to an estranged world that seems dazed, numb, inarticulate about its deepest feelings. Well, some of those deepest feelings are caught in the anger or quiet or exaltation of poems in the little magazines.
The Church and the poets do not have much in common just now. But they probably do share one deep conviction: that our basic needs lie far, far beneath the search for the mere social machinery of problem-solving. Poets know, too, that men are not robots or computer-numbers—that they need purpose, can cry out, are puzzled by death, can ponder a beer-bottle cap and feel lost without being able to say it. This is that deep level which the Church calls the soul.
It’s a cruel irony. Not many people read the poets, and yet anyone who does could make a strong case for the notion that the poets are indeed the antennae of our society and its most intense spokesmen. The church should be tuning in, not for a summary “message” translated into flat words by a critic but for the embodied experience that poetry is.
So now I am recommending poetry to the Church. But I mean any poetry that can show us the significant (signifying) experience of the life around us. I am not going to single out the “Christian poets” at all. Christians will be among the poets, and they might very well give us some additional pleasures or insights, but those would be secondary to the Church’s getting itself focused on the imaginative vision of our times.
In fact, I am no longer certain that it is meaningful to talk about “Christian poets.” W. H. Auden, who was classified as one of them, says this: “There is no more a Christian art than there is a Christian diet.” This made no sense to me at all until I got far along into writing. It makes more sense to me now because I’ve learned under fire what poetry is. And remember, the Bible never uses “Christian” as an adjective. There is a profound difference between revealing what you make and saying what you believe. As poet, a poet can be a spokesman only for what he achieves, attains, embodies through the creative process of his poems.
To talk about “Christian poetry” is to suggest witnessing and didacticism and to get us away from what poetry is. I don’t think it’s healthy for poets to use words like didactic. That’s for the reader to worry about. The poet’s job is to catch, discover, reveal—and if the reader feels taught, as he very well may (“revelation,” says Ezra Pound, “is always didactic”), that’s fine—but the poet has to get on with his work, which is far more mysterious than teaching, and far more risky, and a wholly different kind of communication. The term “Christian poetry” not only lacks clear meaning but also tends to put the reader on the defensive, stiffened against the oncoming didactic message that shouldn’t be consciously there.
There is another reason for uneasiness with the concept of “Christian poets.” I know this from experience. It invites the poet who is a Christian into a frame of mind in which, proud of his humility, he can knock the tough commitment to art as being merely arty, shrug off the world’s expected indifference to his work as the price he must pay for his martyrdom, and isolate himself in mutual-admiration groups of like-minded poets. Then they can all ignore the work of unredeemed poets and send their own Christian poems to Christian magazines. I know this is not the intention of the concept, but it is a danger. Instead of carrying his cross, he begins to drag it.
The poet who is a Christian needs Pound and Stevens and Williams the way a Christian physicist needs Einstein and Heisenberg and Planck; he needs the American Poetry Review the way a Christian physician needs his AMA Journal. He also needs give-and-take with working poets and editors who will judge his work by strictly literary standards, expecting him not to be sucked in by fads but to be alive to the discoveries that other poets are making. The principles that poets who are Christians follow should be the same as those followed by poets who do not profess Christianity.
Earning The Right To Speak
I do not mean to sound discouraging. I mean to broaden the horizon, not to narrow it. It is not yet time for Christians to go back to the catacombs.
I think that, unlike other kinds of communicators, the poet who is a Christian should not write for a particular audience. Such matters distract him from his work. “If you want to communicate,” says poet-teacher Richard Hugo to young poets, “use the telephone.” If you have something more general you want to say to the Church or the world, write an article. Then get back to the work of creating. If a poem really works, it may find its own miniscule audience. A poem becomes communication when it is read by persons who share or understand the vision revealed there. But first it has to be authentically born, and that’s job enough for the writer. A Catholic critic says of the Catholic poet Francis Thompson, “his religion was a temptation instead of a discipline.” It encouraged him into “fashionable religiosity.” He stopped looking and listening. He stopped creating.
This is a kind of interim field-report from a poet who is learning. I am a Christian. I have been writing poems for about eight years, and I am not at all a poet who has “made it.”
When I walk across the campus of the university at which I teach poetry to college kids, I can know with one kind of knowing that God is a father who loves us all. But when I am at my desk, working on a poem, trying to catch something from the students’ faces and the lengthening shadows and, say, the pulsing blue light from a police cruiser, I have no right as a poet to say from inside this murderous world that God is a father who loves us all. I have to earn it by creating it out of those images and the words and sounds and echoes and forms that begin to move. I know with one kind of knowing that the bodily resurrected Christ is in the bodies of those students. He is that black girl stung by our insults, he is the mourned friend maimed or killed in our senseless wars, he is that imprisoned face I passed by which asks to be visited or given a cup of water. I “know” that, and it may be part of the general social conscience that’s stirring, but if I cannot see it, make it, pull it through lines of light and shadow that create the love that struggles to be born, I have no right to say it in the poem. So the poem might very well go on growing toward another “secular” poem, as most of them do.
I need detachment only because poetry is what it is. I find that as a poet I have had to shake loose some of what I learned in church and catechism class. The problem with those heady doctrines is that I can mumble them. And what I can mumble, the poem cannot incorporate or believe. Maybe the poetry will catch up, maybe the working imagination will freshly rediscover those formulations up ahead, alive and useful and experiential. If not, there is no way as a poet that I can use them.
That’s the way I have to work. Across the street from the church. Call it “the willing suspension of belief.” Other Christians may very well find other ways to keep the imagination alive and the job true to the art. I got to my own position, not by reading all those ponderous works about the relations between art and Christianity, but by trying to keep the poems honestly poems. Only now, thinking it out on paper and dipping into those works, do I discover that it’s pretty much the solution of others, too. Eliot and Auden, for example.
Although it is hazardous to think about it, there are and will be such things as “Christian poets” and “Christian poems.” My point is simply that the Church tries to pull them in for the wrong reason and overlooks the real value it could draw from poetry—while poets who seek that designation probably confuse their jobs as poets.
T. S. Eliot was certainly a “Christian poet,” but he earned every syllable of that triumph called the Four Quartets through growth of imagination. And then, significantly, he stopped writing poems, though his life went on for fifteen more years. He didn’t start the poem with an affirmation of his faith; he won the faith all over again, deepened, this time as a symphony of the imagination wrung out of structural movements and difficult perceptions. He didn’t start with the Christian vision; he ended there. That’s worth thinking about. Eliot, the Christian and also the giant poet who discovered and taught us a lot about the use of archetypes and the collective unconscious in the creative process, said this: “What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.” Without meaning to follow, I think I have written my way into the same position.
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