Do you remember the last poem you read, or heard?
Statistics suggest it has probably been since high school that the average American took the time (or was forced by a teacher) to read a piece of poetry. The rise of the internet and the correlating decline in the number of people who say they’ve read a poem in the past year has fueled an ongoing debate among those who still care: is poetry dead? Whether it is dead, or dying, or not, should Catholics care?
“Up until relatively recently in the history of Christendom, poetry was the main form of literature that people enjoyed and read,” Pearce said. “The best-selling works of literature up until Shakespeare’s time were poetry...so you can’t talk about the legacy or the heritage of Christian literature and leave poetry out of the equation without doing violence to what Christian literature is.”
What happened to poetry?
Poetry used to be memorized in schools and was a central, normal part of people’s literary lives - something they would just “bump into” on a regular basis.
“I can remember growing up...we would get Reader's Digest at home and it would have poetry in it, so would the newspapers, and The Christian Science Monitor...there were a lot of places where you would just bump into it,” said Tim Bete, who serves as poetry editor for the website Integrated Catholic Life (ICL). ICL is a website that provides articles, spiritual reflections, blogs and resources that strive to help Catholics better live lives of faith, according to its description.
So what, exactly, has contributed to its decline?
Pearce blames the so-called “death” of poetry on the “rather pathetic culture in which we find ourselves,” with decreased standards of literacy and decreased attention spans brought on by technology.
“The thing about our modern culture is that most of us spend most of our time wasting it in the dust storm and the desert of modern secular social media,” he added.
Dana Gioia is a Catholic by faith and a poet by trade, and has served as the Poet Laureate of California since 2015.
Gioia spent much of his career as a poet in the secular world, but told CNA that he has become an increasingly vocal Catholic, as it has become harder to be a Catholic in the world of poetry and literature.
The decline of Catholic poetry in the United States, for example, is in part because of Catholicism’s “very complicated position” in American literature since the beginning of the country, he said.
“Catholics were initially banned from coming to the U.S., and then they enjoyed very little rights where they were allowed at all for a long time,” he told CNA. “And there persisted to be - persists to this day - a kind of anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. for a variety of religious, cultural, economic and political reasons.”
“American Catholics largely represent poor, immigrant communities from Europe, Latin America and Asia, and to this day if you go to most Catholic Churches you are sitting among the poor,” he added.
For these reasons, there was no “significant” Catholic American poetry (that is still being read today) until the 20th century, Gioia said. Then suddenly, around the 1950s, there is an explosion of Catholic literature in the United States, he said.
Writers such as Robert Lowell, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walker Percy, William Tate and Brother Antonitus were leading the way (many of them converts from Protestantism), Gioia said, and Catholicism was being taken seriously for the first time in American cultural life.
“You have a huge list of these really significant thinkers who reshaped American intellectual life...a moment in the 1950s when Catholicism is part of the conversation of American literature,” he said.
But by the early 2000s, that was already gone.
“By 2000 it had fallen apart. In 2010, Catholics are marginalized in American literary lives,” he said.
The reasons for this were several, Gioia suggested: firstly, as Catholics became accepted into American society, they became increasingly secularized. Secondly, the world of art became increasingly anti-Christian, and finally, Vatican II caused “schisms” in the Catholic Church in America, turning her focus to internal debate rather than to an external, unified identity.
“I’m the uncomfortable truth-teller in the room,” Gioia added as an aside. “The contemporary Catholic Church in America, and everywhere, lost its connection with art and beauty.”
“For centuries, millennia really, the Church was a patron of the arts, and understood that beauty was an essential medium for its message,” he said.
“Now the Church is so caught up with practical necessities, that it considers beauty an unaffordable luxury. But beauty is not a luxury, it is a central and essential element of the Catholic faith. And we know this, because if we have anything at all to say about creation, it is that it is beautiful - nature is beautiful, the world is beautiful, our bodies are beautiful. So we’ve lost this essential connection because we’re so busy funding the parish school, keeping the homeless center running, and paying the mortgage on the church - all good things, but useless if the message of the Church is not heard among its own congregations and secondly in the modern world,” he said.
It’s a problem that has been identified by many in the Catholic Church who are concerned with the New Evangelization - Fyodor Dostoevsky’s maxim “beauty will save the world” has become the battle cry of many Catholics who want to reconnect the Church and the arts.
But “healthy” Catholic culture has two cultural conversations going at once, Gioia said - one internally, and one that reaches out to the world - “and both of those conversations have become greatly diminished in the last half-century.”
What poetry has to say to Catholics
The thing about being Catholic, Bete noted, is that if you’re going to Mass and reading the Bible, you are probably are more immersed in poetry than you realize.
“About 30% of all scripture is poetry,” Bete said. “Even (Catholics) that say oh, I never read poetry, well, if you're praying the Divine Office (a Catholic form of prayer centered on the Psalms), it's almost all poetry.”
“We're hearing poetry preached at Mass every week,” he added, and so becoming familiar with all kinds of poetry “helps you understand scripture better because it gets you in tune and trains you to think about metaphor.”
“So much of (scripture) is poetry but I think we kind of race through it sometimes and we don't really kind of appreciate it for being poetry,” he said.
“In my mind, one of the reasons that there's so much poetry in there is it's so difficult to define who God is, and God is so much greater than any author can put down on paper, but poetry...it provides a different type of truth.”
Bete added that poetry is often the fruit of silence and prayer, and vice versa - one can lead into the other. An example of this in scripture, he said, is the Canticle of Mary, when the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth and bursts into poetic song about how God has blessed her by calling her to be the mother of Jesus.
“When Mary really has to explain to Elizabeth what is going on, what does she do? She speaks in poetry. It's very powerful...and so one of my hopes is that if people read current poetry, it trains them to look at things differently and will translate back to scripture and really help to bring the scripture alive for them,” Bete said.
Pearce said another reason Catholics should engage with poetry is because God himself is a poet.
“The word ‘poet’ comes from the word ‘poesis’ which means to make or to create,” he said.
“So when we are being poets in that broader sense of the word of being creative...it’s God’s creative presence in us, so we’re actually partaking in the divine when we write poetry or read it and appreciate it.”
Many great works of literature, from Beowulf to The Divine Comedy to The Canterbury Tales and the works of Shakespeare, are works of Christian and Catholic poetry, Pearce said.
Many saints, too, have written great works of poetry, Pearce said, such as St. Patrick’s breastplate poem or St. Francis of Assissi’s Canticle of Brother Sun.
Bete, a secular Carmelite, said he loves to read poetry by Carmelite saints - “it's actually hard to find one who was not a poet,” he said.
“Elizabeth of the Trinity, Therese the Little Flower, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, they all wrote poetry,” Bete said, including some that was prayerful and some that was more lighthearted.
“Almost always it came out of their prayer life,” Bete added. “I think it has to do with the closer that you get to God, especially if you're a writer, I think it just comes out.”
“I would say poetry is like going to Mass or saying your prayers,” Pearce said. “The writing of it and the reading of it is time taken and not time wasted, its something which is worth doing in its own right, as is prayer.”
Poetry 101: How can Catholics start a poetry habit?
Pearce has made it easy for Catholics who are looking for an introduction to Catholic poetry, with his book “Poems Every Catholic Should Know.”
“That book is very popular, and I think it’s popular because people are very aware that they don’t know poetry very well, because they haven’t really been taught it, and they are perhaps intimidated by it or they have misconceptions about it,” he said.
“So they see a book called ‘Poems Every Catholic Should Know’ and they think well, I should at least own one book of poetry and perhaps this is it,” he added.
The book goes through 1,000 years of Christian poetry, from the year 1,000-2,000, Pearce said, from both well-known and lesser-known poets, and it includes short biographies of each poet and how they fit into the broader context of the Christian poetry and literary world.
“A personal favorite of mine is a 20th century war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who was a convert to the Catholic faith, so we published some of his post-conversion poetry in the book which I’m very fond of,” Pearce noted.
It was because of the sharp decline in the reading and writing of poetry that Bete pitched the idea for Integrated Catholic Life to start publishing poetry, to provide a new opportunity for visitors to the site to once again “bump into” poetry.
“The response has been great,” he said. “I think it just goes to show that when people see...beauty, and they see something that is of interest to them,” they respond, he said. “It doesn't take a huge time commitment. It's not like reading War and Peace or anything.”
Bete said he thinks it’s important for Catholics to come up with new and creative ways to reintroduce people to Catholic poetry.
“On Instagram where you're seeing some of these Instagram poets who are up and coming, and I haven't seen any Catholic ones yet, but I think what they're doing is they're putting poetry where people already are,” Bete said.
Another innovative concept that brings poetry to the people is the “Raining Poetry” project in Boston, Bete said, which paints poetry on the sidewalk with clear paint so that it only shows up when it rains.
“And I love that as a concept. Where are people, and then how do we find ways to get poetry in front of them? And I don't think we've been very good or innovative at that.”
Gioia said the most important thing Catholic creatives can do is to create communities for Catholic artists.
“This country is full of Catholic writers and artists who feel isolated,” Gioia said. “If we can create communities for them, they will understand their own art and its possibilities much better. We are stronger together than we are alone.”
Pearce, Bete and Gioia all said they have been heartened by what seems to be the start of a Catholic cultural revival, in which Catholics are talking more about the need for the Church to reconnect with beauty and the arts and to create great Catholic art again.
“I find this very encouraging,” Pearce said. “One of the things I’m doing with ‘Faith and Culture’ at the Augustine Institute and with the magazine The Austin Review...is to try to engage this new Catholic revival in the arts that we see going on. Certainly there’s a Catholic literary revival going on, so there’s an increase not just in the quantity, but more importantly in the quality with Catholic literature written today in the 21st century.”
Gioia said that while he’s encouraged by these movements, he would also caution against the notion of “homemade” culture.
“I worry that they sometimes have a kind of homemade version of culture that needs a shot of energy and perspective you only get by studying masterpieces, especially contemporary masterpieces,” he said. “Any serious writer must engage with the broader literary culture.”
“So I think one of the things to do is we need to identify the very best contemporary writers. What that doesn’t mean is saying here’s a list of 65 writers. It’s - who are the three or four best fiction writers? Who are the three or four best poets?”
“If we had a (Catholic literary) community, we’d invite everyone in, because that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But when we write about literature we have to be ruthlessly discriminating, because the best work is what will speak most loudly. That’s what a critic does, that’s what an editor does, that’s what an anthologist does. Right now we do not have enough anthologies, or magazines; we do not have enough Catholic writers conferences. We need to build the infrastructure.”
Gioia started the first Catholic Imagination Conference for this reason - to bring together serious Catholic writers as a community.
“Four hundred people came, and they looked around and they were astonished and heartened by how many serious writers they saw in the same room,” he said. “Each one is bigger than the one before, and some of the people who came to the first conference created magazines, book clubs, discussion groups, and so once again, we’re stronger as a community than we are separately.”
The third such conference will be held at Loyola University this fall.
Ultimately, Gioia said, while he is concerned about the state of Catholic poetry and literature in the U.S., he has hope.
“I believe that our Church and our tradition embodies in it a great central truth of existence. And so if you believe that, how could you not be optimistic?”