Why is it that such a surprising number of the world’s best poets today are Catholics?
April is National Poetry Month, a tribute to the opening line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most famous poem of the last century: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land …”
For readers of poetry, it is the month when magazines and newspapers gather poets, living and dead, into identity groups. Reporters produce roundups for special-interest readerships, and so we read about “West Coast Poets,” “Arab-American Poets,” “LGBT Poets,” “Buddhist Poets” and so on.
Categorizing poets is like herding badgers, and identity poetry is problematic for many reasons. But the season bids us at least to ask about the relationship between Catholic faith and poetry.
The anthologies are charged with the grandeur of poetry by Catholics. Consider only the converts of the last 100 years (to name just a few): Denise Levertov, Mary Karr, David Jones, Wallace Stevens, Allen Tate, Claude McKay, Franz Wright, Roy Campbell, Robert Fitzgerald, Annie Dillard, Edith Sitwell, Robert Lowell, William Everson, George Mackay Brown, Muriel Spark, Robert Lax, Les Murray, Leonie Adams, Sebastian Barker, Regina Derieva, Oliver Bernard, Molly McCully Brown.
Then consider the Nobel Prize winners — Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney and Gabriela Mistral, to name just three of the 10.
And then there are the majority, those poets who were Catholic from the cradle: James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Hazo, Phyllis McGinley, F.T. Prince, George Barker, Marie Ponsot, Dunstan Thompson, P.J. Kavanagh, Denis Devlin, Elizabeth Jennings, Kenneth Patchen, Daniel Berrigan, Michael Donaghy.
They’re poets and Catholics. Not all stayed steady in their religious commitment. Some wavered or strayed. Others fell scandalously — but even they kept something of the faith in their measured lines.
Yet there’s little else that unites them. In terms of style, they’re as varied as Catholics in any field of endeavor. There are formalists and those who work in open forms, minimalists and epicists, realists and surrealists. As poets they’re truly catholic in the sense of being universal and diverse.
So, can we even begin to speak coherently of Catholicism and poetry?
California’s current poet laureate, Dana Gioia, thinks we can. A devout and intellectually engaged Catholic, he’s written two recent essays, “The Catholic Writer Today” and “Singing Aquinas in L.A.,” that touch upon the influence of faith upon poetic practice — his own and others’.
He points out that the liturgy is rich in compressed and memorable imagery, the stuff of great poems, and its phrases are reinforced by Church art and music.
Our traditional prayers are rhythmic and incantatory. Think of the Divine Praises, the Litany of Loreto, the Anima Christi, the Salve Regina and the Stations of the Cross. A child raised Catholic (as Dana Gioia was) is steeped in poetry from the moment of baptism.
On the other coast, the punk poet Eileen Myles makes a similar case in more passionate terms. Though lapsed in observance and belief, Myles points to the Church’s culture as the wellspring of her poetry.
“I’m still kind of structured around a Catholic measure,” Myles told an interviewer, “because they got me when I was young, and they made me pray, and they made me stand up and sit down and believe and withhold … all those things. The very mosaic of my existence is Catholic. I even get weepy and love it. There’s so much.”
Several times in the last century, editors have attempted to gather collections of “Catholic poetry” or “Catholic poets,” and all have struggled with the selection criteria.
What makes a poem or poet “Catholic”? Should the book include good poetry by bad Catholics? Should it include less-than-great poetry by people famous for their Catholicism?
Or is it the subject matter that makes a poem “Catholic”? Thomas Walsh, in his 1942 anthology, “The World’s Great Catholic Poetry,” includes a section in the back titled “Catholic Poems by Non-Catholics,” and most deal with devotional themes.
Edgar Allan Poe’s personal religion may be obscure (though he sometimes “smoked and drank and played cards” with Jesuits), but he’s well represented by his “Hymn of the Angelus.”
Also appearing in the ecumenical honorable-mention category are James Russell Lowell, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Rossetti siblings, Henry Adams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vachel Lindsay and Ezra Pound.
In the Catholic anthologies, most of the poems are chosen for their explicitly devotional content — and that can be misleading. The range of poetry by Catholics, like the style of their poetry, is as wide as life. The anthologies, however, can give the impression that Catholic poets live on a reservation whose borders are the walls of the parish church, and that they do little other than pray and ponder the Gospels.
The contemporary poet James Matthew Wilson acknowledges the problem, but recognizes also that religious poetry, once a staple of literary life in the Western world, is now practically taboo in the mainstream of academia and publishing.
In a recent interview, he said: “I certainly would never think of myself as a Christian poet, as if there were this special category, but on the other hand, one of the things a poet should have the capacity to do is to express genuine devotion to God.
“So, one of the challenges I set for myself over the previous several years was to write a genuinely devotional poetry. One that would not cease to be interpretable as poetry, but was still capable of a genuine expression of reverence, and that proved to be quite challenging.”
Wilson is representative of a younger generation of poets who are less docile to the demands of the gatekeepers of the art. Recent developments in media have given them many new ways to reach their public. And some who are Catholic are achieving a measure of success.
The 2018 volume in Scribner’s “Best American Poetry” series includes work by James Matthew Wilson as well as Ryan Wilson (no relation), who teaches at Catholic University of America and whose first collection, “The Stranger World,” won the coveted Donald Justice Prize in 2017. Both are practicing Catholics whose faith informs their worldview and their work.
Their co-religionist colleagues are many.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, on faculty at Fordham University, won critical acclaim for the sonnet variations in her 2017 book “Still Pilgrim,” whose content is both profoundly religious and rich in its explorations of ordinary life.
LeighAnna Schesser, a young Catholic mother in Kansas, writes nature and family poems that one prominent poet compared to the best work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Theodore Roethke. They’re collected in her chapbook “Heartland.”
Edward A. Dougherty describes himself as “lapsed Catholic,” but his religious formation is everywhere evident in his poems, especially in his most recent collection, “Grace Street.”
His “In the Fullness of Snowmelt” is a meditation on Lent and Good Friday. His “White on White” is a similar examination of Christmas. Deeply personal and marked by struggle, both poems turn on Pascal’s Wager — the philosopher’s bet on God’s existence.
Schesser takes the question of Catholicism and poetry a step further. In a recent essay she presents art, “perhaps especially poetry,” as “primarily a spiritual process,” like alchemy, “an aid to, and a sign of, the purification of the soul.”
She concludes: “Those who seek Art, find God; those who seek God, find Art.”
She sees poets, moreover, as mimics of the triune God and their craft as an act of “subcreation” (a term borrowed from J. R. R. Tolkien).
The roster of convert poets suggests that there may be something to Schesser’s argument — though the rolls of literary apostates are equally impressive, and there’s some overlap.
In 1955, the experimental poet Edith Sitwell entered full communion with the Catholic Church and told Time magazine: “I have taken this step because I want the discipline, the fire, and the authority of the Church.”
A critic could make a strong case that these elements of Catholicism — and so many others — have proven quite useful for poets.
Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir
By Dana Gioia
Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.
My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights — voilà —
She opened it resplendently to shine.
How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.
Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~ Dana Gioia is Poet Laureate of California.
The Final Boast of Love’s Eternal Yearning
By LeighAnna Schesser
Time is full of riches in the autumn of the year,
When light is thick as honey poured and spun,
The harvest yield is only just begun,
And every step is crimson, every breath is clear.
Rivers cold with light run beside the antlered deer,
Bristled trees unsheathe their flames at once —
Summer’s work re-planted, not undone —
And every star is frosted crisp and near.
The majesty of seasons is their turning,
But the splendor of the vow is ever-keeping.
Now we reach the advent of a promise,
The only easy yoke and gentle harness,
A yearning only just matured and deepened:
The hour, come at last, of the beloved.
~ LeighAnna Schesser is author of “Heartland,” a chapbook.
In the Harvest Season
By Ryan Wilson
It’s finished. Waiting’s all that will remain.
The gossip now must go unverified.
Blue smoke from leaf-piles, smoldering like pride,
Hangs here, a ghost, a storm-cloud that can’t rain.
Last night, the county’s final weathervane
Fell in the high winds. Old roofs, stripped bare, preside.
Take down the ragged self you’ve crucified
And let the crows wing through the fields of grain.
The sagging fence will never stand up straight.
Whatever’s not ripe now will never be.
That pain tormenting you will not abate,
And in the windows of vacated banks
You’ll see yourself, passing by aimlessly.
You cannot change your life. Give up; give thanks.
~ Ryan Wilson is the author of “The Stranger World.”
The Second Sunday of Advent
By James Matthew Wilson
In the lamp’s circle of warm light, my daughter
Reaches up toward the pocket stitched with “8”
For silver wrapped chocolate stowed there. As I’ve taught her,
She may eat one each night, and each night waits
For my return from work with hungry eyes.
Her joy is regulated thus: a prayer,
A story, and a candy. Then, she cries
To get but one when there are others there.
St. Augustine, knowing the greed of babes for
Their mothers’ breasts was violent and abyssal,
Confessed that infant innocence was made more
Of helpless limbs than grace, less rose than thistle.
My daughter takes the unwrapped sweet and chews
With a slow-smackeral ritual I admire.
The past had little purity to lose;
And we have only discipline and desire.
~ James Matthew Wilson is author of “Some Permanent Things.”
By Edward A. Dougherty
All things counter, original, spáre, strange
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
He stopped the rhythmic and musical ping-pinging
of his metal hammer against metal chisel
and said, Stonecarving is all about
geometry. And geometry, like God,
is all about perfection. The slab of limestone
propped before him showed two neat rows of letters,
some carved, some only mapped. He explained
he’s just roughing them out, but back at his studio,
he’ll measure each angle and every depth
then chisel for hours, more hours
than you could imagine. You’d think, he said,
a machine had carved it, unless you looked close.
Then you could make out the human error.
I leaned toward the stone. On each worked surface,
ripples revealed the minute progress of his hammer.
I wanted to run fingertips along them,
to feel the fine increments, as varied
as the whorls and lines of my own hand.
~ Edward A. Dougherty is author of “Grace Street.”
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Lord: it is time. Bright summer fades away.
Let sundials darken as your shadows grow.
Set loose your winds across the open fields.
Let the last fruit still ripen on the vine,
And give the grapes a few more southern days
To warm them to perfection, and then press
Their earthy sweetness into heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now never builds one.
Whoever is alone now stays alone.
Now he will wake and read, writing long letters,
Aimlessly wandering the empty lanes,
Restless as the leaves swirling round his feet.
~ Translated by Dana Gioia
Flannery Considers Marriage
By Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
“She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” — Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”
They aren’t stupid, really. They just aren’t smart
in the way smart women need them to be.
Not a whiff of humor, no rabbit quick wit,
no gift for seeing human hilarity,
a slowness of the head as well as the heart
that makes them dull, marks them unfit
companions on the long and lonely road
we all have to walk. I love to talk
as much as the next girl, but who wants to know
about spark plugs & tires, strikes, walks, & runs,
kicking that extra point over the goal post?
I’d fall asleep in my cornflakes wed to
all that, each day a trial to be got through,
the smell of stupidity, coffee, and toast.
~ Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is author of “Still Pilgrim.”
What Catholic faith gives poets
• A sense of the goodness of creation. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
• A doctrine of signs and symbols. Creation speaks of the creator.
• A grand narrative. History and creation follow a story line, a plot.
• Musicality. Worship is rhythmic, incantatory.
• Vivid images. Words and art whose power has been proven and refined by millennia.
• A tradition, a community. Including poets ranging from David to Dante.
• A moral sense. A reason to raise one’s voice, as the prophets did.
Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor of Angelus News and the author of “Terms & Conditions: Assorted Poems: 1985-2014.”
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