“Pietà” by R. S. Thomas


Pietà of Tubądzin (circa 1450)

When I read Jay Parini’s excellent biography, Robert Frost: A Life, he included this unforgettable quotation by Frost:

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to wait the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned at once.

As soon as I read “Pietà” from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, I took “an immortal wound, that [I] will never get over.”


Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

Thomas has lodged this poem inside me to stay. In a single indelible moment, he captures the entire purpose of the Incarnation, bringing together the cradle of Advent and the cross of Lent: Jesus was born to die, and all creation witnessed the Christ-event but none more affectionately and agonizingly than his mother. Mary was the cradle at the birth and death of her son. Cosmic harmony is at work as the wooden cross “aches for the Body” of the woodworker: his crucifixion begins to liberate creation, which “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22).


Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman

Where he probably goes wrong, mused the engineer sleepily,
is in the extremity of his alternatives: God and not-God,
getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out.
Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one
ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.
Has this not been the case with all “religious” people?

As one of our nation’s greatest satirists, “[Walker] Percy is a writer with a message, concerned to convey a vision,” claims scholar Ralph C. Wood in The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. “His fiction makes a withering critique of what is spiritually inane about contemporary American life, even as it also hints at a way beyond our current malaise. Yet Percy remains an artist rather than a preacher. His Catholic existentialism is couched in literary terms that appeal to the imagination more than the will. Though Percy may seek to revolutionize our way of seeing, he leaves to the church the task of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel of the world’s salvation.”

Having previously read The Moviegoer (1962), a winner of the National Book Award, I desire to further explore his fiction, even though “Walker Percy is kinda like an IPA (India Pale Ale) — an acquired taste,” as my friend Bryce quips. We are undertaking two novels that are connected by the same protagonist.

The Last Gentleman (1966)
Will Barrett is the last gentleman, a twenty-five year old wanderer from the South living in New York City with no plans for the future and detached from his past. The purchase of a telescope one summer day changes his life — for while searching for an elusive peregrine falcon in Central Park, Will accidentally spots a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her. And so begins his quest for home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

The Second Coming (1980)
Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so severe that he decides he doesn’t want to continue living. But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living alone in a greenhouse. What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more.

For The Last Gentleman, I formulated questions for each chapter that are designed to provoke contemplation and conversation. Lacking chapter titles, I wrote my own within brackets below, focusing on the important locales in the story with the exception of the third chapter, which narrates Will Barrett’s transportation from the North to the South. I am intrigued that the hero’s story begins in a park and ends in a desert, as if it is a microcosm of the biblical story about our human parents, who, suddenly thrown out of a garden and into the wilderness, gained “the possibility of a happy, useful life” through “astonishment” at their true condition (385, 389).

Last GentlemanChapter 1 [Central Park]

With a background of Princeton University and the U.S. Army, Will Barrett is a Southern misfit in New York City, who rents a room at the Y.M.C.A., works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s, serves as “a companion to lonely and unhappy adolescents” (19), and regularly visits a psychoanalyst, who thinks he suffers from an “identity crisis” (39).

Particular: Will Barrett spends his inheritance money on a costly telescope. From his vigil in Central Park, he watches the world through “the brilliant theater of its lenses” (5). The narrator says: “Often nowadays people do not know what to do and so live out their lives as if they were waiting for some sign or other” (6). If Will uses the telescope to wait for some sign, how would he know if what he sees is truly a sign?

Universal: What is the relationship between existential disorientation and signs?

To explore this question, consider the following:

  • The etymological origin of sign comes from a Latin word that means “mark” or “token.”
  • The primary denotation of sign is “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.”
  • Before Jesus heals an official’s son, he says to the father: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:46-54). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:1-4). On his second coming, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).

Chapter 2 [Hospital]

After the “chance event” of sighting of a girl through his telescope and falling in love, Will follows her companion to a hospital, where he meets the Vaught family, who will change the rest of his life (3, 7).

Particular: Will Barrett suffers from a “nervous condition” with symptoms that include bouts of déjà vu, “spells of amnesia,” and occasional lapses into fugue states (11-12). What does this nervous condition reveal about his spiritual predicament, and how does it affect his vision of the world? Consider specific examples, such as the hallucination at Nedick’s corner (44-46), the three-month hospitalization for amnesia (56-57), the blackout on the subway ride with Kitty (68-74), the wrong train from Pennsylvania Station (89-91), or the déjà vu of summertime in Central Park (98-101).

Universal: How are body, mind, and spirit related? Do some people feign sickness for the sake of receiving love and attention?

Chapter 3 [Trav-L-Aire]

This chapter records Will Barrett’s adventure on the road from New York City to the Golden Isles of Georgia, where he further enmeshes himself in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Vaught, their children, Kitty and Jamie, and their daughter-in-law, Rita.

Particular: Will has two salient exchanges with Kitty about love, one on “Folly Beach in old Carolina in the moonlight” (164-168) and the other in the camper during a storm (174-180). Kitty awakens Will to the various roles he may play in their relationship: “boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father” (167); fornicator to a whore (178-179), gentleman to a lady (179-180). How do these roles induce a “values crisis” for Will (135-136)?

Universal: What roles are fitting and ill-fitting to romantic love?

Chapter 4 [Castle]

Having returned to his native South, as a companion and tutor to the infirm Jamie, Will Barrett resides with the Vaughts at their “castle fronting on a golf links” (189).

Particular: Early in the novel, we are told about an “alarming symptom” of Will: “He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad” (22). While this symptom appears in various places (46, 174), it is nowhere more obvious than when this Southerner returns to the South:

The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.

The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nevertheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be at home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place — in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there. (185-186)

How much of Will’s unhappiness is related to dislocation?

Universal: What does it mean for a person to be “at home”?

Chapter 5 [Guest Ranch]

Leaving Kitty behind with the promise of marriage, Will Barrett travels through the South to the desert of northern New Mexico in order to fulfill his pledge to take care of Jamie, who has joined his dissolute brother, Sutter.

This final chapter offers the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional dividend after a somewhat tedious investment throughout the novel. Until this chapter, I questioned whether I even liked The Last Gentleman. It seemed to be the story of a nobody going nowhere. Will’s epiphany in the desert is deeply gratifying because the reader waits and waits for an epiphany, assuming it will never come. And then it does — unexpectedly, movingly. Just when I doubted the coherence of the story, the last chapter pulls everything together, which not only reflects the author’s design but, on a larger scale, providential care through the confused details of our lives. When the Catholic priest holds Jamie’s hand on his deathbed, he promises him that he will be with “our Blessed Lord and Savior” and “Our Lady,” petitioning him: “Then I ask you to pray to them for me and for your brother here and for your friend who loves you.” At this point, I cried with an immediate realization about the story’s hero: Will Barrett only recovers his health by loving a diseased and dying boy. Love heals.

I have two main inquiries. Here is the first.

Particular: Death haunts this chapter in a skull on the armoire of the Barrett family house (343-344), in raptures about suicide in Sutter’s notebook (344-346, 372-373), in the sick body of Jamie (362), and in “Sutter’s antics with the pistol” (387). Mindful that the story ends with the sacrament of baptism, a symbolic action of death and life (Romans 6:3-5), how does Sutter’s claim in his notebook — “the certain availability of death is the very condition of recovering oneself” (372) — apply to Jamie, Will, and Sutter?

Universal: How is death — not fornication — “the sole channel to the real” (372)?

Here is the second inquiry.

Particular: The novel begins with Will Barrett picking up a telescope and ends with him putting it down.

Dark fell suddenly and the stars came out. They drew in and in half an hour hung as large and low as yellow lamps at a garden party. Suddenly remembering his telescope, he fetched it from the cabin and clamped it to the door of the cab like a malt tray. Now spying the square of Pegasus, he focused on a smudge in the tail and there it was, the great cold fire of Andromeda, as big as a Catherine wheel, as slow and silent in its turning, stopped as tumult seen from far away. He shivered. I’m through with telescopes, he thought, and the vasty galaxies. What do I need with Andromeda? What I need is my Bama bride and my cozy camper, a match struck and the butane lit and a friendly square of light cast upon the neighbor earth, and a hot cup of Luzianne between us against the desert cold, and a warm bed and there lie dreaming in one another’s arms while old Andromeda leans through the night. (357-358)

Once lost in the cosmos but now found in the desert, Will retires his telescope because, it seems, he no longer waits for a sign, which, ironically, puts him in the same company as Sutter (377-378). Remembering that his analyst suggests the telescope could be “the magical means” for becoming a “seer” or “see-er,” how might we interpret Will’s decisive action (37)?

Universal: Should we wait for a sign?


At the end of the novel, I returned to the beginning again, which includes two epigraphs that provoke more questions.

If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Questions: How is self-forgetfulness related to human dignity? Will Barrett involuntarily forgets himself because of his amnesia and fugue states, but does he learn to voluntarily forget himself? If so, when? And what is significant about those circumstances?

. . . We know now that the modern world is coming to an end . . . at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap the benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies . . . Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another . . . the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.
— Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World

Questions: How is The Last Gentleman a story about the “love which flows from one lonely person to another”?


Habits of gentle selfishness

Literary critic John Sutherland informs me that Pride and Prejudice is to the United States what Emma is to Great Britain: the most widely read novel by Jane Austen. I am undertaking Emma for the first time with my students.

Austen’s psychological and moral acumen impressed itself upon me when I read a description of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. In the first chapter of Volume 1, father and daughter alike grieve the departure of Miss Taylor, the governess of Hartfield who has now married.

It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent all the rest of her life at Hartfield. [emphasis mine]

In the second chapter, there is further elaboration on Mr. Woodhouse:

There was no recovering Miss Taylor—nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. [emphasis mine]

While Mr. Woodhouse does not satisfy the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narrator characterizes him as a soft narcissist, which should cause some unease for the reader. As a postlapsarian creature, I plead guilty to those “habits of gentle selfishness” that turn me inward, failing to “suppose that other people could feel differently from [myself].” What is “unwholesome” to me, I tend to regard as “unfit for any body.”

Narcissism rears its ugly head in subtle ways. Mr. Woodhouse has trouble rejoicing in the matrimonial joy of Miss Taylor because he loathes a disturbance of custom. He also steals the pleasure of eating wedding-cake because his own fragile stomach refuses sweets. Austen tries to disabuse the self-congratulatory reader who imagines himself free of centripetal impulses, which she names “gentle selfishness”—gentle because the habits usually go undetected by others, causing negligible harm. If I halfheartedly pray for the anniversary of a couple in church because I do not share in the covenant of marriage or I pooh-pooh friends who listen to the jazz genre of bebop because it grates on my ears, I am no different than Mr. Woodhouse.

Austen teaches me that soft narcissism develops from thoughtless habit more than conscientious decision, and involves a failure to distinguish the self from external objects. In light of this, it is no wonder why Jesus instructs his followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31), since we already love ourselves exorbitantly, and the apostle Paul commands, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Lord, forgive my gentle selfishness.

Death comes for Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world,” has died, as reported in the New York Times obituary. Like all gifted poets, Oliver was an apprentice in attention, famously saying: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” While critics did not always appreciate her poetry, perhaps owing to its popularity among readers, writer Ruth Franklin says: “Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet. Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.” Franklin adds, “The way she writes these poems that feel like prayers, she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.”

Here are two lovely poems, both read by Mary Oliver.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes her own obituary of sorts, expressing how she wishes to be remembered:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Teach us, artists, how to be bored again

In his Image essay, “In Praise of Boredom”, philosopher James K. A. Smith writes eloquently about how the “boredom” of art can bore through our distractible attention in late modernity and re-enchant us again:

Every work of art that is true or beautiful is, one might say, a pièce de résistance, telling the truth about how the world really is and offering us a portal to what we’re called to be. Such art resists lies, apathy, and all the forces that would diminish us to mere consumers or enemies or copulating pieces of meat. Such imaginative works are at once disconcerting and enticing. They remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are, and they call us to so much more than this. As in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, a dappled light finds its way through the cathedral of palms while war rages below, making us look up and wonder. And hope.

But how to overcome distraction? How to break through the bedazzling glare of our screens, the latest threat to parade as an angel of light?

The problem isn’t simply that the technologies of distraction prevent us from making or appreciating art. This isn’t simply a competition for attention. The concern is more egregious: our distraction demeans us.

* * *

In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.

* * *

We need artists with the courage to teach us how to be bored. Who tease us with anticipation even when we’re befuddled by the poem. Whose prose demands an attention that we want to give because of promises laden therein. Whose sculpture arrests us and frustrates us and jackhammers into our soul and unsettles us with recognition. The creators who teach us to be bored will be cultivating in us habits of stilled attention in which we might finally hear our creator.

* * *

Teach us, artists, how to be bored again. Invite us into the boredom that is the antechamber to the mesmerizing. Tease us with some unexpectation. Bore us so that God can bore into our souls and we can find ourselves again.

Everyday matters matter

Jane Austen EducationIn my Modern European Literature, we always read a novel by a British author, usually Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. For the last few years, I taught Mansfield Park (1814), which remains my favorite novel that I have read from Austen, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride Prejudice (1813). Eager for a new challenge, this year I will undertake Emma (1815), arguably Austen’s masterpiece. Nothing has piqued my interest more than Austen’s remark, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”

To prepare for this novel, I will assign my students the relevant chapter in William Deresiewicz’s excellent book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Here is the wisdom that he derived from Emma—wisdom that could apply to all of Austen’s fiction.

Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused in me were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.

Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I could have ever imagined.

I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse’s banalities, Miss Bates’s monologues, all that gossip and small talk—Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down long enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness.

Jane Fairfax’s letters and where they may have been hiding, little John and Henry’s cleverness and pretty ways—these things mattered, because they mattered to the characters themselves. They made up the texture of their lives, and gave their existence its savor. I got it now. By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels—the adventures and affairs, the romances and the crises, even, at times, the plot—Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, “trivial,” everything things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about. (12-13)

* * *

If I was having trouble seeing the importance of the world that Austen was putting in front of me, in other words, it wasn’t entirely my fault. Like all the great teachers, I now saw, she made us come to her. She had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages. Her “littleness” was really an optical illusion, a test. Jesus spoke in parables so his disciples would have to make an effort to understand him. The truth, he knew, cannot be grasped in any other way. Austen reminded me, I realized, of something that Plato said about his great mentor Socrates, who also taught by telling stories. “His words are ridiculous when you first hear them, for his talk is of pack-asses and smiths and cobblers . . . so that any ignorant or inexperienced person might feel disposed to laugh at him; but he who sees what is within will find that they are the only words which have a meaning in them, and likewise the most divine.” (15)

* * *

This, I now saw, was how all of Austen’s language worked. No strain, no display, no effort to awe or impress. Just everyday words in their natural order—a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, but just rolled along as easily as breathing. It wasn’t the words that Austen used to create her effects, it was the way she used them, the way she grouped and balanced them. And so it was, I saw, with her characters. A thousand authors could write novels about ordinary people, but only one of those books would be Emma. Austen’s characters came to seem so vivid, so meaningful, because she put them down on the page exactly the way she placed her words: without condescension, without apology, but with a masterful talent for arrangement. Emma was balanced by Jane Fairfax, and Miss Bates by Harriet Smith, and Mr. Martin by Mr. Elton, and all of them by one another, setting the whole story in motion and creating scenes that felt as natural as real life. It didn’t matter how small the frame was, because it contained a whole world. (16-17)

* * *

To pay attention to “minute particulars” is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes. But it is also, I realized, something more. By talking over their little daily affairs—and not just talking them over, but talking them over and over, again and again (the same story in brief, then in full, the same stories in one house, then another)—the characters of Emma were doing nothing less than attaching themselves to life. They were weaving the web of community, one strand of conversation at a time. They were creating the world, in the process of talking about it.

Yet again, it was Emma herself who had trouble with this. She loved to gossip with her special friend Mrs. Weston, of course, but when Miss Bates started in, she couldn’t get away fast enough, and Jane Fairfax’s letters were a fate worse than death. She was the cleverest and best-looking person around, and richer and more wellborn than just about everyone else, and she thought she deserved a more interesting life than the one that was on offer in Highbury. Like a bad reader, she was looking for intrigue and adventure, but all she ended up doing was cutting herself off from the people around her. And as a result, she cut herself off from herself. The fun of Emma was the way that heroine, with her supreme confidence in own judgment, was always screwing up, but the reason wasn’t that much fun at all. Like me, she was numb. She couldn’t feel what she felt, or know what she wanted.

But Emma finally learned that everyday life is not only more joyful—and more dramatic—than she could have imagined, it is also more joyful and dramatic than anything she did imagine, any of her plots or daydreams. With those, she just played at feeling. But dull old, trivial old everyday life—that is where feeling truly lies. Finding that out, she found out whom she should marry, and I found out that this was where the novel had been heading all along. It really had its heroine’s romantic future in mind, but its mind turned out to be very, very deep. In the end Emma didn’t lack a plot; its plot was so clever that it could keep itself hidden until the very last, when all of its disparate parts leaped into order in a single instant, like iron filings around a magnet. (31-32)

Before Deresiewicz encountered Austen, he favored modernist literature because of its complexity and grandiosity:

What I really wanted to study was modernism, the literature that had formed my identity as a reader and, in many ways, as a person. Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov: complex, difficult, sophisticated works. Like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image. I’d pass my days in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches, as I stalked down Broadway in my John Lennon coat, against everything conventional, respectable, and pious. I’d walk right up alongside the buildings, in the shadows—it makes you feel like a rat scuttling for cover—to aggravate my sense of alienation. If I was waiting for someone and had nowhere else to go, I’d sit right down on the sidewalk with my Kerouac or my Catch-22, just you try and stop me. I smoked weed, listened to the Clash, and snorted at the business monkeys who’d sold out to the Man. Like the modernists, I was hot to change the world, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how. At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to let the world change me. I was Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine. I was Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad’s Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies. (2)

After reading Emma as a college student, Deresiewicz says Austen’s attention to “all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends” punctured his self-importance, and helped him to take life seriously—life as it is actually lived and not how it is contrived in modernist literature:

What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow. I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel. I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person. (33)

* * *

My ideas about literature were no more able to survive these revelations than were my ideas about anything else. Having worshipped at the altar of modernism, with its arrogant postures and lofty notions of philosophical significance, I believed that great literature had to be forbidding and esoteric: full of allusions that flaunted their own learning, dense with images and symbols that had to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. A book, to be really valuable, had to offer truths that seemed as recondite as metaphysics and as final as Scripture—had to promise to reveal the nature of language, or the self, or time. Modernism was superior art for superior people, or so that snobbiest of literary movements believed. No wonder I disdained the herd; I’d learned that pose from T. S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov, every line of whose work strutted its contempt for ordinary people. Emma refuted the notion that great literature must be difficult, and it also rebuked the human attitudes that that idea was designed to justify. I still loved modernism, I just no longer believed it was the only way to make art, and I certainly didn’t think that it was the way to live. (34)

When Deresiewicz compares Joyce’s Ulysses, “the modernist novel par excellence”, with Austen’s Emma, he sides with Emma because its style does not get in the way of its substance:

As any English major can tell you, Ulysses also celebrate the everyday. With it, Joyce sought to create a work that was comparable in artistic majesty and cosmic scope to the great epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, the summit of Western literature, but at its center he placed, not a heroic figure like Achilles or Odysseus, but the most unremarkable man he could think of, a Jewish advertising agent named Leopold Bloom—a sad sack, a cuckold, a loner, a loser. The novel’s epic grandeur comes instead form the symbolic structures that Joyce builds around him, starting with the title. Unbeknownst to the man himself, Bloom becomes a modern-day Ulysses, his single day’s journey around Dublin a contemporary equivalent, in miniature, of his predecessor’s ten years of wandering among gods and monsters.

The gesture is exhilarating, even ennobling. Like Austen, Joyce was saying that every life, including yours, is heroic in its own way. But the reason Ulysses had never brought me to the recognitions that Emma did was precisely the means by which Joyce had chosen to say it. So obtrusive were those symbolic structures, so ostentatious were Joyce’s artistic effects, that you finally got the sense that Bloom’s importance had nothing whatsoever to do with Bloom and everything to do with his creator. Bloom’s robes were borrowed; it was not his life that was worthy of notice after all, but the artistic treatment to which that life had been subject. The figure Bloom’s story ultimately magnifies is Joyce himself—the one incomparable artist, not the everyman. From this perspective, the message of Ulysses was the very opposite of Austen’s. Ordinary life is important only because of what a James Joyce can do with it. Aside from that, your life isn’t very important at all.

As it happens, someone once tried to tell me about a theory she had heard that Emma itself—by critical consensus Austen’s greatest work—was designed to be a kind of epic, too, Austen’s subtler contribution to the same high tradition that Joyce would so loudly seek to enter a century later. The picnic episode, where Emma hit bottom, morally speaking, was supposed to be the novel’s version of the hero’s descent to the underworld, the central convention of Western epic, and so on and so forth. This, keep in mind, was a fan of Austen who was making me this argument; to her, it exalted her favorite author to the status of the big boys. But to me, it utterly missed the point of what Austen was trying to do—even, in a sense, disparaged it. We don’t need to pretend that Austen’s novels are really epics in disguise in order to value them as highly as they deserve. She didn’t need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good, and every bit as grand. Austen glorified the everyday on its own terms—without the glamour of Joyce, and modernism, and epic archetypes, and the whole repertoire of epic conventions. What she offered us, if we’re willing to see it, is just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies. (35-36)

Memorization, or how poems become authorless inside us


Gari Melchers, “Woman Reading By a Window” (1895)

As a literature teacher, I have been reflecting on my neglect of memorized and recited poetry. Why own “poetical real estate” in the mind? What is the good of “mental husbandry”? With the convenience of technology, why fix any verse in “the architecture of the brain”?

Molly Worthen, a scholar of North American religious and intellectual history, wrote an article in The New York Times, “Memorize That Poem!“, that accounts for the rise and fall of this practice in homes and schools. Here are the salient excerpts:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.

Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?

In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.

For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.


Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Is it difficult to learn a poem by heart? Of course. But it is mainly a matter of diligent practice, with many pathways to success. Do you struggle with the printed page? The Poetry Foundation’s website will recite poems to you over and over again, and YouTube is packed with fearless souls declaiming to the internet. Do you dread the thought of speaking up spontaneously? You might find a memorized text empowering — as Ms. Huggins, the Poetry Out Loud winner, did. “That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

The challenge is partly the point. When Jason Jones told students in his survey of British literature at Central Connecticut State University that they would have to memorize three poems of at least 20 lines each, he was prepared for groans and cries of outrage. “I was interested in messing around a little with the mutual nonaggression pact between teachers and students, the one that says, ‘As long as you don’t expect too much from us beyond a couple of papers, a midterm and a final, we’ll perform for you and we’ll all get through this,’ ” he told me. “I was interested in things that will bring students into closer contact with the material in the class.”

Colleagues teased Mr. Jones about “how there’d be lines outside my door of students quietly weeping or looking like they were about to vomit,” he said. “I’d stare at a copy of the poem to prompt them, or turn and look away if they wanted.” In the end, he said, “their worst fears were typically not confirmed.”

Mr. Jones didn’t try to sell his students on a profound spiritual experience or practice in public speaking. Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.

In his New Yorker article, “Why We Should Memorize Poetry,” Brad Leithauer, a poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher, posits:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

Writer Jim Holt addresses the process of memorization in his New York Times article, “Got Poetry?“:

A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading. Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, had a similar mnemonic gift. Christopher Hitchens — who carries around in his head a small anthology of verse, all of which, as his friend Ian McEwan says, is “instantly neurologically available” — also seems to absorb poems by osmosis. (Or maybe he swots them up late at night after his dinner-party guests have all passed out.) Richard Howard once told me that he eased into the memorization habit as a child, when his parents rewarded him with a dime for each poem he learned.

For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

Last month I came across an arresting passage on memorized poetry in He Held Radical Light, a memoir of the contemporary poet Christian Wiman:

I met Seamus Heaney in person only once, at a dinner in Chicago after a reading he did for Poetry during my last year in the magazine. A few months later he would be dead. Meeting him was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me, so unmediated that I flinched whenever he got the cadence “wrong” in one of my particular favorites.

As soon as I read it, I realized that I do not know an author’s work “simply by heart,” let alone “by bone and nerve.” Accepting the challenge for poems to “become authorless inside me,” I have joined my students in memorizing the most beautiful speech that occurs in Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part 1. Already, I am discovering things that may go unnoticed if only reading the poem: the rhythms are internalized, the images are alive, and the diction is felt.

In conclusion, hanging a poem in the gallery of our mind helps us —

  • to better appreciate poetry
  • to cultivate a habit of loving attentiveness
  • to care for words in a world marked by empty and flat discourse
  • to have words at our disposal in a moment when our own words falter or fail
  • to grapple with the exigencies and vicissitudes of human life
  • to express ourselves more fluently
  • to interpret poetry more profoundly
  • to feel more deeply
  • to connect with the divine
  • to entertain others
  • to enter imaginative spaces that expand the self
  • to intuit how language works
  • to boost self-confidence in public speaking
  • to channel the poet
  • to improve mental health, recollection, neural plasticity, and creativity


“In me there are two souls”


“Faust and Wagner” by Eugène Delacroix (1828)

For several years, I have read and taught Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterpiece of German Romantic drama, Faust: Part I. We use David Luke’s acclaimed English translation that was awarded the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1989. My favorite passage comes from Scene 5, “Outside the Town Wall,” when Faust and his companion, Wagner, experience the rapture of nature on an Easter Sunday walk. Escaping the “stifling prison-hole” of his study and the “paper world” of scholarship, Faust feels resurrected by the sun, longing to remain in its light as the day fades into night. Like that “long-legged grasshopper / Which hops and flies, and sings it silly songs / And flies, and drops straight back to grass where it belongs,” as Mephistopheles characterizes human beings, Faust aspires for wings but his flight to celestial heights is maddeningly ephemeral; he returns to the earth humbled, if not humiliated. Faust, like the rest of us, is riven by two souls: lifted in a transcendental direction as a god, then pulled in an imminent direction as a worm. The challenge is to embrace our true self rather than its abject distortions, as Faust recalls but is apt to forget, “I, God’s own image! Ah, how close it shone, / The mirror of eternal verity!”

Look how they gleam in the last light of day,
Those little huts with green all round them!
Evening has come, our sun is westering now—
But it speeds on to bring new life elsewhere.
Oh if some wings would raise me, if somehow
I could follow its circuit through the air!
For then as I strove onwards I should see
A silent sunset world forever under me,
The hills aglow, the valleys lost in dreams,
The silver brooks poured into golden streams;
No mountain-range would stop me, not with all
Its rugged chasms; at divine speed I fly,
The sea already greets my wondering eye
With its warm gulfs where now the sun’s rays fall.
Now the god seems at last to sink and set,
But a new impulse drives me yet:
I hasten on to drink his endless light,
The day ahead, behind my back the night,
The sky above me and the waves below . . .
A pleasing dream; but the sun vanishes
And it is over. Wings, alas, may grow
Upon our soul, but still our body is
Earthbound. And yet, by inborn instinct given
To each of us, our hearts rise up and soar
For ever onwards, when we hear the lark outpour
Its warbling song, lost in the blue of heaven,
Or when we see the wing-spread eagle hover
Above wild cliffs which pine-trees cover,
Or across marsh and lakeland watch the crane
Fly homeward to its native haunts again. (lines 1070-1099)

* * *

In me there are two souls, alas, and their
Division tears my life in two.
One loves the world, it clutches her, it binds
Itself to her, clinging with furious lust;
The other longs to soar beyond the dust
Into the realms of high ancestral minds.
Are there no spirits moving in the air,
Ruling the region between earth and sky?
Come down then to me from your golden mists on high,
And to new, many-coloured life, oh take me there!
Give me a magic cloak to carry me
Away to some far place, some land untold,
And I’d not part with it for silk or gold
Or a king’s crown, so precious it would be! (lines 1112-1125)

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

9780374717810Christian Wiman is a gifted poet who formerly edited Poetry and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. Over Labor Day Weekend, I read his new memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (2018). Entitled after A. R. Ammon’s poem of the same name, the subtitle provides a greater clue about its subject, which Wiman formulates as a question in the book: “Is the question ‘What does an authentic life in poetry look like?’ the same as asking ‘What does an authentic faith look like?'” (93).

I first became acquainted with Wiman when my friend, Sean, gifted me with a signed and dated copy of his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (2013). I doubt that this work is “destined to become a spiritual classic,” as the publisher wagers, and I disagree with Ilya Kaminsky’s effusive endorsement: “In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text.” Nevertheless, Wiman’s fierce honesty, searching faith, and—at times—luminous writing earn my respect.

When I gave a copy of My Bright Abyss to Joey, a former student, I could never have predicted that Wiman would become a resonant voice for him. “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” I am grateful that Joey has come to share my professional and personal enthusiasm for literature. We travel in the same direction, even when our taste in writers are not always shared. Our friendship involves an exchange of literary riches. Just as I have encouraged some of Joey’s reading endeavors, he has encouraged mine, including some poems from Wiman’s Hammer is the Prayer, a volume that brings together three decades of work selected by the poet.

It is difficult to explain why one person befriends a writer and another does not. Temperament, aesthetic, enculturation, mimesis, and education all influence taste. While I recognize the merits of Wiman’s prose and poetry, I have not experienced “the rescuing effect” of his art because, it seems, I am not his target audience, which he identified in an interview:

I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.

With an education in the great books of the Western canon, a vocation in classical Christian schooling, and an adherence to creedal Christianity, I am not an “unbelieving believer,” nor is my consciousness “completely modern.” In a review of My Bright Abyss, Reformed theologian Peter Leithart speaks to his ambivalent experience of reading Wiman, which consists of admiration and frustration “to the point of irritation.” He writes:

Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)

Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”

I am ambivalent about Wiman’s ambivalence on matters of faith: on the one hand, it avoids hackneyed pieties and expresses honest doubt; on the other hand, it may inadvertently blunt pious devotion and enshrine doubt. A good example of this equivocation, which occurs repeatedly in his writing, can be found in He Held Radical Light: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means” (7-8). Wiman thinks both answers may be “equally accurate,” which may comfort the unbelieving believer but discomforts the believing believer, who can reasonably maintain that God is the only correct answer. Is Wiman accounting for different points of view, or betraying his own relativism? Does equivocation reveal defiant or timorous disbelief?

There is benefit to reading an author that leaves you deeply ambivalent because the tensions provokes a desire to clarify your thinking and feeling. For that reason, I am grateful to engage Wiman’s latest book. He Held Radical Light deserves attention for its central paradox, which can be regarded as a needful reproach to Percy Bysshe Shelley and all who believe that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: like a wide-eyed watchman, Christian Wiman is alert where others are drowsy to the element of overweening that sneaks into his guild and takes hold, resulting in the fancy that poetry saves; he fights this pretentious enemy, insisting that “poetry is not enough,” and yet everything must be given to crafting words that will not survive the poet or the reader. This understanding of the artist, which does not forfeit dedication or passion for humility, recognizes that the deepest hungers of the human being are satisfied outside of art, while art gives those hungers their force and vividness.

Here are a few salient passages that rattle around in my head after reading the book:

What is it that we want when we can’t stop wanting? “Lord,” prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, “give us what you have already given.” (42)

I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make. (66-67)

I don’t really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. (83)

What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting?  Form? Order? Yes, certainly those things, something to both speak and spare the turmoil of my own consciousness, something to protect and preserve me from the ramifying reality of impersonal space and matter long before I had science to confirm these things, and long before I had my own malevolent cells to ram that fact into my heart. But after all this, what I know is that poetry is not enough, and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one. “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.”

Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, you must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you. “If you don’t believe in poetry,” said Stevens, “you cannot write it.” He might have added (and perhaps, implicitly, he did): If you cannot believe in what poetry—in all of its forms, even the wordless ones—has revealed to you, you cannot survive it.

And of all those revelations, a certain “sacred weakness,” as Maritain calls it, is key. (Thank you for my losses is the prayer that a friend of mine—also a poet, also a patient—found herself bafflingly but joyfully praying recently.) To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, like the missing stitch that certain master craftsmen weave into their rugs as an act of piety meant both to imply and appease the original Maker, but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that we cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure. (112-113)

NOTE: I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for sending me a courtesy review copy of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light. 

American poetry is a tale of two cities

For those of us who love poetry, I recommend a new article by Dana Gioia, an award-winning poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for Arts, “The State of Poetry: Loud and Live” (Los Angeles Times). He begins:

AMERICAN POETRY IS thriving. American poetry is in decline. The poetry audience has never been bigger. The audience has dropped to historic lows. The mass media ignores poetry. The media has rediscovered it. There have never been so many opportunities for poets. American poets find fewer options each year. The university provides a vibrant environment for poets. Academic culture has become stagnant and remote. Literary bohemias have been destroyed by gentrification and rising real estate prices. New bohemias have emerged across the nation. All of these contradictory statements are true, and all of them are false, depending on your point of view. The state of American poetry is a tale of two cities.

Gioia examines poetry’s current audience (print versus performance), its new media presence, its following in elite culture and popular culture, its role in the university, and its promises and perils in the “new bohemia.” He concludes:

The situation of poetry is impossible to describe but easy to summarize. No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places. There is considerable continuity with the past. The traditional ways in which poetry has been written, read, and evaluated still have relevance, but those methods don’t always seem very useful in understanding new developments. Old theories (including postmodern ones) are incommensurate with the present realities. There is no emerging mainstream replacing a dying old order. There is no mainstream at all — only more alternatives. The best metaphor is not death but birth. The poetry scene isn’t a cemetery; it’s a crowded, noisy maternity ward.

So don’t panic. Poetry is not in danger, at least no more than usual. New forms of poetry don’t eliminate established forms, though they do influence and modify them. Culture is not binary but dialectical. A new generation of poets and readers drawn from every segment of society is expanding the art to meet new needs and seize new opportunities. Poetry now has as many categories as popular music. What plays at Harvard won’t get anyone on the dance floor in East Los Angeles, and that’s just fine. All styles are possible, all approaches open, and everyone is invited.

POST SCRIPT: In Gioia’s article, he mentions televised evocations of poetry. Naturally, I  hunted down the sources, which are now linked in his paragraph below in case you want to watch them. I really like the Volvo and Apple commercials featuring Walt Whitman.

If anyone doubts poetry’s new media presence, they should turn on the television. In recent years, poetry has become a code for sophistication. Sometimes entire poems are quoted. More often lines are quoted at critical junctures of the plot — sometimes with acknowledgment, sometimes without. Occasionally, a poem appears throughout an entire series as a thematic signal. Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The Mentalist employed William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Poetry is now even used in commercials. Volvo adapted Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” Apple iPad presented Robin Williams crooning the Good Gray Bard’s “O Me! O Life!

Curtis Fox, host of Poetry Off the Shelf, addressed commercial poetry on his podcast. He interviews Karen Karbiener, who teaches on the legacy of Walt Whitman at New York University. They explore how Whitman has been the subject of use in advertising agencies, including Levi’s commercial with a recording of Whitman reading “America” and Apple’s commercial mentioned above. Karbiener says Whitman would have welcomed the commercial exposure. I appreciated her explication of “O Me! O Life!”.