by Alana Roberts
Madeleine L’Engle’s earthly life began in 1918 and ended in 2007. When she was born, the world was only 17 years out from the end of the Victorian period. When she passed away—well, it was nine years ago. I don’t know what you were doing then, but I was mostly trying to keep my toddler out of the street, if memory serves. During L’Engle’s lifespan, the world of poetry worked through some pretty hefty challenges. Matthew Arnold, the most notable Victorian critic, had placed a burden on poetry that it has yet to recover from to our own day: he charged it with the duty, as he saw it, of replacing religion. As such, it was to become wholly serious, dignified, and elevated.
What would happen, in such a pass, to the delightfully frivolous poem—like this one from an anonymous poet?
Ye little snails,
With slippery tails,
Who noiselessly travel
Along this gravel,
By a silvery trail of slime unsightly,
I learn that you visit my pea-rows nightly.
Felonious your visit, I guess!
And I give you this warning That, every morning,
I’ll strictly examine the pods;
And if one I hit on,
With slaver or spit on,
Your next meal will be with the gods …
Would it be forbidden? Or just become a lost art, like staining glass?
It’s worth noting precisely why religion needed replacing, in Arnold’s view. In his 1880 essay on the subject, he quotes himself from an earlier work thusly:
There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it.
Darwin to begin with, of course. Without a historical first Adam, the relevance of the New Adam to the whole human race seemed suddenly, well, nothing upon which you wanted to base national policy. The voices trying to explain that there were ways to reconcile all this got lost in the cultural uproar. And those details of biblical history that archeology was questioning—how could Matthew Arnold foresee how Israeli archeology would eventually debunk so many tenuous but scholastically respectable proofs of the Bible’s historical worthlessness?
Did you realize before how immediately the philosophy of evolution affected the seemingly removed and esoteric art of poetry?
Poesy has responded to Arnold’s dicta and tried to bear a burden of seriousness that is hardly natural to it. That happened.
Hospital’s oval door
where perfect tulips flower the health of a thousand sick souls
trembling inside hospital rooms.
Triboro bridge steel-spiked
penthouse orange roofs, sunset tinges the river and in a few
Bronx windows, some magnesium vapor brilliances ‘re
spotted five floors above E 59th St under grey painted bridge trestles.
Way downstream along the river, as Monet saw Thames
100 years ago, Con Edison smokestacks 14th street,
& Brooklyn Bridge’s skeined dim in modern mists—
Pipes sticking up to sky nine smokestacks huge visible—
It’s meant to blur together, like the “beat” consciousness.
That was several decades ago: decades L’Engle lived and wrote in. It’s old news that (in reaction to the multitudinous “schools” of poetry that contended to redefine the art throughout the twentieth century) poetry can be “about anything.” It can, apparently, be about the specks of dirt on the floor of a Starbucks or that time your cousin coughed. Or poetry can be about tampons or toilet paper.
For that matter, it might as well be about nothing, like the poet’s idea of life.
To a Christian poet who finds himself looking for the original lost stream of tradition—who descends, artistically, from poets who never bought into Arnold’s dictum in the first place—this reactionary and blaring assertion is baffling and exhausting—and most importantly, unnecessary. We don’t need tampon poetry because we never bought into Arnold’s dismissal of Chaucer as not serious enough. The Wife of Bath will do very well for a poetry of human triviality, thank you kindly.
For a literature of the bawdy, well, there’s Rabelais—can any of us outdo him? I thought not!
… the child sprang up and leaped, and so, entering into the hollow vein, did climb by the diaphragm even above her shoulders, where the vein divides itself into two, and from thence taking his way towards the left side, issued forth at her left ear. As soon as he was born, he cried not as other babes use to do, Miez, miez, miez, miez, but with a high, sturdy, and big voice shouted about, Some drink, some drink, some drink, as inviting all the world to drink with him. The noise thereof was so extremely great, that it was heard in both the countries at once of Beauce and Bibarois. I doubt me, that you do not thoroughly believe the truth of this strange nativity. Though you believe it not, I care not much: but an honest man, and of good judgment, believeth still what is told him, and that which he finds written.
Is this beyond our law or our faith–against reason or the holy Scripture? For my part, I find nothing in the sacred Bible that is against it. But tell me, if it had been the will of God, would you say that he could not do it? Ha, for favour sake, I beseech you, never emberlucock or inpulregafize your spirits with these vain thoughts and idle conceits; for I tell you, it is not impossible with God, and, if he pleased, all women henceforth should bring forth their children at the ear. Was not Bacchus engendered out of the very thigh of Jupiter? Did not Roquetaillade come out at his mother’s heel, and Crocmoush from the slipper of his nurse? Was not Minerva born of the brain, even through the ear of Jove? Adonis, of the bark of a myrrh tree; and Castor and Pollux of the doupe of that egg which was laid and hatched by Leda? But you would wonder more, and with far greater amazement, if I should now present you with that chapter of Plinius, wherein he treateth of strange births, and contrary to nature, and yet am not I so impudent a liar as he was. Read the seventh book of his Natural History, chap.3, and trouble not my head any more about this.
Bracing, isn’t it? How limp in comparison, how mired and miry, are the stories and poems editors admire now—even the profane ones!
But the over-seriousness, and reactionary bland triviality of much modern poetry is only part of the story. Because between Arnold and us loom the World Wars.
The proverbial sensitive soldier, whose mind the first World War nearly founders, is still part of our folk consciousness. This actually happened—this or death—to many talented and irreplaceable poets. The first World War, especially, wounded not only individual soldiers, but the whole English-speaking poetic world. You can see the difference in any anthology—poems after 1917 are shockingly removed from the previous tradition.
The nearly archetypal image of the war-foundered poet speaks to a more general feeling—that the shocking and horrific suffering involved in modern warfare debunks the opposing goodness—the sweet things, the delicate things, the hopeful and the joyful things. (And if poetry is the new religion, its duty is to confront this fact.)
No philosophical system had ever said (so far as I know) that extreme goodness could not exist in the same world with extreme badness—but then, following WWII, one seemingly did. Famously, Theodor Adorno (a German philosopher) said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. He really meant, apparently (though I’m no expert), that if you were an artist of thought, you could not simply ignore the vital and all-encompassing question that the tortured person asks himself—why, and how, can one go on living (and poeticizing) in such a world—a world where, as he says in reference to a Sartre play—“all one’s bones are smashed.” Hidden in that assertion is the assumption that poetry can only do one thing: contemplate goodness, not evil. Yet that is missed by many who have compromised by continuing to write poetry—just Auschwitz-conscious poetry.
It’s not easy to dismiss. We have our own Auschwitz: the crunched bones or salt-burned flesh of offspring whose inarticulately questioning screams are muffled by amniotic fluid.
It is difficult—agonizingly difficult—for a person of any sensitivity to leap, in his mind, from the appreciation of that question to the contemplation of goodness. Yet contemplation is the special function of art. It is what a poet must do; it is what poetry helps us do when we read it.
So does the sensitive and ethical poet turn his art to the contemplation of evil? That question was floating around during L’Engle’s career. Traditionally, it is the contemplation of the good (whether as unrefracted white light, or in its rainbow of experienced and embodied virtues) that art, and poetry by inclusion, have traditionally served. The art was, you might say, invented for that purpose and turns to another with difficulty, with loss of its most characteristic elements. All these years out, it is possible to see that loss in contemporary poetry.
Try 5 sample poems from Poetry Foundation, and I guarantee you’ll find something to open your eyes and delight the mind—but a shadow often lies over it, or a false-cheer floor lies under it. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble on something disturbing, as well. You’ll be lucky to find any ordered form at all. And that concern about modern warfare, statecraft, corporate unculture, and the uglification of nature—about all the ways in which we’ve become accustomed to the presence in our midst of mechanized violence and totalitarian agonies—is so often made, conscientiously and grimly, into a galling harness for the thoroughbred art. For in the end, it wasn’t poetry but rather politics that replaced religion, and now poetry has got to pay homage.
Not just content, but style is inevitably affected. What traditional technique of poetry has not, by now, largely succumbed to the demand that poetry be written apologetically or else ragingly—under the shadow of all the evils?
Rhyme? Doesn’t it just seem artificial compared to the sufferings of women who make less money than men doing jobs that men invented, while filling up landfills with tv dinner packaging? Or, you know, Rwanda or whatever?
Meter? Please, no—you’d just be propping up the old order that, after all, produced slavery and colonialism!
The sweetness of violets? The daintiness of baby’s feet? The raptures, told yearly in new words, of first love? Why? For God’s sake why? Does it matter? DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
But the Christian or conservative artist feels a warning in all this: for the nature of art is such that we become what we contemplate.
Reduced by all that friendly fire, the average published poem’s primary characteristic is merely blah. Often it seems that the whole point is the effort to be as unlike poetry as possible. Take, for example, the Pushcart ranking of best literary magazines. This year’s winner was Kenyon Review. Here’s a quote from a poem in the current issue, chosen at random:
If only we could only talk with our hands—just
fingers & palms & those small bones, twenty-seven,
distinct, from tip through wrist, most firmly bound—
I’d apologize less for all the wrong things I say.
The problem, I guess, is mouths. So cavernous, maybe.
Maybe. Um, wait—what?
Well, it’s not entirely unpoetic. The place where bones join: it’s not a bad idea for a poem meant to function like the literary version of macro-photography.
But could you read all the way to the bottom of the second poem? Didn’t it all just muddle to gray? It did for me. It is notable precisely for not being notable at all.
In this, the Christians or conservative poet finds himself, once again, faced with the dilemma of being either marginalized and dismissed, or of trying to blend in. That is to say, imitating (because he could never invent) the reduced poetics of his wandering contemporaries, pretending to see nature and humanity through the gray-making virtue-blind glasses that publishable poets wear. Put them on, write as if Auschwitz cancels Calvary—(we have been used to speaking of heavy matters, you see)—and don’t forget to be suitably smug and condescending toward your fellow poets who don’t buy into it.
If you don’t want to wear those glasses, it can actually be a relief to turn from this bog to a critic like the immensely erudite Harold Bloom. I’m grateful for his insistence on the virtues of traditional poetry – he, an agnostic Jew who is Matthew Arnold’s contemporary heir, believes there is a cultural “canon” of poetry which, thankfully does include Chaucer but which excludes everything not “sublime” and “inevitable.”
In his 2004 anthology (a real treasure called The Best Poems of the English Language) we find this tersely staunch standfast: “By concluding with Hart Crane, born in 1899, and by reprinting only half a dozen poems published after 1923, I have largely evaded our contemporary flight from all standards of aesthetic and cognitive value.” And in an 2015 interview he summed up what he thinks is the major distraction that has caused this flight:
In my view, all these ideologies have destroyed literary study in the graduate schools and in the academies. Whether you call it feminism, which is not really feminism, has nothing to do with equal rights for women, or whether you call it transgenderism, or ethnicity, or Marxism, or any of these French manifestations, be it deconstruction or one mode of differential linguistics or another, or whether you call it — what I think is mislabeled — the new historicism, because it’s neither new nor historicism, but simply a dilution of Foucault, a man whom I knew and liked personally, but whose influence I think has been pernicious, just as Derida’s, with whom I also shared a friendship until eventually we broke with each other. All these “isms” are preposterous of course; they have nothing to do with the study of literature or with its originality. As I’ve said before, the esthetic is an individual and not a social concern.
But the poetry Bloom loves is all strenuous climb. Again – what about the snails with slippery tails? Do they deserve to have no poetry written of them? Can there be no Poetry of Little Delights?
More pertinently, can there be worth in minor poets? In flawed poets?
I believe that, provided one doesn’t mentally fudge, and pretend a poet is better than he is, there is value in poets that don’t make the canonical cut. One of the primary values of such poets is that they are us—and we have a need to speak in poetry. Not only is it good for us individually, but it is important because only from a populous pool of shared poetic endeavor rises the truly great poet. If Harold Bloom is right in having more or less given up on the capacity of our age to create great poetry again, then we must go where those preposterous ideologies hold no sway, seek the trickle of pure tradition in the grass, and begin to contribute to it again.
Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.