Madeleine L’Engle and the Dilemma of Christian Poesy in the Modern Culture

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.

Later, it seemed to revolt against that feeling and react to it in various ways. The beat poets weren’t just down and out—they were “beat”—dead tired. Here’s Ginbsburg:

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—
U.
N.

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.

(Go to part 2)

Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Inklings & Company. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to Madeleine L’Engle and the Dilemma of Christian Poesy in the Modern Culture

  1. brian says:

    Alana,

    This is very good and I cannot do it justice, especially as I am almost always writing from my inky desk at work. Like Bartleby, “I prefer not to” — engage in drudgery, that is. I’d much rather contemplate poetics and minor poets and whimsy. And surely, God’s angels are broad and deep and sublime like seraphim, but also winsome and merry and child-like with giggles. (Bulgakov somewhere makes a nice observation about the angels and artists; Catherine Pickstock too on the human imagination and listening to the spirits of the earth.)

    I like Bloom’s contempt for the disaster of ideology and the sophistry that has invaded art and produced very bad poems, but I don’t quite trust him. His gnostic proclivities bother me, though if your chief gnostic is Blake, you might be alright — and I don’t agree with an individual aesthetic that is not also a “social concern” if one means by the latter the bardic participation in community and not shallow allegiance to the trendy issues of the day.

    I am still inspired by folks like T.S. Eliot and Allen Tate, accomplished poets who strove to understand poetics, tradition, history, etc. The recently late Geoffrey Hill wrote difficult poetry, but I think he also worked towards a meaningful poetics. And recollect Lewis Carroll, whose non-sense hides a deceptively keen intellect poking fun at drab, rational mourning bereft of hope because missing all that matters most deeply.

    Liked by 1 person

    • AR says:

      Yes to the differing angels!

      “Social concern” – I didn’t dig into that, but I guess I would want to think first about whether ‘social’ is used to mean, “Of or having to do with society, that is the fellowship of like beings and their corporate activities” – or else, “The organized system that determines the human environment.” The latter I suspect entirely as a term. It implies tyrannical authority that I think art should rightly defy.

      Like

  2. Jonathan says:

    Yes to Geoffrey Hill. Very hard to get a grip on him and he can be insufferably pompous, but a genius of a poet. Among contemporary American poets, if you don’t know them already, Alana, you might check out Christian Wiman and Maurice Manning. I’d plug my wife’s forthcoming book of poetry but I think that’s bad internet manners.

    The 20th century produced some of the greatest poetry ever written, most of it awash in religious and spiritual yearning and much of it quite formally innovative. I wouldn’t trade Wallace Stevens, T S Eliot, René Char, C P Cavafy, Rainer Maria Rilke for the world.

    Let’s not beat up on the Beats too much. The “beat” was meant in a spiritual sense (“beatus”), anything but exhausted. Kerouac was the best of the Beats, though he repudiated the name and moved back to Catholicism from the Buddhism he strove so hard to adopt. Kerouac might have been our last great religious novelist. You don’t get more religious than Kerouac.

    But all these folks I’m mentioning were a long time ago. It does seem like something changed in literary art (all art) after about the middle third of the 20th century. Partly it’s the problem of hindsight. One’s own period always seems to be overflowing with mediocrity, as in truth every period is. In fact there is good writing happening today, perhaps even great writing. There’s Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus. I think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books are very important and wonderfully written. And the Finnish fantasist Leena Krohn, she’s a recent discovery of mine — wonderful writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • AR says:

      I’m sure you’re right! The problem is the filter. One *can* be seduced, though it sounds prudish to say it, by art, by the poisoned apples… I have a sort of conservative old-maidish tendency to read only the books I am certain beforehand will be good. If they repulse me I repulse them. The progress is slow but I maintain control of my mind’s cultivation.

      Like

      • Jonathan says:

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean by a filter. Will that be something you talk about in the coming installments of your article?

        Like

        • AR says:

          Oh just that since there are so many mediocre books one needs a filter to find the best ones. So the discussion is how one filters, the components of the filter.

          Of course I’m not taking about artistic quality directly considered here, which is what mediocrity would fall under. But the same need of filter applies to the distinction I’m making.

          I think the poetry I quoted critically above does what it does very well. I chose the best to contrast with L’Engle, who is not the best. I still prefer her because she gets the basic purpose of art right and they don’t. I think this is related to her decision to be a Christian artist. You see some of the same courage with which, in her novels, she tackles… but that *is* to be found in the next installment.

          Like

        • AR says:

          As far as “beat” here’s a random scholar who thinks it’s a double meaning if that makes a difference.

          “The “Beat” movement was introduced in the late 1940s by author Jack Kerouac and became a major social and literary movement throughout the 1950s. “Beat” suggested the generation’s weariness of conventional society � they were tired of it. However, “beat” also paradoxically implied the rapturous and upbeat nature of the movement, which took its cues from jazz music of that day. Beats were usually known for being non-conformists, apathetic to social and political issues. They alienated themselves from the “square” lifestyle and sought bliss and illumination in things like jazz music, sex, drugs, and the teachings of Zen Buddhism.”

          http://www2.hawaii.edu/~nahl/students/601bibplan-wasnock.htm

          Like

          • AR says:

            Which I think illuminates some of the distinction between Christianity and spirituality. However with so may strident self-righteous social justice voices hippies can be a relief as well.

            With any conservative impulse there is always the danger of resorting to beating the latest degeneracy over the head with an earlier degeneracy.

            Like

          • Jonathan says:

            Yes, well, like I say, Kerouac disavowed his status as a Beat. In his own words: “Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”

            Like

          • Jonathan says:

            And Kerouac certainly didn’t introduce any beat movement in the late 1940s. No one had heard of Kerouac in the late 1940s. His first book, which did poorly, wasn’t published until 1950. On the Road, which made him famous, didn’t come out till 1957 and only after that could he publish other books, many of which he’d written in the early 50s.

            Like

          • AR says:

            It’s just a summary. Technically he was meeting those people and writing those books all through the forties, public non-notoriety notwithstanding. And yeah I get that he said that sometimes, about not being a beatnik. But he also invented the term, after a friend used “beat” to mean “impoverished and out of luck.” He wrote a book and directed a movie that were both almost entitled “The Beat Generation.” And his themes, with the addition of Roman Catholicism, were all beat themes, and his friends were the beat poets.

            Additionally, he was most licentious in his private life and in his writing, and became temporarily Bhuddist… So I still feel that his group demonstrates a progression in society from over serious to fling it all away, and demonstrate how these societal movements affect poetry.

            Because there are certain things a beat poet *cannot* do. He is reduced, because his artistic school is essentially written under the shadow of this post-war disillusionment. It’s saturated with exhaustion over the very attempt to be civilized. The next generation reacts to that in turn by being merely polite and trivial. So I can see why you would prefer the beats to the tampon bards. I see the basic greatness, however disgraced. I also see an earlier stage of degeneracy that however preferable to the mere blahs of today, can’t point the way to artistic recovery.

            So I still stand with the poets who would rather accept diminishment than wear the ring.

            Long story short you can’t apply tight definitions to these guys and they liked it that way. They are interesting but basically dead ends.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    I am poor and you are always making me buy books.

    Like

    • brian says:

      P.S. I’m afraid to get pulled into the mammoth ouevre of Knausgaard. I just added Leena Krohn to my list of wanted books. Is the Kerouac Library of America the best single volume to get or do you recommend otherwise? Agree about your list of great twentieth century poets, btw, minus Char who I have not read. One probably doesn’t need to list him, but Yeats, I love Yeats. I like Yves Bonnefoy, too.

      I live on a “metaphorical” island. I miss folks who love poetry and take it seriously.

      Like

      • Jonathan says:

        Knausgaard is huge, but he reads very quickly.

        I’m with you on Yeats and Bonnefoy. You know Bonnefoy translated Yeats and wrote a wonderful essay on the process.

        Kerouac is tricky. I don’t know how to talk about him well or recommend him responsibly. He can completely turn people off, especially the sort of people who self-describe as conservative or religious. Although that’s actually how Kerouac self-described at the end of his troubled life. I call him a religious novelist not only because that’s how he conceived himself, but because if the religious man is, as I think Christopher Dawson said, the man of desire — well, that’s Kerouac, you see it on almost every page. In some ways, certainly in many parts of his body of work, he was a failure of a writer. But he was also daring and a visionary, and one who craved a maximally erotic life, in the fullest sense of Eros. Anyway, my favorite Kerouac books are the Lowell MA novels, Visions of Gerard and Maggie Cassidy, about his older saintly brother who died in childhood and his high school love, respectively. On the Road is justly famous. I’d read Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. But those Lowell novels. They break your heart. So Kerouac is not what Alana is looking for, a writer of the comedic worldview. He is not a Chestertonian Catholic, more of a Via Crucis Catholic.

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          Thanks, Jonathan. I may be somewhere between you and Alana in sensibility, but I will give Kerouac a try. Some of the way you describe him reminds me of the way Berdyaev talks about artists and poets. And I suppose I will give Knausgaard a shot as well.

          More in the way of theory, but have you read Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern? It’s good and I hope you haven’t. Need to balance out the ledger . . .

          Like

          • brian says:

            And I think you should mention your wife’s forthcoming book of poetry. It’s fine to demur out of a fine sense of etiquette, but chivalry and the love of language should overcome such niceties.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Jonathan says:

            Ha, yes indeed, quid pro quo. Have not read the Pfau, into the list it goes.

            Like

  4. AR says:

    Hi guys, thanks! This section was just meant to set the stage for the issues that were swirling around Madeleine L’Engle as she poeticized. I don’t really blame most anyone for the way they responded to those problems but I do think it’s unwise for Christian poets to buy into non-Christian responses to questions that we would have framed differently in the first place. I think Christian artists often don’t realize that’s what they are doing when they imitate current or recent artistic trends. Every aspect of the artistic tradition, from form to subject, imports the assumptions of some philosophy and I think it’s important to try to discern what those are. As I will go into in the next section, one of the most important differences between Christian art and art that is essentially a reaction to evil (not really dealing with third options here) is the direction of contemplation. One can and should depict evil, but never contemplate evil. Since art is contemplation made permanent, this is a real problem in a world where evil has become one of the primary obstacles to a mindset that could poeticize in the traditional manner.

    At the same time we are part of culture and cannot just walk away from society’s issues and problems… so I want to survey how Christian poets handled these challenges. L’Engle as a sort of folk poet was a good place to start as I think her responses to these challenges were emphatic without pretending to operate on a scholarly level.

    There’s some understandable confusion about my approach to Harold Bloom. The text above is missing a paragraph that accidentally got lost in edits. Basically, my criticism of Bloom is the same as of Arnold, whose literary heir he is. At the same time, he’s refreshing because he’s a throwback. (He’s a third option, maybe.) Anyhow, he’s useful as a witness to how a completely non-Christian critic who is steeped in the literary tradition we stand in can conclude that current cultural conditions have made it nearly impossible to produce anything of real value – we have to move the goalposts waaaaayyy downfield to pretend otherwise. My response to him is two-fold; yes and no.

    Yes, the high-scholarly world’s taste in poetry is misanthropic and degenerate and most importantly, dictated by criteria that are not in any way artistic or scholarly – they are instead ideological. But no, not all good art has to be sublime. Sublime is good but there are some other traditional virtues that need to be rescued as well.

    Here’s the missing paragraph, which comes in after “…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.” “

    Liked by 1 person

  5. AR says:

    Reblogged this on Curmudgeon In Training and commented:
    I am privileged to have part one of my article on Madeleine L’Engle’s poetry published over at Fr. Al Kimel’s blog. Check it out and join the conversation!

    Like

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Speaking of the Beat movement, has anyone heard of Black Mountain College? It was pretty avant garde in the 40s and 50s. It was closed down in the late 50s and the property was developed as summer boys camp, Camp Rockmont. I attended Rockmont six wonderful summers. But I didn’t see any poets hiding out in the woods. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      Ha! No way. I didn’t know it became a boys camp. Is that what it still is? Black Mountain was an interesting experiment. There were some important poets affiliated with it: Creeley, Olson, Duncan, Levertov.

      Like

    • AR says:

      Interesting connection!

      Well, I can only give you my brief impression of Black Mountain Poetry, which I wouldn’t willingly imbibe. As you seemed to know, it’s connected to Beat poetry. Out of that general whirpool in the downward rush grew the “language” school of poetry. Basically, BMP is extremely cynical about the possibility of any reality existing behind aesthetic judgments. Language poetry goes further and basically bursts into self-destructive flames of utter un-ness. Unspeech, unform, unmeaning… it’s the poetic parallel to the kind of painting people sometimes pretend to get that is only “about” paint. So this poetry is “about” language. Not language as it actually exists – in its warm wet sloppy fulness as a muscular extension of the human mind capable of this amazing power of *reference*; but language as you know it when you doubt everything exists but the letters on the page.

      Its effect on the person who engages in the contemplation, or un-contemplation, that it invites us to, is of course apathy, shrugs, directionlessness, purposelessness, doubt, incoherence, and self-referential aesthetic indulgence. On the whole, its effect is unappealing, which is why the college didn’t last long. It doesn’t jive with human nature. And no one reads language poetry because it is unreadable, except to demonstrate one’s familiarity with important stuff.

      But because it *was* considered important (mainly because its own publications insisted it was) this movement, or these movements, managed to release a malaise that spread over the entire cultural and artistic landscape. It’s a pervasive doubt in the ability of mankind to make meaningful judgments or any kind, to have correct sentiments, or proper preferences, or just feelings or truthful approximations of reality spinning in the head. (It correlates to a similar doubt in the ability of what undergirds religion to have any meaning.)This kind of thing happened at every level – it *is* post-modernism. It led to un-education, un-philosophy, and un-music (John Cage attended BMC and his most famous piece is a several-page composition of sheet music with no notes in it.)

      It’s extremely difficult not to characterize it all as a war on man, on being, and on goodness. And I do connect it to the beat poets because they were the folk-level proponents of that attitude you see in Adorno on a philosophical level. Basically, that the evil of war has debunked the goodness of everything else. Where else could we go once we had accepted that?

      This kind of thing can only be defended by the use of contemptuous code-words and an irritating unwillingness to examine the rational bona fides of the whole mad tumble. It cannot defend itself otherwise because it has already debunked the appeal to any outside-existing standard.

      I take refuge from it all in Barfield’s “Saving The Appearances,” which does acknowledge human participation in the creation of reality as man has always known it, without finding that this debunks reality as man has always known it. In every philosophical “discover,” however mad, you can find someone sane who tells you what it was supposed to be, if it had not instead become utter repudiation. Of what? Doesn’t matter. Just – repudiation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • AR says:

        Correction… Cage didn’t attend but rather taught there.

        Like

      • AR says:

        And now we know what the pervasive cultural “zombie” parable is about. 🙂

        Like

      • Jonathan says:

        I can’t agree with this assessment of Black Mountain at all. The poets I mentioned that were associated with it have nothing to do with Language poetics. That came along later, and by the way is very much passé now. You are to some extent reacting to a literary moment that has gone by. I share some of your disappointment with that very deconstructionist school of poetics, but I think you are being far too combative.

        Like

        • brian says:

          Jonathan,

          I sympathize with Alana’s polemic against an invasive nihilism that eats away at the heart and makes art impossible. But I can like a poet like Anna Swir who has no clear religious hope. She has a reverence before reality that participates in faith, probably unbeknownst to herself. Likewise, I am open to a vagabond, bohemian, perhaps profligate and wounded Kerouac being in touch with something transcendent and with the real experienced as transient and soaked in sorrow. Anyway, I think I see both your points, but the particular movement you allude to is outside my acquaintance.

          Like

          • Jonathan says:

            I just think people don’t realize how much honest yearning for the transcendent is coming back into literature. Alana strikes me as reacting to roughly the 1980s and 1990s.

            Like

          • Jonathan says:

            Around 1989/1990 the great critic George Steiner skewered the postmodernist aesthetics — or anasthetics, it should perhaps be — that were ascendant at that time, in his brilliant book Real Presences. Every Christian who cares about literary art should read it, the book’s central insight about language is as relevant as ever. However, the cultural moment with which it was directly engaging has passed. In academia, as in publishing, no one is waxing sophistically about free floating signifiers anymore.

            Like

          • AR says:

            No one needs to wax sophistically about it; the damage has already been done.

            Such ideas are never really believed. Once the damage is done, everyone moves on to something new – leaving behind an artistic landscape littered with stray assumptions and aesthetic incapacities.

            Then it is left to the conservative clean-up crew to dredge it all up again and make the more current roll their eyes. To say, “This is why you do what you do. It’s not obvious; it’s not necessary; its philosophical credentials have been abandoned. We can go back.”

            We can go back.

            Like

  7. SB says:

    Eh… As something of a poet myself, this seems like a subject I should care about, and yet I don’t. As I see it, we really do live in a post-modern age, meaning simply that there is no coherent cultural project or unified field of appreciation/criticism. Instead there are all kinds of different people doing their various different things and speaking to various niche communities. These days the vast majority of people get their poetry from music lyrics, and we know how diverse those worlds are. Your critique seems to be of the specific academic culture of poetry, which may believe itself to be the great inheritor and bearer of the western tradition, although I see no reason to accept this claim. Nor am I convinced that the “-isms” or any other philosophical agenda are the central problem of academic poetry. Rather it just seems to reflect the general character of the academic scene: a small, self-referential community of people whose employment and status depend on producing quantities of important-sounding verbiage and engaging with each other’s verbiage, regardless of having anything interesting, inspired, or important to say.

    Thanks to the other commenters for some reading suggestions. I have a great appreciation for all the mentioned authors whose writing I already know, so it seems I am among the like-minded.

    Like

    • Jonathan says:

      This is well stated and I agree. It is the Age of Niches. That is absolutely how the publishing world sees sings. And it’s the case with Christianity as well, both within Christianity, and with respect to the religion taken as a whole in relation to the rest of the culture.

      Like

  8. brian says:

    I don’t know if it’s bad form to repost something one has written elsewhere, but I’m going to do so. Carl R. Trueman writes on First Things and he often presents a very pessimistic vision of what he calls our contemporary anti-culture. And he is certainly correct about the maladies, artistic and spiritual, that we struggle with. Nonetheless, I felt the extreme negativity expressed in his recent essay, “Lost in Xanadu” was too despairing. Not to place myself fully above all that. I am often reduced to sighs. Yet whether we are reduced to niches or not, I don’t worry about it. I don’t want to emulate a Stoic retreat from the great unwashed — or rather, I probably do, I am much taken with Evelyn Waugh’s romantic hatred for the modern, the vulgar, the egalitarian. I empathize with his anguish and partly laugh at his mocking embrace of the grotesque as a protest against the consumer age and it’s mawkish, dreadful art. Still, when my courage is renewed, I don’t worry about niches or anything like that. I am caught up in beauty and hope and contemplation of the Cosmos rescued, the Body of Christ as redeeming and making new, and I try to create art that sings, that praises, that is well-made. And I really don’t worry about an audience. I do want to satisfy my own artistic aspirations and naturally, I’d prefer to speak for and to a community, but my expectation is that maybe I will reach a few souls who have walked a certain path and are perhaps listening for a voice that matches their own desires and confusions. I hope my art is prayer and praise and because I am the sort I am, it is also wrestling with the angel and shaking a fist, but also wonder and being enraptured by the beauty of the loving God.

    So, below is what I said to Carl, who was too gloomy, Eliot in the Wasteland, before The Four Quartets:

    Quite a jeremiad. One cannot dispense with language or image or the myriad ways that culture communicates itself. Charles Taylor talks about the “social imaginary.” If Xanadu equals Lotus Eaters equals entirely solipsistic retreat from reality, the destructive consequences will eventually reach the man or woman who is trapped in such indulgence. Great art and saintly lives will always have the capacity to break through, because God is not incapable of saving the lost beloved. Beauty and holiness is not feeble. The kenosis of God’s presence in our Fallen world is not absence. A low, self-satisfied depravity that is celebrated, even by intellectual elites who justify the worst by sophistry and their own culpable flight from truth and goodness may yet be challenged by daring and serious thought, by the radiance of life, the mystery of the Cross, by grace that may act in innumerable ways as simple as the right word or deed at the propitious moment. The Holy Spirit is stronger than the spirit of the age and we do ourselves a disservice by falling into despair just because the world gives us a picture of dust and nausea, ersatz festivity that hides an empty, despairing frivolity. And there is always Silence and prayer and confidence that the Risen Lord is indeed victorious. We may be living through a cultural Good Friday or perhaps the uncertainty and fear of Holy Saturday, but no amount of bad pedagogy or bad art or insular virtual reality can undo the victory of Pascha. Create art, think deeply, speak and act with kindness and confidence that love is stronger than death. Do not let sorrow over an ugly and imbecilic wickedness imply that Evil can find a place where Christ has not already descended and redeemed the earth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • AR says:

      Thanks, Brian! You are presaging a lot of what I have to say about L’Engle in the next installment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike H says:

      ”Create art, think deeply, speak and act with kindness and confidence that love is stronger than death.”

      I love this Brian.

      When push comes to shove, when we really strip away the things that clutter our existence, we find our axiomatic answer to the question of “which is really stronger, love(life) or death”? I mean, REALLY? Do I even really know what these things are? We know death very well. Love we know poorly and in tiny spurts.

      But the victory of pascha, if it is true, is the deeper truth. The deepest truth. It will flourish, and our “speaking and acting with kindness” is a sort of protest against death that both anticipates and is that flourishing. It’s not childish sentiment to say that love is stronger than death.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jonathan says:

    I am not bothered by living in an Age of Niches, either, Brian. I can be quite pessimistic about the future of art. I do think something went seriously downhill after about 1975. But I very much do not believe in these genealogies of decay. No, the Beats did not ruin the arts. I disagree with Alana’s characterization of certain episodes of recent literary history. In any case, the world of poetry, to say nothing of literature more broadly conceived, is larger than the narrative of decline presented here would suggest. And I know a few things for sure: ridiculous as they can be, academics and artists and publishers are not joined in some evil-contemplating, filth-mongering cabal of cultural ruination. Insinuating that they are is no way to establish a Christian aesthetics. I also know that never in the history of art has something good and beautiful and new arisen by completely disdaining all the artistic activity around it and preceding it. Negativity will not get you very far. But that is how Christians are perceived these days: negative, reactive, condescending. It’s no wonder they lost the culture. It’s a Christian who, better than anyone else, ought to be able to find the beauty, truth, and goodness in all quarters of human endeavor. Even by folly — especially by it — we progress and reveal the salvific.

    Like

    • brian says:

      Right. The living Christ engages the world and the beauty of the Cross translates and transforms our tangled, complex, damaged lives; it does not ignore them or go around them. I made a comment above that tries to acknowledge both aspects adverted to by you and Alana. I find myself often agreeing with both of you, in any event. My own aesthetic is pretty complicated and I struggle to find a form capable of realizing what I am trying to articulate. My own experience is that I am sensitive to other voices and I feel the need to synthesize as many as I can discern. The chiaroscuro of life requires a complicated discernment.

      Speaking of melancholia and art, have you read Seiobo There Below?

      Like

  10. AR says:

    I realized that I have an intellectual context in all this that I haven’t mentioned. Has everyone here read T. S. Eliot’s essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent?

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69400

    This is a great part of what convinces me that we ought to and must behave and write as if Mankind is a corporate body, sharing mind and flesh even while living single, personal lives.

    There is no art without tradition; if you want to make art you have to go back to where the tradition left off and get into the harness the last faithful fellow dropped in.

    To have thought this way about art made it easier to think this way about religion so it helped in my conversion.

    Like

    • brian says:

      Alana,

      I mentioned Eliot and Tate in my original response to your article. My initial sense of Mankind as corporate body actually came to me from reading Charles Williams and his talk of Coinherence. It stuck with me and has had a continuing influence; Emile Mersch’s theology of the Mystical Body is also relevant. In any event, I do think Eliot’s insight on tradition is valuable. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry is, among other things, a pithy explanation of how tradition works as a form of continuous inquiry (using Thomism as a model.) The work I recommended to Jonathan in this thread, Minding the Modern by Thomas Pfau, is an incredibly erudite exposition of the hermeneutics of tradition and the many ways understanding, indeed, rationality derails apart from it. (It’s a long book, now available in paperback. If you don’t want to read it, there’s a really excellent overview written by a Wheaton professor in the review section on Amazon.)

      Anyway, I am an advocate for tradition, with the strong caveat that tradition is a living reality and not a sclerotic, dead inventory — but artists know this already.

      Like

      • AR says:

        I never meant to imply anyone here would be unfamiliar with Eliot! The focus in this essay on how the individual artist both lives by and further develops the tradition reminds me of Meyendorf’s idea of Church tradition. We *are* the tradition – which seems radical because it posits the authority of tradition within us, our own initiative and will, in this time. Yet it is also conservative because no one has the authority to start over from scratch; my initiative and will are authoritative only so far as they are progressing from a point that has been approved by what came before.

        The tendency to , the process of tradition is human nature. It acretes the good and filters out the bad. But what happens when people start trying to do traditional things with artifacts that, when they arrived on the scene, were essentially a break with tradition? When artists or priests develop reverence for and want to continue the work of someone who had no reverence and continued no work?

        Am I making sense?

        Like

        • AR says:

          Do we make icons of iconoclasts?

          Like

          • brian says:

            Very likely, but a tradition can become turbid and dead because lived “by rote.” Iconoclasm may be a protest against a tradition experienced as hostile to life and innovation and original experience. It’s the dark, ominous sterility depicted in the first volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Now, the kind of tradition Eliot advocates is not that, nor is ecclesial tradition as a gift of the Spirit, but there’s no doubt there is a kind of “fundamentalist” traditionalism that operates out of fear or a triumphalism that is closed and insular. The iconography that would accompany that kind of traditionalism needs and deserves iconoclasts.

            Liked by 1 person

          • AR says:

            If you find any fundamentalists who make icons let me know!

            If the conversation had developed somewhat differently, I might be taking your tack. I can’t get any editors to take an interest in my poetry… too traditional for the rank and file, too innovative for the formalists. Most people don’t seem to realize that one can be a traditional innovator or an innovative traditionalist.

            As far as the books you brought up, I would love to read them. But as a writer, biblical studies student, homeschooling mom, and ebay merchant I have to read in such a wide variety of topics that I don’t have the luxury of reading exhaustively, like a scholar. When I chose a book, I am more or less taking a master. :/

            Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          Yes, you are making sense. The MacIntyre and Pfau I adverted to establishes the metaphysical underpinnings to your observation.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. albert says:

    I think perhaps many contemporary poets think of themselves as seers, and that words are somehow given to them, as expressed in a statement I found at an interesting site:

    (http://www.divedapper.com/interview/naomi-shihab-nye/)

    ” We listen to the air, the silence. Poets may all become something like Buddhists, in some organic way — without even realizing it sometimes. Breathing more deeply — trying to exchange some of the world’s overwhelm for a greater calm. Or trying to hear the messages things/elements/animals/plants have for us.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am working on part 2 of Alana’s article. Hopefully I’ll have it whipped into HTML shape by tomorrow. So look for its publication either Friday or Saturday.

    Like

  13. Jonathan says:

    Tradition is an interesting idea. I confess it doesn’t get me nearly as far as it once did.

    At this juncture I’d like to recommend the work of the wonderful British modernist poet (a Catholic by the way), David Jones (1895 – 1974). He had a somewhat different idea of literary history than Eliot’s, and one that these days I find more persuasive. I think, in his essays, you can see that Jones was sensitive to cultural developments that make Eliot’s ideas of tradition problematic. Anyway, he’s good reading, especially salutary for literary Christians. David Jones’ ideas are available in two volumes of essays, which are quite accessible prose: The Dying Gaul, and Epoch and Artist (the better one, as I recall). But the single best way to read him is to pick up The Anathemata, one of two epic poems he wrote. Not an easy read, but beautiful. Its prefatory essay contains the nucleus of his critical thinking, which you can then see in action in the poem. Alana, you would find in Jones some resistance to your own resistance to what you consider an unwarranted conflation of religion and art. The key term in Jones’ critical thought, his alternative to Eliot’s tradition, is sacrament.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. AR says:

    I want to thank everyone who has commented. It’s been so lively and challenging!

    Like

Comments are closed.