Recapturing Catholic poetry
I’ve been reading the latest collection of poems by Jane Greer (Love like a Conflagration, published in 2020 by Lambing Press). I want to get to know her work while I am still hale and hearty but before I am too late for the par…well, never mind. You can get to know something of her approach to poetry from Thomas V. Mirus’ interview with her in the eighty-first episode of the Catholic Culture Podcast, released last July: Love Like a Conflagration—Jane Greer.
Greer is perhaps most well-known for her effort to revive classic poetic techniques in the age of formlessness. This was one reason for her founding and editing of Plains Literary Journal from 1981 to 1993. As she herself put it: “Through history, the best poetry has used certain conventions: meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, painstaking attention to diction. Not all good poems use all of these conventions, but if a poem uses none of them, why call it a poem?”
We can, of course, more loosely define poetry as a particularly rich, concentrated, and therefore intense and memorable, use of language to convey striking impressions or ideas. But the conventions Greer mentioned, when used wisely, serve that richness, concentration and intensity well, creating a more memorable presentation which adds a strong measure of uniquely human delight. I don’t quite want to say that good poetry is distilled like a fine liquor (as when Ogden Nash suggested that “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker”), but puerile poetry is often mere candy and, without the fine use of conventions, most poetry doesn’t even rise to the status of candy.
There was a young man with a monocle
Who yearned to be held unaccountable.
So he sat on his brain
‘Til he exploded in pain,
Writing only the unmethododical.
See, that’s candy (from the instant larder of yours truly, not Jane Greer). But it is semi-memorable only because it has utilized the rules of the craft. Some of us are willing to hone that craft and some of us are not.
Of course the need for excellence in utilizing the characteristics of a particular medium applies as much to poetry as it does to any other form of art—as it does, really, to everything we create. If craft without inspiration avails little, inspiration without craft avails even less. Ultimately the failure of craft, apart from the question of sheer inability, is a matter of laziness, of a reluctance to sacrifice for excellence, of a preference, in in the end, for sin. A great many so-called poets would benefit from reflection on Jane Greer’s very serious poem entitled “Lines on a Plain Brown Wrapper”:
Sin in its near occasions rises
glad as a long-lost friend, devises
help for tumescent glands and hearts,
deflects our best intent, and starts
along the path of least resistance
all those desires kept at a distance.
It cannot be put off. I try,
all day, to look sin in the eye,
say I will go and sin no more:
the Compleat Coach, sin knows the score.
Should I sin gladly—play sin’s game—
or miserably, it’s all the same.
How like a Muzak station sin
fashions harmlessness into din,
insinuates itself in shivers
down the broad backs of true believers!
Each soul’s dank cellar has at least
one crack through which sin slithers, greased
lightning its tongue, its look concerned
lest we flout pleasure, choose to burn
passively in our lust or pride.
Sin longs to give what we’ve denied
ourselves, leads us in easy stages
—but makes some bones about its wages.
Greer has an interesting poetic history, in that she stopped writing poetry for over twenty-five years. She discusses this in the podcast mentioned above. But eventually, the opportunity, the urge and the focus returned, for which we may all be grateful.
One reason is that too much modern poetry, even when it is real poetry, is very difficult to appreciate—drawing primarily from the peculiar imagination of the poet and employing only “nonce” symbols, that is, symbols invented for the particular context of a particular poem—“for the nonce” (for the moment). This arises partly from an unfortunate thirst for intellectual cleverness, but it owes much also to the breakdown (and deliberate repudiation) of our Western Classical and especially Christian worldview, which embodied a strong symbolism that once resonated through our entire culture.
One thinks, for example, of the difficulty of reading T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (which I still think brilliant, in its own way), as compared with poets before his time. Even serious poetry used to lend itself to recitation and was most often capable of generating both an intellectual and an affective response without benefit of extensive notes and study. It is, in fact, a shame that poetry has degenerated primarily into a medium for academic study.
Great poetry ought to be, I think, at least in some ways akin to, or at home in, song. This does not at all mean that lyrics are intrinsically great poetry; that is, of course, unlikely. But Greer does say that, speaking for herself, the first thing to capture her attention, when the idea for a new poem enters her consciousness, is the rhythm it must have. One can imagine this to be the case, for example, in her “Thoughts on Witnessing a Final Profession” (with reference to “the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72”):
“I will prefer nothing whatever to Christ,”
she says, and I am plunged deep into wonder
at what that might feel like, that sacrifice,
if I released the things of which I’m fonder
than I am of Christ, it seems: My ease. My pride.
Huge losses, these: my dearest flaws! And yet
take them, sweet Christ. They will not be denied
by trying, but they cause me such regret.
My pride, my comfort: crush them now, I pray,
Take them by force. Destroy them. And be swift.
I prefer you to have them, but each day
I lack the heart to make of them a gift.
Of course that is another thing about good poetry. One way or another, it will often strike very close to home.
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