To be honest, I tend to kill my heroes in poetry. Works of brilliance, powerful imagination, deft music, and genuine revelation strike the first blow – lay me flat, or throw me. In fact, some works are so powerful to me that I can only take a thimblefull. Why then is it that I fight against these giants, and cut them down to my size, or smaller?
Examples of assaulted dolls include, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, William Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, Marianne Moore, Jean Toomer, Eliot, Pound, Roethke, Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Ginsberg, the majority of revered poets I’ve read.
And yet it seems a sin once having truly heard a touch of the real music or musician, to toss out their works, their body, and their testimony. Does it matter if the poet is a beautiful rhapsodist, like Ezra Pound? Or should every hack be treated like a treasure? Should we read an evil or injurious testimony, as Chinua Achebe argued that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is? (Click here for Chinua Achebe’s essay on racist literature.) When does a wretched private sin weaken the case for reading an artist? For example, should John Berryman’s adultery and drunken violence against a woman on one occasion, mean that we should be less eager to read his work? Finally, cases could be imagined where someone explicitly writes out of wicked convictions.
An example for clemency, King David wrote some of his greatest poetry after his betrayal of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba, a sin which caused his son’s death, and was the root of civil war. His wracked penance is in fact an important part of the biblical canon. It was in response to Nathan’s confrontation of his sin that David wrote Psalm 51, which includes the famous principle: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
We rarely find penance in poetry anymore, but on the other hand, is this really something the poet owes the reader? I may repent in my life, but have only one poem that really names my sins. Still, if a poet is filthy why should someone seeking godliness read them? Whitman for instance calls himself a god, carried away by those long lines.
But John Berryman is the case in point with me. If human life has value, how could he personally have given more? From his own horrific pain, which was maudlin, terrifying, and continually dragging him into private abysses, he was able to sketch the most ingenious forms; turning himself into a beloved spectacle, redeeming ruin with his magnetism, humor, insight, and stunning verbal performances. Becoming a poet of the highest rank was his own great cross; it made him hateful, jealous, incredibly industrious, and made him his own great tormentor. It also elevated all that was loving and glorious in him.
Now I know I have a tendency to unduly write off these heavyweights on aesthetic grounds, but when you love people you love them regardless of their mistakes, and shouldn’t that be called holy? Even the Bible quotes a pagan poet.
“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said,`For we are also His offspring.'”
Now considering Berryman’s first two wives divorced him what is the breaking point? This came to a head when I was reading Berryman’s Sonnets. The book went from holding me in the palm of its hand to getting thrown in the trash almost in one page. That was because of a vile sonnet that equated what is holy to God with mere flesh in a lewd way I won’t detail.
Now some will say Berryman did try to repent, while others read these late religious interests more cynically. I suppose I believe that a great artist making great work has given the testimony of his life and testimony to larger issues relating to the human experience. If the work is not harmful, (and some works doubtless are and should be considered separately), we should feel free to explore this vital expression of human life.
But doesn’t it matter that the world’s known cultural output is completely dominated by the godless, by people opposed to Christ, whether openly or secretly? It does matter of course. Christian poetry has the Bible and Gerard Manley Hopkins and what else? Don’t tell me Milton. There must be other major Christian poets, but I don’t know who they are. The world is under the sway of the evil one, and its institutions are also. The books made available represent a kind of warfare on our souls. How much moral edification comes from the academic disciplines all told since the Renaissance? It seems almost held to a minimum.
Therefore, Christian artists and intellectuals should seek to advance a renaissance in the pursuit of the knowledge of the glory of God; the expression of our charismatic giftings in works of art which restore the proper relationship of man to God. We should learn for God; to worship Him; to serve Him; walking in the Cross becoming ever more Christlike by the righteous embodying of our full humanity. This points far beyond ideology. But what renaissance can Christians expect when we so often do not even lead our own churches?
While God tells us directly in Luke 16:8 that the children of this world are more shrewd or “wise” than the children of light in their own way, it is a tragedy that our own (potential) cultural contribution is suppressed. However great the literary contribution of a poet who rejects Christ, it will always be the work of someone who was not “light”; who did not know agape love; did not cross the bridge to remain in the secret places; does not have the mind of Christ; whose mind was not renewed by the Holy Spirit. Thus the true joy of a poetry which exalts not only the Lordship of God, and His beauty, (as the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament do), but the Life and work of the Messiah, can only be celebrated through the redeemed in Christ. While we have sung in the true joy of exalting our sovereign God as a perfect God, the praise of the Son; the Merciful King and patient Judge, who showed God’s heart of Love on the Cross, and has not been a God of disappointment in the intervening centuries but proven true; this Lord’s praises have been unsung by the poets of His tribe, other themes less satisfying were pushed to serve, and when the Love Songs of God could not be suppressed, nonetheless it has been a spiritual wind that blew in the main without recording or being read by subsequent generations. But it is time to stand in the reverence, awe and dread, and loving worship and acknowledgment of God, as the One who fulfills His promises and is returning soon.
The poetry of this world will never be as great as poetry that fills the lips of the one who gazes upon the form of the Holy God, because He is higher than all things, and it is only fitting that a pure heart made to sing by this Lord of Song will be given instrumental power to raise the skill above this grave and wanton world.
Is there an innate justifiable value to the work of great writers? We often say this or that person is a genius. Certainly the work of a genius has inherent value and they should pursue that work despite poverty or hardship. Then there can be no evil genius. But no intelligence has such a nature. The product of intelligence will reflect the character of the man or woman and will be either good or bad. Because it is impossible to be so intelligent that one can be assured they will have good or valuable ideas, there is no such thing as genius.
A holy fool has more “genius” than the most shrewd crook. Life, praise God, manifests through us, telling us its own story, and accomplishing its good by its own power, to the glory of God. But in this context, the wicked too, are holy fools. Their personalities are consecrated; they have inherited the image of God; they will be judged with a perfect eternal judgment, because they are worthy of that weight. They are worthy too of intervention. Their personalities are both consecrated, and sacred.
And in that spirit, art is our own special universe. And John Berryman is like some pagan, suffering god; and I don’t at all mean that in a polytheistic way, but figuratively. I broke down and decided I have got to read him, and I will think much harder before tossing out books, especially by those loaded brows, those honey-tongued witnesses of life.
I wrote this Elegy for John Berryman in his honor and in the name of all his colleagues. (And I realize it is a very mediocre poem – let me be plain on that!) Click on these links to read companion articles, Books Unfit To Read Part 2 and Part 3.