Books Unfit to Read (part 1)

Standard

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.'”
(Acts 17:26-28)

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 in full by the redeemed. The love songs of God have 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, dread, and loving worship of 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.

Click on these links to read companion articles, Books Unfit To Read Part 2 and Part 3.

 

The Great Nature Poet of Cold Mountain

Standard

It is true that Han Shan, who lived on Cold Mountain in the 9th Century AD, is a great nature poet, but he is also a very personal writer, despite his seclusion. To read some of his poems, and more about him, click on these Notes on Han Shan.

Shakespearean Schemes, Japanese Surrender

Standard

I’ve lately been reading Rexroth’s translations of Japanese poetry, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and this little essay is an attempt to reflect on the contrasting use of reason and subjectivity in the two poetries. Some of the info on Japanese poetry I believe I also got from translator David Hinton. Click here to read 2 pages comparing Eastern and Western poetry.

Asher Blake’s Essay On Form

Standard

Needing a preface for my first real book of lyrics, Tribesmen of the Telos-Caster, God blessed me to write an essay sometimes risking overdisclosure, and grandiosity, nonetheless the result is personal and sincere.  Any responses to my preface to Tribesmen of the Telos-Caster are very welcome. I look forward to any comments.

Hopkins’ To Seem The Stranger

Standard

To Seem The Stranger
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

Discussion:

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this “Terrible Sonnet” seeming strangely filled with inspiration, and I hope it brought him deep relief.  At the outset he declares he is a stranger removed from his family, close to God but drawn by Him into conflict and perhaps estrangement. The first stanza, like a number of Davidic hymns, can also be read from the perspective of Christ, in this case, on the cross. The author really heats up as he goes along and becomes more and more intimate with the reader.

In the second stanza, Hopkins is acting as a Catholic priest, giving all his heart to England, who ‘all his heart woos’. Does he not know to love the Lord with all his heart? I believe Hopkins here is expressing a desire to fight for the salvation of England. Therefore he writes for her, and he preaches for her, and he serves as a school teacher for her, to win souls.

Not only a soul he woos, but the wife of his “creating thought,” meaning he is created in a sense by the thoughts he has for her. (As a poet there are overtones that these thoughts are those of his poetic creativity.) So in this sense he is even created by her. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” This sublimation of his natural being is the key to the trickiest part of the poem, its last stanza.

Hopkins says he woos England, but he does not plead with her. Christ is Hopkins’ peace and sad parting (here we see a hint that Hopkins parted from home and the Anglican faith of his family in order to serve Christ). Christ is also here his sword and strife. (line 4) This is a references to the fact that Christ did not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that by Him is the rising and falling of many. In addition, winning souls requires the wise use of the Word, which is compared to a sword. (Ephesians 6:!7, Hebrews 4:12, Proverbs 11:30)

This priest goes where wars are rife, at once saying that he is weary of idle people (meaning I think, idle Christians), so goes to war for religious purposes, to save souls, and at the same time the syntactic flexibility permits a reading like “weary of the idle except in war zones,” (where the active often seek to harm.)

In the third stanza Hopkins speaks of being at the “third remove,” meaning Ireland. I believe he is centering himself at Christ on the cross in Jerusalem. The first remove is Rome, the second remove is England, and the third remove is Ireland.

Now these two sentences are the heart of the poem and should be read together.

Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word//
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.

In the first sentence Hopkins is saying that where love face a difficulty or extremity of circumstance, perhaps a lack of acceptance or welcome or some persecution, that is where kind love can be found. Christ did not accept loving others in the easiest of ways as virtuous because even sinners did that.

“And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

But there is also a reality to the ideality that only in the greatet remove from the broad way of the world, the most instinctive way, can one give the greatest love. Where love has traveled furthest to save, love gives and receive kindness best. In the true extremity of love is the backbone of love that it possesses when dwelling in peace. By His deep descent and His exalted loftiness ascended, we understand best the infinite love, which was incarnate on the Cross in Truth. Also, only when our love is unconditional, universal, and all consuming, are we lovers because love is by its nature unstinting, and total. Moreover, in all removes with love present Hopkins witnesses to a kindness, and as Paul says, “love is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)

In these ways love is not found but in the nakedness of “all removes.” This line (10) also illuminates lines 1 and 2, which read,

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
among strangers.

This lot in life, to be among strangers, is reminiscent of the lot that the Roman soldiers cast at Jesus feet.  They were true strangers to Him, to the extent possible, and while they were humans acting so oddly they lost their humanity and relevance to the cosmos, no one treated them as strange, but God was dying on the Cross, bearing the wrath of His Father against all sin, and He retained so much humanity, that he makes human suffering imbued with his holiness and piteous tenderness.

Hopkins is saying by praising limitless removes, that he would like his missionary activity to bring him to the farthest reaches of the globe. This is where a poor stranger can receive and be shown great love. When men are separated by pain and ostracized by enmity or old guilt, then love can be most fully expressed.

This next sentence is a doozy but I believe it can be rewritten “what word my heart most wisely breeds, either dark heaven’s baffling ban does bar, or else hell’s spell will thwart.” So below I want to search out the meaning Hopkins here expresses, that his best efforts are sublimated into the blessings and energies of others, or are spread through the body of Christ.

Paul spoke of this in several places to teach us about the interpenetration of the body of believers. From scriptures like Romans 6:6, Galatians 2:20, and 5:24, and 6:14, and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, we are taught about how we are crucified with Christ and die with Him and so live with Him, being united in His effort.  2 Corinthians 11:29, and 1 Corinthians 12:23-26 take this idea another logical step, asserting that being united in the life of Christ means being united in the lives of other believers.  And so in a mystical and powerful sense, blessings from God, and His intricate and holy work, flows between one part of the body of believers to another part. And this means that to live and die with Christ, we do not do what we would do, but are made new creatures through a kind of strange sublimation that benefits the world and the body. We desire new and wonderful things but are not in control of how they turn out, but we trust God and can often see His hand at work. The following passage makes this clear.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

Again, Hopkins wrote,

Only what word//
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.

This I believe is properly, but more easily understood as, “what word my heart most wisely breeds, either dark heaven’s baffling ban does bar, or else hell’s spell will thwart.” This turns on the ironic idea that the best fruit of Hopkins heart is barred by Heaven. This best fruit is described as his wisest words. It may be Hopkins feels his work is languishing in anonymity and has no impact. But what is “dark heaven”? I believe this refers to the storm clouds over Christ on the Cross, and certainly refers to the baffling mysteries of how a merciful God frustrates our hopes. But these best fruits of service are the ones that Christ would take in the Temple of sacrifice as most sweet and useful.

The idea is that in God’s wrath upon His sweet and tender Son – all sin at once being met with God’s wrath – we also know that sweet wisdom has its worshiping place. And so under the baffling ban of Calvary’s wrath, that love which is foolishness to unbelievers, (also baffling was the ban of the favor that Jesus enjoyed,) Hopkins finds his wisest words silenced by being removed from intimacy with others, because he became a stranger. (1 Corinthians 1:23) That silent cross, having a mission of love, but no intimates, remains true in his poetic life (having almost no readers.)  Also, as I have been arguing, it may be that Hopkins is barred precisely for the work, and for the service of sweet worshiping words in production, since that is how his life in the interpenetrating body is Christ-like.

But the alternate outcome is that if Satan succeeds in keeping a man blind; to use the New Testament figure, if the bird comes and eats the seed of the Gospel before it can work, then the soul is not saved, but Hell has thwarted the good work.

The next and final sentence is also wonderful.

This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

If Hopkins hoards what he hears but does not share; if a hearer of the word hoards the hearing, and does not really hear with heart; or if someone hears but does not do, that leaves a great loneliness in this priest. He is comparing Himself with the loneliness of Christ on the Cross, whose people did not know Him, who as the first Living One, the only immortal One, in whose dawn we have all found life, was nonetheless rejected even in His very kindness and innocence. (John 1:10,11) And so the Alpha and Omega at the center saved us at the extremity of loneliness; there He began, but from there He continues and marches on and brings an end of the race to all those He has made.

(The picture below is Caravaggio’s other scene of Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus.  Here is some of that strife Hopkins speaks of, as Jesus is reaching for Paul and a Jewish soldier fends Him off with a spear. This makes no sense at all on a mundane level but is spiritual, and irrational to the understanding of the flesh.)

Caravaggio Conversion Paul 1