Last fall, I took a graduate class on literary criticism and poetry research. I am both astounded at how much I learned and was exposed to and humbled by how little I know. Critiquing the class itself, I don’t think it was a good idea to try to study poetry as poetry and then work in the different fields of literary criticism. In several cases, we read short stories or essays to grasp or apply the schools of criticism. And much of literary criticism is bogus. And bogus is one of the nicest words that I can think of to describe it. Karl Marx’s followers should have stuck to doing bad economics. Freud’s followers should have kept their thoughts to themselves. And people with agendas other than literature should have kept their grimy fingers off the literary works, anthologies, and minds of people who love reading.
When I finished the course, I resumed reading and studying my collection of books by James Matthew Wilson. He should have taught my class. Or at least, we should have been reading The Unmaking of Poetry along with one or all of his collections of poetry. (Side note: the Norton’s Anthology of Poetry that we used was quite good, as are most Norton Anthologies, but why do we buy these monstrously big books and only read a few snippets from them? And why do the publishers keep dropping out the old and adding the newer, usually inferior, selections to satisfy some advocacy literary shams?)
Wilson is a modern poet. That should offend some. But just in case you prefer the modern poets, he is a traditionalist writ large. Wilson is also a Christian. But fellow Calvinists, just to make you gnash your teeth a bit, he is a Catholic. He is also a scholar of immense learning and depth of thought. You might try rushing through a few hundred pages of Immanuel Kant before tackling Wilson’s essays, just to get your mind revved up for the challenge.
Wilson’s poems are not going to satisfy a desire for beautiful lyrics about flowers or sunsets. There is a lot of grit and grime in his writing, as though he actually believes in Original Sin, which he does. The lyrics hurt, confuse, question, and affirm, as good poetry should. Then there is this personal problem: I find poetry collections nearly impossible to read and finish. Wilson’s books are short, if we are simply looking at the number of pages. And some poems only cover a portion of a page. But as much as most useful or necessary books, books of poetry require not just reading but rereading, and then rereading faster, and then rereading more slowly than ever, poetry books do that even more.
I never glance at the Robert Frost poem “Birches” and think, “Oh, I have read that.” It is a favorite, and I can even quote a few lines and could probably explain it (which we never really do) to a class. But it is there to be read again and again. Poems age alongside us, As I heard Louise Cowan say, “Hamlet changes” as she described her lifelong experiences with the play that reawakened her faith and continued to witness to her through the years.
James Matthew Wilson has purposely and deliberately chosen to conform his theory of poetry in his essays and in his actual poems to the forms and meters of old. Robert Frost once lamented that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. My athletic abilities are so bad that I don’t object to the removal of the net (or of tennis balls and rackets and of the whole game). My poetry skills, likewise, delighted in being able to skip the syllable counting, the measures and sound, and to just focus on the feel of the words I called poetry. I would fail Wilson’s class and deservedly so.
In my poetry class, we read a selection while studying Queer Theory. Yes, that is what it is called and what it is. This is not just a recognition that some great artists and poets have been homosexuals. It is an attack on “hetero-normative” sexuality and thinking. One such poem dealt with the truly tragic murder of a homosexual couple, but the poem was a blank page with footnotes. Innovative to be sure and haunting, but like John Cage’s “4:33,” this is not art.
Poetry, like all of art, history, theology, philosophy, and literature, has to exist at two levels at least. It has to have the pleasing aesthetic appeal to those who read, look, or listen. Those who walk through an art gallery, listen to a concert, or read a book of imaginative thought should be able to enjoy such creations at a pedestrian level. But the internal subject must reach must higher standards. The poet cannot simply be a person who finds rhyming words, nor can the artist just be someone holding a paint brush.
For these reasons, those of us who are called to labor in the field of literature (what a labor of love it is!) must be willing to forego simply just the fun of figuring out something of what a poem says. We must question, to use John Ciardi’s title phrase, “how a poem means.” The vocabulary of the specialist is, as is usual, hard to grasp., but necessary. The skill of the literary critic, like that of the preacher-theologian, is not one easily picked up. But it is necessary.
If you are not enrolled to study directly under Dr. Wilson, invest in these books and begin the long trek to a better understanding of poetry and the humane civilization that poetry both sustains and feeds itself.
The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition is published by The Catholic University of America Press. Essays on broader issues of culture and life.
The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking is published by Wiseblood Books. This work is a collection of essays that describe, lament, critique, and condemn much of what is found in poetry in our times. The last part of the book is basically a handbook of tools to use in understanding the mechanics of traditional poetry.
Favorite quotes from the book: “I hope the readers of this book will find something in it worth the knowing, because it seeks to defend something they love, the art of poetry and all that it does to enrich human experience, to form it and orient it to the permanent things.”
“We can say that contemporary poets acknowledge a poem as a poem so long as it meets the following definition of form: the lines do not look like prose on the page.”
Some Permanent Things is published by Wiseblood Books. This is a lengthy collection of poetry that reflects Wilson’s labors to rewrite and bring more into conformity with traditional standards the poems he had earlier published (with a few additions).
The Hanging God is published by Angelico Press. This is a collection of poems. Selections include decidedly religious poetry and some shocking poems that remind us that not all poems are about pretty things.
The River of the Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books. This is my favorite book, with my biggest criticism being that it is too short. The title poem deals with French explorers who traveled the rivers of North America. While loving older historical narrative poems, I have often wondered how such could be done in our time. This book shows how.
Favorite lines: “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/ That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”
This time, like all times, is a great time to read some poetry and a new author. Get James Matthew Wilson’s books and read–slowly, repeatedly, and lovingly.