POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

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1 Comment

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 20, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    As a postscript to the above I would like to quote two 20th century critics, Yvor Winters and John Crowe Ransom, both of whom were acutely aware, early in the past century, of the great decrease of poetry’s impact on society.

    Winters wrote in 1937

    I do not like the expression ‘imaginative literature,’ for in its colloquial acceptation the phrase excludes too much: it excludes the the persuasive and hortatory, for example, the sermon and the political tract; and imagination as a term of sophisticated criticism has been used so variously and so elusively, especially during the past hundred and fifty years, that I am not quite sure what it means. But the power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler, to go no further, we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history. The Gospels gave a new direction to half the world; Mein Kampf very nearly reversed that direction. The influence of Rimbaud and of Mallarme is quite as real but has operated more slowly and with less of obvious violence. It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission. In our universities at present, for example, one or another of the hedonistic views of literature will be found to dominate, although often colored by Romantic ideas, with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession, and the professors of science, who are frequently men of great intelligence but of limited interests and education, feel a politely disguised contempt for it; and thus the study of one of the most pervasive and powerful influences on human life is traduced and neglected.
    ………………….Yvor Winters, Foreward to Primitivism and Decadence

    Note the different tone regarding poetry’s influence in 1937—from a future Poetry Workshop teacher (Stanford), as it happens, than we would find in 1987 or 1997 or 2007, when professor/critic/poets brag of poetry’s popularity and health; the rose-colored glasses came out when poetry writing and judging found a home in the university. Winters’ grumbling here is similar to Ransom’s, another creative writing founder, but Ransom had a better handle on the issue of poetry’s diminuation than Winters, whose over-thinking the problem led him to all sorts of unreliable judgments. Here’s Ransom (with a very wide brush) on the subject of religion and poetry:

    Poets used to be bards and patriots, priests and prophets, keepers of the public conscience, and naturally men of public importance. … But modern poets are of another breed. It is as if all at once they had lost their prudence as well as their piety, and formed a compact to unclasp the chaplet from their brows, inflicting upon themselves delaureation, and retiring from public responsibility and honors. … Apostate, illaureate, and doomed to outlawry the modern poet may be. I have a feeling that modernism is an unfortunate road for them to have taken. But it was an inevitable one. …Modern poetry is pure poetry. … Our period differs outwardly from other periods because it first differs inwardly. Its spiritual temper is puritanical; that is, it craves to perfect the parts of experience separately or in their purity, and is a series of isolated perfections. … The development of modern civilization has been a grand progression in which Puritanism has invaded first one field and then another.

    The first field perhaps was religion. The religious impulse used to join to itself and dominate and hold together nearly all the fields of human experience; politics, science, art, and even industry, and by all means moral conduct. But Puritanism came in the form of the Protestant Reformation and separated religion from all its partners.
    ………………….John Crowe Ransom, Poets Without Laurels (1938)

    Winters and Ransom wrote the above on the brink of poetry’s academic, creative writing, coup, and they were very much part of that coup precisely because they knew how to articulate poetry’s woes which occured during Modernism’s golden age of poetry; well, not quite. Frost and Millay were popular, but not the High Modernists: they never had a golden age; we only think they had one, due to the sudden and miraculous upsurge in their popularity because of various historical events: the GI Bill following World War Two, Creative Writing Programs, and textbooks written by poetry/professor friends of the High Modernists.

    Aside from this, both critics are conscious of poetry as primarily a religious advocation; Winters comes across as more unhappy and quixotic only because Ransom is happy to believe that modern poetry is simply riding the wave of specialization, which, for Ransom, is modernity’s religion. I’m not sure if Ransom’s thesis still holds. Contemporary poetry seems anything but ‘pure,’ anything but a working through of isolated perfections—and yet, this may be what is going on in far-flung manner, and we are just not aware of it.


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