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A Literary Montenegro 

A discussion of “The Christian Writer Today”
17th Annual Erasmus Lecture delivered by Dana Gioia
Presented by The Institute on Religion and Public Life October 16, 2003

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

In 1646 Richard Crashaw published Steps to the Temple, a volume of devotional poetry, in which the following gem appears:

Luke 11
Blessed be the paps Thou hast sucked.

Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teats,
Thy hunger feels not what he eats:
He’ll have his Teat ere long (a bloody one)
The mother then must suck the Son.

Years later William Empson noted the poem in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), saying,

…a wide variety of sexual perversions can be included in the notion of sucking a long bloody teat which is also a deep wound. The sacrificial idea is aligned with incest, the infantile pleasures, and cannibalism; we contemplate the god with a sort of savage chuckle; he is made to flower, a monstrous hermaphrodite deity, in the glare of a short-circuiting of the human order. Those African carvings, and the more lurid forms of Limerick, inhabit the same world.

Sir William seems relevant to very little these days, but in his gloss of Crashaw we can see both the power of the Modernist program and the seeds of its own destruction. Empson’s ability to perceive and articulate the multiform meaning in a passage is, even today, a pleasant thing to behold. Your heart wants to trust him because he’s smarter and far better read than you or me (Seven Types was published when he was 24), and yet the tidiness of it all can be damn infuriating. Appearing near the end of the Modern period, Seven Types in some ways distills the whole period into the search for meaning in myth—any myth. The beginning of the last century saw artists in diverse fields explore myths far and wide in their attempts to capture something of the subjective reality. Empson leans on them, draws inspiration from them, and ultimately distills their artistic visions into a lavish critical apparatus. But it is just a distillation, a faint adumbration.[private]

Just as rules are made to be broken, brilliance is brought into the world to be debased. Empson’s Seven Types, already a popularization, gets popularized ten times over and what we ultimately wind up with is Joseph Campbell, the mythologist/popularizer par excellence, who is, along with James Burke, Ken Burns, and fundraising marathons, a staple of public television.

What starts as poetry, as a question, a search, ends in anthropology. The shrieking mad cry in the dark that prompted the search ultimately is subsumed under the normative myths of Western culture—science, progress, objectivity, and the “sensible” pantheism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. If the transcendent is absent, let us bring it down to earth.

But Crashaw is no pantheist, nor is he a scientist, a missionary, a fellow of the Academy of American Poets, a Republican, a therapist, a policeman—he is not of this place and time. Approached even on its own terms, Crashaw’s poem is not so simplistically devotional, and Empson duly points out the ambiguities; however, it is still a devotional. Empson’s own musings begin by stating the obvious: “This is to show the unearthly relation to the earth of the Christ, and with a sort of horror to excite adoration.” This comes first because it is obvious, and the other stuff is, well, other stuff.

But there must be other stuff, whether on an ideational or technical level, for putting words to religious themes necessarily means extending one’s roots into the earth and becoming grounded in the world around you. And it’s precisely for this reason that ambiguity so often reigns supreme in religious art—how do you figure the “nothing” that is God?

Take another of Crashaw’s ‘Divine Epigrams’:

Matthew 27
And he answered them nothing.

O mighty Nothing! unto thee.
Nothing, we owe all things that be.
God spake once when he all things made,
He sav’d all when he Nothing said.
The world was made of Nothing then;
‘Tis made by Nothing now again.

The obvious allusion is to Jesus’ silence when interrogated by Pilate, but the repetition and wordplay suggests Nothing on many levels—the nothingness out of which God created the heavens and the earth; the nothing God that has no name; the nothing of 2,000 years of divine silence. All of this pulls forward and pushes away the transcendent in one motion.

This method of “figuring nothing,” of course, is not peculiar to Crashaw. Indeed, one could say it is an ineluctable condition of the religious imagination, the best expressions of which have always risen above mere testimony, above naturalism. One finds that the tension between divine presence and absence is the beginning of many a mystic journey in the literatures of the East and West. Where God goes in the imagination, nothingness and the void are never far behind.

If this is true, then one could say that nothingness overtakes God in the 20th century, for much of the period’s religious poetry is written from the perspective of severe estrangement. And given the dominant culture of the day, with its unremitting appeals to rationality, objectivity, and measurability, surely little balm for bruised religious sensibilities could be had in immersing oneself in Progress. It is perhaps only in such a culture that the artistic expressions of Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, Pound, and Eliot could be distilled into (or appropriated by) Sir William’s Seven Types—the title itself has the ring of a coroner’s report.

By the time the Middle Generation comes along—Lowell, Berryman, Bishop, et al—faith is already an historical artifact, like the Punic Wars or the Hanging Gardens. That generation of poets, like the generation before, could take down the historical faith from the shelves, burnish it, and make it shine, but it is still ultimately a museum piece. That is not to say that powerful religiously themed poetry was not being written, but the cultural assumptions had shifted, often making the gesture a mere nostalgia. Joseph Bottum, poetry editor at the Catholic journal First Things, put it much more forcefully in his 1995 essay “What T. S. Eliot Almost Believed”:

The reduction of faith in God to an age in history is an attempt to understand faith by surmounting faith, by making the history of faith in God an event transparent to a superior historical understanding. But if the purpose of performing the reduction is to explain why the world no longer seems essentially intelligible, then we lack an explanation for why history should manage to find the age of faith historically intelligible. If the absence of faith in God makes everything meaningless, then even that meaninglessness must be meaningless.


The responses of our poetic parents and grandparents to the loss of faith form the core of the 20th century’s poetry I most admire, but do they offer a model to those of us laboring today who wish to address religion and faith in poetry? This is, of course, a loaded question, for there are no paint-by-numbers models in poetry, nor should there be.

Last fall, in his lecture sponsored by The Institute on Religion and Public Life (which also publishes First Things), poet and critic Dana Gioia sought to weigh in on the issue of religious poetry, specifically Catholic poetry. To be sure, Mr. Gioia’s remarks that evening at the Union League Club in New York were akin to a speech given in the home team’s locker room—upbeat and on message. The crowd was comprised largely of conservative Catholics, and there were not a few collars in the room.

The message was a simple one—once upon a time, there was a flourishing Catholic literary scene supported overtly by a vigorous Catholic press and indirectly by the universities and general world of letters. That was the good news; the bad news is that those days are gone. Gioia then offered some suggestions as to how to revive Catholic letters.

Gioia, who made popular the notion that American poetry had been banished to the “sub-culture” in his 1991 essay (and then book) “Can Poetry Matter?”, was suggesting much the same thing of the Catholic arts. By failing to embody a genuine aesthetic expression, today’s Church diminishes its own standing in the marketplace of competing cultures and risks the same fate that poetry suffered. In such a state, Catholic—and more broadly, Christian—literature will become a kind of literary Montenegro, the result of a much broader cultural dissolution that ends in something worse than oblivion, inconsequence.

One could say that inconsequence is already here, not near at hand, but why? According to Gioia, an inability to incorporate the inherent transcendence of the Christian ethos into works of literature impoverishes literary works of religious significance, and indeed, all of American letters. A secondary, but equally important, factor is the loss of conversance with the myths and symbols of the faith, or put another way, a lack of grounding in the intellectual traditions of the Church.

These things, taken together, produce works of negligible value, works informed with a vague spirituality and sentimentality that do little to move audiences. And speaking of audiences, presumably an adjunct to Gioia’s thesis would be that audiences get precisely what they ask for, a Christian art that does not move or challenge them, that allows them to remain “seekers after smooth things” to borrow a phrase from the Qumran scrolls.

For Gioia, the way out of this mess was much less clear. Concretely, he spoke of merely reversing the ills that have afflicted Christian literature—writing higher quality religious poems, songs, and stories; resurrecting the critical schools that would explain and introduce such works to a wider audience; and educating Christians (and Catholics especially) in the intellectual traditions of the Church. These prescriptions played well with the audience that night, but obviously, reconstructing the world of American letters circa 1951 is not going to happen, and that is not such a bad thing. Even the mid-century poets held up by Gioia as models led perilous and difficult spiritual lives, and while much poetry of the period displays acuity of vision, and even a hard-earned wisdom, there is little joy. Their lines (and lives) became deluged by lacrimae rerum, the tears of things. Ultimately, Lowell found salvation through medication; Berryman grew weary of looking and threw himself off a bridge. I think Gioia somewhat overstates the case of there being a golden age of poetry in the middle of the 20th century. The poets, especially the two mentioned above, were brilliant but, if anything, the sense of divine absence overpowered conviction. Are all such poets destined to madness, apostasy, and self-destruction?

Gioia prefaced his specific criticisms with a far more useful notion: a Christ-centered Christianity in which rationality and subjective intelligence find a proper balance. In an age of genetic cloning, nano-sized machines, and supercomputers, it is harder now than ever for humanity to slow down and contemplate the limits of rationality. At the same time the sanctity of individual “feelings” is a cornerstone of the contemporary age. Author Michael Novak described very well this rock-and-hard-place circumstance several decades ago in his 1970 book The Experience of Nothingness:

Those whose sense of the meaningful, the relevant, and the real is not entirely shaped by the new media may feel themselves caught between two barbarisms. If they imagine the self to be a seeing eye, a fierce and mastering awareness—Reason—then they stand accused of the barbaric rationalization of human life that has yielded Dallas, airline terminals, body count, and painful inner emptiness. If they imagine the self to be the center of feeling, they will certainly be drawn to darkness, blood and destruction…Apollo sheered from Dionysus yields two tribes of beasts.

Coming to terms, then, with mystery and finding expression through the dialectic already present in the faith overlays the entire endeavor for Gioia. Only then, perhaps, will the divine Nothing represent something more than mere silence[/private]