By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published April 26, 2012
April, as Chaucer wrote, may still be the time when people long to go on pilgrimages. It may even be, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the cruelest month. Regardless, April is indeed National Poetry Month, and as the month began to wind toward its conclusion, I found myself wondering if there is truly a Catholic tradition in poetry, the oldest and perhaps most splendid literary genre.
At first, the question seems an easy one. There is Chaucer, to begin with—glorious, earthy, human Chaucer who grasped beautifully the foibles and nuances of human nature while also helping to preserve and develop the English language.
And there is Dante, who knew as much about human nature as Chaucer and who in “The Divine Comedy” wrote one of the foundational texts of Western literature.
There is Francis Petrarch, a great master of the sonnet, whose poems about human and divine love are also recognized as timeless.
And there are others, but the reader seeking an immersion in Catholic poetry could spend a great deal of time dealing just with those three giants. And, sadly, a contemporary reader might think that may be about all the Catholic poetry there is to know.
There is more, however. A great deal more it turns out.
Think about Gerard Manley Hopkins, arguably the founder of what we consider modern English verse. Like his American counterparts Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Hopkins died before the 20th century even began, but he anticipated in his poetry a new way of writing. Hopkins is separated from Dante, Chaucer and Petrarch by well over four centuries, so in some respect his religious poetry is modern while at the same time it revives and restores a Catholic presence in a poetry that is still recognized as essential.
Hopkins was one of the figures that led to Thomas Merton’s deepening Catholic reading and ultimately his conversion. Flannery O’Connor liked Hopkins, too, especially his “Spring and Fall,” and she stretched Hopkins’ metaphor about the Virgin Mary as being the air we breathe to include the gift and mystery of sleep. O’Connor even suggested that Catholic critics could learn a good deal about the essence of the faith from Hopkins’ poetic theory of inscape. She also liked Hopkins’ response to Robert Bridges, who had asked Hopkins how he could believe. Hopkins replied simply, “Give alms.”
Hopkins converted to Catholicism at the age of 22, and 11 years later he was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1877. He died in 1889. And then, many people assume, Catholic poetry died with him.
This is not so. Consider Hilaire Belloc, the French poet who became a British citizen in 1902. Belloc’s Catholicism is essential to his poetry.
T.S. Eliot, like Belloc, also became a British subject and a devout Anglo-Catholic. Eliot’s spiritual journey and conversion are apparent in his poetry; his masterful “The Four Quartets” is, I believe, one of the great spiritual writings of the 20th century.
But again, we’re speaking of “old masters,” literary figures so influential and profound that any attempt to join them—as Eliot knew—becomes a matter of great anxiety. Yet Eliot also knew that literature depends upon new writers who reimagine, reshape and restore the canon through their own work.
Throughout the 19th, 20th, and even into the 21st century, a number of Catholic poets have written wonderful poetry and identified themselves and their work as uniquely Catholic. Though we may not think of them all in the old-fashioned sense of “major writers,” they are all an important part of the Catholic poetic tradition, and they all deserve to be read.
At one time, most Catholic students could probably recite from memory passages from Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” Many Georgians may remember Confederate Chaplain Father Abram Ryan’s “The Conquered Banner.” And almost everybody knows Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees:” “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree . . . Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.” At the very least, they know a parody of it!
But these poets, hardly literary giants, have been consigned to that place in literary history we reserve for curios and noteworthy relics. Is there a legitimate, vibrant Catholic poetry now? There is, I think, and we can trace its development through the following writers.
Jessica Powers, a Carmelite nun and poet, died in 1988, and her “Selected Poems” was published the following year. Not enough people read Powers. She was a lyric poet who often wrote in formal, traditional forms without being overly pious or didactic, a difficult task indeed. She is a poet of praise, in some ways in the tradition of Hopkins, and her poetry about nature and worship is especially good.
Thomas Merton is universally known and adored for his prose works, but his poetry is also important. Merton belongs in some ways to the aesthetic of the Beat generation, and while some of his poetry is perhaps uneven, his longer experimental works are both brilliant and challenging, and his shorter poems often striking in their simplicity.
Denise Levertov became a Catholic after a long process of conversion. Though she died in 1997, her reputation has continued to grow. She is widely anthologized, and the scholarship related to her work has increased as well. Her work will endure. Levertov was deeply conscious of the connection between spirituality and language. In her poem, “Caedmon,” Levertov reimagines the legend of Caedmon, perhaps the first English Christian poet. She envisions Caedmon’s transformation thus, “and nothing was burning,/nothing but I, as that hand of fire/touched my lips and scorched my tongue/and pulled my voice/into the ring of the dance.”
Dana Gioia, who was for many years the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a great apologist for the Catholic arts tradition, and the arts in general. He worries—rightly—that we are losing both in our country and our church a sense of belonging to a unique artistic heritage. Gioia is also a very fine poet, and while he thinks Catholic artists need to strengthen their Catholic identity, Gioia at least is doing his part.
Gioia, and many other contemporary poets, are included in a wonderful anthology of contemporary Catholic poetry entitled “Place of Passage,” edited by David Craig and Janet McCann. The volume is organized according to the liturgical year, which highlights not only the work of the poets, but also the explicit connection between their work and their faith. It is a perfect place to begin a reaffirmation of the Catholic poetic tradition and its relevance in our own time.
“The poet’s eye,” Shakespeare wrote, “in fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown.” This is the work of the poet, to make transcendent the ordinary and to articulate the mystery of our world in language that resonates with beauty and truth.
This is the work of the Church, as well. The two belong together.