Here Let the Dead Poetry Arise

A couple of weeks ago, the poetry editors of The Nation, determined to give the world notice that they were alive and were really important, apologized for a bit of liberal political doggerel they had published and helped cow the poet into apologizing for having written it in the first place. It was a slight thing, the poem, evincing no great mastery of art or language, but because it could be taken the wrong way by people who make a career out of being touchy, it was taken the wrong way. And so the drama duly followed.

Then a former editor of The Nation chimed in and wrote an article condemning the apologies and suggesting that the current editors should have the courage to publish poetry regardless of the political views of the poet. I greeted that article with a shrug and a yawn, because it takes no “courage” in our time to publish any poetry at all. Who reads it? It can’t be sung, having long since severed its ties to music. Poetry is less a part of the lives of ordinary people than it has ever been, in any culture, in the history of the world. The pagan Germans, illiterate though they were, had poetry. The Greeks passed along the works of Homer long before they were set down in writing. The Zulus sang polyphonic war songs. Large sections of the Old Testament are made up of poetry.

I am told that when the Canadian poet Robert Service published his first book, the copy boys who were working on the sheets at the printer’s were so enamored of it, they went out into the streets of Toronto, loudly declaiming his poetry to admiring crowds and stalling traffic. We cannot imagine such a thing now.

I fear that Catholic priests and laymen who are in charge of schools, seminaries, and colleges, or who edit the usual hymnals that sit down heavy on the spirit, like fog, or who compose the songs therein, cannot imagine it either. This is a matter that ought to be seen to.

Every work of nature is an ally for the defense and the propagation of the faith, and so is every second-natural work of man, for man’s art is an echo or an imitation of God’s creative act. If we keep a child cooped in a house, so that he never knows the warm and bright sun, never climbs a tree or splashes about in a pond, we can expect a thin and sallow thing, not a human being growing into the full stature of his kind. Artistically and spiritually, we are like that rickety child, because we have lost the art of the true folk song, we have no poetry, and we have either obliterated the art of our churches or covered their walls with what is slovenly and spiritually cheap.

When I hear the riposte, that there are some very fine hymns being written now, I ask, “Really? Show me the poem.” And no one does. It is as if they knew, though they could not tell why, that the composers they like could no more write a genuine poem than the ordinary person off the street could hitch up his trousers and decide he was going to paint the human body in action, just like that, without the years of careful study, practice, and failure. Show me the poem.

What does all this have to do with Catholic higher education? In a sane world, nothing at all, because in a sane world, you do not go to the university to learn how to tie your shoelaces and comb your hair, nor to be modestly conversant with the long tradition of poetry written in your native language. But this is not a sane world.

Suppose you were in charge of decorating a great interior space, like that of Penn Station. Would you not want to be familiar with art and architecture, and would you not consult the masters who had gone before you? Would you not want to see what others had done in London, Munich, Vienna, Paris, and Rome? You would never give the job over to any old hack. You would not say, “Hey, here’s a group of enthusiastic young people! Let’s give them a lot of paint and let them go at it.” But when it comes to the art that can bring to life the Scriptures, the person of Jesus, the saints, and the transcendent truths of our faith, and impress them on the minds and the souls of people whose daily work has little enough of the beautiful in it as it is, we act as if good intentions were all that mattered. Have you ever listened to your neighbor’s ten-year-old daughter scraping on the violin? Good intentions are not all that matter.

So I am calling upon every seminary in the country to do something that is pretty obviously needed. Our young priests will get almost no education in arts and letters from their elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. I will brook no disagreement on that score; I have taught college students for more than thirty years, and I know what they know and do not know. Of what use are all the courses on the liturgy, when the seminarian has no solid foundation in arts and letters? It is like pouring water into a bucket full of holes.

The priests should know about poetry, music, and art. They need not have Milton at their fingertips, but if they have not read the greatest poem in English, Paradise Lost, and if they cannot say a few sensible things about it, that is a damned shame – and a wasted opportunity, a priceless gift tossed in the dumpster. They need not be able to play Jesu, Meine Freude on the organ, but if they have only the vaguest notion of who Bach was and what he did, that is another shame, another priceless gift, buried. They should be filled with the stories of the classical pagan and the Christian authors of the last three thousand years, stories that themselves put a face on the natural law or the exalted morality of the gospels: they should be friends with Prospero, Sancho Panza, Tom Jones, Pip, the Bishop of Digne, and Olaf the Master of Hestviken.

Then maybe they would see how dreadful the accoutrements of Mass have really become, and they would do something about it. For no true ally in the fight before us should be denied.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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