Frank Dicksee, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

Although ironic for someone who only recently wrote about The Redemption of Beauty, I would like to argue for a moment that poetry shows best of all the arts why art is capable of evil. I do not mean it can bear an evil message, which it can, and that this makes it evil. Anything in the world can be made to do that, and that does not make a thing evil. No, I mean that poetry can stare into the dark void of sin and adopt its qualities – adopting them as if they were something rather than nothing. I mean that this adoption of qualities, this profound sympathy, is poetry’s greatest attribute and greatest downfall.

First, let me defend my belligerence: I myself both love and hate poetry, and both strong terms apply with equal force. I doubt I could be happy without spending some time with classic verse, and all the same I deeply distrust what I read. Though sometimes my friends reference me as a “poet” (find some of my lesser works here, and some slightly better ones with their descriptions here and here), I do not easily bear the mantle. First, I am not really a poet. I am a cold academic in poet’s clothing.[1] Second, I still loathe poetry at several levels (as we will see). Third, I do not want anyone to mistake me for either depth or emotional sensitivity. I possess neither.

This third problem is a most fundamental mistake, one made with frequency when it comes to poetry. We assume, wrongly, that the one who writes the poem has seen and felt exactly what is described. We assume, wrongly, that there is always a remarkable autobiographical tale behind each work. We assume, wrongly, that it takes a deep person to write a deep poem. None of this needs to be true, even while it can be true. To take it everywhere to be the case – to, in other words, read in poems the intensely autobiographical – is to confuse art with the artist. Of course they are related; at the same time, they are not related.

There is not a total kenosis (self-emptying) between the artist and the work. Such a total kenosis is impossible to a limited human being, and the cases in which we can come close are rare indeed. I am not willing to bequeath such a radical power to artists in general. The goal of art is not only or simply self-expression. That is, it is much more than a complex statement about “who I am,” and it need not even be that at all.[2] Little is more obvious and annoying than a poet getting in the way of their own work, and it makes a bad poem worse. Nor does the poet’s personal range of emotions and emotional experience serve as the only soil for a poem’s growth. The genius poet T.S. Eliot, in the remarkable essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” explains:

It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.

Art possesses the peculiar capacity to express a vast range of thought and experience, and the tools from which the artist draws for expression need not be simply the self. The best art, the best poets, vanish behind their work to make “room” for the reader to enter in to the poem. More than that: the best poets draw from the greatest spans of wealth – the best of poetry, literature, legend, myth, theology, even science – to both learn and express. The poet is always a student, and deliberately so. This is what lends to poetry – and, let’s be honest, to anything at all – its expansive quality.

I do not mean to imply that the poet is a passive instrument, or that poetry is at its best mechanically impersonal. I am not fool enough to posit some idiotic doctrine of sheer literary objectivism. It is the poet’s own, unique imagination that draws together the golden threads into a series of verses. Let us simply not restrict those golden threads to the poet’s experience alone. This is what Eliot resists as “personal” in the same paragraph of his essay:

Of course this is not quite the whole story. There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

The trouble is that much poetry does not make these delicate distinctions, and we as readers fail to do the same. Indeed, modern poetry strives to collapse the distance between art and artist. It is, for the most part, about the poet. A quote from the poet Philip Larkin states the modern conviction quite well: “Novels are about other people and poems are about yourself” [Required Writing (1983)].

If Larkin is right, then poetry is poor indeed.

I remember growing up to loathe poetry. We discussed it in class – I learned mostly Americans: Longfellow, Emerson, Dickinson, Frost, etc. – and we spoke incessantly about how we felt about the poem. Isn’t it pretty? All of us of course were forced to write poetry as well. It was mostly self-confessional teenage nonsense, and this became my guiding image for what poetry must be.

Legendary modern poets are no better. Rainer Maria Rilke, a giant in the German poetic landscape, writes in one of his letters:

So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. …keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer. (Letter #1)

Let me summarize Rilke’s philosophy of the poet: turn inward, and become that solitude. This is a frequent theme in his work. For him it becomes clear that even nature is another expression of the inward self. Turning inward of itself is not bad, unless one never turns outward again – outward to focus on others, for example. (It is interesting, too, to note how Eliot in his essay looks “outward” to other poets for guidance, and Rilke only “inward.”) But for Rilke, there is nothing to gaze upon but the self, and this itself is tragically damaged beyond recovery. I have here only repeated themes commonly acknowledged in his “Sonnets to Orpheus” and “Duino Elegies.”

“Know thyself” is one thing; “become a solitude” is another. Rilke develops only the latter through his letters, and exhibits a chilling lack of moral awareness with respect to his own work. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a very early essay, Rilke und die religiöse Dichtung [Rilke and Religious Literature – 1933], explains Rilke’s poetry as an attempt to eliminate the distance between being and nonbeing, between image (Bild) and non-image (Unbild). In the end, there is nothing to gaze upon, not even the self.[3]

Rilke possesses great sympathy for tragedy. The early- and mid-career Eliot did, too. Geoffrey Hill, a living English poet, grasps a similar shadow. All three perceived the shivering nothing of evil, and that nothing eviscerated their poetry in distinctive forms. Rilke tries to embrace it (“Sonnets to Orpheus”); Eliot submits to hopelessness (“The Wasteland”), as does Hill (“Tenebrae”).

The haunting truth about these works of poetry is that they are, in their ways, immensely beautiful works. Ghastly in their futility, and yet bearing that futility with such honesty that it is impossible to deny that something impressive has been accomplished here. This is poetry’s great empathy, its ability to take up the forms it encounters, like a chameleon. It can even conform to loss and give its lack a shape, staring back at us with an eyeless gaze.

Plato distrusts poetry because one of its essential qualities is mimicry, and its emphasis as an art is imitation. (A great summary of Plato’s position can be found here.) It imitates experiences, ways of speaking, ways of being. It imitates even music. But what is it itself? Nothing? Poets – even Eliot – do not appear fully aware of what they do, and of what their work means. Poetry, at its worst, is not an act of compassion, but an act of cruel imitation.

‘What is that noise?’
The wind under the door.
‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
Nothing again nothing.
‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’

– T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

And this is why, most of all, we should fear poetry. Why I must wonder if, in the current age – when there is no ground but groundlessness, no truth but preference – Christian poetry is possible at all. Why we should be cautious with this art, which in its power can bewitch us before we know where it will take us.

[1] This makes me, ironically, a careful reader and sometimes-translator of poetry. See here and here.

[2] The turn to the subject after Immanuel Kant is a broad and faceless concept to blame for our obsession with ourselves, but it certainly didn’t help. Nor indeed did the rather seismic shift in poetry experienced in the 20th century.

[3] If anyone who knows Bernard Lonergan reads this: I am not attacking Lonergan’s cognitional-intentional theory. My use of “self” is not in reference to subjectivity, but much more colloquial.