I was recently asked what my dissertation is about. I responded, vaguely, that it is about Hans Urs von Balthasar and metaphysics. And I never once mentioned poetry. In fact, I said nothing further at all.
I am never quite sure what to say about my dissertation. When I try to explain, the conversation tends to go very poorly for me. People’s eyes glaze over and they regret asking, or they nod numbly and pretend as if I made sense. I don’t see why anyone asks; even I know that dissertations are not inherently interesting, and it is somewhat ridiculous to pretend as if they are. Let us all prefer the mercy of discussing the weather instead.
But it is infinitely better to bore people than it is to give them the impression that I am interested in art. If I even breathe the word “art” or “poetry,” the response is always, “One of those dissertations?” As if my entire project had suddenly become fake, or may as well be made of bubbles. We think art has no laws, and that it enables those using it to say whatever they damn well please. Students of theology interested in art must also, therefore, be predominantly interested in happy thoughts and lawlessness. You know – fake theology.
Someone once said to me, when I made the mistake of mentioning poetry, “Oh, lovely. That’s much better than dogma.”
I could not prevent my scowl, and said, “No, I love dogma, and I’m defending it.”
Metaphysics and poetry, you see. The two go together. That is why my dissertation is not a careless assemblage of fluffy clouds and pretty things. That is why I have not forgotten dogma. And, finally, I simply do not think metaphysics and poetry can end in anything but death without Christ.
Von Balthasar speaks rather derisively of sheer aesthetics; that is, of beauty for beauty’s sake alone – unrelated to either truth or goodness. This, for him, is not beauty at all. It is prettiness. A glittering facade. If that were what I was hell bent on writing about, I give you permission to dismiss me.
But it is not. Not at all.
The first thing I want to say about poetry is that it is ridiculous. It is. I grew up hating it, hating it deep down, and there is a part of me that continues to resent it despite my fascination with poets and my own experiments in poetry. I love the art despite myself.
Bad poetry is an assault on decent human beings everywhere. Bad poems kill emotions by magnifying them to the point of caricature; bad poems overwork words until they are as illuminating and precise as silly string; bad poems hold the world in contempt, and so ooze pretension.
But good poems enliven the truth by playing it in a different key; good poems know emotion, but not too much; good poems love the world and fear for it. At its best, art knows its limitations and uses those limitations to its advantage: speaking, and leaving the rest to silence. So poetry is with words:
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
– excerpt, T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets
I am as against bad poetry as the next person, and perhaps more viciously. But good poetry can show us beautiful and true things. And it can show us, most of all, why Scripture will never die. Because Scripture, using words and silence, speaks to us. Better than poetry and better than any art, yet in a way that shows to us the value of these lesser things. Showing us their value because Scripture uses art, too – and more effectively.
Finally, both art and Scripture pale in comparison to the living Word made flesh.