If we read literature seriously it is because “we seek an enlargement of our being” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism). You have probably experienced such an enlargement of your being in reading the great poets of the past. However, poets do not figure prominently, if at all, in the media or public square. Those that do may not strike you as particularly inspiring. Perhaps you assume, therefore, that recent poetry is not worth reading. Even if you do not make that assumption, maybe you have no idea about which poets are worth reading. In this episode, therefore, James Matthew Wilson recommends five contemporary poets every Catholic with an interest in literature should read.
James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and the Founding Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He also serves as the Poet-in-Residence for the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy, as Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, and series editor of Colosseum Books, of the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. He is an award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature. As a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, his work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, The Wall Street Journal, The Hudson Review, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, National Review, and The American Conservative. His books include The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition(CUA, 2017); The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking(Wiseblood, 2015); The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (Wiseblood Books, 2014); The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico, 2020), the poetic sequence, The River of the Immaculate Conception (Wiseblood, 2019), and I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (CTS, 2022).
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What has driven you to write and study poetry? Well, I started my habit of writing with fiction. I was writing short stories and novels. But one day, I tried to figure out how iambic pentameter worked. It is the standard meter in English poetry. Of course, it is most famous on account of Shakespeare. However, it is pretty much the standard meter of all metrical verse in English. I discovered that this thing that verse has, and prose does not have, was a truly great thing. I spent a whole hour trying to write a single line of verse, which ran, “A sonnet, every day, four or five long years.” After I had sketched this out on a pad, I went home that evening and wrote my first sonnet. This carving of language, down to the syllable, refined like the finest rhetoric and weighed with the rhythm of music, has never ceased to fascinate me.
Now, I am talking about this in highly personal terms. However, this fascination is not merely personal. From the ancients, such as Plato and Homer, on through to the contemporary world, people have always been fascinated by the way in which language, when measured, takes on a form that is steeped in beauty and opens on to mysteries beyond itself. Meter may appear to be no more than the mechanics of language, but it is in fact the beginning of that opening onto mystery. The whole literary tradition says that there is something mysterious, almost sacramental, about meter and the way it shapes human speech. It gives it a form, depth, and splendor that opens onto things beyond the merely human and what language normally comprehends.
"I would invite people to discover what language, finely wrought and measured, is capable of."
Is there a guiding theme of your own poetry? There is. A steady focus of my work over the years—and I am not alone in this—has been the contemplation of things in their being, existence, mystery, and meaning: the way in which, not only Scripture and poetry are polysemous, but the multiple meanings of things in general help us understand human activity and also the natural order of the world. It is a three-step theme. Seeing things as they are and discovering that, when seen in this way, their depths open up. They reveal their connections to other things. These connections in turn lead us not only to see the natural order with all its parts, its congeries of beings. As Thomas Aquinas says in the introduction to his Commentary on the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius, they lead us up to the creator of all things, God himself. This attempt to perceive the intrinsic being and goodness of things is part of the general literary quest. It is not particular to me. It is the reason people read books in the first place: to hear news of God and know the order and cause of all things.
There is a glut of publications for academics on contemporary poetry. But how can the general reader keep abreast of developments and separate the wheat from the chaff? Well, that can be hard to do. A common lament among contemporary poets is that there is more poetry being published today than at any time in history, and, on balance, fewer readers than in most times of history. Poetry is the only universal art. It is the only art that is found in every culture and civilization and in every age. Nonetheless, it has become a minority art. Filmmaking and novels are excellent ways of storytelling. Storytelling is one of the classic functions of poetry. Some of that duty has been usurped by those other artforms.
However, it is possible to find truly superb poetry amid the glut. I look at magazines that are focused on poetry of genuine quality: poetry that is in contact with the metrical tradition and the long-standing metrical practices of the English poets. For an English-speaking audience, the most obvious places to look are Dappled Things and First Things.
Dappled Things is dedicated to supporting a Catholic literary revival in our day.
First Things, the American religious magazine, publishes good poems in every issue.
National Review publishes one poem in every issue, and they are usually quite good.
Then there is a wider range of other smaller magazines that also publish good poetry: Plough for instance.
Since the advent of the printing press, people have read poems primarily in anthologies. Happily, some excellent anthologies have been published recently.
Edward Short has edited the Saint Mary's Book of Christian Verse. This volume exceeds the description given in the title. It is a fine anthology of poetry in English from the Middle Ages up to the present.
My publishing imprint, Colosseum Books, has just published a book by the American poet Ryan Wilson:Proteus Bound. It contains translations of selected poetry from the ancient world up to the turn of the twentieth century. It is a marvellous education in the history of poetry. Wilson translates poetry in five or six different languages in the book—and does so into a skilful metrical verse.
Finally, for those interested in contemporary American poetry, Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas have with Paraclete Press Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology.They produced a very interesting and readable anthology, not that long and about the right length for the casual reader.
You mentioned how there has been an expansion of publications and scholarship on contemporary verse, but a diminishing audience. Dana Gioia discussed this issue in his 1991 article for The Atlantic, “Can Poetry Matter?” The article elicited a huge response, both positive and negative. Has the situation changed notably since then? For better or for worse? In the early part of this century, Dana Gioia was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of his responsibilities was to establish surveys of how much people were reading. In the United States, at least, the number of people who are regularly reading poetry has about tripled over the last ten years. It is not a mystery to what that increase is attributable. There are some good guesses. One of the causes must surely be that a number of poets took seriously what Gioia proposed in that essay.
First, he proposed the restoration of real craft in poetry. Poetry must not just be a loosely formed prose meditation, cut into lines. That is what much poetry looked like in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, in the United States and beyond. Now, many poets have recovered the ancient tools of their art.
Second— and this has been very important—he proposed reconnecting poetry, which so many encounter on the page, with performance. He meant this in two respects. First, poets really need to compose for the ear. As soon as the written word is severed from the spoken word, something has gone wrong with the art of poetry, indeed, with the art of literature more generally. Poetry is always a kind of measured or refined speech. If it cannot be spoken aloud brilliantly, it is not good poetry. It is not going to be very impressive on the page. So, Gioia has been instrumental in reconnecting poetry with performance and music. Many poets have taken up that mantle and quite a few, including myself, are now working regularly with composers to set words to music.
There is a third thing. During the twentieth century, beginning with modernism, the fine arts were reconceived in terms of self-expression. However, self-expression is not a very good raison d’être for the arts. Even when poets are talking about themselves, if they are not talking about universal human nature, they are not saying much at all. So, one of the other things that Dana Gioia recommended in that essay was a decentering and emptying of the poet’s self, to be at the service of both the work of art itself and the literary tradition. Hence, there has been a great rise in the public performance of poetry, not just of poets reading their own work, but of poets sharing the great poems of the tradition. They thereby offer a much broader vision of the artform than if they were just to recite from their own book. It is in that spirit that I have joined you to talk about the poets we are going to discuss.
Let’s stay on that essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” In a recent article for Catholic World Report, you claimed that only religious people continue to read serious literature and poetry because they alone retain a belief in a transcendent end, the soul, and the soul-shaping influence of good literature. Is your reply to the question posed in Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Yes, poetry can matter, but only to the religious!”? I would not quite put it quite that way. We have started to talk about Dana Gioia. “Can Poetry Matter” is his most widely read essay and a seminal one. It has defined a whole age in the arts in the United States. Another of his essays—“The Catholic Writer Today” (2012)—is perhaps a close second in importance. There he laments the minority or even insignificant position of Catholicism in American literature in our day. He looks back, somewhat wistfully, to the mid-twentieth century, when the most influential writers of the day were largely Catholic ones: Thomas Merton, Flannery, O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and so on.
The connection that Gioia does not make between those two essays, but which needs to be made, is the following. People have always turned to literature for two interrelated reasons. One is the intrinsic beauty of the work. The work needs to be worth contemplating. Think about that word, contemplation, for a moment. Unless literature opens up onto mystery and something beyond itself—and thereby help us re-envision the world, the structure of things, and our place within it—people would never have begun reading it, listening to it, and enjoying it in the first place. It astounds me how much the citizens of Ancient Greece shaped their understanding of themselves by reflection on Homer's poems. In a sense, even Plato's philosophy is a commentary on the poetry of Homer. Human beings have always turned to literature to arrive at a deeper understanding of human nature and the cosmos. If literature cannot offer that, then inevitably, people will turn away. But for those who are alert to the mystery of existence—and that group is composed largely, though not exclusively, of the religious—great literature will always be a living resource of wisdom and consolation.
Of course, we see that, broadly, people's souls are flattened, made tepid or indifferent to things. They suffer a death of wonder. Inevitably, literature will cease to be a resource for most such persons. If you have no wonder in your heart, then why would you bother with the wonders of literature?
That said, one of the great things about literature is that it can awaken tepid souls. That, in part, is why, as Pope Benedict said, the only convincing apologies for the Catholic faith are the lives of the Saints and the works of art that the Church has produced. He is not saying that only religious people can appreciate these things. He is saying that these are the things by which people outside of the church first enter into the spiritual life. History testifies to the truth of those words. What I intended in my essay was that it will be among the religious, moving forward, that poetry will continue to be most read.
Why should we read contemporary poetry? Simply for its beauty? Or for its ethical, spiritual, and political value too? For its social criticism, its insights into man’s current condition, and the way it immunizes us against the manipulation of ideologues by sharpening our language and thought? That itself is really an excellent answer.
This is an important question. Look at the way in which contemporary people approach the arts. Often, they do so in a bifurcated way. If you ask someone about their interest in music, most will refer to songs of recent vintage, usually works of popular or mass culture: pop music or rock. At best, they shall have in mind a catalogue of works that extends back a few decades. It rarely extends to the work of the great composers, of the present or the past, which is on a different plane from most pop music. However, most who have a taste in literature are more interested in the great works of the past and rightly so. Part of the arts is an aspiration to permanence. What we generally call the classics of our literary tradition are the works to which we want to return again and again, not just in our own lives, but in future generations. We want everybody to have read Dante, for instance. We want everybody to have read Homer. One can be a well-read, literate person without knowing a single work by a contemporary writer. That is not a problem. It is more of a problem when people know only the contemporary and not the tradition.
That said, there is something distinctive about encountering well-made work from one's contemporaries or near contemporaries. Their work reflects, to some extent, the furniture or the texture of the world in which we live. This has a twofold effect. One, their work has a familiarity that immediately intrigues us and draws us into it. Second, while so much in the human condition is permanent, it is helpful to see a reflection of our age. When literature is done well, it usually puts our age in the context of broader, greater, and more permanent things. It provides insight into the present moment, but under the light of eternity. Homer and the contemporary poet both help us to understand ourselves and our world better, but in distinct ways.
Although it may escape their notice, faithful Catholics recite poetry regularly and devoutly to commune with the Triune God through Christ. In the liturgy, the Church prays with the Psalms and hymns. Can the reading of good non-sacred poetry help us pray liturgical poetry more deeply? It must. You never read a poem without trying to understand it. You hear its beauty, and you want to hear how it unfolds meaning in a beautiful manner. That can sharpen the attention of those of us who participate in the liturgy but tend to recite the words without hearing them or entering into them.
This spring I directed part of a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in in St. Louis, Missouri. Most of the retreat was prayer and silence with the Benedictine monks. My portion was to talk with the retreatants about the hymns that Thomas Aquinas wrote for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It was such a delight to go through both the Latin and the English with them, and to show the ways in which the great saint and Angelic Doctor was making his own poetry virtually a Eucharistic reality, where the human and the divine, the flesh and the Spirit, were engaged constantly and dialectically, at times even unified or drawn together. Usually, it took an hour and a quarter to read through each of those hymns, and they are not very long. Sometimes we did not get through the stanzas. The experience was really promising as a way for awakening Catholics to the importance of liturgical language.
"If poetry is not written in verse, then what makes it something other than prose that is diced up into lines? If poetry is not written in verse, then what makes it something other than prose that is diced up into lines?"
Some of the poets that you recommend are noted for their adherence to formalism or defence of it. You alluded to formalism earlier. What exactly is it? Formalism can have a couple of meanings. I tend to speak of it in the way you were asking about.
As many know, from the turn up to the middle of the twentieth century, the modernist movement was a great source of disruption and revolution in all the arts. It led to some odd developments. In the visual arts, there was a turn away from representation towards abstraction. In music, there was a movement towards atonality. Then, in poetry, there were several changes. The most decisive one was a break with the historic practice of conceiving poetry as literature written in verse. This created an identity crisis for modern poetry. If poetry is not written in verse, then what makes it something other than prose that is diced up into lines? There is an argument— a very strong argument, in fact—to be made for free verse. However, that cannot overcome the fact that, when poets infuse, measure, or chisel their language with meter, something happens even to the plainest language.
Here is an example I love. In English, probably the best-known single line of poetry is the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
Well, that line has the exact same meter as:
“The toilet’s clogged again. Please call the plumber.”
This a very plain bit of speech indeed. Probably, it is not what most people would think of in connection with poetry. Yet poets such as Robert Frost have shown that, when you take such plain speech and give it metrical expression, it takes on a mystery or radiance.
This is one of the great achievements of Robert Frost’s North of Boston, written during the modernist period. This book is largely a series of blank verse poems: metrical narratives and monologues, spoken mostly by rural New England farmers. It is one of the greatest achievements of American literature because, somehow, when plain speech is measured, you do not turn farmers into Hamlet, but you do give their plain rural speech a permanent form, one that makes it memorable, attractive, fascinating, indeed mysterious. Also, there’s a lot of fun in how you say the thing!
The poets that you have selected seem to combine both technical mastery, literary insight in poetry that is also infused by their Christian, and in many cases Catholic faith. Is that the reason you've chosen these five? Yes. One criterion was to pick contemporary poets, by which I mean poets who are either alive or were so until very recently. I wanted poets who are not beginning but who have fully established themselves and are approaching the end of their careers. Two of the poets I shall talk about are deceased. The other three are in their nineties, eighties, and seventies respectively and are coming to the end of their career, I think it fair to say. We can begin to judge and take the measure of what they have accomplished.
The other criterion was twofold. First, poets who were committed to formal excellence, whether in meter or in free verse. Secondly, poets who are alive to the wonder and the mystery of human life and the way in which the drama of our lives opens onto our encounter with the divine.
The first poet, Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), was the second U.S. Poet Laureate, a translator of classical French plays, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a university professor, and the librettist of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. You have called him “the greatest American poet of the second half of the twentieth century.” That is reason enough to read him. Is it the only reason or is the Christian character of his verse another motive? The description I gave of what makes poetry interesting for human beings, does not find finer expression in American letters in the twentieth century than it does in Wilbur.
He began publishing soon after his return from service in Europe in the Second World War. From the very beginning of his career, his contemporaries, all of whom tended to be masters of meter, rhyme, and stanza, recognized an uncanny power in his poetry. For many years, he was celebrated but also criticized for the formal perfection of his verse.
Some complained that he did not take any chances. There was formal perfection. It was marmoreal poetry, but, the complaint went, without any of the bold explorations that many contemporary poets had undertaken thanks to modernism.
That was never an accurate portrayal of his achievement. Not only was he one of the great craftsmen of the American twentieth-century, he was also one of its most profound of poets. He had a capacity to find and express in contemporary language the great drama of the soul. He did that from the very beginning of his career.
"Wilbur describes two different fountains: one that is Baroque and one that is austere. He looks at them to see which one is the most adequate expression of the end of human life and the shape, as it were, of the human soul."
Is there any collection in particular that you would recommend? Wilbur's collected poems from 1943 to 2004 is probably the easiest to get. He published one more collection, his last one, Anterooms, when he was in his early nineties. However, his greatest achievement, his most perfect single book, is the one he published in the 1950s: Things of this World. In it, you shall find his most important major poems.
Interestingly, he was a great poet of both his early life and his old age. While Things of this World is his single most important and perfect collection, some of the poems that he wrote in his seventies and eighties stand out among his greatest achievements.
Is there a poem of his you would like to read? Yes, here is one. Wilbur spent a year in Rome on a fellowship and he wrote six important poems, all set in Rome. This is the greatest of them, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra”.
When one is hearing a poem for the first time, it can be difficult to take it all in. By way of preface: in this poem, Wilbur describes two different fountains: one that is Baroque and one that is austere. He looks at them to see which one is the most adequate expression of the end of human life and the shape, as it were, of the human soul. The poem culminates very conveniently in St Francis coming in and settling the debate, almost like a deus ex machina.
Under the bronze crown Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet A serpent has begun to eat, Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down
Past spattered mosses, breaks On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills The massive third below. It spills In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes
A scrim or summery tent For a faun-menage and their familiar goose. Happy in all that ragged, loose Collapse of water, its effortless descent
And flatteries of spray, The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, Watching, about his shaggy knees, The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
His fauness all the while Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
Bent on the sand floor Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come And go in swift reticulum, More addling to the eye than wine, and more
Interminable to thought Than pleasure's calculus. Yet since this all Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall, Must it not be too simple? Are we not
More intricately expressed In the plain fountains that Maderna set Before St. Peter's–the main jet Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
In the act of rising, until The very wish of water is reversed, That heaviness borne up to burst In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
With blaze, and then in gauze Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine Illumined version of itself, decline, And patter on the stones its own applause?
If that is what men are Or should be, if those water-saints display The pattern of our arete, What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
Spangled, and plunging house? They are at rest in fullness of desire For what is given, they do not tire Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
And riddled pool below, Reproving our disgust and our ennui With humble insatiety. Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
Before the wealthy gate Freezing and praising, might have seen in this No trifle, but a shade of bliss– That land of tolerable flowers, that state
As near and far as grass Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand Is worthy of water: the dreamt land Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
This incredible poem is gorgeously formed, yet expresses the deepest thing we can possibly ask ourselves. What are we born for? Are we born to be in secular ecstasy or to rise, like that austere fountain before St. Peter’s, up towards the divine? Of course, the sacramental synthesis that St Francis offers is so beautiful. We are embodied creatures but called to occupy eventually glorified bodies, capable of enduring the light of heaven. It is amazing that Wilbur managed to get all that into one poem.
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