Commentary Magazine


Odd Angles of Heaven, edited by David Craig and Janet McCann

Poets at Prayer

Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry by People of Faith.
by David Craig and Janet McCann.
Harold Shaw. 311 pp. $14.99.

Some contemporary writers of poetry take to religion, searching for the feelings that might release their fine command of words. And some religious people take to writing poetry, searching for the words that might express their fine religious feelings. Unfortunately, neither aspiration is a sufficient cause of good writing, and so religious poetry today has a tendency to magnify the difficulty under which nearly all contemporary poetry labors: the writers cannot feel, and the feelers cannot write.

All the more reason, then, to look forward to a work entitled Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry by People of Faith. For this could be the book that breaks the mold, showing us how a group of major poets can work, via religion, to revive the prospects of English poetry itself. Unfortunately again, it does not.

Odd Angles of Heaven is an easily read anthology, presenting one to four short poems, chiefly lyrical, by each of 70 poets. A reader not well acquainted with contemporary poetry may find the principle of selection disconcerting. With poets best known for secular verse, the editors evidently felt bound to choose the odd, and usually uncharacteristic, religious example. With those best known for religious verse, they evidently felt free to choose anything—even if not obviously religious. The anthology, which is alphabetically arranged, thus sets little-known religious poetry by such well-known writers as Wendell Berry, X. J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Richard Wilbur, and Charles Wright alongside the work of poets hardly known at all outside religious circles. And just to complete the oddity, it includes a handful of nonreligious poems for no apparent reason whatsoever.

All of the poets, or at least all of the poems, are American, and Christian of one stripe or another, and this is one way in which the book disappoints. The editors were certainly right to reject pseudo-religious New Age verse, and right again to accept verse from many different branches of American Christianity; but the absence of poets of other faiths skews the picture of American religion, and the absence of non-Americans, such as the increasingly important Irish poets and British writers like Geoffrey Hill (to my mind, the most distinguished contemporary religious poet), deprives the reader of some of the most important work being done today.

These considerations aside, however, it must also be said that within their chosen confines David Craig and Janet McCann have assembled a good sample of verse. Mostly in the unrhymed plain style, it is competent, assured, and careful to avoid the sentimentality, pietism, and cheap mysticism that tends to disfigure the genre. On the whole, the polished writers fare better here than the deep feelers (good ranting and raving require more space than an anthology can afford), and those poets well known for their skill with secular verse prove no less skillful at religious verse.

Thus, Richard Wilbur in “The Rule” asserts the need for formal ritual in religion:

        the rule has ruled. . . .
Does that revolt you? If so, you
    are free
To squat beneath the deadly
    manchineel,
That tree of caustic drops and
    fierce aspersion,
And fancy that you have
    escaped from mercy.
Things must be done in one
    way or another.

In “The Waterbury Cross,” X. J. Kennedy, another secular poet, recounts his difficulty understanding the death-bed return to Roman Catholicism of his fellow poet Wallace Stevens. And Wendell Berry has several nice Audenesque pieces, especially “The Way of Pain,” in which he allows the pangs of child-rearing and the pangs of religious hope to illuminate each other:

For parents, the only way
is hard. We who give life
give pain. There is no help. . . .
I read of Abraham’s sacrifice. . . .
The beloved life was spared
that time, but not the pain.
It was the pain that was required.

Turning to poets known for their religious verse, I would especially praise Dana Gioia’s rhymed gem, “Guide to the Other Gallery,” the initial stanza of which reads:

This is the hall of broken limbs
Where splintered marble
    athletes lie
Beside the arms of cherubim.
Nothing is ever thrown away.

and David Citino’s series of hilarious precepts in “Sister Mary Appassionata”:

Drowned bodies, drunkards,
    heroes, saviors
surface always on the third day.
Virgin wool cures the deepest
    ache or burn. . . .
The holiest creatures are those
    that fly. . . .
Those whose eyebrows meet
    can never be trusted.
Women named Agnes always
    go mad.

_____________

 

About the large number of weak or otherwise defective poems in this anthology, by poets both religious and secular, the less said the better. Weak or strong, however, what is most distressing is the absence of any poems that make a religious world live on the page, the way, for example, Robert Lowell—whatever his personal faith may have been—made such a world live in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and “After the Surprising Conversions.”

Is this the fault of the poets? Far too many of them, it should be noted, teach in college-writing programs, and as several critics have had occasion to observe in recent years (among them Joseph Epstein in “Who Killed Poetry?,” COMMENTARY, August 1988), such poets seem to publish only for each other or to obtain tenure. This sterile meistersinger system, moreover, was established at the worst possible historical moment: at the height (or depth) of the rebellion against anything noble and exalted in verse. With its demand for a prosy style, the writing-degree system institutionalized a sort of self-conscious simplicity and studied primitivism—as though academics had developed elaborate rules to ensure that all trained artists would paint just like Grandma Moses.

The plain style is not in itself unpoetic; it can capture the perfect simplicity of a Japanese vase, and it can endow the rhythms of natural speech with force and feeling. But there are higher and lower ranges of human experience which it cannot articulate, and which it serves, in fact, to deny: the ranges of war and festival, damnation and salvation, evil and good. The formal adoption of this style by the poetry establishment has thus helped to impoverish poetic expression in general, and religious expression all the more so.

_____________

 

But the failure of religious poetry is not entirely the fault of the poets; indeed, to watch the struggles of the more innocent among them in this anthology is genuinely painful. Religious poetry cannot make readers believe; for its words and feelings to possess unity and force, it needs to rely on an already existing religious culture, and that culture has to be a shared one. Lacking such a shared religious culture—lacking today even its living memory—we have only competent writers in whose hands the plain style is incapable of drawing new feeling from the well of old religion, and religious people in whose hands the plain style is tragically or farcically incapable of expressing their obviously deep religious feeling.

Poetry itself is, in this sense, a casualty of the decay of religious culture in America and England. We do not all need to have the same religion to have good poetry in English, but we all need to have some sense of the enrichment of language that religious ritual bestows and the stability of language that religious faith preserves. “Religion is a spring,” Henry Vaughan declared in the 17th century, “That from some secret, golden mine / Derives her birth, and thence doth bring / Cordials in every drop, and wine.” There are certain things that can be done to help reestablish religious culture in America, and certain things that can be done only after its return. Good poetry, especially good religious poetry, is unfortunately one of the things that come after.

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