Friday, April 27, 2007

How to Write with Helen White, part 1

Our friend Hansonius has been generous enough to invite me to post on his blog. Thanks Hansonius, whoever you are! I thought I’d start with a series of posts about an essay written by Helen C. White, about whom you could read more all the way over here. She wrote the introduction to Drink from the Rock (1944), which is a collection of poems from Spirit, a Magazine of Poetry published by the Catholic Poetry Society of America. I confess that I haven’t read much of the poetry from the collection, so I can’t say how accurate her assessment of Spirit is. But her short essay offers some provocative insights into the creation of not only Catholic poetry, but all sorts of Catholic writing, and religious art more generally. Many of her points anticipated issues we discussed last summer in Mahwah: what makes literature Catholic? What should religious poetry do? How do religious artists reconcile their faith with their artistic responsibilities? There are so many interesting bits that rather than offering them all at once, I’m going to milk them for what they’re worth over the next week or so.

First things (no allusion intended) first. She begins her introduction by discussing the tension between the poet’s responsibility to his individual consciousness and the world at-large:

Spirit in its very basic undertaking of encouraging the writing and reading of poetry grounded in a spiritual approach to the universe, met head-on some of the most important challenges of its day. It challenged, first of all, the unrestricted and uncontested individualism of the romantic movement. [I'll bite my tongut about why I think she's being unfair to the romantics...] It did not deny the preeminence of the individual for the creation of poetry, but it challenged the insulation and the self-sufficiency of romantic individualism. On the other hand, the Editors of Spirit defended the integrity and significance of the individual against that rush to lose the individual consciousness in the imagined consciousness of the mass of humanity in which so many disillusioned individualists of a decade ago sought to recover a sense of moral significance. It tried to do justice to two realities, both indispensable to poetic creation, realities which never should have been set in opposition to each other, the individual consciousness and the relation of that consciousness to the world without.”

But here's the rub:

“In doing so, Spirit faced squarely the burning issue of poetry and propaganda. With the critics of romanticism it agreed that the individual owed an allegiance beyond himself, that the content of a poem could not be a matter of light concern to either the poet or his reader. But it insisted no less firmly that poetry was something more than a medium for expressing ideas. It maintained this basic position against the proletarian school, that advanced the propagandist view of poetry on behalf of a materialist ideology which Spirit could not accept.”

Our ears should really perk up with the next paragraph, which reminds us that parroting catechesis does not compensate for a lack of technical and artistic ability:

“But with even more courage and independence Spirit maintained the distinctive character of poetry against the propagandists of its own point of view. As Spirit was quite historically oriented enough to know, this was a much older foe and a much more dangerous one. For the notion that correct theological ideas and praiseworthy sentiments would redeem any rhyme and lay an obligation upon the pious reader has long been the curse of religious poetry. Spirit saw clearly that the pious platitude might be a poetic blasphemy, and from the first it has waged unremitting war against the substitution of piety for poetry.”

“Pious platitude”—good stuff, isn’t it? She later calls the tension she’s describing “a confrontation of unworldly and unpoetic sanctity.” And it’s something that Flannery O’Connor discusses often in her letters and prose.

I wonder if the religious devotion and artistic excellence she’s talking about here go hand-in-hand. If a Catholic writer cannot express Catholic ideas and beliefs originally or creatively, it could very well be because he does not quite understand the ideas and teachings to begin with well enough to make them part of his individual consciousness. It’s the same with any idea: the quality of the writing very often depends on the depth of the knowledge and the strength of the understanding.

That's it for now. Now do me a favor and post a response. And stay tuned next week when Helen C. White tells us how poetry is like prayer.

No comments: