Thursday, March 25, 2010


Poetry & religion, two different things... I think of religion as social-collective behavior - a cultural phenomenon made up of countless social orientations, commitments, actions. It is belief consolidated - substantiated in social formations : ethical traditions. This is obviously not poetry. Poetry is the verbal expression of the artistic imagination (or simply, the imagination). There is no sanction or requirement for the vagaries & dreams of free imagination.

Poetry (some poetry) might be closer to theology, though. I think of theology as intellectual reflection upon (& maybe insight into) the "givens" of religious tradition. There's a range - let's call it "vision" - where such endeavors can overlap.

In the modern era, religion is often represented as irrational, oppressive, & silly. I suppose modernity could even be defined as "the critique - & mockery - of religion." Novels & various discourses since the Enlightenment abound in satires on Medieval ritual, dogma, superstition, & the general moeurs of churchgoing folk. Certainly much of the critique was (& is) indeed liberating & enlightening; but the secular ideological-political formations which then sought to replace religion resulted in the vast desolations & conflicts of the 20th-century. So who gets the last laugh, so to speak (aside from the Devil...)?

Our local hero, Roger Williams, was an avatar of a different kind of cultural equilibrium between sacred & secular. By advocating tolerance of all faiths, liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, and the separation of civil and religious Authority, Williams set the stage for the Enlightenment, and for the balance of secular government & religious freedom as we know it today. Yet Williams' Puritan innovations had deeper roots in the cultural development of the West. Even medieval Catholicism recognized that peace & order depended on harmony between the "two swords" - the two Powers of Church and State, Church & Empire. The authority of the Church was an ethical counterbalance to the power of the King : they were never fused into one. This balance of the two had a scriptural basis in the New Testament - in Jesus' command, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, & to God what is God's". The apostle Paul, in his letters, took up this theme, when he described how God's Providence works through all things, including the State & its ministers, "for our good" (an argument often used to justify passivity & conformity in the face of State-sponsored evil : but not necessarily or entirely false, in spite of this.) It was this conception of Providence working through all things, Christian & non-Christian, sacred & secular, which informed Williams' political vision.

And one could trace this tradition back much further. It's possible to think of Judaism as a religion which is a theological reflection & critique - a re-working, or overturning - of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion. The God of the Hebrews - the primal & universal Creator of all things, who allies himself personally, not with the rulers of mighty nations, the immortal god-kings atop their ziggurats & pyramids, but with humble shepherds & slaves. This God does not merely issue obscure demands (though He does issue demands) - but comes down to dicker & argue with his adopted people. & the main aim of this Hebrew God is to provide liberation from oppressors, & from human wrong-doing in general. So we can see the historical consequence of this basic stance of Biblical religion : a theological challenge is offered to oppressive rule. A line is drawn between sacred & secular. The authority of the divine is set up in opposition to, rather than conjunction with, the secular or theocratic power of nations. Thus the seeds of individual conscience - the ethical demand of a divine & infinite universality, above and beyond any earthly power - were planted, long ago.

Recurrently in my poetry (esp. in Lanthanum) the figure of "Maximus" shows up. This could be taken as an allusion to Charles Olson's epic persona of the same name, but I'm referring to another Maximus : Maximus the Confessor, a Byzantine theologian. This Maximus was enmeshed in controversies over the Trinity and the nature of Christ's Person, with which Orthodoxy, centered in Constantinople, was engaged for centuries. A profound & creative thinker, Maximus synthesized Greek philosophy & Christian faith, to produce an affirmation of the Orthodox sense of the union of divine & human Persons. That the universal Godhead would manifest on earth as a particular human person was a mystery, a conundrum & a scandal from the very beginning - a scandal involving first of all the splitting apart of Judaism and Christianity, & then, within Christianity itself, at least a thousand years of polemics over its exact meaning (& of course, those debates have not yet concluded).

But poetry per se is not so formalized (logical) or realistic (descriptive) as theology claims to be. Poetry, as an (artistic) end in itself, is to some extent free from the claims of realism and denotative meaning. It's more concerned with modelling or representing "possible" realities : and in doing so, poetry is able to express deeper, more elusive, less systematic, more subtle layers of sense, feeling & experience. These "free, unsponsored" dimensions of psychic & emotional life themselves reflect back on the formal, "official" records of history, & dogmas of religion, & assertions of ideology, the oppressive superstitions of hide-bound culture. & that "reflecting back" is the substance of poetry's immemorial radicalism : the prophet's challenge to arrogant priesthoods, the poet's rebuke to overweening state authorities, the critique of "realism" offered by the imagination.

But protest and politics aside... I see a sort of harmonic affinity between theology and poetry, in the likeness between : 1) Maximus' synthesis of divine and human consciousness within the form of the Person - ie. the whole reality of experience is keyed to a human scale, and 2) the Petersburg/Acmeist poetic tradition of Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam - hewing to Mandelstam's idea of poetry as "domestic hellenism" : the humanizing, civilizing, & domesticating of life on earth with a "teleological (human) warmth." Both represent an architecture of existence based in confidence : a deep confidence in "Providence", in the eventual working-out of "faith, hope & charity" (history as Redemption).