Berwyn, PA.  Randy Boyagoda, my old neighbor from the Catholic ghetto that grew up around the Studebaker mansion in South Bend, writes about the dearth of Catholic writers and artists in our day, in the new First Things.  He begins,

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.

These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.

Literature is yet another place where, to mix a metaphor along with the thought of Pope Benedict and Richard John Neuhaus, the naked public square has extended its desertification.  (I would not have to mix that metaphor, if I were only more comfortable with the bare necessity of using the verb “to nake,” rather than just its form as a dressed up adjective).  I go along pretty much all the way with Boyagoda’s argument.  But, for those who may be in search of a Catholic literary presence in the last century, or in our own day, I direct them to my new essay in Dappled Things“Orders of the Analogical Imagination: An Introduction to Catholicism and Modern American Poetry.”  There, I outline and criticize a tradition that begins with George Santayana, but which extends through to the present day. The essay constitutes an “Introduction,” because I have promised to more people that I can count that I will write a comprehensive book on the subject.  To date, I have published six of a proposed eighteen chapters.

I take a more than academic interest in these questions, of course.  I have done what I could to add a few stones to that tradition and to articulate an account of art and literature that would help to make the efforts of contemporary writers a bit more auspicious.  On which note, in the latest Notre Dame Review, two sonnets from my sequence La Rochefoucauld’s Ghost have just been published.  The Review has not put the poems themselves online, and so I include versions of them just below.  Versions, I say, because as soon as I see my poems in print, I usually cringe and write them over again in hopes of not making myself cringe in the future, and so these are the post-cringe versions of the sonnets.  What the Review has done, however, and has much thanks from me for the favor, is to publish as part of its online supplement to the issue my own commentary on the poems and the sequence from which they come, which can be found here.

Here are the poems.

OF CORRESPONDENCES

After Baudelaire

The living columns girding Nature’s halls

Whisper, descant, or flash dense knotted words;

Man walks amid these runic forested walls,

Finds welcome in their intelligible accord,

 

Their myriad echoes bounding till suffused

Into a deep and verdant unity.

All tones and voices twine in air that moves

With the perfumes of night, the stench of day:

 

Unfaded scent from off an infant’s skin,

An oboe’s music soft, a lush field’s green—

The stuff of riches, rot, glory and sin,

Expands and binds all things, seen and unseen,

Till amber, musk, invisible incense,

Anoint the embrace of intellect and sense.

 

YEATS IN LONDON

Here he sits, scribbling of black pigs and fate,

Of time and Twilight tales, that bare broomstick

Blavatsky called stout Protestants come late

To bite and tear away the briars thick

 

With Catholic degeneration: notebooks filled

By thoughts transformed to symbols.  Through the glass

All London roils in thickening fog whose still

Obscurity seems like a gnostic masque

 

Where all he won’t believe may still be seen:

A vision’s second-hand remembering

That shames the cold room’s bare walls.

His Da, stirred

In anger from his studio, where each brush

Stroke re-inscribes the real, sighs now, “You’re just

A poet, Willie, no philosopher.”

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Catholic or Eastern Orthodox? I smile, because, for us from the East, Dostoevsky was Orthodox and it actually makes a bit of a difference…separated from birth, as we seem to be. My roots are Catholic; yet my heart is in the East, now, along with pretty much the rest of me.

    In any case, have you read Scott Cairns? Orthodox poet. Great stuff but most definitely founded upon those quirks we Orthodox have in our theology. Try “Love’s Immensity”.

    I would love being a Catholic-now-turned-Orthodox writer, someday rather soonish, but I haven’t a clue how to get there, especially “at my age”. 😉 Seems youth has the lock on such things, although GrandMa Moses might disagree. I have some poems, but they are so distinctly Orthodox in *form*, seems they need a bit ‘splainin’ (or so Ricky keeps telling me). Perhaps my friends will enjoy them when I die. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed that which you have shared, here, with us. Really enjoyed. A lot.

    Thank you.

  2. Cringe yerself into another poem, then cringe that into another….Poets, after all , are Cringers. It wouldn’t be poetry without a hearty cringe.

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