I’m in the middle of writing a short essay on John Crowe Ransom’s first book, Poems about God (1919).  In his early poems even more obviously than in the later work that made him one of the most influential minor American poets of the last century, one sees a ubiquitous but erratic, and almost unbearable, irony saturating the poems.  Ransom seems to have woven irony through his lines so that he could speak about what he genuinely loved while at the same time acknowledging it is not wholly lovable and, more importantly, what is lovable about it is what escapes definition and representation.  What is most precious is useless; what is most loved is irrelevant; the heart of things always glistens at the horizon, just beyond the reach of the reason’s steady eye or the salesman’s firm handshake.  His loquacious poems seem to proliferate words in an effort to make clear that what he wants to say cannot actually be said.

Back when Ransom was just a name to me, his poetic practice was already a nameless ghost pointing me with a finger of white bone in the direction my own poetry was bound to take.  Like so much of Ransom, some of my first poems were poems about the way in which lust, desire, and God are all so near to us that we cannot see them.  They are realities so close, closer than we are to ourselves, that they will always escape beyond the receding horizon of our speech.

Two such poems have just appeared in Connotations, an on line journal run by Connotation Press.  My thanks to John Hoppenthaler for publishing them.

Here is one of them, first written in 1999, finally gotten about right in 2012:

Agricola: A Song for Planting
My arms have labored such small cares
And failed them. So little as one seed,
To sow, or toss among the tares
To shrivel for thirst, or try to feed
What’s buried in the drying ground.
I scythe the grain when Autumn comes.
But now, the earth is cold; the browned
And fallen husks of last year crumble
Beneath each step I take. This year
Promises drought, the thirsting stalks
To be as these cut white stalks are,
The living follow the dead’s walk.
What lie did I tell myself when
I cast my efforts to sustain
Each growth? Each year forgives my sin,
But remnants of each loss remain.
A warm congratulations to those who can identify the instance of apocopated rhyme in this poem.
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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.