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True poetry can only edify those who seek edification. In a culture succumbing to the narcissism of Pride, people seek self-gratification, not edification. In such a culture, the works of the poets will be enjoyed by only a few noble souls in the cultural desert which T.S. Eliot correctly called the Waste Land.
The following is an interview that Joseph Pearce gave to Anna Szyda for the Polish magazine, Magna Polonia. This is its first publication in English.
Anna Szyda: Professor Pearce, in Poland, American poetry attracts the attention of many and is widely commented on. What is often pointed out is the deleterious influence of the contemporary civilisation on the American soul. While we are on the subject, what can be said about the American soul as seen through the prism of America’s poetry? What is the American soul like? What has become of it? Where is it heading for?
Joseph Pearce: This is a difficult and dangerous question. American culture, including its poetry, is a byproduct of multiculturalism. The story of the United States, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, might be seen as the golden age of multiculturalism, representing the apparent triumph of the so-called “melting pot”. The secret of its success is that the melting pot was strong enough to withstand the heat and the friction caused by the mixing of the various cultures, enabling the various ethnic ingredients to melt and meld into a vaguely homogenized nation with a recognizable culture. The melting pot’s strength resided in the economic prosperity which the United States generated during this period and also, paradoxically, in the cultural unity that being “American” signified at the time. The pot was forged, therefore, by an alloy of material wealth and patriotic cohesion.
The success and ultimate viability of multiculturalism is therefore connected to the melting pot within which it is exists. If the pot is made of too weak a material to withstand the heat generated by ethnic fiction it will itself melt, resulting in the anarchy that leads to violence and thence to the tyrannical restoration of ruthless “order”. If, on the other hand, it needs to be made of the hard and toxic metal known as “totalitarium” in order to prevent its melting, multiculturalism serves merely as the prerequisite to tyranny. In short, if the melting pot becomes too weak or too strong, it becomes a menace to human liberty and to the flourishing of authentic culture.
Anna Szyda: Polish readers of American literature are often confronted with such themes as obsessions, fears, childhood traumas prevalent in the works of such poets as Roethke, Plath and Lowell. There is much talk of the effect of mental disturbances on poetic visions. Could you elaborate on this?
Joseph Pearce: All such obsessions, fears, traumas and “mental disturbances” are encompassed by the one unifying word: “suffering”. Everybody suffers, irrespective of their theological, philosophical or emotional outlook. The question is not the suffering itself, which is inescapable, but what we do with it. The secret of sanity is the acceptance of this inevitable suffering; the absence of such acceptance leads to the “mental disturbance” which manifests itself in the poetry and culture of nihilism, or what St. John Paul II called the culture of death. Nihilism is the vacuum caused by the absence of any acknowledged meaning; since nature and supernature abhor the existence of a vacuum, the void caused by the absence of meaning is filled with viciousness. It is this which animates the poetry of despair.
The irony is that reason, i.e. the presence of meaning, is inseparable from faith. If we will not have God, we will have his absence, which is hell. This inextricable unity of fides et ratio, in the light or shadow of the grim reality of suffering, animates the greatest literature, such as Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who was Thursday, or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. It is only when our own crosses are seen in the presence of the Cross of Christ that we are able to bear them. This is the grace that the Suffering Christ brings to suffering humanity. Without such grace, which is nothing but the strength of God, we will be crushed by the weight of the cross which our own sins and the sins of others have placed on our shoulders. The sublime paradox is that Christ does not merely take up His own Cross but our crosses also. It is by his light that our burden is lightened. This is why faith and reason are indissolubly married and this is why sanity and sanctity are ultimately the same thing.
Anna Szyda: As opposed to this school of poetry, which might be called Confessional Poetry, yet another trend is popular here. I am referring to the writings of Richard Wilbur and the so-called Academic Poetry. I wonder if you could briefly characterise this trend?
Joseph Pearce: At root, Richard Wilbur and the Formalist movement which he inspired were a reaction against the formlessness of nihilism and the egocentric narcissism of what you have called “confessional” poetry. Philosophically Wilbur and the neo-formalists sought the subjection of the self to the demands of objective reality, the form of the poetry being a metaphorical engagement with the form of the cosmos, the sphere of the muses seeking to sing in harmony with the Music of the Spheres. Formalism signified a reengagement with the objective order of reality in contradistinction to the disengagement inherent in the formlessness of nihilistic art. It countered the death of prosody caused by postmodernism with its resurrection through a return to reason and form.
Anna Szyda: In your interview given to “Gazeta Obywatelska”, you said that the new generation of Catholic American writers can be described as those faithful to truth, goodness and beauty. On the other hand, the works of the poets representing the culture of death are marked by nihilism. Could you enlarge on this literary (nihilistic) trend and cite some characteristic examples of the texts and their authors?
Joseph Pearce: I am not an expert on contemporary nihilistic culture because I am wilfully ignorant of it. Its toxic presence pervades the cultural atmosphere, poisoning goodness truth and beauty with its corroding influence. It is best to stay well clear of it. I put such “poetry” on the same level as contemporary rap, or “death metal”; it does not warrant the label of being either music or poetry, nor does it warrant any serious engagement. There are more contemporary Christian and tradition-oriented writers than I can possibly find time to read. Why would I waste my time and sully my soul with the death-culture’s detritus?
Anna Szyda: Are there any experimental schools of poetry in the USA today? If so, could you provide us with their brief description supported by examples? At the moment, Poland witnesses the emergence of a new avant-garde poetry school called akreistic poetry (the term derives from “akra”, which is Greek for “edge”, “margin”, “boundary”). Akreistic poetry is characterised by considerable brevity and discipline. It does not aim at constructing plots, anecdotes, narratives. As a result, each such poem constitutes a succinct, frequently 3-4-word-long and highly metaphorical rendition of one’s state of mind. Akreists rebel against poems being made into prose and against expressing thoughts in a prose-like fashion. They claim to be discontented with versified prose posing for poetry. Can a similar phenomenon be observed in the United States?
Joseph Pearce: I have an extensive collection of contemporary English verse, mostly by poets based in the United States, and I’m not sure I could identify any specific school that’s emerging. To be honest, I’m uncomfortable with the reduction of cultural phenomena to isms. My own poetry roams deliberately across the formal landscape, from the strictness of the sonnet to the apparent looseness of what might even be called free verse. Similarly, as editor of the St. Austin Review, I publish a wide range of poets who employ multitudinous forms. My preference is strongly for poetry which conforms to the demands of the formal end of the spectrum but I will accept less formal verse if its use of imagery, conceits, paradoxes, alliteration, onomatopoeia and other formal tools exhibit an adroitness in conformity with true poesis. And, of course, in addition to these means to an end, I am looking for an integral unity to the whole poem which shines forth reality, perhaps in ways that will awaken it afresh in the readers’ eyes.
Anna Szyda: What is your view on the writing classes at American universities? Do you think one can be taught how to write poetry?
Joseph Pearce: The vast majority of creative writing courses in the United States are poisoned by the nihilism that we have already discussed. They are best left well alone. The best teachers of poets are poets themselves. The fact is that we only write as well as we read. If we want to master poetry ourselves, we need to read and study the masters. At first, our own poetry will look and sound like poor parodies or pastiches of the poets who inspire us. This is not a problem. It’s part of the learning curve of experience. As we grow and mature, we find our own voice, though it will always display the presence of those who taught us to fly. Or, to switch metaphors, there’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants!
Anna Szyda: Let us take a look at poetry from the reader’s viewpoint. Who are the predominant poetry readers in America? Does poetry play any role in American culture? If so, how would you define that role?
Joseph Pearce: I think we need to approach this question in both a broad and a strict sense. In the broadest sense, poesis is simply that art of creativity, which is one of the marks of the image of God in Man. Tolkien preferred to call human poesis sub-creation to distinguish it from primal Creation, the latter of which is brought into being ex nihilo by God Himself. Whereas God bring things into being from nothing, we can only make things from other things that already exist. Such sub-creation, or human creativity, is part of what we are or who we are as creatures made in God’s image. It will, in consequence, be an integral part of any human society. If a culture is healthy so will be its creative aspects; if it is unhealthy, its creativity will have the mark of decadence. In the latter case, healthy artists are a breath of fresh air, even if they have to produce their creative work in the catacombs.
In the strict sense, true poetry can only edify those who seek edification. In a culture succumbing to the narcissism of Pride, people seek self-gratification, not edification. In such a culture, the works of the poets will be enjoyed by only a few noble souls in the cultural desert which Eliot correctly called the Waste Land. And yet, to switch from a great poet to an even greater, it was Shakespeare who called the noble and courageous few, “a happy few” and a “band of brothers”. It is in such a spirit of brotherhood, that poetry brings faith, hope and love to the world, as well as goodness, truth and beauty.
Anna Szyda: Professor Pearce, what aesthetic and philosophical trends could you identify among the youngest generation of American poets? Are there any obsessions, ideas and emotions that characterise their writings?
Joseph Pearce: Amongst the youngest generation of American poets who are worth reading, there is a definite trend towards tradition in terms of both form and theme. The verse that I receive from young poets as editor of the St. Austin Review is usually characterized by formal adherence to conventional metre and rhyme, with the sonnet remaining very popular. I am reminded of Wordsworth’s “Scorn Not the Sonnet” when I receive offerings from young sonneteers! As for ideas, there is an embrace of Christ and the civilization of Christendom, a reverence and devotion for the saints, and a love for the beauty of nature as the shining forth of what Hopkins called “the grandeur of God”. The young poets tend to be less acerbic than the older generation of tradition-oriented poets, the latter of whom express their exasperation with modern life through the sneer of satire. The young, being more innocent and less jaded, have a refreshing desire to accentuate the positive through the dilation of the soul in the presence of goodness and beauty. Their spirit fills me with hope for the future.
Anna Szyda: Professor Pearce, thank you very much for the interview.
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