Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Christians and Modernist Poetry

This week a friend passed along Mark Signorelli's recent article, "The Meaning of Modernism." In it Signorelli argues, first, that artistic (and specifically poetic) form is inseparable from content; though not a propositional statement, the form of a work embodies the philosophical (or political, or religious) perspective of the artist, and more broadly the artist's culture, who created it. He goes on to argue, second, that modernist poetry naturally embodies the philosophy undergirding it, a philosophy whose conception of freedom is damaging and untrue, masking and choking thereby whatever beauty one might otherwise have hoped would emerge in the art. Signorelli believes the temptation to ignore this fact, and to submit to the modernist paradigm anyway, is especially perilous for Christian poets today.

I want to comment briefly on this, though I admittedly need to learn more about the precise terminology in play; "modernist" may be specific enough to mean a particular sort of self-consciously methodological poetry in the vein of T.S. Eliot, or generic enough to mean most meter-less poetry in the last 100 years. If Signorelli means the latter, I think he's missing something important.

For example, the poetry of someone like Franz Wright is formless, meter-less, without predetermined shape, precisely as an embodiment of Wright's central concerns: beauty in brokenness, grace amidst pain, light in darkness. The shape of his poems does embody his content, and from one vantage point (though not the only one), it consequently tells the truth of the gospel better than rigorously defined, beautiful-with-a-capital-B classical poetry.

Moreover, it seems to me that in a real sense, once one's culture has fragmented to the extent that ours has in the last century, so that the world in many ways lacks the kind of fundamental, ordering beauty taken for granted in previous times, the proper response needn't be to impose a towering alien transcendental on it. Rather, Christian poets ought to practice their art from the ground up, within the welter as it stands (and trembles), speaking truth and beauty in the table scraps recognizable by ordinary, fractured people. Mary Karr, Andrew Hudgins, and Li-Young Lee, among others, come to mind in this regard.

I will have to think more about the issue of freedom and form, and the interplay between them in recent non-metered poetry. I suspect there is a substantive answer here, but because it is an important issue, I will leave it there for others to consider rather than suggest a hasty solution.

1 comment:

  1. Brad, I'm a grad student at Yale from churches of Christ as well. I was wondering what church you attend. If you don't want to say here in the comments, feel free to send me an email at