A certain kind of irony is fashionable in contemporary American poetry. The kind of irony I mean is a tonal façade of disaffection, of jadedness. Read a handful of the thousands of literary magazines or books of poetry published in the U.S. every year, and you’re sure to encounter it frequently. The underlying tenet seems to be that sincere expressions of emotion have to be balanced with a significantly greater amount of pretending to have little investment in the subject at hand. I imagine that this has come about out of fear of the sentimentality we often associate with previous eras, but also out of the effort to sound “contemporary”—and, problematically, it seems that we as a literary culture have a rather narrow notion of what it means to sound that way.
I see this fashion as no more than that—a fashion, and certainly not a necessity, as critics and poets have so often implied in recent years.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a more useless, even counter-productive, dictum than Arthur Rimbaud’s famous “Il faut être absolument moderne” [“One must be completely modern”].
The problem is this: One is inherently a product of one’s time. If a poet or artist consciously attempts to “be” modern (or postmodern, or contemporary, or whatever term you prefer), she or he is simply attempting to conform to a necessarily simplistic notion of the characteristics she or he associates with the fashions of the era. Perhaps a more useful directive can be found in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”: “a poem should not mean / but be.”
While not everyone will find this prevalent mindset as troubling as I do, I think it bears reflection. What are we writing? How are we going about it? What unexamined assumptions are informing the way we write?
I don’t mean to imply that the particular kind of irony under discussion cannot produce great work. I think immediately of W. H. Auden, a real master of irony. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s hot-to-the-touch “One Art.” I think of Dean Young’s work, which is full of this irony of disaffection, and at its best is heartbreakingly beautiful. But when ironic distance becomes the default modus operandi among so many poets, it’s time to call it into question, and perhaps it’s time to leave behind this self-imposed restriction. Irony is no more modern/postmodern/contemporary than sincerity. Irony does not make a poem “relevant” or “up-to-date.” And yet these assumptions seem to underlie much of what is being written today.
Though irony is so prevalent in contemporary poetry, thankfully the body of work being produced transcends even the most widespread fashions. The poetic mode that most interests me is what I would call devotional—a mode to which the kind of irony I’ve been discussing is usually antithetical. The term devotional has unfortunately become associated with greeting-card or “inspirational” verse, which is typically doggerel infused with cliché sentiments of appreciation, encouragement, or consolation, and/or overly simplistic religious ideas. This is decidedly not what I mean by the term devotional poetry.
In my introduction to my forthcoming anthology, Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, I offer a detailed explanation of the devotional mode, as I see it. Here, it will suffice to say that the quintessential devotional poem is one in which the process of composition is itself an attempt to relate to the divine, however one defines it. The reader will not know for certain, of course, how a poem was composed, but those poems that give us the sense that they are proceeding in uncertainty—not only of literary or aesthetic outcome, but also of spiritual outcome—should be included in this mode.
The reason that the irony of disaffection is antithetical to the devotional mode is that the mode is dependent on authenticity of spiritual expression. (Etymologically, the word devoted indicates “set apart by a vow.”) Some of the most powerful exemplars of this mode are the 17th-century religious poets, often called the Metaphysical poets, and George Herbert most especially. Often in Herbert’s poems, the reader senses that the spiritual struggle that is the subject of the poem was ongoing during the composition of the poem, and that composition was not only a means of expression but also a means of attempting to relate to the divine. Consider the middle section from Herbert’s “The Search”:
Where is my God? What hidden place
Conceals thee still?
What covert dare eclipse thy face?
Is it thy will?
O let not that of any thing;
Let rather brasse,
Or steel, or mountains be thy ring,
And I will passe.
Thy will such an intrenching is,
As passeth thought:
To it all strength, all subtilties
Are things of nought.
Thy will such a strange distance is,
As that to it,
East and West touch, the poles do kisse,
And parallels meet.
Since then my grief must be as large,
As is thy space,
Thy distance from me; see my charge,
Lord, see my case.
O take these barres, these lengths away;
Turn, and restore me:
Be not Almightie, let me say,
Against, but for me.
Here, Herbert is agonizing (from the Greek agon—“contest,” or agonia—“struggle”) over the possibility that the distance he feels from God is a result not of anything that stands between himself and God, but of the very will of God. For the reader, this struggle occurs in the present moment of the poem—there is no foregone conclusion here. We can speculate that Herbert was experiencing a sense of separation from God during the composition of the poem. We cannot know for certain, of course, but the fact that it seems to be a current struggle is one of the vital elements of the poem that lends it such power to move us.
There are few poets today, if any, who write stylistically like the Metaphysical poets, but the devotional mode of composition remains a vital form of spiritual exploration for many poets today. It was my intention in editing Poems of Devotion to demonstrate the vitality of the devotional mode. The anthology includes poets from diverse religious and non-religious traditions alive in 1950 and onward. One of my favorite poets included is the songwriter/poet/novelist Leonard Cohen, who is sadly under-represented in poetry anthologies. I've chosen two of his superb prose poems, as well as the lyrics to his song "If It Be Your Will."
Below are two examples of poems from Poems of Devotion. I will be posting more examples over the course of this week (including one of the magnificent poems by Patrice de la Tour du Pin, a mid-20th-century French poet relatively unknown in the United States, but thankfully now being brought into English by Jennifer Grotz).
NICHOLAS SAMARAS (b. 1954)
The Unpronounceable Psalm*
I couldn’t wrap my mouth around the vowel of Your name.
Your name, a cave of blue wind that burrows and delves
endlessly, that rings off the walls of my drumming, lilting heart,
through the tiny pulsations of my wrists, the blood in my neck.
I couldn’t hold the energy of Your name in my mouth
that was like trying to utter the crackle of lightning,
as if my teeth would break from its pronunciation.
I am dwarfed in the face of Your magnitude,
O You whom I can’t articulate. O You of fluency
and eloquence whom I can’t fully express, my words
are only the echo of You that rings within my soul, my soul
a cave of blue wind that houses the draft of You,
the eternal vowel of You I can’t wrap my mouth around.
Lord, Lord, as close as I may gather, as close as I may say.
*“The Unpronounceable Psalm” was originally published in Image and is reproduced here by permission of the author.
JENNIFER GROTZ (b. 1971)
Yesterday they were denticulate as dandelion greens, they
locked together in spokes and fell so weightlessly
I thought of best friends holding hands.
And then of mating hawks that soar into the air to link their claws
and somersault down, separating just before they touch the ground.
Sometimes the snowflakes glitter, it’s more like tinkling
than snow, it never strikes, and I want to be struck, that is
I want to know what to do. I begin enthusiastically,
I go in a hurry, I fall pell-mell down a hill, like a ball of yarn’s
unraveling trajectory—down and away but also in surprising ricochets
that only after seem foretold. Yesterday I took a walk because
I wanted to be struck, and what happened was
an accident: a downy clump floated precisely in my eye.
The lashes clutched it close, melting it against the eye’s hot surface.
And like the woman talking to herself in an empty church
eventually realizes she is praying, I walked home with eyes that melted snow.
*“Snowflakes” was originally published in The Boston Review and is reproduced here by permission of the author.