James Matthew Wilson: “The Hunger for the Depths of the Divine”

Editors’ NoteDana Gioia has just published a new book: The Best American Poetry 2018.  The interview below is the first of a series of interviews with some of the poets featured in Dana Gioia’s new collection. The interviews are conducted by Jennifer Reeser, a poet who recently wrote a tribute to Timothy Murphy for First up? A fascinating encounter with James Matthew Wilson.

James Matthew Wilson is one of the best of the rising young poets of his generation. He a professor of religion and literature at Villanova University, the poetry editor of Modern Age, and the author of eight books, including “The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (Catholic University of America 2017).

The James Matthew Wilson poem chosen by Dana Gioia for The Best American Poetry 2018, “On a Palm”, takes for its subject a local psychic who has just gone out of business. The poet reflects on all the substitutes that arise when religion is abandoned but with a tender regard for the deep human needs which cause people to turn to the ersatz:

“The local psychic closed up shop last week;
Took down her shingle with its big black palm
Held up to lure those driving by away

From busy motions to her inner calm.”

James Matthew Wilson’s latest book of poetry is The Hanging God (Angelico 2018)

Reeser: Have you always been Catholic?

Wilson: I gave a lecture on Catholicism in American poetry this last winter and, in the question period after, someone in the audience noted with dismay that every important Catholic writer of the last century seemed to be a convert.  Can the Church not nurture any talent from birth?

Well, that was a misapprehension on the part of the audience member, though it is certainly true that such important figures as Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Thomas Merton were all converts to the faith.  I’m one of those born, or born twice, into it.  It’s an irritating quality of our age that very few of us manage to get through our maturation without some departure from the faith, and I had mine, but on the whole the thought of God was always at the center of my mind as a boy, and in a way as an adolescent.

I talk about that a bit in my verse letter “To John” in Some Permanent Things and also in “At Father Mac’s Wake,” which told of my rebellion against being forced to attend a priest’s funeral:

I pressed my mouth against the humid lacquer
Thick on the pew, and with that stealing cowardice
Augustine tells us of, I drove my bike key
Into the wood as if to carve and scrape
Insignia of my envy and impatience,
My boredom, bitterness, and fresh despair.

But, as I came into maturity at a large state university, I saw the way in which so much of contemporary life was a parody, a substitute, a fraud for faith and its trappings.  Everyone has their liturgy, but some are more ridiculous than others, as my kids always point out, on Sunday mornings, as we pass the crowded “barre” exercise studio on our way to Mass.

I saw that “local psychics” pullulated in college towns and knew them for what they were.  And so, when I reflected on the Church in that setting it had almost the force of a conversion.  First, to the Eucharist.  Second, through Dante, to the emanations of the Eucharist in the stuff of culture.  And, third, when I first read John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, to the life of the mind lifted by faith and reason.  That first encounter saved me; the second set me onto writing poems; and the third fed my eventual calling to the academy and my work in philosophy, theology, and aesthetics.

Reeser: “On a Palm” is a marvelous poem which appears in The Best American Poetry 2018, and its spiritual impulse is not lost on this critic. Do you want to talk a little about this poem as a Catholic? Is it a poem of contrast and comparison, or one of connection and empathy with a psychic’s “foreign religion”?

Wilson: “On a Palm,” you might say, could not be more directly taken out of my daily life and devotional life.  For years, I would walk my oldest children to our local parish school.  For about three years, incidentally, that entailed my scooping up my oldest daughter onto my shoulders and giving her a ride for the mile’s distance.

As Livia and I made our way each morning to a place where I hoped she would acquire a child’s love and knowledge of God, we’d always pass the “local psychic” shop.  My reaction to seeing that big black palm on the shingle out front was always twofold.  I would recall twenty years ago meeting women who were in no way religious but regularly visited psychics and, also, reading studies that said the more secularized or “unchurched” westerners become, the more likely they are to believe devotedly in superstitions.

That’s always made sense to me. There is no escaping the divine, this world is full of souls crowding its corridors, and I’ve always been very confident that most ghost stories are true.  And yet both the hard-won exercise of human reason and the divine revelation of God himself instruct us that there is a true supernatural and a crock or claptrap one.

Hustling my daughter to school, I was most frequently reminded of my responsibility as her father to see that she knows the genuine truth, not the ersatz stuff so many people cobble together and make do with, out of a half-conscious hunger for the depths of the divine.

But, as I wrote that poem, and did so in a spirit of humor and without sympathy for the “gold-ringed gypsy getup,” something more came out of me.  We all are hungry to see into the life of things.  The thing about being–the stuff of reality–is that it is always more than itself.  We want to see inside its mystery.

People who visit psychics at least perceive that, and I wanted to honor that sort of bearing witness to the invisible even as I poked fun at it and, I hope, prodded the reader to seek something better.  The poem is part of a long sequence called All Things, in which I specifically try to play “psychic” with the things of this world to see what divine mystery they have in them.  As Thales wrote, “all things are full of gods.”

Reeser: Your poetry is formalist, using meter and rhyme.  Is this formalism in poetry in any way in your mind linked to your Catholic faith?

Wilson: Yes, there is indeed–a twofold one.  As I matured, I came to appreciate the goodness of order and of things done well, of the well-made thing, the orderliness of good politics and the beauty of magisterial tradition and sound liturgy.  So, as it happens, at the same time I was rethinking some things about the Catholic faith, I also happened to be discovering for the first time the genius of verse craft and its carefully chiseled conventions.  You could say all that is the story of my life.

But stepping aside from personal history, I’d observe that western thought from Plato onward, and St. Augustine in particular, sees a deep correlation between the intelligible numbering of meter (and, we might also add, rhyme) and the intelligible numbering of the world as a created order.  When I make a poem, I have a sense of bringing to order in a small and observable way, after a human fashion, a particular work.  That work reflects, and helps us reflect upon, the ancient wisdom which has always taught us that the world is a created order.  It may be a ravaged and ugly place, too, but we mostly recognize those rending qualities in light of the subsistent order behind them.

I have to answer the question in this order because my first response to seeing how Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter worked was something like an inarticulate howl of delight.

I just couldn’t believe anyone could do that and I wanted to try doing it too.  Only slowly did it dawn upon me why such a good thing should have seemed so wonderful.

Reeser: Did you have any part in the process of this anthology, such as dealings with the editor, Dana Gioia, or others involved in the series? Do you enjoy the “business side” of writing, such as this?

Wilson: When I learned I would appear in Dana’s anthology, I was sworn to secrecy, and I might as well have been because I had no role in the selection.  There was nothing for me to say.

Dana has long been familiar with my work, of course.  In fact, he wrote the forward to my new collection of poems, The Hanging God (Angelico).  Otherwise, I would have been very surprised that he had tracked down a poem of mine — even one that is a personal favorite — to a new magazine (Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry)  that had yet to establish its reputation.  “On a Palm” did, after all, appear in the first issue of the magazine.

To the other part of your question: it would depend on what you mean by “business side” of poetry.  I can say this much.  When I entered the academy as a graduate student, I did so quite conscious that it would be the one way I could secure an income as a writer.  It has certainly fulfilled that.  But, it is important for me to be writing and selling my work.  Freelancing helps pay the bills, but it also makes me a better writer.  I have a pretty fully formed style, but I enjoy tweaking a poem, essay, or review to fit the interests of different editors and, in fact, it is in thinking about what editors want that I often come up with new ideas.

For book reviews, certainly, but also for poems.  “On a Palm” was inspired by a comment from the poet and critic William Logan, for instance. He was looking at another poem of mine, then called “On a Palm Tree.”  He said, “Why not just call it, ‘On a Palm?’  I thought that was an excellent cut, but it also got me thinking about the polysemantic nature of “palm,” and so a second poem with the same title grew out of my lopping off the last branch of the first.

Reeser: A Catholic journal of poetry called Presence? Do tell gentle reader more. Who started it? What’s your role?

Wilson: In 2014, Dana Gioia hosted a genuinely inspired conference at USC called The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination. It was no ordinary literary or academic affair where established figures gather to visit and then return to their own private lives; it was rather a kind of commission.

Everyone who came, from high school students to Tobias Wolff, was given occasion to consider the present literary landscape, the place of Catholic thought and letters within it, and to work at once to renew the Church’s life with the arts and the arts with the genius of Christianity. One graduate student went off and started a whole reading and lecture program at Catholic University of America; others present volunteered to make the conference biannual and to see it move from city to city that the whole country may be included.  I personally introduced aspiring writers to the practice of prosody so that they could become better poets.

But not least of the fruits of the conference was that Mary Ann Miller, who had edited a fine anthology of poems about the Saints [Editors note: St. Peter’s B-List], founded Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. My role in the journal is that of a contributor. However, I have offered Mary Ann what advice I could when it was solicited.  An important poet whom I particularly admire just wrote to say that the journal is such an achievement. If this is the state of Catholic letters, he said, then he wants in.

Reeser: The trend since the 1980s “Catholics and evangelicals working together” has been to subsume Catholic identity under the banner of Faith. Image journal is perhaps the most successful example of bringing together people of all faiths in one journal of the arts.  Why a specifically Catholic journal of poetry? What’s that about?

Wilson: When Americans try to be ecumenical they end up being ecumenical in the old American way. That means in a specifically Protestant or “denominational” way. It begins by affirming that there are unbridgeable differences that simply will not be discussed and then proceeds to seek out some uncontroversial common ground.  Generic ceremonial prayers or the reduction of Christianity to moral truisms usually results.

The American ecumenical way is always to water down.

Image has accomplished some wonderful things within that framework.  On the other hand, its mission is a fairly bland or generalized affirmation of “faith” and then borrows its aesthetic criteria from the already established conventions of secular art.  In consequence, it risks not seriously challenging either our sense of faith and mystery or the regnant conventions of contemporary art and letters.

But, you see, both these things do need challenging.  They need transforming.  Contemporary art and letters are not in an otherwise happy and healthy state and just missing a little sugar packet called the divine that needs to be stirred in. Our whole account of beauty and the fine arts needs to be overthrown and restored.

That’s one reason I wrote The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition, and why I’m writing a book now called Art is a Jealous God: Aesthetic Autonomy and the Claims of the Divine.  Our craft traditions need to be irradiated by an ancient light that will challenge them to be better than they are.  Contemporary spirituality doesn’t need to be pampered; it needs to be slapped in the face.

We will not feel that slap if a little soupcon of mystery comes admixed with the fairly dreary and uninteresting conventions of contemporary letters.

Image is right to resist the appearance of supplanting secular aesthetic judgment with goodwill and devotion.  But the exercise is a bit pointless if faith doesn’t transform or illuminate beauty. And given that contemporary artistic practices are already derelict, because they have forgotten God and therefore also forgotten how to operate in their own natures with their own integrity, faith is required not just to give additional depth to the contemporary arts but to help them regain their own integrity.

Reeser: How much do you think the disappearance of Catholic art noted by Dana Gioia in The Catholic Writer Today is that there are far fewer significant ones? Or is it that the writers and other artists that exist went into hiding, as it were, adopting protective coloration. I’m thinking of artists like Andy Warhol. and even Czeslaw Milosz who wrote to Thomas Merton he thought all the time about how open to be about his faith or not?

Wilson: I confess I’m not entirely certain. At no time would it be desirable for a writer to think of himself explicitly or specifically as a “Catholic artist.” So whether writers imbued with the faith speak of it directly does not concern me.  What matters is that art always and everywhere be capable of giving us an encounter with being, being in all its depths, mystery, and light.

Modern art tends to be secular not because ours is a secular age, but because our dominant art forms are moralistic, political, and sociological.

They are realistic in the sense of imitating the surfaces of everyday life; they fail to be realistic in the true sense, which would entail their putting us in touch with the Real: with the refulgent interior of the world which is always infinitely more than its appearances (which is saying a lot, because, as Oscar Wilde once pointed out, appearances are a true mystery unto themselves).

I can say this much.  In the age of Merton and O’Connor, there were Catholic journals and colleges supporting the work of Catholic writers in a kind of “cloister.”  But writers did not remain there.  This well-established network of institutions gave such figures a place to cultivate their art and to make it so good that the world beyond had to take notice. I think Dana addressed this as the end of his “Catholic Writer Today” essay: Small, internally coherent institutions prepare the climate of opinion necessary for artists to cultivate their talents.

Alan Jacobs’ essay of a few years ago, “The Watchmen,” about the disappearance of Christian public intellectuals, valuable though it was, got this point wrong, I think.

He treated contemporary Christian thinkers as having retreated into specialized or cloistered intellectual spheres and giving up on the public sphere as we know it to exist.  Such a point rightly chastised those who naively suggest there is no public sphere; we’re all too fragmented now, and so just cultivate your own.  That’s patently false; just because our public culture is degraded and subliterate doesn’t mean it’s not real and not influencing all of us.  But his essay lacked this one nuance: We need little platoons as a place to grow and become adequate to our interventions in a broader society.

Thanks in no small way to Dana’s essay, I think we can all see those little platoons appearing here, there, and everywhere.  Now we have to watch to see what they are capable of offering to everyone.

Reeser: What is gained when Catholic artists cease to be known as specifically Catholic artists?  I’m thinking here of Flannery O’Connor’s quip the Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be Catholic but he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist. She hated the idea of being seen as a “Catholic novelist.”

Wilson: I think I’ve addressed this at least in part already.  Works of art are not “autonomous” as if aesthetic standards and practices existed in total and sovereign isolation from everything else, but that’s true about everything.

Our bodies are not our individual possessions; our mental life does not exist in sweet isolation from our bodies; medicine does not exist in a vacuum from prayer; the peas on my plate will soon be swimming in the gravy running off my mashed potatoes.

Replace “autonomy” with “integrity.”  Everything that is has its own proper integrity, and that includes a work of art.  O’Connor didn’t want limp-wristed works of art that compensated for their weakness, their lack of integrity, with pious claims to sincerity.  She was right but wasn’t totally right.

Sometimes we read a book simply because it is sincere; I sometimes take a book of short stories or a novel off the shelf because I want to read a “Catholic novel.”  I don’t care if it doesn’t stack up; I’m just curious how a Catholic writer gives form in art to faith. For that matter, there’s nothing stopping me or anyone for reading a book because he thinks it might nourish the soul, even if it has some aesthetic defects.  But, on the whole, she was right: Artists need to do a good job, and they serve God best, as artists, by performing their work well.

Modern persons are very suspicious of goodness as a part of reality; they fear that goodness might be something that we impose by the power of our will rather than a property intrinsic to things as they exist.  That’s a conviction betrayed every time we use the word “values.”

O’Connor wanted us to trust in the goodness of things, including the goodness of the work of art as a work of art.  Protestant Christians often cannot practice this trust because they think the world too defaced by sin, or too irrelevant to the interior life of grace, for goodness to be present within it. Most contemporary persons, not just self-described atheists and materialists, treat the world as if it were just a bare flux of matter and this leads to a deep and anguished restlessness which endeavors to impose meaning on things.

We postmoderns can’t seem to let education be liberal and free, we’ve got to turn it into moral therapy; we can’t let art confront us with being — for what, after all, is being? — it’s got to be harnessed for some political cause.  The contemporary arts suffer from this to the point of self-destruction. Most contemporary poetry sounds as if its author no longer believes that there is any justification for the existence of poems in the world.

We’ll know that Catholicism has been restored to its proper place in our civilization not when some major artist will execute a rendering of the Virgin and Child — desirable as that may be — but at just that moment when we see that the artist and his audience alike are capable of respecting the proper goodness, the integrity, of things to be what they properly are.  Only Catholicism can restore to the world its own integrity.

As T.S. Eliot once said, the only rational choice for the human person is between materialism and Catholicism.  He meant that we perceive the world as meaningful, and have only to choose between whether that meaning is an imposition by us or a gift we merely discover.

And so also, this is what Hans Urs von Balthasar intended when he said that Christians must be the guardians of metaphysics in our time.  It takes faith in the Incarnation to allow things to be what they are in all their marred historicity and still to call them good — not because we want it so, but because Someone else has made them so.  The role of the arts across history has been very various, but there never was a time or place where the integrity of the work of art did not confront us with the challenge of being as good.

Reeser: Do you feel you have gotten sufficient support from the Catholic community when it comes to your poetry? What would you tell our Catholic readers, or ask of them, as far as what you would like to see from the family of God, and their role in the artists’ life?

Wilson: I’m especially grateful for this question.

It has always been my hope that my work would be found of interest to those who already enjoy and regularly read poetry.  But I have always thought that people outside that rather small audience would enjoy poems if only the poems did something significant and identifiable; if they seemed to bring insight and pleasure to our encounter with the world and our love of truth.  I’ve found that to be at least somewhat borne out.

Many readers have sent me letters and told me that my poems were the first they had read with any seriousness and that, much to my joy, it had led them to begin reading more widely in our tradition.  While I’m at it, I should add that some of those letters will come from young men who have sent a letter in script rather than type.  That may seem such an irrelevant gesture, but I can tell that it is an act of insistence or even resistance on the part of my correspondent, an effort to slow down and earn his language on the page in a time when typing is so entirely associated with the thoughtless and ephemeral.

It was for those fugitives who want to take the time to make something good that I wrote my book The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking.  There’s plenty–perhaps too much–spleen in that book, but I thought it needed to be there so that those who have silently watched as contemporary art declined from bad to worse might have their aggravations justly expressed.

But there’s a great deal of hope in it, too. In fact, the second half is, I hope, a complete classical poetics and guide to prosody, so that those who discover how good the art of poetry can be will have at their fingertips a means to understand it and even to begin writing it for themselves.

Another thought.  I review a lot of books; it is in part, as I said, how I feed my family.  When I review a new book of poems, I try always to make clear the larger, the great, conversation in which a book of poems is making its interventions.  The casual reader might find poems opaque in themselves but can begin to appreciate an author’s work when it is pointed out how that work fits into the perennial argument man carries on with himself in his desire to know the truth about God.

I want Catholics to see that poetry and the arts fit into our great conversation, our communion, with God.

Unhappily, too often I think those who acknowledge as much do so only notionally.  Ours is a culture in retreat, at the moment, and that turns men’s minds onto the harsh and stark questions of the ideological trenches, of bayonet clashing against bayonet, and makes it harder for the mind to open itself up to the immense bounty of being over which God has made us shepherds. He asks nothing more of us than that we treasure it, use it rightly, and contemplate Him more strangely and more truly through it.

What does all this mean?  It means too often contemporary Catholics engage in barbed arguments about the internecine politics of the Church rather than, say, reading The Soul of the Apostolate. [Editors Note:  The Soul of the Apostolate is a classic 1946 spiritual book by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard on the priority of the interior life. It can be read here].

This is what Catholics must do: Open ourselves up to the contemplation of God’s high truths, and cultivating the culture — a Catholic culture — that exists to express and extend those truths throughout creation. Many Catholics have recognized the need to step back and take joy, and such persons have been very supportive of my work.  But this shouldn’t be a small niche within such a vast Church.

The Catholic Church civilized the world; as Newman wrote, the Church, in fact, comprehends civilization per se.  The people fiddling around with beauty shouldn’t be shoved over to a side altar; they ought to be at the heart of the Church.  But that’s not how things are now.

Reeser: Thank you so much.  Would you like to add anything?

Wilson: I’m pleased that the last six years has seen a significant increase in Catholic attention to the arts.  The recent disheartening scandals in the Church have, no doubt, left many of the devout feeling on the defensive and without much hope that their faith will truly light up the darkness. But I think we need to cling to what hope we have and to recognize that hope forms.  It is the reality by way of which our cult — our worship of God, the Truth — enters into, leavens, and transforms everyday life so as to form a civilization.

hope in adding a few poems to the very big stock of the Catholic tradition, I’m also engaging in that enterprise of hope.  It would be good if more of us were acting under the sign of hope to build up and to spiritualize our civilization and if we sought to stand apart from the darkness of the world specifically by demonstrating that, in our hope, we have something better than it and something better to offer it.

Counting syllables and matching up rhymes to load up a stanza with form may not seem like much, and in fact, it is not much. But I think it is a good symbol of what it means to build a civilization.

I hope more contemporary readers will turn to the art of poetry as a means to form their own cultural life; if they do, I think we’ll be well on the road to renewing the Church’s historic role as the great spiritualizing force of civilization.

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