Friday, 25 July 2014

Poetry, and the Language of Faith in Australia -- a Paper by Tony Kelly

On Tuesday the 22nd of July theologian and poet Tony Kelly CSsR gave a reading and paper at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park as part of the 2014 Poetry for the Soul series. Here is an extension of words used that night, assembled by Tony later in the week.
John L. Mahoney, ed., Seeing into the Life of Things.  Essays on Religion and Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998)

We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics.  In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in yearning toward God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfilment of something implanted in its nature.  The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with consciousness of an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours.  Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed.

(Sir Arthur Eddington in The Nature of the Physical World, quoted on p. xiii of Preface of above).

The wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.

(Wallace Stevens, cited on p. 277 in above).

‘There is nothing more real than true poetry.  There is nothing more poetic than the theology of God’s Word working through all that is good and true and beautiful in our created world’.[i]  In those two sentences, he opens up the theme that we are exploring this evening. You might let two questions linger in this regard, without any pressure to hurry to an answer.  In what sense is poetry more ‘real’ than any other form of language?  And, if theology of the Word of God is ‘poetic’, what does poetic mean in such a context? 
            Bad theology and bad poetry don’t have much to do with one another.  But it is otherwise when both the theologian and the poet are drawn out of themselves, celebrating in their respective ways what has been so uncannily given, and using words to word what is the most particular and the most universal in human experience.  With the displacement that occurred in the history of that experience through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a new form of literature came into existence – the Gospel.  It is not simply that wonderful and terrible things happened in this man, as one more of any number of good people who have been a light in the darkness of human history.  But he is present to those who believe in him, as the resurrection and the life: all that he was and did; all he spoke, stood for and suffered, his death and resurrection, comes to Christians as the self-revelation of God.  Through the witness of the Holy Spirit, he is for us the way, the truth and the life.  The writers of the Gospels were writing about Jesus, a man known and named in human history, and remembered through the decades that looked back to the time of his ministry and his eventual shameful execution.  Yet they were also writing about Christ; for they were dead sure that whatever happened in what we call the resurrection, it was a world transforming event.  It left the tomb empty, but filled the world with light.  ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Christ Jesus’ – those two words are both the most condensed Gospel and the most condensed poem ever written.
            That the authentic witness of faith makes wonderful alliances with the poetic can hardly be doubted, least of all in the Scriptures themselves.  The sacred writings of Israel have been lovingly incorporated into the Christian Bible as the ‘Old Testament’.  Its psalms are the heartbeat of daily prayer.  The great prophecies of Isaiah, the erotic tenderness of the Song of Songs, the wonderful contemplative meditations of the books of Wisdom and the bracing melancholy of Ecclesiastes – all  have entered the bloodstream of the life of faith. The words, if not the names of these prophets and sages of old, speak through the centuries to the human heart:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine,
Though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
Though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation (Habacuc 3:17-18).

Delight in language reaches to its highest purpose in praise of
The one who sends forth the light, and it goes;
He called it, and it obeyed him, trembling;
The stars shone in their watches, and were glad;
He called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’
They shone with gladness for him who made them.
This is our God (Baruch 3:33-35).

Significantly, the great christological moments of the New Testament are typically expressed in hymns and poem-like utterances, as we would readily see in the Prologue of John’s Gospel, in those great passages in the Captivity Epistles (Eg., Eph 1:3-14; 3:14-21; Phil 2:4-11; Col 1:15-20).  Then, in the parables and other teachings of Jesus, we are invited into the imagination of this one man who saw everything differently; and here we touch on something for which poetry is too weak a word.  In the beatitudes and the parables ordinary human words suddenly reach into wonderful, other realms of meaning.  The way he called on his disciples to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky point to manner in which he saw all living things in the light of his Father’s universal providence (Mat 6:25-34).  Such words lead to a silence and hope beyond any human utterance.  Paul’s hymn to charity (1 Cor 13, 1-13) is so much more than moral exhortation.  Explain it as you will, it witnesses to that transformation of human life which only the revelation of infinite love could promise as it invites believers to keep on doing what God has done and is doing in the world.  One of the most genuinely artful passages of the highly wrought Epistle to the Hebrews is the following. The breadth of its allusions evoke Moses meeting with God on Mt Sinai and Elijah’s experience on Mt Horeb, to compare them with what characterises a new covenant:
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them…  But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:18-24).
When you ponder on passages like that, and the others already mentioned, you realise that Word has become flesh in the most beautiful words of the world.  And of course the liturgy abounds in hymns and passages which, at least in their original languages, were marvellous to tongue and ear.  Not too many weeks ago, many of us heard the Exultet sung in praise of the Easter candle, symbol of the Light of the world.  Whatever the limitations of the performance, the words seem to have an afterlife of resonance in the heart, which is a good indicator of great poetry:
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour,
Radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes forever!

And then, as the great Easter hymn works through all its acclamations celebrates ‘the power of this holy night’, ending so evocatively, ‘May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, the Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humanity, Your Son who lives and reigns forever and ever.’
            True, not all hymns are like that; but that is another matter.  Perhaps our hymn-writers today are little exposed to the arts of poetry. Do note, however, that none the passages I referred to would be what they are unless someone, somewhere, back at some distant time, had very carefully composed them with an ear attuned to what the art of language can do.  Admittedly, the writers and witnesses who gave us the Bible were not interested in writing poetry; their concern was to testify to the Word become flesh to dwell among us in our endlessly chattering world.  The great German language poet, Paul Celan, makes the point perfectly: “A Rumbling: truth/ itself has appeared/ among humankind/ in the very thick of their/ flurrying metaphors”.[ii]
            But Words weary and stale.  The flow of language freezes; its values congeal into notes and coins of a currency which grows more and more inflated: consider words like ‘spirituality’, ‘Church’, ‘institution’, ‘religion’, ‘sacraments’, ‘grace’, ‘salvation’, ‘charity’, ‘sin’, ‘worship’, and even ‘God’.  To make a point, would you pardon the intrusion of an unfinished poem of my own?
Address for a Special Occasion

How the bishop gamely tried
to tickle the plump sense of occasion
into a little transcendence! -- 
To take a step beyond
the mundane of the heat, summer frocks,
smart suits, and rows of polished cars;
beyond where family values are secure,
spouses faithful, children obedient,
motherhood a treasure, and even fathers
have a special role – 
to that other region...

In the religious perspective
the vanishing point
makes all meaning shrink:
old bird-words are no longer winged;
no more abiding the open air
they roost, moulting,
pecking seed from the preacher's hand.

Some wild amazing thing has flown away:
once reachable in a bound of hope or praise,
or in the dart of love or pang of guilt.
Piety lives here now
as a drugged bird of paradise,
smuggled in, and revived,
allowed to live decoratively,
at least as a specimen
in the ecology of a cage.

Customs check the contraband:
importing exotic fauna
is against the law.
The safer option is taxidermy...
But jokes get by --
ironic resonance
with what we barely know,
as everything comes tumbling down,
and nothing sure can stand
against the earthquake tilt from nowhere.

For all I know, tears may be
a surer path, a strange confiding gift
flowing with more elements,
and welling up from where forgotten things
are felt – and spell,
in a giving too deep to be one's own,
existence, if only for the moment,
shamelessly ecstatic.

How does poetry affect our language?  At some level, it brings a renewal, a new charge of feeling at the deepest registers of our being.  In the lines just quoted, I conceded that ‘tears may be a surer path, a strange confiding gift, welling up from where forgotten things are felt…’ and so on.  In this regard, poetry wells up from the ‘sacred heart’ of our humanity where life and death, suffering, separation, longing and hope are felt realities.  A great Australian poem here is Les Murray’s ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’.[iii] I am sure many of you know it well, how the word had gone around all those little coffee shops and watering holes round Martin Place, to report that ‘there’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him’.  The traffic banks up, and the crowds gather:
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
Simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
Not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
And does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
Sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

Holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
In the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
And uniforms back in the crow who tried to seize him
Stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
Longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

            The next few verses show how all this was very embarrassing, but oddly challenging to the bystanders, unused to such a spectacle.  They give various interpretations of the scene, but miss the point.  But ‘the fiercest manhood, the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us/ trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected/ judgments of peace.’  The weeping man is alien, except for some: ‘Only the smallest children/ and such as look out of Paradise come near him/ and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons’  But the poet sees also a ‘woman, shining stretch her hand/ and shake as she receives the gift of weeping,/ as many as follow her also receive it..’ Some begin to weep ‘for sheer acceptance’, but more ‘refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance’.  In the meantime, ‘the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing’ but cries out no verbal messages, but only ‘grief’ and ‘sorrow/ hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea’.  It all ends rather suddenly: ‘when he stops, he simply walks between us/ mopping his face with the dignity of one/ man who has wept, and has now finished weeping.’  Then comes a delightfully ironic ending, at least to my mind: ‘Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street’.
            The greatness of this poem lies precisely in the possibilities of interpretation spiralling off in all directions.  I am sure Les Murray himself would be quite interested in what we thought he meant.  It is not unlikely that he himself would be loath to assign one precise meaning to the whole poem or its many provocative phrases.  For believers – the ones the weeping man evades – must try to catch up with him, in order to recover disowned depths of feeling in themselves.  It might suggest a sense of the feeling, in the passion, of Jesus, the sacred heart who feels our grief more than we do, and who works in our heart to give us the ‘gift of tears’ in the words of the old Roman missal.  It is a matter of seeing life with eyes refreshed with weeping.  Faith can indeed be refreshed by a poem like this, in its feeling and weeping.  After all, St Paul would declare in his Letter to the Romans (8:19-27) that all creation is groaning, that we are groaning within it, and, most mysteriously, that the Holy Spirit groaning within us.
Let’s take another poem, an early one from a far different poet, Kevin Hart, who also made a collection of Australian religious poetry (despite the hundreds of poems in each anthology, there are very few in common – though Murray’s poem is included in both).  Both, incidentally, are converts to the Catholic faith.  In my own little poem given above, I spoke of experiencing existence, through ‘a giving too deep to be one’s own’ as ‘ineluctably ecstatic’.  Consider, then, Hart’s ‘The Stone’s Prayer’.[iv]  The stone turns in praise to God – for the wideness of the earth and sky, for the forces – ‘the sharp rain and the scraping wind’ – that have carved it from the mountain.  The stone continues its praise of God for its colour and reflection in the water between the evening stars, and for its quartz that flashes to reflect the glory of creation, and for the fact that God has seen fit to place it near a stream so that it can contemplate the passage of time.  The stone continues its prayer,

For all that is around me I sing your praise,
For the fierce concentration of ants, their laws,
For all that they tell me about you.

Keep me, I pray, whole,
Unlike the terrible dust and pieces of bone
Cast about in the wind’s great breath, unlike men
Who must suffer change,
Their endless footprints deep as graves;

Keep me in truth, in solitude,
Until the day when you will burst into my heavy soul
And I will shout your name.

            The prayer works through so many associations and images, the ants, the bones, the changing human lives leading to the grave.  But it remains a psalm of praise and exultant hope, as that last beautiful verse brings out: the self-contained stoniness waiting for God to burst into its heavy soul in a universe transformed.
You can see why both these poems would figure in a collection of Australian religious poetry.  They easily chime with explicit biblical and Christian symbols.  Clearly they do not exhaust the genre; in fact the more you look at it, the more you can agree with Kevin Hart, when, in the process of making his selection, he found himself considering these three terms Australian, religious, and poetry
as different threads that had been interlaced... made from the overlapping of various fibres, not one of which runs through a whole length… there [is] no single knot that ties together all three to make ‘Australian religious poetry.  There are several knots and they do not always tie up the same fibres’.[v]

Given so many possible interlacing connections, I am not disposed to attempt any artificial clarification in the present context.  Poetry is as large as life; and life, in its heights and depths, touches on mysteries that the routine world does not easily contain. Take for instance, Judith Wright’s ‘The Forest’.[vi]  Under the metaphor of her youthful enthusiasm in exploring the varied delights of the rain forest, the poet suggests the onset of another stage in her life:
Now that its vines and flowers
Are named and known,
Like long fulfilled desires
Those first strange joys are gone.

My search is further.
There’s still to name and know
Beyond the flowers I gather
That one that does not wither –
The truth from which they grow

            This poem is not explicitly religious in the biblical sense.  Rather, in an Australian setting, it is an expression of that ancient search for wisdom characteristic of the great tradition of philosophia perennis.  Take another poem, Francis Webb’s ‘Five Days Old’.[vii] This great poet suffered throughout his life with mental depression to an often incapacitating degree. In England during the war, he was being treated by a young Canadian doctor who had invited him home round the Christmas of that year.  The young parents put their five day old Christopher John in the poet’s arms, and left him alone for a while. This poem was the result.  It tends to feature in all the collections.  It concludes,
For the snowflake and face of love,
Windfall and word of truth,
Honour close to death.
O eternal truthfulness, Dove,
Tell me what I hold –
Myrrh? Frankincense? Gold?

If this is man, then the danger
And fear are as lights of the inn,
Faint and remote as sin
Out here by the manger.
In the sleeping, weeping weather,
We shall all kneel down together.

Tenderest perceptions of the utter vulnerability of a new born child are interwoven with the sublime realism of the incarnation and particular feelings associated with Christmas and the wintry weather of the Northern Hemisphere in a time of war.  The poem comes together as an expression of defiant hope in the face of the darkness and violence looming over Europe through those grim years.  I suppose there were hundreds of sermons preached in churches throughout the land in that period.  You would have to wonder, however, whether any of them could have spoken as tellingly as this poem composed this man in whom poetic genius and psychological fragility were so combined. 
What is it, then, that poets do for us?  In certain circumstances it seems that they can make faith come alive in a special way.  Why is this so?  James McAuley, in his ‘Credo’,[viii] points toward an answer for those of us who wish to be open to what faith reveals and poetry can express – be it in terms of a man weeping, or a stone praying, or a baby cradled in a poet’s arms.  He presumably would include such examples in a larger list of things, ‘from the ant to the quasar/ from the clouds to the ocean floor’. He says that ‘the meaning is not ours, but found/ in the mind deeply submissive’ to what he terms ‘the grammar of existence’ and the ‘syntax of the real’.  Though the power of the word, a wondrous transformation occurs – of the ‘alien’ into the ‘human’, the ‘thing into thinking’, ‘the world’s bare tokens’ into a golden coin stamped with the king’s image.  And so he ends,
Stamped with the king’s image;
And poems are prophecy
Of a new heaven and earth,
A rumour of resurrection.

            Prophecy? A rumour of resurrection?  Hints, inklings whispers of other dimensions certainly.  Can we express the role of poetry in the life of faith more clearly?  There may be no special advantage in trying to.[ix] Still, I do have a small suggestion.  I think you can come at it ‘from below’, so to speak, as human experience blooms through the art of language into amazing rhythms and sounds.  In this case, poetry is looking for ‘faith’, in the sense of the ultimate revelation of the real.  But you can also imagine it ‘from above’, from the vantage point of belief in the great mysteries of faith, as the light of revelation shines into the world.  In that case, it would be more a case of faith looking to its best poetic expression. So, a brief word on each.[x] 
To illustrate the first approach, that is, ‘from below’, we can appeal to a splendid passage from David Malouf’s novel, The Great World.[xi]  The good Mr Warrender has died.  He had been a poet of some standing.  At his funeral, there was a third speaker, a young academic who had written on Warrender’s poems, who reflected on the hidden dimensions of anyone’s public life, especially that of the poet:
He was speaking of poetry itself, of the hidden part it played in their lives, especially here in Australia, though it was common enough -- that was the whole point of it -- and of the embarrassment when it had, as now, to be brought into the light. How it spoke up, not always in the plainest terms, since it wasn’t always possible, but in precise ones just the same, for what it deeply felt and might otherwise go unrecorded: all those unique and irrepeatable events, the little sacraments of daily existence, movements of the heart and intimations of the close but inexpressible grandeur and terror of things, that is our other history, the one that goes on, in a quiet way, under the noise and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet, and has been from the beginning. To find words for that; to make glow with significance what is usually unseen, and unspoken too -- that, when it occurs, is what binds us all, since it speaks out of the centre of each one of us; giving shape to what we too have experienced and did not till then have words for, though as soon as they are spoken we know them as our own.

I cannot imagine finding a more compressed exposition of the meaning of poetry.  The young academic concerned, having delivered himself of this memorial speech, disappears totally from the scene!  Well, he left something good behind.  More to the point, what we have here is an indication of the philosophy of life and literature that have made Malouf the artist he is.  There is quite a nest of evocative terms and phrases in this passage: the hidden place of poetry in Australian life, the artfully allusive character of poetic idiom, its concentration on ‘what it deeply felt’, and what could not be recorded in any other way.  He instances these as the unique irrepeatable events of life, ‘the little sacraments of daily existence’ – note how he glances toward a Christian language at this point – and then, the movements of the heart, and intimations of what is so close, but inexpressible in its grandeur and terror.  All in all poetry speaks from and to that ‘other history’, the depths of life that hold ephemeral events of our world together.  The right words for that other dimension binds us together, since it speaks from the centre of each human being, to give shape and form to our deepest experience.  The passage referred to is, in effect, a prose poem about poetry; and you can easily see how a whole book could be written bringing its elements together.  For the moment, we have to settle for the merest indication, of how poetry is a voice speaking within our experiences to make ‘the heart/ Kindle and quicken at the mystery’ (A.D.Hope).[xii] In the most literal sense, it is a language designed to be ‘learnt by heart’. 
Martin Heidegger, the influential German philosopher, was deeply affected by the writings of poets such as Hölderin and Rilke.  In a long reflection he tries to answer a question that one of them posed, ‘What are Poets for…?’.[xiii]  The fuller form of the question was ‘What are poets for in this destitute time?’  Heidegger dwells on the destitution of modern culture. Not only is there a loss of the sacred, but a numbing in our humanity as well: ‘God is dead’ as Nietzsche would claim, and our humanity suffers as well -- with a deadness that arises paradoxically from our failure to accept our own mortality; and with it, the possibilities, promise and limits of love and freedom.  Precisely in this time of destitution, the vocation of the poet is most clear, to anticipate a time or a dimension beyond the present destitution, and to give voice to a forgotten human wholeness.  The philosopher reflects further on a phrase, entitling another essay, ‘… Poetically Man Dwells…’.[xiv]  Now poetry is seen as not as an adornment of our human dwelling on the earth, but as creating it.  It is the way we dwell in our place and make it specifically ours, thus to measure existence with a human sense of proportion. Despite the difference of idiom – as well as the difficulty of translating both Heidegger and the poets he refers to – what he says over many pages leads pretty much to what Malouf has written so concisely.  Even more concisely, Les Murray refers to poetry as ‘wholespeak’, as opposed to all other limited kinds of language.[xv] 
A style of thought characteristic of recent decades is often referred to as ‘Postmodernism’.  There is no room for a prolonged effort to wrestle with that particular column of smoke in this brief reflection, even if there is one positive point to be made.  Compared to the great ideologies and massive scientific control presiding over modern life, postmodernism is struggling for something beyond that.  It is searching for a new buoyancy and openness in a way that will subvert the massive congealed structures of power and control. It tries to make room for the particular as opposed to the standardised and universal; for the fresh insight as opposed to presumed understanding; for allusion and the play of images and conversation as opposed to one level of meaning.  Above all, it resists any totalitarian approach to reality; and so stresses otherness, difference, and openness to the unexpected and the surprising. To some degree, this movement of thought represents a rediscovery of the poetic dimension of life, a move to break out of all the ossified objectivism of closed systems of thought, and to attend to the overflow of experience which can never be neatly directed in ready-made conceptual channels.  This, I think, is where the meaning of ‘wholespeak’ can be understood, as the language of the poet ‘in a time of destitution’.

It seems we are living at a time when the world is weary, not only of the torrent of verbiage carried by the media, but also of technical prose intent on calculation, control and analysis.  Here, the poet is a witness to what is outside all categories, to the light eternal, ultimate mystery, the silence out of which our words arise, and to which they finally yield.  The poet attends to the uncanny otherness of reality, and of the universe that has brought us forth to stand in awe and thanksgiving within it.  The poet attends, not to abstractions, but to the concreteness of ‘be-ing’, to the is-ness and the this-ness of what is given, enfolding us in wonder and inviting us to see things differently.  Poets, witnesses to what is culturally inaccessible, go against the grain of our routine perceptions and language, to makes us see things as if for the first time.  The meanest flower can often give rise to thoughts that lie too deep for tears, as Wordsworth would have it. The poem works by suggestion, as its metaphors entice the mind to be open and receptive to what can be spoken only by indirection.  The art of poetry plays at those limits where presence fades to absence, where life, though shadowed by death, moves through transitions and transformations to the outskirts of any familiar place, so to touch the borders of another land.[xvi]
         George Steiner, in his stimulating book, Real Presences, states his unfashionable thesis,

… any coherent understanding of what language is or how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling, is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.[xvii]

After a breathtaking meditation of the meaning of arts, above all, of music and literature, he concludes that we are living in the secular equivalent of Holy Saturday.
There is one particular day in Western history about which neither historical record nor myth nor Scripture make report.  It is a Saturday.  And it has become the longest of days.  We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross.  But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well.  That is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up the not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives… We know also about Sunday.  To the Christian, that day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death.  If we are non-Christians or non-believers, we know of that Sunday in precisely analogous terms.  We conceive of it as the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude… the lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope.[xviii]

He goes on to say that ‘ours is a long day’s journey of the Saturday’.  He concedes, given the horror of the Friday when all that is best is defeated, that even the greatest art and the greatest poetry are almost helpless.  For that Sunday when all that is best will be vindicated is not yet evident. But the arts are most fittingly located on the second Holy day, the Saturday, a day of pain and hope.  For the arts, and all great poetry, ‘have risen out of the immensity of waiting that is man’.  ‘Without them’, he asks, ‘how could we be patient?’.[xix]
            I have been briefly indicating how, in effect, poetry and the arts generally anticipate the faith, hope and love we need.  Let us look at this from a theological angle, focusing on how the Word, incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, looks to its expression in poetry.  Karl Rahner, in a lecture given to educators, has left us a modest but profound reflection.[xx] He asks, how does the Word of God prepare us for faith?  He realises that grace precedes the explicit, preached word, and works through the whole of human existence, above all, in commitments to true humanism.  If we are to be believers there is a first requirement: openness to the word through which the silent mystery is present in the Gospel.  It means that we must permit ourselves be addressed.  After all, we might add, the first words of the Word in the Gospel of John are a question.  Jesus turned to the would-be disciples following him, and asked, ‘What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38).  The Word addresses us.  It comes by way of annunciation.  To ready for that word one must be come into the unutterable silence out of which it is spoken.  We need practice in hearkening to the words of silence and mystery.  The limitless mystery of God lays hold of us in a word.  As Rahner puts it,
If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into his super-luminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of homely, close-hugged truths into the strangeness of the night that is our real home, we have misunderstood… the words of Christianity.[xxi]

The word we wait on is a word spoken to the heart of our human existence.  The saving Word is addressed not immediately to feeling or intelligence or moral decision, but to the unified totality of human existence, symbolised by the heart.  Rahner implies that the Word inspires poetry to teach us to have a heart, as if to ask, how can we love God with our whole heart if the heart has never learnt to be touched, broken, and healed.  The Word works through human poetry in order that, like him, we will have a ‘sacred heart’.
Thus, poetry readies us to hear the reconciling Word, calling us into unity before the all-surpassing mystery for which we were made.  And yet it is incarnate.  Our faith does not live in total silence. The mystery has come to us in human words.  However fragile they might be, they are still the bearers of infinite.  Rahner speaks of the ‘The burning bush of the human word’.[xxii]  I understand him as suggesting that poetry pertains to the radiance of the incarnation, as, in its different moods and styles, it words the Word in the stuttering, whispering, frail flesh of our speaking existence.  In this way, the mystery of the incarnation is served by ‘a medium that excels in small glories of particularity’.[xxiii]  Hence, that great theologian would insist, that a prerequisite to the full hearing of the revealed Word is a hearing the ‘the seminal poetry of eternal existence’ as it resonates through human experience.  He makes a strong – perhaps a baffling statement to some:
the poetic word and the poetic ear are so much part of the human that if this essential power were really lost to the heart, man could no longer hear the word of God in the word of man.  In its inmost essence, the poetic is a prerequisite for Christianity.[xxiv]

He evidently felt he was being a bit carried away saying that, because he went on to ask about the non-poetic, those who feel tone-deaf to the arts of language. Well, God’s gift can overcome that in the given instance, so as to inspire in believers the requisite sensitivities.  Still, he insists, poetry is good training for faith and its development.  It takes us into the radical questions of human life, beyond the deluge of printed and electronic gossip filling so much of our waking hours.  To the mind of the great German theologian, Christianity, especially in today’s culture, must defend poetry; for, since both Word of God and the poetic word both cultivate the experience and expression of the mystery that is unutterably intimate to us; indeed, Christian faith and poetry ‘live and die together’.[xxv]
I would hope they would live increasingly together.  ‘There is nothing more real than true poetry’.  How is this?  I would suggest, because of its power to refresh our experience of the particular, its capacity to open the mind to insights that elude our routine relationship with people, places, things and the universe itself; its ability to make us open and welcoming to latent evidences of reality; its ability to bring us into a sudden familiarity with the uncanny given-ness of existence; its intimations of the transcendent truth, the goodness and beauty in which we all participate.  And ‘there is nothing more poetic than the theology of the Word of God?  Any answer must respect the communication of the divine Poet in uttering such a Word, and, as we have seen, the manner in which that Word calls us into a listening and responsive existence.
            Les Murray, reflecting on his experience of compiling his anthology of Australian religious verse, makes a series of arresting observations.  He is struck by the fact that much of the decent religious poetry in this country dated from the period since Word War II.  He finds it hard to resist speculating ‘that a decline in religious certainty has provoked an upsurge in searching and questioning - and a decline in an odd sort of anti-religious hectoring, which required a firm opponent to batter against’.[xxvi] He senses the onset of a terrifying void now that the State has ceased being able to appeal to any underlying religious ethic.  He goes on to say,
It is generations since being an agnostic involved any daring, and atheism tends to put one into coercive rather than generous company. More seriously, whether we believe in the soul or not, neither of these positions feeds it; we feel its hunger as a matter of experience, and have nothing to feed on but our own selves. At bottom, we cannot build a satisfying vision of life upon agnostic or atheist foundations, because we can't get our dreams to believe in them.[xxvii]

A stentorian judgment, indeed.  But let us not forget his more positive point.  There is a wonderful witness of poetry to call on.  In these musings, it has been my simple aim to underscore that witness and that resource, while implicitly lamenting that our Christian communication, our religious education, our theological exploration, call so little on what is one of the greatest gifts our culture possesses.  I think it is time for all of us to recover a sense of the poetry of faith, and to make more inspired alliances with the faith, or at least, the vision of poets.[xxviii]

Tony Kelly CSsR                                                 Australian Catholic University

[i] Cuskelly, ‘Introduction’, vii-viii.
[ii] Paul Celan, Poems, M. Hamburger, trans. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1980) 202-203. (EIN DRÖHNEN: es ist/ die Wahrheit selbst/ unter die Menschen/ getreten,/ mitten ins/ Metapherngestöber”.  .
[iii] Les Murray, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, in Les Murray, ed., Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry (Melbourne: Collins Dove, 1986) 100.
[iv] Kevin Hart, ‘The Stone’s Prayer’, in Kevin Hart, ed., The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), 89.
[v] Kevin Hart, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse, xxii.  See also his ‘Australian Religious Poetry’, Literature and Theology 10/3, September 1996, 261-272.
[vi] Judith Wright, ‘The Forest’, in Les Murray, ed., Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, 221.
[vii] Francis Webb, ‘Five Days Old’, in Les Murray, ed., Anthology…, 151.
[viii] James McAuley, ‘Credo’, in Les Murray, ed., Anthology…, 180.
[ix] For a systematic approach to the question, see J.P. Manigne, Pour Une Poétique de la Foi. Essai sur le mystère symbolique (Paris: Cerf, 1969).
[x] For the more ambitious, I recommend Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (London: Harvill Press, 1954).
[xi] David Malouf, The Great World (London: Chatto and Windus,1990) 283-284.
[xii] From A.D.Hope's  ‘Invocation’, Selected Poems, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970) 51.
[xiii] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought, Albert Hofstadter, trans., (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 89-142.
[xiv] Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought, 211-229.
[xv] Les Murray, ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’, in A Working Forest.  Selected Prose (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997) 319-322.
[xvi] On this point, and in reference to theology, see Andrew Rumsie, ‘Through Poetry: Particularity and the Call to Attention’, in Jeremy Begbie, ed., Beholding the Glory.  Incarnation through the Arts (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000) 47-63.
[xvii] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) 3.
[xviii] Steiner, Real Presences, 232.
[xix] Steiner, Real Presences, 232.
[xx] Karl Rahner, ‘Poetry and the Christian’, Theological Investigations IV (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966) 357-367.
[xxi] Rahner, ‘Poetry and the Christian’, 359.
[xxii] Rahner, ‘Poetry and the Christian’, 362.
[xxiii] Rumsie, ‘Through Poetry: Particularity and the Call to Attention’, 51.
[xxiv] Rahner, ‘Poetry and the Christian’, 363.
[xxv] Rahner, ‘Poetry and the Christian’, 364.
[xxvi] Murray, ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’, 311-312.
[xxvii] Murray, ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’, 312.
[xxviii] A good example of research into the work of one of eminent poets is Colette Rayment, ‘The Shapeliness of Shekinah’: Structural Unity in the Thought of Peter Steele (University of Sydney Ph D Thesis: Faculty of Arts, 1997) Publication planned.

1 comment:

  1. a superb article thank you Fr Tony. i too love Les Murray's poem "an absolutely ordinary rainbow" ... profound in its simplicity. i also love Judith Wright's poetry ... "grace" for example ... such nourishment for the soul in this Easter Saturday time (the time of depression, shame, betrayal and failure) ... bless you in your work ... in abundance! Mary