The National Catholic Review

In an article on thanksgiving the Australian Jesuit poet Peter Steele reminisces about how he discovered the American writer SJ Perelman. While on holiday as a boy he picked up a copy of Perelman’s Acres and Pains at a kerbside shop in Western Australia. He describes the reading of it as though some ‘Rosetta stone were divulging its amazing secrets’ and how grateful he felt for this literary revelation: ‘‘Bless you for this’, I thought, as I still do’. ‘The long spilling of the language has been for me a primal experience’, he writes, adding that ‘If thinking may be thanking, reading may also be rejoicing in concert with the language’.

In the same grateful vein Peter unpacks a poem he wrote on the offertory prayers of the Eucharist. The thanks he is thinking about here are cosmic in scope and naturally the bread and wine are symbols for the creation which God saw to be ‘very good’. His own poem certainly has more than an element of ‘the long spilling of the language’ about it. He brims over with thanks for all manner of quirky things, from the artefacts of our early ancestors to Chinese loess (sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt) and the rice terraces of Luzon in the Philippines.

That a priest-poet should laud language and give thanks for the gift of it and praise poetry and prose is surely fitting. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ hymns John the Evangelist of the enfleshment of the divine Logos. Also fitting is the praise of the divine capacity for naming things. A representative of the Christian branch of the People of the Book is, or should be, a guardian and exemplar of the God-given grace of language and mutual human intelligibility. The current fashion among some secular thinkers to project Christianity as the source of all the muzzling of the freedom of human expression, is surely disingenuous. Mr Dawkins apparently claims never to have read any theology. One wonders how much poetry he has read.

Peter Steele mentions his fellow Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (with an affection and familiarity redolent with Australian ‘mateship’). The case of GM, of course, does remind us painfully of a repressive Jansenistic period in the Church’s relationship to the arts in general and poetry in particular. When he became a Jesuit, Hopkins was given to understand that he would have to shelve any hopes of versifying, and shelve them he did. This unwise asceticism caused him psychological and spiritual diminishment, until a wise superior hinted that he should end his literary sterility by writing a poem on a contemporary shipwreck. This resulted in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. It is also a ‘long spilling of the language’, the bursting out of Hopkins’ long-dammed up flow of poetry:

And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,     

Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;         

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

The power to name things (which might be a good starting definition of poetry) is, as Genesis 2:19-20 reminds us, a God-given one. It is not to be taken upon oneself lightly and in that way may be considered as analogous to the priest’s vocation or calling. False naming perverts this power rendering it demonic, and history has thrown up enough children of the Father of Lies (including poets but particularly orators) for us to be wary of this power. And the desire to prevent the perversion of it is one of the better reasons why institutions control access to it. In fact all institutions, from families to the United Nations, control who has the power to speak out. Prendre la parole, as the French put it, is not for everyone.

But institutions can exercise this control only at the risk of throttling the truth by preventing the poets from naming things tellingly with truth. The Confucian Xunzi is said to have held that the way to the morality in public life was to call things by their proper names. Hence it is no accident that poets are often among those that the more Orwellian states censor, imprison or cause to disappear.  There are always vested interests that resist the truth of this proper naming and the reform which it motivates and activates.

These provisos notwithstanding, we would be poorer in mind and spirit without those who undertake the sacred naming involved in the wordsmith’s art. Without Hopkins we would never be able to look at nature’s dazzling patchwork and her infinite contrasts with the words ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ humming in our ears. We could have other words, but not those particularly apt ones. Without the Peter Steeles of the English language we could not marvel at the extraordinary scope of English vocabulary. We would not be able to hear them celebrating for us the grace of coining and using them. This particularly unusual collection of wondrous things from his offertory poem would not be singing and dancing like a troubadourin the backs of our minds:  

Blessed are you in the sprawling tracts of loess,

                  the oracle-bones of oxen and turtle,

dragon mask bronzed on a coffin-handle, the brine

                  drilled in Szechuan for salt-panning:

blessed in the terraces bearing the rice of Luzon,

                  in a Shan harmonica toning the air,

in shippers of camphor and parrots, of copper and pearls:

                  in the golden panther and the crouching stags

of Scythia lost and gone: in the bronze mirrors

of the Britons: and in the hefted spears

                                    of those who walked the Dreaming.

 

And blessed are you who fit us for all meaning  -

telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s

corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way, spinnaker,

follicle, Nome, Alaska:

catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love,

gaspers, and megrims  and the Taj Mahal

derricks, and El Dorado, and Peach Melba.

Blessed are you: the years toll,

and yet I chance my arm enough to say,

(the brute tide swayed by the moon)

I bless the wine and the bread.

I sometimes wonder if this isn’t what underlies the current turmoil in the Church around the use of liturgical English. Is not the issue precisely about who gets to name the important things, even if it’s only in translation? Certainly the poets have not been allowed too near the new texts, judging by the rather wooden results. To be fair, though, one might add that neither did they seem to have had much of a look in on the old ones either. However it’s certainly the case that whoever among the People of God has the power to name and frame things theologically and liturgically, has clout aplenty.

The question perhaps is whether the institutional Church can take the risk of involving those gifted with the poetic vocation to offer worshipping congregations formulations and translations that dare to move beyond the cautious and vigilant. We must always hope, and here that hope would be that in the future the Lord’s bards will be invited into a partnership with the Magisterium in the hallowed task of sacred naming. Then we should hopefully receive texts which derive from a place of gratitude where the Church’s name-sayers and word-ministers truly give thanks.

Chris Chatteris, S.J.

 

Comments

Joseph Quigley | 7/18/2011 - 8:44pm
An Australian poet, a minor one by his own estimation, Joe O'Dwyer, taught me English literature in the 1950s. One phrase he would not tolerate in any critique of a poem was: "The poet is trying to say...." Mr )'Dwyer would insist the poet was saying what he was saying. It was up to us to read it, preferably out loud, listen to it, let it wash over us, and tell him or the student beside us how the whole poem affected us in body, mind and spirit.
Of course poems I understood and loved as a teenager were relatively simple and straightforward - I include Hopkins' The Windhover among them. Later in life, after some personal crises, I was able to appreciate more Carrion Comfort.
But for the life of me a lot Peter Steele's poems leave me confused and bemused.
He seems to be addressing his poems either to himself or to a coterie of friends and admirers who share his encyclopaedic knowledge not just of words but of cultures and histories beyond the grasp of the average searcher after truth and beauty.
Contrast his approach to poetry with that of Seamus Heaney who carries his learning lightly and with delicate grace. Read any of his sonnets in Clearances and you'll see what I mean.
In my mature years I wrote reports for a judge whose sole directive to me was: "Use words to reveal meaning - not to conceal it."
If the institutional church is to communicate truth better it would do well to follow the advice of my learned judge and, if truth is to embellished with beauty of language consult Seamus Heaney.