Dana Gioia once outlined the decline of American Catholic writing in the pages of First Things:
Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting…It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
Gioia goes on to divide “literary Catholicism” into three categories: anti-Catholic Catholics, cultural Catholics, and practicing Catholics. He would probably be horrified to learn that I have envisioned this description as a variation of the famous U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid. We might debate the exact size of the base and middle of the Catholic poetry triangle, but its sharp peak of practicing Catholics would include Angela Alaimo O’Donnell and just a handful of other poets.
James Matthew Wilson—associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University and featured poet at the First Things Poetry Reading this year—is undeniably a rising star inhabiting the peak of the Catholic literary pyramid. With the possible exception of Thomas Merton, no American poet has ever demonstrated the thorough understanding of Catholic history and doctrine that Wilson has—and in a doctrinal showdown I would wager my money on Wilson, not Merton.
Wilson has been awarded numerous prizes for his scholarship in philosophy, theology, and literature, most notably the 2017 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and the Lionel Basney Award of the Conference for Christianity and Literature. His seven books include The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness and Beauty in the Western Tradition. Though Wilson’s academic accomplishments raise the question of whether he can make the often ugly transition from scholar to poet, few academics have made the transition as gracefully as Wilson.
Wilson’s poetry has been published in several journals and in two chapbooks. His latest collection of poems, The Hanging God, was released this month. He occasionally slips doctrinal matters into his poetry, as in these lines from “Father Mac’s Wake”:
The Church he built
In the brute modern style of a time
When everyone knew the face of Pius XII
And Paul VI was newly vilified,
Projected a wall of stained glass, with Christ,
Scientist, scholar, artist, engineer,
Radiant in mosaic.
More often, Wilson’s work resists the stereotypes of religious poetry and explores the grittiness of the everyday world: “spokes off bicycles,” “the sound balloon strings make,” “clip-on tie, the navy slacks.” These details appear random, but are guideposts to larger meaning. A recurring theme in Wilson’s work is the search for the eternal realm that we can barely glimpse beneath our ephemeral world. This section of “Father Mac’s Wake” perhaps best condenses his sense of mission:
Those things more permanent than us retain
Meaning only in terms of what must pass,
And with the loss of memory even that passes.
Wilson’s verse treats readers with respect; his poems are accessible, but challenging upon further reflection. He can write supple free verse, but tends to favor formal verse—often, but not always, in iambic meters. He has mastered some of the most intricate poetic forms, such as terza rima and the pantoum:
…Or let the only language I compose
Mumble the bitch that “things aren’t always neat.”
With humble hand, I’ve set here words in rows,
Printed such lines in the effort to entice
The reader to see the world as an ordered rose.
If this gets called in turn “genteel” or “nice,”
“It lacks the flavor or burnt toast and shoestrings,”
Know all I’d meant to do was be precise.”
(“To The Reader”)
She offered him the heart-meat of two doves,
The smoke and tartness of wine marinade.
It seemed he tasted her at one remove
And took with gratitude what she had made…
The bitter tannin rose from ripening grapes.
She offered him the heart-meat of two doves,
And listened to the birdsongs sing of rape.
It seemed he tasted her at one remove.
(“The Vineyard Dinner: A Retrospect”)
Dana Gioia was right when he declared, “Wilson’s poems display a rare degree of skill and ambition, but he is never content with mere virtuosity, always reaching for spiritual and emotional intensity.” At forty-three, Wilson is the youngest of the four poets featured at the annual First Things poetry reading. You will want to say you were there.
A. M. Juster is the poetry editor of First Things. His most recent book is The Elegies of Maximianus.