The February issue of First Things included an essay by Micah Mattix, “The Integrity of Poetry,” which wasn’t only one of my favorite pieces to appear in the magazine for some time but also one of my favorites among all the pieces I’ve read anywhere in the last ten years. And its import for me was not limited to its take on the nature of poetry and, in particular, poetry’s status in “the intellectual life of America” (Mattix takes as his point of departure Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?). That subject is close to my heart, but Mattix’s essay has a much wider application. Here is his concluding paragraph:
The lesson, if there is one, is that moments like these—seeing a turkey or a dove waddle into flight or reading phantasmagorical Ovid at night [Mattix has been quoting from a superb poem by Amit Majmudar]—are the stuff of life. They need no rationale, no grand theory, no secondary benefit without which they would be somehow lesser. Take them or leave them: They are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.
Nothing I have read of late matches the clarity with which this pithy paragraph (and the argument of the essay it concludes) illuminates our present moment. The “intellectual life of America” at the moment—in Christian circles as much as in “secular” ones—is in thrall to the tyranny of the urgent.
In this setting, Mattix’s conclusion is deeply subversive: “They need no rationale . . . They are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.” Heresy! No mention of blackness and the non-negotiable demands of antiracism? Clearly this Mattix fellow wants to perpetuate white privilege. Or: Here we are, beset on every hand by flagrant violations of orthodoxy and feeble efforts at “compromise” by so-called Christians, and Mattix prattles on about how seeing a turkey or a dove is the stuff of life? Precious Moments indeed.
As you probably know, Mattix and Sally Thomas (poet and novelist) edited Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology, published last year by Paraclete Press (I have a review coming in Ad Fontes). This most welcome gathering embodies the wisdom of Mattix’s essay. The poems therein, take them or leave them, “are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.” The poets represented are indeed “Christian,” though not in a way that would satisfy every inquisitor. They differ not only in the particulars of their faith and their “lived experience” but in all sorts of other ways, yet they all belong in the mix.
Since the beginning of the New Year, I have been keeping an eye out for new books by poets represented in this anthology. So far I have acquired four of them: Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s As Is, Benjamin Myers’s The Family Book of Martyrs (copyright 2022 but not actually available until January 2023), Dana Gioia’s Meet Me at the Lighthouse, and Mark Jarman’s Zeno’s Eternity. I’m already aware of others on the horizon. These first four could have been chosen to represent the range of styles and voices and preoccupations I mentioned above, and again they attest to the wisdom of Mattix’s pithy conclusion: “They are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.”
One of my favorite poems in Zeno’s Eternity is titled “No One Understood the Final Meal”:
No one understood the final meal,
that it was final, each part with a meaning.
No one understood as it was served—
each portion of the body doled, poured out.
Strange flesh. Strange drink.
Each portion of his body.
And as they ate and drank, he talked,
even had a private conversation.
All they remembered was eating with their friend,
a meal they’d had so many times
and known the order of. What was the order?
But who can remember dinner yesterday?
Forgiven for a crime not yet committed,
enjoined to remember someone not yet lost,
they tried to bring them back—
the taste and texture, somehow, the meal, him.
I read this as an evangelical Protestant who has felt the temptation to walk to the Catholic church not far from where we live and receive the Eucharist—a temptation I have resisted though sometimes with great difficulty. Jarman’s poem I am free to read and re-read, as I will.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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