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In a 1991 First Things article on pop culture, Richard John Neuhaus quoted Michael Medved approvingly: “What matters ultimately in the culture wars is what we do in our daily lives—not the big statements that we broadcast to the world at large, but the small messages we send through our families and our neighborhoods and our communities.”
Can it be said of a magazine like First Things that what matters most is not the big statements it makes in its features on abortion and transgenderism but the small messages it sends in its literary criticism and original poetry? Probably not (why pit one thing against another unnecessarily?), but the latter do matter to First Things, and always have.
Alongside essays on natural law and religious freedom, one encounters Robert Hollander on Dante, R. V. Young on the old New Criticism, Alan Jacobs writing against stupidity, A. M. Juster on Anglo-Saxon poetry, and Ralph C. Wood on the importance of doubt. “A healthy dose of Christian disbelief or ‘holy skepticism,’” Wood writes, “would serve as a much-needed antidote to the soft-core spirituality that saps much of contemporary Christianity, especially in its evangelical expression.”
So, too, can a light touch of irony serve as an antidote to the absurdities of our culture. In an essay on a surprisingly somber “Glitter+Ash” service sponsored by a gay rights organization at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, Matthew Walther writes: “Say what you want about us Lefebvrist fellow travelers, but at least at my parish in Washington there are homeless people coming in and out and the mentally ill saying the rosary and babies screaming.” “It is a relief,” he continues, when the congregation is invited “to stand and sing one verse of ‘What Wondrous Love Is This’ . . . . The singing is very good, some of the best that I’ve heard in a church. The woman in the rainbow shawl has a beautiful clear soprano.”
Style has always been a big thing at First Things. Where else do readers get into a debate about prosody or the state of “The Catholic Writer Today”? Where else can you read a trenchant critique of literary sentimentality alongside a Les Murray poem about the nascent sexuality of late boyhood? Not to mention Roger Scruton on mourning, Joseph Epstein on the bookish life, or Theodore Dalrymple on Kafka’s diaries.
And First Things has published poetry in its pages from the beginning. I can’t pick a favorite poem, but one I have returned to over the years is by the late Wilmer Mills, called “Dream Vocation”:
It happened in a country like Tibet,
My dream: I’d climbed a mountain pass and found
Where locals wrote their slips of prayer and let
Them rot between the rocks and on the ground.
Asleep, not feeling any reverence,
I picked one out and saw to my surprise
That it had been addressed to me. Its sense
Was mystical; it said, “With open eyes,
You’ll never see the proof that God exists,
Only the evidence: The fire, the ice,
The snowballs melting in your frozen fists.”
Shutting my eyes in dream, I woke up twice
And, groping for the prayer, I couldn’t find it,
Nor could I remember who had signed it.
It is a poem of unpretentious elegance, like so much writing in First Things. Style has always mattered, but it matters even more in our utilitarian age. Help us fight the good literary fight. Donate today.
Micah Mattix is the poetry editor of First Things and a professor of English at Regent University.
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