Learning Poetry, Unlearning God

By Natasha Oladokun

Rosary01In my sophomore year of college, I wrote a poem. Though I had no idea how to go about doing this, I composed a page and half of hifalutin mumbo jumbo that I was quite proud of and eager to show one of my teachers. He asked me to read the poem out loud to him.

He said some kind things. Then, after a few moments of quiet, he asked, “Would you talk like this to God?”

I shook my head.

He smiled. “Well, if you wouldn’t say it in a prayer, don’t put it in a poem.”

What my professor did not know is that he’d touched a raw nerve in my view of the sacred. The truth is, my prayers often were stock, mechanical laundry lists, dusted with a few O Lords and Father Gods to remind me of whom I was addressing.

I believed—or intellectually assented, at least—to the concept of God being near and ever-present. There is a saying that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. But in prayer I spoke to God with more distance than I would toward a stranger.

And yet, with study, poetry has become my rickety bridge from desolation to the divine. As it is for many others, I am sure, my default setting is often that of detachment: a proclivity for thinking of God as distant, obstructed—intensified when I’m feeling lonely and anxious or condemned by my own failings. [Read more…]

My Sh’ma

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Light underneathe doorSh’ma yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai echad—Hear O’ Israel the Lord is God, the Lord is one. Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew those six words of Judaism’s signature prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon, and night.

When I was little, my faith was confined to saying the Sh’ma. For as long as I can remember, I knew the Sh’ma was the prayer of prayers—the one that asked me to stop and listen. It was the prayer I said before I went to sleep—the prayer my devout mother punctuated with a vigorous “amen.” At Jewish day school, I learned that as Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism’s foremost scholars who lived in the first century, was flayed alive in the hippodrome of Caesarea, he left this world with the words of the Sh’ma on his lips.

Jesus of Nazareth considered the Sh’ma to be one of his two greatest commandments. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” (Jesus’ other commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself).

The words of the Sh’ma are also written down on a piece of parchment that is enclosed in a mezuzah, a decorative case affixed to the doorposts of a Jewish house. But the mezuzah guarding our back door had disappeared under thick white paint, probably wiping out the blessed efficacy of the whole enterprise.

The Sh’ma said in the plain light of day lands on the ear as a cry, a plea. Listen. To me. The clarion call of the Sh’ma clears space and reins in time. But spying the sliver of night-light that slipped under my childhood bedroom door—illumination that represented silence itself—I implored with all my heart and all my soul for anyone to listen. [Read more…]

Poetry in a Season of Lament, Part 2

Two Poets Laureate On Grief, Detachment, and Finding New Ways to Live, Part 2

By Sarah Arthur

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here

By the Rivers of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel. 1920.

By the Rivers of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel. 1920.

Sarah Arthur: As Poet Laureate of Ohio, in what ways do you see the bardic role of the poet as “lamenter-in-chief” having changed over time? What role do you see a contemporary American poet laureate playing in a time of communal/national grief?

Amit Majmudar: This is an interesting question because of the question it begs: Is a poet laureate, or a poet otherwise in the public eye, obliged to lament on behalf of the nation? This is a culturally determined role, clearly; history has seen cultures in which the poet is meant to exhort to battle or record deeds of military prowess, and in which the poet is supposed to extol the emperor. Yet Virgil is said to have moved Octavia, Augustus’s sister, to faint with grief when he described her beloved son Marcellus, who died young, in the underworld; the great destiny of Rome didn’t quite hit her as hard. [Read more…]

Poetry in a Season of Lament, Part 1

Two Poets Laureate On Grief, Detachment, and Finding New Ways to Live, Part 1

by Sarah Arthur

Art - Lament

“Two Laments” by Polish artist Monika Weiss.

In my role as the curator of three literary guides to prayer for Paraclete Press (At the Still PointLight Upon Light, and the newly-released Between Midnight and Dawn), I have the coolest job. Not only do I get to read piles of poetry and fiction from across the centuries, but also I interact with dozens of living poets and novelists in various stages of their careers.

Some are so well established (e.g., Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, John Irving, Li-Young Lee, Katherine Paterson) that I communicate mainly with their publishers, while others I pretend to have “discovered” (e.g., Katherine James and her as-yet-unpublished novel Can You See Anything Now—yes, you can say you “knew her when”).

But then there are those who receive public acclaim on a whole different level, whose place in the spotlight hearkens back to the bardic traditions in which a wordsmith is acknowledged as speaking to and for a people. The closest equivalent today is the poet laureate, of which one is appointed in each of America’s states (minus a handful of outliers, including my own Michigan), as well as on the national level. And while these modern bards aren’t required to “extol the emperor” or memorialize a military conquest, they find themselves on a platform of public discourse in a highly vitriolic political season.

While engaging several poets laureate who contributed to my anthologies, I thought it might be interesting to put some questions to them about their role, particularly as Lent is upon us. Lent in an election year is a strange convergence of themes: On the one hand there’s personal awareness of mortality and sin, expressed in moments of liturgical lament (on such days as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday); on the other hand there’s a near-constant public barrage of political outrage—everyone blaming everyone else for the country’s problems. [Read more…]

The Coen Brothers, Plato, and the Imagination

By Santiago Ramos

Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

hail-cesarHail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest offering, tells the story of a pious hero on a religious quest, and by all appearances is a movie that asks to be interpreted in a theological way. A quasi-parable set in a big studio during the Golden Era of Hollywood, the film is bookended by two sessions in a confessional, where the protagonist, a powerful Hollywood executive named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), confesses a few, mostly venial sins.

Mannix is on a mission to complete and promote a big Biblical epic (“the prestige picture…of the year”) about a Roman Centurion’s encounter with Christ and eventual conversion to Christianity.

National Review film critic Ross Douthat was quick to seize upon the movie’s theological themes. “In the context of the movie itself, the studio system is … the Church Visible, The Body of Christ,” he tweeted. “It’s a motley corporate entity, shepherded by a suffering Christ figure [Mannix], in which sins are forgiven and people are guided into roles.”

But while the studio in Hail, Caesar! may be a hospital for sinners, it also never ceases to be a factory of images. While a theological interpretation works on many levels, it also misses a big part of the story. Hail, Caesar! is ambiguous about the power of the movie studio, Mannix’s role in it, and the nature of the movies themselves.

As much as it is a theological drama, Hail, Caesar! is about the Janus-faced, sometimes good, sometimes evil, nature of the imagination—that is, of Hollywood movies, and art in general. This theme has a way of simultaneously subverting and enlivening the religious elements in the movie. [Read more…]