Poetry Friday: “Plowboy’s Bible” by Austin Segrest

Twin Chairs in Barn by Amy on flickrWhen I read Austin Segrest’s “Plowboy’s Bible,” I began to realize that the entire poem was made up of nothing more than a series of phrases. The phrases veered wildly between images and concepts that were relatively intelligible to exotic, almost surreal metaphors. Slowly it dawned on me that I had read a poem like this before. Certain words and rhythms in Segrest’s poem triggered my memory and I suddenly realized that this was an homage/adaptation of the Metaphysical poet George Herbert’s famous sonnet “Prayer.” In Herbert’s poem the basic conceit is that it is almost impossible to truly define prayer. So the poet strives to draw us in to the mystery using both clarity and more oblique methods. He places a phrase like “heart in pilgrimage” next to something strange, like “angels age” or “engine against th’Almighty” (i.e., like a siege-engine or catapult for bombarding a city). “Plowboy’s Bible” is both an homage and a parallel: it takes on the mystery of scripture. In Segrest’s poem the holy text is “a pig-chewed engine of splendor and dispute” but also “fishy contraband, rendered law.” I took the liberty of asking the poet about the origin of the poem and he spoke of researching his Puritan forebears. It was William Tyndale, one of the first translators of the Bible into English, who once told a priest: “I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” So we have the paradox of scripture which is now in our own tongue but yet remains opaque and controversial in many ways. And in the process of suggesting all this, Segrest has offered a salute to one of the great Christian poets in our tradition.

—Gregory Wolfe [Read more…]

A Metaphorical God, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Thomas-Aquinas-Black-largeIn some ways, “mystery” is perhaps the boldest term we chose as a subtitle for Image, the one most out of touch with our times. It is true that secular artists and writers regularly speak of navigating uncertainties and ambiguities. But in their embrace of post-Enlightenment thought, they tacitly accept various determinisms that attempt to explain reality with reference to biology, psychology, sociology, or any of the modernist replacements for ultimate reality. Most secular writers and artists simply live with the contradiction. Though there occasionally arise writers like David Foster Wallace who are more open and anguished about these conflicts, evasion and complacency remain the norm.

At the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that much of the contemporary hostility toward mystery comes from those who enthusiastically embrace religion. The relentless literalism and pragmatism of the fundamentalist stem from a fear of mystery, of the ambiguity of Holy Saturday. In the decades since Image was founded, many believers have awakened to the limitations of politics and polemics and embraced the need to make culture, not war. But there is still a long way to go.

In the preface to Intruding Upon the Timeless, my first collection of Image essays, I focused largely on one aspect of the journal’s mission: the ambition to prove that the encounter between art and faith was far from over, that it continued in our own time and all over the globe. That desire to find a place at the table in the larger cultural conversation was, indeed, central to the founding of the journal. The goal was not to engage secularism and fundamentalism in a new culture war, but to demonstrate that an ancient and still vital alternative tradition remains worthy of engagement. [Read more…]

A Metaphorical God, Part 1

St-thomas-aquinasThe following is adapted from the preface to The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery.

My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also…a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.—John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The essays gathered in The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery were originally published as editorial statements, each beginning an issue of Image. They seek to explore the trinity of terms we’ve set forth in the journal’s subtitle, “art, faith, mystery.” Whether these words strike you as intriguing or pretentious may depend on your personal tastes, but anyone proposing them for consideration ought to have an explanation or two handy for the curious. [Read more…]

The Inestimable Value of Clichés

In his great work, Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess has the main character—Kenneth Toomey, a doddering, debauched, eighty year-old novelist—remark upon the insignificance of his life’s quest, the search for the “right” words:

I was thinking like an author, not like a human, though senile, being. As though conquering language mattered. As if, in the end, there were anything more important than clichés.

Toomey goes on to contemplate the word “faithful,” one of those old all-encompassing terms that celebrated writers have labored their whole lives to come up with an objective correlative for. Still, the mere thought of the hackneyed concept nearly brings the decrepit novelist to tears:

You have failed to be faithful” he thinks, lapsed as he is, fallen as he has become. It is the lines of the passé Christmas chestnut that fill his eyes to the brim:

O Come All Ye Faithful. [Read more…]