Why Art?

Window panesI’m propped in bed reading my current bedtime novel. Pausing to reflect on a particularly engaging passage, my eyes raise from the novel—and rest on the shelves of poetry volumes on the opposite wall. Some of these books I open often; others have sat there untouched for years. Yet I need them all there. When I walk into my room I need to be surrounded by poetry.

On Saturday evenings, my husband and I choose a film to watch. Sometimes we choose a light film, sometimes a profound one. Whichever we choose, the evening enriches us. We chat afterwards about certain scenes, certain characters. We go onto IMDB to see what other viewers have said about the film.

Over the past several weekends, I’ve attended some of my favorite performances: my favorite string quartet, my favorite modern dance troupe, my favorite chamber music ensemble. When I was a child studying music and dance, I could have followed the harmonic changes in the quartet, could have named (and even performed) some of the dance moves. I’ve forgotten all that; yet I still crave these artistic events, still sit through them transfixed, still leave feeling enlightened, ennobled.

Why?

I cannot imagine my life without art. I cannot imagine our human lives without art.

Why? What is art? Why is it essential for our full humanity? Why are we especially scandalized when a crazed group like ISIS destroys ancient artistic treasures?

I recall an answer that Greg Wolfe offered in a Good Letters post a couple years ago:

Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging. In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience.

“Art makes things new”: this is Greg’s theme. Without art, then, we’d plod through our daily lives without ever recognizing (re-cognizing) the depths drawing us along.

Art gives shape to our experience. Without it, our days would sludge along like a long, slow mudslide. But with art, the sluggish flow stops; we see a human figure carved in the mud, the clay. It’s a figure of pride…or of pain…or of reaching, longing, stretching toward the meaning without which our lives are clogged with sludge.

“The joy of art is watching how something takes on meaning,” said film critic Nick Olson at the 2015 Glen Workshop. In film, he added, “you watch the meaning become embodied.” I’d say the same for sculpture, for painting, for dance—even for fiction. And I’d add: in music, you hear how something takes on meaning.

And in poetry? Well, here’s a poem that enacts what Greg Wolfe said: that art finds a new form to show us afresh something familiar, to shock us into a recognition that’s also a conversion. Take this stanza from David Craig’s “The Apprentice Prophecies”:

It’s your steel porch rail in sunlight
beneath the mailboxes; bright, flat black,
the brick behind. You’ll be struck dumb
by the ordinary, and everything will start to matter:
what shirt you put on,
how to pronounce your name.

Art shapes the ordinary so that we’re “struck dumb” by it, so that everything starts to matter. Can I leave that string quartet concert and say something nasty on the way out? Like “Hey, you’re blocking the aisle; move along, move along.” This is inconceivable. The music has ennobled me, ennobled us. Everyone leaving the concert hall is smiling with gratitude. Or, as Craig continues in the poem: After you’ve been “struck dumb by the ordinary,”

You’ll start helping dogs across the street,
be careful not to cycle over worms
after rain.

And that novel I’m reading at bedtime? Right now it’s Austen’s Emma, which I’m reading for the fifth (tenth? twentieth?) time.

I know that Emma will prove herself worthy of Mr. Knightly by the end, but meanwhile she’s making every sort of blunder possible, showing herself meddlesome, self-righteous, overly self-assured. She misreads almost everyone of her acquaintance, with nearly devastating effects on them. In creating the character of Emma, in creating the novel Emma, Austen has shaped our ordinary human follies so that we see them anew.

Once Emma acknowledges to herself the mistakes she has made, once she’s repentant about them, she and Mr. Knightly can marry and—yes—live happily ever after. This is the shaping that art can give us. We know that, in reality, we won’t live happily ever after—not until eternal life. We know that we’ll blunder again. And again.

But the hope of living happily—if not “ever after” then afterwards for a while—is held out to us by Emma. Like the major chord we hear with relief at the end of one of Beethoven’s anguished late string quartets.

 

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad

open qu'ran“Strap on a suicide vest? Join a global mission whose leaders preach hatred and acts of violence against civilians? Spurn the traditions of one’s own community in favor of radicalization? Jihadis face a hard sell. By definition, poetry is a way to say what cannot be said in ordinary terms.”

I sat stunned after reading this online last week. The writer knows whereof he speaks; he is Professor Flagg Miller, author of a book on the Bin Laden tapes. Here, he’s affirming the thesis of a chapter in Oxford Professor Elisabeth Kendall’s forthcoming book, Twenty-first Century Jihad. In this chapter, called “Yemen’s al-Qaida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad,”Kendall writes:

The power of poetry to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally, to infiltrate the psyche and to create an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy around the ideologies it enshrines make it a perfect weapon for militant jihadist causes. [Read more...]

Come, Lord Jesus

antiphonsI’ve always loved Advent’s “O” Antiphons. These are the prayers traditionally voiced during the final seven days of Advent, prior to singing the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Each of these antiphons begins with “O” and is addressed to Christ under one of his names mentioned in the Bible.

They are brief, one-sentence prayers of longing for Christ’s coming—both in the Incarnation and the Second Coming. Each begins with an address to Christ: O Wisdom… O Lord of ancient Israel… O Root of Jesse… O Key of David… O Dayspring… O King of the nations… And finally, on December 23, O Emmanuel. Each ends with the supplication “Come…save us!

This year I’ll add a new dimension to my praying of the O Antiphons. Poet Jill Peláez Baumgaertner has composed a poem for each of these Antiphons (found in her latest volume, What Cannot Be Fixed). I’ll be meditating on her poetic reflections on each Antiphon. In case you’d like to share in this peak Advent experience, I’ll offer below each Antiphon as traditionally phrased, followed by a bit of Baumgaertner’s reflection. (All the ellipses in the poems are mine.)

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.

Prudence is not a word
we love…

And we inhabit a planet
of uncertainty.
Who is the friend
and where the enemy…?

Now Wisdom speaks,
parsing, separating,
reordering, steering us
from quicksand’s brink,
the enfleshed Word
steady on firm terrain.…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Lord of ancient Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.

The Law sculpts our sin
in bas relief…

We cannot rest easy
watching Moses…
removing his shoes
on hallowed ground.

Our shoes remain.
We are rooted here…

We crave release,
the spring of warmed
muscles, Adonai’s
arm outstretched…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: come quickly to deliver us.

Here in the dust
we are astonished
by the root’s tenacity,
the only life in a ruined
and dead land.
It stirs underground…
the bloom finally
loosening and opening…

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can close, you close and no one can open: come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.

Shackled in the obscurity
of our prison, locked in,
solipsistic, we see only
our own sin…

But the promise of release
has been there all along…
There in our baptism
is our freedom.
All we have ever needed
to do is remember it.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

In December already at four o’clock
in the afternoon, shadows overtake us…
then the darkness…
deepens beyond all imagining,
this darkness of spirit which admits
no glimmer of ray…

and now, finally, is the time for new light—

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: come and save us all, whom you formed out of clay.

The Word that shaped creation
spun the dust, gathered the seas,
carved the clay, sparked the life.

This Word more than the un-Worded
of careless speech. This Word…
the king
who shatters the darkness,
who gives sight, who becomes the bright
fleshprint of incarnation.

This is the remote become immediate…
the birth-marked
Word that created our senses
and opened them. He breathes
on us and we live.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

§

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the anointed of the nations and their Savior: come and save us, O Lord our God.

Emmanuel, God with us,
knows what our flesh knows:

the itchiness of wool against skin,
the lingering taste of wine,
the glossiness of leaves after rain,
the press of earth clods underfoot,
the grit of sawdust on hands.

This is the mystery:
King and carpenter’s son…
With outstretched arms
he redeems us, the purple
of royalty and passion
emblazoning
the world’s darkness.

We await him.
Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Poetry Friday: “Christmas Morning in a Hotel Room” by Carrie Fountain

Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

FreewayIs there any place more melancholy to spend Christmas morning than a hotel room? A place designed to be no place at all? Yet it’s strangely fitting: the mystery of the Incarnation is that it’s precisely nowhere—on the margin of the world—that a God bursts in. In this poem, a narrator stands at a hotel window on Christmas morning, an figure in isolation, and wills herself to believe that “something important / began or ended precisely” in this no-place, some parking lot by some highway. And it’s her simple belief that even the empty places of the world are filled with meaning—“no doubt,” she thinks—that becomes the miracle of this scene, her belief transforming the commonplace world into one where hope rises in billows, where God arrives like a stranger in an idling car, waiting right outside.

—Tyler McCabe


Christmas Morning in a Hotel Room 

Out the window, the parking lot
and beyond that, the highway.

No doubt something important
began or ended precisely there, or

there, in that spot where the ice-white
rental car is idling neatly, clouds [Read more...]

Poetry Friday: “Annunciation” by Katharine Coles


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Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

Of all Gospel passages, I think the Annunciation is the scene most represented by poets over the centuries. So I’m always amazed when a new poet has the confidence and vision to re-imagine the scene for us afresh. And that’s exactly what Katharine Coles does in “Annunciation.” I’m taken first by her daring doubling in the opening line: “what occurs occurs…” The mirror imaging of the words expands into the mirroring of the angel and the virgin: neither of them, astonishingly, “matters.” The poem then moves into what does matter: images of light, scissors, openings catch my breath as I realize that the Incarnation is what is being figured here. Then, “we” enter the poem; and, disturbingly, we don’t behave in the self-forgetting way that the angel and virgin do. The poem is dotted with particular questions (“Of? Or to?”); yet really the whole poem hangs in the air as a question: where do “we” fit into the Incarnation? Can we even comprehend it as along as “we can’t forget ourselves”?

—Peggy Rosenthal

 


 

Annunciation by Katharine Coles

What matters is what occurs occurs
Between them, not to them. It’s only that
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
A blade of light scissors the air [Read more...]


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