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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Ars Poetica: The Death (and Resurrection) of Poetry

The Death of Orpheus by Jean Delville

I’ve been teaching a lot of poetry to undergrads these days, and these are typically the moments my teaching becomes most inspired. I’m not sure the students necessarily understand what I’m talking about—poetry is often a very foreign, very strange object to them, for ours is a culture sadly and (for the most part) unconsciously suffering from a lack of the poetic. I ask my students how many of them know any poems by heart. None. I ask them if they remember any Mother Goose. None. Then I recite Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” part of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and so forth. In general, the only exposure to poetry most of my students have is when they had the writing of haiku inflicted on them sometime in elementary school. Poetry should not be a punishment. It should be a lived experience. I fear sometimes I must appear a madman from the past or future to my students, someone speaking in a strange language that sounds like English, but a language mysteriously other. It only gets worse when I speak about the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, John Donne, William Blake, or W.B. Yeats. Surely some revelation is at hand.

This week I had one class read Dana Gioia’s now classic essay “Can Poetry Matter?” which I read long ago and which impelled me to rethink what poetry could be. Gioia discusses all of the varieties of entropy contributing to poetry’s decline—without whining about the general public. Instead, he blames the “professionalization” of poets in academic circles as well as the insular and self-absorbed culture created by MFA programs in poetry. Before his untimely death, Franz Wright criticized the same phenomena—though in language far more strident (and far less polite) than Gioia’s.

As the founder and editor of the journal Jesus the Imagination, I can only concur with the opinions of Gioia and Wright. Most of the poetry I receive is of two types. The first is of the garden variety (I-write-for-my-cohort) MFA pablum. It all sounds the same, the voices of multitudes homogenized into a dull uniformity. This is depressing. The other kind of poetry I tend to get is reactionary formal verse, apparently intended to revive the golden age of Christendom. I have nothing against formal verse—I’ve written and published a ream of it myself—but this reactionary propaganda is poetry as ideology. And it’s bullshit.

In fact, I was so discouraged by the recent batch of submissions (not that all of them were lacking in imagination, but…) that I almost decided to suspend publication of Jesus the Imagination. But only almost. When I founded the journal, my primary inspiration was the reimagination of culture, not the regurgitation of fallen ones. Among those already mentioned, I looked for inspiration to Paul Claudel, William Everson, David Jones, and Oscar Vladislas de Lubicz-Milosz—poets unafraid to move into a space reserved to prophets—not in imitations of style but of their daring. But we live in fearful times. As Blake quotes Numbers in the Preface to Milton: “Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets.”

In closing, let me share some thoughts from the chapter entitled “On Poetry and Prophecy” from my book, The Incarnation of the Poetic Word:

What I am describing here, then, is no less than what Nikolai Berdyaev has called “the apocalypse of culture.” Such is the product of our decent into spiritual torpor and thence into slavery: a slavery in our day of our wills to technology, our feeling to a shallow narcissism, and our thinking to the opinions of the electronic coterie which turns us all into mimetic sciolists. Cultural ennui is indistinguishable from spiritual and religious ennui. Culture without religion rapidly decays, while religion without culture loses its mooring in actual human life and has nothing to claim but the past:

Behind the ideal values there stood prophets and geniuses in their day, with creative inspiration and fire. But when monuments have been erected to the prophets and the geniuses, and the streets have been called by their names, a chilled and mediocre culture comes into shape which no longer endures a prophetic spirit and a new spirit of genius.”1

The apocalypse of culture ensues: “Culture must be transfigured into a new life, as the whole earth must be. It cannot linger on indefinitely in its mediocrity, in its cold legalism.”2

The prophet is he who lives in the barren places, attentive to parousia, eating locusts and wild honey as he awaits the coming of the divine utterance. The poetic vocation also requires such wildness, such authentic transgressivity. The much-lauded “transgressivity” of the academic poet has nothing transgressive about it. If the coterie holds the same opinions, there is no transgression. Transgression, to be authentic, requires the ground of the spirit, the source of all life. The transgression of the academy is mimetic transgression, anchored in the world, possessing no life. And, because of its privileged status, it spreads like a cancer….

...The primal quality of the prophetic voice is fearlessness. Fear of speaking permeates our society. Indeed, such fear has become its hallmark. It infests academe: show me a professor not afraid to speak truth before the archons of the academy and the assured punishment inflicted by the egregore, and I’ll show you a career destroyed. Fear poisons workers in the arts, who then become its tools of power. It even touches the episcopacy. Fear, we know, is the primary tool of the Enemy.

All the tortures of repentance are tortures of self-reproach on account of our leaving the Divine Harvest to the Enemy, the struggles of entanglement with incoherent roots. I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of mind & body to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.” (William Blake, Jerusalem, plate 77)

Like Blake, Joséphin Péladan recognized the divine nature of the poetic vocation, a legacy fundamentally abandoned in our current cultural milieu, a milieu in which the guardians of art and poetry offer incense before the idols of utilitarianism, politics, and self-promotion and leave prophecy to the extravagances of a past that, in their postmodern positivism, they regard with condescension, themselves satisfied with the puny returns of publication, position, and notoriety.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

1 Nikolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, trans. R.M. French (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 129.

2 Ibid.

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