Being a Restorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite—17

Let’s Do Some Practical Criticism

**I have received some encouragement for continuing my contributions, such as they are, to “the conversation,” maybe by pulling out for further discussion small “nuggets” from what I have submitted before, to bide time while I prepare to say something intelligent about the French poets who created part of the remote C19 and early C20 context of Joseph Smith’s work. So, how about this. I imagine a few of my readers—or my readers, who are few—to be sitting with me at a circular table in a quiet corner of a small café on the Left Bank of the Provo River, a café that serves only Word of Wisdom – approved beverages, sipping our Sutter Home Fré wine (I hope that’s approved; I drink quite a lot of it—antioxidants, you know; also O’Doul’s, which my adult children, who drink Diet Coke and Mountain Dew, call “Bishop’s Beer”) and shooting the breeze about poetry and MoLit. I put before you for comparison and contrast the following two passages from two different authors. What do we see here? I invite observations and thoughts.

**Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now in the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.


**Behold, ye are little children
And ye cannot bear all things now
Ye must grow in grace
And in the knowledge of the truth
Fear not little children
For you are mine
And I have overcome the world
And you are of them
That my Father hath given me
And none of them
That my Father hath given me
Shall be lost
And the Father and I are one
I am in the Father
And the Father in me
And inasmuch as ye have received me
Ye are in me
And I in you
Wherefore I am in your midst
And I am the good shepherd
And the stone of Israel
He that buildeth upon this rock
Shall never fall
And the day cometh that you
Shall hear my voice and see me
And know that I am
Watch therefore
That ye may be ready.

11 Thoughts on “Being a Restorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite—17

  1. Jonathan Langford on December 16, 2016 at 4:37 pm said:

    What strikes me about these two examples is primarily how dissimilar they are, in several ways. On the level of imagery, the first poem represents (I think) a repurposing of the the imagery of love poetry (the rose) in a religious context, plus some language later that (for me at least) echoes the paradox-embracing language of the various Christian creeds. In contrast, the second takes advantage of very concrete images that have a long tradition in Hebrew scripture. On a syntactical level, the first consists largely of noun phrases, while the second is very clausal, if that makes sense. (I don’t know the technical language.) Overall, the more I look at the two, the flabbier the first one seems.

    Which does not necessarily invalidate the notion of repurposing imagery and forms from other literary traditions and making them religious. Here, I don’t think it works terribly well, but that may simply be that for me the codes clash. Which I suppose is always the hazard, though the potential gain is to break out of accustomed modes of thought and expression. I love the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood,” for example, which translates Jesus into the context of the Germanic warrior-hero: certainly something startlingly different for those who are more familiar with the later medieval depictions of the suffering, passive Christ.

    Which may simply demonstrate my point: someone who was more used to and more comfortable with those traditions would likely find “The Dream of the Rood” shocking and irreverent. A lot depends on the kind of experience you want to have with religious literature, and what conjures up that experience personally for you.

    • Colin Douglas on December 17, 2016 at 11:09 am said:

      Any thoughts about prosody–meter, that sort of thing?

      • Jonathan Langford on December 18, 2016 at 9:41 pm said:

        I’m not actually that good at analyzing prosody. (My training, such as it was, focused on narrative forms, rather than poetry.) Beyond noting that the first example seems more gnomic — shorter word clumps mostly working as noun phrases — I really can’t say much.

        It does occur to me that the syntax of the first poem seems to support notions of identity — what Mary (as representative of God’s love) *is* — the syntax of the second passage is built around relationships. It’s still about identity — all those be-verbs — but as defined in terms of how things relate to each other.

  2. Colin Douglas on December 18, 2016 at 9:50 pm said:

    I would call those astute observations, Jonathan. I will be posting some more in the next day or two.

  3. Colin Douglas on December 19, 2016 at 8:09 pm said:

    Jonathan, as I said above, I think you have made some astute observations. Now, here is a “reveal” (there is a bigger one to come): in order to emphasize certain aspects of the second poem—in particular the very fact that its language is metrical, and also the fact that its metric is identical to that of the first—I forced it against its will into the shape of the first, thereby obscuring certain other aspects. I think the second poem wants to be arranged more as follows:

    Behold, ye are little children
    and ye cannot bear all things now;
    ye must grow in grace
    and in the knowledge of the truth.
    Fear not, little children,
    for you are mine,
    and I have overcome the world,
    and you are of them
    that my Father hath given me;
    and none of them
    that my Father hath given me
    shall be lost.
    And the Father and I are one—
    I am in the Father
    and the Father in me;
    and, inasmuch as ye have received me,
    ye are in me
    and I in you.
    Wherefore, I am in your midst,
    and I am the good shepherd,
    and the stone of Israel.
    He that buildeth upon this rock
    shall never fall.
    And the day cometh that you
    shall hear my voice and see me
    and know that I am.
    Watch, therefore,
    that ye may be ready.

    And here are my further thoughts. What we have here is two poems exploring religious experience through metrical language, through unrhymed, two-stress accentual lines. In both poems the meter serves as it serves in all metrical verse to separate the poem from more “prosaic” language and life that surrounds it, to hold the reader within it; but despite surface similarities the two poems are very different in effect. The first, as you noted, reveals a Catholic sensibility, largely through the imagery of the Rose and the garden. It points toward—hardly more than hints at—the existence of a reality beyond the temporal, a different order of existence represented by the paradoxes of “endless/Journey to no end/Conclusion of all that/Is inconclusible/Speech without word and/Word of no speech.” Its author is a good Symboliste, in the manner of a Mallarmé. The second poem presents a God who comes directly into the world of the addressees, who also employs metaphors for his relationship with the addressees, but the earthier, less delicate, ones of shepherd and sheep. The God of the second piece speaks plainly, albeit through metaphors, of humanly comprehensible realities, not in mystical paradoxes. Moreover, although his speech is metrical, this God manages to speak in a voice that is nevertheless “natural,” in natural English rhythms, truly as a man speaketh with his friends, which the first poem, with the same meter, does not—it sounds “artsy.” Both poems draw on old reservoirs of metaphor, the first on European Medieval and Renaissance tradition, the second on the Hebraic, biblical tradition. Both poems stand in continuity with older traditions, but connecting with the older traditions from the standpoint of a later time, for, in both poems, the metaphors are set in a matrix of language that belongs to a much later literary age. The first looks High Modern. Each line is a fragment hanging in the air, so to speak, barely connected syntactically with what comes before or after; connections are there, but in the absence of punctuation they are not obvious, the reader must search a bit to supply them, and the fragments seem on the verge of falling apart. The poem is a statement of faith, but of a tenuously held faith, the faith of a Christian who is barely holding together as a believer, or, to shift the metaphor, is stepping haltingly and hesitantly and carefully into faith. The second poem retains in touch with another past, and not only through its metaphors but also through its prosody, which has a distinctly biblical feel about it, for the lines are parallelistic in a biblical manner, but this is parallelism with a difference—it is metrical (somewhat in the manner of Old English verse), as biblical poetry, either in the original Hebrew or in King James English, is not. This poem thus is also “modern,” as of the early nineteenth century. It has an overall coherence that is much stronger and more evident than that of the first, partly because punctuation helps, and also because there is a more coherent and evident line of “argument” running through it, carrying the reader forward. The parallelism enhances this forward movement, always advancing the argument a little further, a little further. Thus the poem is dynamic, within a stable metrical and parallelistic framework. This poem also is, by implication, a statement of faith, but a confident faith, in a very “present” and dynamic God who operates creatively in a universe structured and governed by law and who offers intimate friendship to any who will join him in hist creative work. All in all, I think the second piece is what Larson would calld “baroque,” in contrast to the “mysticism” of the first. (And I think he would say that the second is more like the Salt Lake Temple, the first more like the Provo Temple.) (See Being a Mormon Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite, 14 and 15, on Clinton Larson).

    Now, then, if any of that makes sense—which of the two poems is the “better”? Which is artistically the more successful? Can one be ranked above the other? Is one more deserving of being anthologized or getting at least honorable mention in an English class?

  4. Colin Douglas on December 19, 2016 at 8:14 pm said:

    That poem above did not come through as I wanted it to, and the trick I have been using in the original postings isn’t working, so here it is again–pretend that the asterisks are not there; this is supposed to be like biblical parallelism.

    Behold, ye are little children
    **and ye cannot bear all things now;
    ye must grow in grace
    **and in the knowledge of the truth.
    Fear not, little children,
    **for you are mine,
    and I have overcome the world,
    **and you are of them
    ****that my Father hath given me;
    and none of them
    **that my Father hath given me
    ****shall be lost.
    And the Father and I are one—
    **I am in the Father
    ****and the Father in me;
    and, inasmuch as ye have received me,
    **ye are in me
    ****and I in you.
    Wherefore, I am in your midst,
    **and I am the good shepherd,
    ****and the stone of Israel.
    He that buildeth upon this rock
    **shall never fall.
    And the day cometh that you
    **shall hear my voice and see me
    ****and know that I am.
    Watch, therefore,
    **that ye may be ready.

    • Jonathan Langford on December 21, 2016 at 4:35 pm said:

      I like this arrangement of it.

      Responding to your comments above: I like most of what you say, which aligns with my less-articulated perceptions of the two poems. One point I might want to quibble with is your description of the first poem as presenting a tenuously held belief: I do not know the circumstances of the writer, but think this poem *could* just as easily be an expression of faith that delights in the incomprehensibility of the divine, but is not necessarily therefore “tenuous.” The first poem is an act of adoration, the second passage an act of explanation, both focusing on (albeit very different) concepts of divinity.

      I don’t know that I can fairly compare the two in terms of overall quality, as the second aligns so much more powerfully with my own conceptions of the divine. The first, to my way of thinking, offers less in the way of poetic substance than the second, but I can’t be sure that isn’t simply my own bias. I also don’t really speak the language of the first poem and can’t really tell to what extent this may be echoing, invoking, and/or revising traditional Catholic imagery.

      There is an argument for Mormon mysticism, for all that “mysticism” has traditionally been a dirty word for many Mormons. But if such a thing exists, it would be along radically different lines than the traditional Catholic mystical tradition.

  5. Jonathan Langford on December 21, 2016 at 4:54 pm said:

    Implicit in my view of literature is that much of what we perceive as “quality” depends on the context we bring to the table, which includes our own presuppositions about what literature (or a particular kind or genre of literature) ought to be.

    None of us, I think, would find much sense in an attempt to describe a single “ideal” tree, or to create a unified metric against which all trees should be judged. It’s simply too obvious that we want different trees for different purposes. An ideal tree-climbing tree is very different from an ideal shade tree, or an ideal tree for firewood, or for woodworking (and separate soft-versus-hardwood purposes in that), or for providing fruit for my apple pie. It would not even occur to anyone that such different purposes ought to all be measured using the same scale.

    For me, comparing different types of literature makes just as little sense. People go to different types of literature for different types of experience. Most measures of quality can only be applied within the context of those different purposes.

    Which is not to say that discussions of quality go out the window. If anything, I think it becomes much more meaningful to talk about quality within a particular context (though there will always be differences in taste: my preference for Haralsons as opposed to Northwest Greenings as a pie apple, for example).

    The thing that pushes my buttons is when critics describe what is true about their own preferred form of literature, and then turn that into a universal criterion for good literature, and then use that to explain why the literature they aren’t interested in isn’t worth liking. Which, it seems to me, is a surprisingly common practice, and one to which generalizing critical systems are particularly prone. Hence my wariness about folks such as Clinton Larson, though I may be doing him a disservice considering that I didn’t have him as a student. So often, it seems to me that such frameworks can be brilliantly insightful in describing the types of literature they were designed from, and yet wholly inadequate when applied to other kinds of literature.

  6. Colin Douglas on December 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm said:

    All of which (above) brings me to my main point in this installment and the ensuing conversation. The first passage I presented is from T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” which was his first major work after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. It is, I think we agree, a competently done piece of what some critics consider to be Eliot’s masterwork. The second is from section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and is…what? Just the sort of thing we might expect from a deluded, half-literate farm boy?

  7. J. Scott Bronson on December 23, 2016 at 9:44 am said:

    Fascinating conversation. I can not even hope to contribute to it in as meaningfully a manner as the two of you, still, I have thoughts…

    My relationship with Poetry is very much like my relationship with Spanish; they’re both languages that I know a little something about in a superficial sort of way. I know a phrase or two here and there (Buenos dias. Como esta? Bien, muy bien. Donde esta el banyo?), some random words (gordo, diablo, loco, caca), can count to ten, and even know a thing or two about how Spanish has seeped into my mother tongue (lariat is the conflation of la and riata/reata, which is Spanish for, “the rope.”), but I cannot converse in the language at all.

    I have an appreciation — nay, even a great fondness — for the simplistic verses of poets like Edgar A. Guest (who is derided by real Poets), and have even managed to develope a hankering now and then for some Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson in small doses. Some of my best friends (as they say) are poets, Michael Collings, Javen Tanner, Darlene Young, and sometimes I understand what they’re saying. Or at least I get the jist. The poetry I’m most moved by these days is the early works of Paul Simon (I’m thinking, coincidentally, right now, of “The Dangling Conversation”). Heck, sometimes even in my own prosifications I’ll borrow a trope or two — often accidentally — and I hear my good friend whispering in my ear, “Lookit you gittin’ all poetical an’ sh–.”

    I love literature with depth; literature that has new and deeper meaning for me each time I read it. But I’m not going to look for that deeper meaning if I can’t even connect with it the first three times I give it a go.

    See, for me, coming to Poetry is like mining for gold. I have neither the funds nor the ambition to study the geography of a particular area hoping to eventually find a vein or two or, glory be!, a motherlode of precious material. I’m happy to be taken to a cavern someone has already gouged out of the earth where ore has been found and allowed to look around for a nugget or two. The problem is, I’m more than likely going to decide that, what some assure me is gold, is really just pyrite.

  8. Colin Douglas on December 24, 2016 at 12:27 pm said:

    Pull up a chair, Scott. Jonathan and I have been sitting here in our little cafe by our lonesome. I have wondered if eavesdroppers are lurking in the shadows, and it seems that at least one has been there. A main point that I have been wanting to make in this current installment and throughout this series is that we need to take Joseph Smith seriously as a poet, that his work is, indeed, a motherlode, which we have barely even begun to explore. Literary studies in Zion–and in the wide world, since Babylon is on the verge of collapse, and Zion will erect a new civilization on (and to a large extent from, since the inhabitants of Zion will know which pieces have lasting value and where they fit properly) the rubble–will be revolutionized when we face up to that.

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