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. Continue Reading →

Being a Restorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite : No. 3

Thesis Statement

As I reread my previous two posts and consider what to do next, it dawns on me that I have nearly made a strategic rhetorical wrong turn and thereby very nearly gotten myself “stuck in Romanticism” (in William Morris’s words). I need to pull my foot out of the quicksand and go another way. I would like very much to get down quickly to talking about the poet Joseph Smith, but I need to stall one more time. I am going to lay out here what can be thought of as the “thesis statement” for this series. This is awfully long, abstract, and dense, but nothing I have to say subsequently would be understood as I want it to be except against this background.

I hope to find an audience of two types of readers (who can be combined in the same person): one is a Latter-day Saint poet, the other a Latter-day Saint critic. They both find the basis of their faith in what both they and I often call spiritual experience, but which I will refer to here as revelatory experience. The poet seeks a literary method for exploring and constituting that kind of experience, and life as it is viewed in the light of the knowledge that it reveals. The critic seeks to place literature—all literature, including “Mormon” literature—in relation to that experience and knowledge. (As I write of “life as it is viewed,” I have in mind a statement attributed to Flannery O’Conner to the effect that her Catholic faith was not the subject matter of her work, but rather the light by which she viewed her subject matter. I also should say up front that my main interest as a writer and in this blog is in the former “matter,” revelatory experience.)

I find persuasive a neo-Kantian philosophy of art as it has been articulated most clearly, Continue Reading →

in verse #52: Walt versus Joseph

9781434103833The theme of this month’s post is foreshadowed in its title. Had I written “Walter versus Joseph” you would sense a formal balance between the two names; had I written “Walt versus Joe” you would sense an informal balance. But the imbalance in formality bespeaks an imbalance in the poetics of two poets.[i] Yeah, yeah, I know: you know Walt Whitman; Walt Whitman is a friend of yours; Joseph Smith is no Walt Whitman. You’re right, and that is one of the main points of the comparison I am about to impose on you, should you accept the invitation. Continue Reading →

in verse #50 : In voiceless text

Matt Miller, in his study Collage of myself : Walt Whitman and the making of Leaves of Grass, makes a convincing case that “…the poems of the 1855 Leaves appear in a boiling rush, the size and suddenness of which continue to beg for explanation.”[i]  He makes his case primarily through a careful examination of the notebooks and manuscript materials Whitman used in the years leading up to the publication of that first edition, arguing his point through 250 pages of text and illustrations, the latter mostly of manuscript pages.  What I find most fascinating, because of my interest in Joseph Smith’s writings, is Whitman’s uncertainty as to the Continue Reading →

in verse #49 : Voice of the paper

In responding to my last post, “Voice of the turtle,” Jonathan Langford wrote:

It’s interesting that in your reading, Whitman — who was all about “voice” — is actually print-oriented, while Joseph Smith (source of some of our most striking scriptural quotes about the importance of written records, including but not limited to scriptures) is oriented toward [the] speaking voice.

I was, myself, surprised to learn that Matt Miller, in Collage of myself : Walt Whitman and the making of Leaves of grass, apparently argues that Whitman speculated that Leaves of grass might be a novel or a play as late as 1854, the year before the first edition was published.[i] But then I had never heard before what Miller claims Continue Reading →

in verse #47 : Voice of the turkey

I just noticed that this is the second time this year that my post is due on a holiday.  And it’s due on Christmas Day, too.  Next year it won’t be due on the 24th of July, but it will come in on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, should I love so long[i].  So in the spirit of that observation, I assert that we should celebrate March 20th each year as a holiday,[ii] as the anniversary of the letter from Liberty Jail.[iii]  This is a date that could conceivably be viewed as “early in the spring,” the only date Joseph gives to what we call the First Vision, so we could celebrate both on the same day. Continue Reading →

in verse #46 : Filthiness, flood wood and rubbish

Alright, so I’ve talked about the text of Joseph Smith’s letter from Liberty Jail for two posts now, and I’m still not done. But, I hear you saying, haven’t you made your point? Well, obviously not, or I wouldn’t be talking about it still, would I? What are you accusing me of, dragging my feet before leaping feetfirst into Walt Whitman? He is the next logical practitioner of the long line, the next successor to Blake. And he is an editor, as well as a writer, is he not?

My point in lingering longer to look at the segments of the letter that were edited into Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants is twofold: the editing was done skillfully, and shaped to humanize a narrative that would emphasize the abstractions of verses 34-46, give them flesh and breath, and soften the anger driving them. That wasn’t necessary for what became Section 122, nor possible for what became section 123. I discussed in my last post the lines leading into the second excerpt, verses 7-25. Look again at these lines:

and when the heart is sufficiently contrite
then the voice of inspiration steals along
and whispers 7my son peace be unto thy soul —
thine adversity and thy afflictions shall be but a small moment
8and then if thou endure it well God shall exalt thee on high —
thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.[i]

Notice that verse 7 begins in the middle of a sentence, but in Doctrine and Covenants there is no indication of that. Continue Reading →

in verse #45 : The Power of the Editor

The text of his letter from Liberty Jail was published in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, in Times and Seasons in May and July of 1840, of which Joseph was nominally editor (this was the last transcription Joseph could have overseen). It was also published in the Deseret News and the Millenial Star, about the time it was being edited and excerpted for publication in Doctrine and Covenants in 1876. The latter editorial process interests me most in regards to Section 121, which consists of five excerpts from widely-separated parts of the letter. Sections 122 and 123 are single, coherent excerpts, not the mosaic that 121 is.

The letter begins in what one commentary calls “a high scriptural style,”[i] but it is worth noting that Joseph undercuts that immediately with sarcasm: Continue Reading →

in verse #43 : hero’s journey

When Leonard Cohen said “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash,”[i] he probably didn’t have Joseph Smith in mind. Joseph Smith burned brightly in a world lit only by fire, and he left a splendid ash indeed, but Cohen most likely has never considered that ash. That is my task today.

On November 27th, 1832, Joseph Smith sent a letter from Kirtland, Ohio, to W. W. Phelps, the Church’s newspaper editor in Independence, Missouri, in which this poem appears:

Little Narrow Prison

Now Brother William if what I have said is true,
how careful then had men ought to be
what they do in the last days lest they are cut short
of their expectations, and they that think they stand
should fall because they keep not the Lord’s commandments,
whilst you who do the will of the Lord
and keep his commandments have need to rejoice
with unspeakable joy, for such shall be
exalted very high and shall be lifted up
in triumph above all the kingdoms of the world —
but I must drop this subject at the beginning.

Oh Lord when will the time come
when Brother William thy servant and myself
behold the day that we may stand together
and gaze upon eternal wisdom engraven
upon the heavens while the majesty
of our God holdeth up the dark curtain
until we may read the round of Eternity
to the fullness and satisfaction of our immortal
souls? Oh Lord God deliver us
in thy due time from the little narrow prison
almost as it were total darkness of paper
pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered
and imperfect language.[ii]

The letter was written Continue Reading →

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