Poetry, tears and religion

By Michael Robbins
October 27, 2009

Several of the greatest poets in the English tradition from the Renaissance onward have sought to replace God with the human imagination, a quest whose vehicle most of these poets have, unsurprisingly, envisioned as poetry itself.

But George Santayana’s definition of poetry as “religion without practical efficacy and without metaphysical illusion” may go some way toward explaining why poetry has decidedly failed to replace religion.

The idea that poetry might usurp the traditional functions of religion was predicated upon the social and cultural authority of poetry as a bearer of value. Every discussion of poetry as it is practiced in the United States today must begin from an acknowledgment that it suffers from an impoverishment of such authority.

Contemporary poetry is a tinny bickering among insomniacs crowded onto the head of a shrinking pin.

Hence the relative neglect of Allen Grossman, probably the last American poet to be regularly described, and not in derision, as a prophet and seer. In ‘Not all wanderers are lost’ Grossman insists that:

—A man or woman without religion is mad.
His children are mad, and also her children
eat filth and die. RIGHT HERE (sparagmos)
in the waste places among RESISTER WEED.
The philosopher turns his face to the wall
at the moment of death. The philosopher remembers

(himself he does not know) what God remembered
in the beginning. The God, before religion,
wept for himself, alone, among the sanctities.
Then the God forgot himself: “LET THE LIGHT BE.”
(The Lord, Our God, teaches us how to do things
with tears.) Then, the great God forgot himself.

It is unusual to hear a poetic speaker summon such authority today. His poems are founded on a paradox: “Better a deceiving god than no god at all.” How to know, though, whether a deceiving god is any god at all? This axiom wars with the commandment of his later work: “Do not be content with an imaginary god.”

But the god Grossman imagines in his recent book How to Do Things with Tears is named Shazam, the magic word that transforms cub reporter Billy Batson into the god Captain Marvel. It is an old problem: How can a fiction reign supreme if it knows itself to be a fiction – if, that is, what Nietzsche called “active forgetting” is not an option?

This is a way of acknowledging both that Grossman’s authority, his possession by the god, risks the harmless crankery of a man carrying a sign reading ‘The End Is Nigh,’and that his self-coruscating humour alleviates this risk.

As early as 1981 he was less than sanguine about poetry’s future, and about what it is that has been lost: "Poetry is now an art which seems, to me as a practitioner, virtually dead. It is an art which has been driven into a corner, which requires justification; it is an art which has more practitioners than readers; an art the function of which is hard to discern. In ancient times poetry preserved enormous ranges of cultural fact—facts necessary for the survival of the community, kinds of information about the world which are now (and for a long time have been) conserved by other institutions of the civilization."

Perhaps this is the true motive for the repeated and disparate attempts to yoke poetic powers to religious and other social functions. For Grossman, “The poem is not as close as you can get to The Poetic Principle. And that is what we are after…. Even if there were (even if there are, strictly speaking) no poems (there are, strictly speaking, no poems) there is still poetry.”

Insofar as “the greater function of poetry … is the keeping of the image of persons as precious in the world,” poetry cannot disappear entirely as long as there are such images, even if there are no more poems. If poems no longer adequately respond to what Raymond Williams terms “structure of feeling,” many of their functions will remain available in or be subsumed by other forms of art and media.

Poetry itself will continue, if only as “a complex and open-ended collection of cultic practices from which the practitioners derive, or hope to derive, ‘existential strength,’ that is, a deepened capacity to deal with the manifest, large-scale structural defects of human life.” But that is the philosopher Mark Johnston’s definition of religion.

If the price poetry must pay to resemble religion is its nearly complete marginalization, it is difficult not to mourn this “inscription upon the ontological snowfields of a world that is not in itself human,” as Grossman has it, especially when the cold of those snowfields, like God, like metaphysical illusion, is not going away any time soon.

Imagination will find forms adequate to it. But we should read Allen Grossman while we can, whose work we grant the honorific poetry: the last practitioner of an art “About the impotence of God … / Who has no power not to create everything.”


© Michael Robbins is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago. His poetry has appeared and is forthcoming in The New Yorker magazine.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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