Denis Donoghue’s recent review of Jay Parini’s book, Why Poetry Matters, got me to (analogical) thinking: might the situation of poetry in late modern American culture be akin to the situation of the church? Here’s how this connection got swirling around in my head:
As Donoghue opens,
If you were to write a book called Why Poetry Matters, you would be wise to concede, as Jay Parini does, that “to most people” it doesn’t. “That is, most people don’t write it, don’t read it, and don’t have any idea why anybody would spend valuable time doing such a thing.”
Despite screeds and jeremiads about the MTVization of mass culture, and even a proliferation of magazines and collections, “the practice of poetry is still a subculture; it does not matter in any public sense.” And yet…
…both Donoghue and Parini mount a sort of defense of poetry in spite of its being a “subculture,” even recognizing that it could perhaps only be a “subculture.” The logic seems to be that something’s being a subculture does not entail that it doesn’t matter; in fact, a subculture could be a subculture for the common good. As Donoghue concludes,
Reading a poem entails, to a special degree, the act of paying attention; we are required to concentrate our minds, not only to the extent we do habitually on words as they pass in ordinary life but as we are impelled to do on words in the intricacies, frictions, and evasions of lyric form. That so much in contemporary life encourages us to do otherwise—to accept things as they are, whether for the sake of ignorance or convenience—suggests, finally, why it is that poetry matters.
The poets, and the world of poetry, constitute a sort of faithful remnant that bears witness to how we might inhabit the world otherwise. It devotes itself to cutting against the grain of the linguistic practices into which we are habituated by a “barbarian” culture. (On this last point, see James Wood’s skewering of the “Republican war on words” in a recent New Yorker.) This subcultural labor might look like a withdrawal into private irrelevance and complacency, but in fact it is a concentration of energies for the sake of the world.
So let me make the analogical leap (this might only makes sense in my own head): What if we thought of the church as poetry–as this sort of subcultural project that is undertaken for the common good, as a witness to how “the common” could be otherwise? One will rightly hear in this suggestion a kind of oblique response to Jeffrey Stout’s criticism of Hauerwas and MacIntyre. On Stout’s critique, the conception of the church as a unique polis–the center of gravity for our “political” endeavors–is an irresponsible retreat from the “public” sphere and the common good.
Would Stout want to offer the same critique of poetry? Doesn’t poetry represent a subculture that’s content to hang out in neglected corners, fostering a conversation and way of life to which “mainstream” culture is not privy? Aren’t poets “irresponsible” for devoting themselves to such a subcultural project? By drawing this analogy, I do not mean to suggest–a la Rorty–that the church is (or ought to be) a collection of “private ironists”–an assortment of dandy aesthetes for whom the church is akin to “the club,” into which they retreat from ‘worldly’ affairs. I don’t think that’s how Donoghue or Parini view poets either.
Rather, the point is that subcultural labor can be for the world, a labor undertaken in hope and witness, and in a spirit of hospitality, hoping for the growth and expansion of the ‘subculture’ into culture as such–the church as the poetry of the world. It brings to mind my favorite line from Dutch theologian Klaas Schlider:
“Blessed is my wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way. He is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it.”