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Papal Poetics

I am moving mountains of books as a prelude to moving houses. After a quarter century in the Washington suburbs, it’s a kind of personal Benedict Option: a shift to a close-in small town, as near to the District of Columbia as you can be and live in the country. Odd relics of the past have surfaced. One that brought me up short: The Place Within: The Poetry of John Paul II [1].

That beautiful little volume remains a bit of unfinished business for me. I wrote about it just before JPII died in 2005 – but the article was the property of a magazine that was then in upheaval and it never saw the light. We’d organized a group of articles about the various parts of the Polish pope’s life in anticipation of his death. And I’d dutifully gone through what I’d been assigned – his literary works – which I thought would be a very modest collection by a man whose great gifts lay elsewhere. I was wrong.

Because JPII was a real poet. He never devoted enough time to poetry to become a world-class one, to be sure. But there are moments in his work when you glimpse that he had authentic talent (in his plays as well) that might have developed into something powerful if life and the history of the twentieth century hadn’t carried him off to other matters.

For instance:

The distant shores of silence begin
at the door. You cannot fly there
like a bird. You must stop, look deeper,
still deeper, until nothing deflects the soul
from the deepmost deep.

No greenery can now satisfy your sight:
The captive eyes will not come home.
And you thought life would hide you from
The other Life that overhangs the depths.

Poetry in translation is always a tricky thing to evaluate, but it’s impossible to miss here both the fresh imagery and language – to me, at times close to the level of great modern Polish poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski. And above all, there’s the spacious poetic vision.

I don’t much recall what I said about these poems in my lost essay. But I’d venture now that this deep and broad spirit was the inner place where all the outer achievements took their beginnings: “There is in me a transparent land/ in the shimmering of the lake:/ the boat, the mooring on Genezerth,/ tied to the quiet waves.”

Religious literature is not easy to write, at least in what’s left of our Western culture. If it sticks too close to conventional sentiments, it appears lazy and derivative. If it ventures too far out into an untethered spirituality, it rarely touches anything large and consequential.

And then there’s the sheer question of craft. Anyone can set down some broken lines with broad spiritual themes and claim it’s poetry. Freshness of approach, rhetoric, imagery, form, these are proof – or not – that the author has that rare magic that takes us outside or beyond our everydayness, even if he employs the household words and things that the rest of us use.

It’s particularly difficult to write about materials from the Bible because they are already familiar and heavily weighted with centuries of interpretation and meaning. So to create something poetically alive that invokes the Bible runs the risk of saying something the Scriptures never intended.

Karol Wojtyla – not always, but often – succeeds despite the dangers, as in this from “Looking into the well at Sichar”: “Look now at the silver scales in the water/ Where the depth trembles/ Like the retina of an eye recording an image.” There was a deep event at that well, presented here in the water that stands far below, which adds something to the already profound exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This is real poetic imagination.

As our friend Dana Gioia [2], a Catholic who is now poet laureate of California, reminds us, the multiplication of university programs in writing poetry has had the effect of turning most modern poetry into a kind of insiders game, wherein academic poets write mostly for other academic poets. And the result is the impression that poetry does not and cannot “matter” beyond a narrow, incestuous clique.

But it has mattered in history. A lot. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and many more. Human life is impoverished – something is missing from the human spirit – when our words lose the capacity to take us into other realms of reality, which we ignore at our peril.

As JPII put it in a powerful poem (“Material”) that dealt with his time as a worker in a Polish stone quarry, “Fear not. Man’s daily needs have a wide span,/ a strait riverbed can’t imprison them long.”

Poetry can matter and does, just not all that often these days, especially when it seeks to be significant in some narrow secular sense – never more so when it tries to be political. The passage above had a political significance, of course, in Communist Poland. But much more than that, for any and all human societies, as well.

In our time, when everything – even within the Church – seems to have become hopelessly and irremediably politicized, it’s good to recall that delicacy of spirit and depth of perception may indeed be the unsuspected power behind “real-world” action that truly shapes things anew.

Work starts within, outside it takes such space
That it soon seizes hands, then the limits of breath.
Look – your will strikes a deep bell in stone,
Thought strikes certainty, a peak
both for heart and for hand.

As in the pope who was a poet as well as a playwright, philosopher, theologian – a moral and political leader who, incidentally, changed the course of the modern world. And, not incidentally, was also a great saint.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.