The other day at Thomas More College I had an experience I’d never had, in my thirty-four years of teaching college students. I had stayed in the room after class, chatting with several of the students, who didn’t have to get anywhere fast, because the class was over at 11:00 and Mass wouldn’t begin until 11:30. One of the students, the only one in a class of twenty-five, had spent two years in a public high school, and we were talking about what kinds of literature were and were not taught there – or in almost any high school, public or private.
She told me one thing I suspected, and one thing that, in my naiveté, I had not. The thing I did not suspect was that hardly anybody read any of the novels the teachers assigned. They read bad crib notes online. No delight, I guess, in Charles Dickens. It’s a little like being at Yellowstone Park, but staying in your hotel room, looking at a few pictures of the place, playing video games, watching porn, and not bothering to go outdoors. The thing I did suspect, because it confirms what I’ve seen all these years, is that poetry has been almost wholly abandoned.
I guess there are three reasons for that.
One is that the teachers themselves don’t know poetry, because we are into the third generation of its neglect.
Another is that poetry is thought to be hard. Modern poetry is hard because modern poets indulge themselves in distortions and disruptions of language. Earlier poetry is “hard” for the same reason Dickens supposedly is: our linguistic range is narrow.
The third reason is that you can’t teach the old poetry without knowing a lot about the Christian faith, and without being willing to take on their own terms ways of life that are not ours. Multiculturalism might more accurately be called multi-modernism: the same old modernism, wearying unto death, gussied up in a variety of dress. It is a yawn.
But my students like poetry, and one of them brought up the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We’re going to have a Poetry Night, so they were thinking about possibilities for recital. That got them going, and all at once, the three of us, without hesitation, began to recite his famous sonnet, “God’s Grandeur”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God;
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck His rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil,
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Yet for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,
And though the last lights off the black west went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs,
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with, ah! bright wings.
Nothing like that had happened before, in my whole career.
Mos amandi, mos cantandi: as we sing, so shall we love. If we don’t sing, our love will become, or must already be, frail and thin. Singing is what the lover does, said Augustine. To know the truths of our faith, but not to sing them, is like knowing that God exists, but never to feel His presence; it is to know that we are loved, but never to feel the race of the heart.
“But we do sing at Mass,” someone says. Yes and no. There are songs, but most of the congregation is silent or is murmuring, because the songs are for Mass entertainment, having been conceived in form and content after the patterns of mass entertainment.
No one remembers the words, because the poetry is bad or nonexistent, and no one remembers the melodies, because they are bad or because they never were written to be sung by an entire congregation and its full range of human voices.
If people are defined by the poetry they share – by the songs they can all sing together with maybe one or two prompts to jog the memory, then we are undefined, not a people at all, only an aggregate.
When Jesus and his disciples prayed and sang at the Last Supper, they didn’t have to pick up a hymnal, good or bad. They prayed and sang from their hearts, where they had kept their people’s poetry as treasure. What pearls do we possess?
I have watched young Christians go into the world like minnows into Leviathan. They go with imaginations unformed, and that is that. They may attend services on Sunday, but they are as worldly as anybody.
So I am issuing a challenge to every Catholic school and parish – a poetic challenge:
First, get rid of the lousy poetry and lousy music. Stupidity is always a vice, says Maritain. Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter what movies my child watches, so long as he watches movies,” or, “It doesn’t matter what my husband drinks, so long as he drinks.” Get rid of it. Nobody but the church performers enjoys it anyway. Replace it with real hymns. Don’t think you can get those from the big presses, OCP and GIA and such, because they have mangled the texts and dragged them through the mud. Sing the poems, as they were composed.
Second, return to poetry. The time is short, and the reward immense. Fifty lines of Tennyson can be committed to memory; five hundred pages of Dickens, not so fast. Have every student in your schools learn, say, twenty poems by heart. And their elders, too, might join in – have a Poetry Night in your parish, with the stipulation that every poem be written in meter.
We are suffering from cultural dementia, muddied and dulled by the strokes of the modern. It is time, little by little, for recovery.
*Image: G.M. Hopkins (right) with friends, Alfred William Garrett and William Alexander Comyn, members of the Oxford Movement [photo by Thomas C. Bayfield, 1866]