John Senior: Poet of Reality

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  • John Senior (1923-1999) is a name not known to many Americans, though his influence on decades of university students was legendary. In several ways, so was his life. He ran away from home in Long Island to pursue the life of a Western cowboy, but came back east to study literature at Columbia University. Senior discovered Thomas Aquinas and, at the age of 37, was received into the Catholic Church.

He founded and taught in the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas, where he and two colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, ran afoul of the administration by teaching students about the beauty and order of the created world, a process that frequently led to conversion. Bishop James Conley of Lincoln and Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, as well as the founding monks of the Benedictine Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, among others, are alumni of the program.

Michael Pakaluk’s excellent brief overview of Senior’s life and legacy appeared in these pages just over a year ago. In it, he said of Senior’s books The Death of Christian Culture and the Restoration of Christian Culture: “they seemed wild and almost unbelievable when they were first published; now they look almost obvious and too familiar.”

Senior’s poetry is equally prophetic. His slim volume of collected poetry, entitled Pale Horse, Easy Rider, stands as a noble attempt to clarify and restore our vision, to allow us to glimpse once again – through the lens of verse – what an unmediated encounter with reality might look like:

Oh, for camps without the counselors,
trails without the guides,
birds without binoculars
and uninstructed brides!

The final two words of this stanza (from “On the Appalachian Trail”) provide a harsh commentary on how our culture mediates and perverts one of the most fundamental and intimate of all relations. Whether through the offices of Planned Parenthood, the campus hook-up culture, or the latest issue of Cosmo, far too many of today’s brides come with far too much “instruction.”

Robert Frost once famously likened free verse to playing tennis with the net down. Senior compares the self-conscious structure of his verse to a kind of indispensable cultural beauty: “Verse without rhyme,” he says, “is like churches without bells or girls without dresses – you can have them, but why?” Many of the poems in this volume chronicle a contemporary reality in which church bells no longer ring and girls no longer wear dresses. It is not a pretty vision.

Throughout, though, Senior retains a traditional poetic, one which employs rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter and pentameter, as well as the “common” or “ballad” meter so preferred by Emily Dickinson and children’s poets like Robert Louis Stevenson, with occasional terse Skeltonics (“Laud/By gawd” or “Mark!/ don’t bark!”) for humorously jarring effect. The form itself recalls Frost’s conception of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion”: it stands as a testimony to beauty and order, a defiant contradiction of the decay and corruption Senior chronicles.

Several of the poems are about the challenges of growing old, especially while in the constant presence of Youth. In the title poem, Senior gives us the cold, sterile reality of modern sickness and death, where men are “tubed and needled” and the television drones on “like an analgesic rain/ on the pavements of migraine.”

Anyone who has watched an elderly relative in a hospital or nursing home being plied with his daily dose of Ensure can appreciate the thrust of these lines:

As we greet the evening tray,
These last words for us to say
(dies irae, dies illa):
“Oh, not chocolate, vanilla.”

But in confronting his own decline and impending death, Senior doesn’t indulge in either self-pity or bitterness. Love prevails, even as the body fails, the culture decays, and the liturgy collapses.  We witness Senior learning to practice detachment from the things he loves so intensely:

Two ways to make contemptible
the world: the first is not to look;
the second, and more sensible,
to read it like a book,

to learn the grammar and the word,
loving not the less but more,
contemning it as music heard
supersedes the score.

For Senior, a proper contempus mundi involves not a retreat from the sensible world, but a saturation through and beyond the ordered beauty of that world. It is, I think, akin to what Flannery O’Connor once said of all fiction: not an escape but a “plunge into reality.”

“At the Pearson College Waltz” is one of many poems that record the anguished hope Senior places in the young people he teaches. “[T]he dumb magister stands in awe” while he witnesses their dance: “as love arising from the darkened world / upfalls like an intelligible tear.”  “You young people don’t know how beautiful you are,” Senior once told a student:  “But I do.”

One of Senior’s most moving poems is a paean to his own teacher, the legendary Mark Van Doren of Columbia University:

That age is freshest which is first
with persons and the nation,
sons of Mark among the best (and worst)
minds of their generation.

Senior well knew that the education he received from his wise teacher was equally capable of producing minds like his and like that of his fellow Columbian, decadent beat poet Allan Ginsberg. Still, with his “Noble Voice” (the allusion is to Van Doren’s enduring volume of essays on great poetry) Van Doren had the capacity to see “everything (including us) as good.”

Senior’s poetic tribute to Van Doren is entitled “The World’s Last Lover.” But he wasn’t, and Senior’s legacy of love arguably transcends that of his own magister. The “sons of Senior” – those who read, sang, waltzed, stargazed, and found Christ under his guidance in the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas University – are many, numbering among them lawyers, teachers, headmasters, politicians, priests, brothers, and bishops (as well as two Trustees of Thomas More College, where I teach, and our eldest daughter’s godfather).

John Senior may have thought reality was endangered and receding, but I suspect he was only partly right. His poetic legacy, at least, suggests otherwise. “This collection is not private,” Senior tells us of his slender volume, “but perhaps it has no public.”

In an influential essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia implicitly addresses Senior’s concern, expressing the hope that poetry could reclaim a place in American public life. “I don’t think this is impossible,” he tells us. “All it would require is that poets and poetry teachers take more responsibility for bringing their art to the public.”

I’ll do my part by urging you to take and read a copy of Pale Horse, Easy Rider, whose verses will go a long way toward rehabilitating your vision of reality.

Amy Fahey is a Teaching Fellow at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. Her essay, “Sigrid Undset, Novelist of Mercy” appears in the forthcoming volume, Women of the Catholic Imagination (Word on Fire, 2024).