The Young Poet and the Inauguration

Note: Robert Royal will appear on “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo tomorrow evening at 8 PM to discuss President Biden’s Catholicism. Check for local listings. The show will also be posted on the EWTN YouTube channel after the live broadcast.

Amanda Gorman is a recent graduate of Harvard and a self-styled poet who seems innocent of any knowledge of English literature. Such ignorance is not rare in our times. Does anyone remember that poetry is a demanding art and not a verbal roll of paper and a box of finger paints? So she recited a self-congratulating and “inspirational” poem-thing at the inauguration of President Biden.

It was all icing and sparkles without the cake, not that we want a dinner of nothing but cake, either. But her verses do not bear analysis. They are political slogans. Slogans – whether “Inspire Change” or “Make America Great Again” – do not belong in poetry, and not just because they are clumsy or cheap. Poetry is for the truth, and slogans are not.

Miss Gorman, it appears, is also a Roman Catholic. More shame to us.

The Church used to be a mother of arts. Think of the works of genius the faith has inspired: Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. We could go on and on.

Dante completed the Divine Comedy shortly before he died in 1321; this year is its 700th anniversary. Might our schoolteachers be prevailed upon to read it?

The first half of the last century saw a fine flourishing of Catholic letters: consider the novels of Undset, Bernanos, Mauriac, Boell, Waugh, and Greene; the essays of Chesterton, the poems of Roy Campbell, and the publicly influential and deeply political works of Jacques Maritain and Gabriel Marcel.

Fulton Sheen wrote God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), not troubling to translate for his readers many a quotation from the original French or Latin. He brought that same learning and literary erudition, wearing it lightly, to his tremendously popular television show.

What happened?

A lot of things, of course, but near the top is the obvious fact that people who lead our cultural institutions do not know the arts, and do not care to learn.

Take contemporary hymns. Take them, please.

The composer David Haas has been driven from the camp of Catholic hymnody, bearing upon his head a heap of alleged sins against morality. He never should have been in the camp in the first place, for all his sins against poetry.

*

Here is a typical example, from “We Are Called”:

Come! Open your heart!
Show your mercy to all those in fear!
We are called to be hope for the hopeless,
so all hatred and blindness will be no more!
We are called to love tenderly.
We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.

When Lucy Ricardo thought that Ricky had forgotten her birthday, she went off by herself to sit on a park bench and have a good cry. Along came a big group of people with a hokey oompah band, the Friends of the Friendless. They ask her what’s troubling her, she tells them, and sure enough, she joins them just as you might join Alcoholics Anonymous, complete with public testimony and this signature anthem:

We are Friends of the Friendless, yes we are, yes we are!
We are Friends of the Friendless, be they near, be they far;
We uplift the poor downtrodden and we sober up the sodden,
We are Friends of the Friendless, yes we are, yes we are!

That is the level of intelligence to which Haas’ lyrics aspire, and fail to come near. Surely somebody at GIA Publications has read a poem once or twice in his life? The lines Haas wrote are what I have called piety-salad. What exactly does it mean to show “mercy” to someone in “fear”? Fear of what? How can you “be hope,” except in Hollywood Injun-speak? What do “hatred” and “blindness” have to do with being “hopeless” or in “fear”? What exactly is the point, more than something like, “Be good, be good, be goody-goody-good”?

A work of art must have a recognizable form. A good poem must have the virtues of good prose: it has to mean something, to make a point, to tell a story, to ask a question, to make an appeal. A good poem fit to be sung must have a recognizable structure. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each of its parts should have something clear and interesting to do with each other part. Vagueness is death.

The really excellent poem will do far more than I have suggested here. But even workmanlike poems should not do less.

The fellows of Haas are legion. That their poems grace our hymnals is one small sign of a general intellectual and artistic collapse, as was Miss Gorman’s recital. The powers that put her on the inauguration stage did no favors to her – or us.

Is it too much to ask the editors of our hymnals to hire someone who loves and understands English poetry? No one would think of letting a kid paint murals in a church, if his notion of a human body were a smiley face on a stick, or a bag of balloons. Why is poetry not treated with at least as much discretion as painting (we hope) still is?

Someone may say that even if the art is bad, it does no harm. We should take the intention, and let the skill be.

No. Bad art – I am not talking about honest workmanlike art, such as graces the fine old Scottish Psalter – will not stay in the outhouse. Beauty and truth embrace. So, in the end, do ugliness and falsehood. Do we not see this in Haas’ sloppy verses?

The offense against poetry, “Be hope to the hopeless,” smuggles into the mind an offense against truth. Christ is our hope; no one else. Hope in me, pal, and you are in for trouble. My work is to lead you into the presence of Christ alone. Put not your trust in princes – or poets, no matter how bad they are.

 

*Image: Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez, c. 1930 [Sanctuary of Mercy Church, Borja, Spain]. The fresco is shown as it progressed from the original, to its deteriorated state (2012), and after its “restoration” by a well-meaning amateur.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.

RECENT COLUMNS

Archives