Archive for ‘literature’


“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.


(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)

“But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away…”

How did art become irrelevant? Michael J. Lewis’s answer to that question in Commentary magazine made the rounds of social media last week. It’s an exhaustive overview, and a political one, edged with fine anger, a reminder that the arts used to be merely elitist, not ruthlessly hermetic.

So I was startled to open the latest issue of the literary magazine The Dark Horse and find “Poetry as Enchantment,” an essay by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia that makes many of the same points Lewis makes, but solely about poetry, and with a far more subdued tone. Defending poetry as a universal human art with roots in music, charms, and incantations, Gioia recalls that not long ago, it was ubiquitous and widely enjoyed. I remember that too: my grandfather was a machinist with a grade-school education, but he could rattle off snippets of verse that I now know were the work of Longfellow, Joyce Kilmer, and the (utterly forgotten) Sam Walter Foss.

What happened? Gioia argues that poetry was too well taught. The New Critics imposed reason, objectivity, and coherence on it. “Learning” poetry was reduced to dissection and analysis, then demonstrating your fluency in each new school of critical theory:

For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project.

Gioia literally marketed Kool-Aid as an executive at General Foods—who can ever forget his award-winning “fear in a handful of dust” campaign?—so when he became NEA chairman in 2003, he wanted measurable results:

We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.

The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.

Just how wrong were those “state arts education experts”? Gioia found that kids raised with hip-hop took to poetry when it became about hearing and reciting rather than reading and analyzing; they loved competing; “problem kids” turned out to be great at it; and immigrant kids have turned out to be around half of all winners each year.

Gioia is too gracious to gloat. About his detractors, he says only this: “The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.” I wonder why they doubted him: His longtime championing of old-fashioned formalism? His corporate background? His presumed political affiliation? It’s a dreary state of affairs when ignorance is the most charitable explanation.

Someone recently quipped on Facebook that it’s actually a great time to be a poet, because when an art has zero social cachet, the people who do it out of sheer love don’t have to wonder if others are into it for the wrong reasons. That may not be forever true: Gioia’s Poetry Out Loud program has already engaged 2.5 million high-school kids, and books like the Disney Channel poetry anthology are bracing their younger siblings. What if channeling rap fandom into national recitation contests actually entices the corpse of poetry to sprout and bloom some year? Relevance would uproot academia; it wouldn’t be kind; it would set poets slogging through swamps of conflict and commerce, not noticing how many more people had finally learned that they’re meant to talk about what Gioia calls “mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase,” their inheritance as human beings.

“The spheres are in commotion, the elements in harmony…”

Poetry rarely springs from scientific marginalia—but Diane Furtney’s 2014 collection Science And is, amazingly, an answer to a Richard Feynman footnote:

[F]ar more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

So here is a book Feynman just might have praised: 80 pages of poems composed in an idiom of Furtney’s own devising, “radically enjambed, off-rhymed, non-metrical couplet[s],” formal poetry that, like the natural world, doesn’t always seem formal. I’m reluctant to call this book “science poetry,” which wrongly suggests gimmickry or lack of artistry, when it’s a wonderful and frequently successful experiment—and, in its imagery, downright radical. By seeking inspiration not in the usual stale and shallow allusions but in geology, radiation, epigenetics, and quantum physics, Furtney reminds us that poetry ought to offer the infinite depth of a fractal.

Still, most of the poems in Science And are not specifically about science; this mind-bending material simply gives Furtney fresh ways to write about familiar subjects. Looking at computer models that show it’s theoretically possible to turn a hollow sphere inside out without creasing or breaking it, she crafts a metaphor about a troubled sibling relationship: “curved parallel lines, each in / loves motion, which has to exclude reverse, / and that meet on the far side of the universe.” Elsewhere, a cruel father reminds us that evolution isn’t just about endurance, but also, chillingly, about endings:

But, because time

moves in a straight line through us, the justice
of biology, of development, is

that every action, with or without thought,
reorganizes and delimits what can be brought

into the future, including one’s ability to know it.

[…]

By his sixties, none of his children would consent

to emplace him in the future; none
of the four would have a child. His horizon

finally, at eighty-seven, gripped
his identity like a mummy’s wrap,

his self-absorption so complete, so assiduous,
there was no need—tending his needs—for anyone else

to give him an invested thought. “Justice”
does not have to be hoped for; it is ubiquitous

and emergent.

Elsewhere, a note explains that the poem “A Man, a Boy, a Stick, a Goose with Goslings” was inspired by serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help us with memory and open us to new emotional reactions, but the poem itself isn’t a neurobiological study; instead, it’s a thoughtful and disquieting narrative about what children learn from their fathers, the complex irrationality of human parenting compared to the behavior of our fellow animals, and the cycles we’d break if we could. Other poets would turn an encounter between goose and human families into something romantic and trite, but Furtney adds a hint of biochemistry; she wants us to marvel at what wildly intricate creatures we are.

In the spirit of classic science fiction, Furtney asks “what if?” and invites us into her thought-experiments. “The Ark” compares skeptics of space exploration to a Roman shrugging off the invention of a grain harvesting machine; “Some Generations” brings a rare warmth to futurism, insisting that even as humanity tinkers with genetics and explores the stars, we’ll remain a flawed, ambitious, quixotic race:

But we are young, just some generations
from the white winds and little, worked stones

of the Pleistocene.
And we have time. At fourteen

billion years, the universe is crisp
and fresh, and we’ve changed down to the grist

and have immensities
of more green time for change. It may be

one of your descendants—deft,
confident, reliable in emotional depth,

able at seventy to learn Chinese
or Navajo in just three weeks,

seriously ill maybe twice
in a two-hundred-year life, spliced

without breaking genes to inhibit,
a little, our recidivist

midbrain conflicts and maladaptive
selfishness; better, then, at love

but incomplete still, like all
the sprawling future…

“The Good” asks us to imagine the trial of a woman charged with murder for opening a vat of genetically engineered “almost-finished tissue” that was supposed to become a new breed of humans destined to colonize a distant, icy planet:

As prosecutor, I’d claim any deed

that levels our spiral staircase or props it
to go nowhere on one world, is the opposite

of good, is a form of murder
of our past as well as our future,

while an act that adds to the molecular good
allows two things: species adulthood

and a destiny worth the name.

Fond of pondering the personal within the cosmic, Furtney leaves the defense to us—with the sly, unsettling reminder that the defendant has two non-hypothetical children of her own.

There’s unabashed humor in Science And, too. In “Cells,” Furtney wonders, as Philip K. Dick might have before her: What if the chair at a coffee house had a chip that made it sufficiently aware of you to anticipate your order? If it could crack jokes and be civil and entertaining, wouldn’t it be far more pleasant than that ignorant, fussy, scientifically illiterate woman at a local ceramics exhibition?

Furtney is the only poet in the world who would use 42 couplets to bring readers on a tour of the Carbinoniferous Period of the Late Paleozoic—and why not? Science And makes clear that poetry can complement illustration, sculpture, prose, and other creative forms in showing us a place where oxygen was one-third of the air and damselflies with three-foot wings alighted near ten-foot ferns. Of course, Furtney is also the only poet who, with stark, unromantic beauty, could imagine lovers united eternally—and literally!—as particles swept up in a supernova:

And one glowing day,
my love, when the sun is blowing away

and a similar if warmer breeze
has begun to rotate its long, slender keys,

we and other blue-star particles
will loosen in our Tinkertoy mesh and travel

into wider space again
—stay close to me, I’ll stay close if I can—

arcing out in ionized light,
freebooting amidst bits of this white

moon, en route to our heirs…

The poems in Science And read like the ghazals of a Martian expat. They’re difficult, intricate, and baffling; they also capture a full spectrum of invisible emotions belied by a cramped term like “science poetry.” Diane Furtney finds delight and solace in thinking, wondering, making connections; in her poetry, we are small, but not insignificant. Through her efforts to craft what she calls a “poetry of reality,” she shares a mystic’s openness to the infinite, and I hope she won’t be taken aback if I suggest that she offers an alternate route to the heavens where mystical poets hope to abide: a universe of amazement, revelation, and truth.

“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”

“Asking for more only got us where we are today…”

A while back, two poets independently responded to my gargoyle-poem book by asking me if I knew Maryann Corbett. I didn’t, but when I looked her up, I was pleasantly stunned to find someone whose modus operandi I understood: a poet who tends to the formal, a medievalist who holds a non-academic day job. Her latest book, Mid Evil, collects only 40 poems, but together they show how we frame our yearnings with fragments of the past—both the world’s and our own.

At first, all I saw was Corbett’s medievalism. Mid Evil takes its title from a poem about an blasé student’s chronic misspellings; the book also includes poems about studying medieval manuscripts, facing cancer in light of Cathar heresies, seeing The Return of the King with costumed teenagers, and imagining J.R.R. Tolkien’s inner life. Corbett is a skilled translator, so Mid Evil includes modern English versions of several medieval poems: the Old English “Deor” and three Exeter Book riddles, all of them in a form that recalls Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines; two balades from the French of Christine de Pizan; and verses from Alcuin about a nightingale, rendered in a meter that evokes the long Latin lines of the original.

When medievalism inspires new works of art, I’m intrigued and delighted, so I might have decided that all this was enough. On a hunch, though, I decided to read Mid Evil not as a miscellany but as a collection with purposeful organization. What emerged was an even more meaningful book: the story of a halting but ongoing pilgrimage.

Appropriately, Mid Evil opens with two poems in which old books provoke unexpected emotion. In “Paleography,” Corbett describes the intermingled confusion and enthusiasm that comes from trying to read 16th-century handwriting, which leaves her feeling “like the child who listened, puzzled / by the cries in the next room.” She lets the reader decide whether her experience is a sign of cosmic immaturity or a rare opportunity for the renewal she later craves. In “Hand,” she finds a colophon in a Middle English manuscript that reads “pray for him that made this book,” which pits skepticism against faith but leads Corbett to contemplate the actual, physical existence of the long-dead scribe and to “wonder how long the bones of a hand would last.”

In Corbett’s poetry, such relics are forever surprising us; they suggest a larger, more more challenging context to our lives. A teacup, for example, is a tribute to centuries of human activity—slavery, alchemy, religion, myth—culminating in the morning sip that affords the poet a moment of peace. A blue bowl tells the story of the aging and the dead and holds memories of a loud, insulting father:

“Depression glass.” Imagine it: her mother,
using that gimcrack thing for sixty years,
remembering how a speechless misery feels.
A kind of sore the mind keeps picking at.
I think she’s kept a lot of things like that.

And see, the mother’s still around. That’s why
she hasn’t sold it yet to an antique store.
I’ve often told her that would be a mercy.
Honey, it would. That’s what collecting’s for.
Restoring things. We clear the clouds away
so people see good things for what they are.

If mundane objects can resonate with meaning, so can our lives, as long as we’re open to seeing them as stories. In “The Return of the King Screens at Midnight at the Multiplex,” Corbett’s disputatio between skepticism and faith takes on a secular cast as she notes a conflict familiar to medievalists: the detached study of the scholar versus the playfulness of the costumed fan. She realizes it’s not a conflict at all, but reason for an overdue reprimand:

And I
am riven in the dark, remembering
how, long ago, I swore the only way

into these glamours was to learn to sing
in ancient grammar. Oh my misspent youth:
As well escape your life with imagining

as riddle through the words of some dead mouth.

Settling into her theater seat, she bids herself “[t]o hear the tale that salves the sting of truth” and to think about the fleeting value of fantasy and escapism. “So make your minds / more bloody,” she later exhorts girls shopping for Halloween costumes at Goodwill, hoping they’ll revel in pretending to be monsters. Otherwise, they’ll miss a youthful opportunity, however modest, to experience something beyond themselves, like the hapless undergraduate of “Mid Evil”:

And the last blow is this, your final exam,
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
You’ll claim your paper. Mild civilities
will be exchanged, and then you’ll lope away,
a sad C minus in your grip ensuring
we’re done. It’s mid-December. Snow will fall—
hrim ond hrið, but no one says that now,
since this is the sphere of Time, beneath the moon,
where everything must change, and where the poems
evaporate like hoar-frost in the sun.

Poems, movies, stories, myths—they shore us against aimlessness, but they also nudge us toward generosity. Faced with a storyteller in “The Pandhandler’s Tale,” Corbett puts aside her reservations and welcomes “the willing suspension of disbelief, / which lets us yield ourselves to the tale of wonder,” even though she only ends up attracting more panhandlers. The experience is real regardless; we’ve avoided a mystery, perhaps even a moment of grace, by assuming a story is false. Imagining one of the Brothers Grimm rewriting tales told by a cowherd’s wife, Corbett wonders: “Does it matter / that now we know how far from truth it falls?” A poem about Abelard and Eloise finds fault with all parties, but encourages interpretation: “What can we know? Perhaps less love than pride / led to their woes. Read their own words. Decide.”

But myth, fantasy, stories, and scholarship all have their limitations, as Corbett makes clear in several poems with a tragic edge. A fond memory of watching the rousing “Victory at Sea” on television in the 1950s darkens with the adult realization that the veteran who was dozing in a nearby armchair likely saw horrific things; simple stories are for children. The myths in fashion magazines prove useless decades after our teenage years; a mysteriously returned gift from a daughter’s long-ago lover shocks us out of our personal fables and into complex reality. Even history itself has limited value: in “The Historian Considers the End Time,” a scholar wracked by cancer is tempted by the Cathars’ heresy of the evil of the body, but her medievalism is useless. She can only hope to leave behind scant relics that give meaning to someone else:

They must, those thirteenth-century prelates,
have known it with a blazing certainty,
the truth he’s going to know then, when he hugs
the clothes that hold her fragrance, when his chest knots
as he cleans her closet, when months past the funeral
he finds in a broom strands of the long, dark hair.

So what do we do when the shadow of nothingness looms? All of Corbett’s thematic strands rise and converge in “Sing, My Tongue,” the final section of Mid Evil. These seven poems find strength and revelation in singing as Corbett invites us to join her in church. “On Singing the Exultet” puts us in the choir at the start of the Easter Vigil, where the singer marvels at the audacity of what she is about to do:

It’s candlelight that makes it possible.
How otherwise could you, with your puny pipes,
expect to do this? yell to the end of space—
where air won’t carry sound—and order the nebulae
Exult? But here you are: you’re going to dare it.

Even feeling insignificant implies a cosmic context for our lives, as “the light of the unforeseen”

burnishes a quiet table
where lover and beloved look at each other
weighing a question that will change the world.
That has already changed it.

In these closing poems, Corbett grapples with doubt while singing at a funeral; one page later, she crashes to earth after the high of singing Mozart with an orchestra in a cathedral. “I’ve come to feel / how all my feasts are haunted,” she says after a child interrupts her attempt to find focus in church, and she falls back on translating Alcuin, who exhorts the nightingale to sing without end: “Sour as my soul had become, you could fill it with honeying sweetness.” She ends on a note of fatigue, physical and spiritual, but despite being disheartened by “wheezing gasps where nothing is inspired,” she still hopes for profundity:

I want it back: the confidence in air—
ruah, pneuma, spiritus—the breath
that stirs the vocal folds of nuns in choir.
The breath that Is. The sound of something there
guiding this gusty round of birth and death.
The rush of driving wind. The tongues of fire.

Mid Evil starts with scholarly study and ends in a wish for religious exultation; it begins with writing and ends in song, becoming a prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace. Whether that prayer can or will receive an answer remains, for Corbett, an open question, but she comes to a conclusion I gladly endorse: that myth and medievalism are promising places to start.

“Well, it seemed to be a song for you…”

Two years ago, I was half-watching the Disney Channel with my nephew and niece when a commercial startled me—not because a fleeting tween sensation had finally done something funny, but because I couldn’t believe they were airing a two-minute promo for poetry. Backstage at a children’s poetry slam, Caroline Kennedy was chatting about her new Disney-backed anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart, without naming a single poem in the book. Naturally, I wondered: What sort of anthology do we get from a network that exalts dancing and singing above all other human endeavors?

As it turns out, a pretty conservative one. Poems to Learn by Heart isn’t the slam-tastic book the commercial makes it out to be; instead, it’s full of traditional, anthology-friendly names: Shakespeare, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Crane, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Richard Wilbur—around a hundred poets in all. Adults who want poetry to be “edgy” will find the selection cautious—the wildest poet here is Amiri Baraka, whose “Ballad of the Morning Streets” won’t shock grandma—but Kennedy has less seasoned readers in mind. To her credit, she knows that while most English majors have read poems like “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, most American children (and their parents) have not. She also gets that this book’s 183 pages contain more poetry than most kids will encounter in twelve years of school, so it’s a rare chance to show them what the English language has to offer, from Lewis Carroll to Nikki Giovanni.

Even though Kennedy arranges her selections by subject (“the self,” “family,” “friendship and love,” “faeries, ogres, witches,” “nonsense poems,” “school,” “sports and games,” “war,” and “nature”), Poems to Learn by Heart doesn’t feel guided by a clear editorial point of view. Of course, that’s an adult concern; young readers who don’t yet know their own tastes may enjoy discovering Ovid, Countee Cullen, and Robert Louis Stevenson alongside a Navajo prayer, the Gettysburg Address, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” speech. I appreciate breadth, and even the inclusion of lyrical prose, but is it here to foster inclusiveness, or to deflect criticism? One could easily use the table of contents to reconstruct the minutes of Disney’s fretful editorial meetings: Something for the religious? Cultural-literacy conservatives? Social-justice liberals? Native Americans? Check, check, check, and check.

Despite these thoughtful, wide-ranging selections, this book doesn’t always fulfill the promise of its title. Kennedy may be gung-ho for memorization, but I didn’t always see the mnemonic value of her selections: Is “Peace” the one Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to remember? Why learn Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 instead of one of the others? Kennedy asked a six-member poetry slam team at a Bronx high school to help pick these poems, and she devoted four pages to their own passionate free-verse poem about racism, consumerism, child abuse, and mass media. While I hope the publication credit gave their lives a hearty boost, I do wonder, perhaps heartlessly, if their work belongs here. For whom other than the teens who wrote and performed it is it a “poem to learn by heart”?

I was also baffled by the selections in a final “extra credit” section: “Young Lochinvar” by Walter Scott, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow, “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, Robert Service’s crowd-pleasing “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and the first 18 lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. “Mostly they are old chestnuts that have fallen out of favor,” the scion of a privileged political dynasty warns us, lest she come off as a square, “but the feats of memory required to master them will impress even the most modern audiences.” Why can’t the editor of a poetry anthology write as if she actually believes that old things have value beyond their potential for self-exploration and showing off? (And who the heck drops Chaucer on kids without a pronunciation guide?)

That final section highlights this book’s major flaw: a lack of wild, wham-bang narrative. Jon J. Muth’s illustrations are beautiful, but his cover captures the overall mood: gentle, contemplative, dreamy. That’s fine for some kids, but what about action for the more rambunctious? It’s not my style to call for a book to be less intellectual (or for things Disney to be less introspective), but cripes, what about a good, gory chunk of Beowulf or Homer, or an Asian or African epic? Where are the pirates, cavemen, and ghouls of Robert E. Howard? Except in passing in its introduction, Poems to Learn by Heart forgets to teach kids that some of humanity’s best stories are told in verse—and that people proudly carry them around in their heads.

I hate to be hard on this book. For many kids, it will be their only introduction to poetry, and some, I hope, will adore it. Decades from now, if those readers fondly remember this book as adults, the Disney Channel will deserve praise for marshaling its legions of wolf-mounted marketing goblins in support of something more sophisticated than terrible sitcoms—nothing less than Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ovid. Only then will I know if Poems to Learn by Heart has served children well or if it’s the century’s first great, unread gift book, a smart, well-intentioned effort to elevate young readers that’s (maybe) too pensive, too mousey, too nice.

“Turn on these theater lights and brighten the darkest skies…”

(Dante in D.C.: solarized Polaroid negative)

Most aspects of medievalism in America don’t baffle me. I understand why we want to lay down European roots through Gothic architecture, I get why the pedigreed chivalry of Charlemagne and King Arthur might appeal to us, and the imaginative pleasures of medieval-ish fantasy are (mostly) self-evident. But Dante? I’ve never grasped what Americans hope to do with him—maybe because the answer turns out to be “everything.”

While Dante helped rally Italian nationalism in the early 19th century, Americans looked to him for different shades of inspiration. Melville saw him as a guide through moral quagmires; Emerson considered him a simple genius; and others longed for his unshakeable certainty in their own supposedly weak-willed and overly tolerant age. Charles Eliot Norton, who promoted the study of Dante at Harvard and established the Dante Society of America, praised the poet for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

So is Dante nothing more than a leering cadaver we clothe in our whims? In a blog post about two new Dante books, Cynthia Haven at Stanford suggests that il Poeta has something greater to offer us, a vision as priceless as it is stark:

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

Just before Christmas, I checked out “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The title was misleading, since the art wasn’t inspired by Dante; the works only echoed his concepts and themes. “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante,” explained the curator, “but with something truly universal.” How gloomy, but how unsurprising, that another interpreter of Dante, another artist in search of the timeless, doesn’t discern that they’re one and the same.

“The walls are white, and in the night…”

“Perhaps I have created a medieval study,” wondered Flannery O’Connor in 1960 after a professor of medieval literature penned a piece in a Catholic magazine that likened her novel The Violent Bear It Away to the movie The Seventh Seal. Sharing the essay with a friend, O’Connor was bemused: “Which reminds me, have you seen any films by this man Ingmar Bergman? People tell me they are mighty fine & that I would like them. They too are apparently medieval.”

I wonder, then, what O’Connor, a rigorous Catholic, would have made of the news that the Episcopalians just made her a literary saint:

This week, Flannery O’Connor was inducted into the American Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country” (or so a church representative told me). Upon entering the cathedral for the small induction ceremony, attendees were greeted by two gigantic, sparkling sculptures suspended from the ceiling—they are phoenixes, part of an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, but at first glance you might mistake them for peacocks, like the ones that O’Connor raised on her family’s Georgia farm, Andalusia . . . Those who spoke during the ceremony stood in front of a shining cross, towering choir stalls, and giant pillars illuminated with glowing yellow lights. A booming echo made them sound like somewhat unintelligible voices from beyond. The effect was fitting, evoking simultaneously O’Connor’s keen sense of the ominous, the numinous, and the ironic.

I don’t know if O’Connor visited the magnificent cathedral when she lived in New York City for a while in 1949. As a Catholic, she might have found modern Protestant cathedral-building a marvelous, misguided quest for transcendence, but the vast Gothic interior also might have engaged her intellect and gladdened her soul. After all, O’Connor grew up across the street from a gargoyle-festooned cathedral in Savannah and later lived on a farm called Andalusia, a name she encouraged her mother to restore. It’s been a while since she was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she also deserves to be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

By the time O’Connor attended college in 1942, her medievalism was apparent. She wrote poetry only briefly, but her later dismissal of her own juvenalia is knowing and sly. “All of my poems sounded like ‘Miniver Cheevy,'” she quipped, recalling the pathetic drunk in E.A. Robinson’s 1910 poem who wishes he’d been born in an age of chivalry. As an adult, she had little interest in romance and legend: Her philosophy professor would recall how much she hated the irreligious dismissal of the Middle Ages in the textbook he assigned, how passionately she studied the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and how keen she was to debate with him when he argued, from an anthropological perspective, that medieval Christianity was polytheistic.

“She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first-rate ‘intellectual’ along with her other accomplishments,” George Beiswanger later wrote. “It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” Beiswanger took such pleasure in their sparring that he recommended her to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and helped her land a scholarship for graduate school.

In 1948, while wandering the grounds of Yaddo, O’Connor described herself to other artists at the colony as “thirteenth century” as she immersed herself in a book on scholasticism and medieval art by French Thomist Jacques Maritain. “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian”—she underlined that passage in Maritain’s book, and when she visited the Cloisters during her stint in New York City the following year, she was amazed to find support for Maritain’s exhortation in a Virgin and Child statue that showed both figures laughing—”not smiling,” she emphasized to a friend, “laughing.”

While writing her first novel, O’Connor read the lives of three female saints—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Teresa of Avila—and was irked when the public found the resulting book pessimistic rather than comic. “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist,” she told a friend, “whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Fascinated and challenged by the prolific saint, she joked about applying Thomist principles to the least events in daily life, including her mother scolding her to go to bed during her nightly readings:

If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.

Soon after she was diagnosed with the lupus that would destroy her kidneys, O’Connor made two commitments: the first, to write like mad; the second, less formally, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. In 1953, O’Connor purchased the 690-page Modern Library volume of selections from his work—and settled in for the rest of her life.

As she hobbled around Andalusia on the crutches she called “flying buttresses” and immersed herself nightly in Thomistic theology, O’Connor did what other medievalists do, from malevolent nationalists to benign reenactors: She redacted the Middle Ages down to the aspects that gave her full purpose and strength.

As for being enshrined as a poet by Episcopalians in an unfinished Gothic cathedral in Manhattan, O’Connor was too Southern to have told them that she was anything but flattered but also too Catholic not to have issued gleeful theological challenges to priests who would have stammered and sought for rejoinders in vain. Then, in private, mindful of her favorite statues, she would have laughed, and let her amusement linger long after the light went out.

“…with my eyes turned to a different time or hour…”

After translating a poem, I’m always left with a troubling handful of brackets and screws. The bookshelf sure looks like it stands on its own, but anyone peering at it closely, comparing the finished product with the instruction sheet, might spot the small, vital pieces I had to leave out. That’s the frustrating trade-off of this sort of writing, but I like to believe I’m getting better at it—and I’m pleased that one of my poems made it into the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

It’s a fine issue, too, with translations from Catullus, Martial, Victor Hugo, Christine de Pizan, Cavafy, Rilke, Rimbaud, Lope de Vega, and many more. My contribution is modest—ten lines of Latin, an epitaph for Charlemagne’s baby daughter Hildegard translated into alliterative, metrical English—but I’m among poets whose work I admire, including medievalist Maryann Corbett, classicist A.E. Stallings, and X.J. “Nude Descending a Staircase” Kennedy.

Last year, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse after realizing that I rarely found one memorable poem per issue. I put that money toward the biannual Able Muse instead, and it’s proven to be a far more satisfying read. Mirabile lectu, its editors are supportive of poems composed in recognizable forms, but they’re also open to good free verse, prose poems, essays about literature, and even the occasional visual-art portfolio. The 2010 Able Muse Anthology, which collects the best of their first decade, is a worthy introduction to their style and approach. Rather than serve as a one-way repository for CV enhancement, Able Muse feels like a journal its craft-conscious contributors actually read.

I’m busily working on a pile of new translations—and on this sun-baked afternoon, I’m happy to dredge up old “Quid Plura?” posts about this very subject: