Poetry and Presence
In a recent essay, J. M. Coetzee offered a quotation from “Distinguo,” a short poem by the Australian poet Les Murray. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic:
poetry is presence.
In a mere quatrain, Murray summarizes the vast theological and aesthetic differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Obviously, Murray is being hyperbolic; as Coetzee mentions, Murray converted from Presbyterianism after marrying a Catholic, and his words have the convert’s fervor. And, to state the obvious once again, Murray’s prose/poetry, Protestant/Catholic division doesn’t quite hold: Protestantism has some pretty good poets, too, from Milton to Marianne Moore, and, thanks to Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, and others, whole courses are taught on the Catholic novel.
Still, Murray seems to be on to something. A list of the great sacramental poets of the English language, those who most memorably render the divine presence manifesting itself in the world, would feature more than its fair share of Catholics. There is perhaps no greater sacramental poet than Gerard Manley Hopkins, and there is certainly no greater sacramental poem than “God’s Grandeur,” which opens with the dramatic pronouncement that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and closes with a vision of the Holy Spirit “brood[ing] with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”
Murray’s claim, and specifically his claim that “poetry is presence,” reminds me of “A, a, a, Domine Deus,” a poem by someone I’ve discussed here before: David Jones. (Look for a terrific piece by Edward T. Wheeler on Jones as poet and painter in the current issue of Commonweal.) Jones started “A, a, a, Domine Deus” in 1938, obsessively working and re-working it for the next twenty-eight years until he finally published it as a fragment in 1968. The poem opens with a question (which shouldn’t be surprising, since Jones is one of the great poets of the interrogative mood): “I said, Ah! what shall I write?” This opening combines the prophet’s lament—the words echo Isaiah question, “What shall I cry?”—and the poet’s traditional invocation to the muses. The anguish behind this plea is soon given more specificity: “I enquired up and down. / (He’s tricked me before / with his manifold lurking-places.) / I looked for His symbol at the door.” The capitalized pronoun gives it away, as we realize that the speaker is seeking the Lord’s presence. In fact, his status as poet seems to depend upon finding His presence; to look back to Murray, no presence, no poetry. The would-be-poet lacks Hopkins’s confidence. The world may be charged with the grandeur of God, but the speaker cannot seem to it or Him.
The poem goes on to list all the different ways in which the speaker has looked for God: “I have looked for a long while / at the textures and contours”; “I have tired the eyes of the mind / regarding the colours and lights”; “I have felt for His Wounds / in nozzles and containers.” The search is tactile, physical: if God is to be found, He will be found in the sheer stuff of this world, in the shape and feel of the most unlikely objects (“nozzles and containers”).
The poem ends with the speaker looking into the “perfected steel” of an automobile, hoping to see “the Living God projected from the Machine.” But he only finds disappointment, “the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste.” We are left with the poet sighing, “Eia, Domine Deus”—“Ah, Lord God.” If the poem is a search for God’s presence, then it seems to be a failed one.
Yet, in another sense, the journey has not been a failure. The poem, after all, has been written, and the poet has answered the question, “What shall I write?” He will write of the journey for God’s presence, which must be continually hazarded despite the fact that it is doomed to failure, at least in this world. This ever-failing but ever-renewed journey, Jones writes elsewhere, is the only story worth telling: “There is only one tale to tell even though the telling is patient of endless development and ingenuity and can take on a million different forms.” So, to rephrase Murray, it’s not that poetry is presence. As Jones shows, poetry, even poetry committed to a sacramental view of the world, can entertain absence; it just can’t be content to rest within it. Poetry is a search for presence, but a search that refuses to deny its difficulty. After all, as Jones writes, “it is easy to miss Him / at the turn of a civilization.”