Letters | Modern poetry & religion



Anthony Domestico’s essay “Intelligible Mysteries” (November 10) draws from his obvious knowledge of a lot of complicated issues involved in responding to modern poetry and theology separately, and in relationship to each other. He is aware of the difficulty in discerning (and respecting) the aesthetic (rather than theological) nature of poetry. Yet his awareness of such complexity is merely mentioned in passing: it doesn’t lead him to explore it, or to temper his sense of modern poetry bowing to serve religion. He asserts that poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden write poetry that promotes and reflects the theological thinking of such critics as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

Domestico is not alone in this position: he echoes a widespread position in criticism for the past thirty or so years that uses some venue of life (such as theology) to explain poetry, and thereby explains away its aesthetic nature and the aesthetic possibilities (rather than dogma) it explores. This stance completely ignores the creative process of the poet, which, in the case of Eliot and Auden, entails something quintessentially Romantic, inherited from Wordsworth and, especially, Keats: the Romantic mode of poetry, in which the poet serves as his or her own subject, writing about what he or she finds in the subjective realm of feelings.

Not an easy task! Poets have to commit to being honest—without being confessional—an honesty that includes not bowing to popular politics or religion. They have to follow their imagination (not their intellect), their imagination drawn to this realm (filled with feelings about beautiful, ugly, or anything-between objects, events, or people). The imagination finds this realm numinous and wants to explore it simply because it is there: it doesn’t care if it is true or false—paradoxically, because it sees it as an unprovable truth.

I realize from Domestico’s contributor’s note that the essay comes from the introduction to his latest book, which tells me that the book is written for like-minded critics who believe that modern poetry is as anti-Romantic as criticism; demystifying and rejecting the imagination (Eliot usually gets the credit for delivering the last blows to it), and “freeing” poetry to serve as something you can agree or disagree with rather than something aesthetic that gives you a way of exploring your own feelings and struggling with your own conscience.

Jo-Anne Cappeluti
Brea, Calif.


I appreciate Jo-Anne Cappeluti’s letter, in particular her identification of the harm done by literary criticism that “uses some venue of life (such as theology)...to explain away the aesthetic nature of” poetry. I agree that this is bad criticism—and it’s not, I hope, the kind that I write.

To be clear, I don’t see, as Cappeluti claims I do, “modern poetry bowing to serve religion.” To say that a poet reflects upon theological ideas in poetic form isn’t to suggest that poetry is a handmaiden to theology. Rather, it’s to suggest, as I say in this essay, that theological reading can “generate” and “provoke” aesthetic reflection. Take Auden’s poem “Kairos and Logos,” for instance, which I describe as “respond[ing] to...Paul Tillich’s concept of kairos”—responding, not slavishly following. The poem asks the same “set of fundamental theological questions” that Tillich’s work does. But it doesn’t offer the same answers. Indeed, it doesn’t offer answers at all; poetry isn’t in the business of doing such things.

Moreover, I’d dispute the claim that poets “have to follow their imagination (not their intellect).” The intellect can—and does—provoke imaginative exploration, and the imagination can—and does—elicit intellectual exploration. In “The Social Function of Poetry,” Eliot writes that the work of poets like Lucretius and Dante was “not designed to persuade the readers to an intellectual assent, but to convey an emotional equivalent of the ideas. What Lucretius and Dante teach you, in fact, is what it feels like to hold certain beliefs.” Belief and feeling, religion and poetry, the intellect and the imagination: for the modernists—and for many poets—these aren’t warring camps. They’re conversation partners.

Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: 
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