Margaret Avison and the state of religious poetry

The death on July 31 of Margaret Avisonarguably Canadas pre-eminent poet writing in Englishdidnt actually dominate the national media. In fact, it took a few days for the obituaries and tributes to make their appearance, and I couldnt help but reflect that if Avison were not regularly defined as a religious poet and publicly identified as a Christian, her passing might have commanded greater attention.

Admittedly, the two-time winner of the Governor Generals Award in poetry, the Griffin Prize for Poetry, a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Grant, several honorary doctorates, and membership in the Order of Canada, was a poet of exquisite complexity of thought and feeling, an intellectual of daunting profundity, and a lyricist of uncommon skill.

But the designation religious as opposed to, say, love or political poet appears to many to have limited her range, restricted her audience, and diminished her stature as a poet. This is, of course, nonsense, especially when you examine her impressive canonnine volumes of verse, some translation work, and a modest collection of reflective and theoretical prose pieces. So why has it come to pass that religious poetry connotes inferior craft or compromised artistic integrity?

Lord David Cecil, in a preface to a collection of Christian verse early in the twentieth century, established a notion of religious poetry that is depressingly wide of the mark. He noted: poetry should be the spontaneous expression of the spirit. . . but the devout person feels it profane to show himself in all his earthy imperfections. . . .The writer, that is, does not say what he really feels, but what he thinks he ought to feel : and he speaks not in his own voice but in the solemn tones that seem fitting to his solemn subject. Such a definition as this may apply to a sub-genre of religious poetry that we can call devotional, poetry that subscribes to a restrictive notion of right feeling and religious sentiment. This does not, however, describe Margaret Avison or her art.

There is also a form of religious poetry that is confessional, painstakingly correct in doctrine, and disposed to an evangelizing function that can subsume the art in the higher interests of theology. Although Avison draws heavily on the Christian narrative, a detailed familiarity with the scriptures, and an enlightened appreciation of doctrine, her art is subservient neither to creed nor to religious authority. She speaks with the authority of her art.

Her work is a perfect illustration of the kind of religious poetry that I call sapientialchildlike, penetrative, immediate, and unaffected. The child knows not only through the intellect but primarily through the imagination, with the empathy and freedom the imagination grants. Sapientia (wisdom) is the way of the poet, the child, the innocent dreamer, and Christ; it is the mode of knowing for the religious pastoralist, the Zen master, the visionary, and the mystic. When the poet knows in the highest way and loves in the deepest way she has tasted the innocence of Wisdom. As Avison observes in Neighbours?:

To contemplate is an
indulgence, distancing
a self, an object.
To mine the meaning of
a found identity
will be given only to
recovered innocence.

Avison deplored the excesses of technology, the unexamined and unfiltered love affair that our culture and time have with a narrow understanding of knowledge, a knowledge that is practical, applied, and exclusively scientific. There is a place for another kind of knowledge in our society according to Avison, a paradise knowledge which is there for the seeing if only the child in us is there to see, if only the child in us can hear the

. . .childrens voices
all red and blue and green in the
queer April dimness
just as in Ur, at dusk, under the walls
are a barbarous tongue, lost on
that unmirroring, immured,
that thumping thing, the heavy adult heart
The childrens voices arethe immemorial chorus. (Bereaved)

Avison, the sapiential poet, embodies the consummate union of authentic religious feeling with rigorous artistic standards. She writes the kind of religious poetry that is universal in its appeal, abjures the constricting of religious emotion and the subordination of the intellect, and celebrates the spontaneous expression of the spirit. It doesnt get much better than that. Canada can ill afford to ignore a voice as sublime and humane as Avisons. Now that it has been stilled, we need to return to the poetry again and again in our desperate search for authenticity and hope, for all poetry is in the end an act of hope. Avison knew that. It is part of her ineradicable legacy.

Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow in Contemporary Catholic Thought, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis for House of Anansi Press.

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