The vocation of the Catholic poet in our time
Like others, I have spent the better part of my life in pursuit of words that might answer my deepest longings for self-realization. And now, as I approach eighty and watch my friends dying or winding up in hospitals and hospices, I ask myself, once again: Am I any closer to a final resolution? There are moments when I lie in bed in the dark, my CPAP strapped to my face, trying to pray for clarity as I wait to drift off once more, wondering if I will awake tomorrow morning, and—if I do—what then? Where do I pick up and continue?
Because I think of myself as a wordsmith, the way my father thought of himself as a mechanic, and because I have only one good ear and so have always had to pay more attention to words than many, words have always been foremost for me, especially words that signify, that chime, that somehow capture a glimmer of something within or below or above the quotidian. Something that satisfies, if even for a moment, what William Carlos Williams called a kind of grasshopper transcendence. Up, up, and then down again, back to the world around us. It’s a transcendence that at best reveals itself in a passing moment— sometimes startling me, but more often something that comforts, as if it said, see, I am here, I was here, before it moves on, like the sun breaking through rainclouds for a moment only to transform the trees and the river, before the gray clouds take possession once more.
Music has done this for me—from plainsong to choral to those old Scottish ballads, or from Handel and Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin to Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. So too with art, from Byzantine icons and mosaics to Giotto’s frescoes and Fra Angelico to Botticelli, and on from da Vinci and Breughel and Rembrandt to Cézanne and Renoir and Degas, as well as Picasso and Cassatt and Klimt to Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollack.
But it is poetry I keep coming back to...
I love poems. All kinds of poems. And when I read something that touches me, I want to go deeper, probe further, go beyond the text to the human being who wrote those lines, and even try to discover why such and such a poet wrote the way he or she did. Early on, when it was not the critically popular way to do things, I wanted to get to the psychogenesis of the thing, to the man or woman who wrote those lines and try to understand what the personal and historical pressures on the poet were: the grit and sand that the poet somehow turned into a pearl of lasting, resonant beauty...
Given the nature of things, and given that the shadows continue to lengthen, this volume is an attempt to sum up my continued preoccupation with the sacramental possibilities of the poetic, which begins (and ends) with the question of the vocation of the Catholic poet in our time, a time as fluid as any other, but with its own distinctive characteristics, including the abiding, pressing problematic of a Catholic poet trying to write poetry in what we all recognize as the twilight of modernity. This theme, finally, occupies my thoughts in the book’s epilogue as I look forward to a yet unknown future, musing on what remains to be done by those who will take up the call of the Catholic poet in years to come.
From the Preface of The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity by Paul Mariani.