Written by Ben Porter
I’ll assume you’ve never been under quarantine before.
I haven’t and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations. I always thought quarantine involved a cement safe room, a single flickering bulb lighting some desperate and immediate Sophie’s Choice I’m forced to perform: which leg do I eat first? will the post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang smell my fear? which of my children could I outrun if I really had to? Little did I know it would involve so many entertainment options.
Both my YouTube history and Netflix account are sources of shame and comfort. When I reflect on my time in the bunker a series of binges comes to mind. I’ve become obsessed with a man named Alex Honnold, who (to the uninitiated) provides your humble blogger with many hours of free content ‘free solo-ing” very large rocks. What is “free solo-ing”? It’s when a very skilled (or very lucky) climber ascends a sheer mountain face with nothing but the shirt on their backs. No ropes. No harness. It’s as absurd as it sounds and produces no lack of sweaty palms and gritted teeth in the Porter home. But there are other diversions. The Simpsons is one. My seven-year-old daughter and I can now trace the webbed interweaving of various Easter eggs and callbacks which run beneath the skin of each episode of The Simpsons like varicose veins. Case in point: did you know the pig Homer irresponsibly purchased in the Simpsons Movie, the one to which he ascribed numerous nicknames (Harry Plopper, Spider Pig) can be seen sporadically cameo-ing scene transitions? Our impressive time wasting has produced forensic evidence that Season 29, Episode 7 is just one such example.
But, in my better moments, I turn my wandering mind to books— poetry to be exact. Poetry is good because 1) it makes me think and feel things very deeply, all at once, and 2) it’s no big commitment. Books of poetry are short, and poems are rarely longer than a page. Once I’ve had my fill the book lies flat on the arm of my couch and I’m up and away, spreading mayonnaise on a slice of bread.
Poetry has long been an important source of entertainment and emotional therapy for me. As soon as I could read I was a Shel Silverstein devotee— A Light in The Attic anyone? I read and reread silly poems like “Tatooin’ Ruth” up in my bunk bed until late at night.
Collars are choking,
Pants are expensive,
Jackets are itchy and hot.
So Tatooin’ Ruth tatooed me a suit,
Now folks think I’m dressed—
When I’m not.
Plain old goofy fun, right?
As I grew older and life felt less goofy in general, my taste in poetry evolved as well. My family devolved into a perennial state of destabilization. We moved constantly, experienced ubiquitous mental illness, and repeated many cycles of fracture and repair. Because of this, my taste in poetry adapted, became denser, more emotionally complicated. I think this was because of a sense of loneliness. I needed to experience empathy at my emotional register, hear how life could be expressed in the midst of chaos, depression, anxiety, liminality. That’s when I got to the modern poets, stuff written in the last 75 years or so, the kinds of dangerous poets to which I allude in the title of this post.
Why are they dangerous?
For three reasons. One, they are not all Christians (but, you’d be surprised how many of them actually are), so there’s that. You won’t find structured, theological significance in C.P. Cavafy for example, or William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stevens isn’t interested in your eternal soul so much as he’s interested in how your soul is like a tree. Christians, understandably feel uncomfortable letting a non-Christian voice that deep into their mind and heart— who knows what could happen.
Two, these poets are not attempting to construct anything like a moral universe— they are in it for the beauty, the meaning, man, wherever that takes ‘em. Denise Levertov wrote about a snake because its “arrowy scales… the whispering silver of [its] dryness…” gave her a “long wake of pleasure… returning / smiling and haunted to a dark morning.” She did not write about the snake because she was morally obligated to. In other words, she intuited truth, the sense that whatever truth is, can be felt, has body heat when we place our fingers in the holes of its hands and sides. This runs contrary to the propositional format of Christian theology. After all, we receive the faith, not by intuition, but via creeds, confessions, the scriptures themselves. Intuited truth is a slippery slope to the wary Christian.
And Third, it’s just weird, right? I mean Billy Collins or Ted Koozer are all well and good, as far as they go. As long as you have the disposition to giggle at the idea of a dog watching you make pancakes or feel homesick for a dry Nebraskan landscape where you never grew up. At least it’s in stanzas (blocks of even type on a page). But what about the funky stuff? Look at “The Dry Salvages” from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Isn’t that just a stack of lines, broken off arbitrarily? Why? Or what about the stuff that doesn’t attempt to make any sense? People unused to modern poetry are sure to object to poems like “But He Was Cool or: He Even Stopped for Green Lights” by Don L. Lee.
Strangely enough, objections to form in modern poetry are often the biggest hurdles to overcome for the Christian mind.
I have some thoughts for why this is the case that I will share later on a different post. But here are some brief stabs. In my experience, Christians are often suspicious of the odd, the novel. So much of our shared understanding in the church is stuck in a previous age of Christian superiority, when Christians were the ones who set the pace for what was in and what was out. Therefore, we tend to connect the new with the unorthodox, the different with the unholy.
Also, there is a historic dimension to Christianity’s critique of modern poetry. It reminds me of the way some Christians look back at Mid-century America, as if Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver were paradigms by which we should organize our lives. The argument goes something like this: poetry, like everything else, was once rooted in pure wholesome goodness. Poets wrote about beauty and virtue. Their forms were predictable, their meter as even paced and consistent as truth itself. Then came Postmodernity with its goat-footed agenda of questioning truth, disrupting certainty. Before you know it form goes out the window. The poet can do whatever he wants, mocking meaning, God, the family, and Church. There goes the neighborhood.
Like any lie there is a grain of truth inherent in this one. However, I suspect it’s mostly nonsense. When did this golden age of pure poetry end, I wonder? Did it die when Walt Whitman said, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…” espousing his relativistic deism to be “the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths / Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between…”? Did it die with Coleridge when he put his opium pipe down long enough to pen “Kubla Khan” before passing out and leaving it unfinished? How about with Shakespeare’s homoerotic sonnets, bawdy sexual innuendo, and pre-marital sex? Turns our Mr. Cleaver was a jaded WWII vet who drank too much.
My point is: Poetry always had its wild side. Which is why I suppose I like it. It has a unique ability to meet us where we’re at, revealing the meaning of experience. Read Calvin or Aquinas to tell you what to believe. Read Levertov or Cavafy to tell you what you already believed but didn’t know. This is what makes poetry so important for our present time of suffering. There is nothing aspirational about pandemic. There is no moral or logical ladder with which to climb away from Covid-19. We need something to tell us how to be human in the midst of suffering. This is what dangerous poetry does. Forged in the chaotic furnace of the twentieth century, modern poets take the pain, the beauty, the horror, and the humor of modern life and expand it, reminding us how to be human in the midst of it all. Make some room for poetry in your quarantine entertainment diet.
You’ll be glad you did.
Some suggested reading:
The Convert- GK Chesterton
Gift of the Magi- TS Elliott
God’s Grandeur- Gerard Manly Hopkins
Ash Wednesday (I) – TS Elliott
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock- TS Elliott
Birches- Robert Frost
The Lanyard- Billy Collins
Litany- Billy Collins
Kubla Khan- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As Kingfishers Catch Fire- Gerard Manly Hopkins
The Red Wheelbarrow- William Carlos Williams
No Possum, No Sop, No Taters- Wallace Stevens
Sonnet 29- William Shakespeare
Epitaph on a Hare- William Cowper
The Emperor of Ice Cream- Wallace Stevens
Returning- Emily Dickinson
California Supermarket- Alan Ginsberg
To the Snake- Denise Levertov
Four Quartets- TS Eliot
But He Was Cool or: He Even Stopped for Green Light- Don Lee
Song of Myself- Walt Whitman
Sonnet 20- William Shakespeare