The Slumbering Host and the Fortunes of Poetry

I am not a poet. As most of my peers in undergrad— in possession of richer emotional timbres or more complex childhoods— filed into the creative track of my Christian alma mater’s English major, I plodded along in the ‘literature’ or critical track. I dutifully read old poetry. The Anglican tradition in poetry was a ready favorite—Spenser, Donne, Herbert, Wordsworth, Eliot, Betjeman. There one could find epic adventure, metaphysical wit, Christological exposition, nature’s beauty, history’s hinges, and still yet room for the droll and jejune. However, trying to read my peers’ was less enjoyable. On recurring occasions from high school through my college years, I would be handed a draft of obscurantist, perversely personal, and unmusical verse; the would-be poets crossed their arms and tapped their feet, waiting for my praise and thorough explication.

After the initial excitement of being invited in the fall of last year to sit for a reading from the first collections that would later comprise The Slumbering Host, the familiar dread creeped in—what if I had to pretend to understand it or like it? But dread gave way to delight as the poets seated there under the church-hall skylight broke into song. The first poem I heard, “Apprenticeship,” was read aloud on behalf of its author, Matthew Faller. Recalling a shop boy’s moment of repose in a lumber yard, he ponders:

These timers that disuse seems to condemn,
That wait for something to be made of them.

The shop boy’s desire to move past sweeping and be entrusted with the woodworker’s craft parallels the Slumbering Host’s humble ambition to take part in “a revival of Christian literature” not by “attaching significance to the poems [they] make” but by rather making poems that are good and pleasant to read, having the beauty and utility of a well-made cabinet—the kind of thing we’re proud to have in our homes. The Slumbering Host, in its best moments, displays this attitude of humble service that poetry will need to regain a its place in public life.

Poetry, to find a way forward, will need to reclaim musicality, tap into shared cultural images, and move from the avant garde playground of a few academic specialists into a broader reading public—to jump off the page and to find its way again to our tongues and hearts. Clinton Collister’s second entry “Mordecai,” a sonnet that invites readers into an imaginative inhabitation of Scripture, is one such poem with the legs for public enjoyment and edification:

By accident or fate I said the words
That saved the king from poison unto death.
Despite his trust I maintained shibboleths.
The son of Jair, I’m not afraid of birds.

Instead of inviting us to be baffled voyeurs of some obscure and private moment, Collister draws us further in to a story and character we already know. But rather than merely reading about Mordecai, we are now able to see the story reframed through his perspective, the Book of Esther now the stage of Borgesian court-intrigue with Mordecai, a character of singular integrity, stepping up for his soliloquy amidst the backstabbers. Instead of putting us into the dark closet of a poet’s hinted-at experience, “Mordecai” throws new light on a familiar landscape. The dwarf on the giant’s shoulders sees far.

Successful religious revivals are populist in nature. Though they may be rooted in the deep prayer and reflection of our most educated divines, Whitfield knew that revival ultimately had to find its way to the masses in the streets and fields. I believe that a poetic revival, especially from the Church, will have to follow a similar trajectory: first deeply studied and carefully crafted, second accessible and disseminated to a broad audience. The new verse of the revival proposed in The Slumbering Host should serve as an invitation into the religious, historic, and poetic traditions that shape good verse, old and new. Rather than the lost tradition being prerequisite to understanding the poetry, the poet will have to be an educator, not a gate-keeper. One keen example of this kind of traditioned yet didactic poems is Benjamin Jefferies’ “Ascetic Feats are not Sainthood”:

The Stylites stood on poles for thirty, forty years,
flagellati scourging themselves with ropes. Bloody and merciless.
A magnitude of heroism, of self-denial that allows me no peace.
This poem would lessen their feats. Question
the piety. Say it’s not beatitude, not at its best.
They were impossible and too strife-driven. Too unique.
“Whose feet were they washing in the desert”
asks dear Basil. It is too near the masochist’s mind,
the thrill of extremity. The adrenaline.
Not Macarius’ monks with no clothes or food in the desert,
but Macrina, tending the bodies of the broken poor.
Not Joseph the Lidless, but the Seven Sleepers.
Not the termini, but the via media.
Humility as reckoning oneself as worth something,
not nothing. Frail, but not useless. Ugly, but not unlovable.
The modesty of moderation. The bravery of
non-description. It is the heroines of Victorian Literature,
not of Greek War-ballads. The hand shaken, not squeezed.
Togetherness. Not the exception. The beauty
that is of many days. Steady and clear.

It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment. (TSH 19)

One doesn’t need to be a scholar of patristics and asceticism to grasp the poem. Jeffries will teach us. By illuminating his references to these old saints and eccentrics, Jeffries educates not only about their lives but in doing so makes his argument for a godly via media: a life of long faithfulness in a single direction rather than a holy stuntman’s county-fair antics. This is a properly didactic poem suited for the proposed revival: grounded in its patristic and Anglican references, yet lighting the tradition as the way in rather than a gate locked to all but the learned.

The poets’ way forward needs to draw on cultural memory and yet is not the way backward, not to resurrect ‘old parties’ or ‘old policies.’ It is to take the boons of modernist poetry and incorporate them into a craft for the public. This principle of innovative preservation was the aim of modernist and Anglican T.S. Eliot but is admittedly a hard act to follow in Anglicanism. Nostalgia is a strong current in Anglicanism. North American Anglicanism may often be doubly nostalgic. Oftentimes, it is the practice of a particularly homesick form of Christianity now further away by an ocean’s distance, a longing from the dull buzz of Anytown, USA for a spiritual home in something a little more august than our strip malls and chicken joints. From our ragtag parishes meeting in borrowed cafeterias, we might long to be placed among the more storied stones of the Old-World cathedrals.

While our poets will probably have certain affinities for English, medieval, Reformed, and Romantic aesthetics, the North American Anglican poet need not be limited by these. The core of Anglicanism is not an island or an ethnicity. North American poets within the Anglican tradition need not ape the English. Working from the Reformation core of theology from revelation, proclaiming word and sacrament rightly administered, preserving the catholic continuity of the Church’s institutional core through the episcopacy, considering ourselves necessarily ‘Episcopal’ rather than necessarily ‘Anglican’, the tradition in which we find ourselves becomes a moveable feast. As that tradition wanes in its old domains and the Communion’s center of gravity shifts to the Global South, we will find ourselves not only with a whole host of histories, words, images to incorporate but also new challenges to our poets that will require that wider arsenal of verse’s raw stuff.

One such liberally-imaged poem, departing from the pastoral niceties of other contributions to the volume, which I can vividly see playing out on a billboard-strewn, four-lane grid is Paul Erlandson’s delightful “Three Adams”. Stone gargoyles of the medieval parish make way for inked grotesques of the contemporary tattoo shop. But just like fleas were cause enough for Donne to draw out a bit of wit, Erlandson finds that:

Then, as the needle does its work, three Adams fill my mind.
One, the ancient orchard thief and ruiner of mankind.
Two, redeemer of the first, who back to Eden beckoned.
Three, the artist at my back, illumining the second.

By seeming happenstance of a tattooist named ‘Adam,’ the recollection of the sacred rushes into the Suicide Kings’ parlor, turning ink to icons and the pain of the needle into a probe into man’s meaning:

For as by Adam Number One the world was filled with sin,
So Adam Two took away for One and all his kin.
And as the Second took on flesh to save One from the brink,
So shall the hand of Adam Three incarnate Two in ink.

Whether we be tattoo artists or poets, all of our working, living, and worship will inevitably point back to Adam One or Adam Two. These are always and everywhere the stakes for our souls, regardless of finding ourselves at an Old-World evensong or “imbibing jet-black ink” here in America.

What place does Anglican poetics have in a ‘Christian literary revival’? While the editors of The Slumbering Host are skeptical of any such self-proclaimed movement, Anglican poets in North America have particular bounties to bring to the table. In North America, Anglicanism itself is in a season of revival: compelling Anglicans to study deeply from their own neglected fontes but also to be able to justify themselves to a post-confessional audience that may be a little fuzzy about the story of Christianity between the Book of Acts and the Second Great Awakening. Anglican poets will have by now learned to draw on the past but to educate for the present, practicing the learned didacticism that the poetic revival needs. Second, North-American Anglicans, as confessional Christians adapting a Reformed catholicism in myriad contexts, have experience in the bridging together of old practices and new worlds, High-Church aesthetics and low-church utility, and the local instantiations of universal doctrine and devotion. Any poetic revival will draw—or is already drawing—on variety. If Anglicans can better work towards their peculiar calling of holding together unity and diversity within our own Communion, we will be well-equipped to serve in a poetic revival that needs such pulling-together.

Whatever new work comes from the contributors of The Slumbering Host, I await it not with my old, sophomoric dread but a renewed boyish expectation. If there’s any direction that I find promising for our authors, it’s narrative poetry. Let the Faerie Queene serve as example: the Anglican Spenser masterfully threads old Arthur with the freshly recovered classical characters to allegorize the old virtues and the new, tortuously complex religious-political context of Elizabethan England. In an era where ‘long-form’ is having a heyday in prestige dramas and lengthy podcast-series, who says poetry couldn’t have a similar moment? And looking back at two decades in which so much of our pop and rock is hopelessly derivative, as Ross Douthat observes, it’s rap that leads the way in making truly inventive and interesting music: deeply lyrical, socially-conscious, story-driven, and oftentimes Christian. While rap might not be the usual predilection of The Slumbering Host’s tweedier contributors, it still has lessons—and hope—to offer. The attention-span of contemporary American consumers is too often denigrated as a matter of course. I say, however, that they’ve mostly been fed garbage. It might be that they’re hungry for poetry—the kind that’s caringly and lovingly made for them.


Jack Tyler

Jack Tyler is an Arkansan and layman in the Anglican Diocese of the South. He studies analytic and exegetical theology at the University of St Andrews.


'The Slumbering Host and the Fortunes of Poetry' has 1 comment

  1. Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

    June 20, 2020 @ 12:45 pm Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

    Thanks for this review. It’s one of a few articles/essays that I’ve recently read that have really driven home the poverty of literature and learning in my own experiences and in the experiences of just about everyone I know. I’ve been thinking that I ought to do this for some time now, but this finally nudged me to remove Twitter and Facebook from my phone and iPad in lieu of ebooks, theological journals, and cultivated news and blogs via RSS.

    Reply


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