John W. May is an insightful, meticulous and careful reviewer of poetry, and he has done me a great honor by reviewing my latest chapbook, The Misuse of Scripture, at his blog Of Poetry, here. There is no satisfaction for a writer quite like a reviewer who illuminates certain aspects of your work that you yourself were barely conscious of when you were composing it.
When me and my band first released this song a few years ago, I was convinced Zooey herself would find out about it and we would be famous for a month or two. It never happened. Still a good song though.
I have never been to Poland, but whenever I think about Poland, two things immediately come to my mind: great sausages and even greater poets.
There are, apparently, four types of Polish sausage: biała kielbasa (white sausage), kiełbasa krakowska (usually served as a cold cut), the thin pork kabanos, and kiełbasa wiejska (farmhouse sausage).
There are also four prominent Polish poets whose works grace my bookshelves: Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, and Zbigniew Herbert. All four of them should be essential reading and they collectively share over 30 literary awards all together, including two Nobel prizes for literature.
Why Poland has been so unlucky in much of its political history from 1945 to 1989, but so very fortunate during the same time period in terms of producing quality sausage and quality poetry is an essay for another day perhaps. For now, let me simply say that just as a good sausage is delicious meat stuffed artfully into a casing, so is a poem delicious words stuffed into a literary form. Mmmmm.
Anyway, I’d like to focus now on just one of the great Polish poets mentioned above, Zbigniew Herbert, since I am currently reading his Collected Prose, 1948-1998. And by the way, if you haven’t read his Collected Poems, you need to, now! His poetry is both richly textured and gorgeously expansive: philosophical, ruminative, tragic and beautiful all at the same time.
But in the book of his Collected Prose, Herbert casually remarks in a conversation with the interviewer: “I think that writers who offer easy entertainment have contempt for their readers.”
Now, Herbert lived through a time of intense political oppression and artistic censorship, and he has a very classical/humanist outlook, so I get why poetry should mostly be a rather “serious” business for him. But I would want to stand up as well for all those writers of so-called “light verse” who yes, also seek to entertain their readers. I myself have been observed by one reviewer to come dangerously close to “riffing just for the sake of riffing” in some of my poems based on epigraphs. And I understand the danger. Light verse always runs the risk of “showing off” by being a mere rhyming performance or descending into vulgarity by courting easy laughs. However, if poetry is meant to be able to embrace any subject and any mood or condition of human experience, then surely it must be able to include humor and even frivolity on occasion.
All I’m saying is one can be a so-called “accessible” poet without having contempt for a reader’s intelligence. For me, accessibility in a poem is really about hospitality. I try to create an atmosphere of welcome so that most readers don’t stop reading before they’ve even started. And perhaps, were he still alive, Herbert would agree with me. Perhaps what he meant by “easy entertainment” is something more specific…a sin of poetic laziness where the promised flavor of the poem falls flat on the palate and ends up as nothing more than empty calories. And I’m sure I’ve written some of those poems too in my lifetime: poems that turn out to be ridiculous little corn dogs instead of a gourmet kiełbasa. But hey…who doesn’t like a good corn dog every now and then?
Thought I’d share my recent review of The Hanging God by poet and professor James Matthew Wilson. The review was originally published in the journal Sacramental Life, volume 32.1, 2020:
By James Matthew Wilson
Angelico Press, 2018.
85 pages, ISBN 978-1-62138-4021
As Dana Gioia observes in his preface to The Hanging God, James Matthew Wilson is a poet who “writes in what one might call the high humanist Christian tradition.” This tradition includes explicitly religious poets like John Donne and George Herbert as well as many more recent 20th and 21st century poets with affinities to the “new formalist” movement in contemporary poetics. However, this is certainly not the currently favored style of poetry for the editors of most magazines and literary journals who tend to prefer various kinds of wildly-wheeling and fractured free verse—an aesthetic that perhaps demonstrates the disjointed nature of our so-called “postmodern” times. But as Gioia points out, the high humanist Christian tradition in poetry “remains a powerful mode, though one difficult to master since it requires historical awareness, linguistic mastery, and intellectual depth.” James Matthew Wilson has all of these gifts and more.
A devout Roman Catholic, Wilson is the Associate Professor of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His recent (2018) book of poems, The Hanging God, is a carefully crafted collection exploring spiritual anxiety and moral/theological issues through a lens that can be brutally non-sentimental. And yet, his use of rhyme and form makes even the starkest of poems enjoyable to read. For example, in the poem “In Sickness,” Wilson assumes the persona of a lover planning to leave their ill partner:
I serve you tea and aspirin,
Your body sweating, fevered, chill.
I wait for you to heal, and, when
You have—I’ll leave for good. I will.
For if our love sprang from my terse
Laugh and peremptory kiss, its passing
Will come more soft and be the nurse
Of an indifference far more lasting.
And there’s a lot more where that came from! In another long sequence of poems, the author examines the dissolution of a love affair between a lapsed catholic and a stripper. These are not Hallmark greeting card poems by any stretch of the imagination. Many (perhaps most) of the poems in this collection are also not strictly religious, but they are all theological in the way Paul Tillich would have understood as expressing “ultimate concern.” Even when Wilson is writing in an ironic or tongue-in-cheek tone, there is almost always something very serious at stake…usually the slow erosion of someone’s immortal soul or at the very least, the degradation of virtue in contemporary society.
Wilson’s book is divided into six different sections, but my favorite set of poems in The Hanging God comes in Part Four: 14 poems reflecting on the Stations of the Cross. The first one, “Jesus Is Condemned”, deserves to be quoted in full:
- Jesus Is Condemned
I tried to think for half an hour
About the face of earthly powers
That would condemn a god to die.
I listened for its menacing cackles,
The crack of whips, the clank of shackles,
And searched for dark flames in the eye.
Through the church window I heard shrieks
Of ambulances whose techniques
Help us to forget our wounds;
The certain hum of homeward motors,
A candidate’s rank appeal to voters,
In these its stare and voice I found.
For we sit kind, when comfort’s here,
But draw our weapons with our fears
Should we one pleasure be denied.
The poem above is a damning indictment of the human tendency to think ourselves better than we actually are during times of ease and plenty. But given even a minor threat to such comforts, we quickly become the crowd calling for the crucifixion of others. Reading Wilson’s book is not unlike the liturgical season of Lent: bracingly bare of glittering distractions or easy amusements and instead focused on lament, penance, and honest self-examination.
Br. Daniel Klawitter works in Admissions and Student Services at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and is the author of six books of poetry, most recently: The Misuse of Scripture (2020).
I am delighted to announce that my book, The Trickster: Poems for Very Clever Children & Silly Adults, has won FIRST PLACE in the 2020 Purple Dragonfly Book Awards. My deep thanks to Robyn Crowell, who illustrated the poems and was an awesome collaborator.
My thanks to Christina for her review over at Poetica Place of my new poetry chapbook , The Misuse of Scripture.
I’m happy to announce that I have independently published a new chapbook of poems entitled— The Misuse of Scripture: twenty-three poems riffing off of verses from the Bible plus a short non-fiction piece about the time I almost died while hiking in the jungle of the Philippines. 14 of the poems have been previously published in respectable journals like Light, Vita Brevis, and Time of Singing: A Christian Literary Magazine. I’ve chosen to self-publish this time around for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is that I can offer the book at a much lower cost to a public not exactly ravenous for purchasing poetry by little-known poets. In terms of content, the book contains both serious and humorous work, covering topics as varied as environmental degradation and homophobia on the one hand and lighter work (like the difference between Episcopal and Pentecostal worship styles) on the other. This blend of the philosophical/serious with more quotidian/light verse fare seems to be a turn-off for many editors who run competitive poetry chapbook contests but it has consistently delighted many of my readers who also happen to be accomplished poets. You can buy the paperback online here if you wish for $6 ($2.99 for the Kindle version). Cheers!
Chicago-based Book review editor, Barbara Egel, has posted a nice review of my book, The Trickster: Poems for Very Clever Children & Silly Adults, in the new summer/fall 2019 edition of Light.
She goes on to write in the review: “Enhanced by full-page, full-color drawings that leap off the page and into your face (the pickle in a bathtub is not to be missed), this book is what Klawitter does best: it’s a bucket of silliness that hides occasional well-taught lessons that go down easily.
Klawitter is right to offer it to children and adults. Who doesn’t need to hear “Haters” right about now?
Some folks are good at hating.
It’s all they’ve ever known.
They learned it from their parents
And practiced it at home.
I’m not sure why they do it,
But those who feel compelled
To hate those who are different
May really hate themselves.”
A nice article was recently published in the Fort Bend County Herald Newspaper profiling Robyn Crowell, the artist who illustrated my new book, The Trickster: Poems for Very Clever Children & Silly Adults.
If you’re in the Mile High City on July 6th, stop by the BookBar for an early evening of poetry and libations as Erica and I read from our books: