Many thanks to everyone who commented on Tietam Cane and bought the book. Volume II is already in the making..
I’ve looked through Civil War photographs and I’m feeling old. What I need for Tietam Cane is something with the war theme but also the boy theme. Any suggestions?
Welcome to my blog! Essays, poems, stories, anecdotes, reviews–they’re all here. Late night ramblings–yawn!–morning’s jittery jottings, sober assessments of the ridiculous–they’re here ,too. To begin with here’s a poem about my town, Savannah GA.
Grant that azaleas are a timid pause
while two thugs, Sweat and Gnat,
enforcers of the summer Mafioso laws,
decide if you can eat lunch on this bench
Grant the camellia’s sneezy, sniffling elf,
dousing its stamen’s gold
with clouds of pollen for your barely breathing self,
until your summer dreams give up and morph
Grant that it’s now the wealthy retirees
permit the hoi polloi
to stroll through their palazzos for exclusive fees
and photograph their faux desires from Greece
Still, what we wryly designate as spring
(I know, it’s hard to tell)
lifts up our ground-bound eyes and stirs our tongues to sing
His petalled glory. Jubilate! He snapped
And, on a more personal note, a poem about my friend, Brayton Dasher:
Elegy for Brayton
(Macon, GA, 2004)
Who can I mock my masking with?
Who knows the label Frankie Lane was on?
I miss your yip-yipping squeal,
Your killer sex appeal:
Your blue eyes, true lies, rakish and sweet are gone.
Your spazoid passes, your klutzy catch!
Your piercing gaze: You ladies, come-on!
You drove for us, drunk and screaming.
You, sober, beaming:
Your blue eyes, true lies, rakish and sweet are gone.
Your Everly tenor sometimes cracked.
We tongue-picked on “Folsom Prison,”
Pumping our chests with your rusted weights
To stay the deadly gates.
Your blue eyes, true lies, rakish and sweet are gone.
I’ve been down rivers and I’ve been down streams,
But, son, you were something, and you flow on,
Ki-yi-yippy in that yodeling whine.
You walked a lonely, lonely line.
Your blue eyes, true lies, rakish and sweet are gone.
Unlike her sister southerner, Flannery O’Connor, each of Miss Welty’s stories shows us a different side of the author. Dark or light, historical or contemporary–she gives free rein to her pallet. But there is one inevitable long-running thread: close character observation, that is, Miss Welty’s camera is always “on” her characters: dress, habitual gestures, speech. No danger here of the writer leaving gravity behind for abstract observation or political manifesto. A few of these stories are regularly in the text books and anthologized: “The Worn Path” and “Why I Live at the PO”, in particular. My personal favorite is “Powerhouse,” a character study and arguably one of the most complete characters ever drawn in an American short story. Innuendo and bald fact stand side by side in a wicked, yet enigmatic depiction of an itinerant jazz piano player named Powerhouse in the pre-civil rights south, a Jelly Roll Morton ivory tinkler who unrolls his story bit by wicked bit. It’s so good, in fact, I suspect the ethnicity PC troops are even now jack booting down Powerhouse’s street with an eye to pound on his door and drag him off into the bland, placeless, characterless fictional night. >
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A friend recently accused fiction writers of being perverts. She went on to explain that she was using the word “pervert” in the sense that Sigmund Freud would be comfortable with, as in “polymorphous perversity,” a Freudian coinage. The Viennese wizard apparently maintained that children acquire sexual gratification outside the normal channels. Writers, my friend continued, are merely grown-up children finding sexual satisfaction through verbal channels. The banter between us was light and witty, but I could discern behind her humor the glint of a sober assertion.
I didn’t make this rejoinder, but I should have. Freud wasn’t a scientist, as Karl Popper pointed out, gleefully, decades ago. Popper was a thorn in the scientific community’s flesh. His standard for scientific validity was any so-called scientific claim must be able to be disproven. If the claim is impossible to locate within the gun site of empirical reason, it isn’t science. As I understand it, nothing Freud ever said falls within these lines. My friend apparently considered the citation of the exalted psychiatrist’s name sufficient to put all opposition to rest.
Here’s chapter one of Tietam Cane, coming out this summer with Fireship Press.
That girlie voice, that nagging I-know-every-stupid-thing-in-the-stupid-book tone: Holy Jubal Early! It was Richie Raczynski, the only Yankee I ever knew. It was recess and he must have tagged along behind me and Stub. We always slid down the kudzu bank behind the school to the creek and our dam. The creek was deep and cold and the trees above made a thick covering. There’s nothing better on a hot day than stepping into the cold creek and letting your feet wiggle on the rocks, then throwing some mud and getting pounded by some mud. We only had thirty minutes before the bell rang so we set to work. We’d already put in stones the day before, big muddy boulders, so we rolled up our pants legs and waded in to check if they were still solid.
“So, you fellas are making a real dam, huh?” Richie said.
He wore a shiny New York Yankees baseball cap. Always had this eager look on his face like a puppy that wants you to pet him.
“This is our dam,” I said. “Get lost, Yankee boy.”
Then he got all uppity. “Hey, it’s a free creek,” he said, pointing at the water. “My pop said you southern rebel types are just a bunch of warmed-over Pollack’s.”
Stub leaned over. “We could cut him up into itty bitty Yankee pieces and bury ‘em. “
“This is our dam, “I said, louder.
He paced up and back, picking up rocks.
“I don’t care. I’ll build my own dam.”
“Terrific, Richie,” I said. “Why don’t you do that?”
“And you fellas won’t be allowed to work on it.”
Stub started bawling, a cross between a dying cat and scraping chalk across a blackboard.
“A-w-w-w-w-w-! I can’t work on Richie’s dam!”
For a minute the fool thought Stub was really crying. He squinted and turned his head to the side. “Are you guys…you guys making fun of me?”
“No!” I said my hands on my hips. I tried to look outraged. “Stub, you’re not making fun of him are you?”
Stub picked up a rock, dripping and muddy. “No, we’re not making fun of you. And I’m not gonna chunk this rebel rock right between your sorry Yankee eyes.”
But before he could get it cocked good, Richie had fired off one that popped my elbow and stung like a bee.
I tore out of the water, swinging.
“Get ‘im, Tiet!” Stub yelled. He went into his own boxing routine, bouncing around in the water, shadow boxing himself. “Hit him in the mouth! Keep your left up! “
We rolled over and over and I could feel rocks gouging into my back. I freed myself and started swinging wildly again, but Richie backed calmly away and raised his hands up in front of his face. He was dancing around like Stub! I backed away.
“Don’t back off! “ Stub yelled.
I looked up on the hill where the kids from recess had all gathered to watch. My heart was pounding because I knew we’d all get into big trouble for this. Old lady Crapsey, sure enough.
I tore into him again, swinging like a wind mill.
“You Yankee devil!”
He hit me with three left jabs:
And I was on my knees. Blood gushed out of my nose and mouth down onto my new T-shirt that read: Never Forget! It felt like somebody turned on a water faucet.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. Some teachers grabbed all of us and up the kudzu bank to the old goat’s office. Soon, the nurse was mollycoddling over me with mercurochrome and band-aids, breathing out into my face the stink of her onion sandwich and bad-mouthing wicked boys who fight at school like we were the scum of the earth. All that time Richie sat across the office with his legs crossed like a grown-up and read a Life Magazine that showed that Yankee Kennedy on the cover in his PT 109 hat. Slacky Jacky. Yankee money, Yankee ways taking over the whole south with his pretty face and his wife that talked French.
Mrs. Crapsey stared hard down at me. She was a tall old thing with silver grey hair and always wore a giant carnation on her shoulder and enough jewelry and bracelets to shock an Arab sheikh. When she came down the hall you always knew it because her high heels made a telltale clacking. In her top drawer she kept a butcher knife so she could cut a student’s throat in case he got choked on the crappola food from the cafeteria.
She made up grave poems, too. Every week we got a new one out over the loud speaker like she was the angel of Death:
Life is full of cruel pain.
The grave is open ever,
But you and I may rise again
And some will live forever.
I told her “pain” and “again” didn’t rhyme, but she argued if we spoke English like we’re supposed to they would. When I asked her about the “some” in the last line, she got all huffy and claimed “not everybody goes to heaven, Tietam Cane,” and she stared hard at me.
“Now I don’t want to hear one word about Yankee this or rebel that,” she said. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The stink of all that mercurochrome was making me woozy.
She turned to Richie.
“Did he call you a Yankee devil?”
“He sure did.”
“Did he cuss at you?”
I tried to think back. I must have called him a Yankee Devil and a carpet bagger. I couldn’t believe I didn’t cuss him. She turned back to me. She was trying hard to be calm, plucking at that carnation like it would cough up some strategy. She would pluck and then stare off out the window, pluck and stare, pluck and stare.
“Antietam, why did you strike Richie?”
“How you know he didn’t hit me first?”
That set her off. Now she stooped over in my face and started wagging that long wag-finger of hers. You know I think I may have actually had nightmares about that finger.
“Because I know you, ’Tietam Cane! I know you and that grandfather of yours are still fighting the Civil War…”
“The War between the States!”
“… and I know Richie here is the only boy in this entire school who came to us from above the Mason-Dixon line and I know that is just the kind of thing that would set that little battle-happy brain of yours off.”
“He was horning in on our dam,” I said. “Typical Yankee land grab. Come down here and steal our land.”
“I don’t want your stupid land,” he said. “You rebel redneck!“
“Richie!” Mrs. Crapsey yelled.
“You know shouldn’t be playing in that creek in the first place!” she said to me. “I declare—if I’ve told you once…” Here she seemed to get all tangled up inside and she put her hand over her face like she was tired. “Is there anybody at home to come pick you up? You may need stitches, boy.”
“Use my phone and call her. At least, Bean’s got some sense. And for heaven’s sake, tell her not to bring your grandfather or he’ll start in on me again about how Longstreet lost the war.”
After I phoned Bean, Richie’s mother stormed in.
“Where’s my son? His teacher telephoned and said there’d been a fight.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these folks who are cock sure the whole world is watching them so when they walk in a room they just glow with all the attention they think they’re getting. She had on some kind of fox fur around her shoulders, and long black gloves and she was smoking a cigarette–in a plastic holder! But the hat was the killer. Boy, I’d love to have a picture of that contraption. Like some undersea critter washed up on the beach. On one side it hung down over her ear, dead and limp, and on the other it rose up prickly and shiny like a porcupine if you spray-painted it silver. One side was dead and one side was alive.
Out in front of the school her black Cadillac was idling. Inside, sat a fat black driver in sun glasses reading the paper.
Mrs. Crapsey all of a sudden changed her tune. Here was the queen of Sheba. I thought she was going to get down on her knees and beg the woman to forgive her because precious little Richie got in trouble. Yankee money, Yankee power, my granddaddy, Junius, would say.
“Mrs. Raczynski, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule. We had a little row. Nothing big. “
The woman looked down at me in my chair like I was a bug she was about to crush and the little fox head on her shoulder looked like he would enjoy it when she did.
“You ever been to a NFL game?” I asked her.
She looked surprised. “No.”
“60,000 fans. Well, take 10 stadiums holding 60,000 fans and set out ‘em side by side. Know what you get?”
“You get the number of people who died in the Civil War.”
“How interesting.” She decided to sit down. I have never seen a woman take so much time and trouble just getting her fanny in a chair.
“That’s like 40,000 elevators each one with 15 people or if it’s parking garages you’d need 100 garages full of four door sedans with four people inside each sedan so 240,000 sedans.”
She turned to Mrs. Crapsey. “You know until we moved down from Connecticut I didn’t know there was still so much interest in the Civil War.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of interest,” Mrs. Crapsey said. “The question is who’s interested.”
“We could have stopped Sherman,” I said. “There were forces amassed in Augusta, Milledgeville, and Macon, not to mention the Georgia Militia. We just didn’t know which way he was headed. Abe Lincoln’s favorite song was ‘Dixie.’”
“Nathan B Forrest had 29 horses shot out from under him. The Confederacy spread over more than 750,000 square miles and it claimed a 3,500-mile coastline. 200 harbors and navigable river mouths.”
I decided it was time to balance my blood so I held up my right arm.
“Yes?” Mrs. Crapsey asked.
I just stared straight ahead. Richie put down his magazine. In a while Mrs. Crapsey leaned down and stared in my face. I noticed her eyelashes were running a little.
“Antietam, why is your hand up?”
I waited a little. It’s always good to wait when you’re about to say something folks don’t expect ever to hear coming out of your mouth.
“I’m balancin’ my blood, like General Jackson.”
The two women looked at each other. After Mrs. Crapsey had folded her arms and taken a deep breath, she asked what I meant.
“I’m right handed,” I said. “My blood stays on the right side. I got to raise my right arm up high so the blood’ll flow back down into my left. That’s how you balance your blood.”
Richie glared at me over his magazine.
So I stood up and walked around with my arm up, back and forth across Mrs. Crapsey’s office. The others stared at me like they’d like to send me to Milledgeville.
“I feel more balanced already,” I said.
Oh I’m a good old rebel, that’s what I am.
I won’t be reconstructed and I don’t give a…hoot”
“Stop singing that rebel song!” Mrs. Crapsey said.
While we waited for Bean, Mrs. Raczynski changed her cigarette. Put her cigarette in her holder. I watched so I could explain how it was done to Stub.
“Excuse me, ma’m,” I asked.
The woman looked at me slowly with that same who-the-heck-do-you-think-you-are-talking-to-me stare.
“What brand are you smoking?”
The caked powder on her face cracked a kind of a smile. “Why, Pall Malls.”
“Why, I smoke Pall Malls, too!” I said. Now, up to that point the lady hadn’t impressed me much. Just another carpetbagger come down here to the barefoot south to teach us manners and how to sip tea with our pinkie up, but when I discovered that she smoked Pall Malls I actually considered liking the woman. Shoot, I thought. It’s like Junius once told me: a man’s brand of smoke is personal, like a cattle brand. It marks you and when you see somebody carryin’ your mark your heart just reaches out.
“Can I have a drag?” I asked.
The woman started laughing and shot a glance over at old lady Crapsey.
Mrs. Crapsey had sat down to do paperwork behind her desk, but when she heard me ask Richie’s mother for a drag, she glared at me over her glasses. She thinks it’s a scary look, but I’d seen it enough by now to know there wasn’t much in the way of punishment behind it, a tongue lashing, maybe, or maybe you’d have to stay after school and clean the cigarette butts out of the teachers‘ lounge, but this time she stood up and scraped her chair loud.
Now that worried me. Old lady Crapsey had a thing about scraping a chair on her freshly waxed linoleum floor. I wondered if maybe this was one of those times in the week that Bean is always talking about when a woman starts to change inside and sometimes her blood’s out of balance–needs to hold her right hand up–so she gets real grouchy. The janitor, Shot, stuck his head in the door.
“Miz-z-z Crapsey, you all right?“
Before I could say Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard she had me in the next room and I was over her lap while she pounded my backside with a hardback. It wasn’t easy pretending it didn’t hurt–when it did. It hurt bad. That woman knew how to whip your butt.
And all the time she kept saying this Bible verse over and over.
“Lord you prepare my hands for battle and you give me the heart to fight.“
I was rocking back and forth and I swallowed hard and closed my eyes and kept swallowing every time I had the urge to yell out. By the time she finished my back end felt like I had sat down in a bed of fire ants and my private parts were stinging some, too.
I didn’t say peep to Bean as we drove home. The rattles in our old pickup made me sad and when we got home I got out the El Cheapo confederate cap my mama sent me when I turned five–the only present she ever sent me–and went down to the river. I don’t know why but that beating made me hurt inside more than it hurt my fanny. I sat and threw rocks in the water and watched a water snake curve his way across. The sky was dark and a breeze was blowing leaves like a deep shudder was passing through everything, me most of all sitting there wondering why I felt so sad and why my mama and daddy didn’t want me enough to even write a letter every now and then. I fought back the tears because I hated tears and I hated people who cry just because they think they’re sad. There was no reason to cry about nothing. No reason. They weren’t ever coming back and that’s all there was to it. No use in crying like a blubbery girl. And that old Crapsey bird would never touch me again like that, no sir. I knew then the day was coming when me and Richie Raczynski would meet up again and I would be ready and I would know how to
fight or whatever it was he did when he put his hands up in front of his face and calmly punched me out. And me bleeding like a stuck pig! I wanted to say some words that I knew I shouldn‘t say. I wanted to say ‘em real bad because I felt like if I said those words I would be a man and would be stronger and Richie Raczynski would know that I could say them and he would know those words gave a man power. But something inside held me back. It was like a little voice inside me, still and sweet that begged me not to say those words because if I did something inside me wouldn’t be right. I didn’t even know what it was that wouldn’t be right, but whatever it was, it was alive and tender and sweet and I didn’t want to kill whatever it was, so I didn’t say a thing, and I watched that snake cross the river and was racked with shivering from head to foot until, finally, he reached the other side.
Chocolate. Swiss, not its lackluster American cousin. Stamped with dwarfs, partitioned in precise chunks. It is 6am. Do I pilfer a piece before the hemp-chewy, sure-to-lift-your-bowels-to-Valhalla bran? From behind the kitchen door where each morning he faithfully spreads his lipid-quivering loins and waits to tempt me anew: the squinty eyes of Gluttony. I grip the Formica. I count. One, two, three, four…I grit my teeth. Like a dentist’s forceps my free will reaches deep and yanks out a response:
“Is there a problem here?”
He emerges from his hole. From the corner of my eye I see him coming, an easy, menacing amble like the three hundred pound nose-tackle who can break your jaw with a forearm. Tommy Hilfiger teal sweater. Lands End Chinos Size LXX. More acne pits than Manuel Noriega. In a smooth Sicilian whisper he accosts me.
“Hey, my good friend, I had this stuff imported from Willie Wonka land. Hey, you are a class act, right? De Niro has this little chocolate number every morning.”
I turn to confront him.
At first there is the stench, pig sty and perfume counter. Then, it shifts, one odor flowing into the other. Now, T-Bone, now chitlins, now Medaglia d’Oro, now Strudel. Behind the smells, the visual image shifts, too. In the swirl I make out a tricorn, a monk’s cowl, a crown, a wreath of bay leaves.
“I am a diabetic.” I say, firmly.” That chocolate will launch my blood sugar to 300 mgs.”
Belch. Whiffs of parmesan, baklava, sweet and sour sauce, Jimmy Dean’s finest.
“I respect that, I do. I understand these limitations which I as a supernatural am not confined by. However, I would suggest that you keep all vistas open.” “What vistas?”
He reaches for the chocolate. His nostrils flair.
“The Russians, for example, are working on a cure for prostate cancer that involves chocolate. You may find that particular health care option fits into your horizons.”
He swallows two sections, licks his fingers. Savors them, breathing deeply.
“M-m-m-m-m-m! Can those little watch makers make chocolate, or what? Sure you won’t have some?”
“Blood sugar, remember?”
“And there are limitations regarding the current state of scientific inquiry…who knows …sugar is a complex term…there’s maltose, dextrose, fructose, sorbital…I mean, who can say whether aspartame is really fooling your taste buds or is it maybe eating away at your pituitary gland at the same time.”
“Speculation. What isn’t speculation is what happens to the body when it ingests enough sucrose to reach 500 mgs. per deciliter of blood.”
He reaches for more. Smacks, licks, slurps. It’s like watching Java the Hut trying to retsrain himself.
“This is so good. Now I understand their ability to handle large amounts of questionable funds.”
His conversation is disjointed now. He cajoles, coos, insinuates, entices.
“What is this–5000, 6000 calories? And what are you having?”
“Bran. With bananas”
“Excellent choice. Although I usually throw in some M and M’s and maybe some Peanut Butter cups, a few malted milk balls. “
“That’s not a breakfast.”
“Who made you the health guru? Look, I respect your opinion. You’re struggling here to make some healthy choices and by golly, my hat’s off to you for trying to stand up to this weak-bellied, follow-your-gut-because-it-feels-good philosophy that threatens to bring this great country of ours down.”
By now he has the weighty Swiss bar in hand eating a la hamburger. His massive, long, brown stained teeth attack the bar; brown spurts, his eyes roll. He’s eating the foil, too. Thrusting it all in, jamming it, ramming it in his mouth which no longer resembles anything along the phylogenetic scale, but now seems some fantastic orifice spun out the drug-crazed visions of Burroughs or Huxley. Massive mastication, lingual lacerations–he seems to be racing an inner time clock He begins blinking, rapid, tear-blurred flapping and I realize that he is actually afraid he may not be able to stuff all of it in at one sitting. Panic sets in. His whole body jerks and twitches as he seems to call on every muscle to aid his cause. A long, audible groan and quiver rises from his toes upward until his entire body is one shimmer and the last golden gobbet is consumed.
The kitchen is silent. Outside, a street sweeper passes. I watch as he begins to climb back out of the ecstasy. After nearly choking, after picking the tin foil out of his teeth, and after wiping his mouth with the back of his sweater, he regains his equilibrium. His face seems to throb. His Sertorius breathing seems louder.
“Ungh-gh-gh-gh. Primal…primal. Nothing like it on the planet.” A belch rattles the windows and threatens to waken the dog. Mumbling, he staggers toward the door, gropes for the knob .
“Next time. You …next time…”He exits.
Inwardly, I smile. The chocolate is gone and desire for it is gone, too and my bran is beginning to taste good.
Even the Devil has his uses. .
Whatever happened to the modest proposal–where is Swift when we need him?–that teachers be permitted to expel unruly students without the imprimatur of the already-beleagured principal? From the floor of the classroom a bloodied and bandaged geometry teacher with his shaky fist raised in a power-to-the-people gesture and an English teacher whose nerves are shot from three cups of oil-thick, Columbian El Guapo per period and a rib-cracked Algebra teacher who barely survived the conference with the rhino father and the Medea mother–all vote : yes! Let’s throw Sam Surly out!
Saner heads, however, are not so jubilant. Consider this prospect: an average day in the Max Sennet Institute for Advanced Pie Throwing, your public high school. Mrs. Schlotsky is handing out yet another third grade work sheet on Huckleberry Finn to her ever-alert-to-racial-slurs juniors, many of whom can’t read the slurs. Now here’s Herbert. What you gon’ do about him? He don’ wanna. He ain’t gonna. You can kiss my lackawanna and who is this Finnish dude, anyway? Ain’ they all communiss’? Mrs. Schlotsky removes the grumbling, heads-down, screw-you Herbert. Power to Mrs. Schlotsky! She feels a rush! Finally, she can control her class! Finally, they will respect her!
Now, Herbert may or may not decide to pimp-walk his way across campus to where detention/in-house/rehab is being staged in thick clouds of vaporized testosterone mingled with the ever-present odor of cigarette smoke. But let’s assume he does go. Let’s assume he actually doesn’t slip out the side door and let’s assume–if teachers are permitted to control their classes–what he will find: every teacher in a school of fifteen hundred has thrown out three Herberts. There are fifty classes meeting this period. Ergo: one hundred fifty Herberts who ain’t gonna, who don’ wanna, and you can kiss my lackawanna. And one shy, self-effacing para-pro to baby sit. Herbert envisions chaos and is pleased. His tatoos grin and his tongue ring tingles.
But not to fear. The www-obsessed, SUV-wheeling dads and their cause-clutching housewives flood the BOE with protests. How dare that Black Hole of Calcutta that calls itself a school incarcerate so many helpless innocent children in one room! Punitive pirhanas! Cretaceous cretins! Solution? The teachers! The teachers are conscripted, ever loyal, ever powerless. That silly planning period is a waste of valuable instructional time, n’est pas? Now, Mrs. Schlotsky, you’re a professional (Translate: no sass, b—–). Here’s a technique validated by reems of useless ed. research to make maximum use of that planning period: monitoring Herbert’s simian grunts and garbled obscenities! Forget organizing your lessons. Forget a few moments of sanity from the Magical Mystery Tour known as teaching. Thus, Mrs.Schlotsky gains a new sense of freedom only to find she has lost her planning period to baby sit one hundred fifty Herberts.
Select teachers will be asked to cut short their lunch periods as well, giving them five minutes instead of ten.
What is Christian Poetry?
As a writer and a believer I find few people asking this question, yet it needs asking. Reading Donald Davie’s the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, one might assume that for Mr. Davie deciding which poets and poems are Christian is easier than picking ripe tomatoes. He devotes most of his space to great poems and hymns that have under girded the faithful for centuries, the work of Herbert, Vaughn, Watts, Cowper and the Wesley’s. Yet, these choices mask the difficulty of the question, particularly as faced by a contemporary poet who considers him or herself a Christian. Must my work also include direct invocations? And what poets should one read? What poems from the English-American tradition, apart from the no- brainers mentioned above, would be classifiable as Christian? How do you classify, for example,” Dover Beach”? Davie doesn’t include it, but isn’t Arnold’s Victorian-progress-is-whipping-up-on-the-faith tone grounds for raising a question about such a classification? Browning writes about bishops and friars, but Bishop Blougram and Fra Lippo Lippi aren’t included. The more difficult aspects of the question center on guidelines for a Christian ars poetica. Are there rules a Christian poet should abide by to feel that his work is pleasing to God? Can I write about strip joints? Should a Christian poet ponder homosexuality as a theme? Last, the quaestio difficillima adroitly handled by that Dr. Spock of Theology, Thomas Aquinas: how can the poet be sure his work lifts up, that it doesn’t bring the reader down? As we try to define Christian poetry, the usual literary resources, those Michael Jordan’s of the world of theory, will offer little help. Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Greimas, Kristevea, Jakobson, Fish, de Mann–all raise questions that will keep theory junkies salivating for decades, but ultimately, to a contemporary Christian poet, such questions may be unimportant. For that poet the question may simple be: is my work pleasing to God?
Davie sets forth two specific points for inclusion in his anthology: poems were chosen because they deal with Christian doctrine; others were chosen because they treat the Biblical narrative in such a way as to enlighten doctrine. Once these requirements are in place, the choosing becomes easier and more painful, at once. These exclude most of Dylan Thomas–whose work, replete with Christian symbolism–sheds no light on doctrine. They leave out all of Shakespeare and Auden. And the one poem I thought would be the sine qua non for modern Christian poetry, “The Four Quartets”, is omitted. Davies’s justification for such stringent criteria is interesting. Simply put, without these tight controls the entire corpus of pre-modern English poetry prior to Hardy would have to be allowed admittance on the grounds that all poets from Chaucer to Hardy wrote in a Christian society in which they considered themselves active participants. True, some artists took liberties. After Marvell penned “To His Coy Mistress” may we assume, following Davies’s lead, that the poet realized his sin, repented and promised God not to attempt to seduce anyone else via a poetic syllogism? Probably not, since that would assume that all poets from the pre-modern era were devout. What Davie is saying is that these poets lived in a society that rarely questioned the principles it stood upon. Should we, as believers and readers of poetry, consider “Mistress” sinful? Can we admire its wit, marvel at its gallant levity and still adjudge it to embody sinful suggestions? Elliot thought it one of the best and we know the kind of moral strictures he placed upon himself.
At this point many readers are probably wincing. The word “sophistication” or the lack thereof, is circling round inside their heads with all the viciousness this word can entail. If we have learned anything in academia in the last hundred years it is this: do not presume to judge. Must we be so tacky? How would you feel telling your friend who teaches freshman Comp. Lit. next door that you feel uncomfortable teaching “Mistress” because you fear the poem might nudge some hitherto timid freshman to go right out and seduce via iambic tetrameter? Do we even care about such things? Are we presenting literature in a moral vacuum–as many current critics de facto advocate–because we are afraid of losing our status, our credibility, and our jobs?
The best of the PIG series (Politically Incorrect Guides—published by Regnery) is Elizabeth Kantor’s guide to English literature. Kantor is a writer for human events who was obviously outraged enough at what she had to put up with to get the Ph D. that she’s clearly out to settle some scores and let the world know what’s wrong in the teaching of English Lit. In sum: Christian poets aren’t recognized as such. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, all the way down to the nineteenth century when Shelly enters the play, poets are Christian. Did you know about Chaucer’s religious poetry? No, because your high school or college teacher was too busy telling you about the bawdy doings of the Wife of Bath. Did that teacher point out to you that the reason all those people were gathered in that inn at Southwark was religious? They were on a pilgrimage; Chaucer tells us that, but no one pays much attention to it.
Thus Mr. Davies guide to Christian poetry should be much more inclusive. Instead of the few, but choice pieces he has scrupulously chosen, he should have included almost all of the seventeenth century, goodly portions of Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Isn’t it sad as we reflect on it that most of our early poets have been so misrepresented by the academy?