A Review of
The Habit of Poetry: The Literary Lives of Nuns in Mid-century America
Reviewed by Gina Dalfonzo
In 1959, Nick Ripatrazone tells us in his new book, “Thomas P. McDonnell wrote about nun-poets for Spirit, the Catholic journal of poetry. Early in the essay, McDonnell laments that ‘not a single so-called serious critic, to my knowledge, has written on the phenomenon in modern literature of the nun as poet.’”
Not much has changed in that regard since then, Ripatrazone adds—not until he decided to write his own treatment of the subject in The Habit of Poetry. In this slim but profound volume, he explores the lives and work of six 20th-century American nun-poets, while touching on the work of several others, making a convincing case that a serious critical evaluation of their contribution to literature is long overdue.
At the time they wrote, in fact, these poets were taken quite seriously by their peers. If they were not generally acknowledged as a distinctive literary movement, as McDonnell complained, they were nonetheless publishing their work in prestigious journals and book-length collections, speaking at major conferences, and nurturing relationships with some of their most celebrated fellow writers. Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn maintained a vibrant epistolary friendship with Wallace Stevens and kept up an active correspondence with several other prominent poets, including William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, and James Wright; they invariably valued both her friendship and her carefully considered opinions on their work. Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff “studied medieval literature at Oxford with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien,” and stayed in touch with the former as she went on to become a respected poet and college president.
Not only were these women gifted poets, but many of them also exerted a powerful influence on the upcoming generation through their teaching. Ripatrazone offers a remarkable statistic as evidence of that influence: When the Atlantic Monthly held its 1955-56 Literary Contest for College Students, seven of the top 15 winners were students at Catholic colleges. And as writer and professor Edward P. J. Corbett noted, all but one of those colleges were “girls’ schools taught by nuns” (The italics are those of the astonished Corbett). Twelve of the students who placed in the competition were students of Sister Maura Eichner, one of the six nun-poets profiled here.
What was it that these nuns were bringing to their chosen art form? Each one strikes the reader as very much her own person, but Ripatrazone identifies some common elements in their work: formidable intellect, a dedication to craftsmanship, a firm eschewing of the syrupy and sentimental, a discipline gained by constantly managing the competing pressures of cloister and work, and last but far from least, an understanding of faith, whether or not it featured explicitly in a given poem, as a lens through which to view the world they wrote about.
The often acerbic Wolff observed in 1962, “Modern poets are talking about their digestive systems, their empty skulls, and of the refuse of humanity.” Wolff and other poets like her offered a perspective that gained its robustness and originality from a vision of the world as created, redeemed, and transformed by God.
At the same time, they were well aware of what Eichner called the “thin pieties” of too much Catholic poetry. Madeline DeFrees– who lived as Sister Mary Gilbert but published under her original name– wrote a story, “The Model Chapel” (chosen for The Best American Short Stories of 1962) that signals the kind of pressure that at least some of these nuns must have faced from their church. Her protagonist, Sister Constance, “cringe[s]” at the kind of kitschy verse she is asked to produce for a church fundraiser (and avoids producing it). She has come to understand that “God does not demand suspension of the critical faculties; that obedience and intelligence, taste even, can be reconciled without compromise.” In the face of so many contemporary examples of substandard Christian art, it may sometimes have been difficult to remember this, but all of these nun-poets unflinchingly held it as their ideal.
Alternatively, Ripatrazone also leans into a spirit of lightheartedness, sharing an additional anecdote about the role of pressure when Sister Mary Francis was urged by her abbess to win a poetry prize because “The roof needs to be fixed.”
Ripatrazone quotes frequently from the poets’ work, enough to give us a feel for their style and imagery and to make us want to read more. Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff’s award-winning “Snowstorm,” in particular—“The air is white and winds are crying. / I think of swans in Galway flying”—has lingered in my mind.
But by broadening his focus to include their generous encouragement of others’ gifts, through teaching, literary criticism, and friendship, he gives his audience—whether or not they’re regular readers of poetry—a sense of just how established and esteemed these women were in the literary culture of their day. Further, he shows us a picture of the Christian artist as nurturer and giver, which suggests ways in which faith may inspire us to something better than the conventional idea of the artist as self-centered and lonely genius.
Supporting this vision, Ripatrazone reaches far back into the past to show how nuns have long served as creators, guides, and muses in the field of poetry. He opens his preface with the well-known story of seventh-century cowherd Caedmon, taught to speak poetry by an angel—but he adds that it was a nun named Hilda who served as his patron and guide. “A nun did not write the first English poem,” Ripatrazone summarizes, “but nuns and sisters have been inextricable from the writing, reading, and sharing of verse for over a thousand years.” Elsewhere in the book he reminds us of the role that the story of a doomed group of nuns played in the poetic breakthrough of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The title of this book, in fact, is not just a pun on nuns’ traditional dress, but also a reference to Hopkins’s work, The Habit of Perfection.
The Habit of Poetry does a superb job of showing us how and why its subjects were ideally situated to become creators and inspirers of poetry, not in spite of but precisely because of their constant need to navigate the tensions between their various callings. If their talent won them a deserved place in mid century American letters, what made that place unique in that period was their shared vision of a world where, as Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn wrote in her poem “Holy Saturday at Claremont Manor,” “somewhere in Asia Minor / In a grave where no other corpse has lain / A heart is beginning to beat.”
Gina Dalfonzo is the author of Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis and One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church (Baker Books) and editor of The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works (Plough Publishing House). She reviews books biweekly at Dear, Strange Things.
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