A Feature Review of
The Mystery of It All:
The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity
Reviewed by Michial Farmer
The subtitle of the poet and biographer of poets Paul Mariani’s latest book is “The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity.” The phrase suggests a manifesto, a listing of the duties of the poet living in a society too busy with the alchemy of science and technology to care what she has to say. In fact, The Mystery of It All is a series of essays, loosely connected and largely about the poets whose biographies Mariani has already written. He doesn’t offer much in the way of explicit aesthetic credo until the last quarter of the book. First, there’s the closing paragraph of an essay on John Berryman, that great and tragic God-lover and -hater:
You do what you can, I keep telling myself, write when you can, and try to remember each and every day to thank God for the blessings he sends your way, soldiering on like those anonymous monks copying out the sacred texts on those sheets of vellum in the monastic scriptorium and facing the long hours of loneliness in their cell. (177)
The poet is called to a lonely life of quiet faithfulness, patiently pointing to the things the rest of us wouldn’t notice if she didn’t point to them. And the helpless solitude of this vocation is even more inescapable for the poet who wants, in the words of the final essay, to “write a Christ-centered poetry” in a decidedly post-Christian age.
Mariani has spent six decades wrestling with these questions, as he notes in his introduction. Educated at Catholic high schools and then in the now-defunct great-books program at Manhattan College in the Bronx, he studied, wrote about, and taught poetry long before he seriously wrote it. He presents us with his first real poem, written when he was in his mid-thirties. Devastated by his grandmother’s death from alcoholism, he sat down at a table and spun out a poem, in Williamsian triplets, “To try to understand” (24).
There’s the poet’s vocation again: to pay enough attention to the world to pluck out of it shards of beauty and shards of meaning, which might, on some transcendent plane, come to the same thing. And for the Catholic poet, this task is religious. By trying to understand the mystery of it all, Mariani says, the poet tries to find the language of God’s love and providence, almost never spoken in our native tongue. The poet, inventing a language beyond language, is our translator.
The recently late literary critic Harold Bloom famously argued that art progresses via a sort of purposeful misreading, a poet escaping the sway of his predecessors by doing things with their work that they’d never intended. Bloom’s project is Oedipal and violent, but I couldn’t help but think of The Mystery of All as a gentler and more respectful version of it. How else to describe a collection that tries to work out the purpose of poetry by devoting almost half of its length to seven essays about a single poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins? Whatever it means to be a poet in the twilight of modernity, it’s clear that, for Mariani, Hopkins got there first and carved out a model to be accepted or rejected by Berryman and Wallace Stevens and Wilfred Owen.
And Mariani himself, of course. As he writes at the beginning of “The Havoc and the Glory,” no matter what other poets call his name, “always I seem to return to Hopkins as my deepest inspiration, the figure who has continued to speak to me over the past half century and more” (72). To be a poet, or at least to be Mariani’s kind of poet, is to wrestle repeatedly, unsatisfactorily, with Hopkins’s brutal, beautiful, bewildering work. Every time Mariani has him figured out, a new reading presents itself: Hopkins the Jesuit, the Franciscan, the inspiration for Berryman and Robert Lowell, the letter-writer. He shows up in nearly every essay here, even the ones in which he is not the focus. What could be more pleasant than watching someone who has spent his whole life trying to understand a beautiful soul take a few more swings at it?
These are not academic essays; they don’t proceed by building an airtight case from scholarly sources and a theoretical underpinning. Rather, they are the essays of a teacher, which is to say the essays of a person who loves something and wants us to love it, too. I found myself wishing I could take one of Mariani’s classes at Boston College, especially when he was talking about the work of someone (like Berryman) whom I haven’t spent much time with. His decades of careful attention pay off: Having written Berryman’s biography, Mariani weaves the details of the poet’s difficult life with the details of his difficult poetry and teases out the religious contradictions of both.
I’d like to call attention to two other essays, neither of which is explicitly about poetry as such. “Charism and the Literary Imagination” is a meditation on the state of Catholic higher education, which he fears is becoming less Catholic over time:
What I have found, ironically, among many Catholic institutions of higher learning is that, while the campuses indeed invite the “other” with enthusiasm to sit at the table, the table itself, as far as the Catholic Christian literary tradition goes, has too often been stripped almost bare, so that the very idea of a “Catholic literary imagination” has been shunted more and more to the side, until it seems to have virtually disappeared. (192)
The second half of the essay is a description of a course he created to try and counteract this tendency; like the class Lionel Trilling presents in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” it makes the reader jealous of Mariani’s students, and I suspect it will send Christian literature professors scrambling to their own syllabuses. It’s heartening that this class has been full every semester Mariani has taught it; as the essay suggests, our world is hungry for theological imagination.
One tendency among Christian educators is to oppose this sort of theological imagination to a vision of education that emphasizes the politics of justice. But, in keeping with the Catholic “both/and” perspective, Mariani insists that we need both beauty and justice, and his essay “The Cry of the Poor” criticizes his own tendency to wax poetic about the Catholic imagination while being uncomfortable to see the face of Christ in the downtrodden and the oppressed. He is especially galled because he himself grew up in poverty—but the desire to escape that poverty has occasionally left him cold to the people who haven’t been able to escape it. These essays situate Mariani’s readings of individual poets in a larger understanding of what human beings are and what they have been created for.
There’s often a kind of soul-level sadness in books written by elderly poets and artists, a mourning for the loss of the world that produced them. I suppose The Mystery of It All has a bit of that, but on the whole, this book celebrates the beauty that remains in the world despite our best attempts to stomp it out, and encourages the reader to keep looking for it long after Mariani is gone.
Michial Farmer is 1/3 of The Christian Humanist Podcast and the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction (Camden House, 2017). His poems and essays have appeared in America, St. Katherine Review, and Front Porch Republic. He lives in Atlanta.