interested in painting, sir?” asks the cheerful curator of the modern art
“No, not me,”
says the detective. He passes his hand
across his rumpled hair. “Now, Mrs.
Columbo, she’s different. That woman is
into everything. She does a little
“Oh, yeah, all
the time. She buys these kits where you
put the color in according to the numbersyou’ve seen them? They actually come out pretty good.”
I like the joke
there on modern painting, which to my eye sometimes looks as if the artist
could have used a few numbers here or there. But because I have spent all my
adult life studying and teaching poetry, from Homer to Robert Frost, I want to
cry out to people who try their hands at it, “Please, please, study the
masters! Don’t embarrass
yourselves! It’s a lot harder than you
think.” Indeed, my next book will be on the poetry of Christian hymns; I wish
to show ordinary people who attend Mass and who want to lift their hearts in
song just how rich the best of those poems are. I want to turn their attention
to the artistry, both linguistic and theological. I’d like to be their guide,
so to speak, saying, “Look over heresee what he’s
done! Isn’t that stupendous?”
We do have a rich
treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart. Some of them are almost as old as
Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from
French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly
divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest
in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were
written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and
rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous
Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators,
like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious
laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby
gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful
melodies were written by the finest composers who ever livedBach, Handel, Haydnso too many of our hymn lyrics were
written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley
Hopkins, John Milton.
So why, then, why
do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why,
when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the
memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal,
clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?
very titles of the lyrics give them
away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You
know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let
me give some examples from a recent publication:
Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t knowcheck his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall
can be breached; you breach it by breaking
it. But you can’t break a border;
you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts
the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an
absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?
Creator of the Intertwined. Ugh. It’s an awkward word, and it
calls up a confusing image. Something that is intertwined is either tangled up
in knots, or knitted up in a kind of mesh. How can anyone sing that line
without asking, “What is that supposed to mean?” The rest of the poem is worse.
“Teach us to cherish what is strange,” instructs one of the lines, and the
specter of a vampire rises to my mind, or a weird green liquid trickling from
beneath the floor. “That sure is strange,” says the janitor. “Well, you better
go and cherish it,” says his boss.
How Shocking Were the People. This one is actually all right, once
it continues. The title refers to the sinners with whom Jesus broke bread. But
that first line won’t do. People are
not shocking, in English. A social
situation might be shocking, to some
upper-class lady wearing a pince-nez. As it is, the line begs for parody:
How shocking were the people
Who grasped the final rail!
Their eyes lit up with wonder,
Their knees began to fail.
God, Whose Farm is All Creation. Making uswhat? Domesticated cattle? Are we aphids to His anthill? I suggest
the following alternative:
Old Jehovah had a farm,
And on this farm there was a snake,
With a hiss hiss here and a hiss hiss there,
Here a hiss, there a hiss, everywhere a hiss hiss,
Old Jehovah had a farm,
God, whose barnyard is the earth,
Bringing piglets unto birth,
Free us piglets from our sty
And make us all to heaven fly.
Christ, Be in Your Senses. Well, he’d better be in his senses. If
he’s not in his senses, we’re all in trouble. Ohhe’s supposed to
be in my senses? Like a feather
tickling across my neck? Not in English.
Crashing Waters at Creation. All right, I have no idea what is
going on. What are these waters supposed to be crashing against? Is there a
beach, or a dike, or a bridge? The rest of the first verse looks like wreckage
after a semantic flood:
Crashing waters at creation,
Ordered by the Spirit’s breath,
First to witness day’s beginning
From the brightness of night’s death.
I dunno, Jethro,
but it do seem there’s nary a verb in
that there sentence. But there sure are some metaphors, all mixed up in a
creative possum stew. Theological possum stew, too: how could night “die,”
brightly or otherwise, when there was no night at all?
Amen to the Body of Christ. Pat and Mike are sauntering down the
street. “Hey,” says Pat, “why don’t we duck into St. Mary’s there and get us
“Amen to that!”
It isn’t as if
the opening refrain gets much better:
Amen to the Body of Christ we receive,
bread for the fullness of life.
Amen to the Body of Christ we become,
bread for the life of the world.
A bit of
self-celebration, that. I am a member of
the body of Christ, but I am certainly not
the Eucharistic bread. You eat my flesh and drink my blood, pal, and you’re
paying a visit to the emergency room.
A Woman Knelt Where Jesus Sat to Eat. After they bumped and the food spilled
on the floor, Simon the Levite said to himself, “Had he been a true prophet,
he’d have known that seat was taken.” The rest of the poem is all right, except
for the truly awful line, “While skeptics scorned her prior life of sin.” They
weren’t skeptics; that wasn’t their trouble. “Prior” is redundant. The whole
line clunks. It’s hard to sing clunks.
The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ.
I am lying on my
deathbed, and my wife asks me, “Honey, would you like to listen to some music?”
“Yes, I’d like to
listen to a hymn. How about The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ?”
“Oh, that one
always gets me, right here.”
“Yeah. Then after that one can you play Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit?”
I’m sorry, but a
true poet knows that certain words smell of the office, or of a fifty-cent
detective novel, and certain meters, like the jaunty 4-3-4-3 ballad meter, are
not well suited for certain subjects:
The scheming elders challenged Christ:
“What do you have to say?
We caught her in adultery.
We’ll stone her here today.
Come, teacher, speak! Why hesitate?
We know what Moses said.
The law is clear, her guilt is known,
And she will soon be dead.”
That’s not my
parody. Those are the actual words. Try to read them aloud without
laughing. “We caught her in
a-dul-ter-y! O dainty duck, O dear!”
When Memory Fades and Recognition
Falters. I’ve cheated a
little there, giving as the title the whole first line. When cognitive
functions grow hazy … The bad choice of the diagnostic “recognition” is
followed throughout the poem by misused words. “Speak to our souls of love that
never alters,” the verse continues,
and we know why alters is chosen: it
rhymes with falters. But it makes no
sense. God’s love is the most altering thing
in the world: it makes us new. To alter is to
bring about change in something or someone else. The writer wanted an
intransitive verb, but used the transitive instead, which here is impossible.
“You used to be a
lover of Dickens. What happened?”
“I beg your
“Oh, I see.”
The second verse
begins, “As frailness grows,” and at
that my patientness is gone. Well, at least it isn’t feeblety that’s growing.
Faith Begins by Letting Go. “That’s what I do every day,” said
Doogie, leaning back against the wharf and sending a spume of cannabis smoke to
the morning sky. “I just let go.”
“Let go and let
God,” said Brandy.
said Doogie. “Did you read that in The Prophet?”
Banned and Banished by Their
Neighbors. “Mr. Aligheri,
you are hereby banished from the city of Florence, on pain of death.”
“Yes indeed, and banned too. Keep that in mind.”
When We Must Bear Persistent Pain. For a contemporary hymn lasting more
than four stanzas, please contact your doctor immediately.
God, in the Planning. The title of this marriage hymn
evidently comes from a newspaper clipping: “Mayor Jehovah, superintendent of
public works in the municipality of Eden, has designated Mr. Adam and Miss Eve,
soon to be bridegroom and bride, as chief overseers of the garden.”
This Is a Miracle-Moment.
No, no, I can’t go
on! Please, Lord, please make it stop! Make them read a real poem, at least
once! Please, pleaseI read hundreds of
college essays every year! I’m even stuck reading a newspaper now and again. And
there are television commercials when I go to the airport! And magazines in the
doctor’s office! Pleaselet me enjoy the
beauty of a poem or a song in church, if nowhere else!