Franciscan Beat

David Craig’s verse is a poetry of what Robert Lowell, that most refined, or “cooked,” high modernist of Catholic poetry, called “the raw.”

In this age of Francis, in which the Holy Father seems to surprise everyone with his off-the-cuff pronouncements on matters of passionate intensity, we would do well to consider the work of David Craig, America’s most conspicuously Franciscan poet. If one waits with anxiety to hear what the Pope will say in his next in-flight interview with the press, then one will perhaps approach in the proper spirit an early poem of Craig’s, called “Pentecost,” which runs in its entirety,

Who is this Holy Spirit?
And what is He doing in the eggplant?

Such clownish absurdism was a common feature of American poetry in the nineteen-sixties, when many writers came to embrace belatedly the anti-rationalist methods of European surrealism as an element of the carnival spirit of irreverence typical of the drug and rock addled counter-culture of the day. Craig’s work as a poet shows he is comfortable in that world, but only because it has certain affinities with a much earlier spirit of carnival that was inspired by reverence for God’s creation, for the goodness of the material world even at its most humiliatingly humble—that of St. Francis of Assisi.

Craig has published three long sequences of poems on St. Francis, and these lines from the first of them are peculiarly expressive of their strengths and weaknesses. Francis, Craig writes, would sprinkle

           chaste “Brother Ash” on his food
because we never think to do the same.
And because Mary had to rummage,
he rushed to the ground, ate with the pigs.
If the brothers couldn’t see how crucial humility was,
how would anyone else?

He’d stop so often, lost in loud sighs:
his aloneness, their burden; he’d provoke,
disrupt them out of any earned rest, meal.
He’d tell them that when they heard the next sigh,
they should praise God for His great condescension;
that they should pray for Francis continually,
whose need was at least as great as their own.

St. Francis must have struck even his faithful companions as braving exaggerated gestures in order to make clear the simplicity and poverty of a holiness that covets nothing only because it sees all that is as a gift of God. Everything has already been given to us through his “His great condescension,” and so we have no cause for jealousy at what the great possess or contempt at what seems beneath us.

Consider the first two efforts at instruction cited above. He scatters ashes on the bread, and he gets down on hand and knee to dine with the pigs. Why he does will be clear enough to most of us, now. All that God has made is good, is a creature of God no less than we are, and so worthy of our fraternal love. Even ash, that least remainder of things when they have been purged of individual form by fire, merits it. Pride stands in the way of perceiving the goodness of things, and so he joins the pigs in an act of genuine humility, insisting to us that this is in fact no humiliation at all. The pigs and poor alike are beloved by God; to join them is to admit them into the circle of His creatures, not to debase ourselves. With St. Francis himself, Craig’s poetry often seeks to express joy in the creation that should have such a source as the humble love of God.

Francis’s gestures are dense with meaning, however, and so are hard to interpret just right. Far from affirming the goodness of pigs and ashes, might he not have been practicing an uncompromising self-abasement? We are to be as lowly as the pigs, wallowing in their stench and covered in mud and ashes. So much the Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli, concluded not long after their patron’s death. In their desire to follow the Rule of St. Francis, they would condemn all signs of wealth as sinful and judge those clergy of the Church who possessed property as having invalidated their ordinations. Some Fraticelli engaged in revolutionary violence to enforce their judgments. Francis’s embrace of all creatures therefore became the grounds for a rejection of everything but poverty. A world whose intricate and refulgent hierarchy of goods descended in a pageant from the angels to the dust came to appear suspiciously simple; there was holy poverty and everyone else. What began as a comprehensive embrace fell into monomania and led to, at the last, a view of the world both distorted and obsessive.

Such is the risk Craig has run in his own body of work, beginning with poems inspired by St. Francis, in The Sandaled Foot (1980), and that later disciple of poverty, the Catholic Worker’s co-founder, Peter Maurin, whom Craig memorializes in Peter Maurin and Other Poems (1985), and running on through what is now his twenty-first volume, Pilgrim’s Gait (2015). Craig’s poems are marked by the power of Christ to turn one’s expectations upside down; their explicit subjects, their themes, and their voice consistently express a sense of conversion, of having been lost among the ashes of the world and yet somehow called to new life. That new life, importantly, is one that follows Francis in consuming the dust rather than in leaving it behind.

Although his poems can be various in their conceit and voice, most of them fall into one of three categories. Of greatest bulk are his poems of devotion and commentary; in these, Craig draws on popular writings or histories of the saints and composes lyric commentaries upon them. The St. Francis Poems (2013) draws one particularly ambitious series of such poems together, but he has also written a volume of sonnets that offer a commentary of the first eleven chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, a number of responses to the Psalms, and an especially gripping sequence based on St. Alphose Liguori’s Preparations for Death.

Another portion of his work might be grouped under what he calls the “Apprentice Poems.” Although the character of the Apprentice is left ambiguous, he seems to be, as it were, a good Franciscan convert coming to grips with the world about him, one straining to see reality in the light of Christ. Sometimes this leads to a getting down with the pigs of late twentieth century America, those who wallow in the light of dumb commercials on worse television:

The apprentice chooses
the counter-cultural:
complete futility—Cheetoes, hooded,
in front of his cold TV,
Green Acres or the cracking of pads,
high school football.

“Christmas with Ed and the Remote Control” depicts a similar, even more vivid scene, moving from the “faded color and black and white” of old Christmas movies on the tube in Ed’s otherwise unfurnished apartment, out to the burning snow where a moral reckoning sets in, and on to his own impoverished rooms:

This is no life for the weary.

From his cot room he hears a clock ticking,
hears himself age in the dark:
alert to nothing, like a ball of snakes, he sits
in the ugly Christian wait.

I have long admired the power of the apprentice poems to capture the spiritual and material poverty of Cleveland and the Midwest in general, and so I was pleased to see him return to the character in the book-length Trouble in the Diocese (2014). The volume gathers early apprentice poems with an extended series of new ones.

Until the publication of Pilgrim’s Gait, it was not entirely clear that there was much of a difference between the apprentice character and that depicted in his third body of poems about “Some Kind of Pilgrim.” The early pilgrim poems, included in Mary’s House (2007), most obviously stand apart from the apprentice ones in just that way their title suggests. The apprentice poems seem to be set in Craig’s native Cleveland, Ohio. The pilgrim poems, though often recurring to that city, depict episodes of an itinerant who is on the road and in search of some kind of salvation.

We journey with him to the Greyhound Station in Davenport, Iowa, out to Denver, Colorado, and as far as California. In each tableau, the pilgrim is brought to face the paradox of Christian life, as St. Augustine most authoritatively expressed it in The City of God. We are each of us longing for rest in our true homeland, and yet every home we find in this world is not destined to last. The Christian “dwells by faith as a pilgrim,” writes Augustine. He treats this life as “the school of eternity,” using “earthly goods like a pilgrim, without grasping after them,” and looking always ahead to the “city of Christ the King” of which the faithful will finally “become citizens.” So, Craig writes, “Like the rest” of the bus riders in Iowa, the Pilgrim must confess, “I ride them because there’s no place for me yet in America. / It hasn’t been invented.”

It cannot be invented, at least not by human ingenuity. In nostalgia, he pines for his days freezing in the stands of the Cleveland Browns’ Old Municipal Stadium, even as he sees it is not truly his home:

It’s third and ten: beers on a bitterly cold day,
a half-empty flash of Jack under my sock.

Cleveland is a fallen, sordid place of passing comforts, and no continuing city. In another poem on the place, he concludes more radically,

Everything is beyond us: the stars, our hands,
any point spread you can name.
How did we get here? And where are we going?
We live in such mystery it makes me wonder
who invented red-tag sales?
And why don’t I feel like this is my body?

And elsewhere, the Pilgrim admits,

Elizabeth Bishop was right!
We have no home here,
and there is no chance of finding one.

After a pregnant “silence” of white space following these lines, he writes, “This is a grace.”

And so it is. The pilgrim’s finely detailed memories of his peregrinations bring to life both the world he inhabits and the struggle of his soul to find its true home beyond it. If Craig’s many lyric commentaries on the saints seems a natural subject matter for a poet seeking to write about the trials of conversion and the straining after holiness, it is nonetheless the case that his strongest poems are those about the pilgrim, and for three reasons.

First, Craig’s Franciscan sensibility finds inspiration in images of holy poverty, and so poems such as one about working in a “Nursing Home, Third Shift,” where he spends his nights changing the diapers of elderly inmates lost to dementia, come alive with human feeling and literal detail.

A second reason is less flattering. Craig’s style is paratactic and clotted with successions of simple clauses of apposition linked together by commas, colons, and dashes. One sees little variation of this whether he is writing in prose, free verse, or meter and rhyme. These lines from his new series on the Franciscan Saint Anthony of Padua are typical in this regard and will stand in for a great many other possible examples:

The man would offer new forests, its ways,
mazes, thick enough for contemplation. Yes!
Where a nut tree grew in a round—Biblical—
its trunk crowned by six stout horns, limbs:
like something out of Daniel, a fitting alleluia:
branches for the hiding of days.

Notice how the interjection of “its ways,” of “Yes,” of “Biblical,” and especially of “limbs,” and the final two phrases of the stanza halt the rhythm of the sentence again and again in order to give us an apposition, which intends to elaborate but instead repeats meaning and frustrates enunciation.

In the last of the Matthew Sonnets, Craig says to his son Jude, who has Downs Syndrome, “You know, I’m really not very learned.” Jude replies, “Me neither, Dad.” It is a funny, loving, and beautiful moment. And yet, it is clear that Craig is not just a Franciscan but a poetic Fraticelli. He seems deeply suspicious of all poetic artifice and of all elevated learning. His style is relentlessly bare, the vocabulary and range of references demotic with only the partial exception of his invocations of the literature of Catholic popular piety. A well-balanced, complex sentence whose rhythms do not trip over their own feet would seem a dangerous sign of luxury and risk invalidating his own ordination as a particular kind of poet.

In free verse, this constant self-interruption and cutting short of auditory and conceptual complexity passes almost unnoticed. Indeed, it seems well suited to form, subject, and voice. When Craig turns to metrical verse, however, it becomes a liability. When I first began reading Craig’s work a decade ago, I had expected to like his metered devotional poems the best. His rhymed quatrain poems on the Fioretti of St. Francis seemed like an inevitable triumph. It had a wonderful narrative source and a flexible but congenial formal structure. But, I soon discovered, the poems really are “lyric” commentaries that leave behind straight narrative past tense for the slightly generalized conditional, even as the content never rises by way of abstraction to reflection and definition. The poems hang suspended somewhere between narrative and meditation, never attaining to either.

The Sonnets from Matthew are much more successful—indeed they contain some of Craig’s best writing and reward close study—but the use of rhyme also exposes the peculiar liability of his style. In one sonnet, the Apostle Matthew marvels at Jesus’ strange ways: is he a mere magician or the Messiah? Should he follow Jesus even among sinners, whose company would humiliate him? The closing couplet runs,

Humility was the only, and sane way to go.
He knew that, but not how far he’d have to row.

That penultimate line stretches out with three anapests until it can get to the easy rhyme word of “go,” while the closing metaphor, far from making for a pithy close, appears apropos nothing in the poem and in consequence seems forced on Craig by the rhyme. So might we also judge of this couplet from another sonnet:

His speech, which He is, offers us life, our God.
But then He’s gone, and we’re left with His absence: a rod.

The “our God” and “a rod” seem tacked on, clumsy extensions of the line needed for the sake of rhyme. They may not be, though, for, in fact, this kind of repetitious apposition is typical of Craig’s style. As I said, it passes as natural in his free verse, but in meter it betrays a general discomfort with artifice and a tendency to repeat and elaborate rather than risk the exactitude that only a more refined vocabulary and unhesitant embrace of formal artifice makes possible.

There is a still a third reason that Craig’s pilgrim poems may be his best, and it becomes especially clear in this latest book, Pilgrim’s Gait. A sensibility alive to the grit of his own life and that of his country and his Church, and yet in constant doubt about the road down which his beliefs or his words may be leading him, consistently generates work of frank moral power. None of the new work in this volume surpasses the earlier pilgrim series, but it sheds light on it and deepens our understanding of, as it were, the pilgrim spirit.

The volume begins with a short series of poems of pilgrim places, such as the shrine at Lourdes. We are indeed with our pilgrim, for he reminds us, when visiting “The Santa Fe Staircase,” “People ate the soil, back when they had no shame, / nothing to lose.” Most of the book, however, consists of a first-person spiritual memoir of Craig’s pilgrimage to the Madonna House, a lay apostolate to the poor, founded in Ontario in 1947, by Catherine Doherty. The clotted deficiencies of style, a preference for repetitious apposition rather than speculative precision, mar the memoir, but not by much. They certainly capture the young narrator’s psychology. We hear of Craig—called “James” in the text—as a young “pagan,” grown unhappy with a life of idle drug use, casual sex, and desultory reading in a graduate program in literature, coming to the Madonna House farm almost out of boredom.

Craig’s depiction of life in the apostolate is honest and unvarnished. The people there are devout, their spirituality an intriguing mystery, but they are not necessarily any wiser than he is and their character not always agreeable. The ritualized life of the farm provides James the stability and chance for reflection he knows he needs, but he finds the labor exhausting and tedious. Catherine Doherty’s public meditations are rich and provocative, they reveal the saintly spirit within, and yet many an auditor drifts off before her lengthy speeches come to their close.

These are indeed pilgrim people, already in love with Christ and seeking to realize his City in the flat and frigid plains of rural Ontario. And yet, while that City may grow even now in the hearts of these faithful, Craig makes clear that they are wandering, they have not yet arrived, and cannot arrive, here and now at the perfection toward which they journey.

An old story about St. Francis tells that he and his friars would wander without aim, choosing their road by spinning about like a top, always trusting to God’s grace. Just so does Craig’s account of pilgrimage place more emphasis on itineracy than destination. James does not appear as an especially charming character. He is a naïf who thinks his saturation in drug culture counts as a disillusioned kind of wisdom, but who nearly suffers his intellectual Waterloo in chatting with a Canadian customs officer. The northern shore of Lake Erie might as well be a different planet. An unbelieving Fraticelli from the start, he sees Canada’s clean cities and reacts with a “paranoid” fear, as if dirt were a sign of authenticity and moral virtue and hygiene a sure mark of bourgeois arrogance. Once at Madonna House, he makes lame attempts at humor of the “doobie” variety and, when these fail, he adopts a most cloying “Tennessee” persona.

He is no Christian, and yet here he is, a pilgrim among pilgrims. He finds their rituals so to resemble “cultish behavior” that he begins plotting escape before the first day is over, and yet he can see the holiness in the faces about him. He can feel peace rumbling beneath the tedium. The story as a whole is a marvelously honest account of how the city of God really does grow up among the city of man, sometimes like moss in cracks of stone. The unrefined prose seldom becomes more precise than this effort of James to describe his natural yearning for and resistance to Catholic piety: “I had to admit I was always a pulpit kind of guy. Still, you had to be such a company man.”

Central to Craig’s purpose is capturing this fumbling grasp with a self that one never knows as well as God does. And God, we see, knows James. The young man undergoes conversion but, he narrates, he also has to learn the limits of conversion. When he has done so, he is ready to take to the road again. He sets his sights on Denver, where a pious Catholic aunt lives, and where he thinks he might be able to continue the apostolate’s work by ministering to addicts.

Still “puffed up” with an image of himself as streetwise and, now, prophetic, James fears that the Bishop there will be “locked up in the old ways” and insistent “on dried-out time worn legalisms, ineffective ecclesial position politics.” The incoherence of the language here (is the problem with “ecclesial position politics,” whatever that means, really just its want of efficacy?) tells us James has still a long ways to wander.

The volume concludes with two extended sequences of poems. The one on Anthony of Padua quoted above, whose wanderings mirror the pilgrim’s in compelling ways, and a concluding one that celebrates what Craig calls the “Beat Catholic” or “blue-collar” Catholic line of poets. Here is Craig’s effort to define the tradition to which his Franciscan poetry belongs. His is a poetry of what Robert Lowell, that most refined, or “cooked,” high modernist of Catholic poetry, called “the raw.” It is one that pairs experiences of poverty with a deliberate poverty of language, and one which views all refinement with a suspicious and admonitory eye such that we cannot always trust we are seeing the world in fullness as it really is.

Readers will find much to admire in Craig’s work, but they will also find, as I have, that its Franciscan love of poverty risks becoming something other than an embrace of all creatures however humble. Poverty may cease to be a sign of holiness and become a substitute for it instead. And then, it leads us to look upon the world not with charity but a jealous and violent kind of zeal—one the Church has struggled to overcome before, and which it risks even now in its efforts to honor Pope Francis’s call for “a Church that is poor.”

Pilgrim’s Gait
by David Craig
Resource Publications, 2015
Paperback, 124 pages.  

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About James Matthew Wilson 23 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).