Finding a form for prayer

Like the meditative lyrics of Donne, Herbert, and others of the seventeenth century, Ed Block’s are often devotional poems that aim to express his love of God and to kindle that love in the reader.

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The last decade has been dotted with reluctant valedictions for the lost age of the American Catholic Literary Revival. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2003), a hefty biographical history that interweaves the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, sought to capture both the promise and the passing of a time when Catholics found compelling expression in American literary culture. With Percy’s death in 1990, Elie proposes that a chapter in American cultural and religious history has closed.

Dana Gioia’s The Catholic Writer Today appeared almost a decade later and, with carefully couched yet provocative rhetoric, made the plea for the best elements of the Catholic revival to be, well, revived. By almost any measure, Gioia contended, America is a more Catholic country than at any time in the past; the near total absence of Catholic thought and imagination from our public culture impoverishes nation and Church alike. Gioia set about organizing a conference to promote the future of the Catholic Literary Imagination, which took place at the University of Southern California, in 2014. The poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell has organized a sequel conference, which will be held at Fordham University at the end of March 2017.

More than a few Catholic writers and editors bristled at Gioia’s essay, replying that a new generation had indeed emerged to follow, more or less, in the footsteps of the likes of O’Connor and Merton. One age may have ended, but another had already begun. Gioia, meanwhile, insisted that his essay did not doubt it; he merely wished for such new voices to feel a sense of common purpose and to assert themselves—for our good and the good of all their Church.

Continuity and poetic form


What may have gone overlooked in all this are those small signs of continuity between the present and ages past. The journal Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature was founded in 1948, at Marquette University, specifically to contribute serious criticism to the Catholic literary revival, and it has been publishing excellent critical essays in its austere plain beige wrapper ever since. From 1995 until 2012, Renascence was edited by Ed Block, Jr., who encouraged the work of younger scholars even as he sought to keep alive the legacies of great figures from the European and American literary revivals.

Like many an academic critic trained in the twentieth century, Block’s great influences were those poets who also became great critics in their own right. He recently wrote to me that the chief guides and mentors of his younger years were W.H. Auden, especially in his critical masterpiece The Dyers Hand (1962), Yvor Winters’s Forms of Discovery (1967), and above all the work of Denise Levertov, a poet of the American avant-garde whose essays in poetic theory, especially her “Some Notes on Organic Form” continue to shape the practice of American poetry in our day. While Auden fit neatly into the Anglican tradition of liberal humanism and while Winters was a tough-minded non-Christian theist with a deep respect for the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Levertov displayed a romantic religious spirit from her earliest work, one which presaged her conversion to Catholicism in the decade before her death.

This late conversion has had the curious effect of giving Levertov an outsized influence on contemporary Catholic poets, as if the poetic practices with which she experimented over the course of a long and varied career were all retrospectively baptized and now to be taken for the standard conventions of those Catholic poets who would have themselves judged “up to date” with modern and postmodern verse. One sign of this may be found in Block’s own first book of poems, Anno Domini. After a career given primarily to the editing, promoting, and interpreting of others’ work, Block has at last turned the fullness of his attentions from criticism to poetry.

Those who recognize the names of Auden, Winters, and Levertov will anticipate the tensions that pull however gently at the edges of Block’s slight and subtle volume. Auden stands out among modern English poets as one of the great voices for delight in the poem as an artifice whose cunning devices are finally at the service of a humane and humanizing public conscience. Winters too embraced poetic form as a moral and rational ordering of experience, but where Auden thought of rhetoric as a means to speak candidly and cleverly to one’s friends, Winters thought of the iambic line as a disciplining of the soul, a training and hardening of it into a thing capable of stability and endurance even as others run mad.

In contrast, from early in her career, Levertov held that “Form is never more than a revelation of content.” While this could mean a number of things, as she defined it, the poem as it appears on the page—its line lengths and breaks as well as breaks between stanzas—were to emerge “organically” from “moments of vision, of crystallization,” such that the units of “duration” of a stanza will correspond to the unit of a given “movement of perception.” Inspired by the breathless free verse of William Carlos Williams, in whose work the composition or length of a poetic line has nothing whatsoever to do with how it is to be spoken, Levertov’s ordering of a poem on the page seems intended to draw attention to words or phrases specifically by breaking them at odd moments. In “Pleasures,” for instance, we see

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board

The suspension between “lies” and “within” and even more so that between “hidden” and the concrete image of “in white pulp” exemplify this use of “organic” form. Our attention is drawn to the singularity of each image through the pulled apart “blades” of lines.

In “Celebration,” the lines are longer and more regular and so obviously more subordinate to Levertov’s consistent intention, which is just this rousing of attention to the brilliance of individual things in the world. “Brilliant, this day—a young virtuoso of a day,” the poem begins, before turning to

. . . impatient points of bud on spindly bushes—
greener than ever before.
And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for blessing,
a festive rite, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!

We may say this poem has form only if we allow Levertov’s claim that it be only a revelation of content and that each line remain in some sense organically connected to the perception it delivers and indeed exists purely for the sake of that perception.

Auden and Winters would have agreed with the first premise behind Levertov’s theory of organic form, which proposes that “there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal.” They would simply underscore that metrical and stanzaic form at once deepen and clarify what the poet seeks to reveal, so that a fullness of experience can be perceived and communicated. The ontological form of things as real, as knowable, and ordered finds analogical representation in the metrical form of the poem. They would also add, however, that metrical form refines our perceptions, clarifies their rational and emotional meaning, and so makes possible a new or further discovery of reality.

Levertov came to see this analogy between a real order and a verse order as constituting not only a kind of artifice but a sort of falsification. Poetic form must, rather, almost literally translate the form of experience as if, for every moment of perception there must be a stanza or line-unit of the same “duration.” Although Levertov derived her theory from the expressive versification and idea of “inscape,” found in the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and although she never says it directly, her theory is normally taken as a rejection of the accentual-syllabic meter that emerges naturally from the conditions of modern English speech and makes versification possible. Organic form is supposed to replace metrical form.

On the one hand, then, we have two poets who see the poem’s identity as art-work, as made by means of meter and rhyme, and as a means to the perception, understanding, and representation of reality; on the other, we have a poet suspicious of that identity and so desiring to keep poetic language in a somewhat crude and ambiguous “organic” relation to the experience it expresses. So much of Levertov’s work draws our attention to the natural world that, it seems, she feels it an intense obligation that her poetry keep language in contact with the nature it represents so that it too may be “natural.”

At the service of prayer

Block’s spare, modest, quiet, but often weighty lyrics reveal traces of both theories. In “Repentance,” for instance, the short, irregular stanzas seem to guide us organically from moment to moment through a Lenten reflection:

My spotless garment
now a twist of grimy rags,

I stumble to my knees
and claw the stony earth.

I cannot raise my eyes;
my neck is stiff
with sin and selfishness.

Renew me, Lord,
and wash me
in the river of your life.

It appears that each line marks out a grammatical and conceptual unit, with the first two stanzas creating a dependent relation: the first describes the condition of sin, the second the resultant sorrow. In the third, the poet confesses the impotence of sin: we cannot redeem ourselves. So, finally, the fourth stanza offers a prayer of petition for grace. It seems as if form has been entirely subordinated to expressing moments of content.

But, now, listen to the poem with an ear for the iambic measures proper to our metrical tradition, wherein a line of verse is made up of a given number of iambs. Each iamb is composed of an unstressed followed by a stressed or accented syllable. What I hear runs as follows, with accented syllables in bold, pauses marked with a “|”, and the number of iambs per line added in parentheses:

My spotless garment | now a twist of grimy rags, (6)
I stumble to my knees and claw the stony earth. (6)
I cannot raise my eyes; | my neck is stiff with sin and selfishness. (8)
Renew me, Lord, | and wash me in the river of your life. (7)

The movement of the poem is regularly iambic with the variation of line length serving the same purpose that caesura (intralineal pause) and enjambment (the drawing out of grammatical sense across multiple lines) do in the unrhymed iambic pentameter of the drama of Shakespeare and the epic of Milton.

Block has found a way to honor both Levertov’s apparent concern for authenticity of experience and Auden and Winters’s appreciation for the discipline and formal beauty made possible by speech when given form through the refinement of grammar into measure. He does so by concealing, as it were, the refinement of verse within the bare appearance of organic form. The poem that follows, “Matins,” is even more spare a prayer of penitence, with each of its two pleas identical in syntax if not in sense and, beneath that, in meter:

Before the rising of the sun,
in deepest darkness,
be with me.

Before the pounding of my heart
in desperation,
stay with me.

Notice that the falling rhythm of the second line of each stanza (darkness, –ation) ends with an unaccented syllable (what is called a feminine ending) so that the hard stressed imperative beginning the next line completes an iamb while also giving that final line a stark emphasis: “be with me,” “stay with me.” It achieves this without a single non-iambic element, even as the meter is concealed despite the stresses being deliberately rendered more obvious by the line break. Form’s apparent subordination to conceptual content has in fact quietly been reversed so that, in a way Winters would have appreciated, form becomes an auditory, connotative deepening of content, guiding us to weigh certain syllables with fitting feeling.

Winters, and indeed any reader in our verse tradition, would be initially unimpressed by my formulation of this claim. Has it not always been the case that poets coordinate the units of verse sense—metrical foot, line, and stanza—with grammatical, and therefore conceptual, sense to greater and lesser degrees? Our ballads, for instance, are typically built out of four line, rhymed stanzas (of alternating numbers of feet), wherein each stanza terminates a unit of thought. Robert Burns’ “John Barleycorn,” for example, begins,

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

The coordination of metrical unit and grammatical unit reaches is greatest intellectual complexity in the classical English sonnet, wherein two rhymed quatrains offer two related premises whose meaning is deepened or complicated by a third, before the whole poem concludes (usually with a striking reversal of expectations) in a final couplet. Shakespeare at his best illustrates this well. The sonnet becomes the lyric form best able to give form to the syllogistic logic embedded in our thought.

The two poems of Block’s we have examined seem to coordinate sound and sense in this way to a lesser and greater extent, and so may seem to do nothing remarkable. What I find striking is Block’s practice of constructing his verse out of the iamb even as he veils it with the appearance of organic form. Sometimes it is no mere appearance. “Day by Day” addresses Jesus Christ by undulating in units of three and four lines that seem akin to the free verse of Williams:

Day by day,

day by day;

for thirty years,

you watched us,

lived with us,

broke bread,

broke wind

Some of these lines are clearly iambic, but the whole is not. The typography alone gives form, and the form is at the service of content—above all that (here) final and uncomfortable observation that if Christ “broke bread” with us, revealing he was fully man though fully God, so also must he have suffered flatulence like us. As it happens, Milton explores this little fact by the way, in Paradise Lost, but it is clear that Block wants us to focus on these “lived” details in their rousing slap, and the form highlights this by presenting each detail as an isolated “moments of perception.” Other poems, such as “Confession to Sumac,” “The Scar,” “Christ Has Set Us Free,” “John 21,” and “Walking on Water,” are more metrically ambiguous. The majority of Block’s poems, however, are blank iambics—or iambics interspersed with a surprising end rhyme or two—wherein the line lengths are irregular so as to isolate and highlight individual moments of thought.

Why, one asks, has Block gone to such lengths to give us poems that consistently display the principles of organic form but frequently also seem ordered by a true iambic rhythm that varies only in the pauses produced by line lengths? The answer is that Block is searching for a form that will allow poetry most clearly to become prayer. Everything in his work is at the service of prayer. And that, for the modern poet, poses an intractable challenge.

Two islands, two seas

It is true that analogies between poetry and prayer are rife in the modern age. Samuel Beckett identified the two only to dispraise a certain kind of poetry, while the Abbé Henri Bremond thought he had discovered the root of poetic genius in a mode of contemplation fundamentally near to prayer and wrote a whole book on the subject. But these analogies are so frequent only because, since the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, there has been virtually no place for contemplation in modern man’s self-understanding. Whereas the ancient pagan and Christian traditions presumed that human fulfillment could be nothing other than the intellectual soul’s free contemplation of the highest reality and origin of all that is, since Kant, we seem to recognize only two isolated sorts of objects as occasions for contemplation.

With some befuddlement, as we stand in the museum, stare over the pages of a book, or gaze out at the natural world, we think that “aesthetic” contemplation might be something good, though idle enough to do. We kneel by the bedside or in the pew, in Church, and though we are not sure why this is to be done, we recognize that prayer also entails a kind of idling in thought that, even if stretching beyond itself to address our God, still feels interior to ourselves and final. Saint Francois de Salles once wrote that silent prayer is the highest, and we tend to agree insofar as we recognize the language of prayer as a speech directed at no bodily ear and deem this as prayer’s authentic secret.

What we perceive, in other words, are two small islands of contemplation amid two vast seas of hard work and frenetic action. We cannot perceive the fundament that holds them together or quite reconcile how they were ever discovered and approved. What we lack is just that classical understanding that all human activity—strike that, all activity in the world—is ordered to that final fulfilling act of contemplation; that the pure activity of thought is our most authentically human activity, and that any object on which we may rest a contemplative gaze is really being known as true and good in itself for the first time. We are, in brief, contemplative animals. The contemplation of art stands out only because works of art exist for no other purpose than to be thought upon; the contemplation of prayer to God stands out only because he is the absolute and final Truth and Goodness of which the eye of the soul can never see its fill.

Block’s essay, “Poetry, Attentiveness and Prayer: One Poet’s Lesson” (New Blackfriars2008) draws on the writings of Irish Murdoch, Hans Urs von Balthasar, C.S. Lewis, and above all Simone Weil and Levertov to reconnect aesthetic and prayerful contemplation across the waves of distraction on distraction that trammel modern life. In Anno Domini, he guides us through one year of his own life, with each poem beginning in prayer, in a new attempt to make the soul attentive to the mundane realities of the season, or the overturning narratives of the Gospel which have been rendered mundane by familiarity.

Like the meditative lyrics of Donne, Herbert, and others of the seventeenth century, Block’s are often devotional poems that aim to express his love of God and to kindle that love in the reader. But whereas Donne and Herbert did this by striking the intellect with the unfamiliar and “yoked by violence together” conceit, Block generally follows Levertov. That is, he tries to present his own moments of attention with a bare honesty, wherein the final expression remains in clear “organic” relation to his own interior spiritual movements. The results sometimes fall flat, but not usually. The volume’s opening poem, “Mid-Winter Matins” is probably the best, with its plain diction and precise description leading us not from the concrete situation to an abstract, sententious conclusion, but simply to a another concrete moment in time. Once the two are held before the eye of the mind together, they resonate:

The mercury stands at four above.
The twigs I gather break and snap,
the falling sap froze dead within the wood.
The sun just up, the sky is bluish gray,
the promise of a brighter day.

The movement here is restrained with lines of end-stopped iambic tetrameter and pentameter. Block’s horizon dilates through the darkness until he sees pines “black against the morning sky” like the hands of men and women at prayer:

And I remember Merton in his hermitage;
the overalls, the prayers, the everyday routines;
the sacramental fire, kindled,
bringing light and warmth to birth again.

Merton, who drew aesthetic and prayerful contemplation together in his own person; who drew the simplicity of nature and the sublimity of devotion together in his solitary way of life; Merton, that presiding figure over the American Catholic literary revival, becomes Block’s patron for the whole volume. He is a symbol of the mode of thought and the mode of being Block conveys to us in the best of these poems, as he strains to realize in poetry and to realize in his own life the “fact of Incarnation.”

It is clear that Levertov’s instruction in organic form serves as a mediatrix of sorts for Block’s effort to dwell prayerfully and poetically in the upper Midwest as Merton once did in Kentucky. Yes, the Catholic revival is with us still; uneven in its works but invaluable in its effort to draw poetry and prayer together once more and to remind the human person of its ineliminable vocation to the contemplative life.

Anno Domini
by Ed Block
Wipf &Stock, 2016
Paperback, 72 pp.

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About James Matthew Wilson 21 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).

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