Saturday, September 20, 2008

Zagajewski on Religious Poetry

Fascinating interview with Adam Zagajewski (who I mentioned in my previous post on Adam Kirsch’s criticism) at the Poetry Foundation site. The whole article is worth reading, but I found the section on how religious/spiritual poems might be written in the 21st century particularly interesting.

Milosz once said that “we are in a largely post-religious world.” He recounted a conversation with Pope John Paul II, who commented upon Milosz’s work, saying, “Well, you make one step forward, one step back.” Milosz replied, “Holy Father, how in the 20th century can one write religious poetry differently?”

Zagajewski concurred: “I don’t want to be a New Age vague religious crank, but I also need to distance myself from ‘professional’ Catholic writers. I think poets have to be able to find fresh metaphors for old metaphysical objects and longings. I’m a Christian, a sometimes doubting one (but this is almost a definition of a Christian: to doubt also). In my writing I have to be radically different from a priest. My language must have the sheen of a certain discovery.”

His view is a counterpoint to the current fashion of irony, which he decries. “I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus, but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance,” he said. “How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small, but it’s my space.”

Most contemporary openly-religious poetry I have read has been terrible. Perhaps that's because the writers take two steps forward rather than one back? Perhaps because the poems outline something already discovered rather than their language contributing to an ongoing discovery process? Perhaps because they haven't found that space between irony and fundamentalism (much easier to jump to one or the other)? I think Zagajewski is onto something.


Andrew Philip said...

Yes, these are good, pertinent comments. Have you read Michael Symmons Roberts yet, Rob? You really must. There is a genuine sense of discovery and renewal in his work, I'd say.

Beth said...

Rob, it's my birthday today and knowing my love for Polish poetry, Dave sent me over here to read this - and what a good present it was. Most contemporary religious poetry makes me cringe, mostly because it is just that - overtly religious. But poets like Milosz and Zagajewski approach it quite differently, with mind intact but senses alert to wonder. Their approach speaks to me. Thanks for this post - I'm off now to read the full interview!

patrick McGuinness said...

Dear Rob,
this is a non-sequitur to (or from rather) your post, but I can't seem to email you: I'm very grateful for your generous and thoughtful review, 2 years ago, of 19th C Blues. I read the review when it appeared, but having now happened on your poetry blog, I'm delighted that I can thank you personally.
best wishes,
patrick mcguinness

Rob said...

Andy - I read Corpus and enjoyed it - that's all so far. But yes, it's good stuff.

Beth, hope you enjoyed the interview. It's about 2 years old, but I hadn't come across it before. The Internet is too vast, but I'm glad I keep stumbling across good things.

Patrick - the thanks should all be mine. 19th Century Blues was an terrific read. In fact, in my blog entry of 31t July 2007, I wrote, "I’d thoroughly recommend buying '19th Century Blues'. At £3, it’s a real bargain, and probably the best written poetry chapbook I’ve read all year."

patrick McGuinness said...

Well I'm very grateful - for that and for the review. I enjoy this blog and I'll return to it.
all best