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.