Of late, a stream of Christian cultural criticism has encouraged conservative evangelicals to “look for God” in contemporary culture. Exhorting us to overcome a rather Manichean dissection of the world into holy and profane, this mode of cultural engagement encourages us to “find God” in contemporary music, Hollywood movies, and various forms of popular culture.
I’m not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel “message” or “theistic” propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belaboured allegorical readings which see “Christ figures” everywhere.
We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we “find God” in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite “useless” —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn’t have seen otherwise—and often because they’ve just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.
Unhooking the arts from a “theological” instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we’ve managed to willfully ignore up to that point.
In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call “horizontal” revelation without necessarily being connected to “vertical” revelation. Like the book of Esther, God might never show up. Nonetheless, the Creator might best be honoured when we face up to the puzzling, mysterious nuances of his creation.
This is why I have become a devotee of the poetry of Charles Wright—not because I “find God” in his poetry (though he does make some cameos, often in the second person, like in prayers), but because through his poetry I see the world again, the world that’s been in front of me this whole time. Wright’s worlds are multiple: Tennessee and northern Italy on dark nights and bright shiny mornings, in conversation with Rorty, Virgil, and Walter Benjamin. He loosens things up in a strangely playful sobriety. Indeed, Wright’s most recent collection, Sestets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), is downright proverbial. Over the course of the book, the compact, repeated form of six lines (the second division of an Italian sonnet, pace Petrarch) takes on an aphoristic lilt tinged with silver-crowned wisdom.
There’s a conceit running through Sestets that tackles the revelatory vocation of the poet. Wright considers this under the rubric of “description,” that attentive unpacking of creation that is at the heart of so many of these poems. The ruse begins with impossibility, as in the poem “Outscape” which opens: “There’s no way to describe how the light splays/after the storm, under the clouds”—but then proceeds to do just that: describe the scene. Thus the poem ends:
There’s no way to picture it,
though others have often tried to.
Here in the mountains it’s like a ricochet from a sea surge,
Meadow grass moving like sea stalks
in the depths of its brilliance.
Given the supposed impossibility of description, that’s a pretty good shot at it. Indeed, Wright is playing with us here: persistently pointing up the limits and impossibility of description in an aw-shucks concession, then giving us four lines of verbal fireworks that light up the otherwise darkened world.
Crucial to this is Wright’s diction, which is central to his poetry without being a matter of lexical range or arcane reference. Rather, it is the very play of language that opens up the world, and Wright seems to delight in stringing together “found” phrases, as objets trouvés waiting to be conscripted into new service. On this score, Wright is no respecter of pretensions: he moves easily from the lexicons of Dante and Rorty to country music and beer commercials. One sees this already in the title of “Hasta la Vista Buckaroo,” which proceeds to explore the undoing of things “like a rhinestone cowboy” dissolving “In a two-bit rodeo.” Glen Campbell was never made so prescient, these “found” words put to work in a new context. (Though, in the spirit of a kind of Appalachian Hopkins, Wright’s also not averse to making up words to match the moment.)
Most often, Wright weds his descriptive power to psychological mining operations, as seen in the turns of my favorite, “The Gospel According to Yours Truly.” The poem opens with a conflicted plea, a prayer verging on mockery, but is really a matter of not quite believing, though wanting to:
Tell me again, Lord, how easy it all is—
Renounce that, and all is a shining—
Tell me again, I’m still here,
your quick-lipped malleable boy.
Who hasn’t so skeptically longed to be made anew? But our moments of resolve are so quickly dissolved by the roiling world around us. And so this turns out to be an entreaty of an Augustinian order, for chastity, but perhaps not quite yet. Looking upward to heaven, the same sky changes in an instant:
(Strange how the clouds bump and grind, and the underthings roll,
Strange how the grasses finger and fondle each other—
I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.
Gnarly and thin, the nothings don’t change . . .)
I don’t mean to suggest that Wright is just a poetic chronicler, a lyrical photographer cataloguing the world. No, his descriptions are hallowings. They expand the mundane. The result is what’s described in the very first line of the book: “The metaphysics of the quotidian” is what Wright’s after, resisting the temptation to float off in metaphysical speculation, but also not content to flatten things down to the merely quotidian. This tension is held together beautifully in “Cowboy Up”:
There comes a time in one’s life when one wants time,
a lot of time, with inanimate things.
Not ultimate inanimate things,
Of course, but mute things,
beautiful, untalkbackable wise things.
That’s wishful thinking, cowboy.
Still, I’d like to see the river of stars
fall noiselessly through the nine heavens for once,
But the world’s weight, and the world’s welter, speak big talk and
“Description,” another poem intones, “is expiation.” It is both “a virtual world” and “a coming to terms with”—it is both invention and response to what’s given. So not only does Wright’s poetry end up being doxological because of its charmed descriptions, he even offers praise of description, as in “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” which points out the lowly status of description in the pantheon of poetic moves, and then in a lightning-quick turn reminds us that nothing comes easy:
Ah, description, of all the arts the least appreciated.
Well, it’s just this and it’s just that,
someone will point out.
Exactly. It’s just this and it’s just that and nothing other.
That poet is apocalyptic who makes us see the world in a way for the first time, and then leaves us unable to imagine how we could have seen it otherwise.