Novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (The Death of Adam) reviews Harold Bloom’s new anthology American Religious Poems in the May 2007 issue of Poetry magazine. The book itself is merely the jumping-off point for an eloquent, original essay on how poetry and religion both need and exceed the boundaries of rational analysis. Some highlights:
Any reader of Ecclesiastes or the Book of Job is aware that the canon of scripture has room for thought that can disrupt conventional assumptions about the nature of belief, whether these assumptions are held by the religious or by their critics. Indeed, religion is by nature restless with itself, impatient within the constraints of its own expression….Any writer who has wearied of words knows the feeling of being limited by the very things that enable. To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire….
There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not “understand” what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, “understood.” If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be “understood.”
Again, poetry is best interpreted by poetry. William Carlos Williams tells us vastly more about Walt Whitman than the whole tribe of his critics and biographers can hope to tell us. Whitman made Emerson far greater than Emerson was on his own. Perhaps Sophocles did as much for Homer. Likewise, to the exasperation of those rationalists who wish they would just say what they mean, religions interpret themselves in religious terms. If the Gospel of Luke doesn’t make sense to you, Augustine and Luther won’t either. Those who look into this anthology are likelier than others to have some experience of poetry and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretation and paraphrase. But religion, not only in America, has been seriously distracted by the supposed need to translate itself into terms a rationalist would find meaningful. So liberals have set out upon a long, earnest project more or less equivalent to rewriting Shakespeare into words of one syllable—if such a thing can be imagined as an effort fired by moral passion and carried out by people who would themselves confess to a deep affection for Shakespeare. Fundamentalists have responded with a furious rejection of the very thought that the Bible might operate at the level of poetry, which amounts to a literalist insistence that the text is already available to understanding in the rationalists’ own terms and which yields endless futile controversy, notably about creation. This collaboration of supposed antagonists, liberals, and fundamentalists has meant that, for the moment, religion and poetry seem alien to one another as, historically, they have never been.
But the problem of paraphrase is deeper yet. Anyone, asked to give an account of her or his deepest beliefs, will experience embarrassment and difficulty. This is true because of the way belief lives in experience. By analogy, it is impossible to know how many nuances and associations a given word has until they are discovered in the use of the word, or in the recognition of a novel inflection given the word by another speaker. Even the most familiar words exist in us in a field of potentiality to which paraphrase can never be adequate. What but poetry could arrive at Wallace Stevens’s phrase, “the the”? On the same grounds, the expectation that a straightforward account can be made of any system of belief is naive, and attempts to accommodate the expectation are also naive. This is not to say that religion is closed against the inquirer. No more is poetry. However, like mathematics and music, they must be approached in terms that are appropriate to them. If the individualism and pluralism of American culture have indeed been especially friendly to the flourishing of religion, perhaps this is true because they discourage blanket statements about religious belief, which are always inadequate and disheartening.
Read the whole essay here.