Marilynne Robinson on Poetry and Religion

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.

14 comments on “Marilynne Robinson on Poetry and Religion

  1. dw says:

    I loved that essay (even though some of the bits in Death of Adam seemed too pat, for me).


  2. Alegria Imperial says:

    But there is no arguing that some of the highest forms of poetry are in the Scriptures and most of the deepest written today are those about agonies about faith.

    I agree to all points in this essay. For someone, like me, to whom words have been both a lifeline and at times a deadend (or death-end), nuances have posed a constant struggle; I’m using a language not native to my tongue, but the only language with which I have been reading and writing.

    Words are not mere instruments to my understanding. They are living symbols–this I realized when I first traveled to America and dared to write in the raw-ness of acquired language; I discovered my language was fifty years backward. Only when I started living here have I caught some nuances I used to miss. But then, what I can’t excise from me is how I weave words unconsciously as these have embedded in my own culture, thus, often ‘twisting’ nuances. Still, I believe, I, as all poets and writers, at times reach that bed of ‘Great Memory’, as Yeats described it in his poetics ‘Ideas of Good and Evil’ under ‘Magic’ as I now quote from a selection included in the Gary Geddes edited 20th-Century Poetry & Poetics, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1969, thus:

    “I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half unconciously by their successors, the poet, the musician, and the artist…Whether their power has arisen out of themselves, or whether it has an arbitrary origin, matters little, for they act, I believe, because the Great Memory associates them with certain events and moods and persons. Whatever the passions of man have gathered about, becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils. The symbols are of all kinds, for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous or trivial, in the Great Memory, and one never knows what forgotten events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into the great passions…

    And surely, at whatever risk, we must cry out that imagination is always seeking to remake the world according to the impulses and the patterns in that Great Mind and that Great Memory? Can there be anything so important as to cry out that what we call romance, poetry, intellectual beauty, is the only signal that the supreme Enchanter, or some one in His councils, is speaking of what has been, and shall be again, in the consummation of time?”

  3. Proodydek says:

    [url=]buy viagra online[/url] Medicate euphemistic pre-owned to curing powerlessness

  4. zhenimsja says:

    Hello, comrade! I’m totally acclaim this way of thinking and everything connected.

  5. Good post! thank you

  6. RitEthige says:

    Поправте верстку в опере читать не возможно.

  7. E Cigarette says:

    I do not regret that spent a couple of minutes to read. Write often, yet surely’ll go read something new.

  8. sigarety says:

    Thanks for the article! I hope the author does not mind if I use it for your coursework.

  9. Veksinjenue says:

    There are a few questions on your site.
    How can I contact the administration?

  10. intim says:

    I would also like something added of course, but in fact it is said almost everything.

  11. maul says:

    Just a great resource, congratulations!

  12. scoogninC says:

    It’s good article. as we are in a very advanced generation so we should use new technology and application for each and every thing.

  13. Veksinjenue says:

    There are a few questions on your site.
    How can I contact the administration?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.