What Is a Prophet?

My first thought: Whatever they are, we could use a few now.

The word itself is derived from the Greek: pro (for) combined with phanai (speak), so presumably a person who speaks on behalf of another, with the authority, veracity and wisdom of the source, in times past, usually God.

My second thought: Ah, Walter Brueggeman’s Prophetic Imagination, all of us called to be prophets in the sense of resisting the values of our culture and re-envisioning communities in which Biblical values are the abiding norm.

How’s that working out for us? Hogwash is a Middle English derivative, its original meaning being food past its prime and of dubious nutritional value.

Yet every age, especially one as tumultuous as ours, has its prophets, probably going, as Jesus noticed, without honor in their hometowns, which, given the global age, means pretty much everywhere. Time will sort out the truest, although Jesus’ words are still an accurate touchstone. Certainly, Teresa of Avila remains a solid and enduring prophetic voice, notable both for her soul wisdom and her engagement with the world.

The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs published my poem, “Ode to 1577,” in its Easter 2019 issue. In reading and taking comfort in Teresa’s words, I was struck by the topsy-turviness of her times. Everything changing. Centrifugal forces ripping to shreds formerly-held verities. One researched bit led to another (thank you, Internet). And, I won’t further explain the poem, which is available here online. My thanks to poetry editor Marci Rae Johnson for choosing the poem and to editor Heather Grennan Gary for her support.

Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad? Part II

And Old Women. Thank you, kindred spirit Yeats!

As I thought more about the Sean Reynold - Dobie Moser analysis of participant reaction to the ongoing church crisis, "How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” which appeared online in America Magazine (see my April 9 blogpost), I realized that my poem, “Excommunicate,” published February 4, 2019 in TalkingWriting, describes the flight of the Absolute Doubters from a somewhat despairing can’t we see what’s going on vantage point?

While we are on the subject of “Excommunicate,” it contains an etymological leap that I didn’t address in the poem, or elsewhere. If you studied properly for your SATs, you know that the Latin word for wall is murus. Mun can only mean wall through the verb munio, to fortify or protect with a wall. As happens in every language, the root expanded with prefixes in Latin, with the result that English dictionaries take a short cut and use communis, meaning common as in sharing a wall, as the source for excommunicate. Whew! Believe it or not, I actually try to explain the convoluted historical evolution of some words in the etymological series of poems I’ve been writing. I bet you’ll believe this— it doesn’t work. When I reread the more accurate, easy to defend from a linguistic point of view poems, I get lost, think, what are you talking about? Worse, and why are you talking about that? So I cut to the chase with ‘excommunicate’ and have always hoped for an opportunity to explain. Done.

At least the poem is available online. “Apology” is not available, other than in the print version of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019). If I'm going to stand by the poem in its double Yeatsian madness, it is only right that I make the poem available to anyone who wants to read it. Almost done. (The formatting was a challenge.)

Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology

Long history, that one. Greek, ye olde -log, word,

with apo-, away from. Think Socrates, charged

with not believing in the right gods. Fending off

the accusation, with a little help from his friends. 

Plato. A po LO gi a. How cool does that sound. 

Followed by centuries of let’s-call-them-erstwhile 

Christian apologists, defending the newly-right-God 

against any objections. Using evidence, hard and fast 

like they like, and a long line of each other. 

If you’re catching my drift, you’re noticing that word 

changing horse midstream more than once. Check

out Shakespeare, where good apologies started

to depend on regret, till now when apologizers and

apologists have fully parted ways. Although really,

don’t they still need each other? Our newly sainted

John Paul got on a roll. Apologies: Come one 

and all, you we burned at the stake, sacked with

our Crusades, sold into slavery, stole with legislation,

converted, persecuted, ignored when you needed

us most. We’re sorry. Mistakes have been made.

Are we missing anyone? Oh, them. Of course.

Papal apologies come to town regularly on their 

honking-big camels, struggling for breath through gagging 

halters, nose pegs, buckling under saddles, weighted 

down with bags of gold and Renaissance art. Not as 

much as you might think. The apologists are there to help 

them pass through the eye of an excruciating needle.

Is That You Spewing Invective?

If you are referring to the publication of “Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology” in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, then unfortunately, yes, that is my poem. I never thought I would be a voice of outrage in and toward an institution that I have loved my whole life and from which I have gained so much, the Catholic Church. But so it is. This poem is not the only one I’ve published lately which looks, shall we say, askance at the church, but it is the best. 

America Magazine published an insightful article online, April 8, 2019, “How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” Its authors, Sean Reynolds and Dobie Moser, cofounders of Mustard Seed Consultants, facilitate group workshops about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. They use the work of George Wilson S.J. to examine levels of doubt among the participants. I regretfully see that I fall into the category of Ethical Doubt, which is one remove from Absolute Doubt, people for whom the Church has proven permanently and deeply corrupt and basically irrelevant. This article helped me identify and categorize my own intensity, but also it is helping me understand why I get so annoyed with conversations that try to deal with the issue on the level of behavioral or procedural fixes. I look around at my Catholic kinspeople and wonder, What are we thinking? Can this possibly be okay with us?

We need women priests, married priests— yes, but we need more than that. We need institutional reform, apologies, restitution—yes, but still more. And deeper. We need metanoia, a complete transformation. We need prayer, humility, corporate and individual penance. A whole new presence in the world. We need God. 

Back to the poem: I’m grateful to Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019) editor Mary Ann Miller for choosing to publish this poem in a venue for readers and writers interested in Catholic poetry and, presumably, Catholicism. For whatever reason, I have felt morally obligated to get into print these jeremiads. I hope I’m done.

Read Any Good Books Lately?

As a matter of fact, I have: Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim: Poems (Paraclete Press, 2017), for one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Angela and think the world of her, as a person and as a Catholic artist-intellectual. I’ve also read (and frequently reread) everything that I’m aware she has written. But I hope that doesn't preclude my being honest about her work, so let me say boldly that  Still Pilgrim, a 58-sonnet sequence, is her best work yet. I wrote a review which was just published in Adanna, Issue 7, 2017. Some excerpts from the review provide a good summary:

    In this collection, O’Donnell takes up the challenge of probing the tensions and insights in the oxymoronic persona of a “still pilgrim,” using the stuff of her own life…
    Unlike the traditional Pilgrim’s Progress, O’Donnell’s contemporary pilgrim need not advance under the rubric of steady improvement, yet develops in her own way from one section to the next. Rather than negotiating a larger universality as the allegorical hero Christian does, this pilgrim, clothed in particulars, manages the same. Many of O’Donnell’s poems play off Catholic-Christian references, as well as familiarity with literary figures, Keats, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost and, of course, Flannery. To enjoy the subtleties, the poignancy and even the humor of this book, readers need to share the pillars of O’Donnell’s spiritual-cultural-intellectual world, but not her dogma. 

Still Pilgrim: Poems
By Angela Alaimo O'Donnell

I reviewed another book by the well-known Irish-Catholic poet Micheal O’Siadhail, One Crimson Thread (Bloodaxe Books, 2015) for the first issue of Presence: Journal of Catholic Poetry. It very honestly chronicled the last year or so in the life of Brid, his wife of 44 years. My review provides, once again, a summary:

The book opens, as all good books do, in medias res. While Bríd has suffered from PD (Parkinson’s Disease) for years, her husband admits that something worse has now intruded, “I stammer it: Dementia.” This, the result of all his prayers? “I ask and ask but do I ask in vain? / Have I received a stone instead of bread.” He interprets this as the true separation, “Unravelling our long-ravelled crimson thread. / My Bríd have you begun to take your leave?” Thus, in the first poem, O’Siadhail, a Catholic, sets up what is to follow: the possible severing even in life of their sacramental oneness, the gradual leave-taking necessitated by death. God is part of the equation, but God is not part of the separation. 

One Crimson Thread, like Still Pilgrim, consists entirely of sonnets. Maybe it is a self-selected group, but it seems to me that a lot of Catholic poetry is formal. Why, I always wonder. When I asked a friend’s opinion, she speculated that a sense of order, akin to the medieval great chain of being, still prevailed as part of our faith.  If so, the sonnets being written today have quite a challenge. It is not obvious in this blog, but I’m generally not a fan of sonnets. Or maybe I am and don’t realize it. Reading the work of these two poets, who fill formal vessels with longing and disorder as only sonnet masters can do, I certainly become a fan.


Why Do You Need Another Photo of Yourself?

Do you mean that the one currently on my website is fine, even flattering, since both my hair and mood were peaking that day? Yes, but as you know, I don’t really identify with that image.

I need a photo that is more real, truer to the me that might show up if we were discussing the state of the world, or something close to my heart, poetry. Or even, let’s say Catholic poetry, as might be found in the upcoming issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, edited by Mary Ann Miller, Ph.D., of Caldwell University, New Jersey. The first issue, many months in the making, promises to deliver a jolt of highly seasoned work.

In recent news, Mary Ann has asked me to join Presence as an Associate Editor. Hence, the request for the soon-to-be-posted-on-their-website photo. Of far greater urgency than this symbolic photo, though, is my desire to contribute to the journal in whatever way I can. And also to articulate my sense of the journal’s mission, if that’s not too programmatic a word for a necessarily open-ended endeavor.

I have long lamented the lack of a national journal specifically and solely dedicated to Catholic poetry. Catholic poets do not know where to find each other. Readers hungering for poetry by Catholic poets do not know where to look (probably also true for other art forms. Not just poetry). 

This is not identity politics; it’s about fostering artistic growth and integrity within a cultural community. With no easily accessed circle of writers and readers, we can’t flourish. We stagnate. We feel unnecessarily isolated. Stuck. Unable to move forward. Not sure where forward is.

To proclaim oneself a journal of Catholic poetry strikes me as a brave. Especially when the goal is not to exclude other voices, as Presence’s mission statement on the website makes clear. It’s more about clearing a space where specifically Catholic references can be understood and appreciated without footnotes, where the rich intellectual history of the Catholic Church is still relevant. Where the invisible, when approached, is accessed through the visible. I’m tempted to say “made manifest,” but that’s gonna have to be up to the individual poets.

It goes without saying that the poetry itself has to be good, better than good; it has to be excellent. Be it a pantoum of the Nicene Creed, no matter how Catholic, if it doesn’t work as a poem, let it go elsewhere to seek publication. In fact, the Catholicity of a poem is not always a plus. A poem, by definition, uses language, words, holy, beautiful words. By which, I don’t mean lofty words, but right ones and oh so! exciting when they are right. And a good poem has to be grounded in something real, whole-life struggles and glories, not theory or intellectual history. 

I have faith that a journal, such as Presence with its clearly identified focus, can have a big impact. As above, it creates community, the benefits of which can seep out into the wider Church community and maybe even society, as a whole. In an earlier conversation with Mary Ann, I said I hoped to see a prophetic voice emerge. Not something we can go out and solicit, we decided. But nevertheless one that we aspire to recognize when it comes our way.

Is Everything Blear, Smear and Toil?

No. “The Importance of Feeling Special” appeared on the *82, issue 4.3 earlier this month. One of my favorites from the prose poem series, so it is gratifying to see it out there. Star 82, or as above *82, edited by Alisa Golden, is available online and in a print edition. The website is clean and attractive. Altogether satisfying. 

Contributors can purchase a print version of the issue at a reduced rate. Of course, I missed the window of opportunity in which to exercise this option, so needed to order it from Amazon like a non-special person. No problem. I’m interested in these proliferating models of publication. *82 is published by Create Space, an on-demand publishing platform affiliated with Amazon. From the looks of the online version, the publication contains quite a bit of visual art, so I look forward to seeing the print version.

Weirdly enough, the graphics on the site are similar to the Hopkins cover on the August 28 blog. Which emboldens me to ask the question posed in this last set of blogs: Is this a Catholic poem, despite its wacky persona and lack of theological references? Well, it was written by a cradle Catholic, one who was educated in Catholic schools at a time when the nuts and bolts of the faith were minutely examined, in a way that I doubt happens much today. If the truth be told, I’d have to have a lobotomy to excise my Catholicness. Am I then writing ipso facto Catholic poems? By Dana Goia’s definition, in The Catholic Writer Today (see August 15 blog), I am. One of his starting points: “Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious… What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview.” 

Shouldn’t any classically trained Catholic, worth his or her salt, be able to identify Catholic themes in almost any piece of literature? Because aren’t these universal human struggles? So, for an easy bit of cherry-theme-picking, I see in “The Importance of Feeling Special” the longing for intimacy and validation (Isaiah’s God who calls us by name) and those analogically rain-challenged sacramental azaleas. And as women’s humor, however formulated, must be based on inner confidence, rather than self-deprecation, so Catholic writing is challenged to walk a similarly thin line between fullness and lack.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Mary Ann Miller, editor of a new independent journal, Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, affiliated with the English Department at Caldwell University, New Jersey, will soon find out. It is the only publication, of which I’m aware, exclusively devoted to Catholic poetry. 

According to the website, the idea for Presence emerged at a panel discussion at the 2015 Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination conference, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at UCLA. Conference participants, Dana Goia, Paul Mariani and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, join Susanne Paola Antonetta, William Baer, Paul Contino, and Judith Valente to form an amazing board of advisors. 

Presence opened to submissions on September 1. According to the mission statement, the journal is interested in work “of artistic merit,” “informed by the Catholic faith,” with the goal of eventually fostering “a community of writers who recognize Catholicism as fertile ground for the flourishing of contemporary poetry.” I am thrilled. And wish everyone connected with this new venture abundant grace and blessings.

Because they, we need it. Imagination. Catholic Literary Imagination. 

I went to Mass this morning, a Wednesday. What was the first reading, if not the Corinthians passage suggesting, “brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” I know we can do a song and dance routine to force this passage to make sense, but should we have to, on a relatively frequent basis? How many times is this reading used in the liturgical cycle? Or is it my luck to always hear the Scriptural advice to hold my breath and wait til this thing called life is over?  On this beautiful morning, did we in the pews not shoo these words away, blah, blah, blah, best not to listen to this one, because we’re sticking with our Catholic program, however annoying and off-putting it is at times?  

A cherished assumption among Catholic artists is that art has the potential to be incarnational, exploring, as the Presence mission statement puts it, the many “ways God’s presence is communicated to and experienced by human beings.” And only imagination bridges that gap. Imagination not the stripped-down economy trip, but free and unfettered, on the wings of an extravagant, intrusive dove.

Presence website can be found at http://www.catholicpoetryjournal.com


Who is the Greatest Religious Poet of the English Language?

I admit to phrasing this question for maximum annoyance. I want the fun of saying, unequivocally, that the correct answer is Gerard Manley Hopkins. I still have the 1961 Penguin Poets selections of his poems and prose, much the worse for wear, which blew me away (before those words entered the lexicon) while I was in high school. And provided my first authentic experience of poetry. (This is not fair to Emily, who actually was my first love, but Hopkins out-sprung and out-alliterated her.) 

In that mythical afterlife where we get to meet the dearly departed, I hope Hopkins shows up in my neighborhood. I know he can’t possibly live next door to me, but maybe he could pass through my circle and we could catch up a bit. I’d tell him how much we had in common and hope for his forebearance, how I too taught Latin and tried my hand at ancient Greek and studied Chaucer and Beowulf, how none of it took in my own poetry, but at least it primed me to recognize a guy who rocked. The word play and alliteration, I’d tell him I know they come from a strangling bottom. And the distillation of all that angst and spiritual ambition, the dribble into the world of the best, the purest. 

He’d be very nice to me. I have no doubt. Despite the fact that I’ve stalked him for years, writing inane comments in the margins of books since those high school days. Next to a passage in W. H. Gardner’s Introduction, expatiating on the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus’ haecceitas and humanitas, I wrote “It seems odd that the Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus had such an influence on a Jesuit priest.” Really now? I ask that naively rounded hand of yesterday. 

I pontificated on many other issues that could easily be used to self-satire, but my overwhelming feeling is gratitude that Hopkins as a person, as a scholar and as a poet engaged me so deeply. Yet I wonder with his obscure references and diction, if his stature as a poet, the best and greatest designation that I’m so eager to award him, will decrease with time.

Well, worry no more! Entering bookshelves everywhere The World Is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Daniel Westover and William Wright, published by Clemson University Press (2016). What an amazing testament to the influence that Hopkins has had on contemporary poets! It is a beautiful book, filled with gorgeous poetry, carefully edited, and strikingly similar to the aesthetics of my first Hopkins anthology. Believe me when I say that I am thrilled that my poem “Strife” was chosen to be published in this anthology. Pull up a chair, I’ll tell Father Hopkins when he stops by, and I’ll read it to you.

Not Being Rumi, Did You Say Anything?

Of course. Call it a throwback to adolescence. Call it a Faustian ploy. Call it reappropriation from the pew. Whatever the reason, I was too deeply rankled to let a previously mentioned comment by an editor (“You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi”)  go unexamined. Maybe no one, certainly not me, has the street creds to claim transcendence or, worse, to parlay any fleeting experience. But since William James, shouldn’t we sometimes try?

The poem I wrote in response appropriated the words of spiritual masters, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, John Donne, G. M. Hopkins, in collage-like rebuttal. A little self-mockery, mixed with a serious purpose. And that poem was published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, an English professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In the same neck of the woods as Alan Jacobs (see August 15 blog).

According to the publication’s site, Windhover, a beautifully produced annual, is gearing up to publish two issues a year. Good news. In the submission guidelines, Windhover describes itself as “dedicated to promoting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that considers Christian perspectives and spiritual themes.” Excuse me for saying that this seems a low bar to meet, if we believe along with Paul to the Romans, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” Do editors of avowedly Christian publications have a difficult job, deciding when poetry and orthodoxy part ways, which one wins? But even more fundamental is recognizing this Christian perspective, when it’s out of its Sunday best. Hansen is gently trying to steer his publication away from what he calls “the didactic, the melodramatic, the trite, the obvious,” and hoping that poetry wins.  

Sofia Starnes, a powerful Catholic poet in her own right, has helped raise the profile of poetry at Anglican Theological Review, where she is poetry editor. In the Summer 2016 newsletter, Roger Ferlo, President, ATR Board of Trustees, praised the journal’s unfolding commitment to the “rapprochement between theologians and imaginative writers.” In the same newsletter, Starnes explains succinctly, “Whenever I read a poem I seek to be taken to a place that would be inaccessible through prose.”

There are many other excellent religious-art-interested journals out there. I mention these two publications only because I am familiar with them and their dedicated editors whose work is bearing increased fruit. 

What Can You Say, If You’re Not Rumi?

Depends, as does the proverbial red wheelbarrow. Williams’ poem and this editor’s comment (see May 15, 2016 blog where I recount how I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi” ) persist as personal rocks and hard places between which I floiter (my new portmanteau for flounder - loiter). I was going to say they are my spiritually aesthetic Scylla and Charybdis, but I’ve come around to agreeing that using obscure classical references locks readers out. Of course, these references will become culturally even more obscure from lack of use, but I’m starting to forget them all anyhow. So we move on…

What can any of us say? And where? And on whose authority? In the September 2016 issue of Harper Magazine, Alan Jacobs of Baylor University concludes his probing article, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?,” with the comment, “I think that, from the Fifties to the Seventies, American intellectuals as a group lost the ability to hear the music of religious thought and practice. And surely that happened at least in part because we Christian intellectuals ceased to play it for them.”

Likewise, I can’t help but ask, where are the Christian poets? And their interesting subset, the Catholic poets? Dana Goia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), met this question head-on in “The Catholic Writer Today” in the December 2013 issue of First Things. He remains hopeful for a renaissance in the Catholic literary imagination but admits “contemporary American letters has little use for Catholicism, and Catholics have retreated from mainstream cultural life.” The solution, “the renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers.” Not only in isolation, but in the forging of new communities. 

I wonder what these communities will look like, with the diminished role of the Catholic intellectual. Or if I can even allow myself to think this, the diminished freedom of the Catholic intellectual. 


Jacobs’ article can be found here
Goia’s article can be found here