Thoughts on the writing of “modern” poetry

Dan Phillips recently started an accidental firestorm when he took it upon himself to criticize modern poetry. In particular, he criticized the poetry recommended by Karsten Piper. I protest that I was not at the center of the storm – I said to myself, “I will not say anything,” but at last the words burned in my heart and I opened my mouth:

Piper made the assertion that “the most important question is, how did you respond to the poem when you read it? Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today? Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about this afternoon?” I protested that these are not the most important questions, and that, in fact they are bad questions. I offered instead that you should start with more basic questions, such as “what does this poem actually say?” and “does it say it well?” I was told that these kinds of questions are pedagogically troublesome, because they leave no connection between the reader and the poem. They are “well-suited to argument” but “don’t treat poetry as poetry.” And that’s the point where I really had to say something, and since I have a rule that any writing which takes up a substantial amount of my free time by rights ought also to appear on the blog, you have the argument that lays before you. (Below the fold.) Continue reading “Thoughts on the writing of “modern” poetry”

Not Dead Yet

I’ve just learned (via Orson Scott Card) that the National Endowment of the Arts is suffering a remarkable renewal. It seems that, since 2001, the head of the NEA has been a businessman and a professional poet who has never been positioned on the authoritarian side of the professor’s podium, a man named Dana Gioia.

I’m now in the process of reading his article from the Atlantic Monthly, Can Poetry Matter?, which discusses the fact that much poetry written today isn’t even *intended* to matter. A key quote:

Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.

This is essentially the reason that I’ve given up poetry for the most part – I was trained in the art of saying nothing, and saying it well. But it was no way to make a living without a lot of long shots.

At any rate, I see a glimmer of hope that Gioia may play a part in a revival of poetry that actually means something, and may be transforming the NEA into an organization that decent people admire, rather than revile

Good Poetry

Anthony Esolen, who often makes me wish I had gone to college in Rhode Island, has posted a fascinating poem by George Herbert on Mere Comments. I say fascinating because it is deliciously profound and yet… Well, I can’t read it. It doesn’t “scan,” as they used to say.

I can’t tell if there’s some trick of pronunciation, lost in the intervening 400 years, that is causing me to miss beats, or if, at that time, getting precisely the right number of syllables in a line was not considered all that important. I keep trying to screw the oral delivery around until it fits into a nice chant, but it just won’t do, so I suspect Mr. Herbert was being a little cavalier with his rhythm. And this gets under my skin, because I was raised in an era, influenced by Emily Dickenson and E. E. Cummings, which believes that rhyme and rhythm are impediments to the true poetry of free association writing. In reaction, I like the stuff that hits every Iam straight on the head.

Since hardly anyone’s done *that* for over 800 years, I suspect I may be doomed to a life of perpetual minor frustration.


I’m tired of you, pretty baby, being tied up on a string.
Oh get up, little baby, off that light machine.
Please change your color, baby: Go back to white from yellow gold.
‘Cause till you pale up, baby, you’re awfully hard to hold.

Little David Ebenezer is six days old today. Tomorrow will make a week. And for three of those days, so far, our son has been tied to a light bulb. He has jaundice, an affliction he shares with apparently half of all newborns. Jaundice is officially defined simply as unnaturally sallow skin, which today makes me envious of all Asian, Pacific Islander, Indian and African babies, who by the dictionary can’t get jaundice. Continue reading “Jaundice”


I have a paper due in a few days in my class on worship. The task is simple: say *something* about worship in about 5 pages. Interact with three books. And I’ve been hitting a brick wall. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say about worship. Oh golly. It’s that I’ve got too much. So for the next few days, I’m going to be inflicting you, my dear readers, with some of the things I’ve had to work through in order to get on to writing the paper. It’s hopelessly biographical I’m afraid, so I do hope you’ll forgive me. It’s also incredibly long, so I’m going to be breaking it up over a few days. By the time you get to the part that pertains to my paper, the paper (God willing) will already have been turned in.

Worship has been at the center of how I defined myself for the better part of my life. Worship was who I was. I was the worship guy. Worship is what I was all about. At that time, I understood worship to be a kind of mystical experience. When God meets with man, and man sees God for even a piece of who he is, man is both lifted up and demolished, and this… experience… is what I called worship. I have something of a philosopher’s nature in me, so I parsed theories about how worship worked. Worship could be had in private or in groups of various sizes. Worship could be expressed, as God used people to reveal God’s Spirit, character, and nature to other people. This expression came out in the form of spiritual gifts and various arts which could be used to communicate in worship. However, the soul of worship was ultimately in the experience itself, somewhere between catharsis and illumination. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The process of being transformed, as I understood it, consisted of worship.

But in about 1999, my life came to a crashing halt. Everything I thought I had built my life upon turned out not to have enough substance to get me anywhere. It’s very difficult for me to describe this time, because there’s nothing I can point to particularly that was *wrong*. It was just that nothing was particularly *right*. I was training for ministry at a church that had no particular use for my contribution – but why is it exactly that I needed them to need me? I was lonely – though I had never before cared if I had friends. I was going through one of those classic spiritual dry times, and I should have been content to recognize it as such and ride it out. But things just didn’t add up. All around me everything was as ideal as I had ever imagined it, and yet I was discontent – crying, agonizing, discontent. Something in my worldview – my theology – was incomplete. And I didn’t have the first clue what it was.

So I started everything from scratch. Continue reading “Assimilation”

Christian Music

To write Christian music, particularly worship music, requires two things: A good musician and a good knowledge of scripture. The best Christian music will have the highest levels of both. The trouble, of course, is getting them both together. A good theologian, but a poor musician, will create good theological texts, set to bald, tepid, irritating music. Just as bad, a great musician who hasn’t taken the time to thoroughly inform himself of who God is and what he wants, will produce great music that is, by varying degrees, less than Christian.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Continue reading “Christian Music”