Wednesday, April 13, 2022

On a Lenten Rondel

What poetry needs is a place at the table. There has never been, I believe, so little popular interest in poetry as there has been for the last fifty years or so. And yet there is no lack of reverence towards poetry. We have too much reverence, and too little familiarity (in both senses of that word).

We put poetry into cordoned-off areas, to be safely exalted and ignored.

Some time ago I submitted a poem to an online journal for which I have written quite a few articles. I was told that several people had submitted poems to the journal, and that the editors were working on a separate publication in which such creative writing would appear.

But this is the whole problem in a nutshell. Confine poetry to its own publications, its own events, its own websites, and very few people are ever going to read it.

It's hard to believe that poetry, not so long ago, was a staple of every sort of magazine and newspaper. If you don't believe me, read some literary biographies from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

The problem today is not that there are no "spaces" for poetry. There are. But poetry never really escapes from them. There are poetry slams and poetry websites and all sorts of poetry repositories, like this one which was created by my own library-- "Poetry in Lockdown".

It's a noble initiative, but who is going to read all these poems crammed together into an online collection? Who is going to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and browse through "Poetry in Lockdown"? Nobody. So much poetry in one place, so barely presented, is somewhat overwhelming.

Related to our excess of reverence for poetry, today, is a reluctance to talk about it in the same way we talk about everything else. We are too conscious of silly maxims such as Archibald MacLeish's "a poem should not mean but be." We have been more or less convinced that anything we deign to say about a poem is almost certainly reductive, vulgar, obvious, missing the point, etc.

But to place something above or beyond analysis is really to push it out of sight and out of mind.

Whenever I've shared my poetry with people (with a very exceptions), the reaction is generally twofold:

1) I like it.

2) It makes me think of X or Y or Z.

But what I was really gunning for is a critical reaction. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What does it suggest to you in terms of meaning and association? Exactly the sort of critique anyone would have about a film, a novel, a painting, a piece of music. I just want my poem to be treated as a piece of work, not as pure sacred self-expression, immune from analysis.

There is no shortage of people writing poetry (which is a good thing in itself), and even platforms (of some kind) where that poetry can be shared. But there is no real discussion of any of this poetry, outside the ivory towers of the academy. It's just there. Take it or leave it.

So today I am going to discuss a poem-- not written by me, but by Dominic N of the "Some Definite Service" blog.

It's a poem which has been posted on the blog for several Lents running, but with subtle changes over the years. I suggested to Dominic that he should write about the evolution of the poem, and he did so in this post.

Being a lover of texts about texts, and of texts about texts about texts, I am now going to write a little bit about the poem myself-- not concerning myself with the different drafts (though that would be interesting), but with his latest version.

Here it is:

All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent.
All grunged-up souls, all people pent
In pleasure’s prison, bravely cast
Your senseless sin aside at last:
Believe the Gospel and repent.
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent.
The thirst and hunger will not last,
For by God’s Son, who underwent
The Cross, we know that we are meant
For Heaven’s home when pain is past —
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast.

First of all, I think this is an excellent poem. The use of the rondel form in itself is an achievement, being a highly restrictive and exacting format. There are only two rhymes in the whole poem, which gives it a strong sense of compression and containment. The repetition of the two rhymes adds emphasis, to this very simple and unambiguous poem.

It's a highly rhetorical poem. The poet addresses the reader directly, in the first line and the last. Indeed, the poet addresses the readers collectively, giving it something of an air of a sermon.

The use of repetition is the most notable feature of this poem. The repeated lines are exhortations, again emphasizing the rhetorical tone of the poem. One of the most important functions of poetry is to inspire, and this is obviously a poem that sets out to do this.

It's a rather melodramatic poem, a characteristic that I think both a strength and (possibly) a weakness. The first line is both melodramatic and emotional, reminiscent of evangelical religious language that seems (sadly) quite old-fashioned today. This is a bit daring but, I think, very effective. It surprises the reader and wakes her up. "Believe the Gospel and repent" is also a powerful line, since this is in effect the essence of the Gospel. In fact, to read the Gospels is to realize how far we tend to drift from this basic fact, that Jesus called on us to believe and repent, above all else.

However, I do think the melodramatic nature of the poem might be a weakness-- or, more positively, something that gives the reader pause for thought. After all, is the modern Lent really an ordeal? There are two days of fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), and six Fridays of abstaining from meat. These days a lot of people abstain from meat anyway. In terms of the core requirements, Lent really seems more of an inconvenience than an ordeal.

But that's the minimum. Aren't we supposed to go beyond that? Yes, most of us "give something up". This year (as I've done several years previously), I gave up listening to music. Even though I allowed myself to break this musical fast on Sundays (and St. Patrick's Day), it still bites a little. But only a little.

We could go much further, and doubtless many do. The English politician Anne Widdecombe, for instance, only drinks water during Lent-- a privation which strikes me with awe! However, I think such people are in a minority. References to "holding fast", the "desert", and "thirst and hunger" seems somewhat incongruous and excessive.

But perhaps I am taking too literal a reading of the poem? Perhaps the poet is thinking of the spiritual ordeal of Lent, a time in which we are meant to spend more time in reflection, prayer and self-examination. This is possible. However, I still think it seems unrepresentative of modern life. It's very difficult to "retreat" during Lent, in our post-Christian and pluralist societies. Sadly, Lent does not throw its atmosphere over its stretch of the calendar, as do Christmas and summer and other periods of time. I think it's rare (to put it mildly) to remember something that happened during Lent and say (or think): "I remember one Lent..." Outside a Catholic church, with its covered statues and purple hangings, you'd hardly know it was Lent. And it's very difficult to preserve a Lenten spirit, a Lenten outlook, in all the animation and bustle of everyday life.

Similarly, "pleasure's prison" strikes me as excessive. How many of us are really hedonists? Life still seems a condition, as Samuel Johnston put it, in which "much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed". It seems to me that most of us spend most of our time working, studying, commuting, taking care of children (or parents), enduring small talk and obligatory social calls, keeping fit, seeking to improve ourselves in one way or another-- somehow (I may be wrong) I think hedonism is the besetting sin of few enough people these days. Although we neglect our souls, I don't think we do it for the sake of pleasure. I'm even inclined to think our society could do with more simple, wholesome pleasure, not less. However, "pleasure's prison" is certainly a ringing phrase, taken on its own.

As I've said already, however, it might be that this contrast between Lent as it should be, and as it really is, is a virtue of the poem. It's a salutary reminder. After all, here we are; another Lent gone and we have not really lived it as we should have.

While I am criticizing the poem, I will mention a final thing I don't like so much. "Grunged-up" seems a little too slangy and discordant; admittedly, my taste in poetry might err towards the over-polished and the over-refined. I can't help thinking of nineties grunge music and fashion.

Other than that, I have only good things to say about the poem, especially its use of language. "Your senseless sin" pleases the ear, and reminds me the intellect of sin's futility; I may consider "these desert days" and "thirst and hunger" to be excessive in terms of our actual experience of Lent, but the simplicity and vividness of the phrases themselves are effective; "for Heaven's home when pain is past" is a line which is a pleasure in itself, having something of the naivety and simplicity of Anglo-Saxon poetry. (There are plenty of echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in this poet's work.)

Dominic himself was somewhat critical of the lines:

For by God's Son, who underwent
The Cross, we know that we are meant
For Heaven's home when pain is past--

He describes these lines as being "a little more awkward for the reader", though he is satisfied that he has "avoided anything contrived". I think he has done better than that. This is a poem chock-full of simple, direct, simple statements, a thing that is very difficult to achieve in poetry. Most poems have too few direct statements; this poem almost errs on the side of too many. The slight stiffness and indirectness of these lines is a pleasing contrast to this, and this temporary change of pace and tone makes the last few lines all the more powerful in their renewed directness. I like "who underwent the Cross" very much; it gives me a frisson. It has a slightly medieval flavour to it.

As I say, an excellent poem. Like all good poems, its merit becomes clearer as you analyse it. It's by no means this poet's best poem, or even one of his best. It is rather limited in its scope, which is part of is appeal. There is no room here for his usual subtle humour, or his celebration of ordinary modern life. But it does what it does very well.

And I am very happy to be able to post my analysis of it on Spy Wednesday, one day before the end of Lent!


  1. Dear Maolsheachlann,

    First of all, thank you very much indeed for writing this piece. It is a privilege to have my lines written about in this way: thank you for going to so much trouble with it. You have understood everything I intentionally put into the poem, and you also pointed out some things I didn't realise about it. And your criticisms are fairly made. I'm very grateful, both for your kind words and for your careful criticism. And I've nothing to add to that!

    More generally, you are quite right: this is the sort of thing that poetry needs. I enjoyed the first part of your piece just as much as I did the second. Yes, why on earth shouldn't we be talking about poetry in the way we approach films and music? Just as you say: "I just want my poem to be treated as a piece of work, not as pure sacred self-expression, immune from analysis."


    1. You are welcome! I actually greatly enjoyed writing this piece and it could have been considerably longer. How little the world knows the pleasures it is denying itself in making poetry a virtually taboo subject... Thank you for taking criticism so well.

      Here's hoping we can gather a few kindred souls and launch an attack on the citadel of vers libre!