No genre challenges the practice of silent reading as much as poetry does. This is the main thing I learned while attempting to complete a thesis on the poetry of W.H. Auden a long, long time ago.
I like Auden’s poetry because he’s not as artificial and tiresome as Lowell, Larkin, or Duncan. Things happen in Auden’s writing because it is intellectually lively, theologically informed, and not intentionally opaque. Yet, I could not squeeze a darn thing out of it for my thesis.
I was blocked.
This was playing itself out sometime around Lent. The breakthrough came when I found a recording of T.S. Eliot reading “Ash Wednesday” out loud. Then I found a recording of him reading “The Hollow Men.” I had no idea how funny the latter is until I heard it read out loud. The poet’s voice restored a range of meaning to the poetry that nothing else could.
Then I made the connection and found a whole range of recordings by Auden. Each was a revelation in its own way. There is no doubt I could have never finished my thesis without these recordings. They were fundamental for restoring intelligibility to Auden’s poetry.
Poetry is meant to be performed out loud, just like the liturgy—the connection between these two forms of human expression probably goes to the roots of human history. They are the oldest forms of communication and frequently liturgy was poetry, and poetry was liturgy.
This lesson learned and filed away came back to me on my birthday. Mary Szybist was in Seattle doing a reading from her collection Icarnadine sponsored by IMAGE Journal on February 11. This day is also the World Day of the Sick. Her reading voice reminded me of this day in the Church reserved for celebrating weakness, illness, and vulnerability.
Here is a short excerpt from that poem which gives you an idea of the whole collection's richness:
Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.
At the gym Mary watches shows about how she should dress herself, so each morning she tries on several combinations of skirts and heels before retreating to her waterproof boots. This takes a long time, so Mary is busy.
Mary can often be observed folding the laundry or watering the plants. It is only when she has a simple, repetitive task that her life feels orderly, and she feels that she is not going to die before she is supposed to die.
Mary wonders if she would be a better person if she did not buy so many almond cookies and pink macaroons.
When people say “Mary,” Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things ...
That last line reminds me of Catherine of Siena, who once heard God say, “You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS.”
During my first reading of "Update on Mary" I assumed that the poem was talking about the Virgin Mary. After all, the majority of the poems in the collection take a dizzying range of perspectives upon the Theotokos, especially her incarnation in the cover image, Botticelli’s Annunciation. During the reading I once again experienced the gift of this surprise.
Such confusion is fruitful because it reminds us that Miriam of Nazareth was a real, living, breathing human being. And all human beings can aspire to participate in the divine life by spiritually giving birth to Christ in their daily rounds. And even if the daily rounds are impediments to theosis ("This takes a long time, so Mary is busy"), only the daily rounds ("simple, repetitive task[s] that [makes] her life [feel] orderly") provide a glimpse into that something more which at the very least keeps death at bay.
Szybist clearly struggles with what the Annunciation means for her. It seems to simultaneously empower and bind contemporary women with the high standards that it sets. These contradictions, these wounds, rub against each other so intensely in this collection that they produce the incarnadine (calling forth both incarnation and bleeding) of the title.
They feed off of the sort of struggle that later produces theological reflection.
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For more contemporary poets whose work simultaneously feeds off of and feeds theology, look here.