JMW: It seems as though skepticism has become the default position to combat the prevailing (perhaps perceived) religious modes of the right—yet that position’s limits can seem constrictive and fruitless except as a kind of armor. As a believer, as you say, what’s at stake for you as a religious poet? Is that markedly different from a student in one of your classes who wants to get serious about poetry, but says, instead: “I’m a nonbeliever”?
PO'L: Provocative question. I would never impose my beliefs or assert the worth of religious poetry over any other poetry in a classroom or with any of my students. I want my students to learn the value of diction, image, and tone (for instance), or melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. And that’s a project of several years! So, no reason to press religious concerns. Even so, at the Art Institute, because I teach classes in religion regularly, my creative writing students cross over. And beyond that, at the Art Institute, all of my students are art students: they’re all interested in making things. Anecdotally, I find more resistance to religious ideas – or, more specifically, Western religious ideas – among people in English departments than I do among art students, whose instincts are less toward skepticism and more toward a kind of porousness that functions as an opportunism: What can I use and how can I use it?
What’s at stake for this religious poet? Grandly, the salvation of my soul. Minutely, well, the same thing. Secularization is the ongoing trending tendency in the West since the Enlightenment; this is especially true among intellectuals, academics, and the many creative workers who make their livings in environments supported by academic institutions, especially in the humanities. I’m not entirely sure why this is so, except as a behavioral donning of the armor you noted in your question. But what are these people protecting themselves from? What’s their vulnerability?
In his memoir, Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes (in a somewhat abstract third-person) how as he was making the shift completely from being a computer scientist to an artist in his 20s, he gave himself over to the study of logic for a period, more to follow a hunch than to gain some understanding. (Coetzee had been working as a programmer for IBM in London in the 1970s.) This is toward the end of the memoir. During this study, he has what I take to be a powerful recognition, one I think must have prefigured the creative work to come. Looking at the history of Western logic, he realizes that in antiquity there was this consensual decision to abandon the and/or orientation toward choices in favor of either/or. And with the arrival of either/or came the favoring of binaries over totalities. Thus logic over illogic. In my reading, and/or choices are mythical and creaturely: spirit and matter; human and animal; sky and sea. Coetzee is suggesting that the primary operation of the imagination is overlapping, metaphorical: and/or. Logic and rationality are a later development, distinctively human, thus an imposition. (I think his novels bear this notion out, especially Disgrace, but also Elizabeth Costello.) In my admittedly simplistic formulation, religion has been quarantined to the realm of illogic – something primitive, instinctual, needing to be outgrown. But religion is the cultural and imaginal expression of the and/or. And until relatively recently, creative work belonged in the same realm.