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September 2006

Curious Remarks about J.F. Powers

From Joseph Bottum at First Things. He praises Powers very highly but then seems to say that he is justly, or at least understandably, neglected.

But Powers had narrowed his vision down to a point where it could not survive the passing of its moment.... He really was the finest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century. And that century is over.

I don't get this. It seems to be more than an acknowledgment that the world of which Powers writes has become unfamiliar. I admit I don't know Powers' work all that well--Morte D'Urban and some of the short stories--but I don't see any reason why any literate Catholic (or reasonably knowledgeable and sympathetic non-Catholic) should have a problem with Powers, any more than with, say, Flannery O'Connor. For my part I don't think I've been able, since I read it, to take stock of my own spiritual condition without thinking of Powers' short story "The Prince of Darkness."


Sunday Night Journal — September 3, 2006


Betjeman, Slowly Strolling Back

All right, let’s concede that Eliot captured most definitively the anxiety and disorientation of the early 20th century for intellectuals and artists. Let’s grant further that the latter groups were more conscious than most people of dramatic changes in progress, and more interested in and capable of articulating that consciousness. But the impact of the changes was not felt among those classes alone. And no one, I submit, articulated more clearly the bewilderment of the inarticulate than did John Betjeman in “Death of King George V”:

Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;
Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare….

Betjeman is unjustly neglected. Brooke Allen, writing last year in The New Criterion, sums it up: “The feat he performed as a poet is rather extraordinary; he brought serious poetry back to the general reader.” But she also says that “…the pure accessibility of his work has guaranteed its exclusion from ‘serious’ studies of twentieth-century studies.” According to Allen, two recent prestigious survey works, including The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, do not mention him at all. This is preposterous. Resisting the perennial impulse to indulge in ranking, I’ll just say that he is a poet as much worth reading as any of his time and place.

I learned last week, thanks to a nice appreciation of him by John Derbyshire at National Review Online, that this year is the centenary of Betjeman’s birth. I have not noticed any groundswell of demand that the neglect of his work be remedied. But it was not always so, and may change. He was not ignored by the editors of a couple of anthologies from the ‘50s and ‘60s—Louis Untermeyer’s Modern British Poetry among them—which may have been the reason why I bought Betjeman’s Collected Poems a few years ago. I’m trying and failing to remember now what prompted the purchase, but it may very well have been the selection of Betjeman’s work in these anthologies (I like these old collections because they usually have a decent representation of minor and/or unfashionable poets.) At any rate I must be, if Derbyshire is right, among a small number of Americans who have read the entire collection and, what’s more, return to it frequently.

Derbyshire says Betjeman is too English for Americans to read without difficulty. Well, yes and no. It’s true that a great many of his proper nouns mean nothing to me, and there are probably a lot of other associations and implications that pass right by without my being aware of having missed something. A selection of Betjeman annotated for Americans might be reasonably successful. On the other hand, though, his Englishness is part of his appeal to some of us: it’s a nostalgic, middle-class, wistful Englishness, a Village Green Preservation Society Englishness (Betjeman was in fact extremely active in preservation work). Come to think of it, if you like the Kinks of the mid-‘60s, you may be a candidate for enjoying Betjeman.

What is the nature of the accessibility which Brooke Allen postulates as the reason he is not taken seriously? His simplicity comes first, of course. Since the Modernist revolution critics and poets alike have come to think of poetry as something that really ought to be pretty difficult to understand. The poet who wishes to write more straightforwardly can get away with it when he’s unquestionably great, as in some of Frost’s work, but work that is anything less is likely to be undervalued if it can be readily understood by the non-specialist (conversely, a fair amount of obscure poetry has a platitude at its core). Directness and clarity are not prized and are suspected to be elements of banality. Moreover, he uses traditional poetic techniques—rhyme and regular meters—and these, in conjunction with his frequently light and conversational tone, give an unfriendly critic grounds for dismissing much his work as “mere versifying.”

And he seems to be entirely unaffected by the cult of the Romantic soul, the Prophet-Genius-Rebel. He gives no evidence of considering himself as one set apart, pursuing a loftier calling than that heard by most of the dull crowd. He is simply a man using verse to create a portrait of the world in which he lives, and of what it’s like to be there. He didn’t write for intellectuals, and neither he nor the people he writes about dwell very much on the particular concerns of most modern intellectuals.

More specifically, one never hears in him the characteristic note—almost a requisite note, it sometimes seems—of much contemporary literature: resentment or even hatred of his own society. He’s not uncritical of his society, but he accepts it as his and clearly loves it, nursing no sense that he regards it as fundamentally abominable and the cause of most of his problems.

It seems possible, too, that his Christianity wins him no friends. Since a type of despair is in the literary world generally seen as the proper response to life, belief is suspect, and although it may be countenanced in work that otherwise appeals to modernist sensibilities, the combination of plain speech and plain faith invites special disdain.

Plain faith is in the end the main reason why Betjeman is more than a maker of light verse. It is not explicitly present in all his work, of course, but if you read him in quantity it provides a deeper context for everything else. He was a high-church Anglican, undoubtedly heterodox from the Catholic point of view, and probably anti-Catholic in that supercilious Anglican way, but that’s irrelevant to the poetry, which is not concerned with doctrine except in the most general sense. Christianity as found here is not (what so many of us make it, swimming against the cultural tide as we must) something to be incessantly analyzed and defended, but an encompassing sense of the way things are, something firmly fixed in the consciousness of the poet and most of his subjects. This is not to say that there is a facile or superficial devotion in his poems: faith appears as the struggle that it is, but also as something solid and sound, neither mere convention nor desperate gesture.

I’ve written this in a few odd moments and have the sense that I’m not making my case very well, so let me just urge that anyone who finds my description remotely interesting locate and read some of Betjeman’s work. It may be that he will have the last laugh suggested in one of his poems, “On a Painting by Julius Olsson R.A.”:

“It isn’t art. It’s only just a knack”—
It fell from grace. Now, in a change of taste,
See Julius Olsson slowly strolling back.

You can find a selection of his poems here, although not, to my taste, anything like the best of his work. “Myfanwy” is in fact a specimen of the sort of Betjeman poem I can easily live without: a silly borderline-kinky bit of sighing over a certain type of athletic girl who appears often in his work. The others are better, but there are still better ones in the Collected Poems. Derbyshire’s piece also has links to a few poems scattered here and there around the Internet.




Evolution: the Heart of the Catholic View

John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter has a fine, thorough summary of the ideas probably percolating in the seminar ("Schulerkreis") currently under way under the guidance of Benedict. I was particularly struck by this line from a 2004 Vatican document: But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence.

Indeed. I hardly ever read a discussion of the whole question that doesn't make me want to bang my head on the desk. There is indeed an important war being waged at the cultural level about the atheism which is generally smuggled (if not openly transported) along with the scientific facts--or, even more, with pseudo-scientific conjectures based upon it . But even if it could be proven that, for instance, the Intelligent Design idea was complete bosh and chance rules entirely in biological development, the fundamental metaphysical questions involved would remain as they are, unresolvable and indeed unaddressable by physical science.