Talking Trash: Religion + Scholarship

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

So as you can maybe tell, looking at my reviews this year I decided to just review a ton of things, just to write some non-academic things here and there, and sometimes I have no poems to write, nothing to add to the novel, and these days, I also run out of books, sometimes. I will still answer emails, so you are welcome to do that. That said, I decided I will now and then sit down to write a few hundred words on *something* – almost certainly connected to my PhD work. Who knows. Also, I am typing this straight into wordpress so Lord have Mercy on us all.

So the topic now is religion. My PhD topic concerns the role of religion in the work of three American poets. Part of the reason my work has taken so long is that I noticed early on, that this is an odd topic. For me, it seemed instantly interesting. All three poets, John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, make heavy, informed, ind-depth use of the traditions of Christian writing. Not just poets (like all poets who grew of writerly age during the age of New Criticism, they appropriately revere George Herbert and GM Hopkins), but prose, theology even. This is not connected to faith. Central writers on Berryman have convincingly connected his faith to his mental issues, and at any point, it is hard to pin down Robert Lowell’s faith once he started writing poetry. Even his brief period of ardent Catholicism displays, as was most recently shown by Gelpi, strong strains of Puritan theology and thought. Elizabeth Bishop, meanwhile, was just an regular atheist. And yet, she was widely read in Christian theology, reading writers as diverse as Kierkegaard, St. Augustine and Henri-Frédéric Amiel. That last one is, if you don’t know him, a Swiss writer, poet and philosopher who’s mainly known today for writing long winded, very religious, very self-pitying journals. Journals that are frequently brilliant, but still. She carried around books by Teresa of Avila (I slightly overemphasize that in my thesis) and has read St. Ignatious of Loyola, who most of you mainly know through the Barthes book, I suppose.

Yet books on the three writers, especially on Bishop and Berryman were oddly silent on the issue. These writers were clearly, obviously influential on these poets and yet – nothing. For me, that was a great topic. Obvious + under-researched? Ripe for plucking, is what I say. Well, once my supervisor convinced me to not write on Sylvia Plath. That was Plan A, I’ll admit. So I did, and I presented my topic in conversations and seminars and at conferences – and something weird happened. People always assumed that I myself was religious. I’m not. I am an atheist, although the annoying people on the internet have so many distinctions on that that I should more properly refer to myself as a “atheist agnostic.” Let’s just go with atheist. I do use mysticism and religious references in my poetry (click here, you know you want to), but that’s it. For me, texts are texts, and I’m writing about one text influencing another text. That is not, however, how audiences and people I talk to felt about it. This is how I discovered why the topic is so under-researched. The few people who do work on it tend to be religious themselves. A handful of years ago (after I started work on my thesis), Tom Rogers wrote the *only* book on the topic (God of Rescue, Peter Lang, 2013). I wrote a review of it for a literary journal but I think it’s print only. It’s flawed but thorough and well argued. Tom Rogers, meanwhile, is pretty religious from what I know. And of the two (TWO) books on Bishop and religion, one sort of dismisses Bishop’s use of theology as always critical and satirical, and the other, by Cheryl Walker, which, again, draws on a rich background of research, is written by a religious writer.

The simple reason why people assume that I am religious is because those are the only people who work in my field and zero in on this topic. It absolutely confused me at the time, and I still have difficulties understanding why non-religious critics today don’t really engage with religious texts that influence literature. Bonnie Costello, who is a brilliant, brilliant critic, mentions a lot of the theological writers in throwaway remarks in her writings on Bishop; she would rankle at seeing anyone treat Hopkins or Moore or Stevens or any of the other ‘normal’ influences on Bishop with such brief remarks. Or, indeed, if someone had been this quick to dismiss an important theological text in analyzing Donne, Herbert or Hopkins. Yet, religious writers are different, somehow, as an influence on non-religious writing. It’s maddening. Just you go and find me cogent recent-ish essays on the influence of Catholicism and the Bible on Baudelaire. I found a bunch of things, but the only in-depth, excellent analyses are turn-of-the-century (last century, that is) French books. It’s not just Bishop and Berryman (Lowell is relatively well served, in part because of how explicit his early critics, from Tate to Ransom and Jarrell, made those influences. In my thesis, he serves to complete a picture, but the weight of the argument is in the chapters on Bishop and Berryman (and Schwartz)), it’s plenty of other writers, as well. Baudelaire, for one. And you know what makes it worse? That religious writers are frequently a bit nutty about it. Not Rogers, but Cheryl Walker, for example, has whole chapters where she tries to convince us that Bishop wasn’t really an atheist. That Bishop was really at least a tiny bit religious. This helps no one. It doesn’t help Bishop scholarship, it doesn’t help Walker’s argument, and it doesn’t help other scholars (ME) who try to write on the topic. We all get lumped in with the nutty kind of writer. Just yesterday I was reading a chapter on Anne Bradstreet, in a mid-1980s book on the Puritans. And it was full of “Our Lord”s and egregious amounts of judgments on faith in a book that was supposed to be all about textual analysis (and wasn’t actually bad at it!). Bill Barnwell, before the demise of Grantland, had a NFL column called “thank you for not coaching” – there should be something like this for religious scholars. Rogers does this well. Another great example is Alfred Corn’s big essay on Bishop which is informed by a religious background, incredibly insightful, and yet does not proselytize or assume its readers are (or should become) Christians themselves. For all the others: compartmentalize, please. You’re making all of us look bad.

It frustrates me endlessly. So in my thesis, when I started it many moons, 4 breakdowns and a hospital stay ago, I planned at first to just *show* the influence and explicating it. I had chapters outlined, say, on the structure of the Psalms and how the structure of Berryman’s late poetry corresponds to that. But I recognized that, if I don’t want this to read as exibit XVI in the ‘religious’ tradition of poetry scholarship, I had to sharpen the focus on what it is that this influence brought into view. And that’s, i found, (auto)biography. All three writers have struggled with personas, with writing about the/a self. And for all three writers, religious influences have helped them achieve it. Bishop has letters making that connection between autobiography and her reading of theology clear, with Berryman it’s implicit, and as I said, with Lowell, critics have pointed the way. This change meant I had to shift my research and change chapters and outlooks. I read a ton of books on auto/biography. I think my thesis is better this way, but the frustration remains. Also, I broadened my research so much that I now have unused outlines of papers on “Bishop and Brazil,” “Bishop and Gertrude Stein” etc etc. that do not intersect with my thesis at all.

Thank you for listening. There will be a review tomorrow-ish, maybe. If you want to support me, click here. My computer is dying a swift death, so any help is appreciated. If you want me to read poetry somewhere, write me. I’m probably free. 🙂


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