IN A RECENT essay, poet Ira Sadoff issued a sweeping denunciation of what he calls the “spiritualization of American poetry.” Entitled “Trafficking in the Radiant” and published in the July/August American Poetry Review, the essay asserts that contemporary poets have been influenced by the resurgence of religiosity in our culture, with disastrous results. “My contention is that using religion as a metaphorical expression of our powerlessness…diminishes human agency and makes possible a hierarchical authoritarianism; that the Romantic desire to transcend materiality leads to a flight from the social and the sexual; and finally, that the pandering we see in the public sphere can also corrupt the spiritual impulse in art….”
In short, Sadoff holds that the tendency of religion to “privatism and escape” generates a passivity in the face of unjust and oppressive political and social structures. Because “virtually all conventional Christian theologies” elevate the spirit above the body and the individual over the community, they make us “long to tame the dangers of living in this world.”
As evidence he points to the replacement of Neruda and Larkin as poet-icons by Rilke and a newly rehabilitated T.S. Eliot. His survey of the poetry he criticizes consists of five lines by Richard Wilbur and seventeen from a poem by W.S. DiPiero. Sadoff then lists about a dozen poets as traffickers in the “radiant impalpable.” The bulk of the essay is then given over to a discussion of a painting by Veronese and Eliot’s anti-Semitism.
Now I confess that it would be easy to dismiss Sadoff’s piece as a minor salvo in a rather remote corner of the culture wars. One might defend such a dismissal by pointing out the errors of fact and interpretation that plague the essay, beginning with misspellings, including Eliot’s poem “Gerontion” (given as “Gerontin”). Or take the Veronese painting of Dives and Lazarus. Sadoff claims that the painter’s clear preference for the voluptuous extravagance of the rich man and his friends over the starving beggar is typical of Christianity, a religion that despite its belief in the next life celebrates “material privilege” in this one. But then Sadoff instantly undermines his point when he notes that the Inquisition investigated Veronese for making paintings diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospels.
Even more aggravating is Sadoff’s guilt-by-association name-dropping, where individual poets are tarred with an obscenely broad brush. Toss in his accusations of nostalgia for dated writers and thinkers such as the New Critics while quoting liberally from the even hoarier Freud, Sartre, and (indirectly) Marx. Finally, add a number of disingenuous statements—that he doesn’t want to “re-hash” Eliot’s anti-Semitism (after doing so for several paragraphs), that there is a “wide spectrum of Christian beliefs” though a few inches further down “virtually all” such beliefs are odious—and the temptation to dismiss the case becomes strong indeed.
But beyond these distractions Sadoff’s central thesis deserves to be engaged. It’s one of the oldest charges leveled against biblical religion, and as soon as it is made it becomes bogged down in contradictions. In one breath it is said that religion makes people passive, and in the next breath the same individuals are castigated for their activism in the public sphere.
For example, the political causes of the decade from 1965 to 1975, which Sadoff celebrates, are impossible to understand without reference to the religious forces at work in the civil rights and anti-war movements, including not only such public figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, but prominent poets like Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov.
The problem with religion is that what seems on the outside to be contradiction is, from the inside, felt as the mysterious truth of paradox. To be in the world but not of it may appear to some as escapism, but those who have followed those words truly have loved the creation with a ferocious tenderness. Just look at the life curling around and bursting from the margins of ancient, illuminated prayer books—or at the children hidden in Eliot’s rose garden.
The privileged role of literature (and also of culture in general) is that it can serve as a bridge between the public and the private. You do not have to believe what Dante or Donne or Hopkins believed to participate in an understanding of how that faith is enacted in language. As I wrote in my last editorial, these works of literature become “secular scriptures.”
The negative phenomena Sadoff condemns are hardly the exclusive possession of religious people. They are perennial human problems. The fear of powerlessness and the urge to cram truth and mystery into narrow, rigid propositions have led not only to authoritarian religious structures but also to atheistic, totalitarian regimes. Like most culture warriors, Sadoff uses his mighty sword to cleave the world in exactly the wrong direction.
Here’s the twist: in contemporary poetry, some of the most subtle explorers of the goodness of the body, the contingency of human knowledge, and the need for a politically engaged community are those poets who are revisiting, often with fear and trembling, the biblical tradition.
Far from privileging the spirit over the body, Richard Wilbur’s most famous poems is “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” Denise Levertov’s embrace of the Catholic Church did nothing to dampen her social conscience or mute her prophetic voice. Scott Cairns entitled one of his collections Recovered Body, precisely because he shares Sadoff’s concern with the gnostic tendencies of many believers. Moreover, Cairns’s constant theme is confluence between the mystical Christianity of the East and postmodern ideas about the elusiveness of presence.
Sadoff ends his essay with the assertion, derived from Sartre, that “because our lives are finite, every choice matters.” I would argue that you can derive that thought from existentialism…or from the book of Genesis and those that come after. The world is a dangerous place, and one of its dangers is the human will. American poetry will be best served if poets and critics, religious or not, alike limn the possibilities—and limits—of human agency.