Recovering Jesus through poetry

Recovering Jesus through poetryIn Dogged Loyalty : the Religion of Poetry, the Poetry of Religion, by John F. Deane. Columba Press, 2006. ISBN 1 85607 534 6, RRP $25.00 website

John Deane grew up in an Ireland where his life "began with a Jesus of morne misery, a severe minister of don’ts and do’s, of pain and sorrow, of eyes that squinted at you as they followed you everywhere." This same Catholicism has for some time now been questioned and rejected in Ireland, but unlike those who have walked away, Deane claims, "I have turned to poetry to recover a Jesus of more relevance and truth." He goes to poetry to help pick up the pieces of a broken religion and to find in poetry what Seamus Heaney calls the “unexpected and unedited communications” that poetry gives to religious tradition.

This is a collection of essays about poets’ work that is fixed unequivocally in the early 21st century, a time when poetry is easy to ignore, easy to dismiss – a matter of indifference to most people. Deane intends here to draw attention to the real poetry that survives change. For him, "the poet invents the metaphor, and the Christian lives it." This searching out of religious truth through poetry has particular resonance in an Ireland that has become estranged from its religious inheritance. At the end of his life Enda McDonagh insisted that one solution to the Irish religious impasse was to explore poetry and here is one effective enactment of that philosophy.

Henry Vaughan is appreciated because of his distaste for the age, "the religious bickering and the doubts about practice and ritual," and his poetic "shifts from a pleading or a complaining mode into quick cry of personal distress or longing." "The couth and gracious couplets" of the Puritan Anne Bradstreet are given special treatment. He admires her "honesty and self-knowledge", her struggles with desire. Revolutionary thinkers like William Blake are emblems of possibility. John Clare’s God is "not the God of theologians, of pastors or mystics, but the God of the countryside." Deane’s Donne is perhaps his central model, a man of concerns.

One concern is his vacillation between "God and his mistresses … between east and west," and how the poet reasons with dichotomy. Another is the bafflement of the innocent before dogma. But it is Donne who shows Deane, for example in the sonnet ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, that religion requires total commitment. The poetry urged him to an acceptance of God’s love. Donne’s concerns are contemporary and have special significance for an Irishman like Deane. Like the other poets here, he encapsulates intellectual and emotional dilemmas; he acts as an extra revelation, in many ways free of the doctrinal emphases of the church. "His entrances and exits have a wily elegance."

There are weaknesses in this book. On page 193 Deane says the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas envied him "what he saw as Ireland’s freedom from all things English." This is richly ironic when we consider that seventeen of the 25 poets he extols are English, and only two are Irish. Over half the poets are Anglicans. Of the two Irishmen, Thomas Kinsella is a lapsed Manichean and an admirable lifelong explorer of the unconscious, while Padraig Daly is the one meritorious unknown in the whole group and an example of special pleading. How could Deane completely ignore the awesome heritage of Irish poetry? Why would you even need to read outside Ireland to find remedies for the current circumstances?

Another difficulty is Deane’s fluctuating appreciation of the Catholic Church. Brought up in Achill Island, he has a firm but in some ways limiting experience of the church. When he comes to the mainland in the sixties it is for him "the end of the Middle Ages." (How long were those particular Middle Ages?) He lost his faith but kept thinking, "Christ ought to be brought in from the cold of Catholic dogma and made to permeate the whole of everyday living." Gradually though his attitudes change. Rebellion and rejection are replaced by a form of apologia for his own involvement, until we find that latter-day reconciliation not only then inspires Deane to denounce those in the church who aren’t doing the job right, but permits him to say what should be done.

By the end he has become a gloomster, about Ireland, the Church, the world in general, and about the lack of interest in poetry readings in his own country. Put simply, it is a book of his own life. Deane represents a present-day type of Irish that lives in a lost place. Beyond asking questions like "What happened?" he asks, "What do we do now?" in what he sees as the decadence of a worldly Ireland, that neither poetry nor religion can reach.

Putting that aside, four unusual essays reside inside this book also: a manifesto on poetic composition, a powerful memoir of childhood Achill, a passionate praise of the Eucharist, and a declamation on that favourite topic of poets, the parlous state of poetry. These increase the book’s value considerably, acting as a ground for his personal anthology. They show that Deane is a man testing his faith, whose faith has been tested before, and who finds in English poetry words that are to be valued and not ignored. He says, "I look up in recognition of a presence in absence." Deane makes himself vulnerable, his conventionality and differences equally on display. This is appealing. His gentleness of expression, his soft readings of the poets live side by side with a troubled exposition of former hopes and firm criticisms of current change. He is not unusual in that.



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