NOVEMBER 8, 2017
“THE ESSENCE OF POETRY is invention,” notes Samuel Johnson in The Lives of the Poets, but the “topics of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression.”
Kevin Hart begs to differ. By no means deaf to the ring of Johnson’s warning bell, he nevertheless makes a persuasive case in this volume for the important place of religious verse in the poetic canon. It is all the more impressive that this overarching thesis is persuasively defended in a volume comprised largely of collected talks and reworked articles dating from 2000 to 2015.
Poetry and Revelation offers us a series of readings of canonical Christian poets (Gerard Manley Hopkins receives two chapters, Geoffrey Hill five, and there is one each for T. S. Eliot, Philippe Jaccottet, and Eugenio Montale) alongside poets of comparatively lesser renown, often with links to Australia (A. D. Hope, Judith Wright, Robert Gray, and Charles Wright). The final two chapters, written expressly for this volume, range more broadly, exploring themes of contemplation and silence respectively.
Readers hungry for a sustained engagement with the work of these poets will find much to satisfy them here, for one attractive feature of Poetry and Revelation is that each chapter is structured around (commonly) one or (sometimes) a handful of poems, giving the reader the impression of a close encounter rather than an arm’s-length summary. Hart plays Virgil to our Dante as he leads us through detailed readings, at times line by line, stopping to point out references to, for example, Saint John of the Cross or Hugh of Saint Victor that would surely escape all but the doughtiest scholars of Christian mysticism. Just as importantly, this erudition is handled with a pleasing lightness of touch.
Poetry and Revelation is not less than a series of sensitive readings and bold reinterpretations of the work of a range of religious poets, but it is much more than that. This is a book with a vision of a peaceful, nay mutually enhancing ménage à trois. In Hart’s own terms, the volume takes the “conceptual shape” of a triangle with its three apexes of philosophy, revelation, and poetry undergoing equilateral, isosceles, and scalene transformations in each chapter.
It is a triangulation of themes that reflects Hart’s own polymathic expertise. Author of 13 collections of poems from 1978 to 2011, he is also Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies and chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of Virginia and has published four monographs on Maurice Blanchot, in addition to volumes on Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, and Emmanuel Lévinas, many of which engage deeply with Christian theology. Hart also has intimate familiarity with the rhythms and attitudes of monastic life, having taken regular retreats with the Cistercian Fathers of the Abbey of Notre Dame (Tarrawarra, Australia).
It is just as well that Hart has the necessary credentials to undertake this triangular study. For the size and delicacy of the three-body problem he faces in Poetry and Revelation demands all of his poetic, philosophical, and religious knowhow. The relation between any two of the three apexes already poses its own set of complex problems. What is religious poetry? What does philosophy have to do with poetry? How can there be a philosophy of revelation? To consider two of these apexes in a single volume might be considered a bold undertaking; to attempt all three is a task that can issue only in impressive success or hubristic failure.
Hart succeeds, and with room to spare. From the beginning to the end of Poetry and Revelation we find that the three apexes, rather than becoming mired in mutual conflict or bogged down amid nit-picking tedium, show themselves to be complementary. We might fear that, originating as they do in a diversity of contexts, the 15 chapters would fail to cohere into a sustained response to the trifold concerns of the volume that unites them. In fact, they display a remarkable coherence.
Hart’s philosophical drink of choice is phenomenology with a twist of French poststructuralism, a commitment that has profoundly marked his intellectual trajectory. Phenomenology “brackets” the everyday, common-sense assumptions we make about the existence of objects beyond our consciousness, labeling these assumptions the “natural attitude.” It would be hasty to conclude that this bracketing makes the phenomenologist a sceptic; she chooses to bracket the existence of things beyond her lived experience not in order to doubt their existence, but to set to one side the “what” and the “why” of our conscious impressions in order to focus on their “how.”
Drawing consistently on this method in his discussion of revelation, Hart urges his readers to bracket not only Edmund Husserl’s “natural attitude,” but what he calls the “supernatural attitude” that understands the propositional, creedal truths of religion “as though they referred to states and situations of the same modal status as states and situations in the natural world.” The bracketing of the supernatural attitude does not amount to doubting (or believing, or denying) the existence of God or the supernatural order; the question of existence is bracketed in favor of a phenomenological “attentive response to what is given.”
This also means that, for Hart, great Christian poets are not bound to address the question of God’s existence. Indeed, he insists, great Christian poetry is marked by its refusal to pepper its reader with ontological claims, inviting us instead into an experience of the God about whom such claims are made, or doubted, or rejected, or believed. Whether God exists, or exists in the way the poet thinks, is beside the point for a phenomenological reading. One consequence of this approach is to open religious poetry to a broad, nonbelieving readership, and indeed to an unbelieving authorship in the case of Robert Gray, whose poem “In Departing Light” dismisses as superstitions the convictions of his Jehovah’s Witness mother.
Bracketing existence and focusing on lived experience also means that the phenomenology of the divine can take place alongside the phenomenology of objects, numbers, dreams, memories, and fantasies, all of which present themselves to our consciousness in different ways. We do not experience God as we might experience a table or chair, and no one — least of all Hart — is claiming that we do. But we do not experience a number or a fear in the same way we experience a table or chair either, and this does not prevent them from being part of our lived experience. This maximally broad understanding of phenomenality helps us to understand the “revelation” of the book’s title in both religious and nonreligious registers: both as “revelation of the divine […] reflected or refracted in poems” and “revelation as the manifestation of phenomena.”
Phenomenology also provides Hart with a compelling way of talking about poetry, starting from the position that all “poetry involves a bracketing of the natural attitude.” What is the poetic gaze if not the setting aside of preconceived and assumed common-sense notions in favor of an attentiveness to what is given, to the world as it really appears to us, and not as we prejudicially suppose it to be? What is more, all poetry is poetry of transcendence because the “act of writing introduces differences and deferrals that prevent consciousness from closing on itself.” Religious poetry happens to be concerned with the transcendence of God, yet this concern per se does not separate it from, but unites it with other poetic subgenres.
The other two apexes of Hart’s triangle are poetry and revelation. He notes that, in respect of this conjunction, the critical die seems to have been cast: religious poetry, with a few notable exceptions (Dante, Milton, Blake, Eliot) is judged to be minor poetry. Hart does much more than defend religious poetry against this sweeping charge which, as he points out, is used more as a blanket evaluation than a meaningful description. He boldly affirms that “a poetry written coram deo can engage with experience in a far more radical manner than most poetry can ever do,” through its bracketing of both the natural and supernatural attitudes. I do not see how this puts religious poetry at an advantage with respect to verse written coram hominibus, but it certainly leaves it at no disadvantage.
It is true that one surefire way to ruin a poem is to let a philosopher interpret it. Happily, however, Hart the philosopher-poet is an exception: his readings are centripetal, sending the reader down from her theoretical orbit to explore afresh the terrain of the poems themselves, rather than centrifugally flinging her further and further into the deep space of their own theoretical universe. There is no hint here of that tiresome, predictable gambit in which the all-knowing theorist makes the helpless poem play second fiddle to his own virtuoso performance. If phenomenology is about paying close attention to what appears, then Hart’s readings practice what his philosophy preaches.
Hart’s writing style benefits from his poet’s ear, and Poetry and Revelation contains passages of great lyrical beauty as well as intellectual weight. One shining example is the final chapter’s prolonged meditation on the theme of silence, ranging over Hart’s own recollection of the silences before and after his first kiss, and taking in, among others, Elie Wiesel, George Herbert (“What is so shrill as silent tears?”), John Cage, and André Neher. Such passages demonstrate a harmonious marriage of academic virtuosity and beautiful writing, which gives the lie to any ill-judged claim that the relationship between poetry, philosophy, and religion is a zero-sum game.
Christopher Watkin lectures at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, and his latest books are French Philosophy Today and Difficult Atheism. He blogs on French philosophy and the academic life at christopherwatkin.com, and you can find him on Twitter @DrChrisWatkin.