Issue 10 | The Tedious Work of Poetry and Faith
Wendell Berry, Degas's non-ballerinas, Joan Didion, Ted Lasso, and more.
Hello, everyone. The newsletter is a little late today thanks to my traveling.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
Thinking about poetry and faith;
Looking at Degas’s non-dancers;
Anticipating more books (like Anthony Doerr’s, gosh);
Watching Ted Lasso; and
Reading Joan Didion.
1. The tedious work of poetry and faith.
If you read a poem in the last year, you’re one of the few. That’s because, if we can assume there’s not been a boom since 2012, fewer than 7 percent of American adults have read a poem in the last year. If true, that means poetry stands as the second least popular art, just ahead of opera. And of that 6.7 percent, who knows how many understood or enjoyed the poem? Or how many people read more than one poem. I found this stat in the opening pages of a new book about literary approaches to the Bible. The author, Matthew Mullins, uses this data to make a point:
The hatred of poetry poses a unique problem for Christians not only because roughly one-third of the Bible is made up of poems but also because it exposes a serious problem with how we read the Bible and understand its purpose.
He goes on to pit an appreciation of poetry against what he calls a Cartesian hermeneutic of information, the dominant, Western Christian approach. This, I’m sure you know, is bad, and the disconnect contributes to shelves of poor and weird readings of the Bible.
The righting of this problem no doubt would help people read better in the fullest sense, which seems to be the aim of Mullins’ work. I think this goes beyond words and literary devices. At a deeper level, even the process of righting this problem — that is, the process of learning to appreciate biblical poetry on its own terms — can embody the life of faith. This relates to what Wendell Berry is talking about in his essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” when he writes
The religious disciple, the husband and wife, the poet, like the true husbandman, accept the duration and effort, even the struggle, of formal commitment [to poetry making and to marriage].
Because, like poetry, the Christian life is beautiful and difficult. And like the Christian life, poetry takes tedious work both to do and to understand. And both require commitment to doing something most people won’t give the time of day.
2. For Degas, it wasn’t *all* about ballerinas.
I’m looking at the lesser-known Degas paintings. Toward the end of last year, Hannah and I wandered around the Met childless. That only increased the pull of the museum’s Degas collection, because, you see, our older daughter loves the paintings and sculptures by Degas. If you’re in our home, it won’t take you long to find evidence of this. At the Met, we saw several paintings from the French impressionist that we’d not seen before, most interestingly of subjects that aren’t dancers. And I started looking around (the internet) for other non-ballerinas by Degas.
The one I like best so far is above, Grandfather of the Artist, 1856. It hangs in the National Gallery, where I’ve been more times than I remember, and I don’t remember this painting, either. Photo source.
3. Anthony Doerr writes the sentences I want to write.
Last month, I listed four books to which I’m looking forward this year. I knew, naturally, that I left out many books that will be interesting and worthy of reading. But somehow I missed that Anthony Doerr will publish a new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, in September. It should have been on my list, probably number one.
Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See made a profound impact on me, both as a reader and writer. As a reader, I found the relationship between Leblanc and Marie-Laure somehow coagulated my hopes and fears as a father. I read All the Light slowly, in part, because I would reread passages describing Leblanc’s care for his daughter before I could move on. And as a writer — forgive me if you’ve heard this — Doerr does at the sentence level exactly what I’m trying to do. All that to say, I’m looking forward to reading Cloud Cuckoo Land this fall.
Related, I also found a good list of 2021 reading suggestions in Garden and Gun.
4. Ted Lasso the show is better than Ted Lasso the NBC promo guy.
I jump-started your New Years’ resolutions last month by reminding you that Scrubs is streaming on Prime. Then Hannah read that Bill Lawrence, the man behind Scrubs, is also behind Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso. I’d seen some people praise the show. Like David French at The Dispatch, and like Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker. And the Rotten Tomatoes critics sure approve. This guy at the Times maybe liked it? And a culture writer at the Atlantic wrote a compelling, if a little exhausting, take as well. For our part, we found Ted Lasso funny and fun. Thanks again, Bill Lawrence.
In fairness, Ted Lasso the NBC promo guy is funny enough.
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean. I read the new Joan Didion book over the weekend (well, and yesterday). Like all Didion nonfiction, she often achieves in this collection a sort of thrill while writing about fairly plain things. Sparse details about a regiment reunion in Vegas come together to suggest, among veterans, a lowgrade suspicion of the Vietnam War. A meandering look at Martha Stewart’s rise to power ends up subverting her critics on their own terms. Let Me Tell You What I Mean, like I’d expect, includes some better writings and some okay writings. But each reads with her familiar texture. Here are two of my highlights.
In a piece called “A Trip to Xanadu” that she wrote in ‘68, Didion is writing about her experience of visiting a historic home, William Randolph Hearst’s self-amusement park, San Simeon. She writes some about the history of the house, the mythology of it. And then she describes the existential let-down she experienced after taking a tour of the place. She concludes,
Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.
In another essay, this one called “Telling Stories” from ‘78, Didion writes about what her days doing captions for Vogue taught her about professional word work.
It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing,” and I mention it specficially because I do not make light of it. It was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequecy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more and no less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted. At Vogue, one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unweildy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed precisely of thirty-nine characters.
Before Let Me Tell You What I Mean arrived, I’d been carrying around Slouching Toward Bethlehem in my backpack, dropping in and out to borrow from the ways Didion opens her essays. This new collection reminds me, though, how a piece of writing doesn’t really exist in segments, intros and conclusions, and that the payoff of good writing tends to come while letting the piece itself dictate the terms of reading it. Good writing is what Joan Didion does.
I’m in the middle of writing a talk about the situatedness of writing (and reading). More on that later, but here are three of the books I’ve been revisiting as preparation:
Okay, folks, see you next month.