Upon his Feast Day, January 25
by John Estes
In Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, Orpheus (the most square-jawed Orpheus ever conceived, played with pompadour by Jean Marai) is challenged by the admissions committee to the gates of hell to explain what precisely (there is no almost in hell, he is told) what it means to be a poet: To write without being a writer, he replies. In an interview Cocteau once expanded on this by saying, “A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardner scent his roses.” But these types of sentences–“A poet is one who [blank],” or “Poetry is [blank]”–have been and will continue to be completed in many ways by poets, would-be poets, and anti-poets. It’s a sort of parlor game, writing about poetry, that many find more compelling than poems themselves. The poet, after all, is supposed to be writing poems. But these formulations, enchanting as many are, can be helpful. To mystify in the act of demistifying: that is one thing poetry can do, one might say. Ezra Pound kind of did: he called poetry “a raid on the inarticulate.” And certainly it was this naming function of poetry that St. Gregory Nazianzen valued, and I’m quite certain he saw no daylight between his work as poet and work as Theologian, the purpose of theology being, after all, the production of images which aid us toward an encounter with mystery. What makes him poet rather than polemicist, however, is not simply the manufacture of verse (many a poetaster can make that claim) but that he went seeking inwardly—in that foul rag and bone shop of the heart, as Yeats called it—instead of seeking succor and invective in numbers and syllogisms alone (although he could get his way around an enthymeme as well as anyone of his day).
Coleridge said: “The poet brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Whether that’s true or not, the question of the whole, or the capital-w Whole, is one with which the poet is intimately concerned, and what makes one a poet and not a philosopher is that the Whole is not an abstraction, but rather the immeasurable sum of all particulars, the entire visible universe that Conrad says art, if it is to be called art, must seek to render with the “highest kind of justice.” I will give you a new formula for the incarnation: the ephemeral made eternal. That’s a poet’s day labor. St. Gregory, unlike many then and unlike many now, knew there was nothing of the divine to be grasped except in what is fleeting; he trusted the body of language to shape and form that which is present but unseen. A fair appraisal of what’s made beautiful, I think. “We collect from various places,” St. Gregory writes, “a faint and feeble image. And our noblest theologian is not one who has discovered the whole—our earthly shackles do not permit the whole—but one who has got a fuller insight than another and gathered in himself a richer picture, shadow, or whatever we call it, of the truth.”
“The purpose of poetry,” Czeslaw Milosz posits, “is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” We call St. Gregory the Theologian a poet because he wrote beautiful poems, but he wrote beautiful and lasting poems because he never sought to escape that vocation of personhood that is so readily, so easily abdicated. The seat of the person—the soul, the nous, he knew (as many of we moderns don’t)—is a maker of images, and he took great pleasure in his communion with that power within him. There: I have given away our secret. Here is a passage from Gregory’s poem “On the Soul,” where he depicts this act of poetic participation:
With these words he took a portion of the new-formed earth
and established with his immortal hands my shape,
bestowing upon it a share of his own life. He infused
Spiriti, which is a fragment of the Godhead without form.
From dust and breath I was formed, a mortal man eikon of the immortal.
For it is the nature of mind to rule over both parts.
Thus I have affection for one way of life because I am part earth,
while I have in my heart a longing for the other life through the part of me that is divine.
John Estes is author of three volumes of poetry—Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming) and Sure Extinction, which won the 2015 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press—and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University.
Image from jesus-passion.com