Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Poet Laureate and the Budding Poet

Today, May 7th was a proud day for the Witherington clan. Our only son David graduated from the University of Kentucky today with a degree in English Literature (like his Dad) and a concentration in Japanese (totally unlike his Dad).

We were blessed to have Seamas Heaney, poet laureate of Ireland and Professor at Harvard U. as our commencement speaker, and he spoke of how these were tough times for poets. He wasn't just talking about how hard it is for poets to find publishers. That alone is nearly impossible. I once asked one of my publishers if they would take a volume of my poems. Their reply was "we don't do original poetry at Harper." I wrote back--- "suppose I sent you a volume of totally unoriginal and derivative poetry-- would you take it then?" Yes these are hard days for poets.

Heaney however was talking about the troubling effect our culture has on the art. He defined poetry as "the struggle to find and express balance between one's inner temperament and the temper of the times". This is all the more difficult when the culture is more prone to and more supportive of violence than of sensitive artistic expression. It is difficult when the times are out of joint, and the culture becomes coarser and less forgiving.

My son is also a poet. I am proud of him, as he has worked hard to graduate with honors. He is a quieter more thoughtful and shy person than I am, and in some ways this aids his poetry. When he says something, he says it in measured and carefully considered words. He also has a good dry wit, and lots of skill on the computer. He has saved me many times when there were computer problems. Only time will tell what is next for him. For now we are delighted that the whole family could be part of his big day. This is our last child to graduate from college, so it is a milestone for us as well.

"Children are a blessing from God; happy is the man who has a quiver full."

Poetry is the expression of the sound of the soul either in harmony with or in dischord with its surroundings. Today I am simply happy that there is resonance between my son-- David Benjamin, and myself. Here's to you Dave--- "vaya con Dios".


Scot McKnight said...

Nice to hear of your son. My son also graduated in English. He's not a poet though; he's a scout for the Chicago Cubs, which means he's got a lot of work to do to find us some healthy pitchers.

Glen Alan Woods said...

I am happy to hear of your son's accomplishment. Congratulations! I am an aspiring late bloomer in writing and poetry. Hopefully we can get a taste of your son's poetry sometime soon. Blessings!

Marc Axelrod said...

Congratulations on your son's graduation. That is so cool that you and David share a common love for poetry. Praise God for this wonderful day!

Gordon Hackman said...

Dr. Witherington

You said: "This is all the more difficult when the culture is more prone to and more supportive of violence than of sensitive artistic expression. It is difficult when the times are out of joint, and the culture becomes coarser and less forgiving."

I could not agree more with these sentiments. To give one example of why, I made the huge mistake of going to see the film Silent Hill about a week ago. It was a sickening, disturbingly violent, satanic revenge fantasy from which any notion of forgiveness or redemption was completely absent. It disturbed me so badly that I'm still getting over it. What disturbs me most about it though, is reading all of the reviews on sites like and finding that most people seem completely unbothered by either the gratuitous violence or the hate filled revenge plot, including most of those who didn't like it. I think we truly have become a course culture, largely incapable of appreciating the good, the true, or the beautiful.

On a happier note, the song-writer Matthew Ryan (an incredible song-writer) credits the poem "Skylight" by Seamus Heaney with pulling him out of a time of great darkness. Here are Ryan's own words copied from his website. They offer a testimony to the way in which a truly great work of art can be a conduit for unexpected grace:

Skylight - After reaching an absolute low point, hope came in the form of a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem was called "The Skylight." Before reading it, my life had become a 3rd person experience as viewed through a thick and distant television. Words can offer liberation and forgiveness. I tried to capture what "The Skylight" pulled from me with my own point of view, experience and music. It's a tribute to a piece of work and moment that I could have never expected nor conjured without the presence of real art.

Terry Hamblin said...

When I was young and a budding poet I was rebuffed by an older cynic with this aphorism.

"Poetry is appreciated by young men and old women: it is written by great men in their spare time."

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Not all poets are poor, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan did pretty well.

DLW said...

The hard times for poets and the liberal arts in general are due to the increased influence of the freedom of $peech on governance at all levels, including academia and publishing houses, due to the way faith-based acrimony has been poisoning our democracy for the past thirty-plus years.

This is why I am proud that as a volunteer organizer, I helped guaratee that Mich State had a graduate employee union and got a decent contract during my last two years an economics phd grad student there. It also won me the chance to share about my faith with others and helped eventually to launch me on my writing about how to work towards a detente in the cultural wars(ask Ron Fay) and eventually led me back to school as a seminary student.

BTW, I just read your work on Acts and enjoyed it immeasurably. It helped me see that the use of greek rhetoric was not the problem with the early Church, but rather the elevation of quite fallible Church leaders like Augustine and Chrysostom on the basis of their rhetorical ability. This is similar to the way the Corinth church elevated Apollus over Paul on the basis of their relative rhetorical abilities...


Sean said...

Are there any good poetry books that express good [contemporary] theology? I'm not just talking about hymns, but some stuff written by Poets who are theologically aware and thoughtful.


Marc Axelrod said...

David Larsen has written The Company of the Creative, which is book of brief biosketches of playwrights and poets and creative writers from the time of Christ to this present age. The book also has salient samples of poetic writing.

Perhpas a better choice in lone with what you are asking for is Ben Witherington's book The Poetry of Piety.

Also, a college level English literature book would serve as a good intro to all things poetic.

Perhaps also reading some online stuff from John Donne, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau.

You won't want to overlook the writings of e.e cummings, W.E.Dubois, Flannery O'Connor, Charles Dickens, and (my favorite) Ambrose Bierce, though many of their works are short stories.

But I would also be interested in hearing Dr. Witherington's recommendations and selections.

slaveofone said...

Shameless self-promotion: come read my recent post: a poem struggling with the concept of Christ's "divinity" and what might mean.

Ben Witherington said...


I wish I could tell you I knew of such books, but there are few to try. Have a look at Divine Inspiration edited by Robert Atwan and others.

As for purely orthodox poetry, I am hoping my new book--- The Living Legacy will do the trick in the spring of 2007 from Chalice Press.


Ben W.