Neoscholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain stresses
that art comes from an internalized habit of work and reflection. The artist is a maker of
art objects, e.g. the poet makes poetry. The subjectivity, the imagination, and the act of
confession in the true artist are all subsumed to the act of making the beautiful work.
Much like people as moral beings learn a kind of ethical prudence, an inner sense of what
a given situation calls for, so artists over time develop certain habits of seeing and
working. A poet, for example, has to put in the time and work with language, metaphor,
observation, etc. in order to develop a poetic craft. The poets subjectivity is
meant to serve the work and not the reverse. Maritain stresses that the Christian who
would make art should focus on the task at hand:
If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian and simply try to make a
beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to "make Christian."
[. . .] The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules his work, but it must reach and
rule it only through the artistic habitus. Art tolerates no division here. It will
not allow any foreign element, juxtaposing itself to it, to mingle, in the production of
the work, its regulation with arts own. Tame it, and it will do all that you want it
to do. Use violence, and it will accomplish nothing. (66-67)
The poet can only make what she has learned over time to practice. Poetry has its own
demands, concerns, and rules. These are only right and natural and should be respected.
Indeed, trying to bypass these in the name of religion is only bound to failure. Jellema,
likewise, would warn us against using the label "Christian poet" too lightly:
"It invites a poet who is a Christian into a frame of mind in which, proud of his
humility, he can knock the tough commitment to art as merely arty, shrug off the
worlds expected indifference to his work as the price he must pay for his martyrdom,
and isolate himself in mutual-admiration groups of like-minded poets" (334). The poet
as maker is a humbler definition of vocation than that of the prophet or truth-creator,
and I would contend that it is more Christian.
The practice of writing poetry and the practice of Christian faith are complementary.
One can serve God by writing. However, Martains stress on the artist as maker
reminds us that there are some potential dangers, too. Luci Shaw in her "Praying and
poetry" ponders the wild and humbling nature of prayer in comparison to the seemingly
more controllable world of poetic form:
All week Ive been testing
prayers as I hear them coming
from my mouth, judging the slant and
roominess of their pockets, how deep.
How well measured, and
do I take enough time with them.
[. . . .]
But never, quite. Nor fit around
his spacious glory. Tailoring
a poem satisfies me better:
[. . . .]
showing a selvage of truth, but not
too much, and no frayed edges. (1-6, 11-13, 20-21)
Of course, Shaw is somewhat ironic here. Her poetry has become too mannered and safe as
well. Yet she does touch on the difference. Our control of words cannot be the same as our
openness and vulnerability before God. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and poet, in his
essay, "Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal" focuses on the tension between
the contemplative and aesthetic callings. He points out that both callings share an
"immediacy [that] outruns the speed of reasoning and leaves all analysis behind"
(347). Both stress the inwardness and disciplined focus necessary for creative awareness.
At first glance, this would seem to compare, even conflate the differing gifts, yet a
tension remains. The contemplative seeks to fully experience life in order to know God
completely, while the artist seeks to fully experience life in order to create the art
object. Or following the via negativa, the contemplative divests herself of all
preconceived notions to fully contact God, while the artist divests herself to better
serve the craft:
If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul,
it is for a special purpose in the natural order [. . .] to reflect upon his inspiration
and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to
those outside. And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic
begins to be seen. The artist enters into himself in order to work. (350)
The problem is that the poet must serve the work yet also serve God. The risk the
artist runs is that, she or he will try to use the experience of the spiritual life as
material to grind up for art: "He will objectize his own experience and seek to
exploit and empty it for his own sake. He will leave God and return to himself"
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