Nov 4, 2014
Poetic Revelation: Scott Cairns
I have been asked, off and on, (see Passwords Primeval by Tony Leuzzi) if I think of myself as a religious poet. The fact is that I do. Still, folks who hear me say that might therefore assume that my poems are written to express my faith—in a way similar to how a poor political poet or a not-so-accomplished but nonetheless zealous vegetarian poet might be satisfied to write little verse tracts advocating for an ideology or a lifestyle. If I shared the commonplace misunderstanding that poetry is an expressive undertaking, I probably could become guilty of writing religious tracts in verse, or some other waste of time. The heart of the matter is that I don't suffer this misunderstanding, and that I don't approach poetry as an expository genre. My sense that poetry is a way of knowing—rather than a way of sharing what you think you know—pretty much spares me, and (I hope) spares the reader as well. So, yes, I've been working for a while now to become a religious person, and I've been working for a while to appreciate how the poetic operation of language is primarily a way of seeing—a matter of pressing language for glimpses of revelation.
And I daresay that it’s been a long road, a long pilgrimage, even—with stretches of progress and development along the way. The most apparent development occurred between books one and two, when my entire approach shifted from a primarily open-form, anecdotal, expressive undertaking (the same sort as I enjoy disparaging today) to a more meditative, linguistically engaged process. Still, it's all a matter of degree, but each successive book has been—in terms of form and procedure—increasingly attentive to suggestive ambiguities in language and the fruits of those energies. Simply put, the poems have evolved from the glibly denotative toward the more suggestively connotative. As for themes, well, that's also a matter of degree; I've been a self-diagnosed God-obsessive most of my life, and the poems have simply become increasingly a greater part of the contemplative practice that assists my finally growing up.
There may have been a time when what I read or how I read was somehow separate from my writing process; if so, it was too long ago to remember much about it. For as long as I can remember, however, these practices have seemed like two sides of the same coin, or two activities feeding a common project. Reading leads to writing, and writing leads to further reading. One writes to fan some spark or other, ignited by reading; one returns to reading to feed a continuing hunger. Also, my various disciplines—theology, philosophy, poetry, etc.—seem less discrete to me than our common academic structures might suggest. I suppose that if one were primarily interested in making a career in one of these fields, he would do well to stick to one of them, becoming master of its jargon, its hermetic monologue, its arcane premises. On the other hand, if one were primarily interested in making a dent in his own ignorance, in becoming a more coherent human person, he might find that all of these areas tend to overlap a good bit, and he might find that in engaging these areas of overlap—and in pressing their vocabularies for further information—he might find some provocative matter worth working over. In my own case, my God-obsession had been complicated early on by what turned out to have been an untenable, if nonetheless popular, version of Christian faith. Rather than abandoning Christ, I dug in to discover an earlier version of the faith, which turned out to be full of beauty as well. I've always been a sucker for beauty. That earlier version of the story also appeared less cranky, less fearful, more generous than its popular counterpart, privileging a therapeutic model of recovery over a juridical model of retribution. I suppose that the recurrent themes in my poems—those concerns I can't stop yammering about—have been the direct result of my having embraced the model of recovery, healing, endless development.
In any case, these are the books thus far:
Slow Pilgrim: Collected Poems, forthcoming from Paraclete Press, 2015.
Idiot Psalms: New Poems, Paraclete Press, 2014.
The End of Suffering, (book-length essay), Paraclete Press, 2009. Second printing, 2010.
Short Trip to the Edge (spiritual memoir), HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Greek Edition: Μικρό Ταξίδι στι Μεθόριο, Parrisia Books, Athens, Greece: 2014. Expanded English Edition: Paraclete Press, expected in 2015.
Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, (translations/adaptations) Paraclete Press, 2007. Reissued in paperback as Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics, 2014.
Compass of Affection: Poems New & Selected, Paraclete Press, 2006.
Philokalía: New & Selected Poems, Zoo Press, 2002. Second printing, 2003.
Recovered Body. New York: George Braziller Inc., Publishers, 1998. Reprinted by Eighth Day Press, 2003.
Figures for the Ghost. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
The Translation of Babel. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
The Theology of Doubt. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1985. Second Printing, 1990.
Sermons for the Wary. Steubenville: Franciscan University Press, 1993.
Disciplinary Treatises. Dallas: Trilobite Press, 1993. Finding the Broken Man. Minneapolis: Window Press, 1982.
Descent to the Heart: Selections from The Philokalia, (new translations), Paraclete Press, expected in 2018.
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