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Brett Foster


The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination

A conference-goer's report.

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Paul Mariani, an accomplished biographer as well as poet, described how American poet John Berryman had played the literary pilgrim, visiting sites where Gerard Manley Hopkins had resided. He read from Berryman's Eleven Addresses to the Lord: "Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement. / May I stand until death forever at attention / for any of your least instruction or enlightenment." Even more memorably, Mariani read Hopkins' "The Windhover." Oh, wow, was it something to hear. He read it slowly and sonorously, not unlike some of those early recordings of Yeats, but without any hit of preening. Rather admiringly, savoring it: "AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!"

"The Church has taught me to see the world as it is," remarked James Matthew Wilson during this session. Poetry, he said, does not "retreat from the world to the chapel"; instead, it helps us to know the truth, and abide there.

Fiction took center stage on Saturday afternoon, in a session featuring critics Paul Contino and Mark Eaton, along with novelist and fiction-writer Richard Bausch. Contino began with a view of the critic as a handmaiden to authors, and he illustrated this function broadly, advocating for the Canadian novelist David Adams Richards and American writers Alice McDermott, George Saunders, and Wolff and Bausch, too. Bausch read from his fiction, and then reflected on a writer's higher calling. Writers, he said, at their best transcend the normal limitations of actual living. They strive to write with all of their intelligence, and the compassion of an angel. Eaton, sharing work from a forthcoming project on religion and American fiction since 1950, observed that as religion has become more pliable in modern life, it has also invited more self-reflection on the part of believers. He also helpfully distinguished between belief in propositions and belief as a continuing practice.

I took part in an "Ecumenical Perspectives" session at the end of the day. (I was told last year, upon being invited, that since I was an upstanding professor from Wheaton College, I would be on the 'ecumenical perspectives' panel! I had been looking forward to it since then.) My focus involved the teaching of Renaissance literature from inter-confessional vantage points, even in an evangelical setting. The more predictable Protestant presence in such a class, in such a place, of John Foxe, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, and such, ought to be complemented by the lives and writings of figures such as Reginald Pole, Edmund Campion, and Robert Southwell, whose religious poetry in the 1590s made possible the later achievements of John Donne and George Herbert. I argue for this because it reflects better what the field of Renaissance Studies has explored and how its focus has expanded in the past 15 years or so. It also makes the religious complexities and tumult of the Renaissance era more approachable and convincing to students.

Marc Malandra of Biola University was also a part of this session, and he reflected on the place of faith, and his identity in the faith, in his own writing habits. He took a strong position on the freedom that should be felt by writers of faith. Malandra prefers to think of himself as a "Christian who writes, rather than a Christian writer," to avoid the possibly limiting attention or engagement that the qualifying description risks bringing.

Poetry continued to be a strong presence throughout the conference. Saturday afternoon saw a reading by several contributors to the anthology St. Peter's B-List, a collection of contemporary poems on the saints edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, and the conference concluded with a Saturday-night plenary reading involving Dana Gioia, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, and Paul Mariani.

At some point during this conference, I took a few minutes to read a welcoming insert in the conference program, a letter from the Most Reverend Jose H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles. Our focus, he announced, was "faith and its relation to literature and culture." For twenty centuries artists have been inspired and sometimes haunted by their search for God, and today artists of faith must speak with force and grace against attempts to "forget and reverse the incarnation." The archbishop continued, "The new evangelization needs new art and new artists. It needs stories and songs, poems and novels and plays, sculptures and architecture, paintings and symphonies"—art that is not satisfied with "temporary consolations and diversions." And if religious art is to be renewed, audiences of faith, for their part, must demand "an art that is truly excellent." To that, all the conference-goers, gathered in the parish of the literary imagination, said Amen.

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