Friday, February 13, 2015

An Art of Poetry by James McAuley

So, this week I was planning on reviewing Owen Barfield's History in English Words, a philological classic from one of the rarer Inklings. Unfortunately, though, some things have come up, and I'll have to postpone that review in favour of a poem.

Not in opaque but limpid wells Lie truth and mystery. (Source)
James McAuley has become one of my favourite poets. This is odd for two reasons. The first is that he is a recent poet, having died less than fifty years ago. The second is that he is Australian, and for years I was unaware of my native land having produced anyone quite so spectacularly good (not even Banjo Paterson). As I've explained in a previous post, McAuley took a long and fascinating journey to become one of the most controversial poets in Australian history, a staunch Christian and anti-modernist, before being more or less hushed up and forgotten after his death.

Today I'd like to share a recent favourite poem. McAuley's style is a little different to many of my favourite poets; he keeps most of his poems short and tight, using words with splendid economy. The real beauty of poetry lies in saying volumes in just a few brief words that conjure up a whole host of harmonious but diverse meanings, allusions, and echoes, so that one line of poem is like the plucking of a string. One does not simply hear a sound; one hears the whole spectrum of lesser vibrations, the third, fifth, and octave of the original note, resounding slowly into silence. That is what reading good poetry is like, and with McAuley's poetry, the effect is particularly notable.

Another thing that recently struck me about McAuley's style is its grace. I'll have another go at describing this quality when I review History in English Words, but for now, let me just describe it as something best experienced in Middle English poetry, medieval chivalric romances, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and the like. It is courtesy in the old Spenserian sense, meaning honest affection shown from a sincere heart. Not merely politeness, but kindness, courtliness, and nobility. Most modern authors, even Christian authors, even my favourites, do not capture this quality. James McAuley does.

An Art of Poetry
by James McAuley

To Vincent Buckley

Since all our keys are lost or broken,
Shall it be thought absurd
If for an art of words I turn
Discreetly to the Word?

Drawn inward by his love, we trace
Art to its secret springs:
What, are we masters in Israel
And do not know these things?

Lord Christ from out his treasury
Brings forth things new and old:
We have those treasures in earthen vessels,
In parables he told,

And in the single images
Of seed, and fish, and stone,
Or, shaped in deed and miracle,
To living poems grown.

Scorn then to darken and contract
The landscape of the heart
By individual, arbitrary
And self-expressive art.

Let your speech be ordered wholly
By an intellectual love;
Elucidate the carnal maze
With clear light from above.

Give every image space and air
To grow, or as bird to fly;
So shall one grain of mustard-seed
Quite overspread the sky.

Let your literal figures shine
With pure transparency:
Not in opaque but limpid wells
Lie truth and mystery.

And universal meanings spring
From what the proud pass by:
Only the simplest forms can hold
A vast complexity.

We know, where Christ has set his hand
Only the real remains:
I am impatient for that loss
By which the spirit gains.


Jamie W. said...

Beautiful! And so true.

You know, in many ways this reminds me of C.S. Lewis' Christian poetry -- that, too, has that surprising quality of Christian grace (no surprise that Lewis was deeply influenced by Spenser), and it is likewise satisfying to the ear, though it's often overshadowed by Lewis' (admittedly more influential) prose works. (I would say that it reads rather as if an early Metaphysical poet -- on that borderland between the Elizabethan and Metaphysical styles -- were to experience and respond to the twentieth century, which is of course both insightful and delightful.) Lewis was quite modest about his poetic talents, which is probably why they're underappreciated today, but had he been a less great prose stylist, his poetry might be better known!

hopeinbrazil said...

I can't tell you how pleased I am with this post - for many reasons. It's hard to find lovers of truly good poetry. It's hard to find writers of truly good poetry. Thank you for this poem and for introducing me to this author and for your lovely thoughts about him. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Suzannah said...

Jamie, I'm very fond of CS Lewis's poetry, and you're right, it could be very gracious. On the other hand, it could also be absolutely scorching! James McAuley often reminds me of the Metaphysical poets as well--he has a similar economy of words and focus on metaphysics, though he usually doesn't use the "conceits".

Hope, I'm so thrilled to introduce you to James McAuley's works. You can explore more of his work on the Australian Poetry Library:

Jamie W. said...

I agree -- Lewis' poems of political and social (and even literary) comment are excellent as well. One in particular always sends chills down my spine -- the one called "A Cliche Came Out of its Cage."

I hope you don't mind comments slightly derailed from the original post. I'm not nearly as familiar with McAuley's work as I hope to be soon!

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