The poet and the bard hold the sacred office of priest, bridging the transcendent with the everyday. I believe it our duty as conservatives to cultivate these habits once again. It is not enough for us to praise the poet, we must support the poet. Of our living poets—to my mind—no greater one exists than James Matthew Wilson.
The Hanging God, by James Matthew Wilson (106 pages, Angelico Press, 2019)
Conservatives have long recognized the voice of the bard as critical to the health of any society. In his Gifford Lectures of the late 1940s, Christopher Dawson argued that the poet—the bard—has always played a central role in the culture of a people. He is, after all, a character filled with the divine voice, speaking as a bridge between the transcendent and the people. While this occurs in every culture, it does so explicitly in the West. From Homer to Virgil to Dante to Tolkien, the poet has played a vital role in western civilization, communicating the past to the present as well as the timeless to the time-full.
The twenty-first century, however, seems to have willfully forgotten this in its race toward the abyss. Ask any American about his or her favorite poet, and you’ll get blank stares at best. Some older folks might list Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, but almost none could name an actual living and published poet. How drastically have things fallen since the days of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.
Drastic, indeed. At least Barnes and Nobles retains a poetry section, much to its credit.
Our need for poets has yet to diminish, whatever our negligence has produced, intentional or otherwise. The proper poet can and will still play the same role, whether the population at large recognizes it or not. Yet, reminding the public of the role of the poet might be one of the most important missions of the conservative.
Of our living poets—to my mind—no greater one exists than James Matthew Wilson. A prominent and energetic professor of the humanities at an Augustinian university by day, Wilson edits and writes poetry with equal prominence and energy by night. Not only does he write excellent (make that brilliant) verse, but he also encourages the art of others.
His latest book of poetry, The Hanging God, brings together more than thirty of his poems, all of which were originally published elsewhere but none of which appeared in precisely the form they do in this collection. In other words, context matters, and Wilson understands this more than most. Not surprisingly, given Wilson’s vast interests, the topics of the poem range from pure love to diabolical Nietzsche. Some of the poems take place then, and many now. Some never. Some take place here, and others elsewhere. Some nowhere.
At the risk of destroying Wilson’s beauty, let me offer a few of his verses here. None is exactly representative, as Wilson’s art varies in topic and expression, while also maintaining its manifestations of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Still, a sampling might give you an idea of his felicities and glories.
A stolen horse will never pasture well
And flocks of white-downed birds prefer to keep
A strict path, looped from north to south, avoiding
The frozen mile beneath. We dwell on plains
Of habit, and become the necessary
Colonists of routine
But, they must not be; we have seen
The maniac proclaim his destiny,
And suffered through dull cruise slides, scene on scene
As some fool reeled in vanity.
We cannot say what our lives mean.
Through the church window, I heard shrieks
Of ambulances whose techniques
Would help us forget our wound;
The certain hum of homeward motors,
A candidate’s rank appeal to voters,
In these its states and voice I found.
We stand upright
And speak such word
As may be heard
In fitting measure.
For, though at night,
Wild thoughts in the deep
Unravel our sleep,
These bring no pleasure.
These four examples reveal much—if not nearly enough—about Wilson’s power over words as well as the power of words over him.
As noted at the beginning of this review, the poet and the bard hold the sacred office of priest, bridging the transcendent with the everyday. As such, the poet, more than most, understands the relationship of the Word to the word. Wilson, to be sure, understands the Word, and he understands the words. He is, without question, a bridge of great magnificence.
There was a time when every respectable home possessed volumes of poetry, and, more often than not, Americans held their favorite poems close to their hearts, enshrined in memory from frequent recitation. I believe it our duty as conservatives to cultivate these habits once again. It is not enough for us to praise the poet, we must support the poet. It is a duty incumbent upon us, I believe.
If you’re willing to accept this argument, I can think of no better way to support poetry than by supporting James Matthew Wilson, our premier poet. Order The Hanging God and treasure the verse as something given to us not just by the mind of man, but by the will of Him who made everything through the Word.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Inspiration of the Poet” (c. 1629-1630) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.