AUTHOR INTERVIEWS SELF!

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS SELF!

DONALD:  So you are going to interview yourself?  How does that work?

DON:  I’ll ask myself questions and then try to answer them.

DONALD:  Your newest book is STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, 2nd edition (Lantern Hollow Press, 2020), xx + 445 pages. $17.99. paperback.  Why poetry, of all things?

DON:  A number of reasons.  First, we live in an age not very hospitable to poetry.  Robert Frost said that the ultimate ambition was “to lodge a few poems in places where they will be hard to get rid of.”  I’ve published quite a few poems–in places where they are easy to ignore.  If I believe that some of my work deserves to be preserved, then it’s up to me to try to give it a more permanent form.  Second, at this stage of my life my poetic production is slowing down.  After half a century of writing verse, when I start a new piece now I usually end up saying, “Nope, already did that, already used that idea.”  I hope I’m not done writing poetry, but the volume is going to decline, because I don’t want to end up like so many poets in the last phase of their lives, doing cheap imitations of their younger selves.  So whatever I have done is starting to take a shape as a whole that is verging toward completeness.  Finally, there is a wonderful publishing venture started by one of my former students and some of his students (does that make them my grand-students?).  Lantern Hollow Press actually wanted to do the book, and the first edition of Stars Through the Clouds was their first volume to see the light of day.  For all those reasons, it seemed like the time was ripe.

DONALD:  You say our age is not hospitable to poetry.  Why not?

DON:  There is no market for poetry–or that’s the perception among most editors and publishers.  And they are not entirely wrong.  The market was killed by the last three generations of poets and the editors and critics who promoted them.  They by and large could not tell the difference between poetry and fractured prose, and they thought incomprehensibility was actually a virtue.  They basically didn’t know what poetry is, and as a result they have taught the current generation of readers very effectively to believe that poetry is nothing that could possibly interest them.

DONALD:  What is poetry?

DON:  It is not easy to define, but some of the greats have taken stabs at it that, taken together, can give us a good idea.  Dr. Johnson said poetry calls the Imagination to the aid of the Reason.  For Pope, it is “Nature to advantage dressed: / What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”  For Wordsworth, the poet is “a man speaking to men in the language of men,” in language elevated by meter, metaphor, etc., but still a language intelligible to normal people (this would be news to most contemporary poets!).  In that language the poet gives us “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I would add that poetry adds to prose a level of structure and meaning of which prose is not capable by making the line, not just the sentence, a significant element.  If you do this well, you can write something that justifies the loftier definitions of Johnson and Pope.

DONALD:  What are you trying to achieve in Stars Through the Clouds?

Dr. Williams, Author of Stars Through the Clouds

DON:  I want to give people a reason for reading poetry again, to prove that poetry can still speak powerfully to human minds and hearts.  I want to preserve and transmit the glimpses of beauty, truth, and goodness that I have been granted to see.  I want to show that Wordsworth was right about the poet as a man speaking to men.  I want to return the craft of prosody and form to the writing of poetry.  I want to make a start in rebuilding an audience for poetry, for the great poets of the past as well as myself and those who will follow me.

DONALD:  Pretty grandiose schemes, eh?

DON:  Yeah, I guess so.  But it’s what I want to do.  And since not many other people seem to be trying it . . .

DONALD:  What poets from the past are some of the biggest influences on Stars Through the Clouds?

DON:  I learned an awful lot from Robert Frost about how artfully to combine classic forms with contemporary language.  I studied the form of the sonnet under masters like Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats.  George Herbert is a model in the way that he used every conceivable form devotionally in The Temple and showed how to be intelligent without falling into unnecessary obscurity.  Charles Williams gave me a lot of the ideas for “Tales of Taliessin,” though I do not much resemble him in style.  C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien did more than anyone else to influence the way I see the world.

For a number of poems either about Lewis and Tolkien or inspired by their work and their ideas, go to https://smile.amazon.com/dp/173286800X?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860 and order a copy of STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2020).  (This commercial brought to you by Mr. Tumnus’ Library.)

 

Review: STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS

Williams, Donald T.  Stars Through the Clouds (Lantern Hollow Press, 2020, xx + 445 pages $17.99 paperback)

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Bauman

In the preface to his long historical poem Old King Coel, Adam Fox, former Oxford Professor of Poetry, former Canon of Westminster Abbey, and former Inkling, wrote that in it he had “used verse and rhyme in a traditional way, since the experimentalists do not seem to have created any more pleasurable substitute.”  He was, of course, completely right, both about his work and theirs.

That statement could be lifted whole from Fox’s book then planted four-square into Williams’, and with good reason:  first, because Williams’ poetry is better–more  true, more beautiful, and more rhetorically apt—and, second, because its subject matter is more varied, its insights more enduring, and its content more theologically well-grounded.

All that is one way of saying that Donald Williams is an academic.  He lives in his mind.  That mind is furnished with the ideas and forms of classical culture and its subsequent reiterations.  His poetry, therefore, has meter, rhyme, structure, and substance.  It asks and answers the perennial questions of life, questions like:  “What’s a good life and what good is life?” “What’s a good death and what good is death?” “What’s a good love and what good is love?” and “What’s a human being?”

Because Williams is also a Christian, the poetic answers he offers to these diagnostic questions are full of Biblical theology and spirituality, the sort that grows up best and most richly in the hothouse of real human experience in a fallen world.  Those answers are robed in the drapery of precise, memorable rhetoric and then scattered liberally in epigrams, proverbs, images and gobbets of printed gold across almost every page.

For years, I have said to anyone who will listen that Donald Williams is the best practicing poet in America.  This collection bears me out:  formal, informal, satirical, theological, poignant, insightful, playful, factual, and beautiful — it’s all there.  Williams’ poetry is high verbal art that takes tradition seriously and that thinks art ought to serve the highest and best purposes.  That sort of verbal art is less appreciated in our age, when shock and offense have displaced beauty, truth, and goodness.   Thank God, that displacement has not been total.  The higher things still can be found, if you know where to look.  If you do not, then simply look here.

No poet is perfect, of course, though some are far better than others.  Count Williams among our best.  While every poet has a voice, Donald Williams has many.[i]  Sometimes it’s the voice of Frost or Dickinson or Gray.  Sometimes it’s De la Mare or Tolkien or Housman.  All have their place.[ii]  And sometimes, if you have the ears to hear, you might catch an echo of the Higher Voice.  In his impressive multivocity, Williams is much like the late Anne Ridler, another verbal artist whose works are too little known.  I’m not saying that Williams is a mere imitator.  I’m saying that his poetic mind is well stocked with the works and words of the great poets and sages, and that it shows.  I am saying that you are what you eat, and that Williams has obviously fed upon the best poetic morsels the English-speaking world (and beyond) has yet produced.

Dr. Williams, Author of Stars Through the Clouds

I won’t subject you to a selection of my favorite lines or poems.  This review is not about me.  But whether or not, like me, you prefer poems that are pointed and concise, poems that waste no time or words in getting where they’re going—something along the lines of Housman at his best—or those poems that are more patient and that draw themselves out more slowly and at length, like a giant waking from slumber, you will find plenty here to satisfy you: “Sehnsucht” (p. 351), on the one hand, or “Toccoa Falls: An Ode,” on the other (p. 85).

Williams is not the first of that name to write something significant and profound called “Seed” (p. 122).  When read together with Charles Williams’ nativity play “Seed of Adam,” the six-part poem published here becomes part of a double journey into the mind of God and incarnational consciousness.  But its six portions are perhaps one too many, the final installment unsuited to the rest and capable of standing on its own.  Still, his “Reflections” on the next page (137) is more than ample compensation, as are “The Irony” (138) and “The Hypostatic Union” (139). “Miracula” (149) is simply deepest conviction.  The two Williamses also have the poetic saga of Taliessin in common, and of the first the second Williams is a worthy successor and more, maintaining the profundity of the original while adding the clarity it sometimes lacked (pp. 189-245).

For good measure — and quite unlike anything I’ve seen since they collected Thurber or Nash — you’ll find page upon page (pp. 247-87) of rhyme that will make you smile, chuckle, and laugh, while simultaneously reading your way through the history of philosophy, theology and hermeneutics, to which topics Williams returns later not in levity but in full seriousness (pp. 289 ff.).  The effect is a liberal arts education in miniature, with Theology as its capstone (pp. 375 ff).  The book ends beautifully, much like Paradise Lost:  the end is the beginning (p. 420).

Lastly, please understand this comment as the highest possible praise:  Of the more than 400 poems in this collection, not one can righty be called a somnifacient—not one.  The achievement is impressive.  Not even Sidney, Housman or Gray could ring the bell every time.  Yet here, every poem both embodies and elicits thought and piety.  Each one, considered carefully, illustrates why thought and piety are so closely related, perhaps twins.  Williams’ poetry is the verbal embodiment of Henry More’s dictum that no notion ever changed his heart that did not first enlighten his mind.  Read here to benefit both.

Michael Bauman, Author of the Review

[i] For example, Frost: “Times in the Appalachian High Country” (p. 6) and “Metaphor Glimpsed” (p. 50), Hopkins: “Plane Flight” (p.29), Dickinson: “Spring Metaphor” (p. 13) and “Commentary, Job 38:7” (p. 32), De la Mare: “New Every Morning” (p. 42), and occasionally even Wordsworth: “Conversation with a Back-Packer” (p. 52).

[ii] But not–praise God–Eliot, Sandburg or Pound, or at least not too much.

The late Michael Bauman was Professor of Theology and Culture, Hillsdale College, and Scholar in Residence, Summit Semester, Summit Ministries.

You can order the book here:

https://smile.amazon.com/dp/173286800X?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860

CLXXXXV

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Complicated stanza forms using rhymed counterpoint (rhymes coming at the ends of lines of different lengths—the very opposite of the royal couplet) are a challenge.  The challenge is to make the thought flow through them without seeming unnatural or forced.  The trick is to make the movement of the stanza just unexpected enough to make the smooth flow of the thought an accomplishment, but not enough to disrupt it.  George Herbert was the great master of this technique.  Let’s see what I can do with it:

George Herbert

THE COMMENDATION

(Rom. 5:8)

In all mankind no greater love can be

Than to lay down

One’s life for a good friend.  But look around,

And you will see

A man, to save his spiteful enemy,

Lie down to die–

No other reason why.

 

And does God then commend His love in this?

While we were yet

Sinners, in our sins still firmly set,

With Judas’ kiss

Still warm on our lips and His cheek, the hiss

Still ringing, “Crucify!”

He willingly did die.

 

And so we hear the glorious decree,

“Reconciled!”

And I, who would have stood there and reviled,

Now on my knee

Search in vain for something that could be

A fit return

For grace I did not earn.

 

And I, who solely by His sacrifice

Now live,

Will never find a single thing to give

That would suffice

To pay back one ten-millionth of the price

He freely gave

To save me from the grave.

 

Ah, well, I must give all;   my grateful heart

Could do no less.

Yet, in so doing, freely I confess

There is no part

To give He has not purchased from the start.

Before His throne,

I give Him but His own,

 

And worship Him for grace beyond my art

To think or tell:

By death and love a double debtor made,

I find all debts in Him forever paid.

He doeth all things well!

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

CLXV

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Music and poetry in the old days were closely allied.  One of my great goals as a writer is to overcome the estrangement that the modern world has caused between them.

Capture9THE MINSTREL

The minstrel struck his golden harp;

The music sounded strong and clear,

Like edges keen and arrows sharp

In hands of warriors bold.

Like rivers swift and mountains sheer,

Like the North wind blowing cold,

It stirred the very blood to hear

Him strike his harp of gold.

 

And then the bard began to sing:

If all alone his melody

Could build so bright and shimmering

A vision in the heart,

What charms of might and mystery

The spoken spell, the subtle art,

The wisdom and the wizardry

Of wordcraft could impart!

 

So deep was the enchantment laid,

So masterful his minstrelsy,

So strong the music that he made,

The story that he told,

That all the gathered chivalry

Would hearken ‘til the night was old,

Entranced and still, whenever he

Took up his harp of gold.

Capture5Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out Sept. 30, 2016, from Square Halo Books! 

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Book-CSLTheology-Cover

CLI

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

The greatest explanation of why poetry matters is Sir Philip Sidney’s magnificent “Defense of Poesy.”  Sidney defends poetry against those who could see no place in the curriculum for “lies.”  The end of learning, he says, is virtuous action.  The Philosopher writes about the ideal, but does it so abstractly, is so “misty to be conceived,’ that “a man may wade in him until he be old before he find sufficient reason to be honest.”  The Historian, by contrast, writes concretely and tells a story we can relate to—but he is limited to what actually has been.  He cannot talk about what ought to be, the ideal, without departing from his expertise as a Historian.  “But now doth the peerless poet perform both”:  Like the Historian he speaks concretely and tells a story, but like the philosopher he is not limited to what has been but is free to talk about the ideal.  Here I try to add the Theologian to Sidney’s framework.

The Poet
The Poet

DEFINITIONS

Tending to Show that Theology

Is Indeed the Queen of the Sciences

I

Philosopher:  a man who tries to shave

With Ockham’s Razor by the flickering light

That shines behind his back in Plato’s Cave.

He’ll know that’s what he’s doing if he’s bright;

He may take Pascal’s Wager if he’s brave

(Fides quaerens intellectum), and he might

Thus feel his chains fall off and leave that place

And know the sunlight full upon his face.

William of Ockham
William of Ockham

II

Historian:  He deals in documents,

And what he cannot find there he invents.

As long as it fits in with and makes sense

Of what we have of solid evidence,

It’s called “interpretation,” and he prints

It up.  In this there is no vain pretence

As long as we can tell the difference.

 

III

The Poet is a wielder of that Word

Which clothes the unformed thought and makes it seen,

Which sings the silent thought and makes it heard,

Which tells us how to say the thing we mean.

Sir Philip Sidney said it long ago

In his divine Defense of Poesy:

Philosophy’s business is to seek to know

Not just what is, but that which ought to be,

Truth in its very essence, plain and bare

(Though he may leave it hanging in the air);

History can tell us how, below,

The truth has fared and still is apt to fare;

The Poet’s language teaches us to care.

A Theologian
A Theologian

IV

The Theologian has to be all three:

The logos, the divine philosophy

Which was incarnate in our history

Must still be fleshed with words to make men see.

The Theologian simply has to be

All three.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out Sept. 1, 2016, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Book-CSLTheology-Cover