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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.”

NOTE:  Starting in July, 2020, Dr. Williams’s poetry blog will  be moving to http://www.thefivepilgrims.com.  Watch for it there!

Plato started a conversation in The Republic that is still ongoing.  Fortunately for us, Sir Philip Sidney was one of the participants.

Plato

THE CHALLENGE OF “THE REPUBLIC”

Plato banned the Poets from his state,

Yet said, if one could make a sound defense

In lilting verse with cogent arguments

That they do more than merely imitate

An imitation and dissimulate,

He’d take them back again.  And ever since

Our best minds have been trying to convince

His cautious Guardians of their mistake.

 

Sir Philip Sidney laid a firm foundation

In his divine “Defense of Poesy”:

The Poet gives us Virtue’s exaltation

More strong than History or Philosophy,

Concretely shows through his imagination

Not just what is, but more:  what ought to be.

Sir Philip Sidney

Remember: for more poetry like this, order Dr. Williams’s collected poetry, Stars through the Clouds, 2nd edition (Lantern Hollow Press, 2020) at https://smile.amazon.com/dp/173286800X?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860!  And look for Williams’ very latest books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016), An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018), and The Young Christian’s Survival Guide: Common Questions Young Christians Are Asked about God, the Bible, and the Christian Faith Answered (Christian Publishing House, 2019)!  Order from the publisher or Amazon.

 

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

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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.”

 A requiem for the death of English Literature as a humane academic discipline: Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, and Matthew Arnold are the authors respectively of the first three italicized points of view, now considered quaint at best in current English departments. The attitudes of those departments are reflected in the standard print.  My commentary on the whole fiasco appears in the last italicized bit, the concluding couplet.

Sir Philip Sidney

HORACE, SIDNEY, AND ARNOLD,

LOOKING DOWN ON EARTH FROM ELYSIUM,

SCRATCH THEIR HEADS

The purpose, by delighting thus to teach

And then by teaching also to delight?

Nothing but a lame excuse to preach

Oppressive values—how naïve, how trite!

The good of History and Philosophy,

The concrete and the abstract, unified?

A quaint archaic curiosity

From European White Males who have died.

To see the thing for what it really is,

To know the best that have been thought and done?

Merely factual answers for a quiz;

No more a map for any race we run.

It’s how the academic game is played,

And Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are betrayed.

Matthew Arnold

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 books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016) and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018)!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

224

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.”

A POLEMIC

On the Origins of Post-Modern Criticism

For David Hume

David Hume

(The radical Empiricism of the Endarkenment entails treating the Good as an abstraction, rejecting Truth for fact, and reducing the Beautiful to a subjective response.  Thus it undercuts the docere of Literature, leaving us only with a truncated diligere.  This epistemology applied to Art can only lead to Aestheticism, which inevitably degenerates into Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction.  Once the actual Values of the Sages have thus been destroyed, they can now be replaced with Marxism, Feminism, Freudianism, or whatever other Ism we wish to impose on Texts left defenseless by the death of Truth.  To get beyond this impasse, we must abandon the skeptical philosophy that produced it as question-begging Nonsense.)

 

That skeptic, David Hume,

Gained philosophic fame

Committing to the fume

Of metaphoric flame

Whole libraries of pages

By metaphysic sages.

 

Unless it could be measured

By his empiric wit,

It never could be treasured,

And so, away with it!

Mere sophistry, illusion,

Divinity ( ! ), confusion.

 

Augustine and Aquinas,

Isaiah, Moses, Paul,

Nothing but a minus;

Better burn them all:

The penalty for treason

Against enlightened “Reason.”

 

Erasmus, Calvin, Luther,

Dante, Milton, Spenser:

What could be uncouther,

More worthy of a censor?

Life seen through the prism

Of rank empiricism.

 

To keep them as purveyors

Of just imagination

Is but to be betrayers

Of all their conversation:

Dead, white, oppressive pigs

For mere aesthetic prigs.

 

Good critics can’t arise

From bad philosophy.

It should be no surprise

That we have come to be

Despisers of the True—

Of Goodness, Beauty, too.

 

If only what the senses

Can see or smell or feel

Is able to convince us

That it is really real,

How’d the sensation grow

That tells us this is so?

 

We’d really like to know.

Dr. Williams being unimpressed by Hume’s arguments.

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

CCII

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.”

Jim Kilgo was a professor of American Literature at the University of Georgia when I was doing my doctorate there back in the 1970s.  I never had a class with him, but we bonded as fellow Christians.  We had other reasons too.  I miss that man.

KILGO

We never did get to the woods together.

We’d meet up in his air-conditioned office

From time to time to swap a tale or two.

He’d find a chair beneath a pile of papers

For me, beneath a pile of books for him,

And we’d lament the state of education

And then get on to more important things:

How quiet dawn is in a river swamp,

How sharp the wind blows over Albert’s Mountain,

The steam a plate of grits makes on a table

When frost is on the sedge outside the window,

The best last lines in all of literature

(They must be Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne

And then “The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius”).

We’d quote from C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Faulkner,

Or Robert Frost, or Flannery O’Connor;

We loved the words that named the things we loved.

We even tried some naming of our own–

He’d read his stories, and I’d read my poems,

Testing lines like newly mounted axe-heads

For balance and a clean and compact stroke:

The different rhythm life has on the trail–

I said, “Three days away from clocks you feel it”;

The trout he caught high in a mountain stream

In pools between the rapids and the falls–

“No gift comes cleaner from the hand of God.”

His book was Deep Enough for Ivorybills.

He meant woodpeckers in a cypress swamp;

I take it and apply it to his soul.

We love the words that name the things we love,

And one among the cleaner strokes is “Jim.”

Photo credit: David Hodges

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