313

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.

 

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

295

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.”

What is poetry?  Why does it matter? Listen to the king’s bard:

SOME REAL MAGIC

Taliessin Lectureth in the School of the Poets

Within the cadences of human speech

Attentive listeners can sometimes hear

The rhythm of the wave upon the beach

Or listen to the music of the spheres.

Within the small sphere of the human eye

The watcher who knows how to look can see

A spirit that’s as lofty as the sky

Or humble as the lover on his knee.

When in the alembic of the human mind

Imagination boils with memory,

Such vision with such sound can be combined,

Far more mysterious than alchemy!

The Philosopher’s Stone we vainly sought of old

Could never have made such rare and costly gold.

For more about Taliessin, order Stars Through the Clouds!

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), An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: 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 (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2019)!  Order from the publisher or Amazon.

CCXIII 

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.”

AIR

A Song of Taliessin

 

While walking out under the greenwood fair

A maiden I chanced to meet

Who softly whistled a country air,

And the melody was sweet:

As sweet as the blossoms she twined in her hair

Or the grass ‘neath her dancing feet;

She softly whistled a country air

And the melody was sweet.

 

I hid me back of the cedarn bough,

The better that tune to hear:

It smoothed the furrows from off the brow

And filled the heart with cheer.

Like the lonely seaman who peers from the prow

With his home port drawing near,

It smoothed the furrows from off the brow

And filled the heart with cheer.

 

Never again did I see the maid;

The tune I cannot recall.

But every melody that’s played

And pleases me at all

Sends me back to that greenwood fair

And seems to echo the beat

Of a softly whistled country air

Whose melody was sweet;

The melody was sweet.

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