The Poetry of Divinity: Defending Religious Poetry

Tom Millay reviews Kevin Hart’s Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry

Kevin Hart. Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. pp. 329. $114.00.

Kevin Hart is not one to boast. Nothing in this volume, which discusses religious poetry, would let one know that Hart is a major contemporary poet (as Harold Bloom amongst others has claimed), nor that some of his poems are religious. We do not find out that Hart is the one who has written the lines: “I want to live/Like a water spider over my own life/And touch again the month we fell in love/And feel its flesh,” nor that he has written “The Room,” which is said to have sustained a captured Chilean soldier who had memorized the poem through a period of intense mental and physical torture.

Perhaps Hart wanted the volume, one of a number of important theoretical works he penned, to stand on its own, and it certainly does; however, it is worth mentioning that this theoretical account of religious poetry is written by someone who is a practicing religious poet. The book is essentially an apologia for religious poetry accomplished through a novel mode of argumentation: phenomenology. As far as I am aware, this is the first major treatment of religious poetry in the field of phenomenology, and the result is a stirring defense of religious poetry against two major detractors of the very idea.

Samuel Johnson and Harold Bloom are the critics in question. Johnson argues that religious poetry is always poetry of a minor sort, for it is necessarily a secondary operation. It relies upon established dogma rather than primary experience. This reliance both constrains the available topics of religious poetry and saps it of freshness and vitality. Bloom argues that religious knowing and poetic knowing are different and irreconcilable modes of knowledge; if there is major religious poetry, then it was not written in a religious mode, and it is therefore ‘religious’ only in a highly qualified sense.

The best argument against Johnson takes shape in the first two chapters of Poetry and Revelation, both on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hart shows how the intense religious formation of Hopkins (a Jesuit), which involved both the learning of doctrine and the memorization of Scripture, does not diminish his primary experience of the world, but actually makes that experience possible. It is because Hopkins was thoroughly immersed in Christianity that he perceives the Holy Spirit in dawn light or Christ in the “silk sack” clouds to which the stooks have pointed him “Hurrahing in Harvest.” Hopkins’ intentionality has been formed in such a way that his interpretation occurring in the act of his perceiving permits him to see the Holy Spirit in the same act of perception as seeing the dawn. Contra Johnson’s understanding of religious poetry as derivative, Hopkins demonstrates how religious training can enable fresh perceptions, a demonstration that can spur his religious readers to make such observations in their own lives—“these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting.”

Hart’s phenomenological tools are able to register Hopkins’ experience as primary experience. Phenomenology respects our intentionality as an ineluctable part of how the world is constituted. Thus the world as God’s creation does not have to be merely a secondary, doctrinal affirmation, available only in the mode of abstract discourse; it can be a primary or originary experience of a subject whose intentionality has been formed in a particular way.

The argument against Bloom is complicated by the fact that Hart must undertake a simultaneous rejoinder to the field of phenomenology itself. This intra-phenomenological dispute is briefly sketched here, having already been developed at length in Hart’s previous book, Kingdoms of God. For Husserl, the phenomenological method is one of epoche: the bracketing of all beliefs transcendent to one’s own consciousness. The end goal of epoche is the rigorous investigation of subjective intentionality in its constitution of the world. Such a bracketing of transcendence seems to put belief in God out-of-play (though Husserl is not as clear on this as some scholars think, as Hart notes). Religious belief and phenomenological inquiry thus appear to be at odds in a manner parallel to Bloom’s opposition of religious and poetic modes of knowledge.

Hart convincingly avers that this does not have to be the case. It is simply presumption that God is outside of the subject’s intentionality. One may equally presume that one’s intentionality and the world it aims at in its constitutive activity are both the result of God’s creative act. Phenomenology and religious belief need not be opposed, and—insofar as it is no longer clear what sustains the division—poetic and religious ways of knowing need not be in opposition either.

This does not mean that the two cannot be in opposition. Just as the phenomenologist brackets the “natural attitude,” which holds that objects exist as one naturally observes them, apart from one’s intentional gaze, so also the religious poet is called to bracket the “supernatural attitude” that affirms doctrinal beliefs apart from first-hand experience of their veracity. Doctrinal beliefs only make for good poetry when they stand as background to primary perceptions of the world as charged with God’s presence and also, occasionally, with God’s absence. Hart thus grants the fact that Bloom and Johnson are right about some religious poetry, insofar as it merely repeats the experience of others. That religious poetry can be like this does not mean that it must be, as the best poems of Hopkins (amongst others, of course) demonstrate.

Such is the grand argumentative scope of Hart’s book, which I take to be both convincing and interesting. The work helps readers appreciate religious poetry as a legitimate pursuit, while simultaneously pointing out why—or, better, how—some religious poems are more effective than others. Most of the book, though, is not so much directly concerned with this broad argument as it is with reading various poets with loving and attentive precision. I have already mentioned Hopkins; T.S. Eliot, Philippe Jaccottet, Eugenio Montale, and Charles Wright all receive significant treatments.

Occasionally the larger argument is lost amongst so much empirical evidence, yet if one is interested in these poets, that hardly matters much. Particular highlights include the difficult readings of the difficult poetry of Geoffrey Hill, who makes the ambiguous line into a form of high art, and the chapters on the Australian poets A.D. Hope, Judith Wright, and Robert Gray, not all of whom will be familiar to an American or a British audience. Hart’s reading of Hope’s “The Double Looking Glass,” with “its blinding vision of human sexual fulfillment as transcendence of our mortal state,” is especially notable for its deft combination of close reading, referential supplement, and evocative treatment of a single theme—desire.

One of the greatest living religious poets has given us a luminous volume on religious poetry. We should pay attention, not least because Hart’s “phenomenological theology” is turning out to be quite as interesting as his verse. Keeping in mind the amount of time that theoretical writing inevitably takes, however, I do not think I am alone in hoping that Hart’s next collection of poems, titled Barefoot, comes out sooner rather than later.

Thomas J. Millay is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Christian Ethics at Baylor University in Waco, TX. A forthcoming article on the ethics of Kierkegaard and Hegel will be published in Modern Theology. He has previously published articles in the Scottish Journal of Theology, the International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Telos. His dissertation is concerned with Kierkegaard’s asceticism.