Thursday, March 25, 2010

Meditation on Meditation on the Sacrament


In the new April Ensign there is an entire page devoted to a tiny poem by one Brother Anderson (p. 9). While I am aware that the Ensign is not (nor does it pretend to be) a literary magazine, and while I know that the poetry it occasionally publishes is not great art (nor does it pretend to be), this work is as unfortunate and insipid a piece of doggerel as I have ever encountered. Let's take a look at it!

Meditation on the Sacrament
How small a sip of water,
how tiny a crust of bread,
yet in these emblems we are lifted,
in them we are fed.

As we think of Jesus
and the sacrifice he gave,
we feel His constant mercy,
His loving power to save.

The author does manage to end lines one and three in each stanza with a consistent "feminine ending" (
strong-weak), but that is the only positive comment that can be made in regard to the meter. To understand the real metric weakness here, we're going to have to examine just how this poem scans––or, more accurately, does not scan.

Hōw smáll • ā síp • ōf wátēr,
(iamb).......(iamb)..(amphibrach)

hōw tínȳ • ā crúst • ōf bréad,
(amphibrach)(iamb)(iamb)

yét īn thēse • émblēms • wé āre • líftēd,
(dactyl).........(trochee)..(trochee)(trochee)

–– ín • thēm wé • āre féd.
(iamb*)(iamb)....(iamb)
[*This line could arguably be rendered: (trochee)(cretic).]


Ás wē • thínk ōf • Jésūs
(trochee)(trochee)(trochee)

ānd thē sá•crīfíce • hē gáve,
(anapest)..(iamb)..(iamb)

wē féel • Hīs cón•stānt mércȳ,
(iamb)...(iamb)...(amphibrach)

Hīs lóv•īng pów(ē)r • tō sáve.
(iamb)..(iamb*).........(iamb)
[*If you give "power" two syllables, this foot is an amphibrach.]

A mess, no? Particularly egregious is the addition of an entire extra foot(!) to the third line. The fourth line might be considered as having two feet, but I believe assuming a silent first beat is a better interpretation than the alternative (if not better poetry). Similarly, in the final line, "pow'r" (with one syllable) makes more sense. Now, poetic rhythm need not be wholly consistent
––in fact, variety can be refreshing and is a useful tool for drawing attention to an important line or thought––but in a poem this short, this much variety smacks more of either sloth, inattention, or an infelicitous lack facility on the part of the poet. (I suspect the latter in this case.) A poem so short, which does not aspire to be free-form, cannot sustain this much irregularity. In a longer work, a poet may attempt a Hopkins-esque "sprung rhythm," but not here, having such a limited scope.

Leaving aside rhythm for the moment, let us turn to word choice. Good poetry can pack a lot of information and/or feeling into a small space. I am reminded of that wonderful line by Blaise Pascal: "I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Good writing, and poetry particularly, only contains as many words as it must, and no more. To achieve that end, every word has to be right, conveying exactly what the poet means to say. Brother Anderson's
Meditation, sadly, is plagued with vague-aries (to coin a term). Consider this line: "...yet in these emblems we are lifted..." Surely not. "In"? We may be "lifted" or "saved" by the sacramental bread and water, but certainly not in them. What does that really mean? In the next stanza we find another word that feels out of place, this time not a preposition, but a verb: "...and the sacrifice he gave..." We know what he is getting at, but do we usually describe sacrifice as something "given"? We can say more comfortably, "...the sacrifice he made..." True, in that case the line would not rhyme (it would make an assonance), but in my mind, that would be more forgivable. Perhaps a better solution would be, "...the offering he gave..." In any case, the poem is sorely in need of more editing if Brother Anderson wants to express himself clearly.

Finally, what is the raison d'être of this poem? Can the author justify the cost in ink and paper? Does he say anything new? Does he even teach anything old in a new way? The basic message seems to be that the sacrament ordinance is important to our salvation, and that it is an example of small things bringing to pass great things. This is hardly new; it has been said before, and said more ably. Though we might argue that the poem could be useful as a kind of doctrinal mnemonic device, we would have to admit that its poor execution fails at even that purpose.

We can do better. We should do better. This is, I suspect, another example of one of Mormonism's most pernicious cultural failings. We tend to get the categories of "good" and "inoffensive" mixed up. Thus, a "good" movie or book is one with little swearing and no sex. "Good," used in this sense, really describes what a thing is not, rather than what it is. I am not trying to make an apologia for obscenity or pornography, but I am making a plea contra-pablum. (And, frankly, this poem approaches Janice-Kapp-Perry-levels of treacly preciousness.) Mormon artists have got to start challenging us to rise to the occasion. Some artists are doing an admirable job at that, but it is difficult within a marketplace in which "EFY music" is actually (and unimaginably!) profitable. I think and hope that the time is coming when LDS artists and thinkers neither feel like they must leave the church for the sake of their artistic/scholarly integrity (Richard Dutcher), nor are driven out of it for their work (Neil LaBute, Brian Evanson*).

There is no doubt that Brother Anderson is a good person, and I am sure that this poem is sincere, but we should remember what Oscar Wilde said about that:

"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling."

Truth comes from the oddest sources sometimes. Speaking of which, here's a poem from Brother Wilde that is actually worth the time spent reading it.


Ave Maria plena Gratia
Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danae:
Or a dread vision as when Semele,
Sickening for love and unappeased desire,
prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her white limbs and slew her utterly:
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both with outstretched wings the Dove.
______________________________________
*It's true that both of these writers have done some very edgy, gritty stuff. However, their works which led to Church discipline were, by comparison, relatively mild. LaBute wrote a play in which a few Mormon characters did some really bad things, and Evanson wrote a few fairly dark short stories. Having read much of the material myself, the fact that it led to disciplinary councils is, frankly, laughable. Like other high-profile excommunications, I suspect that if their works were published today, nobody's membership would have been on the line. Similarly, had Bushman tried to publish Rough Stone Rolling in the early 1990's, BYU scholars might today refer to "the September Seven."

6 comments:

Sherwood family said...

I am the first who would agree that we can do better and should. Our offerings, artistic or otherwise, ought to be our best work. Nevertheless, our individual best may fall far short of 'the best' that can be done. The poem was not well put together. Its subject matter was good but it was not masterfully constructed or deeply thought out. The problem that we in the Church face artistically is two fold: Problem number one is as you have described: That which is often placed on the altar is deeply felt but poorly wrought. Pablum is accepted and even lauded because it is easily digested. That is the virtue of pablum. We need meatier offerings with more substance and more careful preparation. Problem number two: Those who can do better do not do so but rather pick apart the work of those who can't and then feel superior because they have found flaws in the offering imperfectly rendered but honestly given.
There is nothing wrong with recognizing where improvements can be made, even in the work of others, but that should translate into improvements in our own offerings rather than denigration of that which has been consecrated by another. Those who have been blessed to have superior capabilities can do a greater good by letting their work exemplify the standard we should each aspire to rather than hiding their own light under a bushel and then running around snuffing out the feeble candles of others which cast a glow, however dimly, in a world that is full of darkness.
As bad as problem number one is in the Church, and it is some times quite bad, it pales in comparison to the difficulties presented by problem number two.
The reasons should be obvious. Those who already make their offerings are not going to be deterred by the criticism of others. They are either humble/stubborn enough not to be stung/improved by criticism or oblivious enough not to notice it.
However, those who might venture to do something great are put off by the caustic environment that surrounds sub par offerings. Hence, we are left with a self-selecting sample of the same brothers and sisters who persevere in presenting mediocre media in the face of constant criticism while those who are astute enough to recognize a need for reform are too timid/lazy/proud to put their own works on the altar for all to see and comment on.
In this discussion we have held up artistic integrity as a virtue, and it is, but one whose worth is negated when not coupled with humble submission to the Ultimate Artist and Master Craftsman. When we place our "work/glory" in competition with His we set up the works of our own hands as idols. In all scripture, there is no character who has as much "integrity" as Satan. He would not deviate from his principles in the face of any influence, no matter how potent. That was not a virtue but a fatal weakness.
The pure love of Christ is or ought to be the basis for what we produce. Let us leave the judgment of other's offerings to God and go to with our might to praise and honor the Father, Son and Holy Ghost through what weak works we can, as mortals, make.

Latter-Day Guy said...

I am still digesting the above. There is some good food for thought there. The response--if any--is forthcoming.

Latter-Day Guy said...

Problem number one is as you have described: That which is often placed on the altar is deeply felt but poorly wrought.

Actually, no, I would not call that problem number one. It is really just a symptom of the true fundamental problem. There are examples of bad art in every medium and in every community. Mormons certainly don't have a corner on the market as far as that's concerned. (We'll come back to that idea in a moment.)

Problem number two: Those who can do better do not do so but rather pick apart the work of those who can't and then feel superior because they have found flaws in the offering imperfectly rendered but honestly given. There is nothing wrong with recognizing where improvements can be made, even in the work of others, but that should translate into improvements in our own offerings rather than denigration of that which has been consecrated by another. Those who have been blessed to have superior capabilities can do a greater good by letting their work exemplify the standard we should each aspire to rather than hiding their own light under a bushel and then running around snuffing out the feeble candles of others which cast a glow, however dimly, in a world that is full of darkness.

This is simply a false dilemma. We often hear a similar argument when a new temple is going up: "Why are you spending all this money on a lavish building? Shouldn't you use your resources care for the poor?" or, more famously: "To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor."

Engaging in criticism does not preclude personal productivity, indeed it facilitates it––if you wish to write, you should make sure that you read voraciously; if you wish to paint, you should make sure to analyze other artists' paintings; if you wish to sing, you must be sure to listen to good singing; etc.

Latter-Day Guy said...

(CONTINUED)

Devotional art involves three parties, generally speaking: the artist, God, and everybody else. The devotional element is primarily between the artist and The Artist. However, devotional art is still art, and must be analyzed and evaluated in that light; works produced by members of my religious community are not in some kind of protected category. I cannot judge a man's sincerity, but I can judge the intonation of his singing. I cannot know the hue of his heart, but I can evaluate his use of color on a canvas. (And I do feel that my criticism of the poem was substantive, based on real values of craftsmanship.)

(In this discussion we have held up artistic integrity as a virtue, and it is, but one whose worth is negated when not coupled with humble submission to the Ultimate Artist and Master Craftsman. When we place our "work/glory" in competition with His we set up the works of our own hands as idols. In all scripture, there is no character who has as much "integrity" as Satan. He would not deviate from his principles in the face of any influence, no matter how potent. That was not a virtue but a fatal weakness.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here exactly. Clarification?)

Finally, let us return to the fundamental problem hinted at earlier. Here's the thing: LDS culture not only accepts mediocrity, it establishes it as a goal. When an artist puts his/her "widow's mite" on the altar, I am in no position to call that offering unworthy, as it may be that it is everything he/she had. But a mite is a mite and will only buy a fixed amount of bread––to the hungry it makes no difference whether the mite was given by a pauper or a millionaire. It would be unfortunate, then, if we (in our justified praise of the widow's offering) were to inadvertently start a fad, like Marie Antoinette's playing at shepherdess, in which it was considered chic to dress as a widow and offer stylish mites. I have heard this kind of thinking when it comes to music in the Church, wrapped in admonitions not to be "a perfectionist," reminders that the important thing is that the choir should bring the Spirit. Of course we want the choir to bring the Spirit! That goes without saying. What I resist is the notion that singing "too well," or being too focused on good technique will somehow turn a holy hymn into a "performance" (which is anathema), that mediocrity is a prerequisite to sincerity, that "polished" is synonymous with "shallow."

I have read and written plenty of bad poetry myself. The particular poem in question here is not the worst, not by a long shot. But here's the rub: this poem was published in the Ensign! Someone read it and decided that it was worth distributing globally. They didn't have to put it in; they could have put a picture there. So my main gripe is with the editors, really. They are getting paid for what they do, and their choices are reinforcing the cultural tendencies that do more than almost anything else to keep us from achieving what SWK described as the gospel vision of the arts.

Sherwood family said...

Interesting points and valid arguments. However, I still have a couple of quibbles. Your argument that I had set up a false dilemma was actually a strawman argument. If you reread the section that you quoted you will see the following:

"There is nothing wrong with recognizing where improvements can be made, even in the work of others, but that should translate into improvements in our own offerings rather than denigration of that which has been consecrated by another."

I think that is a fairly explicit statement refuting what you took to be my argument. I was NOT saying that if one criticizes one can't be productive themselves. Rather, I was saying that criticism ought to be used as the means of improving one's own work.
However, let me say that I have rarely seen this to be the case (that is anecdotal to be sure but I don't think either of us is willing to throw that kind of evidence out of this discussion). Typically, what I have seen is that many are happy to criticize. They are pleased to hold up examples of bad singing, bad painting, bad teaching, bad speaking, etc. But then we wait to see whether they will produce something that is an improvement. We wait for them to teach a lesson or to sing a song or paint a painting. And we wait. And it never happens. (They may teach the occasional lesson or give the occasional talk because everyone's time comes eventually but the results are not often an improvement.)
So there is a lot of heat and furor over the inferior nature of this or the mediocre nature of that and then no superior offering is ever made. (As you say we can't judge whether it might be superior in terms of intentions, only in an objective sense.) So the critics themselves may have intentions to do better, to exceed or excel but then don't produce results.
To paraphrase Conrad Nebeker, "They raise the bar and then walk right under." They fail to adhere to their own standards spectacularly. For this reason my vehemence is doubly directed at such persons. (Very similar to being upset at the moral failings of Republicans. Nobody cares whether a Democrat cheats on his wife. Nobody expected anything different [except, maybe, his wife] but when the party of "family values" does it people smell blood in the water because of the rank hypocrisy and go in for the kill).
You are right about mediocrity being treated as a virtue in the Church. It is a bad thing but the only productive and effective way to counter that is to produce something far superior and humbly offer it to the Lord and one's brothers and sisters and then do it again, and again until people realize that things not only can be better, they should be better. Until they realize that beauty and holiness are interconnected.
But hammering on others to transform their two turtledoves into lambs without blemish does not help them to do so and isn't doing so oneself.
To sum up: My basic argument is: sure, criticize all you want, but when it comes time we'd better see a pretty good example of the way things ought to be. Failing that our works not only do not raise the level of offerings, they actually lessen them because they are the works of hypocrites.

Latter-day Guy said...

That is an interesting position to take, and it certainly bears careful consideration. However, I am leery of the argument that criticism must be followed by superior production on the part of the critic. An easy example is singing: a critic need not be a world-class singer in order to make valid criticism of a world-class singer. Of course, having been in a performer's shoes can be very helpful in offering criticism that can be acted upon, criticism useful to the producer of art. But, in the instance of this poem, if I do not attempt to publish any religious poetry of my own, it does not make me necessarily a hypocrite. Perhaps it is merely a recognition of my own mediocrity. (And one of the unavoidable parts of any kind of artistic training is the painfully ever-widening gap between perception and facility. In my field, my standards progress faster than my singing ability; this is a normal frustration, and it has the unfortunate effect of making you feel like you're actually getting worse, though such is not the case.) In short: mediocrity in production does not necessarily mean mediocrity in perception.

As to your point vis-à-vis politics and sex scandals: Have you ever noticed that while Democrats certainly have their fair share of infidelity, the right wing seems to have a corner on the market for gay sex scandals? A preacher who finds a "companion" for his trip to help him with his "luggage"? No big deal! Doesn't everyone go to RentBoy[dot]com to find an au pair? I shouldn't laugh at people screwing up their marriages, but it can be kinda funny.