Thick and Dazzling Darkness

Religious Poetry in a Secular Age

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Peter O'Leary
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231173308.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In a famous English Renaissance essay on poetry, poet-courtier Philip Sidney makes the argument that writing and reading poetry are legitimate activities given that the Bible also includes poetry. Sidney points out that biblical poets “imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God. Such were David in his Psalms; Solomon in his Songs of Songs, in his Ecclesiastes and Proverbs; Moses and Deborah in their Hymns; and the writer of Job ... Against these none will speak that has the Holy Ghost in due holy reverence” (Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten, Clarendon Press, 1973). Sidney’s invocation of biblical poetry in this context is, for the most part, opportunistic. His agenda in The Defence of Poesy is to provide secular poetry with legitimacy against its Protestant critics, and the appeal to religious poetry serves his goals, as it suggests that poetry has been used for purposes with which the critics cannot possibly disagree. 

Almost half a millennium later, Peter O’Leary’s Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age builds on the opposite premise. O’Leary’s central assertion is that, in modern and contemporary North America, there is a preference for secular poetry, and a concomitant and deep-seated bias against religious verse. Thick and Dazzling Darkness is an effort to defend religious poetry against this supposed secularist bias by offering a set of interrelated readings of nine modern and contemporary poets—Frank Samperi, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Duncan, Geoffrey Hill, Fanny Howe, Lissa Wolsak, Nathaniel Mackey, Joseph Donahue, and Pam Rehm—authors whom O’Leary places in the tradition of great religious poetry in the West spanning from Dante and the English metaphysical poets to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, H.D., and TS Eliot. 

Before looking at the book’s considerable achievements, let me say a few words about what readers should not expect to find. As someone who has written about religious poetry in a religious age—if the Renaissance can be considered as such—I was particularly glad to receive the invitation to write about Thick and Dazzling Darkness due to its promising subtitle: “Religious Poetry in a Secular Age.” I assumed that reading it would be an opportunity to look at what happens when religious poetry lives outside of its natural habitat, and I looked forward to a historical or conceptual treatment of this question. 

O’Leary’s book does not fulfill either of these expectations. It is certainly not a historical treatment of its subject. While there is a vaguely chronological order to the book—it starts with chapters on Samperi and Jeffers, poets born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and ends with a chapter on two contemporary poets, Donahue and Rehm—O’Leary does not appear particularly interested in the question of what kind of changes religious poetry may have undergone in this period, how one might historicize the concept of religious poetry itself, or really in telling a story of any kind about religious poetry as such. 

More troubling is the book’s lack of engagement with the terms of its own argument. The problem here is less a lack of effort, and more the quality of the execution. For instance, early in the book O’Leary opts to follow Jonathan Z. Smith’s definition that “religion is ‘a system of beliefs and practices that are related to superhuman beings’” (6-7). Any definition may serve as a starting point; the problem isn’t that O’Leary has chosen to begin with this one but that in the course the argument, the definition never receives the kind of interrogation it deserves. “Secularity” is another case at hand. In the introduction, O’Leary offers a brief discussion of Peter L. Berger’s theory of secularization. But later in the book, this discussion gives room to a polemic against what the author sees as a generic secularist bias among readers of poetry today. For O’Leary, this involves a certain “complacency,” which he associates with the institutionalization of Language poetry, and then contrasts with “poetry as a kind of awakening” (215). I would have appreciated a more detailed expose of what exactly is secular(ist) about modern responses to poetry; without it, the argument often feels like it is addressed to an audience that already shares its basic assumptions. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of O’Leary’s argument, however, is the book’s capacious understanding of religious poetry itself, which O’Leary describes as falling into either of two categories: “it’s religious when it draws its materials or its outlooks from a religious tradition,” and “it’s also religious when it performs one or more of the functions or exhibits one or more of the phenomena of religion, even when the poet is not him or herself expressly religious” (7). One has only to think of the King James Bible, and its influence on the language, to recognize that, in using these definitions, it is very difficult to write poetry in English that cannot feasibly be shown to be “religious.” 

And yet it is precisely the catholic nature of O’Leary’s understanding of religious poetry that allows us to turn from the things that the book does not do, to its very real and admirable accomplishments. Readers will note that the poets O’Leary brings together in the book would not normally be thought of as belonging under any shared category. Some of them are household names; some once well-known but fallen out of favor (the California poet Robinson Jeffers); some hitherto unheralded (like Frank Samperi, whose poetry is the subject of O’Leary’s first chapter, setting the tone for the whole book); and some contemporary poets whose work O’Leary seems to advocate for as much as analyze. Indeed, if at the beginning of the book the selection of poets feels aleatory, and if in the course of the argument O’Leary’s account and readings of their poetry begins to feel more and more encomiastic—only his treatment of Duncan is critical in the literary sense of the term—by the end, the reader might realize that both of these feelings are to the book’s point: Thick and Dazzling Darkness is not a historical or conceptual analysis of religious poetry but an attempt to prove that religious poetry is alive and well by showcasing its predominance in a variety of canonical and less canonical as well as modern and contemporary North American poets. 

This is where O’Leary’s book begins to resemble the argument of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, albeit in reverse order. The frequent invocations of greatness, which O’Leary defines as “a recognizable quality in the poetry of intrinsic power and lasting influence” (230), establishes a mode of argumentation along this line: if you think canonical poet X’s poetry is great, then you should consider the possibility that the religious elements in their poetry contribute to this greatness; and if you accept that religious elements might be part of what make a poem great, then you should now take a look at poet Y, whose explicitly religious poetry you might not have read otherwise. One may detect a certain methodological opportunism here, but as, in Sidney’s essay, it would be a mistake to confuse rhetoric with cynicism. Indeed, the success of O’Leary’s argument is in the way it patiently guides us through poems we might not have thought of as religious in the first place, as well as poems that we might not have read because we thought that they were religious poems. While Thick and Dazzling Darkness may not challenge anyone’s concept of religion or secularity in a historical or conceptual sense, it goes a long way in teaching us how to recognize a religious poem when we see one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Marno is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter O’Leary is the author of Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness (2002), as well as several books of poetry, most recently The Sampo (2016), and he is the editor of a new edition of Ronald Johnson’s ARK (2013). He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.

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