Sweet Purple Doctrine

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The Poems of Rowan Williams (Eerdmans, 2002, 111 pp.

Rowan Williams is the current Archbishop of Canterbury. This is the second book of his I have read, and the first that I have finished. The first book, his treatment of the heretic Arius, was scholarly and well-written, but it lost me somewhere and I ditched.

His poetry is almost completely opaque. Some of his phrases are quite striking, but they don’t mean anything; they are like apples of gold in wadded up tinfoil. This book of poems is like a vast series of inside jokes, only they are not jokes, just inside. They are inside oracular pronouncements. If you know what he is talking about, as he presumably does, they might even be profound. But you don’t know what he is talking about, and so you are left with only two choices — irritation or sycophantic going along.

This book represents a good example of why much modern poetry has fallen into such disfavor with ordinary people. In the old days, real poets wrote for the people. Other poets and critics got more out of it than most people did, but poetry was part of public life. Today real poets write for other poets, half of whom understand what is going on, with the other half pretending to.

My point is not that all modern poetry is like this, but certainly all modern poetry has the reputation of being like this. Imagine a painter who paints a glorious image, and then covers the whole thing with a thick layer of black. When challenged, he says that there are hidden depths, which is quite true. But they are depths we have no way of getting to. This is quite different from a painter who paints a picture that is immediately accessible at first glance, but which would also reward a lifetime of study. The immediate accessibility entices, seduces. Immediate accessiblity without depth is kitsch. Immediate accessibility with depth is art. Opaque profundity, the kind with black paint gooped on, asks the viewer to take the artist’s word for it. Back off, man, I’m a poet.

Some of the striking phrases are: “swells like a thundercloud in the attic,” “a chalky retching,” “small blue leprosies,” and so on. I would give the context of such phrases, but it wouldn’t help any. In a good poem, such striking phrases could possibly flourish and grow. Here they call to mind P.G. Wodehouse’s “pale parabola of joy.”

The cover is quite nice, but save your money.

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