When feeding from the cauldron of delights,
We taste that myths and fairytales abound
In every land where languages are found
And country fields are sowed with magic sights.
—Brendan D. King, “Mythopoeia.”
Words on Freedom and Tyranny
“When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.” Confucius said that more than 2500 years ago.
In his 2002 book-length essay, At the End of an Age, John Lukacs’ (pronounced LOO-Kuss) replies to Confucius with a simple, “—very true.” And then he devotes twelve pages to leapfrogging across centuries of poets, novelists, historians, scientists, and philosophers who gave expression to the European history of ideas, in order to make his case that we live in an age where “the impoverishment of language,” is “the great danger during our present passage from a verbal to visual ‘culture.’”
What do you think? Are we in danger? And if so, what is the threat?
Earlier this year, The Washington Post published the article U.S. Democracy is in Grave Danger, a new Economist report warns. I imagine the maverick, Hungarian born historian author, Mr. Lukacs, who was a refugee from Nazism and Soviet Communism, (who died in Pennsylvania this past May at age 95) saying, “Very true. And that’s what I tried, for 50 years, to tell you.”
I also imagine that Mr. Lukacs would applaud the work of Brendan D. King, a St. Cloud writer who aligns himself with the New Formalist school of poets.
I recently met Brendan at the St. Cloud branch of Great River Regional Library, to have a conversation about the role of poetry in his life. “What do you know about the New Formalists?” he asked, holding up the book Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, edited by William Baer.
I know enough that he didn’t have to give me a history-of-literature lesson on this recent literary revival. But I’m a poetry geek. And you may well (and very happily) not know the specialized language of poetics, which, in the universe of contemporary American culture, is akin to a tiny moon circling an obscure planet in the small galaxy of bookish people. Jennifer Militello once said to me that writing literary poetry is “a weird little niche.”
In a nutshell, New Formalism is “A late 20th- and early 21st-century movement that championed a return to rhyme and meter in poetry.” If you want to get your geek on, you can read this “Brief Guide to New Formalism,” or you can skip it.
What might be important to understand, however, in an era where many people, both on the right and the left of the political spectrum feel a looming sense of danger, and therefore are quick to classify everyone as either friend or foe, is that, to people who identify strongly with a conservative or liberal viewpoint, the New Formalism conversation can quickly turn contentious. As Patrick Kurp wrote in his LA review of Thirteen on Form, “Stated bluntly: Free verse, the more unfettered the better, is good; meter and rhyme, bad. Or vice versa. The schema turns political and nasty when form is associated with conservatism and free verse with progressivism, as though Ronald Reagan commanded poets to compose villanelles.”
Okay. So let’s take a deep breath. We’re not gonna go there. The wisdom and truth I’ve encountered through poetry have taught me that it’s possible to hold a conversation exploring scary and divisive topics, without refighting ancient battles. And that, my friends, is why I am convinced wisdom, truth, and poetry matter.
And that’s why I hope you’ll stay with me here. Let’s talk about the things that matter deeply to us—who we think we are, what we cherish, and what we passionately believe is good—while sharing and receiving one another’s views with the utmost reverence for each other’s essential human dignity. Respectful discourse (conversation) is the essence of democracy. We ought to be capable of this.
Brendan D. King on New Formalism
In a commanding baritone voice, Brendan speaks thoughtfully and, thank goodness, slowly enough to give my mind almost enough time to catch up to his dense, richly literary train of thought. Listening to him talk about poetry is like reading The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. If he spoke any faster, my brain would feel like I had challenged it to 90 minutes of wind sprints.
“The idea in German culture,” Brendan said, “which goes back to the Middle Ages, and which has spread through German Romantics to Russian culture, is that if you are the poet, you are the conscience of the nation. It is a duty that you are required to fulfill. It carries with it the duty to speak the truth, even when the whole country is believing lies. You are to, in some ways, put tyranny on trial through your poetry.”
Joseph Pearce, the editor of the St. Austin Review, told me, “It has been an honour to publish Brendan D. King’s poetry in the St. Austin Review, which we’ve been doing for several years. His work exhibits a firm grasp of the formal aspects of prosody and is informed by his rich understanding of history and culture, and by his knowledge of several languages.”
“I never honestly liked free verse poetry,” Brendan told me. “It was missing something. I forget who said, maybe Robert Frost, “Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” (He was correct, Robert Frost said that.)
“And so for you,” I said, hoping I had captured what makes this poet tick, “form is an integral part of what makes a poem a poem.”
“Yes.” He translated an Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood. “It was in Anglo Saxon, before the Norman conquest added all the French words into our language, when English was a purely Germanic language. The poetry that was written by the Anglo Saxons and also by their cousins across the pond in Germany, and the Vikings, was based on alliteration rather than rhyme. In my translation I chose to go that way, to do alliteration. I gave it a regular drum beat. The poem retells the passion and resurrection of Christ like the deeds of a dragon slayer or warrior-king. And it’s narrated by the cross itself.”
Like I said. This man is a walking encyclopedia of poetics.
According to the principles of confirmation bias in which instead of analyzing facts objectively to understand what they mean, we interpret facts in a way that will confirm whatever we already believe, what Brendan said next will likely elicit in you a feeling of acceptance or of rejection. This quote might confirm or challenge your sensibilities about the right way to be human.
Then Brendan said, “In the conservative Catholic world I inhabit, people are praising The Dream of the Rood to the moon, calling it one of the greatest Christian poems ever written.”
For most people, to words, “the conservative Catholic world,” will poke the viscera, eliciting reactive emotions. It’s pretty difficult for most Americans to hear those words without feeling either a tribal connection or revulsion, as in these are my people, or those are the enemy. Another poet affiliated with the New Formalists, Dana Gioa, wrote this about the complex topic of contemporary literary culture in America, and the role of Catholics writers have played in it. Read it if you want to understand where your passionate reaction to “the conservative Catholic world” might come from.
But for now, let’s all just take a deep breath and let Brendan explain why he has spent much of his free time, for years, in the company of an ancient poem.
“Whenever I would find a translation of The Dream of the Rood, I would be disappointed by the lack of rhythm, the lack of beauty. And I remembered something I really loved about Lord Tennyson’s translation of another Old English poem called The Battle of Brunanburh. He rendered it using mostly words with Germanic roots, avoiding French words, and he used a lot of alliteration rather than rhyme. It’s very close to the original, but he used a mixture of trochee and dactyl for the rhythm, and it makes it sound like an incantation. I missed the incantation effect in every other translation I read of Old English poetry. So, I told my editor, Joseph Pearce, that I was about to make an attempt on it, and he was really excited. He advised me to read J.R. Tolkien’s essay on translating Beowulf. Tolkien said that Old English poetry sounded archaic at the time it was written. They were deliberately using old words. It was a literary language. Kind of like the language of the King James Bible is to us today. Tolkien recommended using a mixture of Elizabethan and modern language, because otherwise you’re not being true to the original. But he said, ‘Don’t slip in words that no one knows, words that people no longer understand.’”
And while I was sitting there, wondering where my conversation with this traditionalist, New Formalist, conservative Catholic poet, who goes to the Latin Masses, was heading, I had the uncanny experience of time having lost its tick-tock momentum. I didn’t see ghosts. The air did not turn wavy with heat, or soften like a membrane between two worlds. But I did have a tingling awareness that it could be possible, that all of human history was coming into our presence. Is that what incantation does? I don’t know.
I do know that I realized our conversation was only apparently, and not really, about being conservative or being liberal. We were talking about freedom, that it is inherently superior to oppression. I felt deeply connected through an understanding of shared values.
“So,” I asked. “Would you want to abolish the English language Mass and make everyone return to the Latin?”
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t abolish the New Mass. “We have no right to treat people who love the New Mass like they’ve treated us. People who love the Latin Mass have been treated like that by progressive priests and bishops, and I think that an eye for an eye is a terrible way to blind the world.”
And so we agreed that revenge is a terrible thing, and limiting the freedom of religious expression is wrong. And we agreed that it is important to honor our heritage, including the heritage of language, which is the embodiment of one’s cultural identity. I felt I had a clear—and empathetic—grasp on what Brendan D. King is trying to do with his writing.
Brendan D. King on the Diversity of the New Formalism Community
“I don’t want to give people the idea that New Formalism is only for Conservatives,” he said. “While that was certainly an accusation against the school in the 1980s, we are a far more diverse group of poets than that.
“Rhina Espaillat, for example, is a major figure in the school. She is a Dominican immigrant who has taught classes in French and Spanish verse forms at the Westchester Poetry Conference. She is also a lifelong Democrat, a feminist, and has given an interview since Trump was elected in which she expresses how the Democrats need to reach out to blue collar white people in order to keep Trump from winning a second term.
“A.E. Stallings is another example. She lives in Athens, translates from Greek and Latin, and is widely acclaimed among followers of New Formalism. I follow her on Twitter and can assure you that she is very very Liberal. She Tweets all the time about the refugees who are coming across the Aegean Sea and has sharply criticized Trump for shutting down the processes for immigrants to enter the US.
“Both of them are poets I respect, as do others like me.”
About Brendan D. King’s Poetry
Brendan D. King brings his knowledge of poetic forms together with his understanding of history, culture, and several languages, to access the ancient power of incantatory language. He aims to bring the past and the future into the now, to amplify whatever, in the meaning of our times, is also present in the meaning of all of history’s important moments. This is a man with a far-reaching, wide-ranging mind, who brings honed passion to his poetry.
Brendan dedicates his sonnet “Passion Week” to the memory of Maximillian Steinberg, the composer of the a cappella opus based on Russian Orthodox chants for Holy Week. Steinberg, he explained, was born to a Jewish family from Lithuania in 1883, and became a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. He converted to the Orthodox faith and married Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter in 1908. He also became a teacher of Shostakovich. Because of the Soviet ban on sacred music, Steinberg’s Opus 13 was essentially lost until 2012, when Alexander Lingas, an authority in Orthodox music, saw a photocopy of the score, which had been published but never performed in Paris. In 2014 Capella Romana gave its world premier performances in Seattle and Portland. Steinberg, who died in 1946, never heard his “masterwork of art” performed.
“Passion Week” by Brendan D. King
Amidst the persecution of all faiths
A convert made a systematic search,
Then took the Lenten chants of Russia’s Church,
And made them hover like a thousand wraiths.
The Gulag was the home of honest men
And all who worshipped anything called God.
Once Party held the scepter and the rod
Of power over all within its ken.
And, though the convert never heard them sung,
His chants delight the ears of old and young
And won for him a fame that shall not sever.
Though peasants rise and seize the ruler’s seat
And tyrants topple like the winter wheat,
The masterworks of art endure forever.