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Poetry & Presence - Michael Martin

Brad Fruhauff

5.2 Poet Michael Martin offers notes on a poetry manifesto. I used to think that Guillaume Apollinaire was the author of the single greatest line in the history of literature: “I know that only those will remake the world who are grounded in poetry.” I’m not so sure anymore. The word “poetry” has lost its savor. I’m not sure if the aura of professionalism promised by the MFA is to blame, though there is something within me that groans at the thought of poets updating their websites, planning their career trajectories, networking for the big grant money. There must be more to poetry than that.

I don’t write poetry for the sake of having a career or for satisfaction of writing “poet” on my income tax forms. I write poetry in order to wrestle with the problem of God in the only way that seems to work for me. The academic study of theology, of religion, or of hermeneutics, I think, generally avoids the problem of God. This avoidance comes about primarily through the tyranny of the thesis statement: the need to come up with an argument. Poetry doesn’t need an argument. In this, it is not unlike negative theology, which also refuses to be forced to define, abstract, and, above all, name that which cannot be named. So perhaps I come to terms with God by not coming to terms with God. The poems “Visions of Vladimir” and “Words written during the suffering and subsequent death of John Paul II, the Pope of Rome” both figure ways in which I try to contend with this problem.

The best poetry can hope for, I think, is to open us to presence. This is why I am so interested in religious poetry, which, in the best cases, opens us to the presence of God, to the mysterion. I am very fond of Simone Weil’s story about reciting her translation of George Herbert’s wonderful poem “Love” every time she had a migraine. She wrote to a priest she knew about this experience, explaining, “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

I do not pretend that my two offerings in Relief 5.2 will figure that for the reader. Rather, they are documents of my attempts at discovering God’s presence through a phenomenological attendance to the world which I then try to render into language. What this betrays, of course, is that my view of the world is underwritten by a belief in the sacramental participation of God in creation. God is not purely transcendent. Christianity, in addition to affirming God’s transcendence, tells us that God is also immanent: that God abides in all creation. But remaining aware of this presence is not always easy. We often read about God’s “absence,” but I have the feeling the absence is mostly on our account. In these poems I try to make myself aware of God’s presence in the midst of my own absence.

Michael Martin's poems "Visions of Vladimir" and "Words written during the suffering and subsequent death of John Paul II, the Pope of Rome" appear in issue 5.2 of Relief. Find his full bio here.