Scott Cairns is a poet whose work connects past and present, whose journey evokes faith and mystery. His most recent poetry collections are Love’s Immensity, which consists of translations and poetry inspired by early Christian mystics, and Compass of Affection. And his recent memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, describes his move from an Baptist upbringing in Tacoma, Washington, to the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Part I of this interview, Cairns discusses the beckoning, wooing ways of beauty, and in Part II, he continues this discussion, touching upon the Orthodox approach to sacrament, or what he calls “Holy Mystery,” and how this approach is useful when thinking about poetry.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Do you find any disconnection of your understanding of the poetic from the common cultural understanding? What do you understand to be the place of poetry in America today? How about the place of poetry in the American church?
Scott Cairns (SC): I’ll jump on all those questions at once, OK? Yes, I feel daily a general disconnect between my sense of “the poetic” and what I gather to be the common cultural sense, though we probably shouldn’t call either of those an “understanding.” Poetry is a way of life, a vocation for making one’s way; it is not an expressive art, nor simply a document of past experience; so this is where the common culture and I most immediately part ways.
As for the place of poetry in America, or in the American church for that matter, I’m not so sure that it currently has a place. Until America and its church folk develop a greater hunger for the apophatic, the parabolic, the vertiginous mystery of the God in whom we live and move and have our being, I don’t suppose that those constituencies will ever have much of a taste for the poetic, which is, at its heart, a way of leaning into the apophatic, the parabolic, the mystery. I hope that sounds neither too glib nor too dismissive. There are, after all, lots of items that look like poems, earnest anecdotes and sentiments that make both the common culture and its Christians happy; I’m not, finally, interested in wrecking that pleasure for anyone, even if I can’t consider it as approaching anything like a poetic pleasure. That said, I pray that the American church will one day—sooner than later—overcome its addiction to narrow certainties. Thereafter, its people might recover a taste for enormity.
TOJ: You have said that a struggle in your work as a teacher of poetry is to persuade your students to avoid thinking of their art as denotative or expressive, and that it should instead be recognized “as a way by which we concurrently construct and discern experience.”1 In light of what you said earlier about the abysmal nature of poetry, I get a sense of the poetic as a sort of participation in the enormity of what is happening before and within us. If this is so, I’m curious about how that might distinguish poetry from some of the other artistic media and to what sort of participatory activities does that understanding of poetry align? You have suggested that there is a connection between the poetic and the idea of sacrament. Is this where you see that happening?
SC: Well, this is a difficult lesson for beginners in any medium. They generally feel that they have a lot to say, and they generally mistake art as a way they might say it. More mature artists, on the other hand, have discovered that the medium itself—their devotion to it—eventually occasions a circumstance in which they’re discovering rather than expressing. Still, this is not to say that poetry or any other art form operates in a way that is absolutely non-referential. All such media, duly engaged, obtain something of a balance—or some ratio—of the referential and the generative. Some painters or sculptors, for instance, lean toward the referential, the mimetic, so we speak of their “realism”; others lean away from those gestures and lean toward the abstract, so we are obliged to engage their works more energetically if we are to make anything of them. In literary terms, though there are exceptions to this rule, fiction, drama, and the essay tend to work more referentially; poetry—or the poetic passage in a literary fiction, drama, or essay—tends to offer words as sculptural matter, requiring a greater degree of energy from the reader, a greater degree of collaboration. This distinction, then, confronts us with the fact that while the poetic may commemorate something that has happened, the poetic is primarily a matter of our participating in making something new with the densities before us. That’s why I think of it as being like a sacrament, though I’m becoming less fond of that word and more inclined to replace Sacrament with Holy Mystery, which is how Orthodox Christians prefer to speak of the Church and its relational institutions.
TOJ: Are you hesitant about the term in general or as it relates to the poetic?
SC: Well, both, but mostly the term itself, which, at its root, colors the faith with a subtle and pervasive legalism. Sacrament is a word that is borrowed—by Tertulian, who happened to be what we would call these days a lawyer—from the legal language of the Roman Empire. Sacrament’s etymological history has to do with the oath of allegiance that a soldier makes to the emperor, and the relationship it therefore connotes is a contractual one. I still use the word because most folks don’t immediately think of its unfortunate etymology, and it serves our being able to communicate with each other. That said, I’m thinking that mystical poetics may be preferable to sacramental poetics as a name for what I’m on to.
TOJ: In your memoir, you delightfully articulated the Orthodox understanding of worship and sacrament as ceaseless; that “when, through liturgia—the work of the church—we join with [the angels and saints], we are inevitably arriving in the middle of things.”2 Do you place your poetry “in the middle of things” as well?
SC: I don’t have to place it there; that’s where it is. In the case of my poetry, my “cloud of witnesses” is composed of those poets whose works I savor, learn from, converse with. Literary history, in general, is best understood as an ongoing conversation, and the one who would join that conversation today will inevitably find herself arriving in the middle of things.
TOJ: At first glance, at least, it appears that the rules for partaking in the sacraments are quite stringent in the Orthodox tradition. What is your perception of having rules and guidelines for the reading and writing of poetry? How does that perception relate to or inform your understanding of the rules for partaking in sacraments? In other words, how much freedom is there and where does that freedom lie?
SC: I keep thinking that, while anyone can pick up a poem and read it, the “reading” one makes can be better or worse. A reader can be well prepared or poorly prepared. That is, over time a reader can develop a level of readerly accomplishment that will serve her whenever she reads anything, or a reader can fail to develop those skills and miss out on the great freedom of collaborating with the text as a co-maker of meaning. I’m not talking about anything like specific rules for reading, but I am talking about devotion to a discipline, a genuine participation that endows the reader with co-creative power. More generally, one does not presume to partake of mystery—the poetic or the Holy—as if it were a witticism or a snack.
As for the conventions of “closed communion,” if that’s something you’re asking me to defend, let’s just say, for starters, that someone who doesn’t so much as believe the Holy Mysteries to be what they are has no business expecting them to be handed over. Even the Orthodox are generally quite careful to prepare before partaking of the Mysteries—with fasting, prayer, and confession. If you want to partake of the mystical body and blood of Christ, as such, you’re absolutely free to become Orthodox.
TOJ: I often find the Holy Mysteries to be powerfully grounding in the simplicity and consistency of “what they are,” but then I am carried up into the notion of partaking in what they are becoming. Is this a paradox? Can you say more on the perception of a developing sacrament?
SC: I don’t know that I believe in a developing sacrament, as you call it—unless I’m just missing your point. It’s not the Holy Mysteries that develop, but it is we who develop, become more nearly ourselves, by partaking of them. This reminds me of a saying of the desert fathers that I paraphrased as an epigraph for a poem I wrote: “The transfiguration of our Lord—that it, the radiance in which He was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor—did not manifest a change in Him, but a change in those who saw Him.”
TOJ: You speak of your posture in poetry as leaning (toward the apophatic, et cetera)—what is your posture for navigating the relationship of beauty and truth? Do you find yourself leaning more heavily on one than the other? Is there even a one or the other?
SC: Leaning, still. Still leaning. Leaning in. Both beauty and truth are attractive; both woo us. And I’m guessing that they are ultimately one, or perhaps two sides of a single coin, as it were. All that is beautiful and all that is true acquire those qualities from their participation with God. I think it is fair to say that all beauty is God’s beauty and that all truth is God’s truth. They can be—have been—subverted on occasion by willful folks, but then they become something else; rather, cut off from God, they become nothing.
TOJ: I hear that poets sometimes experience a sense of isolation in their work. Is this true for you when it comes to your writing of poetry? In what ways are we connected to others in the sacrament, and in what ways are we in isolation?
SC: It’s inevitable to feel a little lonely if the thing you pour your heart into is a discipline shared only by an acute minority—among the ostensibly living. Friends who don’t share it will always outnumber friends who do, and some of us may have a hard time finding even a single friend who shares the discipline of poetry—which is why I’ve made some very good friends among the apparently dead. Virgil, Dante, Coleridge, Dickinson, Cavafy, Rilke, Auden, Stevens, Frost—these are a few friends with whom I’ve established a very satisfying relationship over the years, these are the poets with whom I maintain a very lively conversation.
TOJ: I have been particularly smitten by your description of the Orthodox understanding of theosis: “[T]he more we become like God, the more powerfully we appreciate how far beyond our prior understanding He—endlessly—is.”3 How does your reading and writing of poetry contribute to your formation in the process of theosis?
SC: I’m not sure that it does. I hope it does, or hope that poetry hasn’t hobbled my progress. I pray that those moments of discovery, illumination, or revelation that accompany my reading and writing—when a word or a line opens up into something like sublimity—are not simply delusions. Ask me again in twenty years or so. Better yet, ask me after we have both fully awakened into his presence, eh?
Please read Part I of our interview with Scott Cairns here.
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1. Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Heaven Meets Earth—A Pilgrimage (San Francisco: Harper, 2007), 124. Italics in original.
2. Ibid., 57. Italics in original.
3. Ibid., 115. Italics in original.