Welcome to the fourteenth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover: “In the Midst of Miracle—So What?”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark compares the way language, and more specifically, art can communicate between a writer and a reader to a miracle. He notes that in order for any miracle to happen, you often need to put in most of the work. And he suggests that a good way to find your way into a literary work is to ask yourself three questions: What? Why? So What?
Best Lines: [on why poets write poetry as a response to some experience, thought, emotion] “They want to explore its meaning, deepen their experience (having learned long ago that the process of writing is the process of exploring, discovering, defining, deepening), they want to share their experience, to create art, they want, I suppose, to make a difference. Where something was not they want something to be” (197).
Why: Because I like this idea of writing as a way to deepen experience and make a difference. Several of the other terms he uses in the sentences above—as well as what he discusses elsewhere—are familiar, well-worn ways of talking about writing and poetry. But these two phrases struck me as new and perceptive.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: As a subscriber to this newsletter, you’ve probably already seen this, but the latest issue of Irreantum is out, and it’s devoted to works of long poetry. Clark would have loved the idea as a theme for an issue, although I don’t know how he would have responded to each of the poems. Please note that connections to the Irreantum website can be intermittent at times.
Other Recommendation: While poetry is the literary form Clark seems to like most, I have a complicated and under-developed relationship with it. But I do respond to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and she just so happens to have a poem titled “A Miracle For Breakfast”.
Also: there’s a kpop group called LOONA that has an incredibly ornate lore underpinning it, and the single from their second EP/mini-album [#] (pronounced hash) is titled So What.
William Update: I completed the first draft of the Weird West story I mentioned in the previous email. I like it. It’s very me, but also does some things I haven’t done before.
I have no idea if there is a market for it. At just under 8,000 words, it’s a novelette, which is an awkward length for submitting to the major SF&F magazines, although at least some of them do accept submissions of that length. And perhaps I can trim it down in revision. But quite likely not—I tend to underwrite first drafts.
It has pulp bones, but is pretty literary in its’ concerns and some of its’ prose.
I’ll be looking for some first readers on it after I do a first revision on it. If you’re interested, let me know.
P.S. my collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories will be published next Monday, Oct. 4. I’ll include links of where to buy it in the next email in this series, but if you want to get in early, make sure to visit the BCC Press website or check their Twitter feed next week.
This chapter is based on a lecture Marden J. Clark gave in the “Flea Market” series sponsored by the BYU Honors Program. It’s the one in the collection with the least Mormon content and seems to mainly be motivated by his experiences teaching literature to undergrads.
He begins with the anecdote of teaching a student who “wrote on a final exam that he’d come into the class tolerating poetry and left hating it” (181). Clark turns that into a self-deprecating joke. But then proceeds to do the thing that literature professors do that so often causes students—who come into their classroom as readers of literature or not—to become frustrated with literature and lose confidence in their abilities: provide thorough, text-focused, close readings of poems (or plays, novels, short stories) that make the student feel stupid they didn’t see everything that the professor sees.
To a certain extent, I understand this approach. And it’s not a wrong approach, it’s just wrong for some people or it’s presented in a way that elevates the professor and drains out interest and love in literature. That signals that, hey, this literary stuff—it’s not for you.
Now, I don’t think Clark was that kind of professor. He exudes a genuine love and excitement for what he discovers in his close reading of texts and communicates that pretty well. He also seems to be fairly open to alternative readings to his own.
Since this essay is mostly him reading poems and provide readings of them, I’m not going to do a blow by blow summary. Instead, I want to hone in on one interpretation he makes of one poem, and then get back to the general conclusions he makes/advice he gives.
About halfway through his speech/essay, Clark inserts the Dylan Thomas poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”. This is the Clark as lit professor I like best. The one who engages with challenging (even modernist) literature.
He takes us through his answers to those questions he like to deploy for literary analysis—the “What”. The “Why”. And then the “So What”. And it’s this third one I want to quote:
“So what? Well this refusal to mourn becomes another beautiful elegy, demanding in both language and imagery, but finally deeply moving in its building sense of mourning—and in its complex meanings. This is the only poem we have looked at that may build to an unresolvable ambiguity.”
And then a bit later in the paragraph:
“Death is final and permanent, the line says. But all that imagery we’ve looked at even in death suggests life. Zion, synagogue, corn, water, grains, even the riding Thames. There may be no other death because life somehow is either eternal in some abstract pantheistic sense, in which all the world, all the universe is alive in or as God, or eternal as a barely-hinted-at resurrection and eternal life. (My Mormon self wants this reading, but I’m not sure my critical self will permit it.)” (192)
I like that he was willing to pick a poem for this lecture that ends in ambiguity. I like that he provides a non-Mormon reading and a Mormon reading of the end of the poem and feels divided about doing that. It is an experience I know well, and I’m quite sure many of you do as well.
I’m a fan of misreadings of literary (and other cultural) works while at the same time I’m also a fan of somewhat more defensible readings of those same works.
And yet, Clark loses me again at the end of the essay:
“[Clark’s three questions] and the assumptions that underlie them would be rejected out of hand by many of the contemporary critics, for whom the poem is a text, with no determinate meaning and no necessary reference to ideas or morals or life outside the text. But such arguments do violence to my own experience with poems, and, I trust, to yours” (199)
And I’m like, no, dude, these questions are just your version of New Criticism. They may be a more useful version for pedagogical uses. But it’s still New Criticism. And it’s New Criticism that doesn’t provide (or rarely provides) for life outside the text. Post-modern literary theory is all about text and context. Focusing on indeterminacy is not a rejection of meaning, but a recognition that are various layers that come into play with any one text, which then can lead to a multiplicity of meaning.
What is this violence that is being done to you and your experience, my brother?
It’s possible that Clark’s experiences with the theory turn in literature were very limited. And that what he went through in the summer seminar on theory (see email #12 in this series), he either misunderstood or was so outside his realm of thought that he had to simplify in his head to create the straw men contemporary critics he mentions above. Or perhaps that the ideas covered at the seminar manifested in a particularly intense and heightened form.
But I don’t know. Was he ever really open to it? Did he actually read Said’s Orientalism? Did he read any Derrida or only what others said about Derrida? And does he realize that, yes, of course, some of the post-structuralists (and certainly many of the structuralists) over-state things? Every academic theorist does. But that also a big part of the why and how of their theories is directly in response to and trying to reckon with modernist art and modern discourse? That the problem with New Criticism is that it limits the scope of what literature is and does?
I don’t know. I was hoping to encounter more evidence, more nuance here.
Now, I do believe in the value of close reading. Most of what little literary criticism I’ve done in my life is centered around doing close reading of literary texts!
But at so many turns in these essays, Clark shrinks back from other forms of lit-crit activity, context, theory, etc., thus avoiding the very ideas that could make his notion of a Mormon self and a critical self more complicated, more interesting, and, perhaps, more fruitful in the pursuit of teaching and analyzing literature.
Or to put it another way: Clark seems to have a rather narrow view of the So What?
He writes in the final paragraph:
“I must confess that this is the first time I have used those three questions in anything like a formal sense. But I hope you’ve seen some of the depth they can lead into if you persevere. All you are doing, really, is questioning the poem, expecting it to have answers, and expecting to find them. I am convinced that they can lead you finally to a very disciplined response to the poem. If so, then they’re anything but simplistic, even if they are simple. I can hold out for you no easy questions, certainly not easy answers, only a demanding discipline. But that discipline can help you into the midst of miracle…” (199).
This deep dive hasn’t been very Mormon literature focused. The lecture itself isn’t very Mormon focused either.
And yet, from another point of view: this essay, especially the conclusion I quote above, says everything about what happens with Mormonism after (and probably also during) the era in which Clark gives it.
The emphasis on simplicity and discipline. The notion that the answers that matter are there in the text. The sense that there are authorities who can provide deeper answers from the text. And you can become just like them if you follow the same process.
To a certain extent, all that is true, whether we’re talking about Mormonism (especially in relation to activity within the LDS Church) or any other kind of knowledge or fruitful activity. Discipline, focus, simplicity, and learning from others who have more experience than you do all matter.
At the same time, to focus only on those approaches does not seem entirely adequate in the face of the world we now live in.
I can’t provide any more certain answers or better methodologies than Clark. Not really. Or at least not for others.
What I can say is that it seems like I’m a bit more comfortable than him in having a Mormon culture self, an active in the LDS Church self, a critical self, a fan (as in fandom) self, a post-modern self, etc. and in being fine with those selves overlapping with and changing each other while never fully resolving into a unified whole.
Thanks for reading!
If you like this series, please forward this email to others who might be interested in it so they can subscribe.