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Modern man thinks poetry a waste of time. He doesn’t know the difference between that which takes time and that which wastes it…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
—T.S. Eliot (From “The Waste Land”)

boatWe live in an unpoetic age. No. Worse. We live in an anti-poetic age.

Modern man does not understand poetry. He does not write it. He does not read it. He thinks it a waste of time. Instead, he distracts himself to death with the latest technology, trivializing himself and his world in the vacuous vortex of social media. The irony is that he doesn’t know the difference between that which takes time and that which wastes it.

Truly humble souls, filled with gratitude and wonder, take the time to stop in the midst of a busy day to sit in the presence of beauty. They open their eyes to the glories of God’s Creation and to the reflected and refracted glories of man’s sub-creation in art and literature, or else they close their eyes from all distraction so that they can listen to the singing of birds or the singing of choirs. Such time taken is the most joyful part of the day, a time when the mind communes with the reality of which it is a part. Furthermore, such taken time has the effect of mystically slowing time itself so that we can rest in the moment, savouring its essence, that part of it which has its fullness in eternity because it is “charged with the grandeur of God.”

In stark contrast, modern man, lacking the gratitude and wonder necessary for contemplation and the dilation of the mind which is its fruit, refuses to take the time necessary to see the wonders of the world in which he finds himself, preferring instead to lose himself in wasted time, moving from mindless distraction to mindless distraction in a feeding frenzy of needlessly created wants, none of which satisfy the hunger of the soul for those things it really needs. Living on a fast food diet of trash and trivia, his fingers or thumbs fumbling frenetically for the gadgets to which he is chained, he subsists within the fantasy of virtual reality, refusing the gift of veritable reality which he restlessly seeks to avoid. In his addicted hands, the gadgets he fumbles have become the godgets he worships, pathetic and petty gods which command his attention and rule and ruin his life. As a techno-junkie, he spends much more time with his godgets than with his God, if indeed he has any god other than the godgets. Refusing to take time, preferring to waste it, he condemns himself to a waste land of emptiness, barren and bereft of life, a wasted life squandered on wasted time.

If we wish to take our lives and not merely waste them, we need to take time and not merely waste it. We need to have minds open to the presence of God in the beauty of the world around us. We need to take time in the silence of prayer and the silence of poetry. We need more time with trees and less time with trash and trivia. A tree, or a flower, or a sunset, or a poem, are priceless gifts for which a lack of gratitude is a sin of omission. We cannot ever be wasting time when we’re taking it in wonder-filled contemplation.

Once we understand this priceless truth about the time we are given, which we call our lives, we will be able to see poetry in a way that is radically at odds with the way that modernity sees it. Poetry–the reading of it, the writing of it, the seeing of it in the beauty of Creation–is as necessary to our souls as the very air that we breathe is necessary to our bodies. We cannot live without it. We starve in its absence.

This was understood by T.S. Eliot, who embodies the embattled soul of the poet in the modern world, writing verse in adversity so that the narcissistic soul of modern man might look up from the gutter in which he sees his distorted self-image to the heavens to which his soul is called and the hell that awaits those who refuse the call.

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Joseph Pearce’s poetry anthology, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, is newly-published by TAN Books.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in St. Austin’s Review (May/June 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. 

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3 replies to this post
  1. Well and truly said. Joseph Pearce is one of the best of the new Catholic voices, thoughtful, almost elegant, always courteous and generous, grounded in faith and tradition without ever lapsing into the shrill and strident.

    Mr. Pearce’s POEMS EVERY CATHOLIC SHOULD KNOW, btw, is a gift of Catholic civilization. My friends can expect copies for birthdays and Christmas.

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