Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Richard H. Cracroft on what makes a poem ‘Mormon’

9.23.12 | | 6 comments

Richard H. CracroftIt took me a little bit to find my head this week. It was only after Church today that it occurred to me that today’s “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” should be from Richard Cracroft. While I had been searching my sources for an appropriate item, the answer was in the most recent news posted here on A Motley Vision. And in this excerpt, Cracroft doesn’t disappoint; diving into one of the most difficult issues in Mormon letters: What makes a work ‘Mormon’?

Richard H. Cracroft’s impact on Mormon letters was extensive, as Wm. has already indicated in his post. He earned his Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970 and began teaching at BYU soon afterward. When I was at BYU he was Dean of the College of Humanities and had long completed the only comprehensive Mormon Literature anthology ever published, A Believing People.

This excerpt comes from a book review, perhaps the literary form he most employed given his long-running Book Nook column in BYU Magazine. And in this review, Cracroft makes clear that what makes a work ‘Mormon’ must be more than just the author’s membership in our group.

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Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark

Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft


For the Latter-day Saint who keeps one eye peeled for the Millennium and the other fixed on the encroachments of Babylon, the publication of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems is both a satisfaction and a consternation: a satisfying confirmation that many (middle-aged) Latter-day Saint poets are beginning to harvest a literature commensurate with their vision of the Restoration and at least as good as the writing of their Gentile counterparts; and a consternation, a storm warning that at least some (younger) Mormon poets, while achieving significantly as artists, seem to have replaced their Urim and Thummims with self-reflecting spectacles that essentially make these artists no different from other contemporary poets. Harvest is nonetheless a significant gleaning and harbinger, the happy result of editorial collaboration of two accomplished LDS poets and scholars. A respectable but bifurcated, two-toned book, Harvest gleans the best from fifty-eight poets, including five respected Gentiles and ex-Mormons, “Friends and Relations,” whose inclusion underscores the comparatively remarkable accomplishment of Latter-day Saint poets.

The poets included in the first half of the book speak deeply, often movingly, in a variety of voices and visions about life as experienced by men and women deeply rooted in Mormon soil: a Mormon (though not institutional) poetry. The other half of the book speaks, also movingly and with similar variety and poetic skill, about human life rooted in a universal soil. Many of these later poems could have been written anywhere in Western culture and raise the question, Why are they included in a collection of Mormon poems as opposed to a volume of poems by Mormons? The difference is significant for the future of Mormon literature and the future of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Reflecting the faith of a believing people, then, most of the poems of the New Tradition center, as a Latter-day Saint artist’s stewardship should, in a deep-felt awareness of mankind’s indebtedness to the redemption freely proffered by Christ and of the power God has granted his children to sanctify themselves by overcoming the world. In such a reality Latter-day Saints live, move, and have their being; it is their meat and drink; and it is this covenant theology that has moved Saints, from 1830 to the present, to flee Babylon, sacrifice the world, and cross the spiritual plains to Zion, forging enroute an evolving latter-day mythos that becomes the soil—not merely a sprayed-on nutrient—for the Latter-day Saint poet.

In replowing the Mormon-Christian myth in the soil that nourished them, Mormon artists use poetry as what Brewster Ghiselin calls “an instrument of knowledge”1 to confront and render the world. If they are honest, they cannot write otherwise. Aware of the charge to plumb microcosmic truths for macrocosmic Truths, the Mormon poet probes the symbolic in the startling language and images of poetry, creating disciplined, crafted poems that outdo the worldly poets while expressing the innateness and immediacy of the Divine. As Elouise Bell concludes in “This Do in Remembrance of Me,” “Every symbol has two halves. / But to us falls the matching” (95).

A far different purpose seems to inform the selections of the second half of the volume, made primarily by Dennis Clark from the works of Mormon poets born after 1939, a selection he entitles “New Directions.” In his editor’s comment, Clark explains his theoretical differences with coeditor England, differences at least partially responsible for the clear-cut tonal bifurcation of the volume. Addressing the tired, head-in-sand question, “Is there a Mormon poetry?” (instead of the more pertinent question, “What is a Mormon poem?”), Clark poses another question, “Is there a Mormon audience for poetry?” (289). Then he reveals his own rooting in the humus of recondite and not-very-fertile Structuralism (he evokes the neuroanatomical arguments of Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel and the work on syntactical subordination by Noam Chomsky), by claiming that “the audience of a poem determines, to a greater extent than its author, what a poem means” (291; Clark’s italics). Most important to such audiences, he insists, is not the irrelevant message of the poem, but its sounds. Thus he insists, with more than a touch of dogmatism, “The only criterion of less value to me than subject matter in determining the quality of a poem is message, and the two are wed” (291). The result of Clark’s standpoint is the confession—in a book subtitled Contemporary Mormon Poems—that “not all” of the poems he has selected are “related to Mormon experience” (290).


Despite—or perhaps because of—the questions this volume raises about the nature of contemporary Mormon poetry as a spiritual thermometer of a people, Harvest should lie, dog-eared, on every reading Mormon’s nightstand. Virtually all of the poems would compare favorably with anyone’s selection of modern poems. Many of them go beyond—to reveal a balance of spiritual vision and painstaking craftsmanship that portrays an admirable present literary reality and the promise of a distinctive, distinguished, and Mormon art in which faithful stewards of the word achieve an artistry based in vision and “achieve vision through artistry,” as Bruce W. Jorgensen has written, while “we fulfill our innate godhood through the discipline of experience.”

BYU Studies, v30 n2, Spring 1990, p. 119-123.

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While I think that Cracroft’s point is valid, I’m not sure how important it is. Mormons are, of necessity, bi-cultural—we are both Mormon and a member of the broader culture we live in or were created in. I can’t see many Mormon artists accepting any paradigm that confines them to one culture or the other. Nor do I think that the two cultures can be completely separated. Even in the early Utah period, when Mormons were the most isolated from others, it would be hard to say that their culture was not just as American as that of Lincoln, Emerson or any other resident of the United States.

Cracroft isn’t, of course, suggesting that it is or that Mormons must confine themselves to one or the other. But he is suggesting that a poetry collection that is labeled “Mormon” should consist of poems that are about religion or the Mormon experience. But if Mormons, and even Mormonism for that matter, are a mixture of religion and ‘the world’ then wouldn’t a collection that mixes the two reflect Mormon experience better? Isn’t a collection that focuses on just one then deficient?

With the spread of the Internet Mormon culture has seen the rise of a new type of Mormon and the introduction of a number of broader meanings of the word ‘Mormon.’ We have everything from “True-blue Mormons” to “New Order Mormons.” In such a world, unless you are preparing a collection for use in Mormon worship and instruction, isn’t it better to have a collection that includes everyone?


6 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Richard H. Cracroft on what makes a poem ‘Mormon’

  1. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

    “But if Mormons, and even Mormonism for that matter, are a mixture of religion and ‘the world’ then wouldn’t a collection that mixes the two reflect Mormon experience better?”

    And how does that happen? It sounded to me as if Cracroft was saying it didn’t happen in either half, and that the poetry that could have been written by anyone, Mormon or not, failed to reflect the dual nature of Mormons that you describe.

    Wouldn’t it be better to write about being Mormon AND part of the world, instead of being just part of the world, as it seems Cracroft was saying half of the poems were?

    There’s enough tension to explore in the “in the world, but not of it” aspect of being Mormon without a poetry collection turning into something that is only “a collection for use in Mormon worship and instruction.”

    What I heard Cracroft’s review saying is that the poems were either/or and not both. Could neither editor find poetry that was both? And were they not only divided by their Mormonness or lack thereof but also by time? If so, that is truly discouraging.

  2. Th.

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    Hmmm. Kathleen posted before me making my succinct post nonsensical. Darn it.

    (Incidentally, I kept trying to add an ironic end-selfpromotion tag, but WP kept erasing it.)

    In reply to her comment though, I don’t think that’s what Cracroft is saying. I think he would argue much of the first half DID straddle that line and the second half made little to no attempt thereat. But I’m not sure that’s fair and I think the majority opinion now is that the collection was more successful in being both than Cracroft felt at the time.

  3. Tyler

    Mormons are, of necessity, bi-cultural—we are both Mormon and a member of the broader culture we live in or were created in.

    I think you could push this even further, Kent: Mormons aren’t just bi-cultural, but in the wake of poststructuralism’s influence on our understanding of identity (or more rightly, identities) and Mormonism becoming more and more global, many of us claim the influence of many different cultures on our identities, one of which is Mormonism. As Wayne Booth suggested in his memoir, My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony, all of us are essentially made up of “many selves.” In this light, the contemporary Mormon cultural and religious experience seems to consist of negotiating among these selves while remaining true to our vision of Mormonism—or even of negotiating among them while seeking a “plausible harmony.” This seems to me to jibe with the idea that all truth can be circumscribed into a greater whole. And my experience as a Mormon, as an American, as a Utahan, as one influenced by aspects of Maori culture, etc., are what make up the greater whole of my selfhood. Shouldn’t we try to represent that kind of quest in our literature?

  4. Tyler

    Or rather, I should say: as a literary and critical community, shouldn’t we seek to tease out and to represent how that quest takes place in real and imagined lives?

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