On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:

Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?

“Live, rather, like the lilies.”

Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.

You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.

The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons

The other day, I woke up and wound up writing — well, this. And so I decided that I might as well share…

Science fiction as a genre has a high and holy calling of engaging us in dialogue with science, the future, and technological change (corresponding to fantasy’s calling to engage us in a dialogue with history, mythology, and the unconscious, but that’s a topic for a different essay). Like most such callings, it is a potential caught mostly in glimpses, seldom if ever fully realized. Yet for all the protestations one hears of simple storytelling with no pretense of oracular or legislative responsibility (Shelley notwithstanding), it is a vocation pursued with remarkable persistence by most of the genre’s writers and never really forgotten by the bulk of its readers. (I speak now of literature. Movies are a different thing entirely.)

Continue reading “The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons”

Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic

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Today, an interview with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott appeared in Slate. The following is an excerpt from that interview (I’ve reversed the original bolding—bold is now Scott and plain is interviewer Isaac Chotiner):

Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, “Wow, I blew it”? Continue reading “Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic”

Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two

In my last installment, I mentioned my skepticism about a Mormon literary esthetic. I’ll start this round by explaining in more detail my reasons for that skepticism.

Differing values are relatively easy to come by. Differing stylistic preferences likewise. What group doesn’t vary within itself — often widely — in the personal styles of its members? Within my own immediate family, there are those who are melodramatic and those who are reserved; those who crave excitement and those who prefer contemplation; those with a taste for the subtle and those who like the blatant. (But no one who likes rap.)

A distinctive group esthetic is a rather taller order to fill. A distinctive esthetic, it seems to me, extends beyond differing preferences to become almost a different symbolic language, where words and phrases and characters and stories mean something different to those inside the group than they can ever possibly mean to those outside the group. Outsiders, by and large, don’t “get it.”

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two”

Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One

I feel pretty confident in asserting, without further evidence, that I find myself in a relatively small number of people who wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about questions of Mormon literary criticism. Possibly almost as small a number as those who might read the fruits of such questioning. (But only possibly.) Still, it is the nature of the essayist to find oneself compelled to write. And so…

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Throughout most of Mormonism’s literary history (such as it is), there has I think been little evidence of Mormons taking pleasure in or valuing a different kind of literary experience than what is valued in larger (mostly American) culture. Home literature, missionary fiction, lost generation fiction, faithful Mormon realism — all find close corollaries and even direct models in the larger writing universe.

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One”

Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other1

Continue reading “Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature”

Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon
(as literature)

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The Bay Area Mormon Studies Council has, over the last few years, provided its namesake area with scintillating presentations from such varied speakers as Amiee Flynn-Curran (on her 16 months of anthropological fieldwork in the Oakland First Ward), Warner Woodworth (on “Building Zion: One Family, One Village at a Time”), Adam Miller (something to do with his books—I was bummed to miss this one), Kristine Haglund (mostly about Dialogue, as I recall), and more. It’s been a good run.

A few times they’ve cobranded with the Oakland Stake, for instance inviting the Givens to speak, and having Richard O. Cowan help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oakland Temple.

Sunday night another BAMSC event held at a church building: Bob Rees speaking on subjecting the Book of Mormon to literary analysis.

Bob, of course, is well qualified to the task, having made a career of analyzing lit of all sorts, including essays comparing the Book of Mormon to contemporary publications and Milton (forthcoming).

We arrived a bit late, just in time for Bob to win me over to his side by declaring Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon the most important book on the Book of Mormon since Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. This is not hyperbole, Bob insisted. He compared his reading of Hardy to Keats’s reading of Chapman.

He also gave space to the Book of Mormon’s critics including Mark Twain’s “tired witticisms” which always get a chuckle when delivered by a friendly party.

The wisest decision made in his presentation was Continue reading “Bob Rees on the Book of Mormon
(as literature)”

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts—LDS scripture, in particular—can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—“if it be a true seed, or a good seed”—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics. 

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.

Thoughts?