What makes poetry work? Why is it different than fiction and other genres? I’m not sure any scientific answer is possible to this question, since it involves so many elements, many of which simply can’t be measured objectively. But this view hasn’t kept appraisers of literature from trying to say what makes poetry different.
Part of the difference is found in the “music” of poetry—its use of rhythm, rhyme and other features to connect to the reader or hearer of its words.
Perhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.
To a large extent, theory is definition. A theory of literature is therefore definition of its many elements and how they work together to allow the creation of literature. And as far as I can tell, before Orson F. Whitney, few Mormons attempted anything near a theory of literature. A few definitions of elements of literature appeared here and there, but no one covered as many elements of literature as Whitney.
In the following extract, also from the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney discusses poetry, and after rejecting a common definition, he provides his own:
When Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.
While I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me 3 months to get back to this series, I’m pleased to pick it up again and hope that it is warmly received. I’ve also updated my list of these posts and discovered that I’ve already produced 77 (including the present number) and, more importantly, have enough material to continue for quite a while.
Nor have I quite finished with the writ and wisdom of Whitney. In the preface to his 1889 poetry collection, Poetical Writings, he recognizes the aversion of some readers to religious poetry, apparently because critics found so much of it of low quality. Whitney, of course, disagreed: more →
For some time I have looked for ways to promote Mormon literature — ways to put the idea of Mormon literature in front of the public. The best, or most resonant, of Mormon literature needs to become part of our culture in a way that makes at least some works familiar to most members. Getting there involves the long process of educating the culture. Many different ways of promoting literature will need to be used. We need Mormon literary figures on t-shirts and shopping bags. We need fantastic book covers of well-known works to be highly recognizable. We need scenes or snippets of those well-known works to be seen all over. In short, we need Mormon Literature Memes.
Today those of us who are at least somewhat invested in Mormon Literature might be excused if we are defensive when Mormon Literature is attacked as not worthy of attention. I know that I, personally, would say something like “well, its not all that bad” or “I don’t think you’ve read enough of the better works of Mormon Literature to judge…” It turns out, we’re in good company.
Sometime before the following excerpt was written, Utah was attacked for its failure to produce worthy artists, and not just from any readers. Both H. L. Mencken and Bernard DeVoto, the latter a Utah native whose mother was Mormon, criticized the state, saying that it is a land devoid of literature, music, art—not having produced even “a critic, or educator, or editor, or publicist.”
Orson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.
While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall sense—i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the press—he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.