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Eufrocino P.

Salazar October 15, 2007


Lit 231 Development of Poetry Mr. Vincenz Serrano

Subverting Theopoetics : Falling Away as Theme and Structural


Reconfigurations in Postmodern Poetics

Introduction

The critical inquiry into the field known as theopoetics is a study which

can be described as fraught with very little discoveries and findings; with very few

inroads and contributions; indeed it is a relatively emergent area of investigation in

literary criticism that literature on the matter is so scant and almost null. Theopoetics

was developed by Stanley Romaine Hopper and David L. Miller as an approach in

articulating the spiritual import or meaning of a text or sacred object through

metaphorical analysis. Deriving the notion from its original anthropological usage, the

present writer will extend the notion of theopoetics from technique to assigning it an

ostensive identification of some forms of poems which are religious in nature. While it

appears broad and exhaustive, the notion of theopoetic works will be limited by the

present writer to poems that speak of an articulated faith, personally appropriated and

contextualized in a Christian paradigm of spirituality. The notion of subversion is

amplified in the presentation of cited poems that show this trajectory of theme. The

project is to connect the postmodern sentiment as directly contributing (in sentiment

and thought) to the loss-of-faith theme among the selected poems. Again the selection

of poems (those that share a common theme of fideistic abandonment) will include

names in the literary world: Matthew Arnold, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Jose Garcia

Villa, Bienvenido Lumbera, L. Lacambra Ypil and Andrew Levy. Some of the specific

works of these writers share a common theme: abandonment/loss of faith in the


traditional notions of the Christian deity. Although the specific titles of their works will

be addressed in this paper, and rendered with close readings (New Critical approach)

the present author believes their works sustain a steady stream of poetic works whose

descent in the history of poetics mark distinctive traits of fideistic loss which are

distinctly perceived as inflected meanings of the poems.

Religiosity in English Poetry and Theopoetics

Although the presence of religious genres in early English poetry is

undeniable, scholars take on varying approaches in assessing the form and content of

these genres. Many forms of early English poetry since the medieval period take into

account religious themes as its thrust, exploring the implications of faith for the poet

and how he sees the world. The ubiquitous presence of the sacred is felt from Bede’s

religious poetry, Chaucer’s bawdy narratives, Shakespeare’s allusions to religion,

Blake’s mystical visions, Donne’s intensely spiritual connections with the deity,

Hopkins profuse and articulate utterances, Auden’s distinct spirituality and

Swinburne’s loss of faith. Depending on the poet and his particulate vision of the

spiritual, the theme of religiosity always found articulation in any anthology of English

poetry whether it is in celebration, worship or petitionary approach of the Deity.

In this paper, the present writer will trace the notion of fideistic abandonment

(loss of faith) in relation to the developments of postmodern understandings of poetics

as translated in the traceable reconfigurations in modern poetic trends (visual,

concrete, avant-garde, experimental poetries) as regards tendencies in poetic


structure and form. While the idea of post-fideist theme is a category of content, the

present writer will show the relationships manifested in this falling apart of the center

(the post-structuralist and deconstructionist hailing of the author’s, and by extension

the poet’s death) and its relations to the shifting focus of form and spatiality of the

poetic text.

Postmodernism and Its Impact on Poetics

Postmodernism as an intellectual outlook and postmodernity as a cultural

phenomenon are corollary concepts that exist not just in elitist academic sub-cultures

but as living mechanisms taking over real and material societal conditions. It is itself a

very difficult term to define since its very nature is to go up against the truth claims so

legitimized by a post-Enlightenment faith in reason. Postmodern sensibilities rely on a

host of categories like parody, subversion, irony, diffusion, play, interpretive

communities, and a pack of other terms that baffle anyone who believes in

epistemological certainty, the fixed nature of the human self and the progressive

power of reason to liberate and achieve stability. Many of postmodernism’s critics may

impugn it as empty gobbledygook, inveigh it as a tool for academic superiority or

simply the latest fad in theoretical language games, but they cannot ignore the fact

that it has spawned a lot of reactions, reviews, re-alignments and restructuring with

the way human knowledge is approached. The tentacles of this monster has spread

far and wide in the university and in society as a whole. Its effects are felt in fields as

diverse as education, law, philosophy, anthropology, art, music, political theory,


cultural studies, jurisprudence, history, literature, religion, economics, financé,

sciences, hermeneutics, and even medicine.

Postmodernist thinking cannot be simply relegated to this status. The fact that a

number of scholars realize it’s endemic presence and deal with it seriously is a sure

sign that postmodernism is to be engaged with and is willing to be engaged. (Harvey,

1988, 24 ; Bertens 1980, 115; Jameson 1988, 108). Many papers have been written

about the postmodern condition and its effects on culture and society. Markers of the

postmodern world have been identified from the media saturated capitalist societies

and their primary reliance on technology to maintain power, (Harvey, 1988)

transformative human immigration and consequent rapid interactions, restructuring,

protest and mutual adaptations of differing cultures leading to a highly globalized

world leading to reduction of national boundaries and the inter-connectedness of

nations in the global village (Gibbins and Reimer 1999, 22). The postmodern world

view is one that looks at the totality of the experience of the cosmopolitan citizen but at

the same time shuns this totality from ever becoming an oppressive whole against

particular and oppressed micro-cultures. From this present massive Copernican

condition, the academe cannot remain untainted by postmodernist sensibilities. The

fact that it is primarily a philosophical trend and an intellectual outlook will bring forth

colossal realignments in the epistemology of the academe, for in itself the academe is

caught in an otherwise ideological way of thinking and doing its business of teaching,

publishing and critiquing..

If the other branches of knowledge (social sciences, humanities and pure

sciences) were affected, how much more would be the field of literary criticism and in
particular poetics? The postmodern turn brought along with it a constellation of new

approaches in understanding the text: psychoanalysis, structuralism, feminism, post-

structuralism, Marxist criticism, queer theory, post-colonial discourses- all questioning

the reigning orthodoxies of their time and in their own turn were supplanted by new

-isms and critiques of these isms.

The study of the principles governing what is poetry and what passes for good

poetry has been raised since Aristotle’s eponymous work Poetics. A long history of

critique and counter critique included names in the canon of literary criticism in

poetics: Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Hugh of St. Victor, Geoffey of Vinsaulf, Dante,

Boccaccio, Sir Philip Sidney, Corneille, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, von Schiller,

William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, W.B. Yeats, R.W. Emerson, Edgar

Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Matthew Arnold, Stephen Mallarme, Ferdinand de Saussure,

Roman Jakobson, T.S. Eliot, Mikhail Bakhtin, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, Roland

Barthes, Adrienne Rich, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Robert Frost.

The continuity of rich ideas about poetics from the ancients throughout the

medieval period through the metaphysical poets, the neoclassicists, the romantics, the

symbolists, all throughout the modern and contemporary times came about with a

richly informed understanding of the plethoric status of poetry. Numerous poets across

cultures, economics, ethnicity, Nobel prize status, religious background (or lack of),

and philosophical persuasions contributed significantly in our present understanding of

poetry. Like any artifact of human civilization, the poem is a child of centuries of

creation, refinement, assimilation, adaptation, reconstruction, glorification,

bastardization and conversion. The poem’s language, form, syntax, meaning,


authorial intent, interpretation, and social, political, cultural contexts were all violently

created and re-created in this long history of coming of fulfillment. All of its constitutive

elements: rhyme, rhythm, imagery, figurative language, prosody and meaning were

formulated and reformulated depending on the spirits of the age and the demands of

the society where it found expression. The poem as a material artifact became not just

a textual product but a cultural capital of sorts, providing a sensible sign of human

development and literacy. Its function and teleology has been bitterly debated as

either an end in itself and also as a medium for political as well as artistic expression.

The poem has been transmogrified by human cultural history, as a tool for education,

an instrument for entertainment and a vehicle for that cultural need : artistic

expression.

A significant question is now in need of answering. What is postmodern

poetics? What makes a poem postmodern by itself ? How does it differ from modern

poetry? Is the term postmodern poetics simply a catch substitute for contemporary

poetry with its undefined features, and its subversions of accepted standards and

conventions of syntax, prosody or language?

For all its vagueness and inclusive nature, postmodernism in poetry is hard to

identify since most of the so-called traits of postmodern poetry are also found in many

modernist trends in poetry (concrete poetry, visual poetry, and conceptual poetry).

This includes the determinate re-arrangement of the text’s presentation on paper,

sometimes taking on shapes usually referred to by the poem (visual poetry); on other

occasions, it rearranges the letters and words to coincide with the intended effect of

the poem (concrete poetry) and in other instances it follows unorthodox format from
skipping of lines, to allotment of few words in one line while it enjambs on another

(conceptual poetry). This destabilizing tendency on the structures maybe seen as

inflection of the postmodernist tendencies in literature by challenging traditional or

accepted forms, techniques, language use, and others. This is very reminiscent of the

binaries presented by Ihab Hassan in his book The Dismemberment of Orpheus. The

work compares modernism and postmodernism. The very same list may apply to the

playful interaction of literary concepts in literature and by extension to poetics ( Connor

1997, 118)

Postmodernism in Poetics

Amidst differences, there are four seemingly distinct identities of postmodern

poetries (C. John Holcombe 2007, 1-2). First, is the presence of iconoclasm. Similar to

postmodernist distrust of legitimizing narratives, postmodern poetry decanonizes

existing conventions in poetic constitution. This is done through deliberately subverting

the accepted norms of poetic composition mainly through parody, irony and pastiche.

In terms of versification and prosody, postmodern poems go up against the traditional

rhymes, meter, and even linear allotment of words. Enjambments are also radically

stretched way out of proportion to create intended effects of subversion and at the

same time strips context, reducing content to an austere minimum.

Secondly, postmodern poetry is groundless. It employs images that have no

reference other than themselves. In a way this is an anticipation of the arbitrary nature

of the sign and signifier representation. Baudrillard famously declared that the world is
nothing but an allocation of inter-references to media like images, all pointing to

nothing but the hyper-real images. In postmodern poetry, images are flat and media-

like. The referential nature of language is anesthesized in postmodern verse (if in case

there is still a postmodern verse). The act of representation through verse is seen as

fictive and therefore simply indeterminate. Meaning is purposely deferred or if not

tossed to other referents in the text, thus resulting in the indeterminacy of meaning.

One could also deduce from this that meaning in post modern poetry is never

actualized nor finalized. The sheer act of inter-referentiality is the name of the game.

Third, a Protean penchant for formlessness. In this respect poems written in the

postmodern trajectory show restlessness in the sense that they repudiate modernist

tendencies for organic form and harmony. With its denial of the need for a structured

form, postmodern affinity for shapelessness is expressed in the bursting of texts and

textual components (words, phrases, lines) into collages and montages; usually

avoiding the usage of figurative language, collapsing genres by mixture or ignoring

them altogether so as to create an effect of distance between the reader and the text.

There is also openness towards forms of pastiche and clichés.

Finally, postmodern poetry promotes populist sensibilities, often eschewing

literate and elitist language, avoiding serious and responsible representations and

stretching the playful and the arbitrary. The populist strain in postmodern poems

accepts themes and categories from across a wide spectrum of the social strata in a

way democratizing the content and experiences of the subaltern referents in literary

representation.
All the aforementioned identities for the postmodern poem hail from the idea

that postmodernism, as an extension and an overlapping aspect of high modernism,

establishes the non-locality of the poet as a constructor of reality through his art. The

poet is as much a fluid postmodern self, one who is indeterminate and who is actively

constructing meanings out of the experiences he encounters in life. The postmodern

dislike for fixed meanings and institutions is rooted in the perception that the

postmodern poet is engaged in the act of meaning construction and that this process

is the end itself. The goal is not to come up with valid interpretations or pin down the

author’s intention. The employment of parody, pastiche and irony are tools that

highlight the very nature of the postmodern project: engagement in poetry without

being grounded by the project itself. This apparent paradox is the heart of any

postmodern epistemology in all the disciplines it has affected.

The fluidity of meaning in poetic texts is a spill off from post-structuralist

discourse. With Barthes’ announcement of the author’s death, the reader’s birth is

stressed. Meaning isn’t the main goal, but the act of textual engagement often

highlighted by the reader’s act of perusal of the text. Often the very presentation of

textual components (words, phrases and line distribution including indention and

spatial distances between words) in a postmodern poem follow the lead of abdicating

meaning and compelling the reader to sustain the playful communion with the text’s

indeterminacy. (Kaladjian 2005, 285).The unique way in which words are presented

on page form is part of the distinction of postmodern poetry. As also seen in modernist

experimental and avant-garde poetry, the configurations of poetic form (as in visual

poetry-where poems like George Herbert’s Easter Wings and John Hollander’s Swan
and Shadow visually picture what their contents represent). They may form part of the

characterizations of postmodern poetry. In another instance the size and directionality

of letters (as in the Futurist poetry) and lines (diagonal, inverted, sagging in a

horizontal direction etc.) as distinctive of the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s.

Another example is Jessica Smith’s Manifest which deliberately violates the traditional

presentation of the poem in predictable stanzas and presents the poem in an outline

form, with each entry statement forming the verse. The poem is complete with

indentions and numerical markers like in a real outline of a text. With these

tendencies, the over all structural representation of poetry is done through oblique re-

arrangement of stanzas, lines and enjambments, and in some instances the use of

other non-traditionally recognized patterns for textual presentation. On another point

even the method in which poetry is composed (as in the Dadaist technique of cutting

newspapers and pulling out the texts formed out of such random method and

presented as “poem”) may even be the subject of a postmodern if not contemporary

approach. The reason for such selective employment of technique is actually a

determinate proclivity on the part of the poet. With resources and a history of ideas at

his fingertips, the postmodern poet is teased to shake traditional forms, contents,

methodologies and even language. Thus, is born the landscape of the modern and

postmodern world, where imagery is challenged, language is indeterminate,

representation is questioned and poetics itself is constantly tested and reaffirmed.

Although the direction postmodern poetics has taken in recent times has always

baffled poets and critics due to its unpredictability and non-uniformity, the future for

poetry is ridiculously open- to forms, language use, imagery, and prosody (or lack
thereof). Open is the operational term here, as the non-closure of its situation is

therefore interrogated further, eviscerated from its fixity as well as confounded by

forces political, postmodernist and personal in nature. A form based-approach in

studying the formation of postmodernist poetry would be Joseph Conte’s study of

postmodernist forms ( Conte 1991, 6). The two-pronged system he used involved an

observation of two common forms of poetry among postmodernist, contemporary and

yet least known poets in English both found in the Anglo-American terrain of poetics:

procedural and series forms of poetry. A thorough and exhaustive attention has been

given by Conte to these two forms of postmodern poetry, and by extension his

analysis provides an excellent point of the commonly used form-conscious poetics: a

neglect of strict form and an openness to newer forms inclusive of typographical

considerations, pagination, textual inversion, letter size and positioning of texts etc.

Parallel Lines of the Open Form and Theopoetics

The profound influence of the Modernist movement through its most

distinguished high priests (Eliot, Pound, Stevens) cannot be left unacknowledged in

their legacy of pushing forth a never-ending critique of the poetics of the 20 th century.

It is this modernist poetics that the postmodern was fully conceived and given birth to

(Draper 1999, 13). Eliot’s prophecy of the breakdown of the Center applied as well to

poetics as it was uttered in the self declarations of many poetic discourse movements

within the modernist umbrella (Dadaist, surrealist, Black, Futurist, avant-garde, etc.) In

terms of such openness and self declarations of variant poetic discourses came the
radical explosion of many sensibilities and approaches of doing poetry in the

postmodern age. Naturally this is a reflection of the postmodern mindset with its

distrust of totalizing explanations, focus on play and destabilization (as mentioned

earlier of poetic forms and methods), an experimentation with various media and

techniques and the awareness of cosmopolitan concerns of economy, politics, and

global issues like environment, religious diversity and ethnicity. With such strong

decentralization from the traditional notions of truth, reason and absolutism, religious

poetry followed suit and became sensitive to issues of doubt, restructuring of faith and

relentless questioning of dearly held convictions. Theopoetics was subverted as

modernist streams relentlessly battered the fixed claims of faith. With John Donne,

Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Milton, religious poetry was sensitive and reverent

but with the advent of the modernist (and postmodernist) poet, poetry was the medium

for the expression of this dissatisfaction of the established system of faith.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is an excellent starting point in treating the

idea of theopoetic subversion as it clearly articulates the faith (or its gradual ebbing) of

the modern age. Arnold heralds an age which is characterized by loneliness and slow

dilapidation. Reflective of the spirit of the times, Arnold comes up with a poem that

succinctly captures the angst and sorrows of his age. Formally, the poem consists of

four stanzas with differing number of lines per stanza (14, 6, 8 and 9)- an indication of

the beginnings of the modernist impulse to experiment with lines and stanzas. There is
no predictable verse pattern although the poem resonates with signs of free handling

of iambic pattern.

“Dover Beach” is a keen view of a natural scenario- the sea and its shores, both

English and French coasts. In the imagery of the sea, the world is portrayed as

peaceful, “the sea is calm tonight”; “the tide is full/the moon lies fair”. Although a placid

picture is painted, there is more than meets the eye. The speaker refers to the

glimmering of light and its disappearance. Light maybe be taken here as hope and

strength. It seems Arnold suggests that the “moon blanched coast” of the world is a

temporary illusion of tranquility and that beneath this tranquility is the “grating roar of

pebbles”. The shift from the light bathed coasts and its suggestion of temporal lighting

speaks of a similar ephemerality of hope and certitude as in a later line, its values are

questioned:

“for the world, which seems


To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath neither joy, nor love nor light,
Not certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”

The last few lines closes in on the poem rapidly shifting the focus from the calm

and “tremulous cadence” of life’s vicissitudes (as embodied in the sea’s tranquil

depiction) to the uncertainty and hopelessness of things. The unpredictability of the

versification and rhythmic pattern per line reinforces the very meaning of the poem: its

reference to a world devoid of meaning and purpose. It was a world ravished by new

ways of thinking, where old faiths and religions are questioned, doubted and

eventually abandoned. “The Sea of Faith, was once too, at the full and round earth’s

shore.” This speaks of the consequent rejection of certitude in the claims of religious
persons. It seems to imply that religion cannot hold anymore for the “modern world”

with its new companions of reason, technology and science. Faith has been relegated

to the dustbin of private belief if not superstition. Arnold acknowledges that this Sea of

Faith once had a grip on people but now is being abandoned in favor of newer gods.

Arnold’s “Dover Beach” ends with a dismal tone of closure as the persona in the poem

clings on to the security of relationships and the will-driven act to love and make

meaning out of the world’s uncertainty. For in this human attempt will meaning and

fixity will be found to avoid the irregular ebbs and flows of life’s seasons.

Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”

The question and value of church going is beautifully addressed by this poem

of Philip Larkin. Although simple and direct to the point, Larkin raises the toll on the

cultural activity of religiosity and its most concrete inflection in the Anglo-American

tradition- church attendance. American philosopher, William James spoke of religion

as either being a dull habit or an acute fever. This profoundly captures the cultural

practice of church attendance among Anglo-American Christians.

“Church Going” is written in seven unrhymed stanzas of 8 lines each, the meter

for every line varies from nine to eleven syllables although on the average the lines

are written in pentameter. The syntax is inverted and at times overtly so to stress a

prosaic narrative of the poem. “Move forward, run my hand around the font.”

With its almost prosaic and casual tone, Larkin’s project seems to be to

express wonder and ruminate on the idea of church going. “Wondering what to look
for; wondering, too/ When churches fall completely out of use/ What we shall turn

them into?” The questions are of course raised in the atmosphere of innocent inquiry

and on the observation that churches have become museums or cultural artifacts of a

specific epistemology: faith. Larkin sustains his ponderings on the next few stanzas

thinking on how religious practice is passed on as belief, and how it appeals to some

although a greater number has forsaken it. His litany of “what ifs” and wonders dwell

on assuming that others like the persona may have felt the same way too- about

religion’s apparent lack of use in the modern age. A reduction of faith and belief takes

place ultimately once “ superstition, like belief, must die”. He goes further by delivering

the final blow for faith: “and what remains when disbelief has gone?/ Grass, weedy

pavement, brambles, buttress, sky”. This is apparently a materialist perception since

after stripping faith of its transcendental powers, the visiting persona in the church

sees it ultimately as a nexus of objects- which by themselves seem to be empty of

sacred associations. Here the persona removes the connotative association of the

object and the belief system itself.

While admitting the ignorance of such a structure’s worth, the persona betrays

a numbing sense of relevance in the mere act of church visit. He seems to see religion

as serving some purpose, although the ambivalence is shattered at the end of the

poem:

A serious house on serious earth it is,


In whose blunt air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete,
Since someone will be forever surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

Ted Hughes”Theology”

Ted Hughes is renowned British poet both by his works and by his association

with another poet- the American Sylvia Plath. Much of his poetic corpus are replete

with references to revisionist understandings of the Christian religion. This is partly

due to the influences of Gnostic reinterpretations of the biblical account of creation

and Hughes’ utility of trickster figures (like those of animal trickster gods from other

mythologies) as dominant characters in his poetry. In Hughes’ “Theology” for example,

a parody of the temptation of Adam and Eve is narrated:

“No, the Serpent did not seduce


Eve to the apple.
All that’s simply
Corruption of the facts.”

Whether meant to present a humorous account or a serious challenge to the

traditional account of the Temptation of Man and Woman, Hughes in characteristic

prosaic postmodern form shows a new approach to the story. Brazenly, the persona

leads the readers to a suspension and re-interpretation of the facts.

Adam ate the apple,


Eve ate Adam
The serpent ate Eve,
This is the dark intestine.

A novel way of reading the biblical account brings a new and possibly enriched

perspective, one that under the old ways of biblical hermeneutic would appear

heterodox but characteristic of the Zeitgeist of the modernist sensibility, traditions and
orthodoxies of narratives are playfully challenged and in which a humorous account is

substituted. Hughes persona-narrator is an impersonal persona and yet claiming a

certain perspective on the theme being discussed. Aside from the destabilizing

attempt of the hallowed biblical account, the “dark intestine” of the account is a

humorous pathos as exemplified in the serpent:

The serpent meanwhile,


Sleeps his meal off in Paradise,
Smiling to hear,
God’s querulous calling.

In this account, the privileging of the traditional antagonistic nature of the serpent’s

role is raised to that of a humorous apathy to God. The God of Ted Hughes’

“Theology” seems impotent and the serpent seems to have been the character who

got away with his cunning and craftiness. Here again, the postmodern technique of

irony, playfulness and decanonization is at work. The subversion is seen as

blasphemous by accounts of orthodox Christian understanding of the biblical account-

all pointers to further steps in the postmodernization of poetry in the contemporary

times.

Jose Garcia Villa’s “God Said I Made a Man”

Jose Garcia Villa is perhaps the most famous Filipino poet who writes in

English. Known for his originality, through experimental forms (marker of postmodern

subversion of structures) such as his reversed consonance and comma poems, Villa

wrote voluminously and some of his lyrics are impelled by visions of theological

significance. Although the deity who appears in his works seem more like the deity of
process theologians, Villa nonetheless reveals his poetry with streaks of the divine

and the human. The theme of some of his poems involve the relationship of man with

the divinity.

In his “God Said I Made a Man” (number 49 of his Have Come, Am Here

poems), a Promethean man rears its head against the Divine. The divine in this poem

appears less omnipotent than His own creation: Man as alluded to in the line, “God

said I made a man/ Out of clay- But so bright he, he spun/ Himself to brightest day.” In

this line, the reader sees Villa’s Man as omnipotent perhaps greater than His Maker.

The lyric is a poetical fable of man’s origins, one that traces the element of the divine

in man. Here, Villa crowns Man as creation and yet his creature-like status does not

limit him. This man, was “even lovely to behold”- a metaphysic that digs deeply into

the binary of Creator-creation, and although the privileged position of the divine is

stated categorically, an observant reader will see that the truly privileged in this work

by Villa is the Creature who ascends god-like status in his attempt to “aim his bow at

his creator”.Villa provides the man character of his genius by proceeding to human

traits of contemplation, of knowledge seeking and of self autonomy. Here Man,

according to Villa’s vision is a creature of genius- one who measures his Maker, one

who exercises his will and one who if needed may slay his God. The subversive in this

work is explicit in that God as a notion will not be excused from the probe of Man, from

the “measuring” task man has apportioned to himself. The sacred and the profane do

not know any boundary, as far as man’s seeking of the truth is involved.

Bienvenido Lumbera’s “The Leaden Christ”


The representative power of the arts in articulating faith is perhaps the recurring

theme of Bien Lumbera’s “The Leaden Christ”. With references to the artistic task of

evoking faith, the poem is an attempt to present the conflicting vision and the failure of

cultural modes of production to evoke the subjective realities of faith. The conflict

arises because of the dystonic nature of the subject’s perception: “As art, the object no

longer told/ the truth, but it was saved somehow/ by guilt I would not want to own:

without a thought of art or faith, I nailed it to the nearest wall.” The persistent tendency

of materiality to desensitize the artistic (and by association religious) experience runs

afoul in the face of the subject’s desensitization to the repetitive nature of religious

genuflection towards the crucifix (as an object that’s supposed to elicit the religious

experience). Conflicting feelings are also produced because of material conditions

(play of light plagued the perceiver of the detached arm of the crucifix, obliquely

producing a sense of horrific blasphemy) Although the intended effect of the crucifix’s

material (lead) disguises its real purpose, the other material accidents reinforce the

desired effect: “The sight appalls/ the mind at times when trick of light/ animates the

pain that lead denies”. The flat and direct description seems stolid but its prosaic

nature does not refuse the poem its intended effect. Here Lumbera presents a fleeting

scene and at the same time “defines the margins of our art and lies.” The attempt of

the religious poet is always replete by limits (epistemological grasp of the numinous,

fluctuation of faith in sundry experiences, the representations of things as they are in

the psyche of the believer). All of these present barriers and sustains “hypocrisy” on

the side of the believing poet. The task of the poet is to be authentic to the realities of
these reductions of his faith, these limitations which at some point may nullify his faith.

Lumbera presents a slice of the task a poet must pursue and with this realization must

see the failure of his “way of knowing” as possibly constricted by conditions beyond

his control.

L.Lacambra Ypil’s “At The Village Chapel”

Ypil’s poem “At The Village Chapel” is about waiting, one that creates the

impression that the wait will never be appeased nor ended. In seven stanzas of varied

line assignments, the poem follows the flexibility and fluidity of verse characteristic of

the Philippine poetry in English in the late 80s. With references to moon-moths,

geckos, lizards, slugs and townspeople, the poem locates the fixation of the persona

with the mundane while at the same time setting the pursuit of reverie in a supposedly

sacral place- the village chapel. This treatment of the chapel as a place for waiting and

in which nothing sacred is actually referred to pertains to the present abandonment of

the sacredness of the chapel, and its implosion with the mundane concerns of the

townspeople. In fact the waiting could be metaphorically pertain to the shifting of

sensibilities of faith among the rustic country folk to their immediate concerns (the

harvest, the play of the children, the setting up of guards). In fact all through out the

poem, no reference to spirituality is made, but it is replete with references to insects

(moth, termites, ants, centipedes) and other minute creatures (worms, gecko, lizard).

The sense that the persona creates in the poem is to bring the addressee to the

details of rustic life (lit lanterns, wheat heavy for reaping, divided the wine). It seems
that the whole point of the poem is the voyeurism on the dead lizard and the moon-

moth’s departure- themes hardy spiritual in nature but the fact that the village chapel

becomes the venue for this collective voyeurism not only of the persona but even the

townspeople.( “One by one we eventually took leave, called the children back). The

pointlessness of the wait seem to be amplified by the persistent and apathetic

persistence of the creatures’ life (“There was only the growing termite hill./ The sigh of

worms in the loam./The centipedes on the road”.) With this background, the persona

seems to belittle the sacredness of the chapel, at least hinting that its purpose has

found its end very much like Larkin’s “Church Going”

Andrew Levy’s Ineffable Faith

Rudolf Otto’s work The Idea of the Holy is a significant work on religious

phenomena, exploring the analytics and dynamics of religious experience. In this

work, religious experience in its collective form was dubbed with the modifier

“ineffable”. Ineffable means inexpressible in language, or perhaps inarticulately

impossible. In his poetry Andrew Levy extracts language and moves beyond its limit

by directly representing its own inability to articulate. In a poem that exactly copies the

very nature of a meaning he wishes to convey, Levy brings to the uninitiated crossed

eyebrows, or pouting faces, effects more tangibly read than his very medium itself-

poetry. In his poem (truly postmodern in its form, content and technique) “Ineffable

Faith”, Andrew Levy distorts the representative powers of coherence in language by


juxtaposing phrases that actually refer to various kaleidoscopic experiences and

images of apparently meaningless jibber :

It won’t take hold by itself- Cinema means pulling


a uniform over our eyes (Kafka)- your fictional alter
I wrestled with intelligence, my beloved, slender
put forth a slender brown hair no blockade
sincere desire to be another earth throbbing indefinite

The attempt to place words and phrases regardless of syntax and meaning formation

is nothing new in poetics. It was of course a method meant to destabilize and

demonstrate the shifting and unsteady foothold language has on texts and by

consequence to communicate. Andrew Levy, however compounds the gibberish not

randomly but by his philosophy of language, one that focuses on the “curves” of

language. This meant the “cut and paste” method of apparently real images and

experiences with the intention to create simultaneous points of entry for

comprehension (or incomprehension), suggesting the idea that such a notion as faith

which should be ineffable indeed as a subjective human experience can be articulated

in an inarticulate way. This ironic referentiality of course is a subversively postmodern

ploy upon language, a collage phrases and experiences “sincere desire to be

another”, “sternutatory free from denticulated plastic” and “I wrestled with intelligence”.

All these present a face of the experience itself, although put forth in a way as if they

were stirring images from someone’s mind, devoid of coherence but nonetheless

really present within the experiencing subject. This plethora of seemingly irrelevant

language “units” are ever present for the reader although the reader himself is

tempted to dismiss them as relentlessly playful and meaningless. Regardless of

punctuation, capitalization “Ineffable Faith” is a poem of steady yet uncensored flow of


thoughts, articulated feelings, and images couched in the fleeting and unstable molds

of words and syntax, in which Levy challenges readers to follow with a sustained

reading, although of course any attempt to impose meaning upon Levy’s “Ineffable

Faith” is an exercise in futility. However patterns emerge out of this work. For one it is

the presence of a smooth and steady flow of lines, albeit the beginning lines were

written in small letters, perhaps to stress the apparent coequality of randomness of the

words. Language thus reaches its limit in Levy’s attempt of articulation, both in its

imposed limit and its essentially limited given-ness as a human artifact. References to

such is replete in the poem itself (“a land of maple linearity”; “senses leisure pluck

purple philology”). The breakdown of meaning, the steady flow of kaleidoscopic

images and the relentless destabilizing of syntax and sense are all the sublimates of

this ineffable faith. The subversion of faith is the subversion of language in this Levy

poem. The swallowing up of meaningfulness, the explosion of linearity and the

irreverent mixture of sensical and non-sensical ideas (“conciliatory burrito kill some of

‘em”; “happy thoughts of wine curtailed scent imparts” and “bent this fool play fuckers

of solitary bed”). Postmodern poetry has reached, metaphorically seaking has reached

its ultimately blasphemy in the articulation of the inarticulate, in the tracing of the

curves and linearity of language, in the death and resurrection of sense and non-

sense. What has been travestied is the god of stability, of coherence and of order.

This, one may say is the final act of subversion of the text and the reader.

Concluding Postcript
Theopoetic subversion is a recurrent theme in the history of poetry. There are

sustained examples of this tendency as they are inflected in the variant movements

that ultimately led to the postmodern landscape which dramatically transformed the

poetics of the present age. The routes of subversion not only dethroned the divinity,

but destabilized as well all His attendant deities of order, harmony, tradition,

convention, fixed forms, coherence and staticism. From questions of faith to questions

of canonical poetics the direction of this relentless interrogation led to the parallel lines

of language questioning and at the same time questioning the contents and contours

of faith (in a higher power, in reason, in conventions). The movement towards the

postmodern landscape is the inevitable consequence of the shifts in form and

technique configurations of poetic formalisms, language determinacy and on a

metaphysical level the role of the deity in the very contents of the faith communities of

the poets. Thus, the shift in structure is also a shift in the object of worship. It now

appears as an impasse but nonetheless, the openness of the future of poetics is still

an exciting page upon which a post-postmodernist poetics can address and explicate.

Works Cited

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