A Whole Poem
Whenever I recommend the poetry of Christian hymns, and in doing so cast a cold eye on the incompetence and sloppy sentimentality of much of what we sing in our churches today, someone will accuse me of being an "elitist," as if that were a fit response to end all discussion. I typically reply in three ways.
First, I say that my friend has evaded the issue. If he wants to defend the art of a Marty Haugen or David Haas, let him do so, on the same grounds whereby we judge the worth of any poem, sacred or no. Then I remind him that all human cultures have had traditions of poetry—songs—handed down over the generations, beloved alike by old and young, rich and poor, men and women, whether the people were literate or not. We are the strange beings with no poetry in our souls. Finally, I ask him to turn to another art. Would he show the same indifference if an incompetent were to cover the walls of his home with paintings? Would he open his wallet for ugly and awkward furniture? If not, why the carelessness with poetry, with its peculiar power to enter the soul and to form it for good or bad?
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Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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