JULY 27, 2021
The poet Mark Jarman’s collection of prose, Dailiness (Paul Dry Books), contains an essay on the epic of Gilgamesh, one on Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid, Book VI, and one on George Herbert, to whom Jarman refers as “Father Herbert.” Most of the pieces, however, address methods and devices: there is an essay on metaphor, and one on repetition, and one, very useful, on writing as a daily practice. Another concerns “a pronoun’s life in poetry” (that pronoun is the word “something”). In each, Jarman displays much erudition, much insight into the practice of others, but foregrounds his own ars poetica, which includes the finding of pattern in one’s life as well as in one’s art:
I am trying to avoid bromides and platitudes and to speak from my own experience of desiring at all times, especially in extremity, simply a return to a daily sense of things. The importance of daily life as the location of my work as a poet is something I can’t deny.
Long associated with the New Narrative and the New Formalist movements, Jarman is now 69 and a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt. Theologically inclined and biblically informed, he is all about significance, and the tool he brings to his pursuit of meaning is the gift of his attention. In a time like ours, when so much poetry seems chaotic and inaccessible, Jarman’s devoted pursuit of meaning in the world, his search for miracles amid common secular idolatries, are enough to rekindle a reader’s optimism. That seems to be his intent; in his own words, “poetry celebrates being alive.”
Jarman is a virtuoso of the sonnet. Sonnets, in the hands of Petrarch, Sidney, and Shakespeare, are “little songs” about human eros within a tight but flexible 14-line container. The Metaphysicals, however — especially John Donne and George Herbert — employed the sonnet to engage with the call to holiness. In Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets (1994), he interacts with Donne and with the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins, taking on the possibility of an absent God whom no amount of prayer can conjure. Jarman’s religion is not euphoric: the act of living attentively, every day, involves silence and disappointment as well as affirmative discovery. In “Unholy Sonnet #9,” Jarman depicts an airplane in the process of crashing earthward as well as windows shattering on Kristallnacht. Though everyone in both situations is praying, human prayer fails and strikes “the blank face of the earth.”
One recurrent message of Jarman’s new book suggests that the apparent silence of God can be broken when we acknowledge that God gives us creation and a daily life, and we respond. It is no novel discovery that tasteful atheism dominates our contemporary thoughtscape. Nor yet is it novel to find expressions of the divine difficult to read. Jarman recognizes that difficulty.
Speaking at Yale Divinity School, the poet Christian Wiman construed the story in the gospel of John, wherein a crowd brings before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. They ask Jesus to decide whether she should be put to death by stoning, as stipulated in Jewish law, or by the Roman method, potentially marking Jesus as a heretical Jew. Now for a divine pause: instead of speaking, Jesus — a famous orator — falls silent and crouches down and writes in the sand with his finger. This must have been maddening for the assembly. Then, Jesus stands and delivers his famous directive, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he squats down again and resumes writing in the sand. Since that moment thousands of years ago, everyone has wondered what on earth he was writing. His silence is hauntingly familiar to those who, like Mark Jarman, seek the presence of God.
Me, I read the silence as intentional. This is not a God who rushes to give an answer. The pause is essential. This hovering effect also characterizes Jarman’s thought. His opus, and these newly collected essays, accommodate the imperfection of the partially answered question, of the process, of imperfect humanity. In his collection Questions for Ecclesiastes, he includes a poem called “Dressing My Daughters,” about his two little girls getting ready for church:
Not like puppets or those doll-saints
That bring tears to true believers,
But living children, somebody’s real daughters,
They do become more real.
They say, “Stop it!” and “Give it back!”
And “I don’t want to!” They’ll kiss
A doll’s hard features, whispering,
“I’m sorry.” […]
Questions for Ecclesiastes attracted much critical acclaim. Ecclesiastes is the book in the Bible which philosophically confronts the “vanity of vanities” — emptiness, futility, fatuousness. Poets, with their hours of leisure and the amorphous challenge of the blank page, are no strangers to the existential threat of emptiness. But Ecclesiastes also asserts that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Here Jarman steps up. Theology may concern itself with heaven; poetry turns to the the seasons of earth, even with their undertow of vanity.
The meat and drink of these essays are served in the sweet resonance between Jarman’s sense of the world and the work of his fellow poets. In his essay on metaphor, “To Make the Final Unity,” in which he describes metaphor as a vehicle of atonement, he cites a host of his contemporaries and predecessors: Matthew Arnold, W. S. Merwin, James Dickey, Philip Levine, Denise Levertov, Randall Jarrell, Robert Bly, Michelle Boisseau, Archibald MacLeish, Chase Twichell, Robert Frost, Dennis Sampson, and Weldon Kees. He also refers to Jesus as a very great poet, whose parables are metaphors.
The title essay, “Dailiness,” is subtitled “Craft Lecture for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.” In it, Jarman writes, “Dailiness is being at the desk daily.” He recounts how Robert Frost stayed up all through one summer night to work effortfully on a long poem. Then, at dawn, Frost dropped the drudgery and picked up a fresh piece of paper and wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in one draft. He tells this story, I think, to suggest that, like daily life, “writing is a deliberate practice […] which inevitably includes surprises.” Jarman includes in this craft lecture Philip Larkin’s poem, “Days”:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
In almost every essay in Dailiness, Jarman returns to themes that form a pattern of their own: first, that in the poet’s craft, as in the Judeo-Christian creation story, “the making happens day by day”; and second, that moments of silence and uncertainty are essential (“certainty kills a poem”). Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us — as the son of a Presbyterian minister whose Calvinist credo included such beautiful concepts as unconditional election and irresistible grace, our poet-critic connects to God the way Melville connected to the ocean.
In this gratifying new book of prose, Jarman accomplishes what the mother in his poem “Praying” does, washing the breakfast dishes by morning light:
She’s praying as she does this, as she soaks
A sponge with liquid soap and looks outside,
Handling the chore, scrubbing the hardened yolks
And coffee stains […]
On page after page, Jarman takes quotidian diurnal light and transforms it into solar energy.
Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).