11 February 2010

First Report on the Climacus Conference

As I mentioned last week, I was given the opportunity over the weekend to attend the alluring Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY, in the company of Owen White, the Ochlophobist, and James Kelley, a fellow parishioner of St Benedict’s here in OKC and author of A Realism of Glory, a study of Fr John Romanides (we also had a great time hanging out with Maximus Daniel Greeson, a fellow learned beyond his years). I advertised the conference a bit here, and one can find the full details here. Many of the talks can be heard as podcasts here.

I have to say that with the exception of a couple of the longer Q&A sessions, I definitely enjoyed the conference all along (my thanks to all for their hospitality). I can’t speak for my colleagues, but even when I took issue with the speakers, I had a good time being stimulated by them and I liked them personally. Unfortunately, two of the more scholarly ‘headliners’, Vigen Guroian and George Bebawi, were snowed in and unable to make it (sorry, Fr Mark!). But there was no lack of ‘contemplation of noble ideas’ for that.

David Wright, the conference host, a literature teacher at duPont Manual High School, and a Fellow in Classical Education, the Great Books, and Classical Rhetoric at the CiRCE Institute, spoke about St John Climacus and the Ladder (hear the podcast here). First he discussed the three structural canons of classical rhetoric—inventio, dispositio, and elocutio [1]—and pointed out that they were seen not merely as artificial stages of literary production, but as having a fundamental relationship with reality itself, particularly with human life and moral purpose. According to David, the great thinkers of the past believed rhetoric formed the mind on structure. At this point there was a brief consideration of God’s act of creation interpreted in terms of these three canons, as well as an attempt to relate them to the persons of the Trinity (here some references to the Fathers would have been nice, as a few of us felt that David was on shakier ground, coming rather close to a sort of analogia entis idea). The strongest portion was certainly the analysis of the Ladder in terms of the three canons. Here, David offered the following correlations:

Steps 1-3, broadly speaking, on ‘renunciation’ = inventio

Steps 4-26, on the ‘active life’ = dispositio

Steps 27-30, on union with God = elocutio

But David also emphasised that the ‘steps’ of the Ladder should not be seen as a rigid formula, but as an expression of mystical, experiential truth in a symbolic form rather like poetry. At this point David looked at a few of St John’s uses of figurative language, imagery, and metaphors, continuing the line of comparing the work with poetry, but not thereby divorcing it from rhetorical structure. As one example among several of St John’s poetic language, he quoted Ladder, Step 25, ‘On the destroyer of passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception’:

6. Painstaking repentance, mourning cleansed of all impurity, and holy humility in beginners, are as different and distinct from each other as yeast and flour from bread. By open repentance the soul is broken and refined; it is brought to a certain unity, I will even say a commingling with God, by means of the water of genuine mourning. Then, kindled by the fire of the Lord, blessed humility becomes bread and is made firm without the leaven of pride. Therefore, when this holy three-fold cord ir, rather, heavenly rainbow, unites into one power and activity, it acquires its own effects and properties. And whatever you name as an indication of one of them, is a token also of another. [2]

Interestingly, David argued that when poetry lost its rhyme in the modern era, it also lost its rhetoric, and was thereby torn away from the fabric of reality. All in all, it was a very nice talk to begin the conference, and Lent to boot.

My apologies for not getting to this sooner. This has been a very busy week so far! I’ll try to discuss a few of the other talks as I have time—I had some thoughts on both of Granger’s, both of Maddex’s, on Rosi’s, and on Sabourin’s. Unfortunately, I had to miss the talk on ‘Scripture as an Icon of Christ’ by the very likeable Theron Mathis (with whom I had a great time chatting between and even during some sessions!), but he has graciously sent me the text that he used, and it is also available as a podcast, so I hope to discuss that one as well.

[1] I say ‘the three structural canons’, hoping to distinguish them accurately from the two others of the usual ‘Five Canons’—memoria and actio—which David didn’t mention. While I studied Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a college freshman, it seems it was Quintilian who first elabourated these five canons, and I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of his works to cite.

[2] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 151.


Anonymous said...

I have been looking forward to this post. It is a shame that Vigen Guroian and George Bebawi were unable to make it because of snow. I am sure that the best part of the conference probably took place over a few beers which I am sure would have made for some interesting podcasts.

Joseph Patterson

nothinghypothetical said...

As an attempting/budding poet I'd like to hear more about what he means when he says when poetry lost its rhyme it lost its rhetoric (in this case I assume he means a non-neutral change in virtue).

Does he mean at the same period in history? or does he mean that rhyme is an essential element to the rhetoric of poetry or just poetry prior to that point?

aaronandbrighid said...

Joseph> I hope I haven't disappointed you by only covering David Wright's talk here! I promise, I will make every effort to get to the others, though I may deal with some of them more briefly than this. You're right about the best part of the conference though. Friday night was a blast!

David> Unfortunately Mr Wright didn't comment too much more on this point. As I recall, he did add just one or two more statements to the one I've paraphrased here, but I don't remember exactly what he said. I certainly took him to mean that rhyme is an essential element to the rhetoric of poetry, at least I suppose as it is practiced in the English language (since the poetry of the Psalms is notoriously unrhymed, and the 'poetry' of the Ladder is obviously without rhyme or metre).

I'd recommend first, listening to the podcast (the point about poetry will be at least 2/3 through), and second, getting in touch with Mr Wright himself. He's a friendly guy and I'm sure he'd be happy to offer some more thoughts on the subject!

Justin said...

I have been looking forward to this post as well. Thanks for the update!

Ryan said...

Perhaps by "rhyme" he meant formal qualities of poetry in general, like metre, rhythm, sonics, etc., since plenty of great English poetry was written in blank verse or even a very formal "free verse" (in the KJV). If that's what he meant, I would certainly agree- English poetry is pretty desolate in the 20th century, with a few exceptions. The English Orthodox Church needs poets, but poets who are willing to look back to Shakespeare, Milton,Keats, Blake, some of Yeats, etc. The problem with modern culture is that it has its head up its rear end- earlier cultures, while by no means dismissive of contemporaries, had an active, constant engagement with the ancients. Nowadays, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante are treated primarily as reference texts, and people like Ezra Pound, WCW, etc. are the chief canonical luminaries.

nothinghypothetical said...

I write Walt Whitman-style or KJV-"free verse" to the best of my ability when I do free verse. When meter appears during the composition process then I consider how it could be put to good use (or rhyme and other sonic cues as well). One can try to reach back to the greats, but not be very great at doing so.

In other words, my poetry is weak because I'm not very good; not because I'm not making the effort at honoring the greats.

Ryan said...

I think the KJV-style "free verse" has a place in Orthodox poetry, because most of our hymnography is in fact unmetered "prose poetry." I wouldn't say it's any easier to write than metred poetry.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm sorry I haven't responded again to this thread, guys. I keep hoping David himself will get a chance to chime in. For now, I'll just say a couple of things.

Ryan> I totally agree with your first comment. As for the second one, I would only add that 'unmetered prose poetry' can sound a bit too licentious to modern readers. Although most Orthodox hymnography, like the Psalms, does indeed like much rhyme and metre, I think it is important to emphasise that it is still highly structured and formal. Saints Romanos the Melodist and John of Damascus are a far cry in form (never mind content!) from Walt Whitman.

David> I sympathise with you tremendously. One of the points that I think needs to be emphasised in any modern consideration of genre is Bakhtin's idea that polyglossia has made traditional poetry very hard, if not impossible, to write anymore (although the Welsh, and perhaps other cultures, have maintained a tradition). As readers, I think we need to concentrate on the great, and particularly the ancient poets, but as poets, we simply can't write another Aeneid, or even another 'Ulysses'. We may have lost our rhetoric, but I see very little way out for secular poetry. I think the problem is only really resolved in ecclesiastical poetry.

aaronandbrighid said...

Ryan> That should read 'does indeed LACK much rhyme and metre'!

davidwright2000 said...

I appreciate these insightful comments. I wish I could have been more timely in chiming in! Essentially, by using the word "rhyme" in my talk, I did in fact mean it to stand for the various formal qualities of poetry such as rhyme, meter, structure, and fixed forms such as villanelle, sonnet, sestina, pantoum, etc.
(In a speech, time is limited and spare, non-verbose language is helpful to the audience-- so I couldn't add much detail or explanation.)
Since much of the aforementioned was tossed out in the last century, the full rhetorical power of poetry has been lost. Classical rhetoric embodies structure. Structure honors language, honors truth, honors the order of God's creation.
Aaron and Ryan are very right--great poetry is often unrhymed (the Psalms, blank verse, Orthodox hymns, etc.), but it is still highly formal and structured, adhering and honoring the highest forms of expression. It's not only about end rhyme-- as many, many great poets have not used it; but when they don't, they adhere to other high forms of style and structure.
Now, ironically, I am an old beatnik fan. I read the beats for years while I was at Princeton Seminary and wandering aimlessly through my mid-twenties in liberal Christianity and secularism. The beats spoke volumes to my life at the time. Their deconstructive free form still draws the soul into higher levels of perception-- even while decrying and belittling truth, language, reality, and structure. I suppose this is because when we use words poetically, or use words at all to convey meaning, we inevitably use some kind of form and rhetoric, even if the content contradicts that form.
Anyway, my point here is that I appreciate informal, free-verse to an extent-- with its close relationship to everyday language and pedestrian prose-- it has the ability to quickly hook or resonate with anyone. But it should be used as a steppingstone to formal poetry, whereas in the last century, we decided as a culture make it the endpoint. We simply stopped at the annihilation of form, structure, and beauty.
Now, to Nothinghypothetical: Please continue to write poetry; use free verse in your invention process (to get words out and down), then hone your material in your arrangement stage, adding elements of structure and form (rhyme, meter, diction, alliteration, assonance, etc., etc., etc.!). Then give the poem wings in the elocution stage-- infuse it with wisdom and prayer and let it fly to heaven.
Thank you all for your very insightful comments.