When Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became a best seller in 2002, the New York Times Book Review put it on the fiction list. As a onetime book review editor, I would have put it on the nonfiction list. The fiction/nonfiction division—as a habit of thought, not just as a sales tool—has always seemed to me to perpetrate a wrong upon poetry. But a poetry/nonpoetry (or poetry/prose) division would perpetrate a similar wrong upon fiction, would it not?

The division I prefer, the one that corresponds best to my own mental taxonomy, is one used in Italian bestseller lists: narrativa and—from saggio, the Italian word for essay—saggistica. Saggistica names the vastness of non-narrative writing positively rather than negatively, and positively indeed if we recall that etymologically the core notion in the word essay is that of effort and out-doing (ex-agere). Happily, to my way of thinking, poetry can go on either side of the narrativa/saggistica divide. Moreover, the poetic entries on the saggistica side far outnumber those on the narrativa side, and I am generally glad they do. This gladness, not best seller lists, is my real subject.

Narrative poetry is still written. Vikram Seth, a great verbal trickster, managed it playfully at book length in The Golden Gate. Derek Walcott achieves a graver grandeur in Omeros. But most of the time when American poets employ narrative as a technique, they do so to an essayistic point. Their characters are rarely made up. The stories they tell arrive in the context of emotionally charged, compressed confidings in which they urge you—there is so often a note of urgency about it—to learn what they have learned by giving you themselves at the moment of breakthrough. Is this lyric poetry? I call it didactic, but I embrace it.

For those who hated school, didactic anything is a crabbed and desiccated version of what that thing ought rightly to be. I plead, against that assumption, that learning can be a peak emotional experience—both the straining forward and the moment of arrival—and never more so than in the company of a teacher who passionately wants you to get it, which is a bit different from just wanting to say it.

And this thought brings me to a wonderful test case: Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism, a work that Matthew Arnold witheringly dismissed as "a classic of our prose." Did Pope title his work An Essay on Criticism because he himself regarded it as prosaic thoughts merely tricked into rhyming couplets? I doubt it. Lyric it is not, but neither is it in the least prosaic. It is both truly an essay and truly a great poem, its author alive within it in a way that has lately touched me unexpectedly.

Last spring I wrote an essay for a conference on art and culture held in Amsterdam by the Nexus Institute. The assumption of the conference was that art had replaced religion, spiritually, at least to a great extent, once religion had been undermined by science. The classics had come to do what the Bible once did. But what happens to a culture that has made such a move and then becomes a kitsch culture, trashing its art and forgetting its classics? Does its post-religious condition then become pre-religious? I was invited to address this question—the question of kitsch, culture, and religion—because my work, especially in God: A Biography, has sought to define the Bible as the oldest classic of the West rather than only as the textual anchor of church and synagogue.

My argument in the Nexus Institute essay was laborious, but labor—and exhaustion—eventually became the point. If the difference between art and kitsch, the authentic and the inauthentic, is essentially the difference between autonomy and heteronomy, then, yes, all religions would seem to be heteronomous—effectively, kitsch—inasmuch as all obey some kind of revelation from on high. But can we imagine an authentic kind of worship, one that would be possible for those who wished only to accept what science knows, not compete with it on behalf of some higher, revealed knowledge? This question led to the observation that scientific investigation and human knowledge describe together an asymptotic curve of divergence: the more we know, the greater, quite literally, is our ignorance, and our species will go extinct before this condition yields to any other. How are we to respond to the staggering knowledge-of-our-ignorance that our knowledge-of-our-knowledge brings with it? Do we undertake further scientific investigation leading endlessly to further enlargement of our ignorance? Do we add one more poem, one more essay to the next collection? Or do we, once a week perhaps, defeated by our own victory, shut up and stand still for an hour in grief and wonder? Would that be worship? Would it be a new religious beginning?

Enter now Alexander Pope:

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

The blend of exhaustion and exaltation, defeat and release, in the conjunction of "tires our wandering eyes" and "Alps on Alps arise" is, for me, both didactic and ecstatic. Learning and emotion are never mutually exclusive, but in the physical, ear-born reaction I have to that conjunction the two come to simultaneous climax. Pope, teaching with passion, is palpably, experientially alive in his great didactic poem even before one stops to reflect, if one ever does, that his splendid mind was trapped in a grotesquely stunted body that could never climb an Alp.

Simultaneous orgasm is X.J. Kennedy's arresting image for what form can do when it works to perfection; but though I borrow the image, I do not mean to write a brief for the rhyming couplet. I confess that I found it exhilarating, after completing my essay, to come upon the passage in Pope just quoted and to discover once again that, as Freud said of his own work, "the poets were here before me." Yet I find the double breakthrough of which I speak above in many contemporary poets who are, otherwise, most unlike Pope. Far from eccentric, ambition in that direction—the desire to convey a conceptual breakthrough of some sort with its full emotional force—is almost paradigmatic and may be achieved in formally quite different ways. As a poetry layman, a guy in one of the back pews, not the guy in the pulpit, I'm glad about that. Poesia saggistica—thus do I name the hope that still brings me through the portals.
Originally Published: November 20th, 2007

Jack Miles is a fellow in religion and international affairs with the Pacific Council, a MacArthur Fellow, and a distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California Irvine. His book God: A Biography was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize.

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  1. October 5, 2013
     salem djembe

    I am interested in poetry as nonfiction. There is a certain calamity in denying all forms of truth. If truth is to be told exactly as it happened, does the vehicle in which that truth is written set the stage for failure or success based on the piece itself, or the persons reviewing it? I appreciated this article very much. It gives me great hope.