The poetry of Pope John Paul II.

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March 28 2003 11:45 AM

Paradise on Earth

A close reading of the pope's surprisingly secular poetry.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

If you are eager to read Pope John Paul II's second collection of poems, Roman Triptych, you must do so in Polish or wait hopefully for the forthcoming English, French, Spanish, and Italian translations. The Vatican's Web site —a handsome, oatmeal-colored faux-parchment affair, presided over by sad-eyed Byzantines staring out of mosaics—offers no help. Like any other fan site on the Internet, it has links to a newsletter, upcoming tour dates, even a category devoted to the very "latest" in church affairs, most of which is written in Latin. The only link I had trouble accessing was the FAQ, but surely this must be a problem with my computer, rather than a sign of frigidity on the Vatican's part. In any case, nowhere were poems to be found. Out of luck, I called a Catholic bookstore in my hometown. The store attendant asked me please to repeat the author's name and then nonchalantly put me on hold, only to report that she had failed to find the book on her shelves.

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Until an English edition is published, then, the two short excerpts of the book released in "official" translation will have to suffice. It's hard to get a sense of the pope's poetics, in the broadest sense, but I can say that he seems to favor end-stopped vers libre—surprising, given his investment elsewhere in order and hierarchy. There are biblical cadences, to be sure, but mostly the poems strike the secular-didactic tone of self-help literature. Very little hellfire; what we get instead is mostly "Chicken Soup for the Aging Pontiff's Soul." Still, what I've read of Roman Triptych is rather good, in the way most celebrity poetry is rather good. (I thought Jimmy Carter's poems were expertly turned; Jimmy Stewart's sounded, in places, like the T.S. Eliot of "Burnt Norton.") Celebrities dare to risk sentimentality, a lesson many contemporary poets, with their studied aridities, could learn.

"The Stream," the first poem of the book, is the pope's requisite "nature poem," set, like many poems by Zen icon Gary Snyder, on a vigorous hike. Like most nature poems, it is really about the anxieties occasioned by culture: "What are you saying to me, mountain stream," the pope asks, renewing the Wordsworthian impatience with nature's mumbling, distracted way of speaking. The stream's unintelligibility, its reluctance to speak plain English (or plain French, or Italian, or Polish, since the pope speaks how many umpteen languages?) creates a kind of limit for ordinary speech—and thereby an occasion for wisdom. Ultimately, the failed dialogue between pope and stream is reconfigured as a lesson from stream to pope about perseverance:

If you want to find the source,
You have to go up, against the current,
Tear through, seek, don't give up.
You know it must be somewhere here.
Where are you, source? Where are you, source?

Frost would approve of that "somewhere" and the resulting vertigo: The pope seems to be a kind of Modernist skeptic, rather bearish on the world's knowability.

If Modernism's not your thing, don't give up at "Mountain Stream": Spend a moment with "Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel," the second section of what the pope is calling an epic poem (tripartite, in the manner of Dante's Divine Comedy). It's an ekphrastic poem, like John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"—a poem about a work of visual art. Here, after the clamorous nonsense of the stream, the pope is compelled by the silence of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He meditates starkly on his own mortality, brought into focus by the permanence of Michelangelo's masterpiece:

… the generations pass—
Naked they come into the world and naked they return to Earth
From which they were formed.
"From dust you came, and to dust you shall return";
all that had shape into shapelessness.
What was alive is now dead;
All that was beautiful is now the ugliness of devastation.
And yet I do not altogether die,
What is indestructible in me remains!


Here we get a sense of a writer operating against ultimate and final stakes; in tones reminiscent of late Yeats. And yet—isn't it a little odd for the pope to make such a big deal out of mortality? If I were the pope, I would make absolutely certain I believed in the perfection of the Christian afterlife. But that phrase "the ugliness of devastation" admits a little doubt. It appears the pope is telling us the comforts of heaven seem a little cold compared with the splendors of Earth.

Even from these poems' few lines, we can discern in the pope a decided artiness of self-presentation—a sense of himself as rather exquisitely set apart from the world, like Goethe's Young Werther or Morrissey of the Smiths. And yet the reviews of Roman Triptych I have read have been, it seems to me, sordidly concerned only with whether the volume offers any evidence of the pope's plans to step down due to failing health. The journalistic consensus seems to be no, since the pope speaks of the College of Cardinals convening "after my death" (emphasis mine).

But reviewers may have fallen into the age-old trap of reading literally: The pope, like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson before him, knows that to speak of one's own death is always a form of rhetoric. When Shakespeare says, "No longer mourn for me when I am dead" he means "love me now, or mourn me later." Difficult though it may be to not read the pope's scribblings for scraps of personal revelation, we must remember that poetry tells the truth "slant," as Dickinson put it. What the pope might really be saying about his future plans is impossible to know: He is not, like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, a confessional poet. (And the FAQ is down.)

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