Words Are Stuff: Poet Scott Cairns

I don’t want to just complain about my upbringing, because I learned a lot – I learned the love of God from those people – but there was a suspicion about the physical body and stuff, the earth, a sense that the body is expendable and the earth is expendable and what matters is what you think about it or what you believe.

Which is just another way of saying that what you do and how you perform and how you engage others may be less important.

I think, as an artist, certainly as a poet, you learn that words are stuff – are things – and that it’s not like you have an idea and then you use words to express the idea.

It’s that you actually love words and you pore over words, and you put strings of words together and they lead you to ideas. It’s like the act of making leads you into what to make of it in terms of idea, and so a kind of primary attention to stuff – the stuff of language.

I suppose if I were a painter, it would be stuff of pigment; if I were a sculptor, it would be stuff of wood or metal or clay. Artists fall in love with the stuff, and that becomes a way of knowing, rather than ways of saying what you know.

I find in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church it’s very bodily present – one brings himself or herself fully to the space. The air is filled with incense; the iconography is everywhere; our bodies kneel, prostrate. We kiss things. We kiss each other.

There’s a very tactile, visual, scent-centered sensuous engagement with worship, and then it becomes worship, and not just talk of worship or ideas about worship.

You find yourself worshipping, and that teaches you who it is you’re worshipping in a way that talking about it never could. The practice of poetry prepared me for the practice, I think, of Orthodox worship.

The life of worship itself, the life of prayer itself, the life of making poems – these are endless. You can kind of get a glimpse of that or a taste of that endlessness once you realize that it’s stuff that you can endlessly work over. It’s stuff that endlessly works over you. We become shaped by the liturgy.

From an interview in “Faith & Leadership

“Those who imitate, imitate agents who must be either admirable or inferior. (Character almost always corresponds to just these two categories, since everyone is differentiated in character by defect or excellence.) Alternatively they must be better people than we are, or worse, or of the same sort…Homer imitates better people; Cleophon, people similar to us; Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse people. The very same difference distinguishes tragedy and comedy from each other; the latter aims to imitate people worse than our contemporaries, the former better.” – Aristotle, Poetics.

In Ryan Culwell’s song “The Ballad of Charlie Waters”, he depicts two lovers on the lam for a murder. Or murders. The unrepentant Charlie Waters narrates the flight, finally landing in prison expecting to die there. (This, of course, has all the markings of a comedy. :))

The song’s plot isn’t new. It’s been explored in song by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and in film by Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, and more recently by David Lowery. At the heart of each of these versions is an actual true story with real teen-aged serial killers, which probably means that every generation produces similar crimes. It’s tempting to say that all these versions portray people worse than our contemporaries, but I’m not sure. Springsteen is known as an Everyman songwriter, generally placing him in the company of Cleophon who portrayed people similar to us.

Mr. Culwell maintains that the song is in fact a love song. But it’s not a tragic Romeo and Juliet teenage love. They may have been foolish, but they were certainly better people than their contemporaries. The scariest part of a song like “The Ballad of Charlie Waters” is that the characters are of the same fabric as most of us. Not that most of us are murderers, but that most of us love things that eventually harm us or people around us.

In the end, I’m not sure I buy Aristotle’s distinctions in morality (or defects and excellence). I think we’re all on the same level, and I think Culwell’s song finds that note.

There was in the world one who had an expectation, time passed, the evening drew nigh, he was not paltry enough to have forgotten his expectation, therefore he too shall not be forgotten. Then he sorrowed. And sorrow did not deceive him as life had done, it did for him all it could, in the sweetness of sorrow he possessed his delusive expectation. It is human to sorrow, human to sorrow with them that sorrow, but it is greater to believe, more blessed to contemplate the believer. There is no song of Lamentations by Abraham…

Soren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. (Chapter 1, A Panegyric Upon Abraham).

There is no song of Lamentations by Abraham. That is surely worth contemplating.

For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.

Daniel Mendelsohn (via ayjay)

This is also the difference between good guitar players and just awful virtuosos.



Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Berkeley, 1968

—Czeslaw Milosz