On Moral Poetry

I have encountered an odd (and distressing) attitude among modern/postmodern academia, which maintains that any poetry that moralizes hardly counts as poetry at all—that a “moral” poem is automatically an inferior poem. True poetry, they argue, is about self-expression, and true art is intrinsically an amoral (not to be confused with immoral) affair. And so pernicious is this attitude that I have found otherwise moral persons turn their noses up at poetry which espouses a moral purpose, as if such work belongs only to the nursery, and not among real artists.

 

Where did this view come from? I am sure that it would astonish the ancients, as well as many generations of our own poets in English, including Spenser, Johnson, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Longfellow, Browning, and many others besides. Clearly, the vast majority of literary history has featured poetry written to promote moral good—and not just among Christians, but among pagans as well (according to their own conceptions of moral good). Plato declared that Truth was Beautiful; and poets for centuries have written with that idea in mind.

 

So again, where did this conception come from? It may sound stodgy to say so, but I can only see it as coming from rebellion. Certain people, “postmodern” in philosophy, decided that they didn’t like the morality expressed in traditional poetry, and in a sort of literary coup redefined poetry to exclude what they didn’t like. Astonishingly, it wasn’t too hard to redefine poetry in this way, since poetry had already been redefined structurally (first accepting, and then preferring, “free verse” over traditional meter). Of course the entire redefinition is hypocritical, for while such writers and teachers of writing reject “moral” poetry, their own work will still promote their own values, both critical and aesthetic. Meaning that their problem isn’t with poetry being written to promote a moral (or ideological) purpose, but only with poetry written to promote a traditionally moral purpose, which they don’t like.

 

Baloney.

 

But its pervasive, still. And, alas, destructive—both to personal and aesthetic sensibility. For a reader so tainted by this philosophy approaches a poem that celebrates the Beautiful, and feels required to reject it. “Oh,” the deadened senses murmur, “it’s about God (or Goodness). Hardly interesting.” Then the poor uninspired (and un-inspire-able) sot goes off to read about sex and destruction.

 

Now I really am sounding stodgy.

 

Well, my challenge is to write poetry so well that people can once again enjoy poetry that affirms Truth, celebrates Beauty, and spurs people on to love and good deeds. Sometimes I am successful; others not so much. And often, a poem gets a mixed response.

 

I once wrote a poem while thinking of a man who felt that his life was wasted because he had not done anything “great.” But I saw that he had done an excellent job raising his family, and helping his neighbors, and ministering to those in need. That seemed to me to be a pretty great accomplishment, even if the history books would never take notice—and I wanted to celebrate that, and encourage the man for his labor. So I wrote a poem that began invoking “great” images, and concluded with a picture of the man…

 

When people hear it, they tend to get excited at the beginning. Then at the end—some approve, some are disappointed. Well, you may like it or not—but it’s poetry either way: it’s not like it started as a poem, and then stopped being a poem in the last stanza. Maybe it’s a well-written poem, and maybe it’s poorly-written; but you’re judgment of that should be entirely separate from whether you agree or not with its content.

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