“Are you interested in painting, sir?” asks the cheerful curator of the modern art museum.
“No, not me,” says the detective. He passes his hand across his rumpled hair. “Now, Mrs. Columbo, she’s different. That woman is into everything. She does a little painting herself.”
“Oh, yeah, all the time. She buys these kits where you put the color in according to the numbers—you’ve seen them? They actually come out pretty good.”
I like the joke there on modern painting, which to my eye sometimes looks as if the artist could have used a few numbers here or there. But because I have spent all my adult life studying and teaching poetry, from Homer to Robert Frost, I want to cry out to people who try their hands at it, “Please, please, study the masters! Don’t embarrass yourselves! It’s a lot harder than you think.” Indeed, my next book will be on the poetry of Christian hymns; I wish to show ordinary people who attend Mass and who want to lift their hearts in song just how rich the best of those poems are. I want to turn their attention to the artistry, both linguistic and theological. I’d like to be their guide, so to speak, saying, “Look over here—see what he’s done! Isn’t that stupendous?”
We do have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart. Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.
So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?
Sometimes the very titles of the lyrics give them away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let me give some examples from a recent publication:
Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t know—check his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall can be breached; you breach it by breaking it. But you can’t break a border; you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?
Creator of the Intertwined. Ugh. It’s an awkward word, and it calls up a confusing image. Something that is intertwined is either tangled up in knots, or knitted up in a kind of mesh. How can anyone sing that line without asking, “What is that supposed to mean?” The rest of the poem is worse. “Teach us to cherish what is strange,” instructs one of the lines, and the specter of a vampire rises to my mind, or a weird green liquid trickling from beneath the floor. “That sure is strange,” says the janitor. “Well, you better go and cherish it,” says his boss.
How Shocking Were the People. This one is actually all right, once it continues. The title refers to the sinners with whom Jesus broke bread. But that first line won’t do. People are not shocking, in English. A social situation might be shocking, to some upper-class lady wearing a pince-nez. As it is, the line begs for parody:
How shocking were the people
Who grasped the final rail!
Their eyes lit up with wonder,
Their knees began to fail.
God, Whose Farm is All Creation. Making us—what? Domesticated cattle? Are we aphids to His anthill? I suggest the following alternative:
Old Jehovah had a farm,
And on this farm there was a snake,
With a hiss hiss here and a hiss hiss there,
Here a hiss, there a hiss, everywhere a hiss hiss,
Old Jehovah had a farm,
God, whose barnyard is the earth,
Bringing piglets unto birth,
Free us piglets from our sty
And make us all to heaven fly.
Christ, Be in Your Senses. Well, he’d better be in his senses. If he’s not in his senses, we’re all in trouble. Oh—he’s supposed to be in my senses? Like a feather tickling across my neck? Not in English.
Crashing Waters at Creation. All right, I have no idea what is going on. What are these waters supposed to be crashing against? Is there a beach, or a dike, or a bridge? The rest of the first verse looks like wreckage after a semantic flood:
Crashing waters at creation,
Ordered by the Spirit’s breath,
First to witness day’s beginning—
From the brightness of night’s death.
I dunno, Jethro, but it do seem there’s nary a verb in that there sentence. But there sure are some metaphors, all mixed up in a creative possum stew. Theological possum stew, too: how could night “die,” brightly or otherwise, when there was no night at all?
Amen to the Body of Christ. Pat and Mike are sauntering down the street. “Hey,” says Pat, “why don’t we duck into St. Mary’s there and get us some Eucharist?”
“Amen to that!” says Mike.
It isn’t as if the opening refrain gets much better:
Amen to the Body of Christ we receive,
bread for the fullness of life.
Amen to the Body of Christ we become,
bread for the life of the world.
A bit of self-celebration, that. I am a member of the body of Christ, but I am certainly not the Eucharistic bread. You eat my flesh and drink my blood, pal, and you’re paying a visit to the emergency room.
A Woman Knelt Where Jesus Sat to Eat. After they bumped and the food spilled on the floor, Simon the Levite said to himself, “Had he been a true prophet, he’d have known that seat was taken.” The rest of the poem is all right, except for the truly awful line, “While skeptics scorned her prior life of sin.” They weren’t skeptics; that wasn’t their trouble. “Prior” is redundant. The whole line clunks. It’s hard to sing clunks.
The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ. I am lying on my deathbed, and my wife asks me, “Honey, would you like to listen to some music?”
“Yes, I’d like to listen to a hymn. How about The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ?”
“Oh, that one always gets me, right here.”
“Yeah. Then after that one can you play Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit?”
I’m sorry, but a true poet knows that certain words smell of the office, or of a fifty-cent detective novel, and certain meters, like the jaunty 4-3-4-3 ballad meter, are not well suited for certain subjects:
The scheming elders challenged Christ:
“What do you have to say?
We caught her in adultery.
We’ll stone her here today.
Come, teacher, speak! Why hesitate?
We know what Moses said.
The law is clear, her guilt is known,
And she will soon be dead.”
That’s not my parody. Those are the actual words. Try to read them aloud without laughing. “We caught her in a-dul-ter-y! O dainty duck, O dear!”
When Memory Fades and Recognition Falters. I’ve cheated a little there, giving as the title the whole first line. When cognitive functions grow hazy … The bad choice of the diagnostic “recognition” is followed throughout the poem by misused words. “Speak to our souls of love that never alters,” the verse continues, and we know why alters is chosen: it rhymes with falters. But it makes no sense. God’s love is the most altering thing in the world: it makes us new. To alter is to bring about change in something or someone else. The writer wanted an intransitive verb, but used the transitive instead, which here is impossible.
“You used to be a lover of Dickens. What happened?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, I see.”
The second verse begins, “As frailness grows,” and at that my patientness is gone. Well, at least it isn’t feeblety that’s growing.
Faith Begins by Letting Go. “That’s what I do every day,” said Doogie, leaning back against the wharf and sending a spume of cannabis smoke to the morning sky. “I just let go.”
“Let go and let God,” said Brandy.
“That’s deep,” said Doogie. “Did you read that in The Prophet?”
Banned and Banished by Their Neighbors. “Mr. Aligheri, you are hereby banished from the city of Florence, on pain of death.”
“Yes indeed, and banned too. Keep that in mind.”
When We Must Bear Persistent Pain. For a contemporary hymn lasting more than four stanzas, please contact your doctor immediately.
God, in the Planning. The title of this marriage hymn evidently comes from a newspaper clipping: “Mayor Jehovah, superintendent of public works in the municipality of Eden, has designated Mr. Adam and Miss Eve, soon to be bridegroom and bride, as chief overseers of the garden.”
This Is a Miracle-Moment. No, no, I can’t go on! Please, Lord, please make it stop! Make them read a real poem, at least once! Please, please—I read hundreds of college essays every year! I’m even stuck reading a newspaper now and again. And there are television commercials when I go to the airport! And magazines in the doctor’s office! Please—let me enjoy the beauty of a poem or a song in church, if nowhere else!
This essay first appeared July 5, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.