Thick and Dazzling Darkness

Religious Poetry in a Secular Age

Peter O'Leary

Columbia University Press

Thick and Dazzling Darkness

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Pub Date: November 2017

ISBN: 9780231173308

280 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $60.00£49.95

Pub Date: November 2017

ISBN: 9780231545976

280 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $59.99£49.95

Thick and Dazzling Darkness

Religious Poetry in a Secular Age

Peter O'Leary

Columbia University Press

How do poets use language to render the transcendent, often dizzyingly inexpressible nature of the divine? In an age of secularism, does spirituality have a place in modern American poetry? In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, Peter O’Leary reads a diverse set of writers to argue for the existence and importance of religious poetry in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature. He traces a poetic genealogy that begins with Whitman and Dickinson and continues in the work of contemporary writers to illuminate an often obscured but still central spiritual impulse that has shaped the production and imagination of American poetry.

O’Leary presents close and comprehensive readings of the modernist, late-modernist, and postmodern poets Robinson Jeffers, Frank Samperi, and Robert Duncan, as well as the contemporary poets Joseph Donahue, Geoffrey Hill, Fanny Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Pam Rehm, and Lissa Wolsak. Examining how these poets drew on a variety of traditions, including Catholicism, Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, and mysticism, the book considers how modern and contemporary poets have articulated the spiritual in their work. O’Leary also argues that an anxiety of misunderstanding exists in the study and writing of poetry between secular and religious impulses and that the religious nature of poets’ works is too often marginalized or misunderstood. Examining the works of a specific poet in each chapter, O’Leary reveals their complexity and offers a defense of the value and meaning of religious poetry against the grain of a secular society.
Our secular age has turned its back on the irrevocable richness of religious thought, which hovers in highly conscious and unconscious modalities and is brought to life, into new certainties and doubts, in Peter O’Leary’s Thick and Dazzling Darkness. O’Leary’s intensive knowledge of religious and poetry studies serves to make manifest the dark brilliance of his selected poets. The result is a revelatory exegesis of “the divine blazed in words,” “the hidden radiating core” of it. I know of no other critic who moves as decisively and deftly between concept and poetry’s sensuous fold. Jeanne Heuving, author of The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics
Thick and Dazzling Darkness undertakes the daunting task of exploring spirituality (qua poetry) in a way that connects such otherwise dissimilar poets as the self-consciously backward-looking Robinson Jeffers, the peculiarly American modernism of Robert Duncan, and the (at)tendent postmodernism of Fanny Howe and Nathaniel Mackey. O'Leary creates a conceptual fabric through which we can "read" this diverse group of poets—some well-served in scholarly circles, others rapidly falling off the American poetry radar. Given our cultural predicament as Americans, this work could not be more timely. G. C. Waldrep, Bucknell University
Thick and Dazzling Darkness stands as a most powerful expression of the interaction between religion and poetry, crystallized into a series of gorgeously written chapters on a select group of poets and around a single question: "How does one write Christian mystical poetry in a secular culture?” There are so many insights here. O’Leary’s text, like a great poem, shivers and gleams from within, giving to each reader what she or he most needs. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Rice University
Acknowledgments
Introduction: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age
1. A Mystical Theology of Angelic Despair: Writing Religious Poetry and the Trilogy of Frank Samperi
2. Robinson Jeffers, the Man from Whom God Hid Everything
3. Spiritual Osmosis: Absorbing the Influence in Geoffrey Hill’s Later Poetry
4. Prophetic Frustrations: Robert Duncan’s Tribunals
5. What Lies Beneath My Copy of Eternity? Religious Language in the Poetry of Lissa Wolsak
6. Catholics: Reading Fanny Howe
7. Robert Duncan’s Celestial Hierarchy
8. The Long Huthered Hajj: Nathaniel Mackey’s Esotericism
9. Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry
Conclusion: Why Not Be Totally Changed Into Fire?
Permissions
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Peter O’Leary is the author of Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness (2002), as well as several books of poetry, most recently The Sampo (2016), and he is the editor of a new edition of Ronald Johnson’s ARK (2013). He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.