The Best Mormon Poem Ever Written

December 12, 2007 | 75 comments
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According to Eugene England, this is the best Mormon poem ever written:

To a Dying Girl

How quickly must she go?
She calls dark swans from mirrors everywhere:
From halls and porticos, from pools of air.
How quickly must she know?
They wander through the fathoms of her eye,
Waning southerly until their cry
Is gone where she must go.
How quickly does the cloudfire streak the sky,
Tremble on the peaks, then cool and die?
She moves like evening into night,
Forgetful as swans forget their flight
Or spring the fragile snow,
So quickly she must go.

-Clinton F. Larson

Why do you think England made the judgment he did?

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75 Responses to The Best Mormon Poem Ever Written

  1. David Clark on December 12, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    What constitutes a Mormon poem? Written by a Mormon? Published in an LDS themed journal? Has Mormon themes? Was the poem baptized somehow? I am trying to be respectful Nate, but I am having trouble with the concept of a “Mormon” poem. Are we taking the “Mormon” stuff a bit too far?

    I like the poem, the structure is quite nice as the main idea is repeated at lines 1, 7, 13 while the rich visual imagery fills out 2-6 and 8-12. The fantasy imagery in 2-6 parallels and complements the nature imagery in 8-12. The poem paints a very vivid picture which an artist or musician (say Debussy) could have a field day with. If I have one critique it is that the rhyme scheme seems a bit forced.

  2. Matt W. on December 12, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    hmm, 4 requirements of a great american poem?

    1. It rhymes, but without sounding like a halmark card or britainy spears song. (It’s a sad commentary that poetry has to rhyme to be considered good, but true)
    2. It’s short (perhaps also a sad commentary, but true in these modern days)
    3. It conjures some very powerful and compelling imagery
    4. It stirs that ineffable thing inside.

    It does do all four of the above.

  3. Nate Oman on December 12, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    The poem is by a Mormon and appeared in an anthology of Mormon poetry and was labelled by a Mormon scholar of literature as a “Mormon poem.” I call it a “Mormon poem” on this basis. I don’t, however, have any more substantive argument as to why this is a Mormon poem, although I can imagine that one might be made.

  4. Nehringk on December 12, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    A few quibbles: The title is “To a Dying Girl,” but the poem is not addressed to her. Aaarrgghh!!! Does “temble” appear in the original, or is that a typo for “tremble?” And I agree with David Clark (#1) — in what sense did England characterize this as a “Mormon poem?” Still, to read the poem was a pleasant diversion (although I guess I would expect “the greatest Mormon poem,”
    or as Comic Book Guy might say, “greatest Mormon poem EVER,” to provide more than that…) Thanks, Nate.

  5. William Morris on December 12, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Clinton F. Larson has a thing for porticos.

  6. Jim Cobabe on December 12, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    “Mormon Poem (TM)”

    You may read this poem for Church and personal, non-commerical use and share it with your friends.

    Any other reproduction, transmission, distribution, performance, or broadcast of this content, by any means, without the prior written consent of Intellectual Reserve, Inc. (IRI), is strictly prohibited.

  7. William Morris on December 12, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Eugene England was wrong. Clinton F. Larson may be the greatest Mormon poet (so far). But this isn’t the greatest Mormon poem ever. To be honest, I have no idea what poem is. There has been a lot of poetry published in Sunstone and Dialogue that I haven’t read.

    Lance Larsen’s “Passing the Sacrament at Eastgate Nursing Home” isn’t the greatest Mormon poem either, but it’s much more interesting to me as Mormon literature. Of course, Richard Cracroft called it a “competent, earth-bound (non-Mormon) poem.” I bring it up because it is an earth-bound contrast to “To a Dying Girl” and one that feels more Mormon to me.

    Harvest, the anthology that Nate refers to in #3, is incredibly uneven (and focuses, imo, a little too much on the renegades. Some of them are great poets, but I’d prefer more stuff that gets into the souls of the faithful LDS). I’d love to see an updated version or an anthology of newer talent, but that doesn’t seem likely.

    Tangent: I wrote my first piece of actually decent literary criticism for a class taught by the ex-wife of one of May Swenson’s sons.

    Last second addition: One of Dennis Clarks’ poems (the name escapes me) may be the best Mormon poem so far. I’m trying to remember which one and where I read it.

  8. Ardis Parshall on December 12, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    I don’t know why he made that judgment, Nate. I’ve read it several times now over the past few hours — at first it struck me as having some great images, but the more I read it the more I think it doesn’t say anything at all, Mormon or otherwise. It’s words that sound impressive, but that don’t mean much, IMO. Not that I like setting myself up in opposition to Gene England on something like this, but — huh?

  9. Kevinf on December 12, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    I remember reading this poem in England’s anthology, and liked it then I have liked much of Clinton Larson’s other poetry as well, but to say it’s the greatest Mormon poem ever? I would have to reread a bunch to make that distinction. That being said, the imagery is powerful to me, and the emotion is right there on the surface. I however, can remember a couple of other poems, titles and authors escaping me, that I think are also as good.

    I seem to recall a David Clark, Mormon Poet. Is that you, David?

  10. Kevinf on December 12, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Ah, Dennis Clark. Close, but no David. William, the poem I am thinking of, I believe by Clark, ends with a line something like “If God is Light, I want to be like him”.

    Unfortunately, I do not keep anthologies of poetry here at work, so I’d have to dig it out tonight.

  11. mlu on December 12, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    The best ever? It brought Thoreau’s observation to mind: “The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically.”

    It makes me wonder more about England than about this poem, what in his mind was “rhyming” with what he read there.

    I don’t know about greatness, but it’s a very good poem. Evoking, for me, a vision of the fundamental nature of matter and being forming through the prism of a personality into beautiful evocations of power, passing with poignant quickness not into nothing but into something more vast and meaningful than can yet be seen. . .which is falteringly vague compared to the poem’s rendering.

    It does what I think all great literature does: provides a glimpse of a transcendent reality which gives this existence its only meaning.

  12. Patricia Karamesines on December 12, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    #5 William: “Clinton F. Larson has a thing for porticos.”

    That’s because his doorways are all baroque.

  13. Joe Done on December 12, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    #12 Patricia,
    Is that a pun?
    Joe

  14. William Morris on December 12, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Patricia:

    ROFLOLO.
    ——–

    This poem doesn’t do much for me, but Larson’s “The Mantle of the Prophet,” however, is the closest thing to a Mormon literary canon shoe-in we have. Too bad it’s not performed more often (although it’s easy to see why it isn’t).

    —–
    Kevin: You mean you don’t carry your Mormon poetry anthologies in your briefcase? I do*.

    *Okay so I don’t. I do have a collection of Kafka short stories (in German) in my (rather unhip for a) messenger bag. But that’s only because I’m out of speculative fiction to read. And I didn’t crack it open this morning, opting instead to listen to the All Music Considered podcast.

  15. Kevinf on December 12, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    William

    I remember finding somewhere in the bloggernacle that I should read Sumerian Poetry, so I intend to lug that around with me I can find some, but there was something about clay tablets involved……

  16. Ray on December 12, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    I know “serious” scholars shy from extolling the virtue of “popular” poetry, but I think some of the greatest Mormon poetry is contained in the hymn book. “I Stand All Amazed” is one of my favorites – and the profound depths of the doctrine absolutely astound me. (e.g, “confused at the grace that so fully He proffers me” blows me away all by itself.)

  17. smb on December 12, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    I think it’s a touching poem about mortal evanescence and the living of our lives in the paradox of time, cycling seasons, cycling night and day, the migrations of animals, and the migrations of our souls. I think it’s deeply Mormon. I’m not much for rating poems, but I can see where Gene was coming from. We of all people have a fascinating theology of time and its passage (as Phil Barlow is in process of reminding us).

  18. revelets on December 12, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Harold Bloom in his recent collection American Religious Poems includes four poems by May Swenson. I’d nominate two as candidates for greatest Mormon poem: “Question” and “Big-Hipped Nature.”

  19. Mark D. on December 12, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    A Mormon poem really should have something do with LDS doctrine or culture. I can’t tell any such thing about the poem above. Perhaps a great “Mormon-authored” poem, but a Mormon poem I don’t think so.

    I think the best Mormon poems have been made into hymns. I nominate:

    1. The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close by Orson F. Whitney
    2. O Say, What is Truth by John Jacques

  20. bfwebster on December 12, 2007 at 11:54 pm

    Here’s the best Mormon poem I’ve ever read, though from a technical point of view it’s about as hackneyed as you can get:

    Without

    I never knew I was without—
    The richness of my mother’s love
    So wrapped me round about.
    The sifting snow upon my bed,
    The warm shawl tied around my head,
    The clumsy shoes, the awkward dress—
    There was no sense of more or less.
    The well-thumbed books, the Bible’s lore,
    The simple food from frugal store—
    A child can seldom have a choice.
    How rich I was—never without
    My mother’s arms, my father’s voice!

    – Inez George Gridley (The Ensign, August 1972)

    I ran across this poem while I was on my mission in Central America. It helped me understand why so many of the members there — living in poverty unthinkable in the USA — had joy in their lives. ..bruce..

  21. Patricia Karamesines on December 13, 2007 at 12:52 am

    # 13, Joe Done: “Patricia, Is that a pun?”

    Yes, Joe, it’s a silly, nerdy pun, one only another Mo-lit nerd like William would get. Clinton Larson wrote in what he called the baroque style, a highly ornamental, grand (some might say, “grandiloquent”) style marked by high and rather complex diction, rarefied imagery, rhetorical trope heaped upon rhetorical trope and an often authoritative tone. He believed the formality, dignity, and elegance of the baroque style best suited the nature of the Restoration.

    I wrote a poem, a sonnet about his poetry that begins:

    He sought to grow rare orchids up bright air
    On theory they were closer to the sun.
    Such trailing gardens of the blue compare
    To virga with refractions overrun.

    Or something like that. Anyway, he was one of my earliest creative writing teachers at the Y.

    “To a Dying Girl” was anthologized in Harvest but was published in Larson’s and Stafford’s Modern Poetry of Western America in 1975 (Brigham Young University Press). I don’t know how old England’s assessment is. While I really don’t know what would make a “best” Mormon poem and what wouldn’t and I (forgive me) am not much interested in the question, I should hope that some more recent lyrical soul (maybe more), perhaps standing on the shoulders of this imposing fellow, but with maybe a sweeter sense of audience than he had, has written striking and uniquely Mormon verse to satify those who hunger and thirst after it.

  22. Jim F. on December 13, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Patricia, I am still recovering from Clinton Larson’s creative writing classes, but I agree that we “should hope that some more recent lyrical soul (maybe more), perhaps standing on the shoulders of this imposing fellow, but with maybe a sweeter sense of audience than he had has written striking and uniquely Mormon verse to satify those who hunger and thirst after it.”

  23. mlu on December 13, 2007 at 4:17 am

    #22 But alas, the age of great poetry seems over, at least in English. Who even remembers. . .

  24. S.P. Bailey on December 13, 2007 at 4:55 am

    Perhaps England was trying to start a conversation that goes nowhere really—but that stirs up a little interest in poetry by Mormons. You know, like publishers of classic novels who put out their own “controversial” lists of the 100 best novels? It’s fun to argue that your favorite poem or novel is “the best.” But only if you don’t stop long enough to realize that calling a poem or novel “the best” is completely meaningless!

    Or maybe this was England’s subtle yet irreverent way of criticizing the quality of Mormon poetry. “This is as good as it get folks … What did you expect? Dante? Maybe you’ve read Orson Whitney’s Home Literature one too many times!” (My apologies. I respect Larson, but I just don’t love his style.)

  25. Patricia Karamesines on December 13, 2007 at 11:33 am

    # 22, Jim F.–”Patricia, I am still recovering from Clinton Larson’s creative writing classes…”

    Hahaha! I know what you mean, of course–still kinda in the same boat m’self. Maybe there are enough of us around to start a support group! At a fairly recent AML meeting, Larson was up for discussion, and remarks some of his contemporaries made suggest strongly we’re not alone in our shock and awe.

    # 24, S.P.: “(My apologies. I respect Larson, but I just don’t love his style.)”

    I love his style because I loved him (still do). And I can emulate his style to a degree. Believe me, it’s intoxicating business, fiddling with language in that way. Other aspiring poets would learn something valuable should they try to emulate it. I spent years in C.F.L’s tutelage; his influence provided me good grounding, even where I reacted against it. I remember him assigning us to copy Milton’s style and syntax (arguably, Clinton’s style itself displays Miltonic aspirations). I became fascinated with Milton’s amazingly serpentine sentences and practiced them over and over. Which led, I believe, to a moment in a subsequent creative writing class that Leslie Norris taught. Leslie wrote a long sentence from one of my poems on the board and said, “I tell you not to write long sentences in your verse. I tell you again not to do it … unless you can do it like this.” I don’t write poetry like that much anymore (okay, sometimes I do), but believe me, those days inform my every rhetorical effort. I’m glad beyond words for the choices that Clinton’s style and influence opened up to me.

    But I also feel fortunate to have made it out alive.

  26. Nate Oman on December 13, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    “I don’t know how old England’s assessment is.”

    It was made in 1989.

  27. Nate Oman on December 13, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    I don’t know anything about the ins and outs of debates over the possiblity of a Mormon literary style, but I do know that in the 1960s and 1970s there were some folks at BYU who tried to make arguments that Mormonism in the visual arts implied a particular style (as opposed to particular content), and I think that it is safe to say that there ideas have been pretty much ignored. Perhaps Larson was talking with the same folks.

    For myself, I like baroque poetry, poetry that is like a chess puzzle that when you push into it reveals layers and layers of meaning and reference. For sparse elegance, I’ll stick to well-carfted appellate briefs.

  28. Keith on December 13, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    I’m puzzled by England’s judgment here and agree with comments above that there is nothing particularly Mormon about it. I had Gene’s Mormon Literature class and he’d often talk about unique LDS concepts/ideas that might permeate LDS literature and make it distinctly Mormon (emobidment, opposition in all things, etc.). I really don’t see any of those aspects in this poem.

  29. S.P. Bailey on December 13, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    “… layers and layers of meaning and reference. For sparse elegance, I’ll stick to well-carfted appellate briefs.”

    Of course, you can have layers and layers of meaning and reference without resorting to excessively laborious, wordy, and archaic diction and sentence structure. I see Mormonism and the great Mormon heroes (e.g., Joseph Smith) as enemies of pomposity, intentional obscurity, and unapproachability in all forms. Thus, I don’t buy CFL’s apparent claim that Mormon style = “baroque” style. (As a lover of baroque music, I hate to see that term used in this context!)

    And is it really possible to have too much sparse elegance? Well “carfted” briefs are heady stuff, but they are an acquired taste to be sure. My poetry gots to be well “carfted” too!

  30. Nate Oman on December 13, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    “is it really possible to have too much sparse elegance?”

    Most definitely. As for Joseph Smith and Mormonism, it seems to me that the scriptures frequently deal in the teasing and somewhat obscure epigram. To be sure, Nephi glories in plainess, but phrases like “All truth is independent in that sphere in which it is placed” strike me as being at least partially opaque. As a textual matter, the Doctrine & Covenants is permeated by silent references to the Bible, and I assume that one is suppose to read it with these references in mind. (Indeed, the intertextuality of the KJV and the D&C — and to a lesser extent the Book of Mormon — strike me as the strongest argument in favor of its continuing “official” status.) This is not baroque in the sense of mindless Victorian busyness, but it is baroque in the sense of intricate, multilayered, and at time opaque.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to insist on baroque as “the” Mormon style. (I don’t think it is particularlly useful to think about “the” Mormon style.) On the other hand, much as I like a plain style, I reject the implicit accusation of un-Mormoness in your defense.

  31. jrl on December 13, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    I am loving this post, but where can I find these poems online? I don’t have access to many LDS poetry books, and I am not having much success in my searches.

  32. Paul Swenson on December 13, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    In reference to William Morrist comment in #7, May Swenson had no children. The person I believe he refers to as her son is me–her youngest brother. Although she did not consider herself Mormon, May Swenson, acclaimed by several critics as one of the most important American poets of the 20th Century, was influenced in her work by her parents\’ faith, and many of her poems have deep spiritual significance. A book is in progress that probes the spiritual content of her work.

  33. Janet on December 13, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Nate, I’m not surprised that metaphysical poetry might appeal to you. Are you a Donne fan? I love Donne. But Larson has never struck me as very metaphysical, honestly.

    I remember Gene telling us he thought this the best poem in Mormon Lit and disagreeing. At the moment I can’t find my copy of *Harvest* to copy out any I like better, but I admit to liking Lance Larson’s bit on passing the sacrament better.

    For anyone interested, copies of *Harvest* do pop up on ebay now and then. It’s worth having.

  34. Nate Oman on December 13, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    You can also buy a copy of Harvest for new directly from Signature. After reading Givens’s PP, I ordered a copy and have been enjoying it. My favorite poets are probably Donne and Milton. I also like Blake, Whitman, and Wendell Barry.

  35. Rosalynde Welch on December 14, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    I love this poem. I actually think questions of “best” and “Mormonness” could be interesting and important, but I haven’t been trained in how to make those sorts of discriminations, and I don’t really have any native intuition on how to proceed.

    Patricia, your joke had me laughing out loud. But this poem doesn’t really strike me as “baroque” in form, diction or content. Actually, while I understand “baroque” with reference to music, architecture and visual art, I have a hard time getting a handle on “baroque” as a literary style. What other writers would you classify as baroque? This poem reads to me as restrained, disciplined, stately. I think of baroque as highly Catholic, elaborate, or emotional.

  36. William Morris on December 14, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks, Paul. I must have seriously misunderstood her explanation of her time in Logan and her relationship with the Swenson family. Since I didn’t know *anything* about Mormon poetry at the time and everything came out in dribs and drabs and anecdotes that I didn’t really have context for, it’s no wonder I go things wrong.

    All I know, is that I was warned that, as a Mormon male, I should stay away from her classes because she would tear me to pieces. Of course, we got along famously, and her relationship with Mormonism was much more interesting and complex and informed than I had been led to believe. And the only time I was torn to pieces was when I was (rightly) taken to task for writing a paper that was self-indulgent, shallow and showed a serious lack of effort.

    ————
    “but I haven’t been trained in how to make those sorts of discriminations, and I don’t really have any native intuition on how to proceed.”

    Oh, come on, Rosalynde. You do know about the Internet right? You’ve been a blogger for a couple of years. You should have an innate ability by now to create top 10 lists and argue vociferously and lengthily over “the best.” ;-P

    ———-
    My copy of “Harvest” was bought at the Deseret Book store in Sacramento. I wonder if any DB stores still carry it.

  37. Patricia Karamesines on December 14, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    # 35, Rosalynde: “But this poem doesn’t really strike me as “baroque” in form, diction or content.”

    This particular CFL poem isn’t baroque. But the baroque style was cental to his artistic ambitions, and, of course, porticos can be baroque in style. And William’s remark about CFL having a thing for the word “portico” is spot on. The word “portico” is one of CFL’s many darlings, and like a lot of his darlings it totters upon obscurity, especially in his more baroque contexts. Don’t have references on hand, sorry — to my knowledge, no Complete Poems of Clinton Foster Larson exists, though I understand his family was in the process of cataloguing for donation or has recently donated stacks and stacks of his unpublished verse to the BYU Library. There’s a project for someone.

    Here’s a quote from “A Conversation With Clinton Larson,” published in Dialogue, Vol. 4, Number 3, Autumn 1969:

    CFL: “It is my purpose in this play to show the close connection between heaven and earth. That is to say, the possibility of using a baroque style — that syle that relates the realities of earth to the realities of heaven — is exciting to me because it seems allied with spiritual truth.”

    Karl Keller quoting Clinton Larson in a review of his first collection of poetry The Lord of Experience (Dialogue, “A Pilgrimage of Awe,” by Karl Keller, Autumn 1978(?)):

    “I intend that the baroque style, in its complexity and verbal richness, should eventually reveal the sinew of intellectual accuracy and proportion, besides spiritual elevation. This insight is, of course, gained through analysis and finally, in the text attaining the the status of a kind of mythic idiom, as occurred, for example, with Thompson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’ and with much of Dylan Thomas’ poetry. I hope this happens, particularly, with such passages as this one, which refers to the Lord:

    ‘They hint the incalculable god
    Whenever they stream
    Whose voice is the whisper and ermine of sand.’”

    From “Sacrament of Terror: Violence in the Poetry of Clinton F. Larson,” by Thomas Swartz (Dialogue, Autumn 1974). In this article,
    Swartz says that Carol Lynn Pearson “is closer to being the Church poet than Larson” because her poetry “reflects the dominant tendencies of the group — an unquestioned optimism, a pragmatism which spurns Larson’s baroque language in favor of the simple and direct, and a capacity to be thrilled by oversimplified solutions, by moral dilemmas resolved in rhyming couplets.”

    From “Digging the Foundation: Making and Reading Mormon Literature,” by Bruce Jorgensen (Dialogue, Winter 1974):

    “Some readers have seen in Larson’s work a tendency toward ‘meaningless violence; but those who question, on this ground, whether Larson’s poems are ‘Mormon’ might do well to reread Sterling McMurrin and Truman Madsen. Behind the oft-noted baroque splendors of Larson’s style works a severe dynamic of Mormon ideas.”

    Here’s a nice passage from Larson’s “Christ the Mariner” demonstrating Clinton’s baroque style:

    Immediacy encumbers me like the willows
    Before the sea, where the milfoil galaxies
    Shimmer across its surface as restoration for sin.

    In his 1978 master’s thesis, “A Survey of Modern Literary Criticism,” Colin Douglas paraphrases CFL as he explains that an art that captures the glory of the Restoration will exhibit all the splendor and energy of the baroque and an art that represents heavenly things will be as full-bodied and sensuously rich as Milton’s.

    Digging around in Harvest more, I finally find the Editor’s Commentary at the back of the book, where on p. 287 appears (another of?) Eugene England’s assessment(s?) of “To a Dying Girl.”

    “… Larson developed, essentially without models or sympathetic peers, a poetry of deep but critical faith, able both to attack and affirm the world, Mormon history, and Mormon faith. And he did all this with great and developing poetic skill as well as the intellectual and emotional power sufficient to energize his formal achievements. A primary example of this is what I consider Larson’s finest poem, ‘To a Dying Girl,’ a perfect jewel of a modern Mormon lyric because it uses subtly varied traditional form to create precise understanding and proper emotional response to an important idea about the tragic claims of mortality in the face of sincere faith in immortality.”

    Sorry to go on like this, but the subject of Clinton and his poetry interests me deeply.

    Ooo, ooo! Found another “portico” reference:

    From CLF’s poem “Advent”:

    But out of the East the breath is fire!
    Who comes with temblor, sound of hurricane?
    Who rages on the portico?
    Who claps his vengeful steel on stone?
    Who comes to dine?

  38. Rosalynde Welch on December 14, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    PGK, a fantastic response, thanks very much. It sounds to me as though CFL developed a rather private meaning of “baroque” for his work, perhaps more philosophical than formal but surely encompassing both.

    That last snippet reminds me of the other Larsen’s—Lance—representation in “Harvest”:

    Light

    A boy comes selling light,
    no badges or letters of introduction,
    just a paper sack of no-name bulbs
    and a story about wanting to visit
    his grandfather in Escondito. All this
    on a morning so yellow that apricot buds,
    tight as fists, threaten to unsmile.
    But I believe him—for two dollars
    I get variable wattage and a sweepstake
    chance at a telescope. And safety.
    I wrap my bulb in cashmere and lock it away.
    For now I’ll use G. E. bulbs.
    But later, on a night when the moon
    wears its blood in a smile
    and the angels of light have been coffined
    and the earth reels through the air
    on the back of a drunken mule,
    I’ll replace the bulb on the porch.
    Then from my front room, I’ll watch,
    like any patient child of the covenant,
    for the destroying angel to pass me by.

    I love that poem too.

  39. Rosalynde Welch on December 14, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Okay, totally off-topic question here: I just re-read the poem I pasted above from the Signature site, and I note that the word “Escondito” is spelled with a “t”. Google tells me this must be a typo—”escondito” doesn’t bring up any promising hits. Can anybody with the paper copy of “Harvest” handy—my books are being reorganized, a holy mess—check and see how it’s spelled there? I’m curious. I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if it was spelled with a “t” there too, but maybe not.

  40. Kevinf on December 14, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Okay, I’ve got to start hauling around my copy of “Harvest” with me. Rosalynde, that poem did more to make my day than anything else that’s happened to me apart from my wife’ s smile this morning. I have a poor memory for poetry,

    Thanks for sharing.

  41. William Morris on December 14, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Kevinf:

    What a coincidence! I have poor poetry for memory.

    ——
    And, yeah, I’m thinking it’s got to be Escondido.

  42. Patricia Karamesines on December 14, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    Yep, “Escondido,” p. 233.

  43. S.P. Bailey on December 14, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Interesting, Patricia. CFL comparing himself to Dylan Thomas does not surprise me at all. And Thomas was a bilious billowing bombastic blowhard. (Yes, dear friends, that is me emulating his style.)

    I apologize again. I like, even love, certain corners of the Thomas oeveur. Heck, I have my multi-disk set of him reading his own works in my truck right now! Alas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a holiday tradition for me and mine.

    But I think both CFL and Thomas display similar excesses: gaudy, dense, and dour diction. (Now I can’t tell if I am channeling Thomas or Elder Maxwell.)

  44. Kevinf on December 14, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    No one’s mentioned R. A. Christmas here. Heck, Geneva Steel even underwrote the publishing of one of his books of poetry! However, as I can’t remember much poetry off the top of my head, I can’t even remember if he had any candidates for the GAMP.

  45. Janet on December 14, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Oh Nate! Do you have a copy of Wendell Berry’s *Sabbaths*? (According to Sam Weller it’s out of print, but I’ve snagged a few as gifts using Alibris). You MUST get one if you don’t already have one. Beauty, beauty, beauty. Especially if you’re fond of trees and find God in wilderness. I quite love Donne, but Berry is my favorite poet ever. And Sabbaths my favorite book of poetry. (Swoons with love for favorite poems). You might find this post and the ensuing discussion and links interesting:http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=1353

  46. Janet on December 14, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    Also, check out *Christianity and Literature* 56.2 (Winter 2007). It’s a special issue on Berry, including an interview (done my my dissertation director who, grumble jealousy grumble, spent a month with Berry on his farm) and a number of previously unpublished “Sabbath” poems. Good stuff.

  47. Janet on December 14, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Ros–you read a poem in RS when we were in the same college ward. I know it’s in *Harvest* but can’t locate my copy. I think it had a bit about Heavenly Father and Mother laughing behind a closed door. I recall quite liking it. Do you know which one it is, or even who it’s by? I’m thinking it may be an Emma Lou Thayne, but am not certain.

  48. Douglas Hunter on December 14, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    “Why do you think England made the judgment he did?”

    Either England does not know all that much about poetry OR being the best Mormon poem is similar to being the best down hill skier in Saudi Arabia.

  49. mlu on December 15, 2007 at 2:18 am

    #45 Wendell Berry continues to write his “sabbath” poems. Here’s one stanza from “Sabbaths 2006″ published this year in Christianity and Literature
    :
    “That’s been an oak tree a long time,”
    said Arthur Rowanberry. How long a time
    we did not know. The oak meant,
    as Art meant, that we were lost
    in time, in which the oak and we had come
    and would go. Nobody knows what
    to make of this. It was as if,
    there in the Sabbath morning light,
    we both were buried or unborn while
    the oak lived, or it would fall
    while we stood. But Art, who had
    the benefit of not too much education,
    not too many days pressed between pages
    or framed in a schoolhouse window,
    is long fallen now, though he stands
    in my memory still as he stood
    in time, or stands in Heaven,
    and a few of his memories remain
    a while as memories of mine. To be
    on horseback with him and free,
    lost in time, found in place, early
    Sunday morning, was plain delight.
    We had ridden over all his farm,
    along field edges, through the woods,
    in search of ripe wild fruit, and found
    none, for all our pains, and yet
    “We didn’t find what we were looking for,”
    said Arthur Rowanberry, pleased,
    “but haven’t we seen some fine country!”

    He was my favorite writer for quite a few years, quite a few years ago. For me, he was an important bridge out of modernism back to other things, without forgetting what modernism had to teach.

  50. Paul Swenson on December 15, 2007 at 2:46 am

    If any of you are writing poetry and are curious about what others around you are turning out, I’m issuing an open invitation to attend our writing group this Sunday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. at the home of Belle Cluff, 2222 So. 2100 East, Salt Lake City. Participants include both Mormons and non-Mormons and have a number of approaches and styles. Two brothers of May Swenson (I’m one of them) who came to poetry late in the game are in the group. Bring some small snack to contribute to the pot luck eats we have before we share. And bring something you’ve written to share if you wish (not required). Welcome!

  51. Paul Swenson on December 15, 2007 at 2:49 am

    By the way, the poetry group participants are both published and unpublished. We’re a pretty diverse group.

  52. m&m on December 15, 2007 at 3:52 am

    I fighting the urge to make a comment and call Eugene England ‘Gene’ just so I can sound as smart, informed, and connected as you people. {grin}

    The poem is ok, but I’m not wowed.

    Janet, I haven’t recovered from having to write an essay for a competition on a Berry something. I suppose I should get some of his stuff to see if I can get over it….

  53. Patricia Karamesines on December 15, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    # 43, S.P.: “CFL comparing himself to Dylan Thomas does not surprise me at all. And Thomas was a bilious billowing bombastic blowhard. (Yes, dear friends, that is me emulating his style.)”

    Heh heh. And yet, Shakespeare’s comic character Dick did not say, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the blowhards.”

    And in honest imitation, you would do better than simply blow raspberries. Right?

    In an above comment, I described Clinton’s spin on the baroque as authoritative. Actually, I would describe his style, as well as other samples I’ve seen of the baroque style, as often collapsing into the imperious. At times, his behavior toward others matched his behavior in his verse. Over the years, I’ve heard many people express irritation with his verse and with his behavior. He was hard on his collegues and he was hard on his students — this I know — and while he had quite the manifesto for developing a baroque “style of his own,” clearly it functioned in part as a way to separate himself from others. Why did he do that? For the same reasons a lot of people who have dealt with painful circumstances find ways to separate themselves from others.

    Clinton Larson died in 1994. He’d suffered one or more heart attacks, but subsequent strokes robbed him of his powers of speech and, I believe, his ability to write verse. One of his former students, a doctor who cared for him at home during that time, pitied him his loss of a good part of the core to his nature, calling Clinton’s predicament
    “ironic.”

    Here’s the whole poem I wrote about Clinton and his verse, playing in his style, framed in a sonnet (he was hot for form, Clinton was, but one might have other reasons for choosing the sonnet form). It was published in Dialogue, Winter 2005.

    The Orchid Grower
    (Clinton F. Larson, 1919-1994)

    He sought to grow rare orchids up bright air
    On theory they were closer to the sun.
    Such trailing gardens of the blue compare
    To virga with refractions overrun.
    And since these curious blossoms manifest
    Some edgeless artifice their vines conceal,
    All fanciers must their clayey stuff divest
    To see what Sol his tropic buds congeal.
    His mazes trellis on the light’s pure ease,
    Where petals, nearly colorless from glare,
    Distill all hours estranged eternities
    That tease the tethered eye’s myopic stare.
    Such speeches of flower to heaven’s plots aspire,
    Bind root twixt worlds and hang exotic fire.

    P. G. Karamesines

    Virga, of course, doesn’t strike the ground, which can be frustrating for people praying for rain. But it can still be a wonder to behold.

  54. William Morris on December 15, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks, Patricia.

  55. S.P. Bailey on December 15, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    “And yet, Shakespeare’s comic character Dick did not say, ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the blowhards.’”

    An off-topic ad-hominem impugning my noble profession disguised in a literary allusion? Well …

    I am not hurt. Resorting to lawyer jokes in a conversation with a lawyer is two steps removed from the reductio ad hitlerium.

    Also, P.G., keep in mind that Shakespeare’s aptly-named character represents the sociopathic rabble that hopes to benefit from anarchy. You want some characters to hate you.

  56. Patricia Karamesines on December 15, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    S. P. “Also, P.G., keep in mind that Shakespeare’s aptly-named character represents the sociopathic rabble that hopes to benefit from anarchy.”

    I did keep it in mind. Ad hominem right back atcha.

  57. Nate Oman on December 15, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    A question for the informed: Is there a collection of essays of criticism on Mormon lit? What are the “big articles” that everyone goes back to. Give me a list, and in return I’ll provide you with the five most important articles on Mormon legal history…

  58. Levi Peterson on December 15, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    I can accept Gene’s assessment of “To a Dying Girl.” I personally admire “Advent” even more. I reject its theology, but I believe many Latter-day Saints accept it. “Advent” says that the Deity who returns at the moment of the Second Coming will not be a kind Savior but a terrible Destroyer.

    Clinton was a model and mentor for me starting with autumn quarter, 1952, when I enrolled in his advanced writing course. His encouragement helped me become an English major. In the name of modern poetry, he made snide comments upon another of my mentors, Parley A. Christensen, whose admiration for poetry stopped with Matthew Arnold in the late Victorian era. There was a considerable division in the English Department over the formalities of traditional prosody and the freedom of modern prosody.

    One reason Clinton liked the baroque tradition in poetry was that, like its immediate predecessor, metaphysical poetry, it played fast and loose with strict traditional prosody. Another is that he did his doctoral dissertation in English Renaissance literature. That reminds me that as a graduate student at BYU, I took a required research and bibliography class from Clinton. Whatever I learned about research and bibliography came strictly through my own efforts. Day after day Clinton filled the class hour by reading (I mean reading) to us from his dissertation. He was a bad teacher in that respect. But I loved him. I cherish his memory still. There was something about him.

    I accept Clinton as the greatest Mormon poet to date. Having said that, I’ll add that the large majority of his poems that I have read, are beyond my ability to understand in the slightest degree. I suspect the great stack of his unpublished poems will prove unreadable.
    He carried the oblique, connotative impulse of his verse into utter incomprehensibility.

    I believe Pattricia Gunter Karamesines could be a true competitor with Clinton if she could find the time to write poetry. If she’ll send Dialogue another poem, we’ll publish it.

  59. William Morris on December 15, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Nate:

    There is Tending the Garden, edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson and Eugene England. It’s okay. I find it disappointing, but part of that may be that I was so excited when I found it (down in the dark, cool stacks of UC Berkeley’s main library) that it had no chance of living up to my expectations.

    The best thing out there is the series of Mormon criticism essays found on Gideon Burton’s Mormon literature Web site. I’d consider them to be the starting point for anyone interested in Mormon criticism.

    The special Mormon lit issue of Dialogue has a couple of interesting attempts at both defining the field and coming up with a Mormon criticism.

    And some of the best stuff is in the AML annuals, which are difficult to find and are way behind in being published. In particular, Gideon Burton has done some interesting work over the past 5-6 years on Mormon film and genre.

    And some really great stuff appeared in the early days of the AML-List when more academics were participating and more formal posting was being done. Sadly, the AML-List archives (both those that were on the weber state server [Benson Parkinson days] and those that were on mission.net) are no longer available.

  60. Patricia Karamesines on December 15, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    # 58, Levi:

    *Choke*

    Me: Compete with Clinton! I’d rather kiss a tarantula.

    Levi: Patricia, you don’t mean that!

    Me: I don’t…! Hey, Joe! Get me a tarantula!

    _________________________

    # 57, Nate: Easy place to start:

    http://mldb.byu.edu/mlithome.htm

    Click on Mormon criticism (naturally), then check out Cracroft’s essay, Jorgensen’s essay, and Burton’s essay.

  61. Patricia Karamesines on December 15, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Oops, I see I repeated William’s advice. Well, there you go.

  62. Russell Arben Fox on December 15, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    The best single analysis of Mormon literature and Mormon literary criticism, as William well knows, is Mike Austin’s “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism as the Present Time.” It’s years old, and its general thesis is very reflective of the literary/PC/identity/culture wars of the 1990s, but its conclusions remain indisputedly true.

  63. William Morris on December 15, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Austin’s essay is the best answer to the question “What is Mormon literature?” And I find his conception of Mormo-Americanism (Mormons as part of the hyphenated cultures) compelling (and borrow from it quite a bit).

    Eugene England’s survey of Mormon literary history shouldn’t be forgotten, though, because as tempting as it is to view it simply as a roundup of titles, he is doing critical work in it.

    However, I think the most interesting articulation of the difficulties yet promises of Mormon literary criticism is Wayne Booth’s essay in Arts and Inspiration. It’s an anthology that’s not as well known as it should be (and that sadly I no longer have easy access to. Back when I lived in the Bay Area I had it checked out from the SF State library for 10 months straight once).

  64. Ardis Parshall on December 15, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I still have my copy of Arts and Inspiration from my school days. If there isn’t an overwhelming demand for it, I can send the essay to those who want it.

  65. Jim Cobabe on December 16, 2007 at 3:31 am

    Do faithful saints have any say in what constitutes the best of this genre? My several attempts at playing with the AML dissident apostate-dominated crowd left me with an ugly aftertaste and little respect for those whose interests and words tend to dominate such forums.

  66. William Morris on December 16, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Jim:

    I think that statement does a great disservice to the AML. Perhaps your reaction is mainly to some of the more vocal members of the AML-List. If that is indeed the case, then you’re missing quite a bit. If that’s not the case, then please explain what you mean.

    I think that, in general, the AML has done well to forge a middle way (that puts it on the conservative edge of literary organizations, but, admittedly, on the liberal edge of the faitfhul Mormon audience). For example, Irreantum has pretty much stuck to Benson Parkinson’s broadly appropriate definition. And I wholeheartedly support that stance.

    I also think that the AML’s track record with its awards is quite good. I can’t say that I’d recommend every single work honored (and a lot of it I haven’t read), but there’s some good stuff there. Works that have literary value, are well-crafted and don’t question the basic beliefs and foundation of the Church (although they may complicate how people live the gospel — but life is messy and literature can help us explore the messy parts).

  67. Ardis Parshall on December 16, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I want to add my support to what William Morris just wrote. I participated on the AML-List for years, and left chiefly because we were beginning the 47th round of “what is Mormon lit” and the 493rd round of “I am an Artist and the church should support Me and My Art.” Some of the heavy posters have a darker outlook on life, the church, and literature than I do, and undeniably one or two of those have left behind doctrines that are essential to me, but overall the group and its conversations are no more “dissident” or “apostate” than, say, the members of your ward who hang out in the hallways rather than go to Gospel Doctrine classes. AML is a good organization, with a list that should be comfortable to faithful Mormons who could take a lit class at BYU without freaking over issues addressed by what most people consider great literature.

  68. Janet on December 17, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    I’m chiming in regarding AML as well. I’m not on the list anymore (no time!) but when I’ve attended the yearly conference I’ve met many faithful saints. Sure, folks are often more open about spiritual struggles there inasmuch as artists tend towards openness regarding that sort of thing, and some participants may not be “iron rod” types, but AML enjoys a lovely diversity and rather–really!–friendly atmosphere in general. I first presented at their conference as a 22 year old, and everyone was kinder than you’d expect from a jello-happy ward social! Give them/us another chance. We might surprise you.

    Ardis and William put my thoughts into words better than I did (stupid sleep deprivation) but, well, strength in numbers?

  69. Kent Larsen on December 18, 2007 at 11:24 am

    #23 (mlu) writes: #22 But alas, the age of great poetry seems over, at least in English. Who even remembers. . .

  70. Kent Larsen on December 18, 2007 at 11:57 am

    #23 (mlu) writes: #22 But alas, the age of great poetry seems over, at least in English. Who even remembers. . .

    Sorry, but I don’t buy this. It may be true that stand alone poetry is out of fashion, but poetry is still a huge part of English-language culture. Its in our music and even in our speech.

    And even the relative decline of stand-alone poetry seems to have been reversed in recent years. We now have poetry slams and a growing interest in poetry, fueled more by rap music than by traditional poetry outlets.

    Unfortunately, Mormon culture is very much behind the curve. We still maintain the few pieces published in each issue of Dialogue and other journals and the bit of poetry in LDS music, but we don’t have anything like rap to drive new interest in poetry.

    Instead, we seem to have limited the venues where we hear poetry. Yes we still have LDS music, but readings are few and far between and published poetry is just the journals and an occasional book. In fact, as far as I can tell, we haven’t had any new volumes of LDS poetry published in 2007. [I do know of one volume in 2006 -- Curses for Your Sake by Javen Tanner. There may have been others, but there wasn't enough for the AML to give a poetry award for 2006 -- I suspect that the AML didn't know about the Tanner volume.]

  71. Kent Larsen on December 18, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    In #36, William wrote: “My copy of “Harvest” was bought at the Deseret Book store in Sacramento. I wonder if any DB stores still carry it.”

    I doubt it. Deseret Book seems very ready to drop older titles, and is particularly inhospitable to Signature Book titles. I heard a rumor that Deseret Book hasn’t purchased anything from Signature for many years. Apparently the quality of the book doesn’t matter nearly as much to Deseret Book as their perception of the publisher.

  72. Ardis Parshall on December 18, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    I heard a rumor that Deseret Book hasn’t purchased anything from Signature for many years

    Not true. True that you won’t find all or even many Signature titles, but they do carry some of the biographies, and some of The Essential [whoever] books, some of the B.H. Roberts reprints, and some of the art books. Probably others I would recognize if I scanned Signature’s book list.

    The main DB, at least, also carries a few of Will Bagley’s Kingdom in the West volumes, both in the series binding and in the paperback versions.

  73. Keller on December 21, 2007 at 9:47 am

    #16 “I Stand All Amazed” was written by the Protestant composer, Charles H. Gabriel. Hat tip to the late Jerald Tanner on that factoid. Leave it to a Protestant to teach Mormons some profound doctrine about grace.

    One could argue that it is a Mormon poem nevertheless, because by far the Google hits refer to Mormon usage of the hymn, but other faiths use it as well. However what appears to be a reworking of the hymn into “I Stand Amazed in His Presence” is quite a bit more popular.

  74. Margaret Young on March 29, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    March 29, 2008:
    I thought of this poem and post today as we joined my husband’s family in a big meal at the Golden Corral. I noticed many families dressed up like they had come from a funeral, or a missionary endowment, or a baptism. There we all were in more casual dress, celebrating a life without saying a thing.
    My husband’s sister is dying. She has been fighting cancer for twelve years now, and it’s clear she will lose the fight soon.
    We talked about everything except cancer. It was the uninvited guest, hovering over every offering of food and beside each person (except those too young to understand.)
    How quickly must she go? How quickly must she know?
    Last week, her ward fasted and prayed for her, and her husband gave her a blessing of healing. In the closing prayer of the special meeting, the stake president remembered the words, “according to Thy will.” But the husband is desperate to show unwavering faith. He urges her to say the words, “Thank you for my healing.”
    She weeps in her father’s arms. She knows.

  75. William Morris on August 21, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    I’m sorry I missed this comment back in March. I ran across this post in a Google search just now while trying to find an essay by Benson Parkinson (that sadly seems to have been misplaced during all the changes to the AML Web site) and decided to re-read the comments.

    How both jarring and yet inspiring to find this late addition. Thanks, Margaret. Quickly — now there’s a word that strikes to the core.