Critics frequently ask the polite question of a poem. They ask how it is written when the rest of us might more radically wonder why. We know school can produce an agreeable how, as can influence, but some crisis in lived experience seems to be required before the poet can summon a convincing why. The reason of the requirement verges on trite. Times change, while the unavoidable anxiety for poet and reader is repeated in each generation and is always the same. Ethically, practically, emotionally: how shall I live? Opinion lags, and only experience can match the anxiety to the times, possibly to resolve them. That is the possibility Rob Crawford has proposed in “Euangelia,” his audacious, spiritually epic poem in five parts, the first two of which are printed here, with the rest of the poem available online.
I was tempted, given the title of the poem, to announce that Crawford has finished the job and we can all relax. Euangelia (you-anJELLia; it’s plural) means good messages, good news, which does seem to promise optimism. The promise must be provisional, however, as it is not entirely borne out by the news that arrives in these first sections of the poem. Here, in generous, metrically intuitive but unfettered lines, the reader will encounter a somewhat ominous mix of aims, admonishments, nourishing loveliness, and “abject reversals” – which, taken in sum, makes a plausible analogue for the ambiguous profile of our time. There is no doubt an excess of pride in the belief that we are uniquely compromised by the time; yet many can imagine with a shudder nonetheless how we will rate in retrospect. “All had espionage in the blood,” observes Crawford in the poem. “And it is sure this can never be repaired!” he later adds.
Of course there is room for praise, in even a dreadful age. “The quail is nesting, and the vibrant jay,” reports Crawford, and the mere sighting of something so joyous can make you feel like kissing the air. Meanwhile, especially if you are young, tugging against your will a coercive debt, and expecting no sinecure (let alone inheritance from the 1 per cent), there is no evasion, no elsewhere, no ethical flinch. Your daily work, as Emerson once advised, is to learn the secret of the time. Never quaint, he identified also an exacting program for learning it. The source of information to unlock the secret of the age, he said, is your love of it.
Defined like that, love is an instrument. As a means of discovery it can account all by itself for the sweeping, restless embrace of Crawford’s poem, each section of which resembles at times a kind of enraptured deposition taken by counsel for the plaintiff spirit. Because the title is plural (the singular is euangelion) these sections can be read as multiple messages; compound evidence may collect in the space of just a few lines or in a single allusion. The poem opens, for example, on a vista of arrival and accumulation as if seen from a promontory, called here West Rock. The actual West Rock is a ridge of Jurassic basalt rising in the outskirts of New Haven, Connecticut, from the south crest of which one can see much of that city including Yale. Famous as the hideout of Puritan regicides, West Rock was the subject of an early work by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church: his breakthrough painting, because it abandoned the usual foreground of trees and rocks in favor of a frontally abrupt expanse. Crawford’s momentary allusion to this particular compound of geology, history, atmosphere, and art would recede if I hadn’t mentioned it, an instance of his setting the scene as life does, in a nonstop if discontinuous sequence of subject rhyme, image, and sound. One can’t live it all. But from the discontinuities we inevitably select markers, for a reason the poem makes perfectly plain: “for one must / Prepare, comprehend where one stands, below the shifting starlight.”
By far the most dramatic of markers to be seen in Crawford’s poem is its sheer prosodic mass, an allusion to the English long poem and, closer to contemporary interest, the Ashbery of “Clepsydra” and poems just after. It’s a release of pleasure (innocent, by the way) to follow the capitalization at the head of each line as it proceeds without embarrassment down the page, bracing to the eye. Not everyone finds the fashion for lower case soporific, but any who do will appreciate the way confident capitals can hold the disrupted syntax of contemporary poetry taut. Their procession down the page marks like a conductor’s downbeat the time counting out in the poem and running out in the life. Those capitals are units as useful as minutes, hours, and days – days such as Crawford describes near the close of his second section: “Whose sensual power we feel though they later end / And in the end leave a record less real / Than the lives they helped to bring.” It is not the least message of “Euangelia” that it assumes the reality of individual lives. In its very prosody it reminds us that poetry may have great aims, even when eminent voices continue to discount great aims as if still fighting the battles for reputational space begun long ago in their youth.
Crawford must be the first poet to use the word “soteriology” in a poem. He uses it only in passing, but on reflection it’s surprising not to have encountered the word in poetry until now. Having looked it up, I can report that Soter was the mythological spirit of safety, i.e., the savior, and as a title the name was applied to Zeus and other gods. By analogy, Caesar was styled Soter Augustus and the early Christians seized on the term as their own. Soteriology becomes thus the study of salvation. Not even Ashbery, as far as I know, has used the word, although absent a digital search I grant you I couldn’t say for sure. We all remember from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” his famous apophasis that “the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small.” Crawford’s reformulation, whether in response to “Self-Portrait” or not, can be isolated in two syntactically upfront lines. “The soul, seeing its own death, cries out for a savior / And, there, cries the birth of the true, eternal soul.”
You or I may hesitate, as perhaps did Ashbery, but Crawford too has complicated the hypothesis and done so in a way that preserves alternative readings. Paraphrased, his formulation might be read to say this: that the soul, even if not a soul, resembles one at the moment it wishes it were. That would be a kind of soteriological pragmatism. Something like it was there in varying degrees in Whitman and Dickinson; in the modernists Eliot and Moore; in Susan Howe, John Koethe, and much of Ashbery. Perhaps it’s the subject of the great American poems. Perhaps the writing of poetry – the why of it – is soteriological. Until Crawford, I hadn’t thought of it just this way.
One doesn’t have to parse a poet’s soteriology to enjoy the how of a poem any more than you need to embrace the Congregationalism of Frederic Church to admire the breakaway bold mass and attendant details of West Rock. I can admire “Euangelia” as I would the painting, without reducing it to an exegesis that explains. There are sweet details in the edges and middle distance. I was an easy target, for instance, of the poem’s idiomatic line “It brought a tear to my eye to see, so real was each thing,” because it recalls the heart-stopping words sunt lacrimae rerum (there are tears in things) spoken by Aeneas at Carthage. It may not be immediately clear how such a detail relates, or why some lines are disjunctive while others obtain the lyric elevation of Crawford’s final lines in section two. But one knows from traditions of the long poem that a line at the outset can resolve when it returns in variation at the close, that the andante of one part is justified by the allegro of another when heard in the overall score. It is necessary to both hear and read, close up and at a distance, and all preferably at the same time. We have long since learned to see a painter’s brushstroke resolve at a distance into a single compelling field. Likewise, one can hear the syntax of “Euangelia” resolve, feel its anxiety melt, into the kind of sustained tone that Crawford describes in the third section online as “its stately fearful ambience.”
Crawford has a liturgical ear, as does Ashbery. He can deracinate a sentence, as can a Language poet. These strengths are the effects of lineage as well as influence, and can be used to reconstitute poetry’s aims as well as its language. Crawford has taken them over for spiritual ends, much as Church redeployed his inheritance to reveal in West Rock the beneficent spirit of nature in the American nation. In “Euangelia” the reader will find a memorable phrase for that kind of successful overhaul. Crawford calls it a “translate depiction.” Reading his ambitious and finally hopeful poem, one realizes how many things natural and cultural must in fact be translated to survive. There was a time, as pictured in West Rock, when the prospects themselves seemed to create good news. It appears the good news of poetry must now create the prospects instead.