Between the Shabby and the Sublime

My speculation is that we ought to acknowledge the low or shabby aspects without dismissing the high or sublime, and we ought to hold up the high or sublime aspects without disdaining the low or shabby. And the sublime that we seek or find is usually gifted to us as an outcome of a lot of work that can feel shabby.

For the title of this post, I’ve riffed on an idea of the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021.) I will use his splendid essay “The Shabby and the Sublime” from A Defense of Ardor to frame my thinking about aspects of vocation. Zagajewski meant “shabby” and “sublime” in tight correlation with “low” and “high” poetic styles. I will use “shabby” and “sublime” more loosely to refer to a range of applications to vocation.

Please read his original essay if you’re interested in his thoughts about an ontological requirement of poetry not to exclude high style. Zagajewski offered a pointed critique of modern poetry and of our time’s preference for low style over high style, for a simplistic style that excludes expressions of the sublime in favor of shabby chatter. His diagnosis when comparing a thing in poor condition from hard use or lack of care and a thing that is beautiful or good beyond measure may surprise you.

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Rowan Williams on Imagining and Creating Common Ground

The most recent episode of NetVUE’s podcast series Callings features a conversation with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most recognized Christian leaders of our era.

The most recent episode of NetVUE’s podcast series Callings features a conversation with Rowan Williams, one of the most recognized Christian leaders of our era. Rowan is a professor, public theologian, author, and poet, and from 2002 to 2012, he served as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, which is the senior leadership position in the Church of England and the ceremonial head of the Anglican Communion worldwide.

Rowan describes his youth as being “immensely well-blessed with communities and pastors who encouraged that sense . . . that living with the Christian Gospel was living in a larger world, not a smaller one.” Even in retirement, his sense of vocation is grounded in the call from others’ needs and pain. He is guided by the questions, “What is being given to me here? And what is being asked of me here?” Our calling, he says, comes from those around us who are saying, “We want to see Jesus.”

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Thema Bryant on Finding Home

In this conversation, Thema Bryant discusses liberation psychology, the relationship between faith and therapy, the healing power of poetry and dance, and the opportunities and limitations of social media in vocational discernment.

The most recent episode of NetVUE’s podcast series Callings features Thema Bryant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association. Thema is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles; a professor at Pepperdine University, where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Lab, and an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The American Psychological Association awarded her the Emerging Leader of Women in Psychology Award in 2007 for her scholarship and clinical work on violence against women, and recognized her for Distinguished Early Career Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest in 2013. Her most recent book is Home Coming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole Authentic Self. She also hosts The Home Coming Podcast.

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No Future without Forgiveness: Some Thoughts on Vocation and Forgiveness  

Understanding the importance and the process of forgiveness is essential to helping us toward the inner freedom vocation requires. I hope the recent commemorations of Demond Tutu and the legacy he left behind will inspire new ways of incorporating forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation into our vocations and into our teaching of vocation.

When I read recently of the passing of Desmond Tutu, I went back to his book No Future Without Forgiveness and its hopeful yet clear-eyed message about how and why forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary.

Pondering anew Tutu’s life, vocation, and writings has driven home to me that forgiveness is integral to vocation. There is no vocation without forgiveness. This is true in our personal vocations, and I believe it is true in our public calling to justice and the civic good. Forgiveness and, where possible and safe, reconciliation, heal the past and liberate us from bitterness, resentment, anger, and the need for retribution. They also free us from the control of those who have hurt us. Without release from these toxic emotions, we cannot fully enjoy our gifts and our vocations. They will never give us enough success or enough happiness. Increasingly, research even suggests physical health benefits accompany forgiveness. Twelve-step groups for addiction, divorce, grief, trauma, as well as other types of recovery and counseling teach the necessity of forgiving others and forgiving ourselves for the sake of our futures.

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Our Love and Terror: Affect, Political Emotions, and the Seat of Calling

I try to make my classroom into a space not unlike the space of a poem: affectively engaging, resistant, surprising, of sufficient “space and liberty,” to quote King Lear… [In this]
I have been helped and inspired by Seamus Heaney and what his life and work have taught me about affect, political emotions, and poetry’s power to engage “the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives.”   

In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson speaks of the “vast, submerged continents of nonconscious thought and feeling that lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives” (xi). This profound core of our sense-making ability is the seat of calling. I began to understand the role of these “vast, submerged continents” in making sense of our civic lives after NetVUE’s “Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching” webinar on the power but also the problems of proximity and kinship. Discerning our collective calling to justice and love of neighbor requires teaching aimed at surfacing, shaping, and reshaping these affective depths.

Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.

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Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

What I’m hoping they see in my share of a poem is evidence for a welcoming academic community, where enthusiastic and intellectually diverse faculty make personalized efforts to help them discover their callings in their daily lives. A poem helps me and them step outside ourselves as we talk about getting these things right for ourselves.

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

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“Just is” or “Justice” ?: Amanda Gorman and the tragedy of hope and history

It wasn’t until Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Must Climb,” that I realized the more subtle and insidious tragic failing that threatens us. In our own lives the failings are often smaller and less histrionic than tragic failings of an Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, or Lear. For us, the danger is settling for “just is” instead of “justice.” Gorman’s homophone warns of the seemingly small slippage from our true end and aim into weary, complacent, resignation. These small tragedies will, if they are great enough in number, led to further national tragedy.

Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration (January 2021).

Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to. 

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The Call of Lyric Poems

Lyric poems call us to attend to the world differently, to see differently. Their condensed, compelling use of language can offer something essential about being in the world that can shift our vision. While that shift may be complex and even painful in the best of times, it’s a more-than-sufficient reason to teach poetry in our classrooms.

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

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Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation

Vocation… is a type of redress. It offers an alternative, “countervailing gesture” to superficial, consumeristic, self-absorbed, and unjust visions of the good.

What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment

When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.

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