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Poet and essayist James Matthew Wilson is an assistant pro­fessor in the department of human­ities and Augus­tinian tra­di­tions at Vil­lanova Uni­versity. During his career, Wilson’s com­po­si­tions have appeared in journals and peri­od­icals such as “The Dark Horse,” “Chron­icles, Measure,” and “Front Porch Republic.” He is also the author of “Four Verse Letters,” a chapbook of poetry pub­lished in 2010. On Sept. 17, Wilson visited Hillsdale for a poetry reading from his not-yet-released book of poetry “The Violent and the Fallen.”

How and when in life did you develop an interest in poetry?

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college I had to take a course in poetry at the Uni­versity of Michigan. I had always been inter­ested in writing and had since my teenage years been aspiring to be a nov­elist. But that day in the poetry class the pro­fessor began to explain to us what iambic pen­tameter was. I was really aston­ished when I found out what that meant and spent the remainder hour of the class trying to write a line of iambic pen­tameter. I was so thrilled that I spent the rest of the night writing 13 more lines. By the end of the week I had written five sonnets. After that, I sensed that as much as I loved writing fiction, there was some­thing unique in poetry pre­cisely because it was written in verse. Whatever else poetry became for me in sub­se­quent years, what it was in the beginning was simply that practice of mea­suring out syl­lables and stresses and rhymes.

As a pro­fessor of human­ities and Augus­tinian tra­di­tions at Vil­lanova Uni­versity, how do you think your area of expertise affects the themes and sub­jects of your poetry?

I had a sense early on that lit­er­ature had some­thing to do with dis­cov­ering the purpose, the meaning, and the mys­teries of human life. I was always enthralled by the way Western Civ­i­lization has seen beauty as an ordering prin­ciple in that it holds truth and goodness together and somehow tran­scends them. Therefore, the beauty we encounter in well-made sen­tences is somehow integral to the foun­da­tional prin­ciples of reality, and so it has to be central to any philo­sophical or the­o­logical inquiry. As for my poetry, that’s a lot of what I’m trying to do when I’m attending to how lines and sen­tences are put together. I’m trying to find the right order of speech that will capture what is real.

You are a devout Roman Catholic. How does Chris­tianity show itself in your work?

Well, one of the first things Chris­tianity says to us about the nature of things is that they’re intel­li­gible. Therefore, in reflecting on even our most mundane human expe­rience, that act of reflection is poten­tially pro­ductive of truth. I think that con­ception of reality is intel­li­gible, and if it’s intel­li­gible it must have a structure that’s bril­liant and beau­tiful. I think any sort of adventure into art is trying to find ways to man­ifest some aspect of that real order at the level of an artistic order.
There are quite a few Catholic poets whose poetry is Catholic poetry pre­cisely because their subject matter is con­sis­tently Catholic. It’s about the arti­facts of Catholic life or the feelings of reli­gious devotion. And I actually don’t do as much of that. I think my work is more closely aligned with somebody like Dante who’s trying to rep­resent the world as we see it. So, the world as we see it may often be full of ugliness and dis­order. But the Catholic eye sees all those things, acknowl­edges their reality and their fal­l­enness and is capable of inter­preting them within an order of things that offers them the pos­si­bility of redemption.

What is behind the title “The Violent and the Fallen,” and how does the title allude to the themes of the poems?

My poetry tends to explore the fal­l­enness of things and the way in which a slow, patient inves­ti­gation of our lives actually reigns in that flailing will and makes it pos­sible to reason, to figure out how the world is struc­tured, how the soul should be con­formed to that structure. So “The Violent and the Fallen” is a book about awak­ening to a world where we’re often violent and lustful beings, trying to find the per­manent truth that can give us purpose, order, and dis­ci­pline. Even though it’s a series of sep­arate lyric poems, I think that’s the story the book tells.

You’ve been called a pas­sionate defender of tra­di­tional verse forms. Why do you advocate standard forms of poetry?

When I was first reading poetry, I thought of myself as an aspiring nov­elist and short story writer. What I saw poetry had that short stories and novels didn’t have was meter. That’s poetry’s unique feature: verse. If it doesn’t have that, it might be pas­sionate speech, it might be philo­sophical reflection, it might be indulgent self-dis­closure. But when it has verse, it has a dimension of reality that’s not found in prose. All lan­guage is rhythmic, but poetry is rhythm mas­tered and ordered and given def­inite measure and shape. So in that respect it’s a kind of per­fection of speech.

What’s on your book­shelf cur­rently?

I just fin­ished reading all the fiction of J.F. Powers, one of the leading Catholic writers of an earlier day. I plowed through all of his books and really enjoyed them. He’s def­i­nitely someone you have to read. At some point in your life read “Morte d’Urban,” it’s a great novel and fas­ci­nating story. It also begins with a ref­erence to Notre Dame football, so that grabbed my attention.

What advice would you give to young, aspiring poets?

I would say that poetry is a craft, and as a craft, it is some­thing whose tra­di­tions and prac­tices require mastery. They are going to have to be dis­covered in fits and starts, by inspi­ration, some­times just by luck, and some­times by grace. But they probably won’t come ever if there isn’t the basic ini­ti­ation into a tra­dition of craft work already in place in you. So craft first.