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.