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Writer and pro­fessor James Matthew Wilson gave a lecture on Monday. | Facebook

James Matthew Wilson is an asso­ciate pro­fessor of religion and lit­er­ature at Vil­lanova Uni­versity and the author of several books, including “The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tra­dition” and a col­lection of poems titled “Some Per­manent Things.” He gave a talk on Monday, spon­sored by the Lyceum, titled “Faith, Aes­thetics, and the Trini­tarian Dimen­sions of Beauty.” Wilson received his Bachelor of Arts from the Uni­versity of Michigan, his Master of Arts. from the Uni­versity of Mass­a­chu­setts, and his doc­torate and Master of Fine Arts from the Uni­versity of Notre Dame

Thank you so much for speaking with the Col­legian, Dr. Wilson. To start, would you mind explaining in a nut­shell what your talk this week was on?

In the modern age, we have a con­ception of aes­thetics or the aes­thetic dis­ci­plines as those con­tem­plative activ­ities that are char­ac­terized by concern for form, and the emer­gence of such a dis­ci­pline is by in large modern, and usually thought of in some sense secular, in the sense that when we study lit­er­ature we study lit­er­ature for its own sake inde­pendent of any other field of inquiry. 

My argument is that there is such a thing as aes­thetics, that it is pos­sible to have a concern for form, to con­tem­plate form, but that to do so in such a way to that you par­tition it off the fullness of being will always cause that field of inquiry to col­lapse, that is to fall into con­tempt or skep­ticism.

An inquiry into aes­thetic form can’t proceed by way of exclusion from the rest of being. And so three con­di­tional factors are nec­essary to maintain an opening to form. One is an ade­quate account of human reason as ordered to being. The second is an account of being that is open to being known, so being as real and being as intel­li­gible. Then third, con­ception of beauty as a property of being as con­sti­tuted by both form and splendor.

So the final step of this little argument is that these three qual­ities that are nec­essary if you just want to maintain the pos­si­bility of con­tem­plating the beauty of some­thing are for­tified and strengthened or even partly revealed through a clear the­ology of the trinity.

How do these ideas affect you as a poet?

They are a pos­te­riori to the act of writing. I’m explaining to myself why it is that the writing of this form that becomes a work of art seems to have some bearing  on other forms. That is to say that works of fine art are man­i­fes­ta­tions of reality but also ways of knowing reality. My whole enter­prise as a scholar of aes­thetics is to explain why it is that art is a way of knowing.  Art as a way of knowing seems to be the intu­ition that lead me to take up writing in the first place.

How does your Christian faith influence your work as a poet?

When I was first writing fiction, the great American fiction writers at the time really rep­re­sented in a par­ticular sense a for­malism in American writing. Their sub­jects were familiar rather than epic or adven­turous. The craft of writing then appeared to be of formal seri­ousness. On the one hand that was great because it taught us to really value and weigh the sen­tence. But on the other hand there were moments in which it seemed that modern fiction lived in a shrunken world. My early anguish was to figure out how a writing that was for­mally sen­sitive and for­mally adept could also be restored to a kind of spir­itual breadth after the fashion of Fyodor Dos­toyevsky. I didn’t think of that as specif­i­cally Christian at the time, but I did think of it as reli­gious. I sensed that though I can think of nothing more bril­liant than form, a con­ception of for­malism that excludes form from an openness to being or truth is an inad­e­quate form of for­malism. 

I cer­tainly would never think of myself as a Christian poet as if there were this special cat­egory, but on the other hand, one of the things a poet should have the capacity to do is to express genuine devotion to God. So one of the chal­lenges I set for myself over the pre­vious several years was to write a gen­uinely devo­tional poetry. One that would not cease to be inter­pretable as poetry, but was still capable of a genuine expression of rev­erence, and that proved to be quite chal­lenging.

What advice do you have for young people, espe­cially Chris­tians who write poetry, who think a lot about the fine arts, who maybe want to make a career out of it?

To insist that the formal integrity of the fine arts doesn’t mean a self-enclosure of the fine arts. You need to respect aes­thetic form as a reality, but one that is des­tined to be informed by, and deepened by, and always in com­munion with other forms of knowing. Aes­thetic form needs to be philo­soph­i­cally and the­o­log­i­cally informed to be fully realized as itself. But that is not to say that a good phi­losophy or good the­ology could sub­stitute respecting the integrity of the form. Christian stu­dents will be espe­cially pre­pared for this openness of form to what is other than form, or at least other than aes­thetic form.

This is the weakness of some con­tem­porary Christian art, it needs to gen­uinely respect craft and master the making of the work as a good work.

Most people that are going to be reading this Q&A probably aren’t ever going to want to write a poem them­selves. Most people probably aren’t going to pay very much attention to the cutting edge of con­tem­porary poetry. So for someone like that, what advice do you have for them as readers to perhaps open them­selves to the pos­si­bility of con­tem­porary poetry, or to read con­tem­porary poetry well? 

You have to look so care­fully to find some poetry that you think isn’t a waste of time, not because there isn’t an abun­dance of it but because there is just so much poetry being written and pub­lished today. My first advice is to go find one or two good anthologies of poets who actually rec­ognize what the craft of poetry. 

But I would like to raise an objection to the pro­posal of not writing a poem. Your pro­fessors wouldn’t let you graduate from college without being sound in prose com­po­sition and essay. You ought to be able to write a ded­i­cation to your wife to inscribe inside a book before you graduate from college. And do that you need to learn a little bit of iambic pen­tameter. To be lit­erate, you ought to know how to write in verse. You don’t need to be able to do it well enough to publish, but you ought to be able to do it well enough that you can write a tribute to a future wife.