March, with the haunting promise of spring, excites my quest for definition and different shades of colors presenting themselves in clothes, flowers, sunlight, and books. The morning radio was replaced with an audio book on discovering “the cure for the common life.” Piles of decadent fabrics and ribbons feel the caress of my fingers, anticipating quiet stitching and perhaps a journey into a skirt or two. The wind is high and bold, decorating the air with the kind of attitude that says, “Get up and open the window! The day is new with possibility!” My brain reminds me that it’s time to ask what exactly literature is again, and why do we insist on preserving and creating it? This will help name the musical notes, avoiding a useless cacophony.
In order to sort through the millions of voices describing literature, I digress and try to come up with a personal definition first. It’s the canon of genius writing that incredibly well-read people have decided on teaching the next generation that I may not enjoy all of, but always feel inspired by. I’m inspired by the fabulous plots and the wretched plots with stunning prose. It’s the pieces of work that have touched something in readers. It’s the arduous, dedicated process of revision, review, and naked bareness to the publishing world. It’s bright and rare like a diamond (thanks Rhihanna, I can’t get your voice out of my head now), but was dirty coal in its first stages. It’s an opportunity to be proud of language, like a baby bird leaving her nest. Literature is a cultural and historical decision, from what I’ve seen. Which isn’t that much after only nearly thirty years, so let’s turn to Kate Chopin and Terry Eagleton for some measurement.
“By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.”- Terry Eagleton, “Literary Theory: An Introduction”
“To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.”- Kate Chopin
Yes, literature requires real digging as a reader that is rewarded by new sensory pleasures. And, literature is produced not by elegant machines but by talented, gift-possessing men and women. This reminds me of literature’s sacredness, the supernatural joy it has in helping us take in the spring changes around us. We coddle seeds, brush our hands against oaks in the park, and breathe in curling grass thinking of a favorite author and how they showed us these things. Gerald Manley Hopkins is a little sweeter, and Maya Angelou is a little richer as we pick our own berries or hear our own birdsong.
If literature and prayer married, you would have the book of Psalms. I’ve never been so captivated by emotionally resonant, lyrical strokes of pen. David wrings his heart out, squeezing it into a golden cup with which to commune with God. It doesn’t appear that he spent hours agonizing over whether the content would attract an audience, or tossed his personal entries aside for fear of being portrayed as a weak king. In fact, his vulnerability and his penchant for true beauty is what sweetens the words and paints them timeless:
“You are fairer than the sons of men;
Grace is poured upon Your lips;
Therefore God has blessed You forever.
Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O mighty One,
with Your glory and Your majesty.
And in Your majesty ride prosperously because of truth,
humility, and righteousness;
and Your right hand shall teach You awesome things.
Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the King’s
The peoples fall under You.”- Psalm 45:1-5
Here remains thrilling description of the Christ, ruling the earth and heavens in love and righteous truth and justice. Adjectives dripping with long-winded goodness are fun, but this poem really promotes meditation and simplicity. Instead of rushing to a dictionary, I’m falling to my knees enthralled by Yahweh.
As we spring forward this week (couldn’t resist the nasty cliché), I’d love to let the birds loose and soldier on with such a fearless heart laid open. I know that literature will accompany that task.