Mormon Poets Talk about Their Craft

by Douglas E. Airmet

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    Arthur Henry King is a professor of English at BYU. A native of England, he received his B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge and his F.D. from Lund University in Sweden. He is a convert of nine years and current vice-president of the general education council at BYU. He has published poetry in the Ensign and the New Era.

    Clinton Larson is a professor of English at BYU and is poet-in-residence at that institution. He has published four books of poetry, including The Lord of Experience and Counterpoint.

    Elouise Bell is an assistant professor of English at BYU and teaches creative writing.

    Richard Cracroft is a professor of English at BYU, department chairman of the English Department, and co-editor with Neal Lambert of A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints.

    Emma Lou Thayne is a part-time instructor of English at the University of Utah, a housewife, and has published several volumes of poetry, including Spaces in the Sage and Until Another Day for Butterflies.

    Carol Lynn Pearson is a poet, playwright, and homemaker from Provo, Utah. She is the author of two volumes of poetry, Beginnings and The Search.

    John S. Harris is an associate professor of English at BYU. He has published a book of western poetry, Barbed Wire.

    Elder S. Dilworth Young is a member of the First Council of the Seventy. He has published a long narrative poem, The Long Road, about the life of Joseph Smith.

    What are you trying to achieve in your poetry?

    Arthur Henry King: I don’t believe in trying to achieve anything, because if you try to do it, you may be getting in the way of the spirit. If we let ourselves write without interfering, we may write more valuable things than if we set out to write something. But you keep working the poetry and let it settle. After two or three weeks you may still find there is something you want to alter and make better.

    Clinton Larson: I am trying to achieve valid and beautiful excursions into experience. A poet not only has the obligation to express himself, but to think and feel himself into another person’s position. A poet should never stop making excursions into experience.

    Elouise Bell: The poet should strive for the most honest presentation of his perception of the world and the human condition. When I see Mormon student poetry in trouble, it is because the students have not learned to be totally honest with themselves and their perceptions as they really are.

    Richard Cracroft: Mormon poetry ought to deal with things Mormon and originate from a Mormon stance and world view, a believing position. The Mormon poet should affirm the noble destiny of man, the fatherhood of God, and man’s position as a child of God.

    Emma Lou Thayne: A poem must just happen. If you’re trying to achieve something, you don’t write a poem. This is not to suggest that craft is not at work, but I think eventually the craft, the playing with words, becomes less important than the impetus behind the poem, the thing that says, “I’ve been moved by something and I need to write it.”

    The Ensign asked me to write a poem about Jesus for the Christmas issue a year ago. When they asked me to do that, I realized that no one can write a poem by saying it will be done on August 31, it will be 50 lines long, and it will be about Jesus. It was a strange kind of endeavor. I felt as if I could never write a poem on that subject without some kind of manifestation. It sent me on a reading spree, in particular in John, and one morning up at the cabin I was all of a sudden ready to write about it. But I never could have sat down and said, “Today I will write about Jesus.”

    Carol Lynn Pearson: I just want to achieve the satisfaction of getting something on the paper that is sitting in my head but will not let me rest until it gets out of my head—the expression of something important to me that I hope will have some importance to someone else.

    How does the LDS experience lend itself to poetry?

    Brother Larson: One of the finest things we have is our notion of spirituality. A transmutation of God and the Holy Ghost into poetry would be a real achievement.

    Brother King: I don’t believe in trying to write about LDS themes. I believe that if you are a good Latter-day Saint and try to lead a good life, and you are interested in writing verse, then you will find yourself writing about the LDS experiences that are worth writing about.

    Sister Thayne: Sometimes we screen ourselves from some of the deeper human conflicts and terrors because we have a kind of buffer between us and them. We have our problems, our doubts, our need to probe things, and I think in Mormonism there is a reluctance to do that. The writer, in trying to express all the things that are positive, as you certainly want to do, must somehow also come to grips with the things that are negative.

    Brother Cracroft: Poetry must have tension, and the tensions that Latter-day Saints experience are similar to those that other people experience. The believing and the unbelieving person have basically the same problems, but how they look at them is different. LDS poetry, though it may deal with a negative subject, should have a positive base. Ultimately speaking, all will be well, but in the meantime we’ll have tragedy, heartbreak, and failure.

    What do you see as the future of poetry in the Church?

    Sister Bell: I am very excited. The students I have encountered in the last three years have really excited and delighted me, more so than the students of the dozen years before. I see serious students, teachable about poetry, eager to learn the craft as if they were learning to play the cello. Fifteen years ago it seemed student poetry had to be cynical—they assumed a kind of sophistication and felt somehow they had to forget about their LDS heritage. But now I see great sincerity and a sophistication that is not a pseudo-sophistication. They want to be good poets and good people, and they believe both are possible.

    John S. Harris: There is a kind of new willingness to accept poetry in the Church, but I don’t believe that the body of the Church will ever become very poetically inclined. We are very practical people and esteem the arts as teaching devices, means of conversion, sources of publicity, sources for sermons and talks, hymn texts, or even sources for money to be used for good works. But as far as a belief that poetry in and of itself is good, I think that probably is not going to come very strongly or very soon.

    Brother Cracroft: I think the future of poetry in the Church is the best of all literature. We have today in Mormon literature more good poetry than anything else. I think that in the writings of Emma Lou Thayne, Clinton Larson, John S. Harris, and a host of others, we find poetry is very healthy.

    Brother King: The future of poetry in the Church depends on the level of education in the Church. I think the quality in Church magazines has improved, even in the short time I’ve been in the Church [nine years]. As people become more educated, they are likely to appreciate poetry more, and more people will write poetry.

    Brother Larson: I see the future of poetry as the challenge of reality. We ought to develop poetry that matches the grandeur and commitment of Latter-day Saints in terms of eternal progression.

    Must LDS poetry have a moral to teach?

    Sister Bell: John Ciardi said, “I am an indirectionist by profession.” It seems to me that all good poetry teaches something, but as Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” It begins in delight of form, wit, music, image, but if your main concern is message, give a 2 1/2-minute talk or write an essay.

    Brother Larson: Well, all poetry has a moral, and all poetry should teach, but it’s the idea of a parable—tell a story, tell it the way it is, then give the reader an opportunity to come to his own interpretation of what has happened. Don’t tack the moral on by any means—that ruins it. Christ gave his parable, simply told a story, and then walked away. He wanted it to rest in people’s minds and hearts so they would develop something on their own.

    Sister Pearson: I would go so far as to say that all poets have an obligation to communicate. Just because my poetry happens to have some kind of philosophical base from which it grows doesn’t mean anyone else ought to be doing the same thing. I think there are different styles and ways to approach poetry.

    Sister Thayne: We need the honesty of talking about the experience instead of the emotion. People think that if they’ve felt something strongly and had a spiritual sense of it, then it should be legitimate poetry material, but that isn’t true. The thing is, they must express it in a way that makes the other person feel the same way without telling them how to feel, so we don’t get this preachy business. The poetry must be subtle enough to say the thing and let the reader make the discovery himself. We must trust people a little bit.

    Brother Harris: I certainly agree that serious poetry must have something to teach, but what it does teach is not necessarily simple. The moral that may be taught is something in my bones, something more akin to my poem “Ice Cream Parlor.” It has a moral that despite the problems of raising children there are rewards to family life, while life without family is empty. There has to be a moral world view for the poet to write significant poems; he has to believe in a universe where good and evil are in perpetual conflict, otherwise his poetry is likely to be trivial and insignificant.

    Brother King: The answer is yes. But it comes this way: If the poem is good, it will teach, because there is no question of making beautiful things that are not also good things. It’s no good saying that an artist can produce good work if he is a bad man. He can’t. There’ll be something wrong with it, you see.

    What audience should I write for?

    Brother Larson: Everybody. This is a missionary church. We have an obligation to deal with various styles and ethnic groups in their terms. If you really think your way into the lives and hearts of other people, then you can show the connection that is necessary for their spiritual transformation.

    Brother Cracroft: Here I know I’m at odds with some people, but I think we ought to have a Mormon literature per se, one that is written to Mormons who are educated, thoughtful, and sensitive. If a writer aims at those people, and his work is good enough, it can transcend that environment and spread.

    Sister Pearson: I guess I write to people who basically have the same interests and motivations that I do, but I’m discovering all the time that that’s a lot of people. We’re not that much different from everybody else in the world.

    Brother Harris: Whatever audience you are going to write for, you must start from where they are, not where you are. To say it is the responsibility of the reader to come to you is about as valid as missionaries going out to the world and declaring, “We’re here to preach the gospel, but you must learn English first.” If you’re going to write for an LDS audience, you may presuppose certain things in their background experience—a knowledge of theology and customs—but if you are going to write for a broader audience, you are going to have to explain some things or write in such a way that explanations are unnecessary.

    Sister Bell: Whatever audience you write to, you must care about and love them in the large sense of brotherhood. If you write down to them, condescend, give them anything less than the best you have, then you don’t know what art is all about. It’s communicating, sharing what you love with those you love.

    How can I tell when I am writing good poetry?

    Sister Pearson: It just feels good to me, especially when I read it out loud. It feels complete and sort of moves me from one place to another, and that move feels good.

    Brother King: That’s a very difficult question. Authors don’t usually know how good their stuff is. I think even Shakespeare didn’t know when he was writing good poetry, though he probably had an instinct about it.

    Brother Cracroft: That’s tough. I wrote poetry when I was ten or eleven, and I knew it was good poetry—for a ten- or eleven-year-old audience. I think it depends on what kind of good poetry you are talking about, the particular level you are writing on. As for some kind of absolute good, I think it takes years to come to that—education in poetry, syntax, rhythm, and prosody. This you get only through reading widely and sensitively.

    One of the great problems we have in the Church is that we assume that good poetry and good Mormonism are synonymous, and that isn’t necessarily true. Too often we assume that because a person is sincere and meant to praise the president of the Church or a particular doctrine, therefore his poetry must be good. If you criticize those things, people immediately say you are criticizing the good intentions of that person or the doctrine. But the work still may not be well crafted, have compaction or real thought or depth, or it may be cliche-ridden and trite. It may not say one thing new but simply repeat that which has been said ad nauseam. A poem must be something fresh and new, incisive, or it doesn’t succeed.

    Sister Bell: Sometimes you can read a line and it is just right—there is an excitement, a sharp intake of breath where you want to say, “Hey! That’s good; that’s right!” It’s a physical response, almost a mystical thing, but it doesn’t come except after much reading.

    What nutshell of advice do you have for young poets in the Church?

    Brother Harris: Don’t undervalue your own experience. Most of the poems I write now are educational experiences out of my childhood that I really didn’t realize were significant till years later. And that experience must be tempered by study, thought, discipline, and form. If free verse is chosen as the form, it must be consciously chosen because that is the best vehicle for that thought, not chosen because the poet doesn’t know how to write any other kind of poetry.

    The poet should not be afraid to be clear. Ambiguity is valuable in poetry—it allows the poet to say things at two or three or four levels—but ambiguity that results from incompetence or a mistake is another thing.

    Brother Larson: I would advise young poets in the Church to become English majors and study all about literary history and criticism, as well as about the Church. They will need all that information to get enough resonance of mind and feeling to be a good poet.

    Elder S. Dilworth Young: Any person who wants to write ought to write and keep on writing till he gets good enough to be passable. Writing poetry can release a lot of tension and give a great feeling of pride. It may just be doggerel at first, but after you get enough experience, it may go.

    Sister Pearson: Be persistent, but also be patient. Read not only poetry, but everything that gives good insight into life, and practice just by writing poetry, rotten though it might be in the beginning stages. The process of personal maturity will put you in touch with life, and when you have lived through enough things and absorbed enough ability with the language, you’ll be in a better position to succeed in writing.

    Brother Cracroft: You who see yourselves as explicators of Mormonism to an eager world—stay in the fold. Draw on your own Mormon-based inspiration; draw on your own Mormon-based observations; draw on your own Mormon-based experiences. Refine them with knowledge through learning, wide reading, wide association outside the Mormon culture, and then brace yourself. Write for other Mormons, fellow intellectuals who embrace the combinations of spirituality and humanism inherent in Christ’s edict that we love God and our neighbor. If you write well, truly, and with an eye single to the old verities of truth and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice, your work will be great.

    Brother King: If you’re sincere and develop your technical ability, you will be a good poet. Don’t write less than one Japanese haiku or tanka a week; write sonnets and other difficult forms because you can exercise your mind on those. It’s good practice. So I think the answer is to practice your technique, endeavor to be a good man, not a great poet, live a good life, and leave the rest to the Lord.

    Photos by James Christensen

    Clinton Larson; Richard Cracroft; Elouise Bell

    Emma Lou Thayne; John S. Harris; Carol Lynn Pearson

    Arthur Henry King; Elder S. Dilworth Young