Orthodoxy and Art: Scott Cairns, Orthodox Writer/Poet/Professor (Pt. 1)

Thanks to Athos.web-log via Christopher Orr for pointing me towards a three year old article on Orthodox writer/poet/professor, Scott Cairns.

For anyone interested in the relationship between Orthodoxy and art, the article is a real gem.

“While Cairns’ work is steeped in religious sensibility, he’s not interested in writing sermons. In his view, any worthwhile literature, poetry especially, must begin as an exploration, not a dissertation. As Robert Frost famously put it: ‘I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.’

“Unfortunately, Cairns says, the majority of those we might call religious poets are making too few discoveries.

“‘They think it’s about saying what you think, about expressing what you know. If you write that way, whether you’re a religious person or a secular person, if you’re writing propaganda about your particular disposition, then the result is always going to be crappy poetry.'”

The same could be said, I think, for all non-ecclesiastical art.

“‘It’s his vision,’ says Holden, who has served as Kansas’ poet laureate. ‘His vision of humanity is a very kindly vision. He’s for us. It’s a moral vision but not moralistic. That’s the trick: How to be a moral person but not too preachy. That’s the delicate balance Scott Cairns keeps, and he does it beautifully.'”

I have thought about this issue a great deal and I was recently struck by the idea that the success of one’s (non-ecclesiastical) art cannot properly be judged by members of one’s own community. Ultimately, the success or failure of Orthodox artists can only be properly judged by the non-Orthodox. If Orthodox artists only find Orthodox fans, it would seem that the attraction is to that which differentiates us from non-Orthodox. The challenge for the Orthodox artist is to find ways to touch upon universal truths through the unique experience of Orthodoxy.

So…in the case of Scott Cairns, how does he manage to do this?

“‘He’s been able to combine an ironic, jocular and very contemporary idiom with interests, passions and convictions that are terribly serious and deep,’ Howard says. ‘It keeps the work from being stuffy and rhetorical, and it keeps the tone down, as it were. His poetry is remarkably funny and even goofy sometimes. It’s a remarkable way to keep the batter from rising too fast or too high. Because of the jokiness, the seriousness comes through a more splendid expression, as if it were won against a certain effort or obstacle.'”

“Sarah Barber, an MU doctoral student, puts it another way. ‘Scott’s poems are both serious and they’re not serious,’ she says. ‘They’re serious without taking themselves too seriously. It’s always nice to study with someone like that, especially because so many poets do take themselves so desperately seriously.'”

[to be continued…]

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