Poet gives Religion & Literature lecture

The 2017 Religion and Literature Lecture at the University of Notre Dame addressed the complexities of representing God through language. Hank Lazer gave the lecture “Grace, & the Spiritual Reach of Representation,” in which he discussed Rowan Williams’ book The Edge of Words: God and the Spiritual Reach of Representation.

Hank Lazer is a poet, scholar, editor, and administrator. He addressed his own personal experiences and understanding of grace, as well as the necessity of innovative modes of writing in order to reflect accurately the complexities of reality. He followed this discussion with examples of innovative poetry which demonstrated the concepts he portrayed. These reflections on grace, writing, and language were framed within a presentation of the book by Rowan Williams, who is the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Identifying himself as a Jewish-Buddhist, Lazer clarified that the idea of grace strikes him as distinctly Christian and therefore distant, but he provided two examples of personal experiences which he considers encounters of grace. One was an experience in which a faithful Jewish rabbi spontaneously invited him to put on the tefillin with him in a laundromat along the street, and Lazer accepted. The second experience was one of praying with a nurse during a hospital stay and feeling inspired to pray a benediction over her. Through his reflection on these two moments, he came to an understanding of grace not as individual and self-contained, but rather as a social experience.

Lazer connected this understanding of grace as a social experience to Rowan Williams’ book. He presented Rowans’ argument as one which strives to free writing from conventional interpretation. Williams states in his book that, “in the realm of creative art, above all, there are no ‘conclusions,’ only points at which to pause in a continuing and developing practice.” Lazer described this as the most provocative moment of Williams’ book, yet lamented that while Williams understands the need for writing which is atypical and strange, Williams did not know any of the modern poetry which would demonstrate this principle.

In addition, Lazer also lamented what he saw as a belabored conclusion of Williams’ book. Williams wrote, “the conclusion of natural theology is then the paradox that the human intellect is ordered to a reality it cannot know.” He found this to be much too obvious and clear. Lazer continued to state that all of art is an “effort at representation” and that it must be de-familiarized in order for it to be seen in a strange light and to be seen again without preconceptions. Lazer claimed that art ought to itself contain the complexity and incompleteness of the reality which it hopes to reflect.  

Then Lazer returned to Williams’ conception of the need for innovative writing, and again pointed out Williams’ lack of examples of such writing. He then expounded upon his notion of innovative and eccentric writing, speaking of it as non-standard. It often causes discomfort and confusion in readers, he said, because traditional approaches to reading and understanding poetry fail—the most specific of those being reading to find themes. Yet it is heuristic because it beckons readers to a new type of reading, which, according to Lazer, “instead of deciphering, it should be re-ciphering.”

Williams focuses on the “edge of reason,” due to the intimidating prospect of attempting to communicate reality through language. There is a need for the eccentric and the non-standard in order to represent reality, and yet simultaneously there is a desire to represent actualities. Innovative art is, according to Lazer, the means to “simulate the complex and intuitive reality that we occupy.”

Lazer then reverted back to the topic of grace and of being unable to achieve that state of inspiration. Yet he reflected that it is perhaps not under a person’s control, and that within the realm of poetry specifically, one cannot wait for inspiration to begin writing. Rather, one must practice so that when the inspiration strikes, one has the ability to fulfill that inspiration, but it is not something that can be forced. It is not the outcome of mere intention.

Reading poems of the art form which Lazer discussed, as he stated, can be an experience of awakening, because they demand that those who experience them learn how to read anew. In order to demonstrate this, Lazer presented several examples of shape writing (where the words themselves are in the form of an image), as well as poems presented as fragments. Within shape writing, there is not even an obvious place to begin reading and the possibility of different voices, which reflects the type of innovative art which Lazer invoked. This retrains the reader’s perception of the world.

Lazer concluded the lecture with a reflection on the type of essay writing which he practices, which he describes as writing by accretion. He summarized by stating, “moments of grace allow for a better understanding of the concept of Being, as well as a sense of gratitude” and an experiential approach to the places in language where the human mind begins to approach the inexpressible, as discussed by Williams’ book, is what will expand the borders of our understanding of Being.

Therese Benz is a sophomore studying English and pre-med and living in McGlinn. She gave up bell peppers for Lent and is learning to live without them. Contact Therese at Therese.M.Benz.6@nd.edu.