Lawrence Joseph’s A Certain Clarity brings together poems selected from throughout his career, spanning his first book—1983’s Shouting at No One—to his most recent, So Where Are We? (2017). Joseph’s poetry has always grappled with the defining moments of our age, from riots and protests to endless wars and economic struggle. As Paul Franz wrote in The New York Times Book Review, Joseph’s work “derives equal power from looking into violence’s face and turning toward the beautiful as a compensatory violence of vivid sensations.”
In this conversation, transcribed and adapted from an event hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, as part of their Faith & Culture series, Berkley Center fellow Paul Elie talks with Joseph about his Catholic upbringing in Detroit, his experiences on 9/11, and the role of hope in his poems.
Paul Elie (PE): Larry, you and I first met in 1993, introduced by Jonathan Galassi, just after I started working at FSG. He said that we had to talk because of our Catholic connection—and we talked! I learned that you and I both speak Jesuit. I learned about the communion of saints—a doctrine that was the subject of an essay you wrote for an anthology I put together called A Tremor of Bliss, and one that was central to your upbringing into the pre-conciliar Catholicism that you got in Detroit but had been in abeyance, let’s say, in my suburban Catholic childhood. That essay plugged me into that aspect of the Catholic tradition, and it then became extraordinarily vital in my first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is about the Catholic sense of the connections that bind people to one another across time, and across generations, and even across cultures. And then, through our conversations up to the present, I’ve understood what it means to have the Catholic imagination, especially as it focuses on current events and on history. Of course other people I’ve read and people I’ve studied with have that history-inflected Catholic imagination too, but I’ve gotten an especially intense experience of it through our encounters.
Based on all that, let me ask: What does it mean to speak Jesuit, and what has that inheritance, that part of your shaping experience, meant to you?
Lawrence Joseph (LJ): I was born Catholic and come from generations of Catholics. My grandparents emigrated to the United States—to Detroit—in the early 1910s from Lebanon and Syria. They were Eastern Rite Catholics. My parents were born in Detroit at the end of World War One. My parents, aunts and uncles, my siblings and cousins, were all educated in Roman Catholic parochial grade schools and high schools. My older brother and cousin preceded me at University of Detroit Jesuit High School. My parents didn’t go to college, but highly valued the importance of education—it was integral to our upbringing. UD Jesuit, the only Jesuit high school in Detroit, was academically among the best high schools in Michigan.
The essence of a Jesuit education is, for me, an emphasis on the importance of the mind. James Joyce, who, like me, came from a lower middle class background, said that the Jesuits gave him the education of the upper classes. That’s exactly right. I started at UD Jesuit in 1962. During October of my freshman year was the Cuban missile crisis; in November of my sophomore year President Kennedy was assassinated. Vatican II was being implemented. The year after I graduated, in July of ’67, the racial tension and conflict in Detroit exploded. I’d just finished my freshman year at the University of Michigan.
PE: In our conversations about Catholic Detroit you always mention the legacy, or the aftertaste, of Father Charles Coughlin. What did that mean to you as a young Maronite Catholic, growing up in Detroit. Can you explain who Coughlin was and what his presence was there?
LJ: Coughlin was the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower parish, which we moved to when I was almost four years old. My sister and brothers and I went to grade school at the Shrine. Coughlin was the first person in the world to have a mass radio audience, facilitated by the fact that Detroit at the time, during the 20s and 30s, was the technological center of the world. Through contributions he received from his radio audience, Coughlin built the Shrine—he held weekly radio broadcasts from the church’s tower. With the support of his bishop he preached the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. He backed Roosevelt in ’32, and, because of his enormous following and influence among ethnic, urban Catholics, was important in Roosevelt’s victory. Roosevelt learned how to utilize the radio from Coughlin. So did Hitler. In the mid-30s, Coughlin publicly broke his support of Roosevelt and the New Deal, espousing a Catholic corporatist fascism, openly and viciously anti-Semitic. In the early 40s, his political activities were stopped by Rome. After that, he was consigned to the duties of a parish pastor at the Shrine of the Little Flower.
I began grade school at the Shrine in 1954. I served Mass for Coughlin. Many of us boys did. I knew of Coughlin’s political history and fame from a young age, mostly from my older brother, who has a very strong historical sense. My parents moved to the Shrine parish for the grade school, the largest in the Archdiocese of Detroit. I never heard my parents utter an anti-Semitic or racist word, ever.
PE: It’s striking to me that there was this foundational experience for so many of the themes of your work. Your poetry deals with power and its abuses; it deals with the religious realm and how that runs into power, for good and for ill. I don’t want to overemphasize the connection, but . . .
LJ: He’s certainly among the persons with power who appear in my poems, among them presidents, attorneys general, commissars. But Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan, among many other poets, also appear, alongside working class people, people on the streets. Coughlin was part of a larger history, not only in Detroit, in Michigan and in America, but also a part of the history of fascism, which, in his case, in retrospect, was very similar to Franco’s corporate statist Catholicism in Spain, forms of which are actually present now in the United States government. Yes, Coughlin is relevant to the way I think about the world, how I think about power. He lusted for power, for political power.
PE: As you say, we’re seeing the nexus of Catholicism and power in Washington and elsewhere. Who knows where it’s going, but I would say that it doesn’t look like it’s going to places that are congenial to the gospel, or to Pope Francis’s vision of the Church.
About A Certain Clarity: the book has gotten extraordinary reviews. I can’t resist quoting Paul Franz in The New York Times Book Review: “A major work of American art.” Commonweal’s Anthony Domestico, in a profile of you, said that your poems “register the workings of American power in all its forms,” and the poet and critic Michael Hofmann in the London Review of Books proposes that the new book “brings together five books of your stark and beautiful poems.” Congratulations on those reviews.
LJ: Thank you.
PE: There’s a line from one of your poems, “Unyieldingly Present,” written after 9/11, that goes: “I know of no defense against those addicted to death.” That line reminds me of a line that came out of the mouth of another poet, on the day the World Trade Center was destroyed. That morning, I was at our apartment in the East Village, and the phone rang. It was Les Murray, the Catholic poet from Australia. Morning in New York is evening in New South Wales, and Les phoned to make sure that Lenora and I were all right—we were–and he said, “If they bloody well are willing to kill themselves, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
While I was on that call with Les, if I understand it right, you were forming that place in your mind where your thoughts would find your wife Nancy’s thoughts, which then became “Unyieldingly Present,” a piece of documentary poetry that’s also a love poem. Can you explain?
LJ: We lived, and still live, a block or so from Ground Zero. I went out to St. John’s University in Queens that morning, and when I got there found out that the first World Trade Center Tower had been hit by a plane. I called Nancy, and she said she’d seen what happened on television. We had experienced the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, so we agreed it would be best for her to stay off the streets. I then went downstairs to the Law School atrium, and watched on television in horror as a second plane hit the South Tower, which then fell, and then watched the North Tower fall. I went to my office and tried to call Nancy again, but there was no connection: all connections by phone were severed. Because our apartment faces the Hudson River, all that Nancy knew was that there was this hideous mass of dust in the air. She was, of course, terrorized, and feared that this could be nuclear war. That night, fortunately, I stayed with a colleague of mine and his family at their home in Forest Hills. The next morning I managed to get to our apartment. Nancy had been there all along. We then put some belongings into suitcases and carrying bags, and walked crosstown to the only subway running south of Canal Street, the F train at East Broadway near Seward Park. We took the F-train to Queens, to my colleague’s home. We were evacuated for several weeks.
PE: When I read the poem, I’m struck by the beauty of its structure and the naturalness of it: the waves of sensory detail having to do with the blast and the aftermath, and then, pocketed within it, an attempt to communicate through the imagination with your wife: “I am not going to allow anything to happen to you. I summon up in my mind a place where my thoughts will find yours.”
LJ: There’s certainly a biographical dimension that contributed to my writing it, but, for a reader who doesn’t know my biography, it’s still the type of connection that occurs in times of fear and danger and separation. The number of people that morning and during that day who were having these same kinds of thoughts is inestimable. It’s been happening now, too. Because of the pandemic, there have been people in hospitals no one can visit. Those who love them are communicating with them in their minds, in their imaginations—the imagination as a form of prayer.
In addition to being biographical, the poem is an expression of an emotional and moral response to murder and killing. I like poetry that seeks to express something larger than self-centered personal experience, recording, chronicling, the inner and outer realities of the given time in which the poet is living.
PE: Do you have to think about that on a formal or technical level? For example, Michael Hofmann in his review suggested that your poetry “answers to now.” On one level, “Unyieldingly Present” answers to a collective experience, to an historical moment that many, many people felt personally and emotionally implicated in. Now we’ve been in a different historical moment, one where people feel an urge to respond to the moment with words or in art. As an artist who has made work that “answers to now” in some respects, can you tell us how it’s done—or how it’s best done?
LJ: Poets have their own subjects, which come from their own imaginations and personal experiences, but how they put them together, shape and compose them, is what makes what they’re expressing a poem. I’ve always adhered to what Yeats said in “Under Ben Bulben”: “Irish poets learn your trade.” Poets must constantly be trying to figure out how to form their language to embody what they need to be writing about. I learn the craft, the trade, first of all from other poets. I’m always working out my own tradition and traditions of poetry. Eugenio Montale speaks about poets conversing with other poets across time, across generations, being in a conversation, for example, with Virgil, or with Dante—a “conversation” being, in its literal meaning, a “turning with.”
PE: You cite in one of your poems Mandelstam’s remark about the Commedia–that it’s a “journey with conversations.”
LJ: Yes, in my poem “The Game Changed,” from Into It. “I too am thinking of it // as a journey—the journey with conversations // otherwise known as the Divina Commedia // is how Osip Mandelstam characterized Dante’s poem.” When I first read what Mandelstam wrote, I said to myself, yes, that’s exactly what Dante is doing, how he’s forming the Commedia—it’s a journey with conversations. So, in my poem, I’m in conversation with Mandelstam, who is in conversation with Dante, who was in conversation with . . .
PE: And here we are in conversation . . .
I teach a course at Georgetown called “Fiction, Faith and Violence,” and the question I pose with students again and again, as we go through a dozen texts, is this: To what extent is the book in question religious in that it’s dealing with religious material—religious imagery—and to what extent is it religious in that it reflects a religious outlook or drama going on the part of the author? Your poetry seems to enfold aspects of each.
LJ: There’s religious imagery throughout my work: the religious, or the spiritual, is a subject from the start. I develop what can be called a theological critique, a moral theology.
PE: We have two questions from the audience now, which have to do with A Certain Clarity: What is the “certain clarity” that the title refers to? And how did you go about choosing, from the five books of poems, the poems that would be included in it?
LJ: “A certain clarity” cuts two ways. One is a clarity that’s certain in the sense of being sure. The other is a particular kind or kinds of clarity, among other clarities.
I wanted my selection to work as a book in itself, and left out poems that I would have put in if I was forming a different kind of arc for the book. The book was put together, and the selections for it were made, after Trump was elected, a time in which we need to be clear, more than ever, about the way we think about certain things.
PE: I seem to remember one of the Beat poets saying something like, “Please God, a little clarity.”
LJ: To desire clarity is human: it’s human to seek, to need, clarity in times of great confusion and lies—the lies we’ve all experienced in our lifetimes, and are experiencing now—from those in position of power. One dimension of clarity is truth. For me, revealing truth, or, more accurately, revealing what isn’t untrue, is paramount. To try to make what I write not untrue, not false or fake, to not add to the destructive, the murderous fakery.
PE: There’s another question from the audience, and it has to do with the place of hope in your work. When you work on one of your poems, how would you describe the process of bringing hope or expressing hope in the poems? And how do you do it in a way that sounds right to your artistic sense and also to your religious sense?
LJ: For me, hope is a virtue, it’s one of three theological virtues—faith, hope, love—in Catholic theology. The opposite of hope, for me, is despair; the opposite of love, hate; the opposite of faith is doubt, disbelief. We all struggle with despair, with disbelief, with hate. In times of despair, I try to focus on what I believe, and on who and what I love—what I believe, I hope for, and who and what I love determine what I hope for. What I believe and the presence of love are fundamental to my poetry, an integral part of who, imaginatively, I am.
Lawrence Joseph, the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian Catholic immigrants, was born and raised in Detroit. A graduate of the University of Michigan, University of Cambridge, and University of Michigan Law School, he is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently So Where Are We?, and of two books of prose, Lawyerland, a non-fiction novel, and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and has also taught creative writing at Princeton. He lives in New York City.
Paul Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, a partnership between the Berkley Center and StoryCorps. Elie is the author of two books: The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and Reinventing Bach, both of which were National Book Critics Circle Award finalists. His essays and journalism have been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among others.