Poetic Pilgrim

Scott Cairns pursues the poetics of sacrament

by Anita Neal Harrison

Six times Scott Cairns, celebrated poet and MU professor of creative writing, has made pilgrimage to the holy peninsula of Mount Athos, that forbiddingly austere sliver of Northern Greece that for nearly 16 centuries has served as the spiritual center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.

On his first journey, recounted in a new memoir, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven -- A Pilgrimage, Cairns searched for a "spiritual father," someone to redefine his relationship to God, to teach him to live his life as a "prayer without ceasing." Finding such a mentor proved elusive, but the holy men he encountered made a profound impression. The more time he spent with the monks at Mount Athos -- in worship, at meal times, in their offices or touring the grounds -- the more he hungered for the peace, the abiding stillness, the closeness to God that these men seemed to carry in every situation. Or, perhaps more to the point, Cairns yearned to realize the closeness to God that carried them in every situation.

"God leans into us always, and we only lean into him intermittently," Cairns says. "The monks that I'm talking about have attained this state of leaning into God always. ... It's something I want to achieve, but haven't achieved yet."

In the meantime, Cairns writes. At 52, he has published seven volumes of poetry, two in the past year, and his poems have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The Paris Review.

His admirers include author Annie Dillard, who has called Cairns "one of the best poets alive," and best-selling literary critic Harold Bloom, who describes Cairns's poetry as "original and well-wrought." Last year, Cairns's work earned him a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, an award reserved for those who, according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, have demonstrated an "exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." The fellowship included a $38,000 cash prize, which Cairns used to make three visits to Mount Athos.

Cairns joined the MU English faculty in 1999 after spending five years teaching at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He was recently named director of MU's creative writing program and also heads the University's Center for the Literary Arts.

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."

Jonathan Holden, professor of English and poet-in-residence at Kansas State University, says that Cairns has been successful because he explores his faith without forcing his readers to arrive at his conclusions.

"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."

Richard Howard, poetry editor for the Western Humanities Review and a professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts, also sees these elements as keys to Cairns' success.

"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."

Cairns did not always know he wanted to be a poet. As a freshman at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., he thought he would like to be either a veterinarian or a lawyer. But English classes turned out to be unexpectedly easy for him. Growing up Baptist in Tacoma, Wash., he had spent much of his childhood studying the Bible, both at home and at church. As a result, he picked up on scriptural references that most undergrads never saw coming. He looked at his effort and his grades and decided English would be a good major.

After earning his bachelor of arts, he went to Hollins College (now university) in Virginia to earn his Master of Arts degree, then to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for a master of fine arts. At the University of Utah, where he earned his doctorate, Cairns studied with poets Mark Strand and Larry Levis. It was at Utah that Cairns recalls developing an understanding of words that transformed the way he read, wrote and even worshipped.

Until that time, he had, like most Western speakers and readers, viewed words in the Hellenic, or Neoplatonic tradition. According to this view, as Cairns explains it in his essay, "Elemental Confusion: Towards a Sacramental Poetics," the written word is always a sorry substitute for the spoken word; the spoken word is a poor stand-in for thought; and thought can't measure up to an "objective reality to which we have no real access, save through [a] tortured ontology of diminishing returns, or by some act of transcendence."

Such logic leads to the conclusion that any power words might carry comes from the ideas behind them, not from the words themselves. This view contrasts sharply with what Cairns describes as an Hebraic view of language.

According to this tradition, words don't just signify other things, they are things themselves; they not only convey power, they are powers. On the page words become "live and powerful things" -- things capable, Cairns says, "of provoking endless response, endless new production." They are generative.

After Cairns embraced this notion of words, he decided he had been reading literature all wrong. Instead of trying to see through the words to the author's meaning, he started paying close attention to the effects of the words themselves. He began, he says, to see the words "as opacities to be observed and engaged, rather than as transparencies to be moved through." And he realized that words spark more words.

Cairns explains how this works: "So you're reading a novel by Dostoyevsky, and in the middle of a passage, something about the language there provokes an idea that really may not have much to do with the story. But you notice it, even so. If you're a writer, you learn to be attentive to such events. And in my experience, very often that's when I put the book down for the day, and I start writing."

In the classroom, Cairns' strives to develop this same attentiveness in his students. "I try to teach my students to stop thinking about poetry as the result of their sitting at a window and looking out and recording what they see," he says. "The first thing they need to know is that it's not really about sharing what they already know. It's about acquiring a new kind of relationship with the books that preceded them, a conversational relationship, and it's about understanding literature not as a sort of static museum of ideas but as a dynamic and ongoing conversation between the living and the dead."

Instead of teaching his students how to express themselves, or how to put their ideas and feelings onto paper, Cairns encourages budding creative writers to trust language itself to lead them into discoveries and inspiration. He advises students to be alert to words and phrases that provoke an emotional or intellectual response, and then to explore that response by unraveling layers of meaning and chasing associations.

"A really good word is one that is haunted by other words," he explains. Cairns offers gibbous as an example. Look up the etymology of gibbous, he says, and you'll see that it's haunted by French and Latin, and you'll see a list of words derived from the same root that have gone in other directions.

"You have on one dictionary page all of these interestingly connected words that we've forgotten were connected, and that's how you start writing things you didn't already know," Cairns says. "Because this activity provokes new thought. And before the day is over, you have pages and pages of material. You may wind up throwing much of it away, but it's not a waste. It's a generative engagement of language, which is primarily what poets pursue."

Throughout this process, Cairns insists, poets must let the words lead them, rather than try to force the poem to bear a predetermined message.

"The poet, and the poem, will be far better off if what's said is the result of the labor itself, the act of shaping the poem," he says. "The poet must trust the language to lead him or her into glimpsing what was not anticipated; otherwise we're no longer talking about the genre of poetry; we've slipped into the verse essay."

The finished poem, of course, should communicate coherence. But in Cairns' view, this coherence generates only a small share of the poem's worth. The words themselves -- each line -- should convey a significant experience.

"I think that's what makes Scott Cairns' poetry so great," says Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, arguably the nation's most important publication devoted to verse. Cairns' poetry refers "readers to a real world and expects them to see the references to the real world, but it also creates a world with the language, with its music and form, and I think that's what the best poetry does."

"He's extremely eloquent and a master of literary forms and cadences," says Hilda Raz, editor of Prairie Schooner, a literary quarterly published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "No one has a better ear for the English language."

Holden echoes this view, adding that Cairns is able to successfully move readers with his use of language because he pays such close attention to the sound and sense of words.

"Good poems transcend the ordinary meanings of words," Holden says. "They transcend, and they go on and deliver many, many meanings. If they're good, if they're like Scott Cairns' poems, they're memorable. Memorability is a crucial aspect of poetry, and Cairns is one of the most memorable poets I know. His lines stick in your ear, as all good poetry should. Real poetry fuses sound and sense in a way that's memorable."

For Cairns, the power of words to generate and deliver multiple meanings has affected far more than his career. As he came to see words differently, he came to see the Bible differently. Cairns today bristles at the way the church of his childhood, and other "fundamental" churches, interpret Scripture as a literal, static set of directives from on high.

"It reduces the text to its dumbest, lowest common denominator," Cairns says. "It takes every beautiful and suggestive passage in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and turns them into instructions. I think that approach results in a diminishment of what the living text can do to shape living persons."

Rabbinic interpretative strategies, on the other hand, see Scripture as "indeterminate, inexhaustible in what it means," Cairns says, adding that he long sought a Christian church that followed a similar tradition. Just over 10 years ago he found what he was looking for in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its rituals, particularly the Orthodox celebration of communion, impressed him as a powerful representation of both his understanding of divinity and his understanding of poetry.

"The high church and low church have very different ideas about sacrament," he says. "In fact, the low church doesn't call it sacrament. They speak of it as the Lord's Supper, and they think of it as a merely memorial activity. [The meal] represents something historical; it points to something that happened long ago. The sacramental view of that same event would be that, yes, it's a real loaf of bread, and, yes, it's a real cup of wine, and yes, it points to something else in the past, but it also partakes of that something else. It also is that something else made present. And that's the kind of attitude that a poet must have toward words.

"Words don't just point to something else, but partake of that other thing. More than that, they are generative of something new. They also have the ability to change us as we partake of what they partake of. In the diminished model, they may remind us of something, but they don't change us."

Cairns' colleagues see this eagerness to grow and change as yet another key to grasping his poetic sensibilities. "It's true about Scott that he's aware of some kind of expressive possibilities that he doesn't yet know he possesses but he wants to find, and his work is always a search for something he hasn't achieved," Richard Howard says.

"Most of us want to write out of what we know we can do. He wants to write out of what he might be able to do but doesn't know yet, and I think that's why his poems are always surprising. ...There's a quality to his work that is exciting. One feels this is a poet who is continuing to discover himself and his subject, and that's very unusual. Most poets don't operate in that fashion. It's very risky what he does. He takes great leaps into uncertain areas and usually very successfully."

Howard's critique might just as easily describe Cairns' restless exploration of the spiritual.

"The only shot we have for glimpsing something bigger, something truer is if we learn to be on the lookout for and take seriously those things that don't fit our understandings," Cairns says. "Only when our understandings are shown to be insufficient do we have a chance at correcting them."

You can learn more about Scott Cairns and hear him reading from a selection of his poems on Illumination's website: http://illumination.missouri.edu/