This Eternal Hubbub Ė A Review by Michael R. Burch
This Eternal Hubbub, a collection of prose and poetry from the pen of Joe M. Ruggier, is now available in a Third Revised Edition from Multicultural Books. Not many books by modern poets manage a third revised edition, so this novel event in itself seems cause for both celebration and contemplation. While you pop the cork on your best bottle of champagne, Iíll provide my thoughts on the book and its author ...
Ruggier is a deeply religious poet, and from page one onward, readers will find it difficult to separate his religion from his art, nor would the poet expect otherwise. Like a double-headed penny stood balanced on its edge, the twin faces of the coin of Ruggierís religious art appear to us simultaneous, indistinguishable. For Ruggier, great art is necessarily the "flip side" of a great religion: Catholicism. More on this later, but for now thereís no need to be scared off, nor to run away screaming. Ruggier finds piousness detestable, and his grace, sincerity and ability to reason and write well are appealing, even if one doesnít agree with him on many, or any, points. While I admire the pope and number practicing Catholics among my friends (including our next door neighbors and my sonís best pals), I would differ with Ruggier on various points. But that is neither here nor there in my liking and appreciating his insights and his art. Furthermore, in reading This Eternal Hubbub, I often find myself treading splendidly untrodden ground, so without further ado, letís wade in ...
This Eternal Hubbub deals with conflict: conflict between men and women, men and men, women and women, and between humanity and God. Knowing this, we can put the bookís title in perspective. In his Preface, Ruggier states that the book also attempts to "make the Papacy a humorous work of art." It took Ruggier twenty years and three editions to coordinate and bring such an audacious undertaking to fruition, so it seems well worth a few minutes of our collective time to consider the results ...
In his Foreward to the book, Rex Hudson points out that the "effete tradition of ĎArt for Artís sakeí" is antithetical to Ruggier, who in his poetry and prose resolutely champions "Art for Manís sake." Having been an eyewitness to the derailment of modern English poetry since "Art for Artís sake" became its slogan/mantra/epitaph, I will gladly third Ruggier and Hudson here.
Since "Art for Manís sake" is an essential hub of This Eternal Hubbub, Ruggier stands a better chance than many of keeping his wheels grounded and centered. And the bookís first essay, "Poetry And The Gospels," is indeed both grounded and centered. In this essay, Ruggier points out that the "greatest poetry is religious in the broadest sense" (although I would interject, entirely unoriginally, that many modern and postmodern poets have made poetry its own bizarre, incomprehensible religion), and that while "the simplest illiterate might be enjoying an experience similar to Danteís and Beatriceís ... it had to be Dante to give it expression." Therefore, it is the poet who shares the common manís experience and expresses, externalizes and "eternalizes" it. One man can understand another man better with the poet as intermediary. Ruggier also points out that good poets are not "essentially impractical beings," but mind their business just as good businessmen mind theirs. A good poet is as good a steward of his poetry as a good janitor is custodian of his mops! Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Bukowski and Kris Kristofferson worked as janitors, good poetic cases in point. And whoever heard of an impractical janitor?
Ruggier detests falsely pious poems, poems that smack of false humility, and "poetry with a palpable design." Those are three good things to detest, and to avoid! But Ruggier presses resolutely beyond such easy targets and sets his sights on artists who "in this chaotic, faithless age ... are almost always found to offer some species of extremity and derangement to most who care for mundane facts, and to a few who desire genuine sanity" with the result that "in a society that excels the creative artist in shallowness, the creative artist is finding it even more difficult to justify his existence." I might extrapolate and posit that the art/society mess is an odd admixture that gathers mass as it snowballs rapidly downhill. The endlessly creative "artist" is constantly finding new forms of slime to "grease the wheels" of societyís faster and faster descent. The more society applauds the lackluster artist, the more liberally he bedaubs it with mud.
Ruggier also questions, along with T. S. Eliot, our modern fascination with originality and the way we praise those aspects of a poetís work "in which he least resembles anyone else." In our search for "the peculiar essence of the man" we may find it comes in the peculiar poetic essence of a brain fart!
Ruggier finds himself "in natural agreement" with Eliot that a poet must have a historical sense, which will make him consequently a traditional writer. All the poets I care to read honor the traditions of poetry and manage to be original within those traditions, so I find myself nodding in agreement here.
Ruggier disagrees with Keatsís statement that "What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet." After stating that Keatsís "virtuous philosopher" was in all likelihood a "self-righteous moralist," Ruggier goes on to suggest "but surely there is a sense in which the contrapuntal bass and baritone of poet and true philosopher burst out in unison together, and sing together an everlasting hymn of praise." He cites Dante, Saint John of the Cross and Shakespeare as poets of sublime philosophy, and points out that Shakespeare was the quintessential "chameleon poet" who "often made poetry out of Philosophy also."
Toward the end of "Poetry and the Gospels," Ruggier invokes Chaucer, who said, "Taketh the moralitee, good men, and let drop the chaff." No argument about dropping the chaff, if one can identify it and separate it from the good grain first. Where I would most differ with Ruggier is in his concluding thought that "the readiness to tolerate doctrinal Censorship" (with a capital C!) is "a necessary sign of the fullness of evangelical good will in any artist." The question raised in my mind is "which doctrinal Censorship?" and "at what stage in its history?" Any number of stretched, tortured and burned-at-the-stake avowed heretics might do acrobatic tumbles in their graves at the thought of the perils of "doctrinal Censorship." Nor would I want to submit to the "doctrinal Censorship" of the more radical of the Moral Majority!
Ruggierís second essay is "Art and Revealed Religion," wherein he tells us in his Prefatory Note that his method "is to make all art take theological criticism, and to make the Gospel take literary criticism; and at the same time to hold up the Incarnation as the focal point of human history." Thatís quite an ambitious agenda for an essay! But this is no ordinary essay: rather one that should be read and studied and pondered. Some of the ideas here go so far afield, Iíd rather not comment on them cursorily, being unable to do them justice in a review. I will instead offer a few "appetizers" to give the readers of this review a taste of what the essay has to offer:
"The ordinary man is indeed the God of history. The great sin of world-culture is to despise this Man with sham rhetoric."
"But compared to the sincerity of the Lord Jesus, the sincerity of the poets is paper sincerity."
"... great art draws aside the veil into the Kingdom which is within us."
"Faith is like a drunken bee which circles round and round the head, and the sound causes headache."
"Heaven is as real as this earth, but I love this earth more than a heaven which I never saw, and this earth is my idea of heaven; and I would like to enjoy it."
Part Three of the book is a selection of 24 philosophical sonnets from Ruggierís book Out of Blue Nothing. The sonnets themselves are constructed along the lines of Danteís "Divine Comedy" with "Bystander" roughly corresponding to "Hell," "Time Passes" to "Purgatory," and "Out of Blue Nothing" to "Paradise." The sonnets abound with interesting and good lines, and the closing couplets are particularly good. Examples:
Good men are great philosophers; the heart
is their ink-pot; sound sense is all their art.
Ah sweet! when the distorted nerves relent
and stumble on a verse, all passion spent!
Through dreams of Youth, the facts intrude, obtrude;
dry, gnarled, to near the skin, the bones protrude.
My favorite among the sonnets is number 21, which starts with a wonderful description of a confessional:
THE carved Confessional abides in Oak,
shrunk as Methuselah; and it inters
the sense of sound like the concluding stroke
of Music, such that no eavesdropper dares
to enter. Private Heavens, private Hells,
hushed like the confidential document,
all souls endure the slow departing bells
in secret sure, like this grave Monument.
Part Four of the book is "The Dark Side of the Deity," a poem in seven parts on "the metaphysics of sex and art." The poem begins with a series of prayers, heartfelt and sincere. Part Four of the poem purports to take a look at the "bare facts" of Salman Rushdieís The Satanic Verses, but soon makes the startling claims (startling because they are made by a devout Catholic poet) that Jesus Christ was "God as much as Shakespeare" and "nothing more than an Artist" for "Jesus never claimed Divinity" (an increasingly popular but highly dubious idea, as Jesus was tried and executed for claiming to be the Son of God; if he hadn't claimed divinity, there would have been no trial and no crucifixion). Eliotian-sized footnotes attempt to explain such radical claims, which some might take to do Jesus Christ the disservice of equating him with human artists compelled to cut and dice bite-sized, human-digestible cubes out of the universe. If God created the universe and was already the Supreme Creator and Artist, why on earth would he take on human flesh unless he had some motive other than art of creation? I would hazard the guess that, being an artist himself, Ruggier hopes to make the world perceive Jesus Christ as an artist in order to gain additional honor for artists like himself. But Jesus Christ was the antithesis of human artists because he did the exact opposite of what artists do. Artists create metaphors that are bridges from the particular to the universal. Jesus said that he himself was the Universal, the focal point of human existence, then used parables and metaphors that pointed men to himself: I am the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Door, the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, etc. If Shakespeare was the consummate artist, entirely missing in his own art, than Jesus was the opposite of the consummate artist, because all he offered was himself, artlessly. When Jesus pointed men to God the Father, then said "I and my Father are One," he in effect completed the circle that had revolved around his central Person from before the beginning of time. Human artists point men toward the divine. God points men toward himself. Non-Christians will likely dismiss all this out of hand. Joe Ruggier would likely agree with everything I've just said, which begs the question: why say what you don't mean, then resort to footnotes to mitigate the resulting confusion and damage?
Part Six of "The Dark Side of the Deity" is a poem called "Interlude" and it is one of Ruggier's strongest poems, and my favorite in the entire book. Here's a "stanza sampler" from the poem:
When Athens, sung in verse and prose,
caught all the world's imagination;
when Ilion fell, and Rome arose,
and Time went on like pagination:
Who but the Insult was the leveler,
Deliverer and bedeviler?
In Part Seven of the poem, "The Gospel According to His Divine Majesty
Pope Caesar United, The Lord's Devil and the Pope of Artists, and the Artist of
the Infinite ..." Ruggier proceeds to what I take to be his
previously-announced effort to make the Papacy a humorous work of art. I have to
admit that the humor here is mostly, often entirely, beyond me. While I don't
understand the points being made, or the humor, I find myself liking and
appreciating the way Ruggier depicts the victim of His Divine Majesty Pope
Caesar United. The victim is Man Generic, "an eccentric who lives in the
world alone in secret" who "knows that he is really and truly a
haunted Man ... haunted by the supernatural, the existence of which he has never
held in doubt." Man Generic seems and sounds much more interesting and
original than Pope Caesar United!
The book concludes with two essays on the author's life and writings, followed by a biography, a number of short reviews of the author's work, a list of publications by the author, and indices.
Let me close by saying that Ruggier writes well and passionately, and, like many original poets, may at times "hit the ball out of bounds" to the extent that readers can only momentarily follow the flight of the ball. But Ruggier is never a boring read, and This Eternal Hubbub surely lives up to its name!
The changes/revisions to the third revised edition of This Eternal Hubbub are by and large as follows, per Joe Ruggier:
The dedication is entirely different.
In the front pages a dedication poem, You are Jesus, has been added.
In the front pages a poem to Shannon Dyakowska, one of the persons to whom the new book is dedicated, has been added.
In the front pages the old authorís Preface to the 1st Edition has been replaced by a much briefer authorís Preface, which deals exclusively with stylistic and thematic matters in a more succinct fashion than the old Preface.
The old Authorís Preface has become two essays, My Encounter as Poet with Freud and Psychiatric Illness, and On My Own Writings, both of which have been extensively revised and rewritten, and both of which have been saved as original essays in their own right in Appendix One.
In Part 2 of the book, viz: Art and Revealed Religion, section 2 of the essay, which deals with imaginary conversations I have with great Artists, has been subtly rewritten in certain places. Some of the changes occur in the conversation with Shakespeare, in the conversation with Milton, possibly with Dante, and in various other places.
In Part 3 of the book, viz: Out of Blue Nothing, there may be slight changes to the sonnets as well as to the notes at the end on the meaning of the sonnets.
In Part 4 of the book, viz: The Dark Side of the Deity, there are extensive subtle changes to Section 4, The Satanic Verses or the Bare Facts, as well as to Section 7, The Gospel according to His Divine Majesty Pope Caesar Ö The changes here are subtle but quite extensive rewritings.
In Part 1 ó Poetry and the Gospels, Part 2 ó Art and Revealed Religion, Part 4 ó The Dark Side of the Deity, as well as in Appendix One ó the two essays I mention above, there are extensive footnotes, which did not exist in the first edition, which various assistants, including Esther Cameron, contributed as notes to help me prepare the 3rd revised Edition. Esther and a few other consultants carried out on my behalf a true editing task and contributed many comments, which in this edition I incorporated as footnotes in an effort to heighten the interest of the argument, the intellectual debate, as well as to qualify, carefully, my own theories and thinking. These notes have almost given the revised edition the feeling of having become a "casebook" incorporating not only the works of art in question but also a few qualified critical opinions. I do not think it is quite a "casebook" but almost Ö
Appendix Two has been added to the revised edition and this appendix comprises biography, reviews and publications sections.
Appendix Three has been added to the revised edition and this appendix comprises an extensive Bibliography of all the books I have read to prepare for the monumental labour of creating this book, an Index of first lines, and an extensive Index to the entire book.
Full colour photographs have been used throughout, together with all the original black and white illustrations as per the Table of Illustrations on page IX.
A full colour photograph of Mrs. Shannon Dyakowska, (deceased), has been added, on page IV, and, as a sincere tribute to my loyal public in Vancouver, Shannonís name, (she was my client before she died and her family are still my clients), has been included in the dedication.
The back cover has been entirely revamped with a totally fresh write-up about the thematic contours of the book.
The book was produced by my printer making use of an enhanced technology, viz: digital photocopying, which was not used in the production of the first edition. The result is that the resolution at which the book was produced is higher and the typesetting looks cleaner, clearer, and far sharper, particularly the serifs: this effect was produced giving the book, in my estimation, the appearance of having been done with less inking and far superior control of the inking process itself.
There were various other revisions, here and there, to problematic wordings of text.