Tuesday, March 24, 2009

100th Post: Clinton Larson On the Problem of Mormon Literary Art (Svithe)

I don't feel much like blogging today. So I'm doing it anyway. But I'm going to relegate my 100th post (this svithe) to Clinton Larson, the man Karl Keller, Mormon literary critic, called the first Mormon poet.

In this 1969 conversation with Dialogue, he comments on the problem of Mormon literary art and points toward the power of language in a way that's inspired me in my own efforts as a writer, as a poet. I'll be commenting more on this later (I'm sure), in my continued interactions as a Mormon deeply invested in the works of language and literature, so I won't add much more to his words than this: Woah. There's a lot of deep stuff here.

I look to some of the prophets for guidance in the problem of Mormon literary art. Take, for example, the great prophet-poet Nephi, who in Second Nephi indicates his great love of books. He claims that he is a poor writer, but to my mind he is a fine symbolist poet. He used the branch of the olive tree as a viable figure of speech. He had the same vision that his father Lehi had, a vision which involved profound metaphors and the affective interpretation of metaphors. Nephi’s expression was, of course, for the benefit of Laman and Lemuel and the whole family. But Nephi repeats the metaphors again and again to convert Laman and Lemuel to the truth, which is the method of the artist. And I think it is marvelous how he ends Second Nephi. He says farewell; the spirit of the Lord tells him to speak no more — no more will he be stirred to poetic expression. In his humility, he claims that what he has spoken is not poetic, but it is, with the substantive qualities of the best literature. Nephi’s farewell is particularly poignant because his great desire to communicate spiritually through symbolic language has failed, and because of Laman’s and Lemuel’s intransigence regarding the Lord’s will. What Nephi is trying to do is to cause his brothers to flex their minds and spirits so that they can accommodate greater and greater truths.

I think that as we look back to Joseph Smith, we see a man of tremendous capability, a great prophet and poet in every sense of the word. I am concerned that we do not lose that tradition of love of language and the great verbal ability, you see, that was invested in the early brethren of the Church. Not that this ability has been completely lost, but sometimes we adopt opinions that seem to negate its importance. We get doctrinaire rather than affective in our use of language. Mormons should cease sounding like medieval schoolmen, to whom religion became an abstract adjustment to religious theories; rather, we should leave most doctrinal matters to the latter-day oracles and then convey testimony and religion into the actualities of art and life. (74-5; italics mine)

Comments welcome.

I'm off to do some pondering...