The Rough Pearl

Laura Kasischke said in a recent interview, “What I really like when I’m reading … is imagery … to have the stuff of the world put into language.” She reads a passage from her recent novel Mind of Winter in which Holly, a poet, “imagined vomiting it out of herself, like vomiting up a swan.” What an image for the creative process! You might say of course you’d expect a poet to say they love imagery. But I think it’s not “of course” at all.

Stephanie Burt is also a fan of Kasischke, and in his wonderful essay on what he calls the “Nearly Baroque,” he describes a trend in contemporary poetry toward “art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first.” Burt says, “The nearly Baroque is also a femme aesthetic, and all its practitioners know it; almost all are women ….” Similarly (but also in contrast!), 17th century Baroque art, Burt says, was “distinguished by some combination of complexity, virtuosic technique, asymmetry, grandeur, theatricality, and violence.”

Bernini St Teresa

One of the best known Baroque sculptures is Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Baroque art is often linked with Catholicism, as the Catholic Church promoted it as a way of combating Protestantism. Whether in the earthy, realistic paintings of Caravaggio or the voluptuous, luxurious sculptures of Bernini, the Church championed or coopted (depending on your point of view) Baroque art to appeal to ordinary people with its direct, passionate drama.

The Protestant Reformation was “iconoclastic” both in the sense of protesting Catholic dogma and in the literal sense of protesting religious icons themselves—protesting the literal and figurative wealth of imagery in Catholic churches. If Protestantism was iconoclastic, Catholicism was iconophiliac.

So why does this matter? It matters to me because I’m an image-driven, image-loving writer, an atheistic writer with a Catholic aesthetic. It’s not a coincidence that in the video of the Kasischke interview you can see religious icons covering her walls.

When I went to Rome a few years ago, our guide timed our tour of St. Peter’s to coincide with a celebration of Mass with all its ornaments: music, incense, colorful vestments. I don’t think Bernini’s Chair of St. Peter is very impressive in reproduction, but believe me: its tumbling, thundering clouds of marble were impressive framed by Bernini’s Baldacchino through the clouds of incense.

Papal Altar  with Bernini's baldacchino, aint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

What Bernini’s Chair reminded me of more than anything was Yosemite Falls, whose power and beauty are also almost impossible to capture in a photograph but similarly transform the term “awe-inspiring” into something no longer a cliché. “Baroque” originally meant “barroco,” a rough, irregularly shaped pearl, and referred to the asymmetric, rough-hewn figures of Baroque art. Look at St. Teresa’s rumpled gown in Bernini’s sculpture, let alone the look on her face and her very unclassical pose. I can understand people mistrusting that sort of art precisely because of its “grandeur” and theatricality, but it’s hard for me to resist its rough-hewn grandeur. If I have to choose, I’ll side with the image-lovers.