By Kelsey Marie Bowse.

Few religious poets presently active are as prominent as James Matthew Wilson. Kelsey Marie Bowse caught up with Dr. Wilson to discuss his faith, his craft, and his journey toward where he is today. 

James Matthew Wilson is a celebrated Catholic poet and an award-winning scholar of philosophical theology. I see Wilson as a poet with an activist heart and an entrepreneurial spirit—an artist who is living out his Catholic faith in the modern world.

Wilson began his career as a fiction writer. “I was working on writing novels and aimed for that to be my calling in life,” he explained in our conversation. 

He wrote four novels and around one hundred short stories and was enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program in fiction writing. But he had an epiphany one day that fiction writing “no longer gave me joy.” 

He realized that writing fiction was a career—and nothing more than that. “What was giving me joy was reading poetry, thinking about poetry,” Wilson added. 

Wilson said, “There’s just no possibility of making any kind of living with poetry, or so I thought. I knew that I would always be doing it for the right reason—the reason I most cared about, which was for the love of the artform.” 

If you read Wilson’s poetry, it’s almost immediately apparent that he’s committed to the poetic form—in every sense of the word. This is part of Wilson’s brilliance as a poet. 

“Fairly early on when I was writing fiction, I discovered poetic meter and really became fascinated with the way verse works.” Many contemporary poets have abandoned form altogether, but Wilson has found freedom and a voice within those boundaries. 

G.K. Chesterton said in his collection of essays entitled Tremendous Trifles, “boundaries are the most beautiful thing in the world. To love anything is to love its boundaries.” 

“What I love about Chesterton was his appreciation of the humble, the local and particular and our devotions to the incarnate condition in which we live. God has providentially ordered us to love that which we are nearest to and to accept the limits our places impose upon us,” Wilson said. 

He intuits that we must also accept “the bounding characteristics of form and the limits they impose” in the arts. To further illustrate this point about the beauty of poetic limits, Wilson cited William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.” 

“If you know that wonderful sonnet of Wordsworth (with succession of images of the acceptance of limits) and those limits include the limit of the sonnet.” 

Wilson said, “Limits are invariably generative of depth and new life. As Chesterton would say, you put a boundary about your garden so it doesn’t get trampled. You need firm limits for things to grow.” 

I’m starting to think Wilson has an edge on the free verse contemporary poets of modern society—a respect for and a strict adherence to the boundaries of the poetic form. You might find it in a well-ordered stanza, or an appropriately placed comma, or a rhythm that just makes sense for that type of poem. 

“While it’s often fruitful to think of poetic form as a kind of limit imposed, it’s best understood and most truthfully understood as the internal order that brings the English language to a certain kind of perfection and fulfillment of its nature. I think Chesterton understood that. He understood that the respect of limits is in fact a means for things to be themselves, to fulfill themselves.” 

It naturally flows from his appreciation for metrical poetry that Wilson would point to metrical poets including W.B Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, and W.H. Auden as a few of his key influences.

Wilson emphasized, “They’re all the great metrical poets. Auden never wrote mere free verse. Yeats wrote one free verse poem in his whole life. They’re really four of the greatest poets in the twentieth century.”

Wilson grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and attended St. Thomas Aquinas School. “I don’t remember anyone at the school ever telling us the great riches that are to be found in the study of that saint’s writings,” Wilson lamented. 

In his early childhood, he fell in love with the poet Yvor Winters. “He was not a Catholic. He was not a Christian. He was a very minimal theist.” 

Even though Winters was not religious, he was enamored with the writings of Aquinas, and strangely enough this is what led to Wilson’s love and deep study of Aquinas. “When I want to know what wisdom is, I turn to Aquinas,” he said. 

His next book of poems will be called St. Thomas and the Forbidden Birds. “I’m looking forward to publicly honoring the saint who should be the patron saint of artists,” Wilson said. He explained that Aquinas distills the ancient wisdom of the church, and in doing so perfects it and brings it to “perfection of expression, and that is something that every artist ought to be attentive to.” 

Wilson grew up next to the daughter of filmmaker Frank Capra, who spent much of her adult life teaching creative writing in prisons. And Capra himself is, of course, famous for directing the classic American film It’s a Wonderful Life

“The people who are your friends and neighbors are doing fascinating things.” Wilson tuned into this and carried that entrepreneurial spirit into his own life as a poet, essayist, and scholar with a wife and five children. 

Four years ago, I attended Colosseum Summer Institute, a four-day poetry workshop that Wilson organized. It was held at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in mid-summer. I believe this workshop was a stepping stone towards his vocation of building up a community of Catholic writers. 

The workshop itself felt like I was in a dream sequence where beauty manifested itself under the Steubenville summer sky, with young and old writers alike workshopping their poems together and unpacking the writings of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. At the opening dinner reception, Wilson’s wife was present with their young baby in tow. How refreshing it was to see a mother there with her young infant. 

“My father-in-law is one of the most distinguished wine makers in the U.S. I admire his work, as I admire anyone who does a good job of making something.” 

His father-in-law’s wine business reminded Wilson of his early entrepreneurial ambitions. “When I was working in finance, I was always running to the bathroom to read T.S. Eliot. This was the entrepreneurial opportunity for me. In founding this program, I believe that I’m serving God, and serving the church.” 

Wilson is raising up a generation of artists who are attentive to both literary form and the Catholic tradition. His poem “Those Days of Weighted Solitude” offers a glimpse of what propelled him forward to where he is today: running a Catholic MFA program. 

…I’d drag myself, head bowed,

The leaf bed softening my steps to silence,

But bowed as well beneath the gravity

My weekly pilgrimage had taken on:

To hear the back door latch as it fell closed

Upon the darkness of the drowsing house,

And feel that solitude bear down on me

With absent weight, as I went off alone

To Mass. A few blocks down: the little church

With blunted turrets built of golden brick,

The shade of fallen leaves, and peaked with domes

Whose round tops balanced each a crucifix.”

When asked what inspired this poem, Wilson said “This poem is dear to me. It captures my experience as a young person getting up in a college town in Ann Arbor on Sunday mornings and going to mass by myself.” 

There are multiple levels of solitude that the poem brings to light: the solitude of being “the rare college student” who wakes up to attend mass, the solitude of the fact that his faith was “tremulous” at the time, and the solitude of a single person who doesn’t have a family yet attending mass alone. 

He likened this solitude to that of the apostles in the Upper Room. He said, “They are convinced that Christ alone has the words of eternal life but now they are afraid that He has abandoned them.” 

There were some moments of consolation, even during this Upper Room period. During his senior year of college, he went to receive communion at his usual parish on the west side of campus and standing before him was his creative writing professor from his freshman year. 

“He was sort of an ex-hippie but now was a deacon at the Catholic church who was about to give me the host. He represented for me as a young person the kind of secular environment that was pretty much all encompassing on the University of Michigan’s campus. And there he was, like me, at the altar in the name of the Eucharist,” Wilson explained. 

He was raised Catholic but felt like he took many facets of the faith, including the liturgy, for granted. Wilson said, “I looked across that campus and I saw the great ‘panoply’ or ersatz or imitations of the liturgy. It seemed as if everybody on that campus had their god, had their ritual, had their rite and their moral doctrine or their theological doctrine. All these things looked like cheap imitations of the genuine liturgy in which we receive Christ.” 

Wilson added, “I was shaken by seeing the religious instinct that’s present in every person run amuck in the name of various causes which are all too familiar to us today: the religious obsession with secularity or bodily autonomy or whatever pet project of justice or identity politics that might have happened to invade the soul of that person.” 

Soon he came to realize that he was looking at parodies of the true, which led to the conclusion that “human beings are fundamentally and irreducibly religious.” Wilson beautifully captures his devotion to God and the saints in his poetry and essays.  

“What I want people to realize about poetry is that it’s an intellectual engagement with the pursuit of truth. It does these things chiefly by being a humble craft written in verse,” he explained. 

Wilson’s most recent book, Catholic Modernism and the Irish “Avant-Garde:” The Achievement of Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, and Thomas MacGreevey, was released in late January.

Kelsey Marie Bowse has written for Christianity Today, Ekstasis Magazine, and the Chicago Tribune. She studied communications and philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and completed a poetry workshop at Franciscan University.

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