Books & Culture

A review of “Wisdom and Folly: A Book of Devotional Doggerel,” by Joe Long (Covenant Books, 136 pages, $14.95)

A Long View of American Life

Do we choose wisdom or folly? We should choose wisely but, in the choosing, also make sure to bring along a sense of humor.

Joe Long is an unusual poet, if by unusual you mean someone who values and understands tradition. While some of what passes for today’s poetic musings are neither amusing nor poetic, Long’s poetry stands out as a refreshing throwback in both of these categories.

Long’s debut collection of poems, Wisdom and Folly: A Book of Devotional Doggerel (Covenant Books, Inc., 2020), is a great example of not letting the zeitgeist determine the style of poetry—or worse, not letting a poet’s work turn into yet another fad that, like any fad, will soon be forgotten.

Divided into three sections, this collection reveals Long as a poet who inherently understands the tradition of poetry as well as the difficulties of the times in which we live. Some of the poems have been published before, most notably in online magazines such as American Greatness, The Stream, and Touchstone, while others are freshly presented in this collection. 

The first part is entirely devotional. Although Long makes it clear at the beginning of the book that the poems “sprang from” his “devotions,” they are not meant to serve as guides for the reader’s spiritual reflections. Of course, any reader of this book will soon realize that there might be a joke in here since most of the poems are either explicitly or implicitly funny. 

Perhaps these reflections should indeed serve as a spiritual guide through our godless galaxy. The poems are accompanied by a Scripture verse, which serve as Long’s springboard for each poem. Biblical verse guides but, more importantly, illuminates Long’s verse.

Although Long takes religion very seriously, the poems are not meant to be humorless chunks of wisdom hitting one like big boulders over the head with their unimaginative catechism. Mirth is at the heart of Long’s work, too. Even at the beginning, we get the sense that we can expect humor as a vehicle to truth. 

In “Courting Disaster,” as if channeling Geoffrey Chaucer, Long reflects on the meaning of relationships between men and women: “If she has her heart set upon ‘having it all,’ / Then forget not thy codpiece: thou’rt in for a brawl.”

As the title implies, the interplay between wisdom and folly is at the core of our society at every point in history. Circumstances and specific events may change but we act in ways that are either smart or foolish, but often predictable. In “The Rivals,” Long writes:

Wisdom is a lady; Folly’s a coquette.
Wisdom doesn’t waste time “playing hard to get”:
Indeed, she’ll approach you, look you in the eye
Wisdom isn’t easy, but she isn’t shy. 

Folly doesn’t seek you; she pretends to hide.
Every fool, though, finds her, and none are denied
Prompt admission into her lavish affections
Sharing other fools’ fates (and sometimes, infections).

Long elevates the poetic discourse and treats the question of being wise versus being foolish with great care and precision, yet he always throws in a joke: one can only wonder what kind of “infections” folly may bring.

The second part of this collection consists of notes on poems, which are not necessarily “required” reading. Yet, these notes are not mere afterthoughts or a peek at what the poet might think about his own work. Rather, they are exegetical in nature, and invite further pondering not only about the poems but more importantly, the Scripture that inspired them. There is a sense of relationality among the poems, the Scripture verse (Proverbs, the Book of Job, and others), and the poet’s commentary.

Some poems are less devotional, particularly those that are found in the third part of the collection. Most of them were previously published in the online pages of American Greatness, and they are presented as a commentary on the ailments and absurdities of today’s society. In “Values on Parade,” Long reflects on the empty principles of leftism and ideology, false virtue, and false justice. He writes:

“Redistribute All the Things!”
Hear Greed and Envy chant together—
(Sloth and Gluttony stayed home…
There was a rumor of bad weather.) 

Now, we see the festive Wrath Parade,
Angry pink hats upon their heads!
(Sloth and Gluttony observe—
Virtually, of course, from their soft beds).

There is always an infusion of original sin in the poems, as well as of unique kinds of sins that we make on our own. For Long, Scripture is not some ancient text that one looks at occasionally, to be treated as some faux spiritual novelty or curiosity. Rather, Scripture fully embodies the everyday-ness of our lives as well as a larger picture of the destruction of the order of things. Whether directly or indirectly, he wants us to ponder what happens when we attempt to “cancel” God. Talk about folly!

All of the poems in Wisdom and Folly have a component of the sacred and the profane, and the reader is meant to think about what it means to choose one or the other. Of course, none of us is perfect and there is an interesting mixture of the sacred and the profane in all of us.   Do we choose wisdom or folly? Choose wisely, implies Long, but in the choosing make sure to bring along a sense of humor.