The Surprising Return of Christian Poetry in America
Also: Is publishing in a crisis? Should brain implants treat addiction?
My and Sally Thomas’s anthology of Christian poetry was published yesterday. It’s called Christian Poetry in America since 1940, and it includes a healthy selection of the work of 35 poets born after 1940, with brief introductions to each poet’s work.
I am obviously untrustworthy on this point, but I think it’s an important book. Something has happened in America. We seem to be living at a time when a great number of accomplished poets are writing religious verse. The volume attempts to demonstrate this by presenting a selection of some of the best poets writing today from a variety of denominational backgrounds in a variety of styles. It in no way attempts to cover every poet, and some readers may be disappointed to see that we have passed over a favorite. But we hope that the volume will feel representative.
This is a book for people who love poetry and for those who don’t but want to love it. Pick one up at your favorite bookstore or online at Bookshop or Amazon. In the introduction, I take a stab at defining Christian poetry and explaining why Christian poetry seems to be flourishing in America. Below is a snippet.
When T. S. Eliot was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee unsurprisingly cited The Waste Land, with “its complicated symbolic language, its mosaic-like technique, and its apparatus of erudite allusion,” as one reason for his selection. The other poem it singled out was Four Quartets. Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy at the time, praised the poem’s “meditative music of words, with almost liturgical refrains and fine, exact expressions” of religious experience. Österling went on to argue that the two poems, so seemingly different, were of a piece: “His earliest poetry, so convulsively disintegrated, so studiously aggressive in its whole technical form, can finally also be apprehended as a negative expression of a mentality which aims at higher and purer realities and must first free itself of abhorrence and cynicism. In other words, his revolt is that of the Christian poet.” Russell Kirk saw the continuity between the earlier and later Eliot, too. In Eliot and His Age, he writes that The Waste Land’s assemblage of a “grander style and a purer vision in other centuries” casts light on our “parlous condition of abnormality”: “The Waste Land is the endeavor of a philosophical poet to examine the life we live, relating the timeless to the temporal. A Seeker explores the modern Waste Land, putting questions into our heads; and though the answers we obtain may not please us, he has roused us from our death-in-life.”
The view that The Waste Land was preparatory—an expression of the vacuity of life without “higher and purer realities” that was necessary in order to turn back to those higher realities—might be read as a statement of the poem’s inferiority, but that would be a mistake. The poem, rather, asks a question, as Kirk suggests, that Four Quartets will answer. That question is this: How can the old symbols and hierarchies (of presence over absence, order over disorder) possess so much beauty and power—particularly when compared to the flatness of a secular age—and simultaneously be merely illusory? The answer for Eliot was that the symbols are not illusory at all but real.
What followed Eliot, however, was a sustained attack on symbolism and meaning. In the early poetry of Wallace Stevens, for example, poetry is a beautiful game—sensuousness and sonorous—but a game nonetheless. Poetry does not point to some higher order but instead creates a temporary one out of musicality and a play of particulars. Later in life, Stevens wondered if poetry’s order wasn’t something received from a higher one rather than an arbitrary one created by the poet—“God and the imagination are one,” he wrote in 1951. But it was the early Stevens that captured the attention of younger poets, who were also inspired by the seemingly anti-symbolic work of William Carlos Williams and new ideas from France that conceived of language as entirely self-referential.
The history of American poetry in the twentieth century is complex, but one major development is the diminishment of the idea of poetry as symbol. Responding, in part, to the work of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, poets like Clark Coolidge, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman, among others, wrote poetry that called into question art’s capacity to reflect “reality.” Language does not represent feelings. It constructs feelings that benefit those in power. We see this idea expressed clearly in Ron Silliman’s fascinating but misguided 1987 essay “The New Sentence.” For Silliman, the function of language is purely political—in Linguistics and Economics, Silliman writes, Ferroccio Rossi-Landi shows that “language use arises from the need to divide labor in the community.” A sentence is a tool that increases the means of production, but over time this purely material function was obscured by those in power in order to refigure language as mimetic—-something that represented reality rather than something that constructed it—in order to make the market economy seem natural and consolidate power. The task of the poet in this view is to subvert the idea of language as symbol and make clear its constructivist nature by breaking the sentence into fragments, excluding context, and undermining syntactical hierarchy through parataxis, among other things. The use of some of these techniques, though without the serious philosophical commitments of writers like Silliman, have become de rigueur for young MFA graduates trying to gain the attention of publishers and university search committees who have an economic interest in appearing “cutting edge.” So much so, in fact, that Stephen Burt could refer to them, tongue partially in cheek, as a “school”—“Elliptical Poets”—in a 1998 piece for Boston Review: “Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-’postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise.” What Burt means by “otherwise” is “they want to entertain us as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” They want to return, in Auerbach’s terms, to a poetry that is all foreground and no background, that is all surface and no depth, that captures only the flux of the present.
It is unsurprising that Christian writers might react against this flat view of poetry by turning to figuration, form, and narrative. Poets like Robert B. Shaw, Dana Gioia, Andrew Hudgins, and Mark Jarman, among others, have turned to the examples of Donne and Eliot, Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, to create works of formal and narrative complexity. It is because of the distinctly Christian understanding of art as mimetic, broadly conceived, that the return to form in the United States beginning in the 1970s and 1980s has been largely, though not exclusively, a Christian one. At the same time, poets like Shane McCrae have drawn from the post-structuralist critique of language as pure representation to show how the West has suppressed the voices and experiences of the marginalized. The subversion one finds in his work is a distinctly Christian kind of subversion, where the poet speaks for the silenced minority and shows how the culturally determined language of Western Christianity can be just that—culturally determined—rather than a faithful representation of the ethic found in the Old Testament and the Gospels. Still others, like Scott Cairns, have shown how language always falls short of reflecting the totality of anything, in particular the person of God himself, who cannot be contained by the finite.
One point, in fact, that post-structuralism shares with Christianity is this very idea that language, as powerful as it is, cannot contain all of reality. Words always leave something out. Some aspect of the relationship between things goes unsaid. There is an element of mystery in life that cannot be resolved in speech and text. In “Pilgrims,” a poem about a visit to a small church, Robert B. Shaw writes that “Words are prone to blur in the fervent yearning / broadcast from the louvered bottom panes / of those embattled-looking pointy windows.” Clare Rossini writes in “Prayer of Sorts” that “all words / Are yoked to the mute.” “There’s nothing,” Bruce Beasley writes in “Doxology, “ the heavens haven’t uttered / already in shudders / of animation more firm than words.” Yet, imperfect as it is, language itself always turns us towards this mystery. “Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,” Jeanne Murray Walker writes in “Staying Power,” “wipe its face, set it down on the lawn, / and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire /again.” Whatever one thinks of the “linguistic turn” of the twentieth century, it has been one that has sparked, rather than extinguished, religious poetry.
What has been unexpected is that so many gifted poets should write openly religious work that would be published in major trade and university presses—and that one of those volumes, Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which begins with an apology for the existence of God, should win the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. In an introductory note to Christianity and Literature’s 2009 special issue on “Christianity and Contemporary Poetry,” Julia Spicher Kasdorf (who is also included in this volume), suggests that the fragmentation of poetry in America post-WWII, where one encountered the work of Bernstein and Silliman alongside the confessional work of the poetic heirs of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, the activist poetry of Amiri Baraka and June Jordan, and the musically vernacular work of Yusef Komunyakaa, has created a space for Christian poetry to develop along its own (multiple) lines. Contemporary poetry is now “as mongrel as anything else truly American,” Kasdorf writes, and Christianity does well in mongrel times.
No art flourishes without institutional support, however, and Christian poetry in America has benefited not only from the country’s network of hundreds of Christian colleges and universities, which is without parallel in the contemporary West, but also from religious magazines like First Things, The Christian Century, Commonweal, America, Plough Quarterly, and Books & Culture, among others, who have all always included original poetry in their pages. Image Journal, started by Gregory Wolfe in 1989, was and continues to be a major source of support for Christian writers, as are religious publishing houses like Paraclete, Eerdmans, St. Augustine’s Press, Wipf & Stock, Angelico, and Loyola, among others. The result has been a rich and varied body of work
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Thank you for bringing reader's attention to your book on Christian poetry. I am excited to order and read the collection; I have long thought that much of the best poetry today has Christian themes and challenges modern materialism.
Have you read Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg? It’s a fascinating history of the spice trade, particularly involving that once-more-valuable-than-gold spice and involves a very bad trade for an island in the New World. First book I ever read that really got me excited about history.