Faith and Poetry

Poetry arises where language meets mystery. With that beginning, my poet-friend Michael Beadle and I presented two evenings at our Methodist church on “Faith and Poetry.” In doing so, we were swimming in a rising river of interest in this connection. It seems to me that there is an increasing openness in general to poetry with religious and spiritual themes in many places.

For instance, Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, has taken up a post in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. This past weekend Michael and I enjoyed hearing the Kentucky poet Maurice Manning and participating in a short workshop with him.

For one example of his imaginative exploration of spiritual themes, we can recommend his earlier book Bucolics (2007). All of this may be part of the reconstituting of the arts in a post-secularist age.

To explore this connection we first identified the way poetic utterance and writing arises out of our own struggles with life’s mysteries of beauty, love, death, evil, and purpose. We began with poetry of praise and exultation. I drew from pieces in Turnings as well as other, unpublished poems. Michael was drawing from his recent publication, Invitation (2013) and other writings.

Both of us connect natural beauty with the impulse to praise, whether in walking into a forest in morning’s crisp light, or seeing the iridescent greens of spring’s cathedral.

We then turned to contemplation and meditation through poetry. By heightening our perception of particulars, whether they be wooden spoons, seabirds, blossoms or bull elks, they help us focus our life energy like a laser light, illuminating new dimensions of awareness.

Both of us felt that humor, which arises out of startling juxtapositions and paradoxes, can split open our experience in a revealing way. One might say that appreciative laughter means that we are closer to the awesome mystery that calls into question the pretensions, illusions, defenses and lies by which we navigate the shoals of a dangerous world.

Michael’s “In God we rust” arose from seeing a sign that had lost its “T.” My own poem, “The Learning Curve,” reported on the humbling experience of learning how to tie my shoes properly.

If poems can do anything, it is to sensitize us to a suffering world, indeed, to our own disguised suffering as well. One of Michael’s poems, “Spearfinger,” adapted an old Cherokee story to confront us with the duality in all our lives. I shared with them the poem “Abide with Him,” which just appeared in an earlier posting here.

Finally, returning to our lead, we tried to show how poetry breaks our language open so it can point to the mystery that is beyond words. Better yet, perhaps the wider mystery that engulfs us is an intensification of language, in which it breaks open, melts, and crystallizes into different forms.

The second evening was given over to the work of poetry in the church. We began with ways a poem can recast or reframe a biblical story to confront us with dimensions we had missed within the conventional familiarity of narratives about King David, Mary, and Jesus.

We then turned to ways poetry informs religious education, whether as an aid to memory or by introducing us to questions that take us to a new level of understanding. Rhymes, cadences, and of course the songs they shape, enable us to remember things long after our discursive memory is lamed by age or trauma.

We concluded with some poems that might recast our understanding of corporate worship, especially in the Protestant churches, where the prose of morals, creeds, and dogma often do more to shackle our spirits than release and revive them. For us, worship is deeply connected to music, which is perhaps the most important frame of utterance for poetry.

In a time when popular music has lost its way in a welter of noise, poets might help us reclaim song as a vehicle of words, both working together to open up our lives in new and startling ways.

We’re going to do some more of this. We’re working on poems as part of a medley of songs and anthems leading us into the mystery of Advent, working against the grain of our culture. If you’d like to say what’s going on with poetry and faith in your locale, please add it to the comments box below.