Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets

Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets August 14, 2013
An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.
An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.

The last installment of this blog broached Paul Elie’s claim that fiction has lost its faith. Elie’s attack seemed to limit itself (wisely?) to the novel. It’s possible he didn’t think poetry has lost its faith. My response also went against the grain of Rachel Held Evans and her claim that Christians must assimilate because they have fallen off the cliff of respectable mainstream intellectual culture.

Tracy's The Analogical Imagination is the best place to start for a theology of the literary arts.
Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination is the mandatory starting place for anyone who wants to reflect upon the theological implications of the literary arts. It’s a contemporary classic.

Paul Elie probably meant to exclude poetry from his accusations of faithlessness, because it took me several hours last night to whittle down the list of poets who write from within a religious imagination. Their confessional identities vary from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran, and several other denominations. You will find among them winners of the following awards: Nobel, Pulitzer, T.S. Eliot, several PEN Faulkner awards, and so on.

These are not obscure figures by any stretch of the imagination. In other words, the head ain’t rotting and the fish is fresh.

I’d like to give you a taste with some representative poems (or fragments) from each one of these writers. Tomorrow we’ll take up the novelists, who, as you’ll see, contrary to Elie’s claims, are legion.

By the way, most of these writers were previously featured in IMAGE Journal, which is consistently a top five American literary journal in terms of circulation.

Nota Bene: The links given with each poet’s name land upon their prose collections. The ones included with the name of the collections whose stunning pictures grace this post land upon these very poetry collections. Please remember to follow the unique links featured in this post.

"Filtering the cruder light, he has endured, A feature for our regard; and will keep; Of worldly purity the stained archetype."
“…Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,
A feature for our regard; and will keep;
Of worldly purity the stained archetype…”

Geoffrey Hill from the Broken Hierarchies

“In Piam Memoriam”

1

Created purely from glass the saint stands,

Exposing his gifted quite empty hands

Like a conjurer about to begin,

A righteous man begging of righteous men.

2

In the sun lily-and-gold-coloured,

Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,

A feature for our regard; and will keep;

Of worldly purity the stained archetype.

3

The scummed pond twitches. The great holly-tree,

Emptied and shut, blows clear of wasting snow,

The common, puddled substance: beneath,

Like a revealed mineral, a new earth.

“…Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

Wendell Berry from the New Collected Poems

from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

…Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

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“…For even the godless feel something in a church, / A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is? / A trembling unaccounted by their laws, / An ancient memory they can’t dismiss…”

Dana Gioia from Pity the Beautiful

from “The Angel With a Broken Wing”

…I broke my left wing in the Revolution(Even a saint can savor irony)When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.

They hit me once—almost apologetically.For even the godless feel something in a church,

A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?

A trembling unaccounted by their laws,

An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.There are so many things I must tell God!

The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.

But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,

A crippled saint against a painted sky.

 

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“…poor thing, one is tempted
to say, so transformed
by its contact with you
is everything–“

Franz Wright from God’s Silence

“Transformation”

It gets late early now

This is

when I like to visit

you at the top of your hidden

still green stairway, holy

Mother with the downcast

eyes as a girl of sixteen

almost unnoticed the right bare foot pinning

the serpent with the one-

leafed little apple in its jaws

poor thing, one is tempted

to say, so transformed

by its contact with you

is everything–

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“…Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

Adam Zagajewski from Without End

“Try To Praise The Mutilated World”

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the grey feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

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“…Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition; / like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete / with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?…”

Les Murray from Learning Human

Poetry And Religion

Religions are poems. They concert

our daylight and dreaming mind, our

emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.

Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words

and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,

may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night

to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;

like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete

with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;

you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:

mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,

and God is the poetry caught in any religion,

caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry

is in the poem, a law against its closure.

There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,

as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –

who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Fanny Howe from Selected Poems

"Zero built a nest / in my navel..."
“Zero built a nest / in my navel…”

*

Zero built a nest

In my navel. Incurable

Longing. Blood too–

From violent actions

It’s a nest belonging to one

But zero uses it

And its pleasure is its own.

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“…these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.”
“Possible Answers to Prayer”
Your petitions—though they continue to bear

just the one signature—have been duly recorded.

Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent

entertainment value—nonetheless serve

to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath

a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more

conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,

the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes

recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly

righteous indignation toward the many

whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend

how near I am, with what fervor I adore

precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Me heart detests, reviles, denounces, loathes / Your absence with a passion like a furnace.
“My heart detests, reviles, denounces, loathes / Your absence with a passion like a furnace.”

Gjertrud Schnackenberg from Supernatural Love

“Sonata: Coda”

Me heart detests, reviles, denounces, loathes

Your absence with a passion like a furnace.

The shirt of love, said Eliot, will burn us;

And normally I’d add, “Love’s other clothes

Burn just as badly”—but, because I’ve bent

A rule or two, I won’t extend this figure;

Good taste prevents this piece from getting bigger;

Please see above for everything I meant.

 

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“…A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets / in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle, / while I invisibly remained standing…”

Tomas Tranströmer from The Great Enigma

“Kyrie”

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark.

A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets

in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle,

while I invisibly remained standing.

As the child falls asleep in terror

listening to the heart’s heavy tread.

Slowly, slowly until morning puts its rays in the locks

and the doors of darkness open.

=======================

Eleison.

It was intellectually (I had to eliminate so many writers I love), physically (the whole process took a long time), and emotionally (since these poems hit so close to the heart) exhausting to select these poems. I hope you do enjoy them. May they spur you on to read more of these writers. Tomorrow we tackle the novelists!

The fist installment in this series was “A Fish Rots From the Head Down” and there is now one on living novelists here (quite a diverse bunch, wouldn’t you say?).

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