|Over the course of the semester, we will be challenging
literary critic Helen Vendler's observation that "there is no significant poet whose
work does not mirror, both formally and in its preoccupation, the absence of the
transcendent." To do this, we will be reading three poets together--two key
figures of modernism, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, and an important poet from the
contemporary era, the Australian Les Murray. We will also be presenting reports on
additional poets of Christian faith from the modern poetic scene. We will be paying
particular attention to how a poet's Christian faith impacts his or her conception of the
world--the subjective self, nature, community, gender, the body, history, the
transcendent. As we begin, here are two questions to consider:
Is there such a thing as "Christian" poetry?
- Some, including some Christians, would say, "no." A
poem is a poem, either good or bad. It may have a sensibility that interacts with a
faith tradition, but the poem itself accomplishes its power regardless of that tradition.
The strength of this model is that it stresses the formal and constructed
craft of a poem. The drawback to this model is that it tries to compartmentalize religious
sensibility from a poem's value. This isn't always possible.
- Others would say that a poem or any literary text is Christian if
it reflects a truth a Christian can agree with. The strength of this model is that it
recognizes what Arthur Homes argued: "All truth is God's truth." This, however,
makes almost anything potentially Christian and essentially renders the designation
meaningless for discussion purposes.
- Still others would say that a poem or any literary text is
Christian if it reflects a truth limited to the Christian worldview. This is
more focused than the second definition. It allows one to talk about a poem's
"Christianity" regardless of whether the poet is himself or herself of Christian
faith. This can be a useful way to talk about poets who have been impacted by
Christianity. However, it also has the same potential drawbacks as the second
because it defines a text in a way an author could be uncomfortable with. Moreover,
it also runs the risk of placing a work too quickly within a Christian worldview rather
than another tradition where it more readily belongs.
- Some have suggested that a poem is Christian simply if it deals
with themes and figures associated with Christianity, e.g. Jesus, the church,
salvation, etc. Of course, this overlooks that a figure such as Jesus can be treated
in a way antithetical to Christianity. However, this model does allow one to avoid
deciding the orthodoxy of a poem and focus on its impact.
- And some have suggested that a poem is Christian if its author is
a professing Christian. The strength of this is an established association in
the author's own life. The weakness of this position is that it also overlooks the
question of a poem's orthodoxy. After all, it is possible for a Christian poet to
write a poem that works against his or her Christian commitment.
- I would suggest, then, that each model has some merit depending on
how the question is framed. An interpretation that is exploring a poem historically
might look at an author's faith commitment or the influence of Christianity on the author.
An interpretation that is evaluating a poem theologically might look at the poem's
relationship to the Christian worldview. And an interpretation that is
focusing on a poem's formal craft might study the religious sensibility of the poem within
the context of its composition and power as a poem.
2. What does Christianity have to say about the content,
craft, and vocation of poetry?
- Christianity affirms a world which is understandable and where truth
is embodied in the physical and particular aspects of creation.
- Time, orality, and mystery are all aspects of poetic structure and
experience which Christianity can speak to. They are also things which poems may be
particualrly suited for.
- The world and literature can be understood from a sacramental
perspective, as an experience of glory and beauty.
- The Christian religion is also concerned with truth-telling, ethical
responsibility, honest interpretation, and matters of spiritual practice. We
interpret and write with our whole persons.
- The Christian worldview has something to say about poetry as
discovery, craft, and tradition. It may also have a critique to offer of
neo-Romantic notions of the poet as prophet, as well as notions that affirm a denial of
- Likewise, the confessional, personal aspects of the poet's calling,
including that of inspiration and suffering have a place within Christian thought.
[A more sustained treatment of this topic, "Notes Toward a Theolgical Definition of Poetry" should be
read before the midterm this semester.]