Introduction to Modern & Contemporary Christian Poetry

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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:

1. 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 the transcendent.
  • 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.]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding