Poet Mark Jarman notes that it can take courage to write as a Christian poet: "[T]he religious poem of a believer has a quality of conviction that still resonates with extraordinary power, especially when one considers the risk the poet has taken to witness, in effect, in a poetic mode that has passed out of fashion" (76-77). That’s not quite true. Yet Jarman has touched on one of the essential struggles of being a contemporary poet of faith.

T.S Eliot in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" argued that every true poet is to be understood and understands his or herself within something greater:

Tradition is matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. [. . .] No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. (38)

For Eliot, tradition expresses a continuity with the past. Our present experience of it is part of who we are. Present poetic craft is understood within the context of past traditions that form it, for literature as a body of work is complexly related and makes specific claims on the poet.

Rationality, to borrow an insight from Hans-Georg Gadamer, is tradition based. Tradition is a broad, comprehensive style of rationality that unites literary, ethical, legal, and theological hermeneutics. Interpretation and application are not discrete steps; instead, they are deeply tied together: "A law does not exist in order to be understood historically, but to be concretized in its legal validity by being interpreted [. . .] Understanding here is always application" (309). Tradition is a practice which adapts itself and nuances its understanding as it encounters new concrete situations. In times of stress and fracture, however, the tradition may become more self-aware.

Mark Jarman's recent collection, Unholy Sonnets, for example, has its basis both in the sonnet tradition as shaped by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Robert Frost among others, as well as the tradition of holy complaint beginning with the biblical psalms and continuing up through the dark sonnets of Hopkins and the poems of absence and doubt of R.S. Thomas and R. A. K. Mason.

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"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