As I’m reading around for an essay on religious dimensions of poetry, to be included in a forthcoming volume on religion and the arts, I’m struck by how dramatically the very topic of “religious poetry” has changed just in my lifetime.
When I was in college and grad school in literature in the 1960s, God was never mentioned in my courses—except as a metaphor. The poetry even of overtly religious writers like Herbert and Donne was read for its witty word-play; that these poets were believers was an unmentioned embarrassment to my professors.
I had the same experience as Kathleen Norris had at Bennington, where—she said in her conversation with Scott Cairns at the 2008 Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing—“I was educated to believe that I had left religion behind.” (Printed as “Looking Backward, Looking Inward: Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris in Conversation” in Christianity and Literature, Summer 2009.)
The scholarship of this peak secularist era is intriguingly convoluted when it wants to talk about the poetry of belief. Vincent Buckley’s Poetry and the Sacred (1968) does contorted definitional maneuvers in trying to distinguish the terms “religion,” “religious,” and “sacred,” in relation to poetry. He opts for the word “sacred” as the least unnerving term for his secularized academic audience.
Similarly William T. Noon, S.J., in his 1967 Poetry and Prayer, confessing at the start his challenge in taking on this topic in our “age of religious unbelief,” feels he must argue that prayer and poetry are of course two utterly distinct activities.
Writing a couple decades later, when deconstruction was all the rage, scholar Nathan Scott, in his 1993 Visions of Presence in Modern American Poetry, brilliantly undercuts the infinite regress of postmodernist semiotics: the play of signifiers with no reference outside themselves. Yet even Scott, in speaking of the religious grounding of certain major American poets, feels that he must use the term “presence” rather than a more overtly religious term in his discussions of the “reality” that grounds such poets as Auden and Wilbur.
As for poets themselves during most of the twentieth century in the West, if they were believers and wanted an audience, they did what Wilbur did so magnificently: envisioned ways to image a world imbued by spirit, but in terms that a religiously illiterate audience could relate to. Otherwise, like the British poet Geoffrey Hill—as Greg Wolfe observes in his editorial in the current Image (#66)—they were dismissed as slightly crazed if they boomed out as Hill did in a 1950s poem: “Against the burly air I strode/ Crying the miracles of God.” The exceptions of Auden and Eliot only prove the rule: they gained their poetic fame well before writing overtly Christian verse.
Yet now, what a sea change! The major poetry currently written by avowedly religious writers like Scott Cairns, Carolyn Forché, Franz Wright, Mark Jarman, Pattiann Rogers, and now even Mary Oliver is read by a wide audience. And a professor at the secular Middlebury College, Jay Parini, can publish his Why Poetry Matters in 2008 with the secular Yale University Press, drawing on explicitly religious language to speak about poetry. “Poetry,” he even writes, “could be viewed as a form of religious thought.”
How has this come about? How has religious poetry become acceptable in the academy and in the wider culture? Surely the journals Cross Currents, Christianity and Literature, and Image itself have done wonders to help make religious belief acceptable in the academic world and beyond.
But other forces, as well, must be at work. One might be that religion is now (as it wasn’t for most of the twentieth century) an acceptable topic in the public square; but religious rhetoric in the public square is usually used in divisive ways, not ones conducive to the nuance of poetry.
I’d love to hear from readers: what do you think accounts for this dramatic shift in the acceptance of “religious poetry”?