This is my 200th post for Good Letters. There’s something about round-number occasions, isn’t there? They move us to reflection, which is what this anniversary has done for me. I’m recalling how Good Letters got started, and how our blog has developed since then.
Late in 2008, several of us who’d been connected with Image in some way were invited to be on the team of writers for this blog that Image was initiating. We were chosen because of our interest in, or practice of, a particular art form. Mine was poetry: not that I write it, but I’d written lots about the experience of reading it.
Like Image, Good Letters was to focus on the relations between art and faith. I was thrilled by this opportunity to explore my love of poetry in relation to my Christian faith. And this is what my earliest posts did.
My very first, “Auden, God, and Art,” was on W. H. Auden’s sense of Christianity as loving one’s neighbor as oneself. For Auden, I wrote, this meant “forgetting one’s own ego, truly attending to someone or something other than oneself.” The many proper names in Auden’s poetry were his way of doing this: of focusing on the unique reality of the other.
And God, Auden wrote in “Epithalamium,” is “the One… / Who numbers each particle/ by its Proper Name”—a deity who knows the personal name of every electron in the universe.
I wrote many other early posts on the poetry/faith connection. One, called “Resonant Silence,” explored the pauses in poetry as a spiritual experience. I quoted poet Lee Young Li saying that the very purpose of poetic language is to “inflect the silences. It’s like after church bells ring: the air resonates with their sound. In poetry, the silences are resonant, from the language that precedes them.”
Another post, “No Keys in Poetry’s Doors,”[#10] quoted poet Luci Shaw, well known to the Image community, saying that “poetry, as well as any of the arts, is my soul crying out to your soul.”
What distinguished Good Letters from the start was that its genre was the personal essay: a meditation, rather than the polemics that characterized most blogs at the time. And as my fellow bloggers and I got further along, we found ourselves meditating on arts other than our “assigned” genre and wanted to branch out beyond our particular art form.
In one of my first forays outside poetry, I wrote about a street performance of Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans, in which the government’s abandonment of residents in distress becomes implicitly the play’s absent God
As the blog continued, we’d write posts on some aspect of our faith apart from any art form. My fiftieth post was about how Christians should engage our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Then we eased into posts on something in our experience that wasn’t explicitly about either faith or art.
Over the years I’ve found myself drawn to writing posts about various social justice issues. Remembering that the Good Letters’ genre wasn’t polemics but reflective personal essay, I wrote, for instance, about visiting my father’s workplace as a child in the 1950s and being puzzled by the signs “Colored” and “White” above adjacent water fountains.
I also wrote about my personal experience of the early feminist movement: how we women began speaking to each other not just about diapers and recipes but from our souls, sharing how it felt finally to be called not “girls” but “women.”
And I wrote, in “Bless Those Who Curse You,” about the July Fourth parade in which I marched with my “Medicare for All” group and a man shouted “Screw you!” from the sidewalk; how I put into my practice my studies of nonviolence and went over to him to try to have a calm discussion of the issue. My effort failed; he continued cursing me.
I’ve always, though, come back to poetry as my “grounding.” Sometimes it has been about a quality of poetry in general, as in a post elaborating on the “play of words” that’s the core of all fine poetry, even if the topic is “serious.”
Often it has been a review of a new poetry collection, though even in reviews I’ve tried to keep in mind the personal reflection genre of our posts. So in reviewing Jill Peláez Baumgaertner’s What Cannot Be Fixed, I wove my own experiences of brokenness through my discussion of the title poem.
Some of my posts have done a sort of flip of this one: focusing on a specific lived experience while bringing in poems to aid in the reflection. “Still Life” does this: begins with an instant’s glimpse of my husband of forty-plus years, quietly absorbed in his knitting; then moves into lines of poetry by James Harpur and Kathleen Norris that hold onto a graced moment like this one; then closes by naming specific “moments of grace” that I want to “abide in.”
Wednesday I’ll continue reflecting on my 10+ years of writing for Good Letters.
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.