Jan 25, 2007

Some Modern Religious Poems

The Poetry Foundation recently put out a feature article by poet Mark Jarman about modern religious poetry entitled “Original and Unorthodox: Ten religious poems worth knowing.” In light of the topics we have been discussing lately on this blog, the article is worth a brief look, though perhaps no more than a brief one. The article can be found at:


As a Wintersian, I don’t consider most of the “poetry” Jarman recommends to be poetry exactly, nor most of the prose reflections -- a form of literature which I would like to see everyone begin to call “musings” rather than poems -- to be all that well written as prose (let alone as poetry). But a few lines and turns of phrase were worth reading and a few of the nearly random ideas were worth pondering. I doubt that Yvor Winters would have wasted more than a minute of his time on any of this work except for, perhaps, the only two pieces in the list that I, and probably Winters, would consider poetry, those by Edwin Muir and W.H. Auden. Muir’s piece is a moderately sharp, loosely coherent, and mildly insightful study of hope and unorthodox Christian salvation written in a loose blank verse. The idea that all creation, even all evil deeds and horrors, will be redeemed at the end of all time, which Jarman takes to be “unorthodox” in some way, is actually an ancient idea that goes back to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

Auden’s verse never impressed Winters much, nor me. His flaccid meters and meandering poems probably would have not passed muster with him, as they often don’t with me, though he is at times worth reading. Winters mentioned Auden only once in his published writings and very seldom in his letters. He claimed to have read him. I take it that he was very little impressed, since he didn’t consider it worth his time to write about his work. But that’s just a reasonably well informed guess. Perhaps someone who knew Winters better could enlighten us all on his take on Auden.

Concerning the remaining eight poems -- or rather musings, as I should begin saying -- that Jarman has chosen, they are all just prose chrestomathies of observations that try to be sparklingly witty and resolutely serious. None of these remaining poems is closely argued or presented as a rational statement about some aspect of human experience. They proceed almost by pure association, a widespread and tiresome way to construct a poem -- to me. The first piece, John Berryman’s, can serve as representative. It is little more than an unorganized catalog of observations in prose broken into random lines and pointless four-line stanzas, in which Berryman tries hard to use unusual words and syntax in order to appear intelligent and sensitive. The poem has little coherence, save the “poet’s” whimsy. A few of Berryman’s observations are interesting, one or two are even sound and striking in one way or another. But this is far from great or even good poetry. It’s not even especially good prose.

I noticed in passing that one of people who left a comment to the article asked for poems about atheism. This has been a topic lately on this blog, especially concerning Thomas Hardy’s work, in which that reader might find a congenial metaphysical view -- at least according to Adam Kirsch, who in writing of Hardy recently in the New Yorker so strongly emphasized his atheism, accurately or not.

It’s worth noting that many of the poems Yvor Winters chose for the Winters Canon (follow the easy links to the Canon through the Ben Kilpela web site, the home page of which is linked in the right column on this blog) are concerned with religion or metaphysics (in the traditional sense, not the modern magical sense, which refers to beliefs in such peculiar ideas as the efficacy of tarot cards) in one aspect or another. Winters’s choices are well worth knowing, everyone one worth memorizing, in my judgment. They are far superior to anything offered in Jarman’s article, though I think Jarman’s poems are worth reading, at the bare minimum -- though they’re not really “worth knowing,” as Jarman claims. Well, maybe I’m being too harsh. The Muir poem might be worth knowing, and there are a few scattered fragments in the other poems worth knowing, if you want to wade through all the useless chunks and crumbs and chips to find them. Here’s a few modern religious poems (several atheistic in one sense or another) from the Winters Canon to get you started:

1. “My spirit will not haunt the mound”, Thomas Hardy [I have quoted this poem in full on this blog already.]

2. “The Virgin Mary”, Edgar Bowers [John Fraser did NOT choose this great poem for his New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing on this blog from time to time. I must come back to this ommission, for I think Fraser has made a mistake in judgment.]

3. “Love Not Too Much,” Robert Bridges [I have quoted this poem in full as well on this blog.]

4. “Epigram 43, J.V. Cunningham (“In whose will is our peace”)

5. “Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb,” Wallace Stevens

6. “Sunday Morning,” Wallace Stevens

7. “O strong to bless,” Elizabeth Daryush

8. “Autumn, dark wanderer,” Elizabeth Daryush

9. “To the Holy Spirit,” Yvor Winters [In my judgment, this is perhaps the single greatest poem in English.]

10. “For Elizabeth Madox Roberts,” Janet Lewis

11. “Indecision,” Helen Pinkerton

12. “Error Pursued,” Helen Pinkerton

Lots of superb poetry there. And there’s certainly more in the Winters Canon and more excellent work by these poets that concerns religion in general, if you care to pursue more of their best work. I hope you can find the poems. Most university libraries will have them all, as well as Winters’s anthology containing them, Quest for Reality. I’d just print them all out if I weren’t worried about copyright. I will try to trickle out a few poems without getting permissions, on the assumption that if I find it printed on an American web site, my reprint here will slide in under the law.

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