It might be odd to say, but one prominent virtue of two new anthologies of Christian poetry is their prose.
The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse
Chosen and introduced by Edward Short; foreword by Dana Gioia
412 pages, Gracewing, 2022
Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology
Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas
205 pages, Iron Pen, 2022
It might be odd to say, but one prominent virtue of two new anthologies of Christian poetry is their prose. The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse includes both an introduction by compiler Edward Short, which details the rationale behind his own selection of poetry ranging from Caedmon and The Dream of the Rood all the way to my colleague James Matthew Wilson’s “Through the Water,” and a 22-page foreword by the contemporary poet and critic Dana Gioia that makes the case for poetry as “an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice” for Christians.
In fact, Gioia’s marvelous five-part essay ends with a call for the revival of Christian poetry in the cause of revival of a full-blooded Christian faith. Gioia, as both a poet and a successful former executive (at General Foods and then as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) argues very practically that while other art forms such as ecclesiastical architecture would help revive the Christian imagination, poetry produces the most bang for the buck: “It takes a century and several fortunes to build a cathedral; by comparison, poetry is cheap, quick, and—unlike St. John the Divine—it’s portable.” With a nod to contemporary shibboleths, he adds that it is “a renewable resource that can be recycled from speaker to listener” and “leaves no carbon footprint; the only feet are metrical.”
Given that this volume was designed by Short to serve as an introduction to upper-school students at the Schools of Saint Mary in Manhasset, New York, it is fitting that such essays be there both to inspire potential poets and also to help them see themselves as part of the story of poetry in English, a story in which the best coheres not only aesthetically but also in its attention to Christian faith—even in poems not explicitly doctrinal. Even nonbelievers such as Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, and Philip Larkin could write poems that were suffused with Christianity, even if they took no comfort in it themselves. It will not only be high school students who benefit from these essays; many an adult with some knowledge of English literature and faith will benefit from these immensely readable essays.
While more headily academic in tone, Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas’s introduction to their Christian Poetry in America Since 1940 also tells a story, beginning when too many twentieth-century American poets aimed at “a poetry that is all foreground and no background, that is all surface and no depth, that captures only the flux of the present.” In reaction, they say, it was “unsurprising” that Christian writers would “react against this flat view of poetry by turning to figuration, form, and narrative” and a delight that this turn would result in a “rich and varied body of work” by poets from a variety of backgrounds: Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Charismatic, even Mennonite and Baptist. In some ways Christian Poetry in America is a kind of report on how the consummation of a reborn Christian poetry, devoutly to be wish’d by Gioia, may already be in process.
What helps make that case is that Mattix and Thomas have chosen “poems that, for the most part treat matters of Christian doctrine and practice directly.” Gioia himself treats such matters with both depth and a sense of humor. His “The Seven Deadly Sins” begins:
Forget about the other six, says Pride
They’re only using you.
Admittedly, Lust is a looker,
but you can do better.
Other familiar poets, such as Mark Jarman, Christian Wiman, Kathleen Norris, Scott Cairns, James Matthew Wilson, Timothy Murphy, and Paul Mariani, are included. Even more fun than the familiar are the discoveries. Tania Runyan (b. 1972) has a hilarious poem titled “The Fruit of the Spirit” about the slow growth toward sanctity that must sometimes settle for evidence of progress such as not eating the ice cream for ten hours and using slightly less-crude epithets in traffic. Ryan Wilson’s “In the Harvest Season” similarly meditates on the burden of our weakness, while Chelsea Wagenaar examines the Marian possibilities in that weakness.
Mattix and Thomas provide for each of the 35 poets sampled a brief introduction to their lives, careers, and works, making it easy to follow up on the poets one discovers. While Short does not do the same for the much larger collection of poets in his collection, I found myself looking up figures who were unfamiliar to me, such as the recent poets James Phillip McAuley, Charles Causley, and Hilary Davies. It is one of the strengths of his volume that it has both minor poetic gems and also a healthy dose of the classics including: Shakespeare’s sonnets and the hits from Paradise Lost; hymns from Watts, Wesley, and Newton; Donne, Herbert (Mary and George), Quarles, and Traherne; Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake; Newman and Hopkins; Auden, Eliot, and Anne Ridler.
Two figures whom Gioia designates “[m]inor poets with major minds” who were “smart, brash, and wickedly funny” are well represented. Chesterton and Belloc have five poems apiece. Belloc’s last is “Lines to a Don,” about which Short observes that Belloc came “to the defense of his brilliant friend, who continues to be plagued with donnish obloquy. The most sympathetic of men must now be shown no sympathy himself.” Chesterton’s first is “The Rolling English Road,” which Short labels “a perfect poem, criticism of which would be superfluous or impertinent.” Indeed.
Republished with gracious permission from Gilbert.
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