November 25, 2010

A Poetry of Discipleship
The field of Christian poetry has broadened so much in the last thirty years. Flowers everywhere. Helen Vendler’s comment that she could not find a concern for the transcendental anywhere in contemporary American poetry seems hopelessly outdated. But where are we exactly? What does the phrase Christian poetry mean anyway, and what obstacles stand in the way of whole-hearted poetry of discipleship?
Mother Theresa used to urge “Faithfulness, not success.” And this understandable worldly concern is perhaps the best place to start. Secular editors (and many Christian ones as well) are so wary of the Absolute side of Truth that they will reject anything that smacks of that out of hand. Because of that prejudice, poetry which reveals an appreciation for a genuinely sacramental poetic, one that includes both the demands of God and our journey through the minefield of life, is immediately tossed into the slush pile. Poetry, it seems, must reflect a sensibility which lines up the prevailing secular heart.
There are good journals, of course, but their numbers are few. As a result so many published poems seem solely concerned with the horizontal part of the faith experience, often including a sideways jibe at those who look upward as well! How many good poets can you name who are willing to forego laurels to praise our Lord in the manner of Merton or Eliot?
A second obstacle is second-hand piety. Many fine believing poets are put off track because they are simply not yet willing to go into the believing unknown. Warmed over Holy Spirit poems which deliver the same “fresh” vision twenty years later help no one. Poets have got to work the soil, break new ground, every time out. Some evangelical poets, Protestant and Catholic, simply chose not to do this. This is sad because it turns Christianity into slightly dirty dish water. Who cares? No one is freer than the Christian poet, so our work should reflect that.
A third problem is that too many Christian writers of poetry and fiction are simply in too big a hurry to publish. One study revealed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to produce an artistic master in any of the arts. That about three hours a day for ten years. Writers have to be slow—like workers when they come into your home to fix something. They never hurry because they know what they are doing. So it must be with us.
Fear is part of the difficulty here too. The faith we have has served us pretty well, so why should we grow, especially if it’s going to cause us pain? We all resist, except for the saints among us. But there’s no other way for an artist, for any Christian to proceed. What is the expression: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”? Each time out, with each new blank piece of paper we learn what we have learned again. And that’s a blessing because our ignorance allows God room to move, to get in there, to make us new and teach us. And isn’t that way all this is about?