The National Catholic Review
James S. Torrens
Some poetry for the soul
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The reader of poetry is always on the lookout for good anthologies. Our tastes, often enough, have been formed by such classics as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury or Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry (1921) or Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). Anthologies, to my mind, are either catch alls (grab bags of “my favorite things”), with artfulness the sole principle of choice (consider Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, Penguin, 2003); or they fall into one of the subgatherings or niches that might be titled Eros, God, Nature, Society.

A recent anthology from Liguori Publications, Simple Graces: Poems for Meditation and Prayer, 2003, lands squarely in the category God. These are not devotional or homiletic poems, but they all have their antennae up in some way toward the divine. The anthologists, Matthew Kessler and Gretchen Schwenker (a Redemptorist and an editor at Liguori), frankly state this criterion. Some of their favorite poets—Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Rainer Maria Rilke—have their unique sense of the divine. Others, like Robert Hayden, Naomi Shihab Nye and Denise Levertov, approach God slantwise, through human phenomena. Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Patrick Kavanagh speak more directly and familiarly.

Simple Graces does not draw from the Modernist era—Eliot to Anne Sexton—but directs our interest back to the 19th century, with its attachment to rhyme and meter. Alice Meynell reappears here, effectively; so does Herman Melville in “Shiloh: a Requiem,” from Battle Pieces. We hear from Gerard Manley Hopkins, of course, and from Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, of the 1890s Rhymers Club. And finally, there is part of a devotional gem by Christina Rossetti:

Lord, we are rivers running to

Thy sea,

Our waves and ripples all derived

from Thee;

A nothing we should have, a noth-

ing be,

Except for Thee.

A number of books now on the poetry shelves bespeak a new, hybrid category—Anima, or Soul. Poetry retreats, which have gained currency, make good use of these. One example is Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times (Beacon Press, 2001), by Joan Murray. Her poem “Survivors—Found,” written after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, drew an outpouring of appreciation after she read it on National Public Radio. This showed people’s need for words that cut through prolix reportage. A sample title from this new bittersweet collection is “Try to Praise the Mutilated Word,” by Adam Zagajewski of Poland. An opening line from Theodore Roethke catches the whole gist of the anthology: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

Right behind Murray’s anthology (and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, Penguin, 2006) loom two wonderful collections in the Anima genre. One is A Book of Luminous Things (Harcourt, 1996), an international anthology by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. It is strong on classic Chinese poems and introduces us to his incisive countrywoman Wislawa Szymborska. Robert Bly edited the other book, The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems From Many Cultures (Ecco, 1995). I have a long list of favorites from this collection, which leans heavily to the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez and their Indian contemporary Kabir. I return often to Rumi’s surprising poem, “Jesus on the Lean Donkey.”

In 2001, Roger Housden started a series of “Ten Poems” books (Harmony Books), in which he walks the reader through each poem, dipping into his own relevant experience. The first of the series was Ten Poems to Change Your Life (no lack of ambition there!), and the fifth and last (2004) is Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime. Billy Collins, Rilke and Mary Oliver are recurrent favorites. He concludes the final book with Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes,” which includes her memorable self-summary, “All my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”

In 2006 Loyola Press issued its parallel to Housden in Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul, by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard. The poems, by writers of our times, are both striking and accessible, and the brief alternating essays help us absorb and understand them. Valente, a professional journalist, and Reynard, a judge in Illinois, do not give us close readings of the poems or artistic commentary so much as ruminations upon them, with light from their own ups and downs. (We learn in these pages that the bond of poetry drew the pair eventually to the altar.)

Reynard and Valente have spotted and presented good poems unfamiliar to us, and made us linger with them. Among these is “To the Mistakes” by W. S. Merwin, his grateful address to whatever mistakes he has made. It ends: “I must have needed/ the ones who led me/ in spite of all that/ was said about you/ placing my footsteps/ on the only way.” Read again, carefully.

James S. Torrens, S.J., director emeritus of the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer in Los Angeles, Calif., is poetry editor of America.

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