Between the Lines: Exploring poetry and faith

For six years I have been interviewing poets, some 25 of them, a process that began with a graduate thesis project. The project focused on the intersections of poetry, religion and the writing process. I did not subscribe to the notion that contemporary poets had a premeditated plan for what they were going to write. I sensed instead that much of writing was revelatory. Yet many university seminars seemed to claim otherwise; students and professors analyzed, critiqued or mined poems for rigid meanings. The only class that reinforced my notion was a course on Chinese poetry.

In his book Chinese Theories of Literature, James J. Liu divides writing into six categories: The first and second are metaphysical and deterministic, which represent the interactions between writer and universe; the third is expressive, the interaction between writer and work; the fourth and fifth are technical and aesthetic, which look at the work as an object; and the sixth is pragmatic, the interaction between work and audience.


I suggest a seventh theory and apply it specifically to poetry—the “meta-metaphysical,” the interaction between audience and universe or God. The meta-metaphysical means that the potential exists for associations between the reader or hearer of a poem to something beyond the self. Some poems can allow God to flow through the author; later, the poem reaches out to remind others of their own connection to God.

Talking With Poets

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I began to interview other poets from the faith. One of the first was Paul Mariani. “What, for you,” I asked this author of many poems and books on such poets as Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is the relationship between God and poetry?” Mariani, a former poetry editor of America, answered:

All my life I’ve been a practicing Catholic. It’s the foundation of who and what I am, and I try to take my Catholicism seriously. After I made full professor [at the University of Massachu-setts]—I was 35…doing critical and scholarly work and working on my own poetry at odd moments.

Later that same year, when I was serving as a rector of a Cursillo weekend up in North Adams [Mass.]. I remember a voice asking me: ‘What do you want? What would you like?’ I said I wanted nothing. That being able to serve these men in some way had been reward enough. But the voice kept quietly insisting, and so I said: ‘Okay, if I could use the gifts you’ve given me in your service, I would like that.’ Shortly after that, the poems started coming, one after the other.

Since that time—I’m 71 now—I’ve been writing poetry, biographies, criticism, reviews, even a religious memoir. So if you ask me about God and poetry, I really can’t separate them. That doesn’t mean that all my poems are God-filled; in fact some of them deeply question the reality of it all. But the poems that most deeply satisfy are those in which I confront the mystery.

I was initially drawn to Catholic poets for another reason: their use of symbols, experiences and language from their own faith practice. Since as a cradle Catholic I am very familiar with the concepts of grace, souls, angels, sin, saints, Mary and Jesus, I asked Fanny Howe, a poet, novelist and short story writer how these dimensions of Catholicism became real to her after her conversion. She responded:

What attracted me earliest were the devotional objects, and the preservation of childhood that I saw in a church with angels, Mary and the saints. The saints’ cards and the plaster statues had fluttered and tumbled down from a child’s heaven. For me the original attraction was through those representations of an idea. I am not a sophisticated or intellectual Catholic, despite exhaustive readings in theology and Scripture.

I often ask: Who writes the poem? Is there a self that writes the poem, or is there some “unknown other” trying to rise up through language? Was writing your way to access God, or was it the way God had access to you? How might poetry be like prayer, prophecy or ministry? The answers vary, of course, and this has helped me shift some of my own perspectives. Here are two examples.

Faith and Instinct

First, I see a contradiction in the idea that writing is a solitary act. Many poets begin by listening, by being present and by jotting things in a notebook as they go about the day. Writing may start on a subway, a walk or a visit to a church or museum. As life weaves in front of them, a conversation is initiated.

Second, none of the poets I interviewed follow a plan or could explain exactly where their poems came from. Even when they started off wanting to write about “something,” in the end they had to rely on faith and instinct. Marie Howe (no relation to Fanny), a poet and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y., alluded to this when I asked, “Are there ways you are still being influenced by the faith of your childhood?” Her response:

Although the faith of my childhood was patriarchal, female figures exemplified the deep feminine to me as a child and do still.... How much we need to access the deep feminine now. Mary Magdalene is a wonderful character to me because she’s passionate, devoted and remains the subject of her own life. She’s courageous. She’s lived. All the previous depictions of her are useless to me. They seem to have nothing to do with the real woman, person. She is receptive but strong, the feminine among all those wonderful guys. I’ve been working on poems about her since I began to write but kept failing and failing.

Finally, it came to me [to write] about the seven demons. She was said to be possessed by seven devils, and she began to talk about what they were. Of course, she sounds like us. The first one was, ‘I was very busy. You have no idea.’ The devils we are all possessed by don’t look like devils at all. But Lord knows they are. So it turns out the devils she keeps revising and thinking about end up being devils that are recognizable to some of us. In the end she’s no longer some strange woman possessed by devils, but someone as “bedeviled” as we are in everyday life.

Writing as Prayer

After a while, I began to interview adherents of different religious traditions, and the process revealed another layer of what faith means. On a personal level, the most life-changing part of speaking with these poets was that they were willing to speak with me. It felt like an answer to my prayers, because it happened with very little effort. Each has helped me understand that poetry and God are not about any one thing.

I asked Martha Serpas, a poet and professor at the University of Houston, when she first connected poetry writing with divinity. She said:

I’m going to answer that as though you had used the word “consciously,” because unconsciously I think it was always there.... But I became conscious of the fact that I was working out a belief system through poetry when I was at N.Y.U. [New York University] and my father died suddenly. That utterly changed my perspective and my connections to people, and I became much more aware of what I was doing because I realized my own mortality. More and more I started recognizing how my upbringing as a Catholic affected my thinking and my writing. The only time I actually lose time because I am attending so completely to something is when I’m writing. So for me, writing is prayer—it’s the unmediated experience of the divine.

The Edge of the Pond

Imagine standing at the edge of a pond and peering down at the water. The water holds and reflects an image of you and also includes the material around you. At the same time you see yourself you also see through yourself to distinguish the sand and the stones and the moving fish. You see the water as the agent of that which gathers and that which reflects. Or perhaps you are floating in a boat on the ocean. The waves sway the boat, which is a type of movement, but not toward any one thing. By resisting the urge to make poetry or faith transparent or uncomplicated, we endeavor to expand and navigate our consciousness in the fragile balance between these secular and sacred worlds.

From the archives, a selection of poems and essays by Paul Mariani.

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Christopher Rushlau
6 years 10 months ago
This is a perfect set-up for classical Catholic mysticism. In a few words, the consciousness you are seeking to clarify is the thing you must let slip away. There is no consciousness. You cannot stand outside the phenomenon and understand it. All you can ever do is report exactly what gets through to you.
Bishop Berkeley is rather a byword among academics who worry about losing their souls, I dare say. He famously asked how he could be sure, as he sat in his chair by the fire, that he was not in fact in bed, asleep, and dreaming.
The answer to the riddle is, "It does not matter, and you know it. If this is God's prank, you must all the more so measure up, by doing exactly what the situation seems to demand, no matter how absurd."
Thomas Merton: "do what is indicated".
Nichole Flores
6 years 10 months ago

I am especially interested in your ideas of poetry as prayer and as a communal endeavor.  While form and aesthetics can be quite powerful in poetry, access to knowledge and practice of these skills seems limited.  Many who are "bedeviled" by life and commitments, and especially those who suffer poverty, have limited access to time and resources to refine their poetic gifts.  This is also the case with access to technical training in music, writing, dance, and visual arts.  This article, however, does a great job of demonstrating the basic human desire for poetry and the potential for poetry to be revelatory.  It makes them a part of the life of the church.  In a way, these ideas democratize poetry, arguing for an understanding of the art that is a part of basic human communication with the divine and basic human community. 

My question is: how might the church foster the gift of poetry among the people? Might our parishes can support the poetic instinct with workshops in poetic technique?  Might the church community serve as a forum for popular poetic expression that may help us learn more about God? 


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