Big, Wild and Unanswerable

I cannot tell you how much I love this post by Hannah Notess. Everything about it resonates with me, especially the poem at the end, which is so brilliant I want to cry.

If you’ve read the book Jesus Girls (I haven’t, but it’s on my list), Hannah’s the editor of that…not to mention an amazing poet. I’m a big fan of her work, and I think you will be too. Please welcome her here today.

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I fell in love with poetry because the words sounded beautiful. I didn’t know what they meant, but I pored over poems by Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti as a kid, starting with the sort of “approved for kids” poems and moving on to a cheap paperback anthology with the glamorous title Immortal Poems of the English Language.

It was in college that I discovered poets who wrestled with faith and doubt in their work. This was awfully convenient, as I was wrestling with faith and doubt myself. For instance, I had begun to wonder about the fact that so many of my fellow Christian college students said things like “I just felt the Lord leading me to do this or that.” Why didn’t I ever feel that? Why didn’t I seem to hear from God when I prayed and read the Bible or sang worship songs in Chapel? Did God just love some Christians more than others?

Fortunately, in the classrooms of my English professors, I met poets — John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and R.S. Thomas — who seemed to have as much of a problem hearing from God as I did. And these guys were priests, for crying out loud! One of Thomas’ poems begins:

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I ate this stuff up.

In the poems of this irascible Welsh priest, I found company in my desire to question God directly. I didn’t have to be faced with ladies’ Bible study workbooks with questions that seemed so distant from my own faith experience as to be from the moon (“How do you think the virtues Peter mentions in verse 2 could equip you to face persecution?”) Or people like the sweet-faced ladies’ Bible study leader who told me, “Don’t you think that God just wants our faith to be a little more… simple?”

There was room in those terse stanzas for someone like me, with all my confusion and uncertainty, to wrestle with God.

In Jane Kenyon’s great poem “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” (Go read it right now! Go!), she explores a trip to India through the lens of Mary Magdalene’s post-resurrection encounter with Jesus. In Kenyon’s hands, the poem becomes a tool for asking big, wild, and unanswerable questions:

I don’t know why I was born, or why
I live in a house in New England, or why I am
a visitor with heavy luggage giving lectures
for the State Department. Why am I not
tap-tapping with my fingernail
on the rolled-up window of a white government car,
a baby in my arms, drugged to look feverish?

A poem like Kenyon’s is loose and wild enough to live with mystery and not try to fix it or explain it away. And once it finally dawned on me that much of the Bible is written as poetry, and not as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” I started to feel like there might still be a place for me in this thing called Christianity.

I know poetry is not the most popular form of literature, at least in the U.S., but for me it’s been necessary. It kept my faith alive. To think of living without it is like living without food or air.

Audre Lorde said that “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought,” in her essay “Poetry is not a luxury.”

No, poetry is not a luxury. Poetry is food.

Anyway, in this poem, I created a sort of impressionistic portrait of myself as a college student asking lots of questions. It’s kind of an homage to the poets who carried me through that time — Thomas, Kenyon, and so many more.

Philippians

I used to forget my Greek New Testament on purpose,
so the future seminarians would share with me.
They smelled like sweat and prayer
and oatmeal cookies, and trying too hard
to get God to love them, too hard.

In a notebook carried back
from Africa, just to be different,
I copied out the Greek
in my best handwriting.
Rejoice, rejoice, we translated,
but I didn’t want to; instead
I skulked around campus, brooding
about why God wasn’t born a woman.

The seminarians were growing their beards
in a very apostolic style.
One of them was headed to India that summer
to get dirty for Jesus, while another
used to sit outside the chapel for hours,
arm around his small, weeping girlfriend.
It must have been a difficult life.

Now the building where
we used to push our desks into a circle
has burned to the ground.

Rejoice, rejoice, the book kept saying,
and Jesus kept getting jerked
between heaven and earth
like a jumping jack on a string
called kenosis, emptying
and filling himself again.

At that time, Saint Paul
was imprisoned in another country.

By now the seminarians have taken up
youth groups and wives and children.
Or they became the gawky white giant
in the photograph of smiling brown orphans.

I don’t know why
some buildings burned to cinders
instantly, while others
only turned a little gray,
just kissed by ash and smoke,
and I don’t know why
God touches down on some of us
and not on others,

and I don’t know why sometimes
a prisoner doesn’t even have
a window to look out of
when he writes Rejoice, rejoice
and other times
an earthquake rattles him free.

(This poem was first published in Christianity and Literature.)

 

hannah notessHannah Faith Notess is the author of a chapbook of poems, Ghost House; editor of a collection of personal essays, Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical; and managing editor of Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Slate, Mid-American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Hampden Sydney Poetry Review, among other journals. She lives with her family in Seattle. Learn more about her work at hannahnotess.com.

Poetry and the Reading Soul

I haven’t had the chance to meet Tania Runyan in person yet, but am so looking forward to seeing her this year at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She’s a brilliant poet, and she lives near my hometown in Chicago…which means we keep discovering that we know a bunch of the same people.

Tania’s new book Second Sky just came out and it “intertwines the life and writings of the Apostle Paul with the spiritual journey of a modern suburban woman confronting the broken world.” I think this sounds completely fascinating and I cannot wait to read it.

The post below is excerpted from another one of Tania’s books, How to Read a Poem. It seemed to me that if we’re going to spend time this month discussing faith and poetry, this would be a good place to start. With the “how to” (and the “how not to”).

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Poetry, I have a confession to make. I’m a poet, with two degrees and many editorial positions to my credit, but I don’t always want to spend time with you.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, who wave their hands wildly for my attention, you sit in the corner of the garden like that quiet, intricate columbine by the bench.

Come and read me. Not as an editor working through a stack of review copies, but as you, a reading soul. There is so much to talk about. Please, just shut up and take a seat.

I grab my coffee and flip open my iPad. Just one more BuzzFeed article, Poetry. Then I’ll read you.

I know I’ve complained that you’re too much work, but it’s a dumb excuse. Life without you is too much work—trying to make meaning among all the empty words distracting me from, as Mary Oliver calls it, my “one wild and precious life.”

So teach me how to spend time with you again. Let’s rekindle the passion I had before I became a poetry professional, before I knew any better.

Maybe Billy Collins can help.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

— Billy Collins, from The Apple That Astonished Paris

Without beating Collins’s well-known poem to death (wouldn’t that be ironic?), I’m going to use it as a field guide for my own reading. Join me as I walk through several poems’ rooms, flip some light switches to see better how to live my wild life, and tell about it.

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Tania has graciously provided a copy of both How to Read a Poem and Second Sky for a giveaway. Leave a quick comment below to enter for a chance to win! I’ll pick two winners and announce them a week from now — Thursday, April 10.

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tania runyanTania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin,The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthologyA Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students, writes for the Good Letters blog, and edits for Relief Journal.

The Contradictory Nature of Poetry

Dave Harrity has been a friend, advocate, and inspiration to me ever since I met him two years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing. He is a brilliant writer and poet, and I love his writing workbook Making Manifest above any “devotional-type” thing I’ve ever done. (I wrote a book reflection on it here.) He is also the mastermind behind ANTLER — an organization dedicated to “helping people engage creativity as a devotional practice for spiritual formation.”

I asked Dave to help me kick off National Poetry Month, and the post he sent me is simply brilliant and beautiful. I know it’s longer than the posts we traditionally have in this space, but please stick with it. It is absolutely worth the read.

Then go order his book. STAT.

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For those of you who are unaware, April begins National Poetry Month. No, it isn’t a joke. We do—as a country—have a month devoted to venerating, reading, and exploring the poetic arts. But, as with all things that need a month to be honored, it’s a double-edged sword—something we should all probably care about for a myriad of reason has been neglected.

Here’s the real bummer of the whole thing: poetry has always been, and probably will always bein essencean art form of the elite. To engage it with confidence you must be literate in a variety of ways (which makes it harder to readily understand than, say, fiction), interested in—to some degree—self-actualization, and—at your core—an intellectually active individual ready for rigorous thinking.

This isn’t always true, of course—there are exceptions and rule-bends—but poetry, more than most forms of art, and especially literary art, seems to be engaged most by its practitioners, which gives you an idea of where it stands in our cultural consciousness.

In spite of the fact that poetry’s difficulty often creates a sad elitism, poetry’s gates are good gates to keep, and the poetry community is right to cultivate them and enforce them, at least to some degree. Otherwise, poets can’t do their prophetic job. Without these hurdles, poets and poems lose a kind of artistic edge, a provocative power and ability to speak from the margin, which—I think—is where poets truly belong.

That said, I am interested growing the community of poets and readers of poetry beyond the current boundaries, and believe it can be done without excessive pain, and that “the average Joe or Jane” can work a bit and gain something compelling—compelling enough to carry on. It just takes patience and investment on the part of all engaged parties, poet-teachers and readers alike.

Poetry is an avenue to enlightenments of all kindsspiritual, mental, emotional, bodily. And (more bad news), the enlightening road is never easy.

If you struggle with poetry—understanding it, reading it, engaging it, liking it, etc.—perhaps you haven’t found the right poem. Or, more likely, you need to bend your current mindset and adjust your standards.

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First, begin with the idea that poetry isn’t supposed to be easy. You can’t passively read poetry and expect to “get it” fully. And, furthermore, you might want to adjust the expectation that a poem is meant to be “gotten” at all. Some poems are written precisely because the poet doesn’t understand what’s going on or maybe the poem is written to push the bounds of what is currently understood.

Remember, an easy thing is rarely a good thing. In fact, it’s usually the most awful thing. Do you remember when someone you trusted as a mentor told you this?: If a hard thing in life comes along and you try and fail, then you should probably just quit and go home.  I hope not. Same goes for poetry.

Conversely, poems shouldn’t be an impossible hurdle to jump. Perhaps it’s better to think of a poem as an invitation to a party full of people you don’t know, so you’re going to have to reach out and make a new friend. Or maybe it’s like trying an exotic food. Or maybe like your first sexual experience. There’s enjoyment, pleasure, and depth in being vulnerable. The risk and effort is worth the reward. This is why poems seem to demand much of your attention and personhood—they ask for a lot from you and they aren’t afraid to do so.

They aren’t silver bullets, tweetable platitudes, divine deliveries, or didactic directives that help you “be a better person.” If a poem made your world easier, simpler, or more livable, then it’s almost certain that you haven’t read a poem. A good poem will make you risk something, and it will risk something in enticing you.

These things make poetry postured toward irrelevance as a default position. And, in a fame-obsessed, bottom-line, consumer culture that almost strictly rewards and hallows the relevant, easily consumable, sunshine-shooting-from-your-ass, hopelessly practical, itemized list of self-obsession veiled as self-improvement, poets have to be made of (and make) stronger stuff. Poets are often doing a different job than most of the writing world.

But maybe it’s better to say what I think poetry is rather than what its not. After all, via negativa can only get a writer so far. For me poetry, like most art, is often made of three lovely—but little—things.

First, poetry is a small proof that people are alive in the world—that you and the poet met. Whether you’re the reader or writer, the poem is the artifact that points to the little life that made it and the little life engaging it. It’s an act of witness, an assertion of identity.

The poem is, in essence, evidence of a force larger than any of us. And that, to me, is quite gorgeous—a reason for creating a new poem each day. The temptation is to Christianize/spiritualize this idea, but then you’re dangerously close to dogma, and poetry is the opposite of dogma, every time.

Next, poetry is a living, breathing thing. To me, the poem and the process necessarily engaged to make a poem, is eucharistic and transformative. A good poem, once ingested—memorized, recited, read aloud—evolves as you evolve. A good poem’s meaning stretches, forms, flourishes, and sustains itself on your existence and experience. Again, gorgeous. Or even mystical in some respects.

Because of this evolution, poetry’s power is potently communal. It brings people together and awakens them together. The temptation here, again, might be to Christianize/spiritualize this idea, which—in this case—is a good impulse to flesh out. Go ahead.

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Last, poetry is the negotiation between what must be said, shouldn’t be said, and can’t be said. In that way, it’s an examination of the necessity and intention of silence. I will stop that thought right there since elaboration is the opposite of silence.

If this whole article seems contradictory to you, you’ve learned a good lesson: poets love contradiction; after all, we’re large and contain multitudes. It’s just the way it is. Because poetry is as old as language. Because that ancient language is in each of us. Because its enough. I promise, its enough. Enough to keep the poem of you coming back to the poems made for you.

So, to get you going, here’s a list of some of my favorite poets and/or poems. The poets are a mix of living and deceased, gender, sexual orientation, color, nationality, notoriety, and language. The poems cover a variety of subject matter, difficulty, and breadth. But they—again—reflect my preferences, which range wide and are a bit inconsistent.

There’s a poem for you to read ever day in April if you so choose, plus a few extra if you’re feeling frisky. If you take me up on the challenge, feel free to shoot me an email or tweet at me if you’re reading something you love, disdain, or want to talk about.Hell, be bold: carry around a poem in your pocket this month and try to put it to memory. Get going!

  1. Larry Levis
  2. Lionell Rugama
  3. Wislawa Szymborska
  4. Tomas Transtromer
  5. Hayden Carruth
  6. Denise Levertov
  7. Sherman Alexie
  8. Adam Day
  9. George Oppen
  10. Thomas Merton
  11. William Stafford
  12. George Trakal
  13. Richard Siken
  14. Amiri Baraka
  15. Philip Lamantia
  16. Yusef Komunyakaa
  17. Robert Bly
  18. Virgil Suarez
  19. Jae Newman
  20. Amy McCann
  21. Kiki Petrisino
  22. Thomas Sayers Ellis
  23. Naomi Shihab Nye
  24. James Tate
  25. John James
  26. Sherwin Bitsui
  27. T. Crunk
  28. Shuntaro Tanikawa
  29. Anne Sexton
  30. Lucille Clifton
  31. Maurice Manning
  32. Matthew Lippman
  33. Jane Hirshfield
  34. Nick Flynn
  35. Susanna Childress
  36. Karyna McGlynn
  37. Joel Brouwer
  38. Shane McCrae
  39.  Hannah Gamble
  40. Craig Arnold

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dave harrityDave Harrity is most recently the author of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, a book of meditations and writing exercises about contemplative living, peacemaking, and community building. He is also the founder of the formation/literary organization ANTLER. He lives in Louisville with his wife and kids. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Faith is a Long Poem

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I spent my senior year of high school buying weird clothes from thrift shops, downloading secular music (for the first time ever) from Napster, and reading poetry.

It was the year after my Super Christian Boyfriend had called it quits for the third and final time, based, of course, on secret intel from God. I’d spent much of my junior year of high school trying to recover from the fallout of that first love, but by senior year, something had changed. I felt strong. I was wandering around Chicago in old-lady sweaters, blissed out on Jesus and on Coldplay.

That year, I took AP English with a brilliant, serious woman. It was her last year of teaching before retirement, and I think she felt the weight of it – the finality of it. She wasn’t just teaching us the classics – she was trying to teach us something about life.

We read Hamlet, and she spent a long stretch of time talking about one beautiful line of the play: Readiness is all. We read Crime and Punishment and talked about guilt, regret, and grace. She looked at us with keen eyes while she played a scratchy recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I was captivated by the lines, the images, the way she opened a door into the poem and let us wander around it.

Back before I’d met Super Christian Boyfriend, I’d loved poetry. I’d spent long afternoons rambling around an Emily Dickinson anthology, making stars in the margins. But then I’d gotten serious about my faith, and it had been all Bible verses and concordances, memorization and indoctrination.

In those years, stopped reading what I couldn’t easily understand in exchange for what I could. They were the years of the how-to’s, the directives, Paul’s firm and sturdy voice in one New Testament letter after another, reminding me how I should now live.

I was listening for Modern Prophets, waiting for a sign. I forgot that Prophet and Poet are most often all tangled up in the same beautiful, tortured soul.

But then, the next year, I turned seventeen and started my senior year of high school, and I began the tentative work of re-making myself. It was a year of song lyrics and early mornings at Lake Michigan and poem stanzas scribbled into handmade journals. I didn’t understand every line or image, but each poem cracked me open a little bit more. Faith began to feel mysterious and big again. The God I found in poetry seemed closer than the one who spoke to me through my Super Christian Ex-Boyfriend and that intense Teen Mania ministry he belonged to.

I went to church and youth group, but I found myself, strangely, closer to God in my English class than in the church sanctuary. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” poem:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

And I don’t have a life verse, really. The closest thing I have is a poem fragment, a couple of beautiful lines I found that year and that I continue breathe over and over – a prayer that I want God to make true in my life.

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When I was a freshman in college, I took a poetry writing class, and I wasn’t the best at it. My brilliant professor was constantly returning my poems marked up with green pen. “Stop trying to cover so much ground,” she said to me once. “Poetry is about depth.”

I fell in love soon after that and I settled into the writing of creative nonfiction. I put the poetry away. I got married and busied myself with the work of life. Dishes and decorating. Figuring out the recipes in my Betty Crocker cookbook: Corn-Flake Crusted Chicken. Classic Italian Lasagna.

I forgot to pack poetry when we went to China that next year, and there was certainly none to be found in the sparse library in our overcrowded English Teaching Office. It hadn’t occurred to me that the absence of familiar words around me would hollow me out in like a reed. I tried to stabilize myself in the familiar words of the Bible, but I spent more and more afternoons zoned out at my desk, disappearing.

It didn’t occur to me that in China, I would need the poets. I would need their winged words. I would need them like air.

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I’m thirty years old now. It’s another year of re-making myself.

It hasn’t really been that long since my own major faith crisis. Since I stopped hearing God and no how-to book could help me find his voice. That was the year that I pressed my ear against the wall of the wild world, and I moved to the drumbeat of my own desires and my lack of desire until the ground broke up under me and I found myself at rock bottom.

But now, something has changed, and I feel stronger. I’m too old to look cute in weird, thrift-shop-inspired outfits, but I’m wearing dresses again. The ambiguous ethics of my music-downloading teenage self have yielded to an adult sense responsibility. So I buy my new music now on iTunes. I put it into Playlists and listen while I clean the kitchen.

I’m part of the Blogosphere, where articles and criticism fly back and forth, chase each other in frantic circles. Open Letters and Responses. Criticism and critique and so much noise that my ears are constantly ringing. Everyone is so sure. Every question has a hundred editorial posts and eighty-five-million tweets.

It’s enough to make you crazy. I can feel it making me crazy.

I’ve been reading poetry again.

Much of it still evades me. I don’t know what this image means or that metaphor. And yet part of the beauty is that I don’t have to. I don’t have to understand it totally to be moved. To be changed. To be cracked open a little bit more, reminded that faith is more mysterious than I ever thought it could be.

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It’s April, which means it’s National Poetry Month. I am not a poet, but I believe in poetry. I believe that it is part of the cure to a Christian Culture that is obsessed with finding the Right Answer. To winning the argument. To being LOUD and being HEARD and being IMPORTANT.

In the midst of all of our debate and anger, poetry sits there, unassuming and wise like a great oak tree. It’s circling and questioning, going deep instead of wide. And we need more deep. I need more deep.

This month, I’m going to be introducing you to some beautiful and brilliant poets of faith. I know it’s new. It’s not what you’re used to seeing here, but listen: this will help break us open. This will help us learn to let each other in. So please read their careful words. Offer comments and kindness as these poets show up and bring their gifts to us. Take a moment to care and not to care. A moment to sit still.

It’s National Poetry Month, so let’s celebrate! Buy a book that you probably won’t entirely understand – and find yourself changed by it.