Last week, I gave you five poets from my ‘mixtape’ for pastors who want to ‘get into’ poetry. Here’s the other half. These are some heavy-hitters—some of my favorite poems of all-time make this list. I hope you enjoy exploring these and I hope you find a poet you connect with.
I repeat my earlier disclaimer: I do not present these poems so that you can torture the ‘deeper meaning’ out of them to use in a Sunday sermon. These are works of art that have the capacity to form you, which will in turn inform your ministry.
As before, I only include references and peeks at poems. I want to respect the writers’ work and not deprive you of the sheer joy of purchasing a collection of poems.
Fairchild wrote his doctoral dissertation on William Blake and proceeded to write poems about rednecks drinking tomato juice and beer. Such is the beautiful paradox of Fairchild’s poetry, who brings complexity of syntax and a dizzying density of imagery to bear on small towns and wide prairies stretching from West Texas to Kansas. His poems swell and climax and almost always leave me wondering: how did he do that? His poems carry intense emotions from carefully rendered characters who move from slapstick comedy to colliding with eternity.
Start With: “What He Said”, “Frieda Pushnik”, “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967”, “Rave On”
with Truth and Jesus, and said, Babydoll,
I would walk on my tongue from here to Amarillo
Just to wash her dishes.
—from “What He Said”
I didn’t appreciate Levertov when I came across her work in college and grad school, but I knew enough from the way others spoke about her to know that I was wrong. Older (wiser?) now, I look at her poems and I see what I missed. She is uniquely engaged with the images and language of scripture and liturgy, creating a necessary conversation between the contemporary artist and religion. She laid the groundwork for the ongoing conversations that are so valuable today.
Start With: “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being”, “The Jacob’s Ladder”, “St. Thomas Didymus”, “O Taste and See”
Favorite Collections: Selected Poems
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge…
—from “St. Thomas Didymus”
For my money—not that it’s a lot—Wiman is the greatest living American poet. His work staggers me, especially in his willingness to explore the very edges of comprehension for the sake of music and image in his poems. His poems are like sonatas or sculptures—they feel embodied and instantiated. He is also intensely engaged with religion, his own faith and the broader American experience of God. His memoir My Bright Abyss is an unprecedented meditation on personal suffering (Wiman had an acute battle with cancer). His most recent book is a collection of poems from others on the subject of Joy. The introduction alone is worth the price of admission. A brilliant mind and a prolific artist.
Start With: “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind”, “Every Riven Thing”, “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”, “Clearing”
For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God
—from “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”
I feel about James Wright much the same way that I feel about Richard Wilbur. He was a master craftsman. His poems are simpler than Wilbur’s, though no less carefully constructed. Wright populates his poems with images and metaphors that steal your heart and then, in a crucial turn, he breaks it with a single thought or phrase. Reading “Saint Judas” helped revive how I read and meditated on the Bible.
Start With: “A Blessing”, “Saint Judas”, “Hook”, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”
And suddenly I realize
that if I stepped out of my body I would break
—from “A Blessing”
Jeanne Murray Walker
I have a bias here, as Jeanne was one of my mentors in Seattle Pacific University’s uniquely wonderful MFA program, but she doesn’t need any favoritism—her work speaks for itself. Her poems unfold; even her most lyric poems have a story to them. They meander elegantly, maneuvering us to a fitting arrival. And she is a very present guide; she operates primarily from a first-person perspective that invites the reader in on a journey of mutual discovery.
Start With: “Sacrifice”, “Van Gogh”, “Portrait of the Virgin Who Said No to Gabriel”, “Geese, Tree, Apple, Leaves”
Favorite Collections: A Deed to the Light
Sometimes I think of Bach,
working a stick with his mouth
to get notes he couldn’t reach
with his hands and feet,
so the sweet catastrophe of counterpoint
could break the hearts of his parishioners.