I made you a mixtape.
Let me explain.
When I get to know someone in church ministry and it comes out at some point that I have a background in poetry, there’s usually just two responses. For some, it’s a polite pivot into safer conversational territory—so how about this weather we’ve been having, huh? But many people say something like: “Poetry. Yeah, I’d like to get into poetry.”
This is a strange thing to say. I mean, it’s like saying you want to get into music. Or get into art. These are broad categories covering hundreds, if not thousands of years. The hugeness is overwhelming—like the menu at a Cheesecake Factory. Where do you start?
Now, most church leaders know some of poetry’s greatest hits. Shakespeare, John Donne, maybe some Robert Frost. These guys are basically The Beatles of poetry. A few people even have one or two favorites that are off the beaten track, like someone who went to a Counting Crows concert in 1998.
What’s difficult for people who say they want to get into poetry is that they don’t see an entry point. They’ve got everything from Beowulf to slam poetry and they think: “Somewhere in there is a poem for me.”
When I was in ninth grade, my buddy Jared felt sorry for me because I didn’t listen to any music, so he recorded cassettes with songs he knew I’d like. I’d listen to them in my Walkman during history class (sorry, Mr. Greene).
So, without further ado, here’s my mixtape for you. Here are ten contemporary poets I think every pastor should read. I’ll roll out five now and bring you ‘part two’ next week. (UPDATE: here’s part two.)
Out of respect for these poets’ work, I haven’t reproduced whole poems here, but I’ve provided my quick take, a favorite collection, some poems to start with, and a few lines to whet your appetite. I hope that you explore and discover a collection or two for your bookshelf.
DISCLAIMER: I point you toward these poets so that you would read them, not strip mine their work for a quick sermon illustration. Before any of this shows up in your preaching, heed Thomas Cranmer: read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
Scott Cairns introduced me to the possibility of poetry as an outworking of faith. His poetry relies heavily on precise diction—his words carry the baggage of their etymological roots. He also has a dry wit that balances his erudition with a wry, contemporary voice. A convert to Orthodoxy, his verse translations of Christian mystics are excellent and his memoir of his pilgrimages to Mount Athos a beautiful meditation.
Start With: “Possible Answers to Prayer”, “On Slow Learning”, “Spiteful Jesus”, “Metanoia”, “Setting Out”
“Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.”
—from “Possible Answers to Prayer”
As I said, many pastors are familiar with John Donne, the 17th century poet-priest, famous for his “Holy Sonnets.” They are masterpieces of the sonnet form and represent some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. Mark Jarman, among his many poetic accomplishments, boldly waded into Donne’s waters with his own “Unholy Sonnets.” While not direct parallels to particular poems, Jarman takes up Donne’s themes—death, eternity, the personal love of God—and casts an ironic, even skeptical lens over them. The poems echo the words of the centurion: “Lord I believe; help me my unbelief.”
I’ve excerpted one of his prose poems as well, from a collection called “Epistles”, which are imitative—in syntax, theme, and structure— of the Apostle Paul’s letters.
Start With: Unholy Sonnets: 9, 11, 12, 14, “If I Were Paul”, “The Teachable Moment”
Consider the loving geometry that sketched your bones, the passionate symmetry that sewed flesh to your skeleton, and the cloudy zenith whence your soul descended in shimmering rivulets across pure granite to pour as a single braided stream into the skull’s cup.
—from “If I were Paul”
In a seminar once, Marilyn Nelson once said, “I like to write about what I’ve learned.” In teaching poetry, I always used her poems to steer kids away from an inward vision of poetry, as some sort of macabre navel-gazing. Marilyn Nelson certainly writes out of her identity as a black woman—but does so by embodying the voices and experiences of others. She has written beautifully-illustrated collections, meant for children and adults alike, dedicated to George Washington Carver, Emmett Till, and a slave named Fortune.
Start With: “How I Discovered Poetry”, “Bedside Reading”, “Dusting”, Fortune’s Bones
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
Preachers need poetry if for no other reason than to be reminded of the palpable weight of language. They need to hear Archibald MacLeish’s edict: “A poem should not mean, but be.” Li-Young Lee helps me remember this better than most. His poems are so intimate in their particular imagery, so evocative in calling forth the senses, and so adept at telling a simple story, that I am led away from my irritating need to “get something out” of a poem, as if it were under interrogation. Lee’s work wrestles with faith and the physical world and also with the central role of the father and son relationship. I could hear “From Blossoms” read every day of the week.
Favorite Collections: Rose
Start With: “From Blossoms”, “The Gift”, “Arise, Go Down”, “A Story”, “Falling: The Code”
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
—from “From Blossoms”
If you’re a basketball fan, it’s the feeling you get when you see a shooting guard crossover and find himself pirouetting in the lane, ducking giants, faking to one side, then curling gracefully under the rim, and laying the ball in as if he’s putting his newborn to bed. That’s the feeling I have when I read Richard Wilbur. Wilbur is so effortlessly in control of every element of his craft—they are lovely to read once, but continue to offer insight and delight on the hundredth read.
On top of this, his work is rooted in his Christian faith. His most well-known poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Christian art from the 20th century.
Favorite Collections: Collected Poems
Start With: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”, “Matthew VIII, 28ff.”, “Advice to a Prophet”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body,
—from “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
I hope you track down some of these poems this week. We are just getting started: next week, I’ll be back with five more poets.