Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology — Book Review

by Justin Lacour

One of the best kept secrets of contemporary poetry is the flourishing of Christian writing. While there have been several recent anthologies for “spiritual,” “devotional,” and even “religious” poems, the phenomenon of specifically Christian poetry has gone largely unremarked. In Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology, however, editors Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas gather together thirty-five contemporary poets from a diversity of Christian traditions–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox–with a variety of approaches to expressing their faith. The collection is nothing short of revelatory, particularly for poets looking to write about their faith while still being artistically adventurous. The poets here prove Christian poetry does not have to be hectoring, easy, precious, or, worst of all, boring.     

An anthology of this sort begs the question:  What is Christian poetry? In his introduction, Professor Mattix begins with C.S. Lewis’ dictum that successful sacred literature has the same qualities as successful secular literature; “in terms of technique and form, there is no such thing as Christian literature. There is simply good literature and bad literature.” (p. 11). Nevertheless, “there may be such a thing as a ‘Christian approach to literature.’” (p. 11). According to Lewis, while modern writers view self-expression as an end in itself, a Christian writer uses self-expression in an attempt to express something beyond themselves. (p. 12).

Similarly, for Mattix, there is an inherent dualism to Christian literature, where the art exists in itself “functioning according to its own rules” and as “a reflection, or gesture towards, something else.” (p. 16). Mattix cites Dante’s Divine Comedy as an example, where the characters possess a figural realism, while, at the same time, being symbolic of something greater. Christian literature then is “both surface and depth, material and immaterial.” (p. 16). In this way, the revival of Christian poetry in America can be seen as a reaction against the modern tendency in poetry to reject symbolism and meaning. (pp. 16-17).  

The anthology does a good job of collecting work by well-established poets, such as Dana Gioia, Marilyn Nelson, Scott Cairns, and Tracy K. Smith. Equally enjoyable for me, though, was the opportunity to read such excellent poets as James Matthew Wilson, Benjamin Myers, and Chelsea Wagenaar for the first time.  

It would be impossible to address the merits of all thirty-five poets in this review. However, a few salient points may be drawn. First, there is a tendency in some Christian literature to gloss over the darkness leading up to the light. By contrast, a poet like Franz Wright speaks unsparingly of his journey from addiction and depression to faith. Prior to his conversion, Wright observed “There are no symbols/with the efficacy we require,” yet in “Year One,” the poet issues a clear apology for the existence of God: “Proof/of Your existence? There is nothing/but.” (p. 106). For Wright, the journey out of darkness is the journey towards God, a God who is close to the brokenhearted.  

Similarly, in the anthology we hear from Shane McCrae. The son of a white mother and a black father, McCrae was kidnapped by his maternal grandparents as a toddler and raised in an abusive, white supremacist household. McCrae addresses his past head-on in “Lord of the Hopeless Also Dear,” with an astonishing sense of forgiveness: “Lord I do not say/Release me call me home forgive my many/Sins I say Lord forgive my torturers/Who hate my faults as if my fault were theirs.” (p. 178). McCrae’s work is some of the most blistering in the collection, but points to the possibility of light out of the darkness.

At the same time, the reader is treated to poets like Tania Runyan, who brings a sharp sense of humor to her poems. In “The Fruit of the Spirit,” Runyan contemplates the difficulty of possessing peace and joy in the face of life’s daily challenges–whether not overreacting when a child spills a “Megaslush” in the car or “keeping Cherry Garcia/in the freezer for more than twelve hours.” (p. 166). Ultimately, the voice of Christ comes to compliment the mom of the poem for refraining from eating ice cream for ten hours and not cursing her children, shifting the focus from the mom’s weakness to the infinite mercy of God.

Additionally, the poets often take on hard subjects and are not satisfied with pat answers. Poems by Christian Wiman, Andrew Hudgins and Mark Jarman examine the problem of suffering. The seeker in Bruce Beasley’s “Consolation” is, despite his striving, left “still hankering and unhealed.” (p. 128). Clare Rossini tackles the difficulty of prayer. Ryan Wilson meditates on the sad reality of one’s own weakness and sinfulness before concluding, “You cannot change your life. Give up; give thanks.” (p. 189). Similarly, Mark Wagenaar speaks for “the undeserving/for those of us who didn’t live right, or live best,” hoping “Mercy will find us, even when we fail to recognize it, when we least/expect it.” (p. 185).

Like any great anthology, these poems serve not only as a historical document, but also as a challenge, a call to arms. For those of us striving to write thoughtfully and artistically about our faith, this collection asks us to eschew sentimentality and easy answers. It asks us to own up to the darkness and weakness of our own lives, and the difficulty inherent in following The Way. In short, we need to be more honest. It is not enough to write platitudes or talking points completely unmindful of art or audience. We are writing for a reading public less evangelized than any previous generation, and we need to show them compassion by writing heartfelt poems that join in their struggle, poems that offer the beauty of Christianity while being mindful of how difficult it is to remain in the light.   

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Justin Lacour lives in New Orleans and edits Trampoline: A Journal of Poetry. He has poetry forthcoming in Amethyst Review.

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