Poetry & Secular Psalms

Teachers led me to appreciate poetry well enough to score high on the AP exam, and to dominate class discussions at Duke. (At an English Majors' party, one guy said, "Yeah, you sit in the front row and know all the answers. We all hate you.") After graduation, I taught poetry in Middle School. I kept T. S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins at bedside for spiritual growth, but rarely opened their books.

Then I heard then poet-laureate Billy Collins on NPR and caught the idea that poems are like jokes that can make you gasp, or cringe, or cry, as well as smile. 

About that time, I started to subscribe to POETRY magazine. I followed up on poets I liked, and started this blog. Now, I want this page to be a place where a note can remind me, as Frost once said, "of what it would impoverish us to forget."

I'm personally interested in poets who take faith seriously, even when, like Larkin, they don't accept religion.  Some of the people here might be surprised that I do consider them "religious," what I would "secular psalmists."

Todd Boss
Poet Todd Boss: Story and Rhyme. Todd Boss gets a lot of attention from me, thanks in part to his guest appearance on NPR's cooking show The Splendid Table. He reached out on his web site, too: http://www.toddbosspoet.com/Home.html I find much to love in his dramas, his themes, and his playful inner rhymes. It was his work in POETRY that helped me to develop the idea of "Secular Psalms." I wrote again about his second collection: Poet Todd Boss's Pitch: Family's Value

Richard Blanco
Solace in Blanco Verse for Midlife, Midwinter Blues
was what I wrote when some lines by Blanco helped me through a couple of dark hours of self-doubt.  Review of Looking for the Gulf Motel: Not Grievance but Gratitude.
"It Takes a Pueblo": Richard Blanco's Loving Memoir (review of The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood)

Billy Collins
Billy Collins: Ten Poems Too Many? My ambivalence about Billy Collins' work drew more comments than any other post in the ten years since, all from people who scorn Mr. Collins. Side note: Going head-to-head with Frost, Dickinson, Angelou, and other more contemporary poets, Collins wins more than half the time when my 7th grade votes on poems that feel both meaningful and engaging.  

Just a Closer Walk with T.S.Eliot: I finally get down to reading "Little Gidding" after years of being intimidated by "Mr. Eliot." I love it!

Robert Frost
Early Frost finds a huge leap between Frost's earliest published work and what came with "Mending Wall" in 1914. He also wrote a great deal as verse drama: Who knew? Poet / essayist / head of the NEH Dana Gioia takes over the end of the essay, defending Frost from critics. I conclude: "Thanks to Gioia for introducing me to this quote, which I am evidently the last English major to learn: Poetry 'is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.'"

Donald Hall
Night of the Cows is an appreciation of a long narrative poem by Donald Hall called "The Night of the Day." Is it a poem, or just an anecdote? Why do I feel the urge to re-read it every six months or so?

Marie Howe
I heard her read and discuss her poems on NPR.  I rushed to buy her collections What the Living Do (focused on family and her brother John's death by AIDs), The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Magdalene.  Others leaving their reviews before me had also heard her on the radio and bought the books instantly.  My reflection is called You Must Remember "This," focused on a lesson that her brother taught her about being attentive to life, its rituals, and other peoples' separate realities.

Jane Kenyon
While Jane Kenyon's posthumous Collected Poems has been important to me for many years, I've written about her work only once, in an article I called Shrink Age, focused on what English teachers might have to offer the world on the subject of aging parents. I wrote this years before Dad died and Mom showed the first symptoms of dementia.

Philip Larkin
No Failure of Imagination: Atheists Find Something More was my response to a staged interview between a Jesuit and his buddy the atheist Christopher Hitchens. They found common ground in a quotation from novelist Ian McEwan,"Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination." They found more common ground enjoying the poem "Church Going" by Philip Larkin. That led me to read Larkin's collected poems. See Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold: Philip Larkin.  In The Joys of Larkin, I report on an essay about "Happiness in Larkin" The author insists that her title isn't a joke.

Dave Mason
Note to Self: Look for more Poetry by Dave Mason is my discovery of a poet cited as expressing Christian faith in his poetry, though the work that put me onto him had no overtly religious subjects. The article ends with Leslie Monsour's clever indictment of us poet wannabes.   After buying a collection by Mason, I responded to one long, atmospheric poem, "The Collector's Tale," in an article I called Verse Noire by Dave Mason .

Mary Oliver
"A Doorway into Thanks": Mary Oliver's Thirst is my greatest hit. I'm not so complimentary of Ms. Oliver's work as some of my readers would like, but I appreciate that her poetry is a kind of prayer, and it opens our eyes in the way that makes all good poetry "religious" or "spiritual."

Linda Pastan
Linda Pastan's Poetry for Giving Thanks considers mostly poems from Pastan's collection The Last Uncle, which I took with me to read in the car while I waited for what turned out to be one of my last Thanksgiving dinners with Mom and Dad.  See also: Linda Pastan's Last Uncle and My Last Aunt. When I took the same book with me for the cross-country drive to my Aunt Blanche's funeral, Pastan spoke to me. For the adult seminar Education for Ministry, I created a liturgy for worship from Pastan's poetry.   I review her collection Queen of a Rainy Country in an article called Linda Pastan: Not Quite Ordinary.   See also: Shrink Age: Poets Caring for Elderly Parents , poems on the topic by Pastan and Jane Kenyon.

Lawrence Raab
Boomer's Poetry: Lawrence Raab's Probable World. Of this gentle spirit with wry imagination, I write: "His imagination was shaped by comic books and movies, and his poems include space aliens, mutant humanoid crab monsters, dogs, Jimi Hendrix. Reflecting on his not serving in the army, he is not proud, he writes. His poems also touch on Bosnia, terrorism, and Columbine. Also, dogs, God, Emily Dickinson, youth, a father who died early." I've re-read his works many times.

Rumi at 800: Muslim Poet for Us All tells what I learned from hearing Christopher Theofinidas's symphonic/choral setting of poetry by Rumi, some research, and from a collection of the poems. I had reason to wonder whether I was responding to Rumi, or to the translators' overlays on Rumi. But I distill these lessons: "Our dissatisfactions are good for us: we are separated from God, and dissatisfaction is a sign of our longing for completeness in God. Other desires are good, too, stopping-points on the way to completeness in God. One poem includes the lines, 'If anyone asks how did Jesus raise the dead / Kiss me on the lips and say, "like this."'"

John Updike
Updike's Endpoint: Light at Sunset. Updike's biographer struck a chord with me when he commented that Updike's last published work, this slim poetry collection that came out after his death, may be the best of all the tens of thousands of pages he published. Always haunted by death, Updike seems to have been liberated by the doctors' death sentence. (Updike gets his own page on this blog.) 

Derek Walcott
He's the only poet on this page whom I haven't read.  I read about him, and wrote Note to Self: Check into Poetry by Derek Walcott. I never did, though his love of rhyme and his mourning of the lack of God in modern literature both interested me. I treasure this quote from him:
Rhyme remains the parenthesis of palms
Shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
Desire to enclose the loved one in its arms.
William Carlos Williams
Composer Steve Reich set Williams texts in a major work for chorus and symphony orchestra, The Desert Music.  Fascinated by that, I bought the Selected Poems.  Try as I might, though, I didn't get into it, dipping in every so often during the last thirty years.  Then the movie Paterson earned some rave reviews, and I bought Williams's book-length poem of the same name, along with a collection by Ron Padgett, who supplied the verse for the title character, an unpublished poet.  Sorry, I didn't get far in either book.  But I gleaned enough to enhance my enjoyment of the movie.   Jim Jarmusch's movie Paterson is a gentle rumination on poetry, love, place. (Read my reflection, Paterson: Movie and Poem )

Christian Wiman
Beyond Belief in My Bright Abyss concerns a book of essays by this poet, once fundamentalist, then atheist, now a kind of believer again.  There's also my review of the poet's verse collected in Every Riven Thing. 

Singer - Songwriters
Singer-songwriter David LaMotte finds a good balance between poetry and the lyricist's need to be understood at first hearing.  Forty years after her greatest popularity, I discover Joni Mitchell's lyrics as poetry.

                                                      Teaching Poetry
7th Grade Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs:  When I present poetry in the context of "March Madness" with brackets and competitions, the results are better than I dreamed. 

                                    Secular Psalms in Poetry Magazine
Much of my writing about poetry relates to the idea that even poems about hurtful things are like the psalms, celebrating and showing gratitude for the experience of life. Discussions and essays by poets about religion naturally interested me. Here are several blog posts along those lines:

Poetry, November 2007 I respond to poet Dean Young's "Easy as Falling Down Stairs," about how the mind flits from one thing to another, in a world that is itself "tectonically" in motion. The poem struck me as a secular psalm, an expression of gratitude for experience and for a Something Beyond or Beneath it, an idea I developed further in other postings.

Poetry, November 2007 and summer 2008. The summer issue contains a poem by Carl Dennis, with this premise: Suppose you knew this would be the world's last day: What would you do differently? I write: "What strikes me after reading it is how this thought experiment is a kind of agnostic sermon that touches on the essential religious question, "Why bother?" Likewise, an earlier issue of Poetry (November 2007) contains some verses that strike me as being secular psalms, seeing details of the world as part of a gloriously and painfully unified whole."  "Leaf Litter on Rock Face" by Heather McHugh digs into a simple image, leaves on stone, and finds a spirit in matter. "Adam's Prayer" by Amanda Jernigan develops in Adams' voice. In "Just Now," Peter Campion's anxieties about terrorism become focused on a ladybug."Cat, Failing" comes close to being something you'd put in a condolence card for someone mourning the loss of an old sickly pet, but it reaches beyond "awww" to "ah!" when it touches on something essentially human in the experience of approaching death. Dean Young's "Easy as Falling Downstairs" sends the reader's eyes zig-zagging across the page while it considers how our minds zig-zag: "Like a psalm, it encompasses the vastness of creation before it seems to focus into a kind of love poem," I write. I enjoy his "Undertow" even more, and it includes a dog that thinks, "maybe a life of fetch is not a wasted life."

Poetry December 2008 Poet Roddy Lumsden considers kids at the beach for whom "now" is a landscape, not a little pinpoint. Todd Boss listens to his little boy singing on his way to the bathroom early one morning. Fred D'Aguiar, reared in Ghuyana, writes of the train as a monster. We get whimsical poems about God's answering machine and Glenn Morazzani's "Therapy from the Garden."

Other articles deal with poets who discuss religion and poetry:

This Old Verse: Ted Kooser's Poetry Manual highlights some wonderful lines that the former poet-laureate uses for examples. Kooser suggests "a metaphysical or even religious function for poems. He admits that, if he lives another twenty years, he may even come to believe in a God who cares about what he does. Until then, though, he feels more and more certain that all things are connected, and poems -- especially through metaphor -- help us to see that."

Vermeer, Updike, and a Poetry Editorial finds support for the idea that good poetry is inherently religious.

Faith is as Rational as Language (or Poetry) again considers how some scorners of religion dismiss is as metaphor -- as if metaphor weren't truth.

Bees, Butterflies, Worldview and Metaphor deals with an essay by poet D.H.Tracy about poets who take ideas seriously. The article includes bits from James Merrill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Pinsky.

A painting by Tanner and a poem by Levertov at an Advent "spiritual workshop" brought a little poetry out of me.

                                               What Struck me in Poetry Magazine
Joining Moments, Enjoying the Moments deals mostly with a poem by Joel Brouwer, "A Report to the Academy," and an argument in the same issue of POETRY by "die-hard formalist" Clive James. I conclude: "All of this is exemplified in Bouwer's poem. It doesn't rhyme, but its twenty-six lines run consistently ten syllables. It's a simple anecdote developed through moments of growing consciousness that reach their conclusion not through rhetoric or argument, but by images that repeat with variations. In the end, it's just a few moments that suggest more than moments: a momentous acceptance in the man's life. And we feel good about it."
But... poet Joel Brouwer came up again, this time in a brouhaha over his criticism of a poet named Roy Jacobstein's poem about "Dog Races in Florida."  I disagreed both with Brouwer and another poet named George Rappleye.  After I posted my article, Rappleye commented.  See Round and Round with Poets and Dogs.  

Poetry March 2007 issue included fragments of poetry by Sophocles assembled under topics such as "the sea"; a poet Richard Kenney's speculation about alien beings' inhabiting our bodies for entertainment purposes; and Kay Ryan's neat use of repeated sound to mimic the way we see a slice of the other side of the tracks between train cars passing by. I complain about a poem that seems all fragments, all slices of life, with no coherence or compensating pleasure.

Poetry May 2007 considers Bob Hicok's poem imagining fathers and sons together in a poetry workshop, more about a father "whose absence was his presence" than about poetry. Another poem by Hicok fantasizes about jumping in a river to save a drowning mother and child. Anne Stevenson writes of the "adhesiveness of things" when her persona opens her grandmother's silverware drawer. Geoffrey Brock's poem with the suggestive title "Homeland Security" puts us in the mind of the young father deciding at 4:30 a.m. whether to let his infant son cry a little longer. I say it's "political without being polemical."

Poetry June 2007. John Koethe's "Chester" finds meaning in waking with a pet at the foot of the bed; A.E. Stalling's poem "Misspent" compares our days to coins we can't even recall spending; David Yezzi's "The Good News" resonated for me with the experience of meeting an old friend after 30 years.

The summer 2007 issue of POETRY included three poems by Tony Hoagland that get beyond the wise guy attitude that cloyed in his collection WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME. Hoagland writes, "It's time to catch up on praise." Like Updike, and like Walcott (see elsewhere on this page), he writes that description "lingers, / and loves for no reason." The rest of the issue includes Q&A with Richard Wilbur, John Updike, Todd Boss, Billy Collins, and Alice Friman who wanted to be "smarty ass clever" in her poem "Art and Science," hoping that the clever "busyness" would straighten out to a single note, like Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D.

Poetry February 2008 The issue contained early verse by Samuel Beckett, whose modernist purity struck me as preferable to what I saw of modernism in an exhibit of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe that same month. The issue also contained a photo-and-poetry portfolio about Soviet Era Poland.

Poetry September 2008 I appreciate two poems by Alan Shapiro that explode the myth that anything orderly and clean is bourgeois and inauthentic" "Gas Station Restroom" and "24/7" about a convenience store. There's also an article by Clive James about Shakespeare's Sonnets. I conclude: "The next best thing to reading a poem and getting it, is reading someone else's writing that open[s] up the art to you."

Poetry October, November 2008
"There is no I in teamwork / but no we in marriage / only a grim area" anagrams the poet Craig Arnold in his poem "Uncouplings." I enjoy Philip Levine's poem about worship for mountains. Mostly I tell of works by Sarah Lindsay that take off from real events to reach in some unexpected direction. There's a poem about telling bad news to the bees; about the death of a single small animal - last of its kind; and the image of a singer found in an archaeological dig. Reviews of poems Billy Collins, whose method is similar, opens the article.

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