Christian Poetry in American Since 1940: A Review

Christian Poetry in American Since 1940: An Anthology, eds. Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022. 208 pp. $18.54.

Certain books possess medicinal properties. They can’t cure a case of cancer or turn back the relentless advance of dementia; they won’t even make you feel ten years younger. But they remind us that, as Jesus promised Julian of Norwich in a vision she recounted, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Keep in mind that when she received this “showing,” Julian was thought to be on the verge of death and had already received the Last Rites; no untested cheerleading here.

Case in point: Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology, edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas. When Paraclete Press sent page proofs of this anthology a few months ago, I was knee-deep in books forecasting a dire future for the Church in the United States (books I was reading for an essay-review, still in progress). Whether or not one agrees in detail with such assessments (not to mention the responses suggested by some Christians), their cumulative effect was pretty dreary.

But what does a modest gathering of poems have to do with the State of the Church or the State of the World? Wouldn’t it be peripheral at best? How many people will even look at an anthology such as this, compared to the audience for the latest sensation on TikTok?

Well, it’s a free country, or freeish, at any rate, and you are free to read what you want—the really important stuff, you know, like reports on the latest antics of Donald Trump—while I huddle over poetry with a few like-minded dilettantes. But here’s the funny thing. If you think that way (and I know many people who do), you probably haven’t read much contemporary poetry, Christian or otherwise. Now if you did read it, you still might not like it, but at least your contempt would be better-informed.

This anthology, superbly prepared by Mattix and Thomas, was so restorative to me precisely because it stands aslant to all manner of current preoccupations and arguments and big-picture explanations of Our Time, the sort of stuff that routinely makes me want to vomit. The poems gathered here are much closer to everyday life, in all its tangled particularity, than the vast majority of public discourse across the entire ideological spectrum.

“Oh, brother,” you may be saying, shaking your head. “He’s working the ‘old everyday life’ shtick.” Well, if we had enough time, and you had enough patience, we could feature a long digression here on Andrew Epstein’s illuminating 2016 book Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture. In some respects, Epstein’s take on contemporary poetry—and much else—differs from mine, but I think his book is indispensable. And if you simply keep the notion of everyday life, the quotidian, in mind (however you parse it), I think it will illuminate your reading of this anthology.

Consider the start of the entry for Robert B. Shaw: “The poetry of Robert B. Shaw, like the poetry of John Donne, of which Shaw is a scholar, often begins with an observation about everyday objects or events: the chirp of cicadas, the function of bookmarks, climbing a ladder, dawn, an ant in amber.” This motif runs throughout.

A bit of background on the book. Micah Mattix, poetry editor at First Things, is a superb and wide-ranging critic; he also presides over Prufrock News, the online newsletter that many of us follow religiously (and he is the author of a very good book on Frank O’Hara, poet of the quotidian nonpareil). Sally Thomas, a poet who published her first novel, Works of Mercy, in 2022, is Associate Poetry Editor at the New York Sun. Together they have assembled an exemplary anthology, capacious enough to include an exceptionally wide range of writers born in or after 1940.

Of course, no anthology can manage to include everyone for whom a good case could be made. I was disappointed, for instance, that Joseph Bottum (who contributes a lovely blurb on the back cover) wasn’t represented here, and there are others I missed. But while the editors’ selection is generous, Mattix forthrightly acknowledges that this anthology “in no way provides a comprehensive picture of contemporary Christian poetry in America.”

I can’t pretend to detachment when so many of the writers who are included in this volume are not only poets whose work I admire but also friends. Over a period of twenty years, my wife Wendy and I spent time with many of them at Laity Lodge in Texas as members of the Chrysostom Society, a Christian writers’ group. We’ve had meals and splendid conversations with many of these poets in Grand Rapids during the blessed Calvin Festival for Faith & Writing; some of them have stayed with us while in the Wheaton area. Brett Foster (1973–2015), a professor at Wheaton College at the time of his untimely death from cancer, was one of my closest friends; the two poems of his included here are excellent choices.

But you don’t need to have known any of these poets in person to appreciate their work. I haven’t met the aforementioned Robert B. Shaw, alas, whose “Things We Will Never Know” is one of my favorite poems in this anthology. It puts a twist on the traditional ubi sunt (“where are…”) in a way that combines genuine pathos and deliciously wry absurdity, suffused with the everydayness rightly emphasized in the editors’ capsule account of Shaw. Here are the first three of the poem’s nine stanzas:

What became of Krishna
the blue point Siamese
strayed circa Nineteen
Fifty-five in Louisville

Or the box turtle Churchy
lost a few years later
What seduced them away   Where
Is Jimmy Hoffa   Judge Crater

What was the name of the dwarf
newsboy we used to buy
Sunday papers from for seven years
until we moved

I’d like to go on and quote the entire poem. When I finished reading it for the first time, I was practically levitating—and I had tears in my eyes.

In his substantial introduction to the volume, Mattix valiantly takes up questions about what constitutes Christian literature in general and Christian poetry in particular, adducing such worthies as C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Erich Auerbach. I must admit that I almost never think about such matters, and that when I am forced to, I usually get irritated very quickly. Consider Lewis, whom I revere, pontificating that—in Mattix’s summary—“a Christian theory of poetry is ‘above all…opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression,’” a reactionary absurdity that Mattix tries to render more palatable.

One passage near the end of Mattix’s introduction struck me with particular force:

While writing from various denominational backgrounds—Catholic, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Orthodox, Baptist—these Christian poets both praise the beauty of the universal Church and critique its failings and excesses. Far from uniform, the work of the poets in this volume is as varied as contemporary poetry itself while, at the same time, profoundly committed to a common faith.

When I read this, I thought about the drives my wife Wendy and I had taken (Wendy always at the wheel) for many years after we moved from Pasadena, California to Wheaton, Illinois in 1994. We often went into Chicago (about 25 miles east of us). Most of the time we stuck to the tollways, but once in a while, on the way back, we would take surface streets: the trip was much longer, but there were compensations. Above all, we marveled at the abundant variety of churches we saw along the way, ranging from massive structures (many of them venerable, some reflecting the heyday of modernism, and so on) to a wild variety of storefront places of worship.

The poets included in this anthology are as unpredictably varied as those churches. I defy any reader to find a common denominator among the first four poets here—Paul Mariani, Diane Glancy, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Marilyn Nelson (followed by Robert B. Shaw)—beyond the essential fact that they are indeed Christian poets and, yes, they tend to be anchored in “everyday life” (though there are exceptions to the latter as the volume proceeds). Their angles of attack, their prosody, their voices: all quite different and distinct. It will be a rare reader who tunes into all four of them with equal ease, but very few will regret having made their acquaintance.

Here is the start of one of the two Glancy poems, “Why I Like God.” The title is a provocation, of course. Glancy, as I have observed elsewhere, is a shapeshifter, a trickster (though one who will also offer piercing testimony):

stay out late He says,
do whatever you want
wear My shield and helmet anytime
nothing will get you
not even those squeaky nights
fly between the surfboards of My wings
say I come from a pit I stand on a rock

Christian poetry, yes, finding a place in the same volume as the suave stanzas of James Matthew Wilson. Wilson is a poet, critic, and Founding Director of the recently established Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. From this post—along with his partner in thought-crime, Joshua Hren, founder of Wiseblood Books—he is leading a guerrilla campaign against Contemporary Poetry, Inc. He also had a poem published in the previous print edition of Ad Fontes.

Earlier I mentioned Joseph Bottum’s blurb for this anthology, but I didn’t quote it. Here it is: “One of the best, and least expected, anthologies in decades.” Amen—and many thanks to Micah Mattix, Sally Thomas, and Paraclete Press for giving it to us.

John Wilson was editor of Books & Culture and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine. He received a B.A. from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, in 1970 and an M.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1975. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, First Things, National Review, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church in Wheaton; they have four children.

*Image Credit: ElectroSpark


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