I learned recently I was doing something I didn’t realize I was doing. In fact, I’ve been doing it for more than three years now,
I know about the time it started – October, 2010. I know where it started – Laity Lodge, in the Texas Hill Country southwest of San Antonio. And I know who started me doing it – poet and professor Scott Cairns.
But it took poet and anthologist Luke Hankins to explain it to me (Cairns called it something else – using poetry to wrestle with difficult passages of Scripture).
“It” is the devotional poem. Not a poem of devotion, but doing a devotional through the writing of a poem.
In Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, Hankins has brought together examples of poems as devotions form a wide array of poets, and he defines “recent” as having been alive after 1950. I scanned the table of contents, and I recognized most of the poets listed – names like Cairns, Luci Shaw, Jane Hirschfield, and Nick Samaras.
These poets, or most of them, likely knew what they were doing when they write poems as devotions. I didn’t. I was just doing it, and not realizing what a history and legacy I was stumbling into. It was like writing poems before you bit into the fruit of the tree of (poetic) knowledge.
The idea of the poem as devotion has been around for a long time, but one group of poets, Hankins notes, is most closely identified with it, and that is the 17th century metaphysical poets. We read them in high school, and if we took English Lit in college, we read them there, too. Poets like John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell.
They’ve had their ups and downs from the critics (Samuel Johnson tended to sneer at them), but they had a significant impact on later generations of poets, poets we are extremely familiar with today. Gerald Manley Hopkins. T.S. Eliot. Joseph Brodsky. Czeslaw Milosz. Robert Penn Warren. Thomas Merton. E.E. Cummings. Louise Gluck. W.H. Auden. Wendelly Berry. Seamus Heaney. And more. Most of these poets have at least one poem included in this anthology.
We make think of a poem of devotion as a kind of psalm, and it can be – several included here read like a psalm of David. But they are also struggles, and ventings, an occasional rant, a love poem – all of the ways we approach God, except translated into written poetry.
I found myself marking many favorites in the volume; so many good ones are included that’s it difficult to name one as the best. One I liked immensely was this one by Ilya Kaminsky:
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.
Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh
in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,
I will praise your madness, and
Ina language not mine, speak
Of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say
is a kind of petition, and the darkest
says must I praise.
It’s something of a surprise; you don’t expect to land in a poem of devotion until you’re right in the thick of it. Once you see the reference to God, you go back to the beginning and your understanding of the poem changes. (By the way, I did a short post on Kaminsky in 2011 for Tweetspeak Poetry.)
It’s an excellent compilation of poems and poets, some dead and some in the 20s, with every other age group in between. Gathering them in this way demonstrates a connection, a continuance of this poetry (and devotional) form.
Sitting there on the banks of the Frio River at Laity Lodge, little did I know that I was reaching back four centuries to John Donne. Luke Hankins and his Poems of Devotion connected me to those still tolling bells.
Photograph by Bobby Mikul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.