Spiritual poetry is some of the oldest poetry known. Some 75 percent of the Old Testament is written in poetic form, and the Psalms are written entirely in poetic form. In fact, five books – Job Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon – are known as the poetical books.
This genre of poetry continues to be popular today. Poets like Malcolm Guite, Mark Jarman, Luci Shaw, and Wendell Berry have written spiritual poems, and faith infuses their poetry generally. While spiritual poems are often characterized by praise, this isn’t the only way they are written. Three recent collections demonstrate some of the different ways that faith can be written as poetry.
Sojourner Songs is poet Ben Palpant’s second collection of poetry; his first, A Small Cup of Light: a drink in the desert was published in 2014. He began writing poetry as a result of a health collapse some years ago; he began writing poetry as a way to explore the idea of “suffering in the presence of a living God.” A Small Cup of Light was praised by a number of Christian writers and theologians, including J.I. Packer, the author of Knowing God.
In his new collection of 59 poems, Palpant includes many that serve as meditations on scripture. In fact, not only does he include the references, he also includes a section in the book that reprints the scriptures cited as well. Most of the references are from the Old Testament.
This one, inspired by Isaiah 30:15-25, includes a number of proverbs, ostensibly “notes from a prophet” but the prophet , in this case, is the poet.
At the Still Point
I carry a satchel
stuffed with notes from a prophet.
I read each,
one at a time,
on lonesome nights,
under darkening skies.
“Fear multiplies exponentially
with each glance
over the shoulder.”
“He who runs
shall get trampled
by fear’s phantoms.”
“He who fears
shall be like one standing naked
and alone in an open field.”
“He who seeks salvation
must turn and run toward fear.”
“He who clings
to the still point
of the turning wheel
shall be saved.”
So now I sit
with my satchel
and rest until morning.
for the dawn
at the still point
of this whirling wheel.
Sojourner Songs is a lovely collection. The individual poems sound intimately familiar, because we are all sojourners in this life, all waiting and watching at “the still point of this whirling wheel.”
Spiritual poems don’t have to be tied to specific Bible references. Most of the 52 poems in Poems from the Wilderness by Brandon Hadley, in fact, do not have specific Bible references, and yet they are no less faith-based than ones that do.
Hadley ‘s poems speak from the wilderness, another way of describing our sojourn in the earthly life. His subjects range from the seasons and times of the day to human love, Lake Michigan, and Don Quixote. Many of them, however, read like psalms, such as this one.
What a road
That I have travelled thus far
The sorrow I have born
To come to this place
To find friend and lover
Who takes me as I am
Who brings no expectation
Or wants to change who I am
To laugh when I am goofy
To bring a gleaming smile
To my somber face
I had long-lost hope
That I could have all this
Amazed and Astonished
I am left breathless
After traveling a road in sorrow, a kind of desert, the poet meets a friend and lover who accepts him as he is – which could also describe meeting God for the first time. Poems from the Wilderness is a collection of poems about hope.
In some ways, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota) by Zach Czaia seems more recognizable as a contemporary collection of poetry than many spiritual poetry collections. And yet it is infused with faith, and with the all-too-human emotions of anger and doubt. One hears the voice of the psalmist and the prophet, praising and questioning, shaking a fist and confessing weakness and sin.
The 41 poems cover a range of topics, not the least being the priest child abuse scandals that shook the Catholic Church to its foundations. In several of the poems, Czaia wrestles with what happened and his knowing an involved priest like Jacob wrestles with the angel in the Book of Genesis. The poet won’t let go, and while he’s not been a victim he wrestles with even naming one abuser, as if naming would humanize him.
Other poems address such subjects as the poets William Blake, W.H. Auden, and Dante; teaching in public schools; relationships with family; and biblical subjects such Jesus’ death, Peter’s wife, the Garden of Gethsemane, and this meditation on a specific Bible verse.
john chapter thirteen verse eight
unless i wash you
unless i wash
wish for more than is given
than is allotted than has been
swept gathered to measure overflowing
that has been imagined—
bodies torn in villages on land on
sea heads of a character hammered
unless i ask for this
way this possibility of the meeting
of a gaze a face i don’t see
the eyes bleary face smudged from poor
use misuse abuse the winters long
unless i wash this face
wash it with hands trembling
slow tender tracing across the scored face
break in the sun till the sun breaks down
little lorax with his whisper
unless your song profane as well as
lying long not dying windily
your body that cradle of
regret-baby hoping to become promise-man
will be disappointed will inherit
Saint Paul Lives Here is a moving, thought-provoking collection.
These three works are a few examples of spiritual poetry – meditations on scripture; mediations without scriptural references; and coming to grips with the contradictions and doubts associated with faith and the church.
Top photograph by Any Bay via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.