It’s a commonplace to hear poets, critics, and poetry readers alike say that poetry is dying and no one reads it any more. Ina literary genre where “bestseller” is defined as 1000 copies (or fewer), there might be some truth to that commonplace. Extremely few poets in the English-speaking world as well as elsewhere make a full-time living from poetry. And what is true for poetry in general is perhaps even more true for Christian poetry.
And yet poets keep writing, and readers keep reading. If the health of the genre can be measured by quality, then the state of contemporary Christian poetry exemplified in The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry is very healthy indeed.
Editor D.S. Martin, who writes the Kingdom Poets blog, edits the Poeima Poetry Series from Cascade Books, and is a published poet himself, has selected some 240 poems by 60 poets, defining “contemporary” as including those poets still alive in the year 2000. It thus covers a broad array of 20th and early 21st century poetry, including some from the World War I era.
Many of the poets are well known – Wendell Berry, R.S. Thomas, Dana Gioia, Richard Wilbur, Luci Shaw, Sydney Lea, Jeanne Murray Walker, Mark Jarman, Scott Cairns, Laurie Klein, Malcolm Guite, and Christian Wiman. Others are becoming better known, like Tania Runyan, Anya Kugiorny Silver, and Dave Harrity.
What is so striking are the quality and the diversity. These poems represent different generations, and different Christian faith traditions – mainstream Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, and others. For all the diversity, in this creative endeavor we call poetry, the differences submerge, and the quality, perceptions, and imagery shine forth. It’s as if the differences disappear as each poet speaks from the language of faith.
Exodus by Nicholas Samaras
The Lord was as simple as walking
into evening. We stepped out of our lives.
The tea on the fire, the bread in the bowl.
My book lying face up, open at the page.
Choosing the Lord was a simple as walking
forward, the trust of a child holding onto you,
your own trust settled like believing,
the doors open into a cool, unleavened
What’s especially memorable here are the contrasts between the fire and the bread on the bowl, and then the “cool, unleavened” evening. So few lines, and so many packed images.
Another wonderful selection is a poem by Laurie Klein.
Unbelief by Laurie Klein
|Collection Editor D.S. Martin|
Begin with the body:
holy, breathing, real—how we know;
later, call it a book of curves,
home, riddled with contradictions.
Ask those who design, and
by design, deceive: Which is true?
a coin toss, or vote?
an aqueduct, or a well of salvation?
a seven-veil dance worth one life,
or half a kingdom?
Moses and Paul, head-to-head,
curled around time, two halves,
one voice, their ropey, blue-collar
topography riveting as a river
flicking a skipped stone,
as if each word cast is a net
enclosing a silver fish—arc
against air—half a second
and one small glimmer
all it takes to re-aim a skeptics gaze.
Martin has done exceedingly well in selecting these poems. They are the stuff of faith, with all of its assurances, grace, doubts, and contradictions.
The Turning Aside is a moving collection of poetry, demonstrating the vitality of contemporary Christian poets and the beauty they create.
Top photograph by Lubos Houska via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.