It’s said daily more times than anyone can count: Christianity in America is in serious decline. Cited are churchgoing statistics. The rise of the so-called “nones” people professing no church allegiance. The scandals in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and independent megachurches. The rapid slide in membership in mainline Protestant denominations.
Yes, there’s all of that. But there’s something else, too. Christian poetry. And if Christian poetry is any indication, Christianity in America may not be in as bad as shape as we read about in the secular and religious press.
To that point, professor Micah Mattix and poet Sally Thomas have joined together to select and edit Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology. Featuring 35 poets, Mattix and Thomas have managed to showcase the talent, the range, and the depth of Christian poetry in the United States. The anthology includes only those poets born after 1940, and so by definition excludes such poets as Luci Shaw, Wendell Berry, and Fred Chappell.
The included poets represent a veritable feast of poetry: Paul Mariani, Jeanne Murray Walker, Robert Shaw, Kathleen Norris, Jay Parini, Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Marly Youmans, Scott Cairns, A.M. Juster, Marjorie Maddox, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Julia Kasdorf, Christian Wiman, Tania Runyan, James Matthew Wilson, Benjamin Myers, and more. The breadth is as startling as the depth; all Christian faith traditions are represented.
But these poems are not what you might think of as “religious poetry.” These are poems addressing the same kinds of subjects that all poets address – the seasons, geography, relationships, crises, historical subjects like the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, brokenness, and more. The difference is the perspective and the self-understanding that these poets know they are part of a much larger story.
Mattix and Thomas introduce each poet with a basic biography and summary of what they write about (an accomplishment by itself – think about writing 35 concise yet perceptive introductions and keeping them all interesting). Then they include three to five poems by each. What you get is a sharp snapshot of 35 poets with an overall composite of achievement and depth.
Here is an included poem by Andrew Hudgins, born in 1951.
These are what my father calls
our raven days. The phrase is new
to me. I’m not sure what it means.
If it means we’re hungry, it’s right.
If it means we live on carrion,
it’s right. It’s also true
that every time we raise a voice
to sing, we make a caw and screech,
a raucous keening for the dead,
of whom we have more than our share.
But the raven’s an ambiguous bird.
He forebodes death, and yet he fed
Elijah in the wilderness
and doing so fed all of us.
He knows his way around a desert
and a corpse, and these are useful skills.
Mattix is a professor of English at Regent University, poetry editor of First Things Magazine, and the editor of Prufrock, a daily newsletter on books, the arts, and ideas. He previously taught at Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Thomas is a poetry and fiction writer. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, Fallen Water and Richeldis of Walsingham, and the poetry collection Motherland. Her novel, Works of Mercy, was published by Wiseblood Books this fall. Her poems have been published in a wide array of literary magazines and journals, and she currently serves as associate poetry editor for the New York Sun.
Between them, Mattix and Thomas have accomplished a great blessing for the Christian poetry community in particular and the larger poetry community in general. Christian Poetry in America Since 1940 resonates with a vibrancy that many might find surprising. The real surprise should be, why haven’t you been reading these poets all along?
Related – my reviews at Tweetspeak Poetry of some of the included poets’ works:
Marjorie Maddox Hafer Publishes 2 Poetry Collections.
Mark Jarman’s “Bone Fires.”
A.M. Juster and “Wonder & Wrath.”
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell and “Love in the Time of Coronavirus.”
Paul Mariani and “All That Will Be Knew.”
Benjamin Myers and “Black Sunday.”
Tania Runyan and “What Will Soon Take Place.”
Scott Cairns and “Idiot Psalms.”
James Matthew Wilson and “The Strangeness of the Good.”
Dana Gioia’s “Pity the Beautiful: Poems.”
Christian Wiman and “Once in the West.”