For The Tennessean
When poet Mary Oliver comes out with a new book, I stop and take a look, not only because her poems are often rewarding but because her popularity says something about today’s shifting state of religion.
That is, I know people who read Oliver and other poets for spiritual solace they don’t quite find in church.
In her new book of poems, “A Thousand Mornings,” Oliver hears prayer in a wren’s song. She dreams of spinning like a Sufi dancer. She finds God everywhere.
In an earlier book, “Swan,” she says:
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it …
Her words look mortality in the eye. They find wisdom in the experience of aging. They urge the reader to claim a rightful measure of joy. They do all this without reference to creedal doctrine. I know people who want to honor the religious quest but not the unsolicited professionalism of the pulpit. They’d rather read poetry.
The Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “God’s Grandeur”)
The connection between religion and poetry is ancient. The sacred texts of world religions are chock full of it. But for 200 years, poetry has been acclaimed as a rival to organized religion, offering its own sense of transcendent feeling.
Tension between religion and poetry isn’t inevitable. But by the 20th century, traditional faith got engulfed in battles against science and lost its central role in the culture. Then it fell into denominational civil war and at times got overly doctrinaire, brainy or fundamentalist.
Into the void came poets who spoke of spiritual emotions that were neglected or condemned by organized religion. Poetry explored dreams. It celebrated the body, the animal world, the awakened life of nature. It offered praise, sometimes to God, sometimes to itself, for our connection to all those things. Poetry was rising against rationalism.
The holy is below us, not above: and a line moves to descend, to dip down, to touch water that lies so near we are astonished our hands haven’t dipped in it before. (Robert Bly, from “Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke”)
Some poets dared to think of God in new images — God as writer, lab scientist, or criminally negligent parent. Poems were written to defy post-industrial economic forces that crushed imagination and hope.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems. (Wislawa Szymborska)
A poem is a message in a bottle. Some wash up at the wrong address, the wrong shore, and don’t make much sense to the reader. Others arrive damaged, like cracked vessels drained of color and liquid. The good ones show up right on time. They sharpen alertness, reduce loneliness and help a person live up to something. I regard them not as hostile to the aims of religion but as vigils to the strange dramas and breakthroughs of ordinary time.
The task of the poet is to bring people back to reality — to dispel the illusions provided by daily life and by the state. In so doing, it awakens our hearts to a feeling of solidarity. (Louis Simpson)
There’s a crying need these days for language that moves beyond the dead passions of TV political commentary — a language that tries to heal, challenging the culture’s self-defeating addiction to conflict.
Poems would be easy if our heads weren’t so full of the day’s clatter. The task is to get through to the other side, where we can hear the deep rhythms that connect us with the stars and the tides. (Stanley Kunitz, from “The Collected Poems”)
Churches are in the healing business. They might consider the way poetry (April is National Poetry Month) reaches readers by speaking personally and with precision about the crazy paradoxes of life and death and still says: yes.
Columnist Ray Waddle is a former Tennessean religion editor who now lives in Connecticut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.