The still small voices of poetry
The Poet’s Quest for God: an anthology of 21st Century poems of faith, doubt and wonder ed. by Fr Oliver Brennan and Todd Swift, with Kelly Davio and Cate Myddleton Evans, with an introduction by Dr Ewan Fernie (Eyewear Publishing / Signature Books, £24.99. Distributed by Central Books in the UK and Ireland.)

It is a sad fact that most people only attend to poetry when they are at school, and then only because there are exams to be done at the end of the course. Adults often remain unconscious of the poetry around them. The conditions of modern life are such that many cannot hear the truth being spoken to them.

This is a sad fact because poetry, real poetry, had its original impulse in man’s earliest religious feelings, and poetry has remained an important constant in religion ever since. 

The great poets of the Christian tradition – Dante, Herbert, Vaughan, Hopkins – all have things to say that are as important as anything in the Scriptures. Indeed poetry is in its way a form of revelation.

Various ways

When people do seek out poetry, it is often the poets of the past, already familiar in various ways, to whom they turn. But the editors of this immense volume – it runs to some 450 pages and contains work by over 300 poets – want their readers to focus on what is being written now by “unestablished” poets no-one has yet put on the Leaving course, or any course at all.  Inevitably most of the names will be unfamiliar, but this is a good thing, for it allows one to approach their work with an open mind.

The editing of this book represents a welcome return to his academic and theological interests for Fr Oliver Brennan, who has had recent experiences of the often pharisaical nature of people these days. 

He holds a doctorate from Fordham University where he was an Adjunct Professor of Religious studies. He is also the author of Catholic Issues in Religious Education and Cultures Apart? The Catholic Church and Contemporary Irish Youth.

This book has been put together in co-operation with American colleagues, so its sweep is wide; not merely modern American, but many other cultures are represented. There is a vast variety of styles here, but if there is a common theme it is that of seeking an experience with the infinite. But for many of the poets that experience is to be sought in the extraordinary – perhaps even miraculous – insights they are granted into everyday life.

There are also poems of doubt, fear, and negative passions. 

The processes of religion are not always all along a path of light. These poets are often better at expressing these than those who experience many fears and horrors, and search for comfort or explanation. The poets have been there too, in ways perhaps than many priests have not been.

Edna McDonough in praising the book remarks that there are many for whom “poetry has become a resource or replacement for faith-bound spirituality”.

The poets’ quest for God can be for everyone. Yet what many of these overlook is the poetry that can be found everywhere in the Bible. 

Those apercus of life and experience which are referred to as the parables are in fact the poetry of Jesus Christ. Read in that light the poems in this book too will be, for many readers, parables as well, leading them quietly and silently into a richer understanding, not just of themselves or poetry, but of life itself.  

This anthology will be found richly rewarding by readers who approach it the right frame of mind. But then the same can be said of the Gospels.