This is the latest in our series of lists highlighting works of art and culture Christians should know. Previous installments have highlighted classic poems, works of fiction, silent films, contemporary fiction, church architecture, paintings, and classical music.
I’m always a little sad after a poetry reading when someone comes up and tells me they’re “really into Christian poets,” and when I ask excitedly “which ones?” they rattle off a short list that ends with Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Herbert. Not that those poets aren’t required reading—absolute masters of the form and of the heart’s hows—but because there is so much good crop still being pulled from the fertile fields of theologically inflected verse. I always wish I carried around a backpack full of books by Mark Jarman, or Jennifer Maier, or Dana Gioia, to thrust into their readerly hands, beaming, “It’s still happening!” It would be a kind of ministry, edifying the body thus.
Here then is my own short list of contemporary poets of faith Christians should read. Obviously not exhaustive, this is a starting place for those new to the scene, or missing key voices in the proverbial choir. Perhaps you might even use some of your stimulus check money to purchase a few of the poetry volumes mentioned below. In these anxious times, we need poetry more than ever.
The figure of the holy fool is a person so beset by God’s love and grace, living so completely in a kingdom not-of-this-world that their present concerns tend to fray at the edges. Like the absentminded professor, head in the clouds and shoes untied, the holy fool scorns earthly visions of success in service of that real life hidden with Christ in God. Cairns works in this tradition, daring to ask childlike questions with an honesty so arresting, and appreciation of the good things in the world so enthusiastic, we can seem, somehow, embarrassed around them. At the same time, his love for Christian tradition and sacred text has him often donning the prophet’s mantle, leaving readers wondering whether we’ll be delivered from the desert, or burned up in the work’s awesome zeal. Cairns writes nonfiction too, notably about his pilgrimages to the holy mountain in A Short Trip to the Edge. The best entrée into his work is probably Slow Pilgrim: the Collected Poems, but his newest book, Anaphora, contains the best poems he’s made.
By now, several generations of Christian artists have referred to poet Luci Shaw as a kind of fairy godmother, always there to offer advice or assistance, and keenly interested in helping young writers to make their way. Gregory Wolfe, author of Beauty Will Save the World, loves to tell stories of Shaw’s generosity; the late Eugene Peterson used to make regular pilgrimages to her house to read things in draft; the novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet still does. Since she has written more than 25 books, it can be hard to know where to begin; thankfully, though, her Sea Glass: New and Selected Poems (2015) can set readers on the right path. Shaw is one of those poets with precise attention to the natural world and to the music of words. More comforting than challenging, the poems consistently delight with their luminous observations about grace, and can be an especially good place to start for readers who are new to reading poetry.
Wiman is one of the most influential poets of our era—perhaps the single most—not necessarily because of his writing, but because of his day job. In 2003 he became, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, editor in chief of Poetry Magazine, the most respected literary monthly in the genre. Being published in Poetry is a landmark event in the life of most poets. The storied journal published the likes of Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and Rabindranath Tagore, and the editors’ taste and leadership can set the tone for the entire art. Suddenly, the top journal in the country had a serious Christian as its editor, and Wiman was terrific at it. He overhauled the cover, tripled the subscription rate, ushered in a great period of criticism, landed enormous donations, and most importantly, consistently published poems concerned with matters of faith, the numinous, tradition, and death. Meanwhile, he was battling cancer, a struggle he writes movingly about in My Bright Abyss. And somehow all this time he was also writing these bracing, intelligent poems, best experienced through his selections in Hammer Is the Prayer.
Nelson writes a unique kind of poetry wherein a story is told often across the length of the book; usually these stories are illustrative of some historical event or figure who has suffered discrimination or otherwise struggled in unjust circumstances: Emmett Till, George Washington Carver, several generations of the same Southern family. Nelson’s gift is to imagine into the circumstances of others in a way that animates their stories and leaves readers more thoughtful about their own. She writes novels, memoirs, and children’s stories as well. Her most recent publication of selected poems is Faster Than Light (2012), but that’s not really the way to read Nelson, whose poems seem to suffer when isolated since they depend on the narrative arc for their force. Choose one of the early volumes—say, Carver (1997) or The Homeplace (1990)—and prepare for an education in imaginative empathy.
Geoffrey Hill died in 2016, but he is still our great contemporary, and his work is stylistically contemporaneous with T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, and certain of the Desert Fathers. It features the rambling, cascading quality of the Beats, and runs it across a densely allusive patterning to make up an almost private symbolic universe, a technique English majors will recognize from the epics of William Blake. Hill is among the most difficult poets the language has produced in a century of difficult poetry, but he is also someone for whom the Great Tradition is still great, and for whom the concept of holiness still means to tread carefully. For him, the making of a poem is Very Serious Business, the kind of thing best approached with fear and trembling even while his voice is informed by the whole of Scripture, the sweep of history, and, it seems, the entire contents of several academic libraries. Start with Broken Hierarchies (2012).