1. “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” by John Berryman
Done with his magnum opus, The Dream Songs, Berryman turned to an even more autobiographical mode, the loosely wrought but enormously entertaining and accessible poems of Love & Fame in 1971. This gossipy, frank, self-aggrandizing and self-justifying series ends remarkably with a group of poems in the same mode but with a different attitude altogether. Their candor and directness and high spirits as prayers are nothing short of Biblical, yet full of the personality that Berryman created for his Dream Songs. In the 10th address, he writes, “I fell back in love with you, Father, for two reasons: / You were good to me, & a delicious author, / rational & passionate.” He shows an intimacy with the Almighty to rival Emily Dickinson’s, not to mention a prophet or two.
2. “The Transfiguration” by Edwin Muir
Muir, along with his wife, Willa, was one of the first translators of Franz Kafka’s work into English. The Scottish poet may be best known for the poem “The Horses,” which T.S. Eliot called a “terrifying poem of the ‘atomic age.’” The vein of the prophetic and apocalyptic running through Muir’s poetry is certainly present in “The Horses,” but I think its greatest expression is in “The Transfiguration.” This poem is not about the event described in all four of the Gospels in which Christ’s godhead is revealed to his disciples. Rather it suggests what must happen in the world if Christ is to return. The entire creation must “call him with one voice.” This miraculous vision—both original and unorthodox—is of history’s being given a fresh start. Christ will be not only “uncrucified” but “discrucified,” and Judas will take “his long journey backward / From darkness into light.” His betrayal will be “quite undone and never more be done.”
3. “Horae Canonicae” by W.H. Auden
Composed of seven poems, each corresponding to one of the canonical hours, beginning with Prime and ending with Lauds, “Horae Canonicae” is an extended meditation on the events of Good Friday. With “Prime,” the “Gates of the body fly open,” and the day proceeds inevitably toward the crucifixion and its aftermath. Auden manages to take us through that single day as if all history had prepared for it. He considers the role of ordinary and extraordinary people, witting and unwitting participants, as “What we know to be not possible . . . comes to pass.” “Vespers,” in which two of the guilty confront each other after the crime, may be one of the finest prose poems in the language. The entire “Horae Canonicae” is invested in the humanity of the central Christian event and the necessity of that event to civilization. It is written with Auden’s characteristic wit and scope, music and sheer genius.
4. “The Secret” by Denise Levertov
“After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” Wallace Stevens’s claim in Adagia, has always troubled me. I have never been persuaded that art in any way can be a substitute for religious belief, even as I understand that Stevens’s adage is one of the great insights of Modernism. But “The Secret” from Denise Levertov’s 1964 book O Taste and See reminds me that, for many, poetry is where “the secret of life” may be found. Levertov, learning from two girls who have read her poetry that they have discovered the secret—though they can’t remember the lines or the name of the poem, blesses them not only for reading her poetry but for assuming that life has a secret.
5. “Kneeling” by R.S. Thomas
R.S. Thomas was an Anglican priest who often wrote about his dour, hard-pressed parishioners in Wales. In “Kneeling,” he captures what it must feel like to wish to have God to yourself, while having to lead people in worship. “Prompt me, God,” he says, while enjoying the “great calm” of kneeling before the altar, “But not yet.” He knows that even though God may speak through him, “something is lost.” Finally, he believes “the meaning,” whatever it may be, “is in the waiting.”
6. “The Legend” by Garrett Hongo
In ”The Legend,” Hongo poises the Christian skepticism of Descartes against a Chinese folktale, which turns into a myth of the afterlife. He does all this by narrating, from a journalistic distance, an incident in which an Asian immigrant is killed accidentally in a holdup on a wintry Chicago street. Hongo’s story-telling gift gives us first the pathos of the Asian man’s death: Just out of a laundromat with a bag of warm clothes, he is shot by a young man holding up a liquor store. Then, the poet turns on himself; he has been reading Descartes and now realizes that the detachment with which he has narrated this incident is shameful. He wishes for the Weaver Girl of the Chinese story to come for the dead man and guide him back across the river of heaven. The poem teaches Western readers the story of the Weaver Girl and her mortal lover, and why they were separated. It also reminds us that a desire for redemption and restoration to wholeness underlies all religious feeling.
7. “Praying Drunk” by Andrew Hudgins
Hudgins’s roots in evangelical Christianity come in for a close critique. “Praying Drunk” begins with a moral challenge to conservative American Christianity and reminds us how often drunkenness or apparent drunkenness plays a role in the Judeo-Christian story, from Noah to the Pentecost. In the case of this poem, the cause, the poet tells us, is “Red wine. For which I offer thanks.” No alcohol is more significant for the Christian than red wine. But Hudgins wishes to portray himself in a dissolute and comical state, in part to see how outrageous he can be, rolling hilariously through a skeptical appraisal of God’s creation—from rats at a dump, to deer like “rats on stilts,” to mischievous elephants shocking a nun at the zoo, to his own very earthly desires (“I want a lot of money and a woman.”). By the end of the poem, imagining himself like the cartoon character who “wanders out on air / and then looks down,” he asks God to remember him, even in his inevitable descent.
8. “In the Marvelous Dimension” by Kate Daniels
This poem presents a series of voices, three belonging to people trapped in their cars by the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway during the Oakland earthquake of 1989. “In the Marvelous Dimension” begins with an epigraph from Simone Weil, who claimed that suffering, like that undergone by the earthquake victims, is “a marvel of divine technique.” Weil insisted that, in fact, such affliction is a “marvelous dimension,” allowing the soul to transcend time and space “into the actual presence of God.” Whether or not we can accept Weil’s austere theology, Daniels’ poem finds the communal meaning in personal suffering and the way those who survive such an ordeal are brought closer, if not to God, at least to their own souls. The experience for the reader is imagining whether or not his or her soul could endure such an affliction.
9. “Monastery Nights” by Chase Twichell
This poem reads like an apologia for failing to be a good Zen Buddhist. The poet admits, “I understand no one I consider to be religious. / I have no idea what’s meant when someone says / they’ve been intimate with a higher power.” Yet, the poem reads like a Puritan’s spiritual journal, noting the slightest inclinations toward that intimacy she claims not to know. Even her sense of having fallen short displays a Puritan sensibility. She considers how she falls asleep, how the mind moves among memories of her parents, and keeps encountering the senses, until she understands that she is “an expressive temporary sentience,” perhaps not capable of a Zen absence of thought, but nevertheless, radiantly alive. Though she quotes her Zen teacher telling her, “That misses it,” the poem is a keenly alert meditation on the nature of the soul.
10. “Autumn Psalm” by Jacqueline Osherow
”Autumn Psalm” brings together Wallace Stevens’s faith in poetry and the faith in God for whom poetry is written. Compelled by the startling beauty of an autumn day in the desert, the poet seeks the eloquence of the psalmist David. She finds that though the Virginia creeper outside her window praises God, “its palms and fingers crimson with applause,” she suspects the trick to writing an effective psalm to autumn might be found in Chinese poetry. She finds herself imagining a conversation between the Chinese poets and Yiddish poets on facing library shelves. The poets share views on the remarkable compression of Chinese poetry and the exalted singing of the Hebrew psalm. All the while, Osherow’s poem follows its digressive way (“Wandering has always been my people’s way / whether we’re in a desert or a narration”) through well over 100 lines of terza rima, ending again with the charge the poet faces in response to the beauty of creation. In the end the poet’s autumn psalm is created indirectly, even as she humbly defers it with “Next autumn, maybe.”
Original and unorthodox poems about theology.
1. “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” by John Berryman