Two experiences set me to thinking about the relation between poetry and the Christian faith. The first dates back many years, when I helped start a national quarterly, the Beloit Poetry Journal. For more than a decade I served as one of its editors. It didn’t take long for word of the magazine to spread the poetic grapevine, and soon we were receiving close to twenty thousand unsolicited poems a year, of which we had space to print less than ½ of 1 per cent.

This, I suppose, was normal experience for a new magazine of verse. But as I took my turn screening poems, it struck me that the percentage of piety was very high for a period in history usually considered pretty secular. I wondered if some of the poets had heard that I had published books on various phases of religion in addition to verse, and that I served as a weekend assistant priest at the local Episcopal church. Maybe it was my combination of hats—English professor, poet, and priest—that helped provoke the flood of “Christian poetry” soon pouring across our editorial desks.

At any rate, most of the flood was awful. Awful, that is, if it aspired to be called poetry. Time after time I picked up a manuscript and found that it read as though someone had written a sermon or prayer and then, with the aid of a rhyming dictionary and a handbook of poetic forms, had set about converting it into a poem. Rhymes that sounded like afterthoughts were forced into fixed places, and the prose rhythm was tortured into some semblance of hymnal metrics.

The “message” always seemed to be the primary thing. The “poetry” was a kind of frosting applied to the doctrinal or devotional cake. In the great majority of cases, if the cake had been left alone it would have tasted better than it did with a clumsy addition of frosting. I suppose the frosting of poetry was added with some vague feeling that the message would thereby be beautified and made more persuasive.

In theological terms, these poems were “docetic.” The idea or theme never became fully incarnate in the form of poetry. The poetry was dispensable; the message or theme would still have been there if the writing had been left in the form of honest prose. It isn’t this way in a successful poem. The two “natures”—content and form—are so much one flesh that no surgery of analysis can cut them apart.

The vast bulk of these poems quickly went back to their creators. Often I would then receive plaintive letters. These first reminded me that I was a minister of the Gospel, and presumably eager to see the truths of Christianity made available and attractive to a wide public. Then the question would follow: “Don’t you agree with the message of my poem?” Indeed, in most cases I could not fault the message. I had to reply, “This would make a good sermon or a moving prayer; just don’t call it a poem.”

Article continues below

I finally came to realize that many devout persons are so intent on putting across a religious message that they really have no respect for poetry as poetry. They value it only when it can serve a P.R. purpose. The devices of poetry are, for them, like capital letters or a fancy typeface, an aid to catching the attention of busy people. In short, these hopeful poets wrote propaganda, not poetry. Their approach was akin to that prevailing among the obscure writers in the U.S.S.R. who dutifully or enthusiastically grind out literature based on the principles of socialist realism, aiming to whip up enthusiasm for the Soviet way of life.

I even dreamed up a “Walsh’s Law,” which went something like this: the more important the subject or theme, the less likely that an inexperienced poet will make a good poem out of it. But enough of my first experience. I come now to the second experience, which was more heartening.

A publisher asked me to edit a large anthology (Today’s Poets) of British and American poets since the generation of Auden. This launched me on a vast program of reading, to fill in the gaps in my background. I do not think, particularly after experience #1, that I was biased in favor of pious poets. As an unconscious overcorrection, I probably held them to slightly sterner standards of poetic quality than their unbelieving fellows.

After I made my selection of poets to include, some professorial impulse impelled me to do a statistical breakdown. Card-carrying Christians seemed scarce among the British poets, but with the American the results were startlingly different.

It is true that almost half of the American poets ended in what I called the “not interested” category. By this I mean that their work gave no indication, direct or indirect, that they were Christians or indeed concerned with religion at all—unless one makes that word so broad that any kind of ultimate concern suffices to make a poet “religious.” I was using the term in a narrower sense, roughly equivalent to theistic.

Article continues below

If almost 50 per cent were “not interested,” this was still a smaller percentage than one would find in the faculty of the average large university. And at the other end I discovered an impressive 25 per cent or so—poets whose poetic vision had been deeply shaped by some variety of the Christian faith. Some major figures fell into this category, notably Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur.

The remaining fourth were poets whose work showed a strong sense of the reality and workings of God but did not seem to reveal a specifically Christian orientation. In this interesting intermediate group I would include Theodore Roethke, the major American poet of his generation, who toward the end of his life seemed in his verse to be moving from a kind of nature mysticism to a mysticism much more closely allied to the classical Christian type. As a personal note, I recall that toward the end of his life he sent me a typed copy of “In a Dark Time” and asked me “as an Episcopal priest” to react to it.

Another interesting and poignant case is that of John Berryman. A few years before his suicide he had powerful mystical experiences that inspired some very strong poems. I have heard he was contemplating conversion to Judaism at the time of his death. It is possible that his career ended just as he was beginning to find a center for his life and his poetry.

In the third group—poets theistic in their poetry but not explicitly Christian—I would include such important figures as Robert Hayden (a deeply committed Baha’i) and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg is profoundly religious in his sensibility, and has in his eclectic way embraced a number of religious traditions, from Judaism to Hinduism, in his personal quest.

The moral is the obvious one. It has long been true (as witness Dante, Milton, and Donne) and is still true that a Christian commitment and first-rate poetry often coexist. But this is possible only when the writer deeply respects, loves, even reveres the art and craft of poetry. It cannot hold true if he regards poetry as merely a means toward some other end. But what major poet has ever done this?

That great period of poetic flowering that stretched roughly from World War I to the death of the individual giants in recent decades included among its major figures a number of poets who were Christian poets in the double sense: they were committed members of some Christian denomination and they often dealt with Christian themes in their verse. The two outstanding examples were T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. The case of Robert Frost is more complex. So far as I know, he had no formal church connection, and he was cagey about making credal affirmations in his poetry. Yet his work is shot through with biblical (especially Old Testament) imagery, and belief in the reality of God meant enough to him that on one memorable occasion, I am told, when his future biographer was defending the agnostic viewpoint, the outraged Frost let go with a sock to the chin and knocked him sprawling.

Article continues below

Being a “Christian poet” is not professionally advantageous. The major critics, with some exceptions, tend to be suspicious and to anticipate a sterile repetition of ancient pieties. They are aware (as indeed I became aware through my editorial work) that religious poetry is often bad poetry. Eliot and Auden were lauded in spite of, rather than because of, their defiant stand as poets who actually appeared on a regular basis in a local church. (I recall one weekday when Auden was staying with us while on a lecture tour, and I had to arise at six in the morning to drive him to an early Communion he wanted to attend.)

What is the truth today? That a fair number of poets, some well known and some obscure, are producing excellent poetry on Christian themes. (A larger number, of course, are writing bad poetry on the same themes, but I suppose the same could be said of love poetry, nature poetry, any kind of poetry.) But the question should be looked at more broadly. There is a kind of negative witness to God as well as a positive one. In “Christ Climbed Down” (A Coney Island of the Mind, New Directions, 1958) the ex-Catholic Lawrence Ferlinghetti depicts the commercialization of Christmas in a way that by implication suggests what a genuine Christmas would celebrate:

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and ran away to where

there were no rootless Christmas trees

hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Of the poets who deal directly with the assertions of Christian dogma, Jack Clemo is one of the most unusual. Blind, living in a little cottage in Cornwall with a framed portrait of Billy Graham on the wall, Clemo has taken the starkest doctrines of Calvinism, found images for them from the austerities of the local landscape, and made effective poetry. Setting up an absolute conflict between nature and grace (which I have to deny theologically but can respond to poetically!) the poet writes in “Neutral Ground” (The Map of Clay, Methuen, 1961):

Article continues below

God’s image was washed out of Nature

By the flood of the Fall:

No symbol remains to inspire me,

And none to appal.

His Hand did not fashion the vistas

These poets admire,

For He is too busied in glutting

The worm and the fire.

In “The Irony of Election” (also in The Map of Clay) he concludes with a similar thought, powerfully expressed:

When His triumph is complete,

When He paces our disrupted shore,

Bidding His Kingdom integrate once more,

The foolish thrill, but the wise are numb;

The stones cry out, but the flowers die dumb.

By contrast, an Episcopalian who sees nature as revealing its Creator is the fine poet John Bennett. In The Zoo Manuscript (Sydon Press, 1968), a book of verses describing animals in a zoo, he writes of the otters:

Then here see water, flesh, and fire glance upon and through each other:

such acts praise

A God who swims through all evolving worlds

As He creates them out of death and night.

The Paraclete sustains the otter dance and all the dances in the spheres of light.

I suppose the modern tradition of Catholic poetry stems from Gerard Manley Hopkins more than from anyone else. Certainly the spirit of Hopkins infuses many lines by Ned O’Gorman, whose work deserves to be better known. Another Catholic poet, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), presents an odder line of descent. He acknowledges the strong influence of Robinson Jeffers’s poetry in giving him models for the craft—and Jeffers, of course, is far from Jerusalem or the Vatican; he celebrates a savage and impersonal God, closer to hawks than to men. Everson’s religious sensibility is to see God everywhere, revealed by all the creatures upon His earth and even by the grime and smell of a settlement house (the poem here is entitled “Hospice of the Word”):

For in the crucible of revulsion

Love is made whole. St. Francis

Ran on gooseflesh toward the leper’s sore:

He saw His God.…


says The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin is “thoroughly researched … MacPherson’s case seems to be watertight.” Order this unique book from: HEART OF AMERICA BIBLE SOCIETY, INC., 5528 Lydia Street, Kansas City, Mo. 64110. Only $2.95 until Christmas!


This Christmastide you can take a lecturetour that has already become historic. Join Christianity Today’s editor-at-large DR. JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERY on his seventh visit behind the iron Curtain to the places where the Reformation began: Wittenberg, Wartburg Castle, Erfurt, etc. Also Buchenwald, Berlin, Weimar. New Year’s Eve midnight service at Bach’s church in Leipzig. Day in Paris. Dec. 26—Jan. 3. Free on enrollment: Dr. Montgomery’s hardcover book, In Defense of Martin Luther. Departures from Washington, D.C. or Boston (full price only $744) and Chicago ($794). For detailed brochure write Christmastide Reformation Tour, 504 E. Broad St., Falls Church, Va. 22046; or phone collect (703) 532-6880. Registration deadline Nov. 15, but apply NOW to avoid disappointment due to limited number of places.

Article continues below

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.