In part one I dealt with poets who are well known to editors and anthologists and who thus stand a good chance of being read and commented upon in important places. There are other poets who may be familiar names in religious circles but are completely unknown to the poetic opinion-makers. They constitute a kind of poetic underground so far as recognition by the poetic establishment is concerned. These poets are often published by small presses whose output is rarely reviewed. A number of them merit discovery by the arbiters of poetic fashion.

The poets of the Christian underground are not equally successful. To make a point I cite the first eight lines of a sonnet, “Hill Difficulty,” by Lucile Brandt (The Flame Tree, Brethren Press, 1973):

Hard was the going, and the way was steep

Up the long hill o’er which the pathway led

And I, a pilgrim, weary, sore bestead,

Scarce in the rough and narrow path could keep

My feet, oft slipping.

What is going on in this poem? First of all, one notices the basic symbol, a journey, which was used successfully by T. S. Eliot in “Journey of the Magi,” has been used by countless other poets, and is still usable. So the poet has a natural symbol to express a spiritual journey. So far, so good. Then why is the poem not the equal of Eliot’s? Mainly, because it reads as though the poet were so intent on the message that the “poem” is rather mechanically superimposed. Note, for instance, the use of archaic words to fit the meter or give a rhyme: o’er, sore bestead, oft. The rhythm (iambic pentameter) becomes a mechanical tyrant, forcing the poet to pad out the lines or use awkward word order. Most of all, the poem lacks any fresh, vivid, specific imagery to make the journey alive in the reader’s imagination. To sum it up: the poet has a worthy theme and an interesting symbol for it, but is so preoccupied with “message” that she has not fallen in love with language and has not made it dance in an inseparable union of soul and body.

By contrast, take the beginning of “In Hunger’s Hunger” by Elva McAllaster, a poet who deserves and is beginning to get a wider public (the poem here is in the anthology Sightseers Into Pilgrims, edited by Luci Shaw, Tyndale, 1973):

Being famished for cathedrals, I went out

To look for crumbs.

This village has no board

Of fourteenth century glass, no Norman stone

When Chartres was building, bison pastured here,

And foxes barked.

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Language becomes alive. It is not just a means to an end but a dancing radiance. And the mental pictures are sharply specific—“famished for cathedrals,” “to look for crumbs,” “bison pastured here, and foxes barked.” The theme is “incarnate” here—made flesh.

Another poet who, I am convinced, is destined to be known better is John Leax. Besides a sure skill in the craftsmanship of verse, he has an almost terrifying religious honesty, recording the despairs and dry times as well as the good moments. In “Letter to Ron” (published in Reaching Into Silence, Harold Shaw, 1974) he writes:

Remember the ease with which we spoke

lyrical youths with faith

in art and Christ.

Mine broke first. I learned to doubt

in words.

What poems I commit

are wars with death;

my victories are pyrrhic.

The poem “After the Stroke” (about his wife) begins with the recognition of helplessness:

Beside your bed,

I cannot speak the prayer

that begs for your recovery.

The Groaning Spirit

who gives us leave to pray

withholds that comfort.

He has given me, instead,


open eyes to watch

the sweet liquid, fortified,

drip three days

into your needled arm.

My mouth stays shut.

The poem moves through one dark day after another until finally the poet’s wife is able to move her lips in speech and “one day, dominated, / they spoke as ordered / and blessed the name of God.”

One hopes that Leax’s recent book Reaching Into Silence will win him the critical attention he so richly merits. It is not hard to think of other fine Christian poets—Eugene Warren and Roderick Jellema, for instance—who merit a similar “discovery.” And then there are the somewhat better established Christian poets, such as Vassar Miller, who are often discussed by the critics in term of their doctrines, with little said about their poetic skill.

Perhaps I ought to conclude on a more personal note. I started writing poetry at about the age of ten but was a reasonably staunch agnostic into my late twenties. Sometimes I am asked, “What difference did your conversion make in your poetry?” My short answer is: “I live in a bigger house now, with more to write about. And there’s now less high seriousness in my poetry; I’m letting the words dance with more frivolous abandon.” That, as I said, is my short answer. I suppose I could put it in less metaphorical language and say that becoming a Christian has not kept me from writing what I would have in any case, but has given me new themes and insights that I would not otherwise have had. And if the surface of my poetry seems lighter, more playful than it did when I was an agnostic, perhaps the reason is that I no longer have to carry the universe on my shoulders. The affirmations of the Christian faith have more of the dance than the dirge about them.

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Is there any way the poet, Christian or otherwise, and the Church can get together for their mutual benefit? I think so. Probably many poets would be intrigued and stimulated if asked to write words for new hymns and anthems, compose new responsive readings, even create a whole Communion service or devise mini poetic dramas as sermons. Occasional use of verse in these roles might bring alive experiences and truths that otherwise get embedded in the amber of time and custom.

If the Church is looking for a cooperative and experimental poet, it should not confine itself to official members. I have not looked into the Christian credentials of the British poet Philip Larkin, but I do know that he has a profound understanding of what a church is all about. His poem “Church Going” (in The Less Deceived, Marvell, 1955) could be a welcome substitute once in a while for the expected sermon. Here are a few lines:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete.

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious.…

Perhaps Larkin speaks from experience, perhaps from sympathetic imagination; it doesn’t matter. The poem is what counts.

Speaking as a poet who is also a Christian, I would not want my relation with the Church (i.e., my relation as poet) to become too thick or sticky. Good fences, with frequent gates along the way, make good neighbors. I have no desire for my bishop to order or ask me to “write a Christian poem today.” I choose not to submit my poems to a panel of theologians for dissection and analysis as though they were Pauline epistles. (Not that anyone has proposed this!)

The greatest Christian poetry has not been commissioned but has simply come about. The Divine Comedy grew out of Dante’s whole life—his psychological compulsions as much as his study of St. Thomas; his encounters with a pretty girl as much as his encounters with God.

Most of the time when I sit down to write a poem I am thinking about such matters of craftsmanship as form and meter and the antics of words. If the poem emerges as one with an implicit or explicit religious dimension, O.K. If not, O.K. I suspect the distinction is a false one, anyway. In some ultimate way, maybe a nature poem or love poem or poem about Watergate glorifies God as profoundly as an ode celebrating the Conquest of Canaan or the Resurrection of Christ.

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My first obligation is to take my craft seriously and to play the serious game with lightness of heart. W. H. Auden caught the right spirit in this well-known statement:

“Why do you want to write poetry?” If the young man answers, “I have important things I want to say,” then he is not a poet. If he answers, “I like hanging around words listening to what they say,” then maybe he is going to be a poet [Poets at Work, Harcourt, 1948].

CHAD WALSHChad Walsh is professor of English and writer-in-residence at Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin.

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