I made you a mixtape. Let me explain.
“Yeah, I’d like to get into poetry.”
When I get to know someone in church ministry and it comes out at some point that I have a background in poetry, there’s usually just two responses. For some, it’s a polite pivot into safer conversational territory—so how about this weather we’ve been having, huh? But many people say something like: “Poetry. Yeah, I’d like to get into poetry.”
This is a strange thing to say. I mean, it’s like saying you want to get into music. Or get into art. These are broad categories covering hundreds, if not thousands of years. The hugeness is overwhelming—like the menu at a Cheesecake Factory. Where do you start?
Now, most church leaders know some of poetry’s greatest hits. Shakespeare, John Donne, maybe some Robert Frost. These guys are basically The Beatles of poetry. A few people even have one or two favorites that are off the beaten track, like someone who went to a Counting Crows concert in 1998.
Here are some entry points.
What’s difficult for people who say they want to get into poetry is that they don’t see an entry point. They’ve got everything from Beowulf to slam poetry and they think: “Somewhere in there is a poem for me.”
When I was in ninth grade, my buddy Jared felt sorry for me because I didn’t listen to any music, so he recorded cassettes with songs he knew I’d like. I’d listen to them in my Walkman during history class (sorry, Mr. Greene).
So, without further ado, here’s my mixtape for you. Here are ten contemporary poets I think every pastor should read.
Out of respect for these poets’ work, I haven’t reproduced whole poems here, but I’ve provided
- my quick take,
- a favorite collection,
- some poems to start with, and
- a few lines to whet your appetite.
I hope that you explore and discover a collection or two for your bookshelf.
DISCLAIMER: I point you toward these poets so that you would read them, not strip-mine their work for a quick sermon illustration. Before any of this shows up in your preaching, heed Thomas Cranmer: read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
1. Scott Cairns
Scott Cairns introduced me to the possibility of poetry as an outworking of faith. His poetry relies heavily on precise diction—his words carry the baggage of their etymological roots. He also has a dry wit that balances his erudition with a wry, contemporary voice. A convert to Orthodoxy, his verse translations of Christian mystics are excellent and his memoir of his pilgrimages to Mount Athos a beautiful meditation.
Start With: “Possible Answers to Prayer”, “On Slow Learning”, “Spiteful Jesus”, “Metanoia”, “Setting Out”
“Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.”
—from “Possible Answers to Prayer”
2. Mark Jarman
As I said, many pastors are familiar with John Donne, the 17th-century poet-priest, famous for his “Holy Sonnets.” They are masterpieces of the sonnet form and represent some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. Mark Jarman, among his many poetic accomplishments, boldly waded into Donne’s waters with his own “Unholy Sonnets.” While not direct parallels to particular poems, Jarman takes up Donne’s themes—death, eternity, the personal love of God—and casts an ironic, even skeptical lens over them. The poems echo the words of the centurion: “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”
I’ve excerpted one of his prose poems as well, from a collection called “Epistles”, which are imitative—in syntax, theme, and structure— of the Apostle Paul’s letters.
Start With: Unholy Sonnets: 9, 11, 12, 14, “If I Were Paul”, “The Teachable Moment”
Consider the loving geometry that sketched your bones, the passionate symmetry that sewed flesh to your skeleton, and the cloudy zenith whence your soul descended in shimmering rivulets across pure granite to pour as a single braided stream into the skull’s cup.
—from “If I were Paul”
3. Marilyn Nelson
In a seminar once, Marilyn Nelson once said, “I like to write about what I’ve learned.” In teaching poetry, I always used her poems to steer kids away from an inward vision of poetry, as some sort of macabre navel-gazing. Marilyn Nelson certainly writes out of her identity as a black woman—but does so by embodying the voices and experiences of others. She has written beautifully-illustrated collections, meant for children and adults alike, dedicated to George Washington Carver, Emmett Till, and a slave named Fortune.
Start With: “How I Discovered Poetry”, “Bedside Reading”, “Dusting”, Fortune’s Bones
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
4. Li-Young Lee
Preachers need poetry if for no other reason than to be reminded of the palpable weight of language. They need to hear Archibald MacLeish’s edict: “A poem should not mean, but be.” Li-Young Lee helps me remember this better than most. His poems are so intimate in their particular imagery, so evocative in calling forth the senses, and so adept at telling a simple story, that I am led away from my irritating need to “get something out” of a poem, as if it were under interrogation. Lee’s work wrestles with faith and the physical world and also with the central role of the father and son relationship. I could hear “From Blossoms” read every day of the week.
Favorite Collections: Rose
Start With: “From Blossoms”, “The Gift”, “Arise, Go Down”, “A Story”, “Falling: The Code”
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
—from “From Blossoms”
5. Richard Wilbur
If you’re a basketball fan, it’s the feeling you get when you see a shooting guard crossover and find himself pirouetting in the lane, ducking giants, faking to one side, then curling gracefully under the rim, and laying the ball in as if he’s putting his newborn to bed. That’s the feeling I have when I read Richard Wilbur. Wilbur is so effortlessly in control of every element of his craft—they are lovely to read once, but continue to offer insight and delight on the hundredth read.
On top of this, his work is rooted in his Christian faith. His most well-known poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Christian art from the 20th century.
Favorite Collections: Collected Poems
Start With: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”, “Matthew VIII, 28ff.”, “Advice to a Prophet”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body,
—from “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
6. B.H. Fairchild
Fairchild wrote his doctoral dissertation on William Blake and proceeded to write poems about rednecks drinking tomato juice and beer. Such is the beautiful paradox of Fairchild’s poetry, who brings complexity of syntax and a dizzying density of imagery to bear on small towns and wide prairies stretching from West Texas to Kansas. His poems swell and climax and almost always leave me wondering: how did he do that? His poems carry intense emotions from carefully rendered characters who move from slapstick comedy to colliding with eternity.
Start With: “What He Said”, “Frieda Pushnik”, “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967”, “Rave On”
with Truth and Jesus, and said, Babydoll,
I would walk on my tongue from here to Amarillo
Just to wash her dishes.
—from “What He Said”
7. Denise Levertov
I didn’t appreciate Levertov when I came across her work in college and grad school, but I knew enough from the way others spoke about her to know that I was wrong. Older (wiser?) now, I look at her poems and I see what I missed. She is uniquely engaged with the images and language of scripture and liturgy, creating a necessary conversation between the contemporary artist and religion. She laid the groundwork for the ongoing conversations that are so valuable today.
Start With: “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being”, “The Jacob’s Ladder”, “St. Thomas Didymus”, “O Taste and See”
Favorite Collections: Selected Poems
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge…
—from “St. Thomas Didymus”
8. Christian Wiman
For my money—not that it’s a lot—Wiman is the greatest living American poet. His work staggers me, especially in his willingness to explore the very edges of comprehension for the sake of music and image in his poems. His poems are like sonatas or sculptures—they feel embodied and instantiated. He is also intensely engaged with religion, his own faith and the broader American experience of God. His memoir My Bright Abyss is an unprecedented meditation on personal suffering (Wiman had an acute battle with cancer). His most recent book is a collection of poems from others on the subject of Joy. The introduction alone is worth the price of admission. A brilliant mind and a prolific artist.
Start With: “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind”, “Every Riven Thing”, “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”, “Clearing”
For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God
—from “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”
9. James Wright
I feel about James Wright much the same way that I feel about Richard Wilbur. He was a master craftsman. His poems are simpler than Wilbur’s, though no less carefully constructed. Wright populates his poems with images and metaphors that steal your heart and then, in a crucial turn, he breaks it with a single thought or phrase. Reading “Saint Judas” helped revive how I read and meditated on the Bible.
Start With: “A Blessing”, “Saint Judas”, “Hook”, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”
And suddenly I realize
that if I stepped out of my body I would break
—from “A Blessing”
10. Jeanne Murray Walker
I have a bias here, as Jeanne was one of my mentors in Seattle Pacific University’s uniquely wonderful MFA program, but she doesn’t need any favoritism—her work speaks for itself. Her poems unfold; even her most lyric poems have a story to them. They meander elegantly, maneuvering us to a fitting arrival. And she is a very present guide; she operates primarily from a first-person perspective that invites the reader in on a journey of mutual discovery.
Start With: “Sacrifice”, “Van Gogh”, “Portrait of the Virgin Who Said No to Gabriel”, “Geese, Tree, Apple, Leaves”
Favorite Collections: A Deed to the Light
Sometimes I think of Bach,
working a stick with his mouth
to get notes he couldn’t reach
with his hands and feet,
so the sweet catastrophe of counterpoint
could break the hearts of his parishioners.
Originally published on December 12, 2018. Updated September 17, 2018.
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