"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Christopher Davis reviews Poems of Devotion for Anglican Theological Review

"Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets is an interesting, unique collection of poems, each of which in some way demonstrates that the act of writing a poem can be 'devotional' in the same spirit as prayer. In his eloquent and compelling introductory essay, editor Luke Hankins writes, 'If there could be only one criterion for devotional poetry, it would be authenticity of personal religious or spiritual expression' (p. xxi). Hankins emphasizes the ways in which the creative process is as volatile and active an experience for the artist as other forms of worship. Discussing a poem by George Herbert, Hankins claims, 'The poem is so successful in articulating the spiritual struggle that we can speculate that Herbert was actually experiencing a sense of separation from God as he composed the poem – it is at least a possibility – so that the spiritual struggle being dramatized is not simply a re-enactment' (p. xvii). This is a brave stance to take in an era of critical theory, irony, formalism and coolness. Whatever reservations a reader might have about this possible conflating of 'performance' with 'prayer,' once that reader has spent time with the actual poems, he or she will probably be convinced that 'authenticity' is possible, when the poet, often so closely identified with the speaker of the poem as to be indistinguishable from that speaker, unstintingly, passionately, imaginatively and humbly risks complete exposure of sensibility through writing. 
The consistency of tones and approaches of these poems is balanced by the great diversity of kinds of poets represented here. Beginning with T.S. Eliot, the anthology includes several poets writing originally in languages other than English, such as the thrilling Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky, whose 'Complaint' is a prayer which startles in its strange intimacy: 'Does my complaint reach you? / Is my siege to no purpose? / All around me glitter / reefs of fear' (p. 31). Many exciting poems by younger American writers appear here too, giving the reader a chance to enjoy the continuity of a tradition of devotional poetry. This anthology would be an excellent text to use in any college Religious Studies course focusing on religion in the arts. The quality and quantity of poems which explore the human, psychological side of transcendental experience would also make for fruitful 'book club' discussions. There is a fierce, passionate commitment to the art of poetry embodied in this book, made especially exciting because it is equal to, and inseparable from, faith."

-Christopher Davis, Anglican Theological Review (Winter 2014)