“What makes a poem a poem? asked a student in my high school English class last year. “Can anything be a poem?”
I had a hard time answering. Poetry is often hard to define, the way abstract art is hard to define, but I did my best. “Narrative writing is an elephant standing on a table,” I said. “Poetry stands on a thimble.”
As someone who loves words a lot and is always on the lookout for opportunities to introduce poetry to students at the small Christian school where I teach, I eagerly read a review copy of “Poetry Christianity in America since 1940, an anthology”. Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas, this precious collection of poems by 35 American poets born after 1940 comes out on September 6 from New England’s own Paraclete press.
For those whose exposure to Christian poetry is limited to the sentimental, this collection of contemporary verses offers a diverse mix of Christian thought and theory that is both comforting and disturbing.
Take for example the following lines from James Matthew Wilson’s haunting poem “Some Will Remember You”, referring to the death of Edith Stein, a Jewish nun who died in Auschwitz in 1942:
“Hurried in the slamming cattle car
Between her sister and her rough board,
Inhaled by the final smoke of war?
‘Come, we go to our Lord.’
Or consider the opening lines of Dana Gioia’s meditative poem “The Litany,” which contemplates the intangibility of life:
“It’s a litany of lost things,
a canon of dispossessed property,
a photograph, an old address, a key.
But my favorite poem in the anthology – the one that made me laugh out loud and read it to my unsuspecting family and friends – was Marilyn Nelson’s “Incomplete Renunciation”, which I share in full with permission from the editor:
“Please let me
a 10-room house adjacent to the campus;
6 bedrooms, 2 ½ bathrooms, formal
dining room, fireplace, family room,
screened porch, 2 car garage.
And let it go
Through the eye of a needle.
An eight-line, 36-word elephant, Nelson’s poem stands tall on the dice of America’s capitalist, consumer-driven culture and exposes the folly of our often self-serving prayers. So that’s what makes a poem a poem – not the number of lines or the style of the line – but the brevity of the words and the duration of their impact.
For that, and so many other poems like it, the Paraclete Press anthology is worth adding to your shelves. But prepare to be challenged.
Author and educator Meadow Rue Merrill writes and occasionally reviews books from a small home in the big woods of Midcoast, Maine. Say hello and find out about her faith affirming children’s picture books at the third annual Bath Book Bash, September 17, Library Park, Bath, 11am-4pm, or log on to meadowrue.com
The Alt performs on stage at Boothbay Harbor Opera House