“What makes a poem a poem?” a student in my high school English class asked me last year. “Can anything be a poem?”
I struggled to answer. 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 takes great pleasure in words and who is always looking for opportunities to introduce poetry to the students at the small, Christian school where I teach, I eagerly read a review copy of “Christian Poetry in America Since 1940, An Anthology.” Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas, this valuable collection of poems by thirty-five American poets born after 1940 releases today from New England’s own Paraclette Press.
For those whose exposure to Christian poetry is limited to the sentimental and sanguine (Many of us love it, but think, “Footprints in the Sand”), this collection of contemporary verses from a diverse mix of contemporary Protestant and Catholic writers both comforts and disturbs.
Take for example the following lines from James Matthew Wilson’s haunting poem “Some Will Remember You,” reflecting on the death of Edith Stein, a Jewish nun who died in Auschwitz in 1942:
“Pressed in the rattling cattle car
Between her sister and rough board,
Drawn through the final smoke of war?
‘Come, we are going to our Lord.’”
Or consider the first few lines of Dana Gioia’s ruminative poem “The Litany,” which contemplates the intangibility of life:
“This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed,
a photograph, an old address, a key.”
But my favorite poem in the anthology – the one that caused me to laugh out loud and read it to unsuspecting family and friends – was Marilyn Nelson’s “Incomplete Renunciation,” which I share in full with the publisher’s permission:
“Please let me have
a 10-room house adjacent to campus;
6 bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, formal
dining room, fireplace, family room,
screened porch, 2-car garage.
And let it pass
Through the eye of a needle.”
Nelson’s poem responds to Christ’s words in Matthew 19:24-26, “‘I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!’
The disciples were astounded. ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, ‘Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible’” (NLT).
An eight-line, thirty-six word elephant, Nelson’s poem stands on the thimble of America’s capitalistic, consumer-driven culture and exposes the folly of our often egocentric prayers. How often do I not pray the same way? Here’s what I want God, and make it fit into your plan. When His goal is more often–if not always–to shape and transform me so that I will fit into His plan.
This then is what makes a poem a poem – not the number of lines or the style of the verse – but the brevity of words and the duration of their impact. For this, and so many other poems like it, Paraclette Press’s anthology is worth adding to your shelves. But prepare to be challenged.
Author and educator Meadow Rue Merrill writes and occasionally reviews faith-affirming books from a little house in the big woods of Midcoast, Maine. Say hello and check out her Lantern Hill Farm children’s picture books at the Third Annual Bath Book Bash, Sept. 17, Library Park, Bath, Maine, 11:00 AM-4:00 PM. Disclosure: I received a complementary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my review.