Does Christian Poetry Need a Revival?
Copyright©2003 by Dick Hayes
Christian poets differ greatly in their view of what constitutes a "Christian poem” and I suspect even more, what constitutes an "effective Christian poem.” The intention of this article is to look at some of the issues raises by these questions. It argues for a synthesis of the two main approaches used currently. For these, I have adopted the terms "Context" and "Suggestive." The thoughts and conclusions, I might add, are entirely my own.
Two different aims
Firstly the Context. This position is marked by an insistence upon a clear exposition of a biblical doctrine or image and often includes an open appeal to faith in Jesus. The events and feelings relayed mostly portray a personal crisis or experience expressed in Bible language. The main aim is to challenge the reader’s position. The mode is commonly rhyming verse, too often the metrical control is weak and the language predictable and from a limited stock. (e.g. rhymes for God are very few) When done well, the potential power lies in direct petition.
Secondly the Suggestive. The poet reflects on the experiences of life. Here are moments of human drama ( under the hand of God nonetheless) where religious terminology and biblical imagery play no immediate part. The language is generally contemporary and is commonly free form. An element of faith is assumed of the reader, so little or no appeal is made at conversion. The potential power lies in creating empathy. Whole poems may make no reference to God at all, so leaving them open to a secular interpretation.
I do not wish to suggest that either is better or worse, as I believe they address different needs and readerships—in the same sense as music and words combined into a song touch different areas of the listener's being—one is moved more by the tune, another by the message. Each has points in its favour and problems in its stance.
Some observations on Context poetry
Reviewing the context poetry we find on many popular Christian web sites and for sale at supermarket check outs (in North America that is). The overriding impression that I receive is the prevalence of the "sentimental." Sentiments are strong impressions such as joy, fear and wonder, but also the articulated thoughts that express major social, political and religious concerns. When some new expression of feeling is repeated and enters into popular opinion as the best way to describe an experience, it ultimately loses its power to arrest attention by overuse—in its weakened form it is rightly called sentimental.
The enquiring poet will probably have come across the rise of romanticism as a vehicle of feeling late in the 18th century and its supremacy in the 19th . It is well documented that the overuse of the Wordsworthian style produced a reaction and by the beginning of the 20th century the secular world began to concern itself with quite the opposite, as elevation shifted to dereliction. The “Prelude” gave way to “The Waste land”. “Leaves Of Grass” gave way to “Howl.”
I have labored this point as I think it very important. Context poems because of their desire to relay the same message generation by generation slip into repetitive reuse of a phraseology founded in the enthusiasm and high sentiments of the popular hymn writers of the evangelical revival(s). Watts, Wesley, Newton and others pushed the boundaries of English poetry into the realm of personal faith and experience—in doing so created a genre and vocabulary not since equaled but extensively imitated.
Secondly, this reliance on a well tried model can be and is, I suggest, a cause for laziness—borrowed popular phrases are easily obtained, whereas, original imagery and expressions require effort and headache. I note St. Paul says to Timothy “Study to show yourself approved…” It is regrettable that those who scoff at religion can label such verse as trite; when the most we should allow is disagreement with the message. If the vehicle was a better fit their “hatred would be without a cause.”
Does this mean that I think the present Context poetry is of no value? Not so, there are those who have claimed blessing from such. But I suggest, that in many cases, it could be better and perform a more vital role by attention to originality and alternative diction, even if this means more labor and the trial of different and contemporary forms.
Some observations on Suggestive poetry
The prerequisite has tended to be an observance of good contemporary practice. Many of the practitioners appear to be conscious of the scope and forms of modern literature—some are teachers—and almost all have adopted what I call the post-modernist mode of expression with variable rhythms and unexpected imagery. The subject often reflects an intense religious experience, but with little or any direct biblical reference, doctrine or image. God is manifest by the alteration of appreciation and response to circumstances rather than the subject of direct appeal. You will find many excellent examples in the Utmost gallery.
One of the best known of this genre is T.S. Elliot’s "The Journey of the Magi." Images like dicing and kicking wine skins bring the ordinary into juxtaposition with the divine, but there is no overt appeal to take a step of personal faith. In this way, non-believers may value the opportunity to reflect without the demand for decision. On the other hand they may avoid a decision simply because one is not proposed. And here is the crux of the problem of avoiding the direct appeal. If we are to presume that Christian poets are exercising God-given talents and that Jesus requires us to be witnesses; failure to mention the source and center of our faith, in some way that conveys the urgency and importance of eternal things, leaves us culpable. Somehow the message and the means need to coalesce to create a new dynamic.
Searching for clues
To find a historic period where devotional Christian poetry stood alongside secular poetry as partners in literary achievement, I find from my limited reading that you have to go back as far as the early 18th century.
The period I have in mind, is exemplified by Isaac Watts. Church favorites such as “O God our help in ages past” were paraphrases of Hebrew poetry and set to music years after their construction as verses built upon the classical models of Pindar and Horace, for example. The mastery of classical mode and construction was channelled into Christian expression. It was not thought demeaning to imitate the best human endeavor—even if Greek and Roman—provided the content was revelation and not paganism or reason. The surging power and purity of some of these verses (even accounting for their Christian inspiration) defies rational explanation without some realization of their author’s mastery of style brought about by training and exposure to classical models. Take Charles Wesley’s “Come O thou traveller unknown.” I have read of previous generations, where these verses were sung by those dying without the palliative care we enjoy. I may be forgiven for thinking that neither modern context or suggestive poetry has gained the same grasp of the human heart.
How did it happen?
One notes that with the rise of secular humanism, as championed for example by Rousseau, the spiritual was steadily moved from center stage—further accelerated by the evolutionary movement, until with the rise of liberal socialism this "strange malady" was put into a separate department populated by cranks and failures. This admittedly crude analysis fits the overall picture quite well. Just try affirming Creation theory and Final Judgement in a class of 21st century under-graduates and you’ll see what I mean. The object of sniggering mirth and embarrassment is unlikely to win much credibility.
To recap, Christianity has waned in the West and become something of a pariah faith. How has the Christian poet responded to this isolation? The Suggestive avoid direct proselytizing as otherwise they will not be heard—the Context couldn’t care less and get heard by a limited circle. On the other side of the coin the secular world sees Context poets as fundamentalists to be avoided and the Suggestive as gentle dreamers.
Counter Culture Expression
The last major Christian work I can recall which gained (grudging) approval is T.S. Elliot’s "Four Quartets." More typical amongst secular poetry are the works with a cutting political edge like those such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Then there is the dark earth evocation with its pagan flavoring typified by Ted Hughes. All hugely influential and all reject the traditional Christian standpoint. Just about anything goes; anti-capitalist, anti-authority, relativism, syncretism, pornography, jostling together for attention in the small presses.
Adding them all together, its something like a modern Goliath coming out each day to challenge the living God (so to speak). In retaliation, we might expect Christian poetry to re-introduce themes of moral grandeur, in the same sense as Milton offered a full world view—but who reads "Paradise Lost" today or emulates its doctrine, scope and majesty? Can we find a strong cadence of praise that soars above the misery and struggle of achieving the non-achievable socialist utopia? Alas, few seem so impressed with Christ that they can write in such strains with mastery.
The current position of Christian poetry is that of a side-show and if we are to recapture the center ground then a direct drive back into focus is needed. But how do we do this?
We could be forced to admit that it is Christians who have lost the plot and the two strands (context and suggestive) are incomplete because the cause itself has no creditable popular champions. Is there a retreat to the repetition of yesterday because present experience is minimal? Is there a retreat to the nice and the reflective because the tough and strong is too uncomfortable? Is there a retreat from intellectual certainty, because solid experience is missing and doubt is counted as of equal worth with belief?
We could go on making observations as to the why and wherefore, but it is interesting to consider the phenomenon of Martin Luther, whose literary style was robust to say the least, and who carried the attack to the opposition, and who nearly single-handedly created the German style and the German hymn book. I am not saying we need to fight the same battles, but taking him for an example, we cannot expect to win campaigns without similar kinds of toil, risk and bare fist vigor!
I began this article by outlining the two modes, Context and Suggestive. I have introduced the idea that each is a reflection of something lost because the secular world has scored spectacular successes. What we have at present is not enough to inspire a great cultural movement (not of course that that is our primary aim).
Therefore, I raise this question, are the tools to express great thought in place and being utilized? I applaud Utmost Christian Writers' desire to reward and encourage the application of literary skills. It follows therefore, that we ought to prepare ourselves, by close attention to the best of both ancient and modern styles, and handle big and dangerous themes!
Ultimately though, a Christian poetic revival must accompany a revival in Christian confidence—a faith that is as sure of its absolute and unerring ability to save to the utmost—as the opposition (and I use this word deliberately) is convinced that man is lord and master of his own destiny!
What do you think of Dick's ideas? Please write and let us know.
Copyright©2004 by Dick Hayes (Liverpool, England)
No unauthorized reproduction or distribution is permitted.