I have a tough time reading academic theology, and prefer to get my theological fix from poetry. I’m promiscuous in my theological tastes when it comes to poetry — how can I resist the cranky Buddhism of Gary Snyder? or the strange pacifistic Roman Catholicism of Denise Levertov? or the Black humanism of James Weldon Johnson?
Of course, sometimes it’s good to be parochial, and engage with one’s co-religionists. When I started listing some of the poems by Unitarian Universalist poets which have most influenced my theology, I realized that I prefer poets who are mystics and Transcendentalists. Since mystics and Transcendentalists are theologically suspect, I further realized that I shouldn’t be wasting my time getting theology from poetry rather than from works of academic theology.
Yet I’ll bet there are other people out there who get their theology in poetry. If you’re one of them, which poems have most influenced your theological thinking? If you happen to be a Unitarian Universalist, which poems by Unitarian Universalists are your theological mainstays?
And in the interests of full disclosure, below I’ll list some of the poems by UU poets that influenced me.
E. E. Cummings:
“plato told”, direct experience vs. texts as a source for insight
“pity this busy monster,manunkind”, the theological inadequacy of scientific and technological progress
“may i feel said he”, a poem similar to the Song of Solomon showing sexuality as a path to the divine
William Carlos Williams:
Spring and All, the availability of mystical experiences in unlikely places; the power of the natural world
This Is Just To Say, transcendence in everyday things, and in human relationships
The Pangolin, close observation of the world as a path to understanding
Fever 103, a transcendent experience can be unpleasant and terrifying and revelatory all at once
All Souls, meditation on death
Sources for UU poems
If you’re looking for Unitarian Universalist poets, here’s a list of the better-known UU poets; I have excluded hymnodists (Sarah Flower Adams, Samuel Longfellow, etc.), minor poets (Celia Thaxter, John Holmes, etc.), and songwriters (Malvina Reynolds, Dawud Wharnsby, etc.):
The New Oxford Book of American Verse, ed. Richard Ellman (1976), includes the following Unitarian Universalist poets:
William Cullen Bryant
E. E. Cummings
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Julia Ward Howe
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
James Russell Lowell
Henry David Thoreau
William Carlos Williams
Recognizing that African American poets may get the short shrift in the United States, I note that African American Literature, ed. Keith Gilyard and Anissa Wardi (Penguin, 2004), includes two Black Unitarian Universalist poets:
And, for what it’s worth, The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch (1940), includes the following additional Unitarian poets (with their nationality in parentheses):
Robert Burns (Scottish)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English)
Bret Harte (American)
George Macdonald (Scottish)
Joseph Blanco White (Spanish/British)
While The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, ed. Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver (1984), contains one Unitarian Universalist poet: