Poems as theology

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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Problem, outward forms of religion vs. direct experience of the divine
Brahma, the relationship of time to the divine

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

Marianne Moore:
The Pangolin, close observation of the world as a path to understanding

Sylvia Plath:
Fever 103, a transcendent experience can be unpleasant and terrifying and revelatory all at once

May Sarton:
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:
Conrad Aiken
William Cullen Bryant
E. E. Cummings
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Julia Ward Howe
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
James Russell Lowell
Herman Melville
Marianne Moore
Sylvia Plath
Henry David Thoreau
Jones Very
William Carlos Williams

Other Unitarian Universalist poets who didn’t make it into this anthology include:
Amy Lowell
Edwin Markham
May Sarton

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:
Frances Harper
Everett Hoagland

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:
Dorothy Livesay

7 thoughts on “Poems as theology”

  1. I get a lot of my theology from poetry, also, and sometimes the sources are surprising. George Herbert, Anglican priest, for example; two of my favorites are “The Windows” and “Love (III).” John Donne was also a priest and his theology doesn’t compel me the way Herbert does, but I love his poetry so much that it probably seeps in. Emily Dickinson is less orthodox and very concerned with religious questions, and she’s so idiosyncratic that whether she seems like she’s challenging my theology or affirming it, I want to spend a long time inside the poem figuring out what it’s saying to me (e.g., “I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs”; “My period had come for Prayer.” The Romantics have lots of great theology: Romantic poetry: Keats, P. Shelley, Blake, W. Wordsworth, Coleridge, E. Bronte. I don’t know if Zhuang-Zhou considered himself a poet; I read him that way and for theology.

    Then there are poets like Rilke and Whitman that evoke such love for the world that reading them is like being in a particularly celebratory worship service. Reading Basho, Issa, and Shiki is like meditating outside.

    None of the above are from your list except Coleridge, and since he was only a Unitarian in his younger days and then firmly rejected it, all the poems I remember are probably from after that conversion to orthodoxy.

  2. “Not to be deluded by dreams”
    “the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and of things.”
    These express and have shaped my theology…
    I have to share the whole poem, and remind you that the word “essential” means “pertaining to or constituting the essence of a thing” not “needed”

    “The Answer” by Robinson Jeffers
    Then what is the answer? — Not to be deluded by dreams,
    To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
    and their tyrants come, many times before.
    When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
    the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
    To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
    and not wish for evil; and not be duped
    By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
    not be fulfilled.
    To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
    the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
    Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
    and his history. . . for contemplation or in fact . . .
    Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
    the greatest beauty is
    Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
    of the universe. Love that, not man
    Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
    or drown in despair when his days darken.

  3. One might note that note of the list of Unitarian Universalist poets were actually UUs, since all of them were pre-merger. Some of them were actually Unitarian, some only associated with Unitarians. One might note that there are also contemporary UU poets, including the late Nancy Shaffer, Barbara Pescan, Mark Belletini, David Breeden and myself amongst others. I suspect that the primary poetic source for the theology amongst UUs is Mary Oliver, followed by Rumi. Neither of who are/were UU, but both of whom significantly inform our theology.

  4. I like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver–Dickinson’s God is a Distant Stately Lover, Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant, The Abdication of Belief Makes the Behavior Small, Are You a Nobody?….Oliver’s If you Suddenly Experience Joy Give in to It. Some Wendell Berry too–particularly like his words “Nature has move votes than we do and a sterner sense of justice [than we do].

  5. Thanks, everyone — thanks especially for the references to specific poems!

    Jean, thanks for the Neruda poem; Amy and I were just talking about Neruda. Buffy, thanks for the Jeffers poem; you have prompted me to go read more Jeffers.

    Lynn, re: the list of UU poets, yes there are tons more UU poets. I had to shorten that list somehow, so I limited it to those poets who have been included in major anthologies. Readers can seek out more UU poets in a number of places. First, though it’s 20 years old, there’s the book “The Unitarian Universalist Poets: A Contemporary American Survey,” ed. Jennifer Bosveld, available as a preview on Google Books; Bosveld includes such well-known UU poets as Kenneth Patton. Second, visit UUWorld.org and search for “poem.” Third, UU poets occasionally make appearances at various UU conferences.

    Lynn, one more thing — since the list is drawn from anthologies, it is definitely weighted towards poets from the past, which means they are mostly pre-merger. But Everett Hoagland most definitely joined his UU church post-merger. And May Sarton’s somewhat tenuous connections with Unitarian Universalism came post-merger.

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