August 11, 2014

Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition

Who would expect a book written over 50 years ago to give serious poets and poetry students such a timely word about Christianity and culture today? Nevertheless, Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition manages to do just that.

Written by the late Amos Wilder – a New Testament scholar, poet, literary critic, clergyman, and brother of Thornton Wilder – the book, kindly given to me for review by Wipf and Stock Publishers, provides a highly intelligent look at ways we can relate Christianity to the culture in which we live.

Interestingly, the poets Wilder highlighted for significant contributions in this area are the ones I also recommend: Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, and others.

Why does this matter? As Wilder said, “We recognize that the creative, imaginative expressions of culture are often our best clues to the diagnosis of men’s hearts and the deeper movements of the age.” Furthermore, “of all the arts, poetry, since it is an art of language, of the word, will often retain and sustain a varied relation to religion.”

Attesting to the insight that “poetry is praise,” the author acknowledged different views “held as to what is important and unimportant, what is healthful and harmful, what is Christian and un-Christian, in the tangled skein of cultural traditions” as we find “differing judgments as to the true spiritual heritage of the West and especially as to the Christian tradition in our English-speaking lands. Thus different values can be assigned to such main factors as Catholic order, the Protestant revolution, scientific empiricism, all of which have had their changing roles through the centuries and which have entered into special combinations with more recent phases of culture….”

With a fair-minded presentation of the many factors involved in the “story of what happened to the modern world’s faiths and assumptions” in literature, the author stated how, “We note first the loss of absolutes in our world.”

This loss led to devaluing traditions and communal roots until we reached a general “depersonalization” of mankind. If we take a sec now to think about the ads, television programs, popular books and movies today, we can see how timely or, perhaps, prophetic, Wilder’s words were in saying, “The depersonalized psyche, the numbered and enervated worker, requires high-tension stimuli to recover a transient awareness of his own identity.”


In other words, the more insensitive society becomes, the more it takes to awaken individual readers, help them to feel again, know themselves again, and/or draw them to Christ, the church, and the Christian faith.

So, how are we, as Christian poets and writers, to respond to this dilemma? As Wilder reminded us, “It is the spirit, as the Christian understands it, which searcheth all things and which underlies all the dynamic impulses of our crisis. Therefore the Christian is in the best position to understand them, to diagnose the age, to ‘interpret the times’.”

While acknowledging that a “diagnosis of our time in terms of its imaginative literature allows us to speak rather of directions than of solutions or conclusions,” the author gave us insight into Catholic and Protestant poets and writers who found ways to connect with readers during their lifetimes and also with readers now.

As I mentioned earlier, Wilder selected works to discuss of the very Christian poets and writers I’d also recommend for careful study and enjoyment. What I did not mention, though, is that it took me years of reading and searching on my own to “discover” and recommend those same literary artists as mentors I turn to again and again.

Be forewarned, however: You might need a dictionary, as I did, to clarify some words in Wilder’s heightened vocabulary, but his insights will give you a wide view of the impact and Christian influence your poems and writings can have on our needy society now.

© 2014 Mary Harwell Sayler - poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden - also wrote the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry e-book, based on the home study course she used, one-on-one, with poetry students and other poets for years.

Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition, paperback

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