Poetry survives in a prose-prone world, but evangelicals (and many others) remain phobic

By Allan Roy Andrews

In the past month, the Academy of American Poets launched a new page on its Web site devoted to poetry and teenagers. The page, labeled “Poetry Resources for Teens,” is quickly reached by visiting poets.org and pulling down the menu “For Educators.” The resources on the new page include “reading recommendations, writing help, spotlight audio and video recordings, as well as new ways to get involved in grassroots poetry projects,” according to an Academy press release.

Describing the motivation for producing the page, the Academy’s press release sounds much like what could be written by any American church or religious organization. The Academy acted, in its own words, in response to a recent survey they conducted, which showed that over 75% of the people who use poets.org share one characteristic: that they first developed an interest in poetry before their eighteenth birthday. With young people spending a reported average of 16.7 hours a week online, it seemed clear that in the long term, the best opportunity to reach new readers and writers of poetry is in their early years.

In pondering this news from the Academy, I thought again of the importance of poetry and the contrary disdain it experiences in American life and letters, especially among religious mover s and shakers, and in particular amidst the evangelical subculture.

I guess my real problem with this push to give teens access to poetry is that it further distinguishes adulthood as a time for generally disdaining and disregarding poetry as unimportant to faith and life in the twenty-first century.

We need more people like John Keating (the fictional English teacher played by Robin Williams in the film, “Dead Poet’s Society”), who told his adolescent charges:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for . . . .

(Alas, I use a movie to make a point about poetry!)

My wife asked me a trick question last week: “What language is spoken in heaven?”

“Probably Aramaic,” I quipped.

If I had taken, as she did, any course in college offered by Dr. Thomas Howard (author of Christ the Tiger and subsequent others—see http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/authors/thomashoward.asp), she informed me I would have hastily answered, “Poetry!”

If that be so, it’s clear to me that the heavenly language fights for a public voice in today’s prose-dominated world. Oh, to be sure, poetry is available to any who hunt for it, but such a suggestion is a bit like telling sushi lovers in the Dakotas they can find their favorite food if they just search long and hard enough. Sorry, folks, but Fargo ain’t Tokyo!

If poetry is the language of heaven, it still gets short shrift on earth, even among those who claim to be diligent advocates for life beyond our numbered days.

Case in point: Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of Christianity Today International, a moderately evangelical organization that counts as one of its founders the evangelist Billy Graham, recently ran a poll to determine if its readers still counted themselves as “supporters of the arts” in these disturbing economic times. I’m less interested in the results of the poll (Weekly newsletter, Jun 23, 2009) than in the way the question was framed:

Are you cutting back on spending money on the arts (music, painting, movies)?

Please note the limiting listing of the arts: “music, painting, movies.” Poetry flies under the radar in Christianity Today’s perception. In fairness, the survey accompanies a compelling argument by Canadian singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends on why the arts are important; although, she seems to limit poetry’s influence to its aid in worship, comparable to icons.

In other contexts, I’ve chided Christianity Today and other popular evangelical publications for not regularly publishing first-rate contemporary poetry. One can look to Christian Century, Commonweal, First Things, and Sojourners to find a smattering of poets in religion journals, but one must look long and hard to find poets being published in the largest circulation religious magazine, familiarly referred to as CT. Among the magazines I’ve listed here, Christianity Today alone is without a poetry editor.

Almost a decade ago, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, Louis Markos, in a Christianity Today column of open commentary, called evangelicals “poetry phobic.” In the ensuing years, the magazine has done little or nothing to address and attack this phobia. Even Books and Culture, Christianity Today International’s intelligent and erudite collection of book reviews, does not have a designated poetry editor other than editor John Wilson, who often shows his personal appreciation of poetry but does not push for any regular publication of poems.

Let me be clear: I welcome poets.org’s effort to expand the exposure of teenagers to poetry. What I’d like to see is religious publications, who often target teenagers as an audience to be addressed and assessed, spend more time exposing their adult readers to the rising cadre of fine poets addressing questions of faith and the dilemmas of life and theology.

If it is true that evangelicals (and perhaps other religious subsets) are poetry phobic, much of the fault can be laid at the feet of the journalists, essayists, commentators, and preachers whose words fill the monthly magazines and who too often show a disdain for the poetic voice.

Note: Anyone interested in fine contemporary poetry from a Christian faith perspective should visit the Journal of Christianity and Literature hosted by Pepperdine University at http://www.pepperdine.edu/sponsored/ccl/journal/. Another excellent source of such poetry is Image: A Journal of Art, Faith, Mystery at http://imagejournal.org/page/journal/. Image is closely tied to the Graduate Writing Program at Seattle Pacific University and to the Glen Writing Workshop in New Mexico.

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