Powerful Poems: Christian Poetry in an Agnostic World

I grew up believing that Christians were not the ones at the cutting edge of the art world, leading culture, asking questions that push deeper into faith and mystery.

 

In college, wonderful professors exposed me to Christian poets. I learned that it takes practice and study to understand sonnets and love them, similar to how a person needs to practice weight training or oil painting to learn and enjoy the activity. I learned that any good poem reveals its meaning in shreds, unfurling like a kestrel’s wings.

Here are some of the Christian poets that made me realize that Christians are (and have always been!) a powerful part of the history of poetry and the world.

 

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (written in 1877)

 

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

“Arise, Go Down” by Li-Young Lee (published in 1990)

 

It wasn’t the bright hems of the Lord’s skirts

that brushed my face and I opened my eyes

to see from a cleft in rock His backside;

 

it’s a wasp perched on my left cheek. I keep

my eyes closed and stand perfectly still

in the garden till it leaves me alone,

 

not to contemplate how this century

ends and the next begins with no one

I know having seen God, but to wonder

 

why I get through most days unscathed, though I

live in a time when it might be otherwise,

and I grow more fatherless each day.

 

For years now I have come to conclusions

without my father’s help, discovering

on my own what I know, what I don’t know,

 

and seeing how one cancels the other.

I’ve become a scholar of cancellations.

Here, I stand among my father’s roses

 

and see that what punctures outnumbers what

consoles, the cruel and the tender never

make peace, though one climbs, though one descends

 

petal by petal to the hidden ground

no one owns. I see that which is taken

away by violence or persuasion.

 

The rose announces on earth the kingdom

of gravity. A bird cancels it.

My eyelids cancel the bird. Anything

 

might cancel my eyes: distance, time, war.

My father said, Never take your both eyes

off of the world, before he rocked me.

 

All night we waited for the knock

that would have signalled, All clear, come now;

it would have meant escape; it never came.

 

I didn’t make the world I leave you with,

he said, and then, being poor, he left me

only this world, in which there is always

 

a family waiting in terror

before they’re rended, this world wherein a man

might arise, go down, and walk along a path

 

and pause and bow to roses, roses

his father raised, and admire them, for one moment

unable, thank God, to see in each and

every flower the world cancelling itself.

 

“Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent”

by John Milton (written approximately 1655)

 

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry (published 1973)

 

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

I hope that these poems can encourage and inspire you today, and remind you that indeed, our God is the master artist, master poet, and endless verses can be written by His children about His world, His beauty, and His love.

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