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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Poetry and the American Religion

That's the title of an article, a review of an anthology of American religious poetry edited by Yale professor Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, at the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. This was an interesting article for me, as I hadn't heard of some of the poets mentioned and really know nothing of American religious history, and got to look it all up :-) Here below is a little of the article ...

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The anthology contains works by more than 200 poets, from the Colonial-era Bay Psalm Book (represented by Psalm 19) and the Puritan Thomas Dudley (1576-1653) to Korean-American Suji Kwock Kim (b. 1968) and Wheaton College English professor Brett Foster (b. 1973). In addition, editors Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, reflecting the ambiguous place of American Indians and African Americans in the nation's cultural history, include two separate sections -- one of American Indian songs and chants and the other a brief collection of spirituals and anonymous hymns. ......

It is always, given space limitations, a tough choice whether to include two or three poems by a single poet, thus limiting the number of poets represented, or to let a larger number poets have their say with a single poem. On the whole, the anthology strikes a generally fine balance. It is nice to see a generous representation (10 entries) of the 18th-century devotional poet Edward Taylor, but to my mind a dozen poems by Emily Dickenson is excessive. In the 20th century, A.R. Ammons with a half-dozen poems ..... and Lucile Clifton, lovely as her work is, are both overrepresented, while the paucity of Robert Lowell (only a single poem), as well as the absence of Daniel Berrigan, Adrienne Rich, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, are near unforgivable .......

For Bloom, the two hundred years prior to Emerson do not exist, but he cannot even get Emerson right ...... Bloom's Emerson appears to be the inventor of a uniquely American creedless religion -- "the American Religion" -- in which Whitman is sometimes Adam, sometimes Christ, sometimes a version of Yahweh. "What is the center of Whitmanian religion? Clearly, it is Walt Whitman himself as Divine, post-Christian yet a messiah, another son of a carpenter who is also a son of God." ......

The myth -- of America as Eden, the American as Adam inventing a new world with no ties or connection to the Old World -- flourished among one strata of influential American intellectuals in mid-century America before the Civil War. But Emerson did not spring fully formed from the soil around Concord, Massachusetts. His American Religion -- and Whitman's, too -- owes much to British and European Romanticism, evolving Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and pantheism, not to mention concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism, such as Brahma and karma, that were also part of the cultural and intellectual milieu ......

Indeed, Bloom seems to be so anxious to turn the Whitman-Dickinson-Crane tradition into a religion ..... that he ignores religion and the many religious sensibilities that have marked the nation's remarkable religious history. Apart from Emerson, the only references he makes to actual American religious history are to the Second Great Awakening, when he quotes a letter of Dickinson seemingly distancing herself from its emotionalism; Whitman's recollection of Quaker preacher Elias Hicks; and the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 .....

But no matter ..... the poems themselves, despite some glaring lapses, offer the best antidote to Bloom's bluster and demonstrate the host of religious sensibilities American poets bring to their work. As the poet Samuel Hazo, who compiled a brief volume of contemporary religious poetry in 1963, said of the poems he gathered, they are "testaments of how poets have tried to discover themselves in the world around them, and the world around them in themselves. This is ultimately every poet's mission, and it is a spiritual or religious mission."

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Here is one of the poems from the book reviewed above, by Trumbull Stickney ...

And, the Last Day Being Come

And, the last day being come, Man stood alone
Ere sunrise on the world's dismantled verge,
Awaiting how from everywhere should urge
The Coming of the Lord. And, behold, none

Did come, -- but indistinct from every realm
Of earth and air and water, growing more
And louder, shriller, heavier, a roar
Up the dun atmosphere did overwhelm

His ears; and as he looked affrighted round
Every manner of beast innumerable
All thro' the shadows crying grew, until
The wailing was like grass upon the ground.

Asudden then within his human side
Their anguish, since the goad he wielded first,
And, since he gave them not to drink, their thirst,
Darted compressed and vital. -- As he died,

Low in the East now lighting gorgeously
He saw the last sea-serpent iris-mailed
Which, with a spear transfixèd, yet availed
To pluck the sun down into the dead sea.


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