Sh*t Christian Poets Say: The Problems of God-Talk, Sentimentality, and Style (Part 1)

by | Feb 15, 2012 | Uncategorized

Most contemporary Christian poetry is revolting. For all I know, there may be piles of finger-lickin’-good poems written for Muslim and Jewish consumption, but I can say with certainty that I would rather be crushed under a load of bricks than read another saccharine poem with the words “precious baby Jesus” in it. And yet, as a teacher and critic of poetry, and as a vowed Jesuit, I can’t pretend I don’t have an interest in poetic expressions of religiosity. The problem is not one of “taste” (preference or liking)—a narrow category of aesthetics whose primary function is to protect even the most boneheaded ideas from serious inquiry. The problem, in a nutshell, is one of style.

The contemporary problem of style can be summarized by way of contrast: religious sentiment is all about sincerity, and yet the dominant mode of expression in popular culture is irony. Irony and sincerity need not be mutually exclusive (we can tease the ones we love), but it does rather complicate matters for public venues and religious content. A parody of a song is still a song, but a parody of a prayer is not a prayer. In considering the problem of how a poet achieves a convincing style for religious poetry, we should also recall that just as irony does not preclude sincerity, neither does irony necessarily lend itself to destruction. In an ironic atmosphere, the religious poet will seek indirect, rather than direct modes of expression.

Our contemporary notions of appropriate discourse for religious poetry are shaped by many factors, primary among which are the long history of our religious traditions, our liturgical texts and prayers, and the various translations of the Bible, especially the King James Version, as they affected English-language poetry. Our sense of linguistic decorum is also shaped by our modern secular history as it impinges on poetic creation: the collapse of monarchical and religious authority, the bathos of late 19th-century piety, and the march of successive poetic styles, namely, heart-on-sleeve romanticism, followed by earnest Victoriana, followed by the ascetic modernist reaction, followed by the ironic postmodern take. My historical sketch here, while laughably inadequate, is intended to get us away from the hoary bugbear of “secularism” by which angry religionists blame the Enlightenment for everything they despise about modern culture. When Virginia Woolf writes dyspeptically in a letter, “there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God,” her incredulity and the hostility of the age to which she belongs cannot be blamed so conveniently on Descartes or Darwin.1 And since this brief essay is neither an argument about historical change nor a sociological analysis of discourse usage, we will simply take the problem as a given rather than query how we came to be stuck with this nearly unbridgeable gap: on the one side, a cramped and crusty decorum for religious language (Thees, Thous, and O Most Holys), and on the other side, the romantic-modernist-postmodernist nexus. To fling a lyric poem across such an abyss is surely to watch it crash on the slopes below.

When I say that most contemporary Christian poetry is dreadful, I am not talking about poetry that admits of God. There are scores of fine contemporary poets who flirt with the transcendent in their poems. But trembling with intimations of immortality or positing a generic, deist god are very different projects from translating the work of an incarnational Christian theology into a compelling poetic form. It is why we do not have, in the realm of poetry, a Christian monument equivalent to Dante’s Divine Comedy for our own age.2 Nor am I talking about devotional poetry, which is orthodox, inoffensive, and safe for liturgical use. Religious poetry, by contrast, may be deeply unsettling and even blasphemous, as it is concerned not with hewing to the orthodox line, but with articulating the human experience as it opens onto the mystery of God. Maintaining such distinctions between devotional poetry and religious poetry allows for some surprising candidates for “religious poet.” T. S. Eliot thought that Charles Baudelaire—that arrogant misanthrope who dallied with satanism—was a “first-rate blasphem[er],” by which Eliot intended a high compliment. Unlike the petty religious versifiers of his day, Baudelaire—though no believer—showed why Christian salvation was necessary. For Eliot, Baudelaire invented Christianity from the raw material of his own experience. That contemporary scholars do not read Baudelaire in this way is immaterial: Eliot was looking for models of how to write serious religious verse, and in his interpretation of the great French symbolist, Baudelaire had recuperated the medieval conception of sin by making salvation and damnation terrifyingly real.3

While an uncensored attention to the human experience may lead to blasphemy, by contrast, avoiding the messiness of the human experience results in sentimentality. Sentimentality is the trap religious poets are most likely to fall into, though sentimentality is not unique to devotional or religious literature. In his own definition of sentimentality, James Baldwin argues that the underside of sentimentality is brutality:

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.4

For an example of how naïve, pious sentimentality can mask a brutal ideology, Ricky Bobby’s prayer to the “dear Lord baby Jesus” (in Will Farrell’s Talledega Nights) is the last word on the matter. But I don’t concur with the morally indignant absolutes of Baldwin’s thesis. Sentimentality does not “always” mask brutality. More forgivably, sometimes sentimentality covers an unwillingness to plumb the contradictions of human experience. In this gentler view, sentimentality is a desire for a tidier narrative than human experience offers.

Though T. S. Eliot does not explicitly name this phenomenon as sentimentality, he puts his finger on the problem as it relates to religious poetry: “The great danger, for the poet who would write religious verse, is that of setting down what he would like to feel rather than be faithful to the expression of what he really feels.”5 The problem, as Eliot indicates, is that part of the job of religion is to explain the doctrine to which its members communally assent. Religion also sets modes of conduct and feeling that curb some human instincts. But such stances rub against our romantic notion of the poet as a Byronic individualist. By assenting to communal truths and a shared moral vision, the religious poet is therefore in danger of whitewashing human experience. The result can be a hollow reverence that has no connection to the felt experience of being human.

The nauseating horseshit of “Footprints in the Sand” is an obvious example, even though it’s not really a poem. It’s a parable arbitrarily broken up into lines so that it will look like poetry and thus appear more “artistic.”6 I teach this work in a religious poetry course in order to get students to think hard about the limits of sentimentality. While a few students are fans of the poem (it’s always good to have dissenting voices in the classroom), I am mostly intrigued by the majority of students who do not like it. I find it odd that such students—who are comfortable with the raunch and sarcasm of modern media, and thus the most likely candidates to dismiss the pietism of “Footprints”—have a hard time articulating what they instinctively dislike about the poem. A discussion of style is the most congenial entry point for them: an admission of the sort that expressions such as “my precious child” (a variant reading in the many versions of the poem) are not the kind of discourse they use for love. But this objection resides too close to the realm of taste: “I don’t like the poem, because that’s not how I speak.” Or: “that’s not my piety.” In a discussion of aesthetics, these are not honest reasons for disliking any poem. Nor is it the poem’s theology that these students dislike. It is a theology, I point out to them, that is unobjectionably orthodox: the moral of “Footprints” is that God aids us and comforts us even when we are not conscious of it. So why does this paraphrase of the poem’s theological meaning ring true, while the poem annoys?

It is because the rhetoric of the poem makes the reader feel stupid. The poem claims that God has been working like mad, carrying us through our sorrows: “When you saw only one set of footprints, my pwecious, pwecious, smoochy-woochy child, it was then that I carried you.” (Warranting assumption: you’re a blind dumbass for not noticing. Conclusion: quit complaining.) But the poem gives the readers no clue as to how we are to recognize God’s grace other than in retrospect. I ask students annoyed by the poem how they would feel if, instead of concluding with God’s unarguable truth, the poem continued with the speaker’s question: “So why the hell did you wait until now to tell me, huh?” Does such a response turn the poem into a parody or a different kind of prayer? I then ask students to posit a zippy or compassionate comeback God might utter to the benighted speaker (“Look, kid, do you want me to list the times I tried to get it across to you?” Or: “Since when is that my job?”). In these improvised addenda to the poem, students rehearse their own spiritual struggles. Their questions are thereby honored, instead of their spiritual ignorance being chastised. The point of the exercise is to show them that such further questioning of assumptions, and a fuller acknowledgement of the human condition might be the beginning of an interesting poem, instead of the platitude into which the poem so smugly plunges for its conclusion. It is not the poem’s piety that is offensive, but its short-circuiting of the spiritual quest by bullying the reader into submission instead of honoring the complexity of discernment. Perhaps the poem masks some brutality, after all.7

On the topic of sensitivity to one’s audience, when I teach this poem to illustrate problems of sentiment and form, I strictly forbid my students from going home and ripping the laminated, illustrated copy of “Footsteps” off of grandmother’s refrigerator. Leave grandma alone. What is at stake in this discussion is not personal sincerity or private piety, but public rhetoric for serious religious poetry: the ability of a poetic language, steeped in the poetic forms and traditions of its culture, to address adequately its object (God) and its content (the complexities, joys and contradictions of religious faith).

But subjecting “Footprints” to critique is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. The real test comes when serious poets set themselves the task of writing good religious verse. As a scholar of T. S. Eliot’s work, I admire, though do not love unconditionally, his Four Quartets, which many critics consider the greatest poetic statement on faith in the 20th century. I prefer the electrifying poetry Eliot wrote before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, poems written from febrile spaces of doubt and fear, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, that terrifying record of spiritual drought. Christianity was given a great stroke of fortune when such a respected poet and critic as Eliot became a believer, thence turning his attention to articulating the problems of faith in poetic and dramatic forms. Ash-Wednesday is the first major work published after Eliot’s conversion in 1927 (the whole of the poem can be read here). As an illustration of my thesis, this otherwise poignant poem has some wretched moments in it. The fifth section of the poem does not start promisingly:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world […]

And then things go from bad to worse:

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.8

The paradoxes are struggling to say something Deeply Mysterious about the incarnation but end up sounding facile and pretentious. And the piling up of internal rhymes—heard, word, world, Word, whirled—is the sonic equivalent of beating a dead horse. This stanza and the one that follows it are about as wince-makingly awful as ever penned by a great poet. It might seem unbalanced to single out these weak lines in a poem that in other ways affectingly describes the pain of renouncing a beloved, the poet barely able to believe that a heart-breaking loss might be translated into a spiritual gain. But what is telling is that Eliot’s fine musical ear fails him here, in the very spot where he moves away from personal experience and attempts to say something explicitly theological.

Eliot’s problem is one of style rather than sentimentality. E. E. Cummings is another 20th century poet who occasionally stumbles when he turns to God-talk, though his problem has less to do with style—which is both original and responsive to his aims—than with sentimentality. But because Cummings is willing to risk sentimentality, he also has some of the most exuberant religious poems, satisfyingly direct (emotionally, if not linguistically) and filled with unabashed praise language. With his Unitarian roots and individualist ethos, Cummings is hardly concerned with Christian orthodoxy. But he merits attention here as a religious poet because of the way Cummings shrugged his shoulders at the dominant irony of his day. His poem “i thank You God for most this amazing day” (read it here if you like) is typical of Cummings’ religious praise poems, in that it slops happily through both mawkish tripe and lovely turns of phrase. Any religious poet who wants to write praise poems needs to keep Cummings in mind, both as an example and as a warning.

But Eliot and Cummings are already a century behind us, and we must turn to contemporary poets to get a sense of the current state of the problem. Next week, I’ll consider a recent volume of Mary Karr’s poetry to examine how she negotiates this complicated terrain of God-talk, sentimentality and style.


Editor’s note: the second and concluding part of Jayme’s essay can be read here.

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  1. Virginia Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3: 1923-1928. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976. 457-58.
  2. Though Geoffrey Hill is not primarily concerned with problems of belief (especially recently), his erudite and allusive work is probably the closest we can get to such an English-language monument, even in spite of its willful obscurity.
  3. T.S. Eliot, “Baudelaire.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. See also Eliot’s After Strange Gods.  London: Faber and Faber 1934. 52; and Ronald Schuchard’s chapter “First-Rate Blasphemy,” in his book Eliot’s Dark Angel.  Oxford: Oxford UP: 1999.
  4. This definition of sentimentality is occasioned by Baldwin’s belligerent, gratuitous attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But by misrepresenting the rhetorical means at Stowe’s disposal and the intentions directed at her audience, Baldwin comes up with a memorable description of the intentional falsity of sentimentality. (James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1984. 14).
  5. T. S. Eliot, George Herbert. Harlow, UK: Longmans, Green, 1968. 26.
  6. There are at least three identifiable variants of the poem. Some modern adaptations end with the image of dancing rather than being carried by the Lord. All of these versions are equally horrifying. At the Poetry Foundation website, Rachel Aviv has a fine essay on the multiple figures who have claimed authorship of the poem: “Enter Sandman: Who Wrote ‘Footprints’?”
  7. Given the popularity of “Footprints,” the reading of the poem I press here raises the question of whether its rhetoric in fact works this way. Do its legion of fans enjoy being bullied? The answer to this question would require an excursus into hermeneutics, rhetorical theory, and reader-response theory. But the prospect of hauling out such artillery for the sake of this poem is so depressing that I here bury the issue in a footnote.
  8. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1962.

Jayme Stayer, SJ   /   All posts by Jayme