When talking with Krista Tippett on American Public Media’s “On Being,” Marie Howe – the current New York State poet – balked at the suggestion that she was a religious poet:
Ms. Tippett: Some people I know have called you a religious poet.
Ms. Howe: Oh, that’s funny. […] Yeah, I kind of feel, uh, I don’t — well religious isn’t the word I really relate to — organized religion at all. Uh, I’m interested in the metaphysical.
I was intrigued by Howe’s response, especially after I listened to the (unedited) recording of their conversation. I became even more intrigued after I read (or listened to her read) some of her poems. Like this one, called “Annunciation”:
Unfortunately (for my curiosity), Howe did not expand in this interview on why she does not see her work as religious. Still, you can see why people get that impression. “Annunciation” is part of a series in Howe’s latest book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (yes, that Ordinary Time) that presents poetic vignettes of the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her earlier book, The Good Thief (yes, apparently that Good Thief) likewise draws on the plentiful imagery of (Christian) religion.
All of this brought me back to a recurrent, and perhaps unanswerable question: what do we mean when we use the word “religious poet” or, for that matter, “religious writer”? Who qualifies? Who does not? Does it even matter?
Okay, fine, those are huge questions. And in the name of intellectual modesty, I’m not really going to try and answer them in 500 words or less. But maybe I can name a few things that religious writers are not, at least in my eyes. They need not be people who are explicitly writing in the service of religion, whether in its organized or disorganized varieties. Nor need they be writing about religion. Nor, for that matter, must everything that flows from the religious writer’s pen be pious, holy, or suitable for translation into stained glass.
Over many years, I have come to think that poetry is perhaps the best way to speak about faith and doubt, religion and God. A slender bit of verse can capture a powerful religious insight that eludes the most erudite theological tome, and the emotional energy of poetry can connect us to the central affective aspects of religious faith: awe, wonder, pity, praise. What’s more, there is an intimate connection between the contemplative vision of the poet, and the contemplative vision of…well, religious contemplatives. Both share a cultivated sensitivity to the world around us, and the world beyond us. The best poets can take us more deeply into our own experience and lead us to a fuller engagement with the gritty reality of our world.
Marie Howe has that kind of vision. Maybe it is funny to call her a religious poet. For this reader at least, it would be funnier not to.
Poetry photo courtesy Flickr user V.H. Hammer