Poetry and Redemption

Poetry and Redemption

September 13, 2010

By Benjamin Meyers

The Gnostic seeks to liberate spirit from matter; the poet works in, and celebrates, the union of the two. This relationship is true not only of explicitly or implicitly Christian poetry but of all poetry worthy to be called such, since all worthwhile poetry connects thought or feeling to the material world. Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Eliot’s “objective correlative,” Bly’s “deep image”: all theories of poetry are really theories of how body meets spirit in the written and/or spoken word. Poetry is permanently at war with Gnosticism in all its varieties.

As a contra-Gnostic force, then, poetry is always a brief on behalf of redemption. Not only the deliverance of a particular woman or man from the bondage of sin, but, the restoration of God’s creation to its original form. Paul comments in Romans 8:21–23: “The creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travalieth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the redemption of our body” (KJV). Of course, poetry cannot literally effect this redemption, but it can mirror it or even, perhaps, rehearse it in various meaningful ways.

The quasi-religious elevation of poetry that begins with Matthew Arnold and culminated in the high-modernism of the twentieth century sought to counter the modern crisis of faith by taking poetry and the poetic tradition as bearers of value and meaning.  Such a view of poetry does, indeed, take it to be a redemptive force but leaves one wondering from what and to what the world has been redeemed.  When Wallace Stevens says, “Poetry is the supreme fiction,” one may admire the strength of his imagination but still wonder what that fiction gets us. The lie has been recognized as such and no longer comforts. To fully perceive the redemptive motion inherent in poetry, one needs an idea of the redemption which stands behind it, not necessarily a doctrinal position or a theology but a sense, a perception, or even intuition, however unarticulated even to the self.  George Steiner reflects that “Referral and self-referral to a transcendent dimension, to that which is felt to reside either explicitly – this is to say ritually, theologically by force of revelation – or implicitly, outside immanent and purely secular reach, does underwrite created forms from Homer and the Oresteia to The Brothers Karamzov and Kafka” (Real Presences 216).

I was thinking about this war between lifeless abstraction and the realness of poetry when my contributor’s copy of Ruminate Issue 16 arrived in my mailbox, with its theme of “mapping this place.” Of course, the question that comes to mind is “what place”? And, oh, how well the poems in this issue pull us into the particular, the now and the place of redemption, as we seek to answer that question. Take for instance Jae Newman’s haunting “Doors Among Trees,” which, as it were, opens up the issue. The poem begins in a way evocative of The Divine Comedy, but it is the woods of childhood, not middle-age, in which we find ourselves, and in these woods, no doubt haunted by those who’ve been there before us, we find doors, possibilities.  But these are not the doors of perception, not merely doors of the mind. They are doors leaning against trees: real doors. They are clearly cast off, junk, probably all that remains of houses that no longer stand.  And here they are redeemed into metaphor!  They once again, maybe truly for the first time, lead somewhere. This is the shadow of the cross cast by the rising sun, a reminder that a metaphor, like the incarnation, honors both sides of the equation.

Many poems in Ruminate's Issue 16: Mapping This Place offer a redeemed vision of a fallen world by the making of metaphor. One of Patricia L. Hamilton’s poems is titled “Thirst,” a title which itself rings of incarnational thinking, of being in the body. Hamilton’s image of the drooping trees “like day laborers whose shoulders sag” focuses our attention on the material world experienced simultaneously as exterior and interior, world and body. Like the best of medieval Christian art, it renders purposeful the suffering body and the groaning creation, redeeming pain into art. The issue’s final poem, Dane Cervine’s elegant “Small Pebbles in the Heart,” is similarly incarnational, counter-Gnostic in its redemptive yoking of physical and spiritual realities. The poem uses the physical process of erosion to suggest a heart opened by suffering, but it does not work through plastic allegory. Rather it works through the finely made suggestion that as it is in nature so it is in us. That is, the poem not only causes us to look inward but also to look outward with fresh eyes, returning significance, in the full sense of that term, to a world stripped of it by, on the one hand, a kind of spiritualizing neo-Gnosticism prominent in contemporary Christianity, and, on the other hand, a reductively scientific materialist view of the world made habitual by our forms of education and public discourse. Surely this is a form of redemption. Consider also Alan Berecka’s “The Value of Salt,” which returns us to the earthiness of Christ’s parables by giving us salt we can taste. Such a picture of the common made significant suggests perhaps that poetry, in searching out eternal meaning in the here and now, constantly stretches toward the sacramental. Notice, along those lines, the final image of Tania Runyan’s “For They Shall Be Called Children of God”: “making peace / with the carpenter ants and the other/small brilliances of my life.” Here is a clear example of how good poetry mirrors redemption in returning even the smallest – one might say least significant—bits of creation to their full significance.

I could go on with each poem of the issue, not to suggest a sort of artificial unity of poetics in the pages of Ruminate, but rather to demonstrate how the magazine, through its open exploration of faith, encourages its contributors to follow the poetic process to its logically redemptive conclusion. In this issue of Ruminate, as in all previous issues, one finds poems of faith and poems of doubt, poems of orthodoxy and poems heterodox in thought.  But the poems here are unified by their insistence on meeting spiritual matters in the flesh, looking for meaning in matter.  Such an emphasis on incarnation is deeply counter-cultural in a way faithful to the histories both of the Church and of poetry. And so I look forward to Issue 17, its theme of "Pilgrimage" surely a fine way to continue the journey toward redemption taken again and again in the pages of Ruminate.


Benjamin Myers’ first book of poems, Elegy for Trains, was be published this summer by Village Books Press. Ben, as most folks call him, has gone far in life—approximately five blocks. He lives in his boyhood hometown of Chandler, Oklahoma, where he partners with his wife Mandy in raising three good kids and likes to think of himself as the Okie Wendell Berry in his devotion to localness. Ben is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has published essays on topics in poetry ranging from the Renaissance verse of Edmund Spenser to the postmodern experiments of John Ashbery. He also teaches Sunday school and occasionally goes fishing. Two of his poems, "Fragments After the 51st Psalm" and "Mid-Winter: Clarksville, Arkansas" were published in Ruminate's Issue 16: Mapping This Place.

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