When I was a poetry-writing Evangelical Christian, my poetry seemed to be all wrong. Insofar as my faith had all the answers, or at least so it claimed, and as my training as a poet taught me to resist answers, I could either write “good” poems, or have strong faith, but never both. Nowadays I don’t write much poetry, nor am I remotely Evangelical, nor am I, to be honest, a very faithful Christian. I suppose I ought to blame the poetry for that! But I never did end up resolving that tension between faith and poetry. I’m sure it’s possible—others have done it, as near as I can tell. I just couldn’t work it out myself.
When you write poetry, do you have to make sacrifices? Have you had to let go of anything, faith or whatever else? If so, for you, do you think it was worth it in the end?
Your words have a palpable wistfulness in them. Since I don’t know you its hard for me to detect just how strong that longing actually is in you. But regardless of its strength, I want to begin by honoring that longing. I also don’t know what level of Evangelical Christianity you were a part of, and like Dante’s Inferno, there are several levels of varying intensity (grin). I grew up a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, so I know a little about those levels.
I do find myself wondering what happened to you, was it a gradual stepping away from both the poetry and the faith, or maybe a singular cataclysmic moment when you said no more!? And I find myself a little sad too that there was no one along the way to say It doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both; in fact, it always has been. Anyway, it feels like yours is a very interesting story, one that other people might benefit from hearing. Just tuck that thought away, okay?
Forgive me if I missed your intent, but I think your question has something to do with if I give up or sacrifice the tension between faith and poetry when I write. My response is no, at least I try not to because my goal is to tell the truth in my poems and the truth, for me, is that the tension you mention is what makes good poetry, and good faith. Now I know, and I believe you know, some people equate tension with the D-word (doubt), and according to them if you have doubts about pieces of the faith then you’re calling into question the whole gig. I do not subscribe to that view, never have. Doubts, says Frederick Buechner, are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. In my mind, good poetry is about being awake, and moving if in nothing other than your mind. So I find good poetry and good faith to be quite the delicious combo, sorta like black coffee and cherry pie.
But I also think you’re wanting to know if I’ve had to give up anything, anything at all, when I write. My response to that is yes, I’ve had to let go of what people think about me. And please don’t hear that in some past-tense-I’ve-arrived sort of way because I have to give that up anew each and every day. A line from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” has been a rubric for me in this: Teach us to care and not to care. I’m definitely still learning, but I am learning that there are things in this world that I’m here to care for and care about, and there are things I’m here to not care about. In that latter category falls the opinions of others, whether they read me as orthodox or heretical or just plain goofbally. I will say that gets a little easier with age, one of the many gifts of forty-and-beyond…a little easier.
If I haven’t answered what you’re asking, I’m sorry. And if I have answered your questions, I’m still sorry because there was no one there to tell you Keep writing that poetry stuff and keep wrestling with those angels and the goal, for God’s sake, is not to get them to resolve into some single something or other but to make them press close enough to each other to dance and so steal your breath away. Evidently there was no one like that for you back then. But I’m a brass-knuckled optimist who believes its never too late, so please allow me to be that person who’s telling you of the both/and in these nowadays, these days that just might be asking you to take up a pen again, and stir up some ants, and care and not care now that you’re a little older.
Oh, has it been worth it? You bet it has.