Saturday, 7 January 2006

Essential poets for theologians

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” —Plato
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” —Percy Bysshe Shelley

This week I posted Kim Fabricius’ list of essential novels. Now Kim and I have collaborated to produce a list of 20 essential poets for theologians. We have limited the list to poets writing in English, so some of the great poets—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Pushkin, Goethe, Neruda, to name a few—are not included here.

Here’s our list, and we’d welcome your own suggestions as well:

1. Chaucer (c.1343-1400)
2. Edmund Spenser (c.1552-99)
3. Shakespeare (1564-1616)
4. John Donne (1572-1631)
5. George Herbert (1593-1633)
6. John Milton (1608-74)
7. Thomas Traherne (1637-74)
8. William Blake (1757-1827)
9. William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
11. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92)
12. Walt Whitman (1819-92)
13. Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
14. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)
15. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
16. W. H. Auden (1907-73)
17. R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)
18. Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001)
19. Bob Dylan (1941- )
20. Kevin Hart (1954- )

19 Comments:

Steve Harris said...

This is of course a fine list, but for me, the two Big poets missing from this list are Geoffrey Hill and Gjrtrud Schnakenberg.

One good catchall Hill link:

http://www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/anglais/geoffrey-hill/

I wish I had something for GS as well, but from all reports, she’s internet shy. The New Critereon’s William Logan has pretty much anointed these two as the ones who will be read years from now. Both poets have not published much (what a refreshing surprise!). Schnackenberg’s body of work pretty much all works for me (which for the most part can be found in the anthology Supernatural Love). Hill, after his Canaan collection, has gotten increasingly difficult. But he’s the man for me.

Rory Shiner said...

Maybe not in the top 20, but Nick Cave's lyrics are interesting theologically.

steph said...

howz about the lad from Notts to challenge the theos, David Herbert Lawrence (although theology and I are on different planets - it's all poetry isn't it?)

Steve Harris said...

I”ve been looking around on the internet for some GS poems, but there’s virtually nothing, which is a shame. Here’s is letter from an Anglican site that discusses (and prints) at least a portion of an Advent poem by GS:

http://morgue.anglicansonline.org/051211/

It’s interesting to note that she’s around the same age as Kevin Hart. (Again, thanks for the earlier mention of him. He was new to me, and I’ve since passed him on to some poet friends of mine. They were also impressed. I need to read some more of him.)

And (of course), there is one more. Anthony Hecht died a few years back. He was a great poet, and I had the good fortune to see him read. After the reading I asked him who was the greater influence on him, Donne or Herbert. He said when he was younger, it was Donne, but as he was now older (he was in his late seventies), he found himself more at home with Herbert. Here is the Washington Post obit:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A53133-2004Oct21.html?sub=AR

But to read that may require for some the annoying sign-in process. It is free however. There is a superb New Criterion piece on Hecht that really makes a strong case for inclusion in the Theologian’s Poet List:

http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/22/apr04/hecht.htm

Beth said...

Well, I guess I'd have to add the anonymous Anglo-Saxon biblical poet(s) to this list - starting with Chaucer is a big no-no. In fact, I'd take old Geoff off the list altogether, suspecting that he's here because he's the only medieval poet anyone's heard of! (Humble apologies if I do you a disservice...) I might possibly add instead the Middle English poet known as The Pearl-poet, and maybe Langland too. Chesterton, I think, deserves at least an honourable mention, while Christopher Logue would be a good addition. Stevie Smith is notable by her absence. And why include Traherne? His poetry is far inferior to his prose - as a poet isn't he, like Henry Vaughan, a poor man's George Herbert? I think I agree with Steve about Anthony Hecht.

Anonymous said...

William Cowper.

Tom

kim fabricius said...

Beth - one of those medievalists for whom Chaucer is a modernist!

Chesterton? Now he does fit the tag of one whose "poetry is far inferior to his prose", while Traherne reaches parts that Herbert's unsurpassed anatomies of the spiritual life don't - namely, creation.

Sorry to be so defensive. For your other suggestions, and those of other posters, many thanks.

Beth said...

Hey - I insulted you, you have a right to be defensive ;) Though I should have added my thanks for sparking off this great topic, as well as for the previous novels list, many of which I really must get round to reading.

I still maintain that Traherne's Centuries far surpass his poetry. But I take your point. And Chesterton, I confess, I love mainly for his poem The Aristocrat so my view is a little skewed.

I would never make such a ridiculous claim as that Chaucer is a modernist.

He is modern, though.

Andrew said...

Rory - Good call on Nick Cave. Perhaps another thread should be developed on essential lyricists for theologians. I would add Jim Carroll and Patti Smith to such a list, along with Bob Dylan (of course) and perhaps Bruce Springsteen. Just a few off the top of my head.

Regarding the poets on this list, however, I find a disappointing disregard for the beats. Where is Lawrence Ferlenghetti (sp?) or Alan Ginsberg? Also, dark night of the soul-ish poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton offer a theological perspective that seems to be missing here. I'd include Wallace Stevens as well. Other than Chaucer and possibly Donne (who bores me to tears), I'm not sure who else I'd cut from the list to make room for those five.

AC

Mark said...

I would definitely second the choice of Langland (indeed, as a theological poet, I would choose him over Chaucer) and also the Pearl-poet. As a contemporary addition, the Australian poet Les Murray has to be on the list: try, especially, his collection 'Subhuman Redneck Poems'.

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Beth, about Langland and the Pearl-poet. (I wondered whether we would get in trouble for starting with Chaucer).

And I'd very happily agree with Mark about Les Murray. I'm very fond of Les Murray's work, but as an Australian myself, I didn't want to be too greedily patriotic (since I had already included the Aussie poet Kevin Hart).

Mark Anthony said...

What? No Dr. Seuss?

"A person's a person, no matter how small."

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Anonymous said...

What about Tomas Tranströmmer?

Brian said...

Wendell Berry is surely worth a mention here.

Gerhard said...

Rainer Maria Rilke's "Book of Hours"
should be a high quality addition; particularly for German "theologians"

Anonymous said...

Why no Geoffrey Hill, he must be the best poet alive today from the Christian perspective. 'Against the burly air I strode, crying the miracles of God' superb.

Matt said...

Stranger dropping by from the US to make mention of Catholic poet Czeslaw Miloz. An amazing poet.

Eriol said...

I hope four and a half years late aren't too late-I'd recommend Jorie Graham and Franz Wright. Why no Wallace Stevens?

OKC Herbivore said...

I love these posts! Thanks for doing them, but good gosh: no Seamus Heaney?! "if self is a location/so is love"

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