When I was growing up, Groucho Marx was a saint in our house. As a child, I thought about, and sometimes prayed to God. Yet, I was on more intimate terms with Captain Spalding than with Jesus, Moses or any other religious leader.
At Yale Divinity School in my 20's, I discovered the book of Job; devoured the poetry of Anne Sexton; and took communion in the form of milk and Drake's Ring Ding's. (We were both innovative and hungry, finding the sacred in the secular.)
Today, I'm a hopeful agnostic. I'd like to think there's a benevolent God, a Promise Land or at least a safe place for faithfully doubtful, skeptically spiritual poets. Nothing fancy: just comfy chairs; old friends and lovers; coffee; decent, but unpretentious wine; cheese; a few cute dogs; a wireless connection; and a good sound system for open mike night.
Now that I've confessed my flavor of spirituality, you won't be surprised to learn why I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat one recent Saturday morning. I'd just read the latest God-awful news in the paper (from civilians killed in the war in Iraq to the gay-bashing same-sex marriage ban amendments on the ballot this election season). Seeking relief, I surfed Amazon's books listing. Then, I winced when I saw that American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (edited by Bloom and Jesse Zuba) is just out from The Library of America ($40. 685 pages.).
Bloom, is the author of 27 books, including Shakespeare: the Invention of the
Human, The Western Cannon, and Jesus and Yahweh: the Names Divine. He is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. Zuba teaches English at Rowan University.
Seeing Bloom's name wasn't what made me twitch. True, Bloom is, so to speak, a "loose canon" in his views on everything from feminism in literature to Shakespeare. But, that isn't what set alarm bells off in my head.
It was the word "religious" between "American" and "poems" that scared the bejesus out of me. In this age of the religious right, images of piety and moral edicts pursue all who disbelieve: from devout members of the religious left to fervent atheists. Reading the title American Religious Poems, I imagined the Christian Coalition and their ilk slapping sonnets into shape and censoring odious odes.
The idea of "religious" American poems conjured up for me images of bland church suppers and greeting cards: Hallmark, white bread and Velveeta. I don't want poetry to be moralistic; yet, I don't care to write or read poems that have the consistency and conviction of Jell-O.
Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong, Nietzsche said. Perhaps, this is what compelled me to check out Bloom's book. To my surprise, this anthology, is an interesting retrospective of American poetry and its spiritual quest – from the time of the Puritans to the present.
Readers seeking "devotional" verse will be disappointed: this volume contains few poems of the all-the-answers-to-life's-big-questions-can-be-found-in-God variety. As Bloom writes in the introduction, some of this book's poems "affirm religious faith." Yet, he adds, "the poems....are rarely unambiguous in their profession of either faith or doubt." This, reflects both the nature of poetry whose meaning isn't "easily pinned down" and the "notion of the inscrutability of the divine" that informs most "religious traditions," Bloom says.
The poets in American Religious Poems struggle with doubt and ask questions as they encounter life's essential passages: birth, love and death. In her poem The Question, May Swenson asks, "Body my house/my home my hound/what will I do/when you are fallen."
Some of these poems tell stories of obtaining wisdom through up close and personal encounters with death. James Baldwin writes in Amen:
No, I don't feel death coming.
I feel death going,
having thrown up his hands
for the moment....
Those arms held me for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
The poets in American Religious Poems, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Emily Dickinson to Denise Levertov, grapple with what wakes us up in the middle of the night. Why do we have to die? What happens after death? Why are we here? How come good people suffer? Why do scumbags get a free, unscathed ride? Where is God, if such a being exists, in the midst of an unjust world?
But, it isn't just "religious" poets who engage in this spiritual wrestling match. Any poet (or artist) worth his or her salt gets down in the mud with these messy, but fascinating issues. Sure, we have our egos and our insatiable lust for prizes. Yet alone with our muse at 3 a.m., we make art out of our muddled universe. Maybe there are no atheists in poetic foxholes.