Volume 5: DISAPPEARANCE

Friday, November 02, 2007

Christy Rowe, review: "Joyful Noise"

Christy Rowe
University of Denver

Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry. Ed. Robert Strong. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2007.

There has been a wave of American religious poetry anthologies during the last decade: from Harold Bloom’s expansive American Religious Poems (2006), to more contemporary collections, such as Evensong: Contemporary American Poets on Spirituality (2006), Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry (2000), and Vespers: Contemporary American Poetry of Religion and Spirituality (2003). Clearly there is an interest in a continuing look into America’s literary spirituality. Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry is a flawed but capable compilation of the long-standing spiritual focus throughout American verse. And poet Robert Strong has good credentials for such an editorial undertaking, with a Mellon Fellowship on conversion narrative research and his first book of poetry, Puritan Spectacle, just published by Elixir Press.

As the title suggests, the focus here is on spiritual, not necessarily religious, verse. As Strong writes in his introduction, “All poetry is spiritual. . . . The spiritual, after all, is what our existence soaks in; it is both everywhere and ineffable, always right here and just out of reach. We see it in blades of grass, sense it in love and the cry of a newborn, in the eyes of the dying, in volcanoes and choirs.” Strong acknowledges the Native, African, and Puritan influences on American poetry –“three traditions grounded in direct experience of the spiritual in everyday life”—and notes that such a foundation has expanded over the centuries to include multiple belief systems, with one “constant poetic-spiritual dilemma: a central observer overwhelmed by the eternal realization that he or she is not, after all, the center.”

The result of these influences is an anthology focused on everyday spirituality, on poems that deal with struggle, doubt, and reflections on the divine. It is also an anthology that fits somewhere in between the groups of current religious poetry collections. As with Bloom’s collection, Joyful Noise covers the history of American religious verse, with more of a nod to so-called spirituality than overtly religious poetry. But, as with the contemporary collections, the greatest emphasis here is on 20th and 21st century poets. Joyful Noise clearly desires a sense of inclusiveness, visible in its collection of poets both major and minor/newer. An important difference with these other texts, however, is this anthology’s focus on one style of contemporary poetry over the wide range of new voices, especially those voices more key to the current spiritual/religious poetry community.

The anthology itself is chronological and can be broken roughly into three sections: Native American/Puritan/Early American, 19th century, and 20th/21st century—the latter section the longest by far. There are various recurrent themes and motifs, though, which become apparent. The two most notable Strong mentions in his introduction: nature poetry as the “dominant mode of American spiritual writing,” and the effect and impact of slavery (and suffering) on America’s national consciousness.

Overall, this collection is at its best in the first two sections. The Native American, Puritan, and early American selections are thorough and inclusive, with poems by Anne Bradstreet, Michael Wigglesworth, Jupiter Hammon, Edward Taylor, and Phillis Wheatley, among many others. Here, especially, is the emphasis on nature as outward reminder of divine presence. There are several traditional African-American Spirituals included, as well. The 19th century poetry is also wide-ranging in its assortment, including many hymns, Native American songs, and poems from excellent but lesser-known male and female poets of spirituality, in addition to more canonical authors (Bryant, Whitman, Longfellow, Very, Whittier, Dickinson). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these early sections is the emphasis on oral spiritual verse, from Native American songs and chants, to spirituals and hymns.

One puzzling aspect of these first two sections, though, is the addition of several prose pieces among the poems—from parts of Emerson’s letters and journals, to Puritan sermons, to (oddly) part of John Rolfe’s letter to Sir Thomas Dale “Seeking Approval to Marry Pocahontas.” Strong himself admits in the introduction that many of these early pieces “were not originally written as ‘poems’” but that they have the “language and intent that makes them spiritual poetry indeed.” If Strong is redefining any writing—even excerpts from Puritan sermons and letters—as ‘poems’, then a larger discussion of this “language and intent” of verse is needed. Ultimately, the reasoning behind adding these sermons and letters seems to be Strong’s desire to include texts important to American spiritual history. But as most of these pieces are commonly anthologized in other early American writing collections of both poetry and prose (such as the Norton or Heath Anthologies of American Literature), they could be easily omitted here.

The final section—including modern, mid-20th century, and contemporary poetry—constitutes half of the anthology and, in my opinion, is the most controversial in terms of editing choices. Strong includes modern and mid-20th century spiritual/religious verse from many influential poets, as well as an interesting section on short poems by anonymous Chinese immigrants. But the contemporary section is most problematic in terms of inclusion/exclusion. Strong does give work from some of the major spiritual/religious poets publishing today—Mark Jarman, Robert Cording, Scott Cairns, Eric Pankey—along with many interesting, newer writers with diverse spiritual interests, such as Bob Hicok, Kazim Ali, and Olena Kalytiak Davis. But this section is chiefly dominated by friends and family, as it were. Strong, a DU/Naropa grad, includes a vast array of mentors, friends, and grad students linked with these schools; almost the entire Autumn House Press family of poets is included, as well. Some of these poets (such as Samuel Hazo) are excellent choices for an anthology on the spiritual tradition in American verse. Most others, however, are not really contributors to the spiritual/religious poetry community—those overtly addressing this tradition—or are not publishing in key spiritual poetics journals, such as Image or Urthona.

Another problem is that the anthology’s contemporary selections are heavily skewed toward language/postmodern poetry. This omits many formal, narrative, and confessional poets (from both the mid-and late-20th century) that deserve inclusion—poets for whom spiritual and/or religious themes are both recurrent and key to their oeuvres: W.S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Louise Gluck, Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder, just to name a few. Oliver and Snyder are especially odd omissions, being two of the key American nature poets of the 20th century. And the almost total lack of neoformal poets is especially unfortunate, given that it is the expansive poetry crowd (including poets like Mark Jarman) who are more openly writing and publishing religious and spiritual verse today. Poets like Annie Finch and Gjertrude Schnackenburg would have made good counterparts to Anne Waldman and Brenda Hillman in this regard. If the goal of this anthology was to work toward historical inclusiveness, then more than just one school of mid-and late-20th century poetics could have (or ought to have) been represented.

Strong’s introduction clarifies that all of the contemporary poets here “made the preliminary selections of the more ‘spiritual’ among their work. These pieces represent, therefore, not this one editor’s conception of spiritual poetry, but the idea as created by some of our most important and vibrant poets.” He further writers that it is his hope “to introduce readers to as many authors as possible, all of whom deserve further attention.” While this goal is a noble one—for neglected Puritan writers as well as emerging contemporary American poets—perhaps less attention could be spent on these author- and publisher-linked poets, and more focus could be given to those writers, both well-known and new (Laci Shaw and Catherine Sasanov come to mind), who are more openly working in and defining/re-defining spiritual themes, and thus more clearly in a direct line to the concepts and authors Strong presents earlier in the anthology.

Of course it is easy to nit-pick someone else’s top-ten list. Few readers will agree with all of an editor’s choices. Joyful Noise overall is an engaging look at the poems and poets who have explored and celebrated all things spiritual in American poetry, especially from its origins through the modernists. Strong’s introduction begins by arguing that “All poetry is spiritual.” Does this then allow for any poet/poem to be included here, regardless of school, style, or theme? Perhaps. But in starting with canonical Puritan authors, and moving through well-known 19th century religious/spiritual verse, the anthology creates its own expectations, and so would benefit from following them through with more varied and apposite contemporary selections.
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Christy Rowe is a Humanities Lecturer at the University of Denver; areas of interest include poetry and poetics, science fiction and fantastic literature, and travel writing/theory. Her publications include poetry/fiction in McSweeney’s, The Denver Quarterly, and Salt Hill; and essays in The Journal of Imagism, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (forthcoming from Rutgers UP).

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