Poetry and the spiritual life


“Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones.” Maria Dahvana Headley writes this line in the introduction to her stunning new translation of “Beowulf.” This sentence reminds me why I love poetry, why I love Scripture and why I have found that poetry reading and my spiritual life are inextricably intertwined.

Poetry makes me linger with the bones of language. Poems force me to find the place where words run out. Through line breaks and blank space, poems invite me into spaces of both statement and silence, finding meaning in the mingling of the two. I do not read a poem in order to “get it.” Rather, reading poems forces me to dwell in the tension between what can be said and what must remain unsaid.

Perhaps surprisingly, I do not think most poems work as worship supplements. I rarely find a poem that I can import as a sermon illustration. Some poets do write pieces that work liturgically (Sarah Are of Sanctified Art does lovely work in this vein; Mary Oliver can be quoted from social media to sermons and back again). However, many poems cannot be dropped into a worship service and left there, without conversation or repetition.

I find it more helpful to approach poems as spiritual practices, perhaps read alone, perhaps explored as a group. Poems reward repeated attention. Poems want you to return to them, to put them down and pick them up across days — or even years.

Here are a few ideas for incorporating poetry into your spiritual life:

Pick a poetry book that walks you through the liturgical year, such as delicious compilations by Sarah Arthur (“Between Midnight and Dawn”) or Malcolm Guite (“Word in the Wilderness”).

Select an anthology based around a theme. I have numerous ones about grief. However, Christian Wiman’s “Joy: 100 Poems” sings to me often from my shelf. Read “Meditation on a Grapefruit” and never taste that fruit the same again.

Subscribe to a magazine. Image Journal is doing intriguing work, with James K.A. Smith of Calvin College now at the helm. Smaller online-only magazines like EcoTheo Collective, Emergence Magazine and Moist Poetry Journal often offer up poems of attention that give me delight.

Find a poet to become your companion for a season, one you will let lead you into new, potentially uncomfortable places. Lucille Clifton is a heart-scaldingly intimate companion. Ross Gay is an incisively effusive one. Emily Dickinson is often studied, but still will challenge with darkness and light in just a few short lines. If you want someone to lead you into non-Christian spaces of religious devotion and ask tough questions there, I recommend works by Joy Ladin (“Psalms”), Leila Chatti (“Deluge”) or poet laureate Joy Harjo (“An American Sunrise”).

For years I have followed the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, so I recommend anything he does, particularly his “Poetry Unbound” podcast. Each episode hews closely to the practice of poetry as spiritual reflection.

And if you just don’t know where to start, I am excited that a podcast now exists for poetry beginners: “Poetry for All,” hosted with low-key enthusiasm by Joanne Diaz and Abram Van Engen, unpacks a single poem in 20 minutes. These two professors bring a teacher’s delight to the craft, wanting to make a podcast “for those who already love poetry and for those who know very little about it.”

Our Reformed religious heritage invites us into a deep and broad attention to language, steeping us in words of proclamation and mystery. Whether we read poems often or are just beginning, I hope that poetry might invite us to wonder in new ways about the Word With Us. In the bones of our language, may we discover new life.