“We prayed in Arabic everyday,” the poet Kaveh Akbar once wrote, “a language nobody in my family spoke.” His family spoke Farsi and English. Prayer, then, was a transformation: “From an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that.” Akbar writes elsewhere of how another poet, Kazim Ali, explained that the Arabic word ruh “means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ and this seems absolutely essential to my understanding of prayer—a way of directing, bridling the breath-spirit through a kind of focused music.”
Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. Peter O’Leary’s book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion.
The subject matter is in capable hands. O’Leary’s a poet himself, but he also knows how to curate rather than perform—he offers a healthy amount of sample lines to let the poets shine. He’s also comfortable with God talk. Few things sour many contemporary critics of poetry more than authentic and earnest religious devotion. The problem isn’t always illiteracy of religious texts—and a working knowledge of theology might be a bit much to ask. There’s something else at play: doubt that skilled poets could be religious. The historical evidence towers in the other direction—and yet. The skepticism of these critics reflects the feelings of a fair amount of readers, for whom “the expression of religious convictions…can read as a nuisance or a vestigial remnant of a poet’s childhood faith.”
O’Leary begins with a comparison. The contemporary religious poet is much like Moses in Exodus 20:21: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” According to O’Leary, the poet charged with religion approaches that “gloomy and ominous” darkness because “the divine is present, and there is the prospect of law, covenant, revelation, and genuine power.” Although his roster is narrow, O’Leary’s project is ambitious: “The work of these poets suggests that a secular art, even in a secular age, is insufficient for representing reality completely. There must be sacred art. For poets, this means there must be religious poetry written.”
They must: O’Leary’s poets are driven to write about God. He leads with Frank Samperi, a little-known poet whose collections were published in the 1970s. O’Leary acknowledges that Samperi is obscure, and the choice to begin with a relatively minor poet might frame such an inquiry in unfortunate terms: Perhaps religious poetry is provincial, if its examples are relatively unknown?
No matter. Samperi’s lines are ardent, earnest, fractured. O’Leary describes his poetry as “epiphanic—it frequently resolves in radiant insights—it struggles through melancholic moods, a sense of rote and dreary stations, ones to which the epiphanies stand in sometimes stark contrast.” A Catholic, his “poems utilize a Latinate and church-inflected language…as well as delineating a usually mystical” sense of doctrine.
O’Leary finds Samperi’s “principal innovation” to be his ability “to infuse the forms of modernist avant-garde poetry with the content and aspirations of medieval Christian theology.” From Lumen Gloriae (1973): “body in grass / elliptically formed / in turn inscribed / in square / in flame / flower / center / sustained / by / four / angels.” O’Leary is correct in describing Samperi’s mode as incantational; he’s not writing prayers so much as offering a new space for theology.
That new space is a strange one—and Robinson Jeffers is on the same wavelength. O’Leary’s decision to follow Samperi with Jeffers is a good one. “Lyrically striking if frequently obtuse” could describe both religious poets, but Jeffers was prolific, famous, controversial, iconic, and Protestant. The “purity and the intensity of his religious convictions—pessimistic and damning but visionary and atomic—can make his work simultaneously so compelling and off-putting.”
Widely read during his lifetime, Jeffers now seems more like a “solitary genius” found more likely “in the pocket of a backpacker in the Rockies than in the satchel of a graduate student.” The subjects of his long, visceral poems were raw—murder, incest, degradation—and O’Leary cautions against academic attempts to sanitize him. Jeffers was coarse. He didn’t particularly like people. He wrote in fear of a “secular, godless, witless republic.”
And he did so with the characteristic strangeness of earnest religious poets. “God is the least familiar thing about us but also the thing most native to us,” O’Leary writes, and Jeffers’s usage of strangeness is his defining poetic trait. In the unsettling poem “Hurt Hawks,” the narrator cares for a wounded bird for weeks. “I gave him freedom,” he writes, a bombastic proclamation that prefigures the morbid conclusion. The bird later returns, “asking for death,” and the narrator shoots him. The lines are particularly unsettling:
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river
cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
The pungent strangeness of Jeffers and the minor pyrotechnics of Samperi seem curiosities compared to the transcendent work of Fanny Howe. O’Leary’s chapter on the Catholic convert is the finest in the book: one of the best readings of an important poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose religion has affected her identity, worldview, and language. For O’Leary, Howe’s “expressions of her faith in the context of an experimental poetry lend her work an unmistakable aura of conviction and surprise and give to it a rare value in relation to much of the rest of recent American poetry.”
O’Leary’s precision here opens Howe for, hopefully, a new group of readers. She is a poet of misfortune, yet one whose work is “inspired throughout by transcendental love, which comes mysteriously and unconditionally from God.” She’s not a poet of lyrical ramparts like Samperi and Jeffers; her smooth lines “coalesce into aphoristic or even gnomic statements or questions.” In “Plutocracy,” the homeless narrator thinks, “When you eat alone you don’t exist / for anyone but the dish.” There’s a sense of truth in Howe’s despair—the religious poet does not blink in the face of suffering; she documents it, weeps for it.
“Catholicism is queer,” Howe says. “It is malleable and reaches extents of thought and culture that really can’t rest anywhere, in terms of nation or specific culture.” O’Leary demonstrates that Howe’s religious sense is marked by an electric, mystical theology, a veneration of the Eucharist, and a steadfast embrace of Catholic social justice. She is a poet of melancholy, a tradition inherited from the sad lines of Hopkins.
O’Leary directs the reader toward “Catholic,” Howe’s long poem-essay. The work is an apologia for poets of faith. In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, O’Leary offers readers a reminder of the complexity of earnest religious poetry. He also offers critics a guidebook on how to examine religious verse: with the respect they should afford earnest subjects. If a poet chooses to believe, let’s hear her song. If we listen to Howe, we might hear this: “Doubt allows God to live.”