I have been saved more than once by a good poem. N0t because of its arresting metaphors or clever syntax. I enjoy imagery and love the music of words well used. The poems which have saved me are the ones that invited me to a whole new way of seeing the world. Our own senses give us a myopic view of reality. (Good) poetry transforms our perception.
Paraclete Press has introduced me to some great poems in the past several years. The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems brings together a selections from the poets Paraclete has published from 2005-2016. John Sweeney (Paraclete Press’s former Editor-in-Chief and Publisher) writes the forward and Mark Burrows (editor) writes an introduction which describes the power poetry has to educate our souls.
Book-ending this collection are, to my mind, the highest profile poets which Paraclete Press has published: Scott Cairns and Rainer Marie Rilke. There are five poems from Cairn’s Slow Pilgrim: Collected Poems (2015) and six of his new poems. Cairns is an Orthodox Christian and which imforms his theological and aesthetic sensibilities. Rilke’s selection comes from Prayers of a Young Poet—the collection of sixty-eight poems—translated by Burrows. Rilke wrote in the voice of an Orthodox monk, though his poetry is not characterized by the same confidence Cairns has. His poems ache and search for encounter with the living Thou. Burrows provides fresh translation of several other Rilke poems.
Between these two greats are other notable poets. There is the late Phyllis Tickle, the godmother of progressive evangelicalism. Her Hungry Spring & Ordinary Songs (2015) is another great emergence to those of us more familiar with here theological works. There are poems here from Paul Mariani, poems by Anna Kamienska (whose poem “On a Thresh Hold of a Poem” provides the introduction to this anthology), Fr. John-Julian, Said, Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, William Woolfit, Rami Shapiro, Thomas Lynch, and Paul Quenon. This is a solid collection. About half the poets are new to me. Those I knew, like Cairns, Rilke, and to a lesser extent, John-Julian, Said, and Rami I’ve read and re-read.
This are not just a collection of poems. Theses are religious poems (mostly Christian). They turn transcendence and muse about divinity. Many of these poems pray, some describe and exegete. Others of these moan, sing and contemplate. On the whole a solid and varied collection. Each poem tells truth slant and opens up new vantage points for experiencing God and the world. I give this anthology five stars and recommend this collection for anyone needing more poetry in their life (which is everyone).
Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.
I came to appreciate the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke while in seminary. I had read some of his poems before in literature classes and his Letters to a Young Poet had been on my permanent ‘to read’ pile for quite sometime, but during one semester at seminary I took my Sabbaths at the sister seminary on campus. The Vancouver School of Theology houses the Thomas Merton Reading Room in their library. I would go, find a quite corner and listen to cassette tapes of Merton’s lectures to novice monks. Sometimes he spoke about the Catholic faith or Cistercian vows. Most often he lectured on literature. I remember hearing a lecture he gave on Rilke where he read a single poem in a couple of English translations and then in the German so that his students could hear the sounds and get the sense of it. The German sang while Merton read it.
I do not know German so my enjoyment of Rilke is mediated to me through a translator. Mark Burrows does a deft job of bringing these poems to life in his publication ofPrayers of a Young Poet. Between September 20th and October 14th, 1899, Rilke composed sixty-eight poems utilizing the voice of an old Russian Orthodox monk. These poems would later be published as the first part of The Book of Hours; however these early poems are arranged chronologically here with Rilke’s prose narration. This makes the entire collection one cohesive work and Rilke gives interpretive clues to understanding some of these poems. Sometimes Rilke gives the setting and occasion for each poem and even the subject troubling the mind of the monk.
Burrows includes an introductory essay and an Afterword on reading and translating Rilke. These essays themselves are worth the price of the book, but the real treat is reading Burrows translations. This is the first time these poems have been translated into English in this format and there is a freshness to them.
These poems are prayer poems. Rilke’s prayers (or the prayer of the old monk of the poems) dovetails nicely with my own prayers in places. Rilke’s monk is full of spiritual longing, sees the transcendence of God and the interconnection of all things. At other points Rilke’s meanings are opaque and challenging. Poetry like this is not made for quick consumption but should be carefully chewed and digested. There is a lot here.
Rilke’s monk does not address God directly but calls him, most often, “You.” Here is  from this collection:
You, darkness from which I come,
I love you more than the flame
that bounds the world,
in a single ring
beyond which no creature knows of it.
But the darkness seizes everything,
floods and flames–
how it grasps them,
people and powers . . .
And it is possible that a great strength
stirs in my neighborhood:
I believe in nights.
This poem and others speak of God–transcendent and immanent. however Rilke also explores the themes of poetry and iconography, death and mortality, faith and love, doubts and questions and the solitary self. I love the words of these poems for the way they play in my ears. This is really a beautiful collection written by a young Rilke (before he wrote Letters to a Young Poet). I found Rilke’s old monk fascinating, occasionally irreverent (or perhaps just odd) but always interesting. I would not consult Rilke’s monk for spiritual guidance, except at one point: the poetic voice of these poems prays honest prayers and does not hide behind platitudes and pretense. These are simple and beautiful offerings.
I highly recommend this book to any fellow lover of poetry or appreciator of Rilke. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★
Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.