The Poet’s Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt, and Wonder

cover_quest_front_1024x1024Poetic and religious impulses have been sibling undertakings since prehistory, and most of the major religious texts are either partially or completely composed in verse. One need merely to consider the Bhagavad-Gita, the Edda, the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran, Hesiod’s Works and Days, and much devotional poetry in these and other traditions to get an idea of how intimately related poetry and religion are.

And as Ewan Fernie writes in his scholarly (yet accessible) introduction, such prominent figures from twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Žižek have variously taken up theological perspectives in their analyses of world events and theoretical concepts. Couple that with the rise of religious groups around the world and the fact that there are several hundred poems included in The Poet’s Quest for God, and there can be no doubt that the relationship between and importance of religious thought and poetic production are not merely a thing of ancient history.

The book itself is impressive in the range of work included—in terms of religious affiliation, gender, geography, race, poetic tradition, and more. We have work from atheists, agnostics, and the devout; work from the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; work from nearly every race, religion, and sexual orientation; work from poets at every stage in their careers; and, finally, work from several aesthetic and philosophical/theological traditions.

Take for example Alfred Corn’s formal sorcery in his sonnet, “Anthony in the Desert.” Corn retains the fourteen lines and iambic pentameter of the traditional sonnet, yet his rhymes consist of vowels and voiced/unvoiced consonants—e.g., cave/safe, face/days, is/kiss, and so forth). Or take Kazim Ali’s “Door Between You,” which is not metered and has no strict rhyme scheme, though it does make use of pure rhymes (e.g., night/light). We therefore find various approaches to formal poetic concerns in these two poems and many others. It is also worth noting that Corn is working within the Christian tradition while Ali works within the Muslim tradition, further adding to the diversity found in the anthology even as those traditions are bridged by the formal interests of the poets.

Shaindel Beers uses unmetered tercets, and her poem’s speaker refuses the injunction that one “could never love Christ too much,” rather preferring “the mountains, the rivers,” because “they open their hearts to us every day.” Nyla Matuk’s “Begging the Question” points out that theological questions often multiply but that “it’s amplification we’re after, after all.” Melissa Studdard’s “Om” playfully imagines God as a “trickster soul” who “sent us flowers without a card.” Studdard is obviously referencing the Hindu tradition, yet another example of the anthologists’ broad inclusiveness.

And the list of remarkable and remarkably diverse poems goes on, in terms of style as well as poetic and religious traditions.

It must be admitted, however, that with any anthology of this size there will be a fair number of weaker poems. That said, over half of the book is truly excellent—which is impressive given the sheer size and the limited time-frame covered. It is also worth noting that given the content of the anthology, even the less sophisticated work included might still prove of interest to many readers. Were these poems concerned with Nabokovian descriptions of mundane objects, they would need to reach impressive aesthetic heights to be of interest, but since many religious texts are less concerned with aesthetics than content, even the stylistically weaker poems have something to offer.

In a world where religion is too often claimed by intolerant fundamentalists and even, in extreme instances, by outright terrorists, it is heartening to see such a demographically diverse, spiritually open, and philosophically complex collection of poems concerning religion. In the final analysis, the poems’ range of styles and subjects alongside the introduction’s erudite-yet-accessible nature should make The Poet’s Quest for God appealing to both an academic and a generally educated audience. This anthology should therefore garner a large and varied readership, something it richly deserves.
Okla Elliott’s work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming).