God’s Presence in Poetry

A Response to Christian Wiman

by Sabrina Barreto ’15 |

“‘The clear expression of mixed feelings,’ W. H. Auden once called poetry. It’s why poetry of some sort is so essential to any unified religious life. What could be more necessary for the muddle of modern religious experience and life?”

—CHRISTIAN WIMAN1

When I started out as poetry editor of the Santa Clara review and first sorted through the slough of submissions, I was struck by the amount of nihilistic entries that poured in. A tone of bleakness permeated much of what I read, and still read, paired with a fair dose of apocalyptic sentiments. Though my initial shock is long gone, I have not been desensitized in the process. Rather, my sensitivity remains reserved, but very much alive, which is why I was so affected by Christian Wiman’s self-critique of one of his poems: “God is nowhere present within it. That may be what makes it modern.”2 How heartbreaking. For, pessimism aside, my greatest joy as an editor is to receive those gems of poems that are transcendent. Transcendent in both the secular and religious sense, of surpassing the limits of human experience and perception, as well as time and space. Transcendent in the sense of a spiritual yearning, equally applicable to those who belong to a faith tradition as to the “unbelieving believer” whom Wiman discusses.

John Keats best described this openness to enigma as negative capability, when a thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Joseph Severn, “John Keats.” Used with permission. © National Portrait Gallery, London.


But why even link poetry with faith? For a few reasons. Because literature reflects life; because God gives and affirms life; and because faith is an intense experience and poetry is an intense medium that matches faith’s depth and intimacy. Just as faith cannot be wholly understood, neither can poetry. The terror and beauty of having faith and reading poetry, the very essence of each, is in embracing mystery. John Keats best described this openness to enigma as negative capability, when a thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties,

Poetry’s impact is not life- changing in a grand sense. But on a quiet, reflective, personal level, poetry offers emotional connections, fresh perspectives, and, ideally, an altered state of engagement. Poems serve as a call to observing the minutest details of life, of recognizing significance in smallness, of noticing the humanity within one another.

mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”3 What I find most refreshing about negative capability is Keats’ emphasis on a poet becoming a channel of expression. There is no place for ego when inspiration moves through, instead of originating from, a human being. The act of a poet serving as a channel allows his or her creation to take on timeless qualities, allowing the work to transcend, which dovetails with Wiman’s statement that “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God, but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”4

I believe that the best poems distill a moment or emotion, include compelling imagery, and ultimately revitalize the spirit through the challenge or provocation of what the poem presents. Meaning, the poet’s catharsis and personal experience can impact the humanity of the reader’s experience. Poetry’s impact is not life-changing in a grand sense. But on a quiet, reflective, personal level, poetry offers emotional connections, fresh perspectives, and, ideally, an altered state of engagement. Poems serve as a call to observing the minutest details of life, of recognizing significance in smallness, of noticing the humanity within one another. Poems can thus crystallize how, as Wiman noted, “an experience of reality can open up into an experience of God.”5 Such an experience, I find, would be called grace.

Here is where unbelieving believers enter. In desiring and seeking spiritual fulfillment, people who do not partake in a religious tradition still open themselves to grace. I would call it a subconscious, unrecognizable experience of grace. Even if God and faith are not named by the person experiencing grace, a supernatural involvement is not precluded. Moreover, someone’s ability to look and mentally move beyond the limitations of being earth-bound, to long for a higher plane of engagement and soulful sustenance, suggests a person’s cognizance of another dimension. Here is where poetry meets spirituality.

Students take in Christian Wiman’s Fall 2013 Bannan institute Lecture. Grace Ogihara

Wiman mentioned that “poetry came first; it led me to theology.”6 A similar parallel can be made between love for another person—a relative, a spouse, a child, a companion—and love for God, as Wiman experienced with his wife. Like humanity’s deepest emotions and mere inklings of God, a poem is not something that can be ironed out or decisively calculated. Poetry’s evocations and evasions fit particularly well with unbelieving believers because of the possibility of God’s presence. Just as poetry transcends the boundaries of human thought, so does spiritual longing transcend the concrete confines of human experience. The potency exists within the distance.

But even more, there is a secular grace in revering life, as found in poems and in a hunger for spirituality. It is a grace that exists in unbelieving believers and in poetry that transcends, with or without explicit mention of God. Because God is not absent. Because although human consciousness can confine, humans’ grasp can still exceed the corporeal.

I can’t think of a contemporary poem that captures my beliefs better than one written by William Rewak, S.J.:

The Maker7

I can’t sit here staring at a ceramic horse
all afternoon watching the sun move

from snout to rump and not think idly
that its maker must have adored his subject

so lovingly does it curve and swell, so
majestic its intent; how fondly has he

smoothed its neck and taught us tension,
how carefully the lesson expressed

that one must become something other
when one creates, something close

to an afternoon’s movement of the sun.

When I consider my own engagement with poetry, I find that I can neither write nor fully appreciate a poem without a touch of the transcendent. It needn’t be obvious—in fact, subtlety is all the more appreciated. But emotions and experiences would mean nothing without the movements, stirrings, or sublimation of the soul in the process. A physically grounded existence is so restrictive, and offers no fulfillment on its own. I would not want to live in a world in which God was not present, and in this world, I feel His presence in many ways.

In the face of a loved one. In the sensation of water. In honest expression. In color and music and that exquisite necessity called an embrace.

What amazes me most about witnessing the creativity of others is that the creative spirit is rooted in the impalpable. Who knows precisely whence the visions of artists originate? What I can say is that the origin is not strictly human. And thank God for that. 

Sabrina Barreto is a junior English major and creative writing minor at Santa Clara University, where she is the current poetry editor of the University’s literary magazine, the Santa Clara Review. She received the University’s Shipsey Poetry Prize in 2012, the Academy of American Poets Tamara Verga Prize in 2014, and two statewide Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prizes from U.C. Berkeley in 2013 and 2014. Her collaborations with German poetry magazine Das Gedicht can be viewed on the Santa Clara Review Poetry Blog at http://www.santaclarareview.com/poetry-blog.html.

 Endnotes


  1. Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture, 2013–2014 Bannan Institute: What Good
    Is God? series, October 17, 2013, Santa Clara University. A video of the full lecture is available online at: http://scu.edu/ic/ publications/videos.cfm
  2. Ibid.
  3. From John Keats’ letter to his brothers George and Tom Keats, December 1817. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/ essay/237836?page=2
  4. Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. William Rewak, S.J., “The Maker,” Santa Clara Review 100.2 (2013): 69. Reprinted with permission of author.
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