Review: Christian Poetry in America Since 1940

Christian Poetry in America Since 1940, Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022.

Summary: An anthology of poetry written by a wide variety of poets who identify as Christian, born between 1940 and 1989.

When I first saw the title of this work, I felt myself cringe. Would this be the schlocky Hallmark poetry with a Christian veneer or something more substantial? I took the chance because Paraclete Press has come to represent intellectual and aesthetic quality in the publications I’ve received from them. I was not disappointed and in the process discovered a wide range of poets, many of whom have won distinguished literary awards or even served as Poet Laureates. The anthology includes poets born between 1940 and 1989, which excludes two of the more well-known poets we may think of–Luci Shaw and Wendell Berry.

What I found instead of saccharine-sweet pretty works were the honest probing of people who have thought deeply about both faith and life. For example Andrew Hudgins (from Ohio State, notes a fellow Buckeye) writes about “Praying Drunk” and stumbling through a rubric that will be familiar to some of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, if he is able to remain awake. Franz Wright opens his poem “Baptism” writing “That insane asshole is dead / I drowned him / and he’s not coming back. Look / he has a new name / a new life….” “Blessings” by Jay Parini writes not only of picking dandelion greens and small potatoes and cliff diving with friends, but also of lying naked with his love. A blessing indeed but adult stuff, where a Christ-informed vision meets the real stuff of human life. We have Christian Wiman’s “After The Diagnosis,” written after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis (although it appears that he is in remission as of this writing), reflects on how change comes into our lives.

The poetry comes in a variety of forms from sonnet to free verse to Shane McCrae’s “visceral, fractured lines.” Few are longer than a page. One of the shorter poems I liked was Marilyn Nelson’s “Incomplete Renunciation,” which asks for the American dream house, concluding “And let it pass / through the eye of a needle.” Dana Gioia’s “Seven Deadly Sins” speaks dismissively in the voice of Pride of the other six sins. Scott Cairns “Possible Answers to Prayer” considers how God may regard some of the things for which we pray and the places of the heart from which we pray.

Each poet is introduced with a one page or so literary biography considering both the character of their work and the awards and recognitions that work has received. The work includes acknowledgements of the sources of each work and an index of titles as well as an introductory essay by one of the editors, Micah Mattox.

This work demonstrated to me that, contrary to the voices decrying the banality of Christians in the arts, that there are accomplished writers doing good work. For those like myself who want to get more poetry in their lives, including poetry written through the eyes of faith, this book is a wonderful gateway that both stands on its own and introduces us to writers whose work we may want to explore more deeply.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.