American Devotions
presented as a craft lecture of the 2011 Sewanee Writers’ Conference

Devotional poetry, I’m sure we would all agree, belongs to the first half of the seventeenth century, at least in the English tradition, and reached whatever excellence it achieved in the sacred poems of John Donne and George Herbert. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and George Herbert’s poems from The Temple took religious matters having to do solely with Christian belief as a public but primarily a personal concern. The personal emphasis in both poets is crucial. Devotional worship, though it may be corporate or communal in practice, also has the connotation of being a private approach to God by one who is devout. In the devotional poem this approach occurs as a direct or indirect address. John Donne addresses God directly in the seventeenth of his Holy Sonnets, when he considers the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth, and strives to put her loss in the context of orthodox belief.

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and though my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My Love to Saints and Angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put thee out.

I think we can recognize the grief-stricken anxiety of the poem, even as we may be uncomfortable with the paradoxical resolution. Donne acknowledges God’s jealous insistence that the love he offers to the bereft poet should be sufficient, and admits that this jealousy is “tender” and based on a divine doubt that the grieving widower can resist temptation. Still, the last six lines are inflected with a question (“But why should I?”) which subtly suggests a lack of acceptance on the part of the poet. Herbert can also sound like one of our contemporaries (and that is partly my point here), by the indirection of his address. In the following poem, a sonnet like Donne’s, we are never sure whether Herbert is addressing prayer itself, though we can be sure that there is no final independent clause to resolve the argument.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
    God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
    The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
    Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
    Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
    Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
    The land of spices; something understood.

Donne’s poem sets a model of urgency for the contemporary devotional poem, but Herbert’s is a model of ambiguity and indirection. Yet there is no doubt that these are the kinds of poems we associate with devotional poetry. Donne’s and Herbert’s gifts as poets and intellects made the form of the devotion one of the arts of poetry. Though the devotion may be practiced by anyone of faith, the genius of the art in these poems, raises that practice to a level not accessible to all. It may be for this reason that Samuel Johnson cast doubt on the writing of poems as prayers, since he believed rightly that the inventiveness of poetry undermines the sincerity of prayer, for prayer at its most personal and private may be inarticulate. T.S. Eliot put his oar in with his 1935 essay “Religion in Literature” by arguing that, at least from the modern point of view, devotional poetry as a form was destined for minor status. He actually assigns that rank to George Herbert in the same essay. Eliot might have dismissed John Donne as well if Donne had written only his religious poetry. Still, Eliot argues that the range of human interest in the devotional poem is narrow, and we know that Donne’s range, in that regard, was greater than Herbert’s. But wherever you come down on this argument—which I know may seem historically esoteric—still for the devotional poem in English, the benchmark has been set by these two poets. And after them, there is little we can point to for the next three centuries except Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and the great eighteenth century hymns. Blake’s poems are more like catechisms or Sunday school lessons than personal devotions. And the hymns are meant for group singing, corporate worship, and not as personal expression or for private meditation.

But there was also in the late nineteenth century the extraordinary poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, devotional in the sense I want to argue, but known in its time mainly to Robert Bridges, himself a poet and a writer, among other things, of Anglican hymns. Still, if we have any interest in devotional poetry, it is Hopkins we probably associate with the genre, along with Herbert and Donne. I wanted to find an example of his poetry which, like theirs, would give a sense of what a contemporary devotional poem might sound like. Here is a lesser known poem by Hopkins, in which it is not clear whether he is directly addressing himself or his soul and therefore indirectly addressing God.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

As in the poems by Donne and Herbert, we get a strong sense of the interior conversation or monologue, and this interiority is certainly an important feature of the poems I will be talking about.

I am also going to be talking about the address or apostrophe as an aspect of the devotional poem at any time, even when ambiguous. Nevertheless, that the devotional poem is associated with another time or that it is, in its limitations, necessarily minor doesn’t seem to matter to those who have written devotional poetry, or what I am calling devotional poetry, in the last forty years. And I think that is because the possibilities of its subject have extended beyond conventional religious faith and, in American poetry anyway, discovered in the best modern sense a tradition different from that of Donne’s and Herbert’s. And that new form of devotional poetry is what I am talking about today.

But I have to begin with the most recent revival of the devotional poem as a practice of Christian worship. When John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” appeared in his book Love & Fame in 1970, it was an effort not only to write a devotional poem but to reawaken the form and make it new. Robert Lowell called Berryman’s poem “one of the great poems of the age, a puzzle and a triumph to anyone who wants to write a personal devotional poem.” He also noted the poem’s “cunning skepticism.” I think the skepticism which Lowell noted in his friend’s poem is an essential element of any effective religious poem, at any time, but in our time it has to be foremost and not simply present in that necessary element of any metaphor—irony. “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” is replete with frank statements of skepticism. The last two quatrains of the first address are a good example:

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith.

Berryman’s skepticism is offered, retracted, then offered again with qualifications, but without it the poem would be merely pious and not personal at all, and certainly not a poem that anyone would care to read. It would most likely be, as Eliot noted in the aforementioned essay, “propaganda.”

Though it is impossible not to consider the religious import of Berryman’s poem and its significance as he attempts to return to the Roman Catholicism of his youth, that “bright candle” of faith blown out by his father’s suicide when he was twelve, I want to think about the poem in another way, especially as a kind of contemporary poem of address that, with some others I am going to consider, may serve as a way to write effective devotional poetry outside the boundaries of religious orthodoxy, in fact, outside the boundaries of religion altogether, a secular devotional poetry. Or let’s say a quasi-secular devotional poetry. I will admit here, too, that the very term devotional suggests some devout attitude toward an object, like God, worthy of reverence and requiring a mode of address which recognizes the object’s transcendent power and ultimate meaning.

That Berryman’s poem is, to quote Lowell again, an example of a personal devotional poem suggests that there is a kind of devotional poem which is not personal. Yet when I look back at the two great English examples of the devotional poem, those of George Herbert and John Donne, they seem personal enough, especially Donne’s Holy Sonnets with their urgent sense of apology and justification. Herbert and Donne are also working out in their poems orthodox theological arguments, adapting their own desires and anxieties to them. By personal I think Lowell means, and Berryman would agree, that though the poems address God, the God they imagine addressing is not one wholly defined by religious dogma. Berryman addresses a God of Rescue, as he calls him in a later poem:

You have come to my rescue again & again
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves
and I am still here, severely damaged but functioning.

This passage alone should make us acknowledge a sense of the personal, and that person is not as anxious as Herbert and Donne, or even Hopkins, to justify himself within some received form. The twisted, even devious syntax Berryman had perfected by the time he wrote the “Addresses” allows him in the second one to set himself apart from his fellow Christians and assert a personal belief:

I say ‘Thy kingdom come,’ it means nothing to me.
Hast Thou prepared astonishments for man?
One sudden Coming? Many so believe.
So not, without knowing anything, do I.

In fact, Berryman’s address is universalist in its acknowledgment of God’s ubiquity and multiplicity. Addressing God as “Caretaker . . . Who haunt the avenues of Angkor Wat / recalling all that prayer, that glory dispersed,” he asks God to “haunt me at the corner of Fifth and Hennepin,” then adds three more epithets: “Shield & fresh fountain! Manifester! Even mine.” The epithet or metaphorical name is the principal figure of speech in Berryman’s poem. As soon as he brings God into the contemporary moment, he draws names again from the lexicon of the Bible. Still, he wants to see God in a way that is both fresh, yet part of a literary tradition:

I fell back in love with you, Father, for two reasons:
You were good to me, & a delicious author,
rational & passionate.

Then he adds, “Father Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ.” That great unorthodox writer of sacred verses William Blake would have agreed and our poet himself declares, “Let me lie down exhausted, content with that.”

Why did Lowell also regard the poem as a puzzle? That is more difficult to determine. Berryman in the book in which it appeared, Love & Fame, departed from his famous “Dream Song” persona Henry, yet insisted that the poems of the book’s title section, detailing his love life and literary celebrity, were not autobiographical. Did he mean that disclaimer to apply to “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” as well? That is puzzling. The “Addresses” follow a series of boasting and gossipy revelations. But there are times when the boasting can still be heard, especially in the poet’s claims of wretchedness and amazing grace:

 . . . Confusions & afflictions
followed my days. Wives left me.
Bankrupt I closed my doors. You pierced the roof
twice & again. Finally you opened my eyes . . . 

 . . . 
Now, brooding thro’ a history of the early Church,
I identify with everybody, even the heresiarchs.

And at times the poem reads like the poet’s own twelve-step program (minus one). But Lowell saw it, and I am trying to see it, as a model for anyone wanting to write a personal devotional poem. How can a puzzle be a model? And finally we know the poem did not rescue John Berryman from suicide, nor did the God of Rescue which it addresses.

Twice Berryman refers to widows in the “Addresses,” once to his own: “Strengthen my widow.” In the final section the poet imagines his end, contrasting it to the ends of early Christian martyrs, and speaks with some degree of modesty, while reminding us not for the first time of his career as a distinguished academic:

Make too me acceptable at the end of time
in my degree, which then Thou wilt award.
Cancer, senility, mania,
I pray I may be ready with my witness.

“Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” like all devotional poems, is a poem of reverence, but if it is to succeed it has to persuade us that the object of reverence has a living substance, even if that substance is of the imagination alone. I hope it goes without saying that we also have to be persuaded that the object is worthy of reverence. The God Berryman addresses is a personal God, and that deity’s interest and care for individual human lives is assumed by faith, the substance of things unseen, and has been assumed for at least 4000 years. That is, Berryman didn’t just make this God up for the sake of his poem, though some of the theological dimensions seem fairly original with the poet.

Though Berryman’s God is the “craftsman of the snowflake,” and “sole watchman of the flying stars,” still his God is addressed and imagined in fairly abstract terms. “A Prayer for the Self” ends “Lift up / sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.” And in section 9, the poet quotes “an old theologian” who has stated that “even to say You exist is misleading.” Finally the poet asks this incomprehensible God to “Bear in mind me.” In contrast, the deity Maurice Manning’s Bucolics addresses is entirely concrete and in every way the God personified in nature, present in a poem like Keats’s “To Autumn” and identified by James Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover as the God B—Biology. The strength of Manning’s series, which he published in 2007, is that as ever-present, as immanent as the God Manning addresses as “Boss” may be, there is a sense of uncertainty that Boss cares about the poet in a personal way. Much can be assumed about Boss’s oversight and involvement in creation, except that. Insofar as the speaker fits in with natural cycles, then he enjoys the fruits of Providence. The title of the series Bucolics takes us back to the Classical pre-Christian world, that world that Wordsworth expresses nostalgia for in his famous sonnet, “The World Is Too Much with Us.”

Manning’s Boss is associated entirely with rural and agrarian matters, and the speaker in the poems sounds at times like an industrious and curious farmer. I am going to assume the speaker is the poet, and not a persona like Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer. He may simply be someone who lives in the country. An urban dweller might define “Boss” in another way entirely.

boss of the grassy green
boss of the silver puddle
how happy is my lot
to tend the green to catch
the water when it rains
to do the doing Boss

Though the title Bucolics recalls Virgil, the speaker often sounds like the Psalmist David. Yet unlike the Psalmist, the poet seems to have an ongoing beef with his relationship to Boss:

it doesn’t matter how
I feel about it what I want
from you is nothing Boss compared
to what you want from me you want
it all to always go your way

And reminding us that this relationship is like that of a hired man to his boss, he admits, “I guess you’ve got a lot / of hands though I’m just one / of many Boss”. And though he can imagine Boss is the blackbird laughing at him from a tree as he reaches to pick a pawpaw or the tree frog on the trunk looking at him upside down, he also claims to imagine an anthropomorphic figure: “I believe you’re baby faced / Boss a face as smooth as an onion,” which nicely implies that like an onion Boss’s identity is layered and may have nothing at heart. At times the poems can sound petulant, childish, and deliberately simple-minded, but never for long.

that bare branch that branch made black
by the rain the silver raindrop
hanging from the black branch
Boss I like that black branch
I like that shiny raindrop Boss
tell me if I’m wrong but it makes
me think you’re looking right
at me now isn’t it a lark for me
to think you look that way
upside down like a tree frog
Boss I’m not surprised at all
I wouldn’t doubt it for
a minute you’re always up
to something I’ll say one thing
even when you’re hanging Boss

The turn from the accidental to the intentional occurs so often that it appears to be the argument or aim of each of the seventy-eight poems in Bucolics. And yet, though Boss seems to be regarding him from every facet of the natural world, he won’t speak to the poet or give him a sign he doesn’t have to guess at: “you know I never know for sure / I only know you bother me / from time to time you’ve caught my breath”. When it comes to language, he admits, “your other favorite word / is not a word at all / you get so hushed up Boss / my ears get lonely I wish / you’d let me hear from you”. This is a complaint of all believers. And like all of the poems, the range of the complaint runs from the simplest request to the most sophisticated. The second to last poem begins:

am I your helper Boss or am
I not do I bring in the hay
for me or you or only for
the horse

But the last poem ends: “O tell me why I can’t hold back / this bitter thought are you the bee / or just the stinging story Boss”. And there we are with the modern dilemma of religious belief. It may be beautiful and profound that we cannot tell the dancer from the dance. But if we cannot tell the creator from the creation, then the creator’s role is compromised, if not irrelevant. We cannot write the personal devotional poem except to a God we have to imagine into existence.

Theologically, however, Bucolics has more in common with “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” than either has to the next poem. But as a reverential address, Jean Valentine’s “Lucy” is as much a devotional poem as Manning’s or Berryman’s. Valentine’s poem, a sequence from her 2010 book Break the Glass, is addressed to the fossil skeleton, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, of a “southern ape of Afar” or “Australopithecus afarensis,” a female believed at the time to be the oldest hominid ancestor of the human family. An epigraph to the sequence reminds us that in Ethiopia people refer to her with a term that means “You are beautiful”—“Dinekenesh.” There are elements in the poem which suggest ancestor worship, and the poet clearly invites this reading. But as a devotional poem “Lucy” brings much more to bear than that simple response. For the poet Lucy is not only a prime example of the feminine, but possibly of the poet. Jean Valentine’s passionate address to this remarkable collection of fossilized human bones offers all sorts of interesting ways in to the poem and to the sense of the personal devotion.

After the historical note about Lucy’s identity (her name was given her by her discoverers who determined that despite her small brain she must have walked upright and must have been female), Valentine provides an introductory poem or dedication or address:

your secret book
that you leaned over and wrote just in the dirt—
Not having to have an ending
Not having to last

It becomes clear that for the poet Lucy is not only an ancestral mother, but also possibly some kind of writer herself—one without any obligation to art and posterity but the making of art; she may be the embodiment of poetry itself. The power with which Lucy is endowed by Valentine’s imagination has been passed on or passed back to the poet. The dedicatory poem is followed by a quotation from Psalm 139, verse 16: “in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.” This emphasizes Lucy’s role as forebear, until we dwell on the notion that the worshiper’s members “were written.” But because the Psalm 139 is addressed to the Lord, as an epigraph the passage reminds us of Lucy’s relationship to the poet. She is to the poet Jean Valentine what the Lord is to the Psalmist. It is partly this relationship which makes “Lucy” a devotional poem as I am defining it.

As such Lucy takes on several roles of veneration. She is a blessed mother:

I rush outdoors into the air you are
and you rush out to receive me
At last there you are
who I always knew was there
but almost died not
when my scraped-out child died Lucy
you hold her, all the time

She is also a classical psychopomp, a guide of souls to the realm of the dead:

Lucy, when Jane in her last clothes
goes across   with Chekhov
you are the ferryman

Lucy is like the angel in Jacob’s wrestling match:

Still all night long my
Lucy I entreat you
I will not let thee go except thou bless me.

And finally she is that blending of act and intention which is possible only in the presence of the muse:

How did you pray, Lucy?
You were prayer.
Your hands and toes.
When writing came back to me
I prayed with lipstick
on the windshield
as I drove.
Newton made up with the world,
he had already turned himself
into gold, he was already there.

Skeleton Woman,
in   down
over   around

I would like to say that Lucy is the poet’s muse, finally, but I think she represents something more, or perhaps it is simply another way of thinking of the muse. Lucy is the poet’s connection with the very creation out of which she makes poetry:

my saxifrage that splits the rocks
you fill my center-hole
with bliss
No one is so tender in her scream
Wants me so much

Not just, but brings me to be    Is
when I am close to death
and close to life.

Lucy is the rock-breaking flower of the William Carlos Williams poem to which Valentine alludes in this passage but she is also, as a fossil relic, the rock itself. For this flower, Valentine has stated clearly, “I gave all I had to the poor . . .” On this rock, she has built her poem.

The Lord God, Boss, Lucy—they are real presences, living substances, for which these poets have written poems of devotion. And yet this is surely not the whole story, for if the devotional form is going to endure, as I believe it has endured, then it must address the absence, the non-being which for over a century now poetry has recognized it must fill. Even Berryman’s Christian God is a novel imagining of God, as are Manning’s Boss and Valentine’s Lucy. They are living substances of the imagination which the poet insists or hopes will respond. But the problem for devotional poetry is to make absence, the fact of non-existence, worthy of address, of the reverence which these poets have shown to their revered objects. I can refer to any number of great modern poems which acknowledge the ultimate power of non-being. But I want to speak now of devotional poems which treat it as if it, too, were a living substance.

The long poem, “Letters for the Dead,” at the heart of Philip Levine’s 1933, which he published in 1973, is a sequence in ten parts which purports to be what the title implies: written news posted to those departed, in particular to the poet’s father whose death in 1933 when the poet was five gives the book’s title its significance. The fourth stanza of the first part speaks of trying “to say / something to each of you / of what it is / without you.” So the particularity of the father’s death becomes generalized and multiplied. What follows is a world so replete with absences, so completely divorced from any sense of a transcendent being, any divinity to address, even a deceased parent, that it may seem paradoxical to call the poem devotional. But scene after scene, life after life, as they are depicted, work iconically, as if each could be held up to the absent God to demonstrate “what it is / without you.” Levine is famous for turning negations into affirmations, and that characteristic of his poetic style is no less present here. Since you are absent, the poem implies:

your briefcase
bulged with rusting tools

your shoes aged
the toes curling upward
in a spasm

your voice, your high voice
of pear and honey
shuddered once along the bare walls

but someone ate the pear
someone ate the honey
—we still ate at the usual hours

and went off to the factories in the dark
with bloodless sandwiches
folded in wax paper
with tiny packages of sweets

no one felt your sleep
or heard the sudden intakes of fear

no one held your hands
to keep them still
or your face glowing like a clock's

In the poem things spill their tears as they age, but the remembered voice has been consumed by death and the living go on surviving in a familiar Levine landscape of exhausting factory work. There is also the alternative to this landscape, typical of Levine as well, that of Spain with its pastoral life set against an even more tragic history than Detroit’s. Yet even in Spain, the absence which Levine addresses, which informs his devotions, takes shape as a series of negations:

The sea calmed
the village darkened toward dawn
I was there

awake in a strange room
my children
breathing slowly in the warm air

down the hall
the workers bunched together
three to a bed grunting
in sleep

beside me my wife
in still another world

on the roof
not a single light
the sea reflecting
one black wave untipped
with spray
slipping toward shore
to spread like oil
—and then no more

. . .

nothing moved
no wind
no voice
no sound of anything
not one drop riding down my face
to scald the earth

In a devotional poem, including those I have talked about so far, the poet is anxious to know his or her proper relationship to the one addressed, that lord and power, and to know what that lord and power might expect or require. It is as if the Lord or Boss or Lucy had set a series of spiritual tasks which the poet had to figure out and perform, one of which of course is to write the poem. This is not apparently the case with Levine. The task he has set himself is to say “what it is / without you.” I will interpret that to mean how we live life without you, write poetry, love our families, anticipate death without you—that you being not only the poet’s father but God. The poem tells what these aspects of living are like. They can be exalted in their commonplace pleasure, nightmarish both awake and asleep, and mysterious in their consolations:

I ate an apple
the skin the sour white meat
the core
how I relished
the juice

Praise the apple

I struck my strange tall son
again and again
until my wife came begging
from our bed
and pulled me away

for 40 days
I dreamed my death like yours
at great speed
the bones shattering into meat
blood blurring the world
the spirit issuing outward
in a last breath

and came to land
weak and alive
the sunlight crossed my bed
I rose and fed the cat
the green worms fattened
on the vine
I looked in the corners
of things

Ultimately the dead are informed that their power dissipates as they are forgotten:

your books on the shelf
give up their words
one by one

your wedding band
with its secret calligraphy of wear
sleeps in a coffee can

. . .

warm days—
the child you never saw
weeds the rhubarb
white grains collect above his lips
and flake away in the sudden wind

Neither Berryman’s Lord, nor Manning’s Boss, nor Valentine’s Lucy is as circumscribed by time as Levine’s dead are, because none of them need to be remembered. Even Valentine’s Lucy, as part of the fossil record, exists apart from time. But the non-being of the dead has its paradoxical existence only as long as the living, who remember them, survive. It is this information, useless really, which the letters of the poem convey. And so at the end of his poem Levine steps away from the mode of address, which keeps the poem personal in its anti-devotion, and steps back into the detached third person, stating in the last line: “even the dead are growing old.”

Levine’s devotional poem is in a sense an anti-devotion, bleak and bitter for the most part, and only indirectly acknowledges the power which precludes transcendence. That power is time. Berryman’s God—his redeemer Christ—is unbounded by time and transcends it, which allows for him to be present in the poet’s life and to come to his rescue, albeit mysteriously. Levine believes in no such God. And yet, “Letters for the Dead,” as it shares the news of “what it is / without you,” implies that the one enduring presence in the world of absences is time. Time circumscribes existence. There is no way beyond it. The tone of anger running through Levine’s poem I believe has to do with the recognition of this fact. And though I risk inferring too much psychologically about the origin of Levine’s poem, such an anger has to do with a loss of some former faith, like the loss of Levine’s father. Berryman too speaks of the loss of his faith at his father’s suicide. But “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” has to do with his recovery of faith, now with a more adult dimension.

Devotional poetry, then, not only expresses faith in something, whether it is God or Time, but gives us a sense that the poet is attempting to reconcile him or herself to the—I want to say power of that thing but I can see all kinds of ways I might be misinterpreted. Instead, I am going to say the poet is attempting to reconcile him or herself to the necessary reality of that thing by establishing a personal, even private relationship with it. This is better demonstrated with examples, of course, which in poetry never entirely conform to an abstract definition. The poet who has created over many years a devotional style in the vein I am trying to describe and who also recognizes that time is lord of the universe and of our lives is Charles Wright. His most recent book, Sestets, offers us a form—a six line poem based implicitly on the part of the sonnet after the turn—that reflects the circumscription of time. After the octave or first eight lines of the sonnet, when the sestet begins we can feel the end coming. His attitude toward this inevitability, unlike Levine’s, is as he says in the poem “Future Tense,” “bittersweet.”

All things in the end are bittersweet—
An empty gaze, a little way station just beyond silence.

If you can’t delight in the everyday,
                                                       you have no future here.
And if you can, no future either.

And time, black dog, will sniff you out,
                                                           and lick your lean cheeks,
And lie down beside you—warm, real close—and will not move.

This is not to say that Wright eschews any sense that time might be transcended and a connection with a transcendent reality achieved. His poetry has become capacious enough to allow for the feeling if not the fact to be embodied. The titles of these sestets often read like first lines. “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:

The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                                  into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
                                                                  some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                        the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
           On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer

The very first poem in Sestets lets us know where we are going in an existence determined by and circumscribed by time. “Tomorrow”:

The metaphysics of the quotidian was what he was after:
A little dew on the sunrise grass,
A drop of blood in the evening trees,
                                                          a drop of fire.

If you don’t shine you are darkness.
The future is merciless,
                                   everyone’s name is inscribed
On the flyfleaf of the Book of Snow.

In describing the poems by Berryman, Manning, Valentine, and even Levine, I have said that an element of their devotional nature is that they address objects worthy of devotion. It is clear that many of Wright’s Sestets are a kind of talking to himself, like most modern lyric poems. But “Tomorrow” also suggests in the turn from third person to second person that he is speaking to the reader and that implies another sort of faith—faith that a reader exists. Here is the greatest expression I know of that faith, the last section of “Song of Myself”:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Of course, we all know that Walt is celebrating himself, that container of multitudes who finds it as lucky to die as to be alive. But if devotional poems as part of their nature have to express faith in something, faith is after all the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. In this case, you and me. Whitman’s faith, in this greatest of American devotional poems, is that there will be a reader who will find him. I think he shares this faith with all poets, even those who profess to have no faith at all.

I have made many assumptions in trying to extend the definition of devotional poetry beyond a religious tradition. These assumptions, however, are based obviously on my own Christianity and the way it has informed my thinking. But I have also been guided for years by a late poem by Emily Dickinson:


Those—dying then,
Knew where they went—
They went to God’s Right Hand—
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found—

The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small—
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all—

That will-o’-the wisp or foolish fire, the ignis fatuus, is a powerful guide, as Emily Dickinson modestly suggests, since it must make for a larger behavior than not believing at all. The devotional poem, in any form, is the opposite of an abdication of belief. It is an affirmation.

It may appear that, in this lecture on craft, since I have emphasized the thematic dimension of craft, I have used the term form loosely, especially since the poems I have referred to vary in their formal construction, though even Berryman’s depart from the recognizable English verse tradition, which underlies much of what we call formal poetry today. So let me quote a higher authority:

By formal we are not to mean the metre only; but also, and it is probably even more important, the literary type, with its fictitious point of view from which the poet approaches his object, and its prescription of style and tone. And by tradition we should mean simply the source from which the form most easily comes. Tradition is the handing down of a thing by society, and the thing handed down is just a formula, a form.

That is John Crowe Ransom in The World’s Body, in 1938, in his essay, “Forms and Citizens.” The reason I have ended with Whitman and Dickinson, however, has to do with Ransom’s first sense of what tradition is, “the source from which the form most easily comes.” Whether intentionally or not, the poets I have talked about here have discovered a tradition or source for their devotional poetry which is different from George Herbert’s and John Donne’s and all who attempt to address the God of Christianity in verse. I am aware that this tradition is alive in English poetry, at least in the work of Geoffrey Hill. But I would argue that even John Berryman among the five poets I have talked about finds his source in Whitman and Dickinson. The tradition of the American devotional poem—radical in imagination and heterodox in belief—begins with them.  end