Christian truth and poetic expression are not strangers to each other, for to express our deepest thoughts we naturally use the most beautiful and powerful language of which we are capable. But devotional literature, however perceptive and inspiring, is not necessarily great poetry. The purpose of this anthology is to present, to Christian and non-Christian alike, poems which not only grow out of a genuine response to the Christian gospel, but which also deserve to take their place amongst the finest English poetry now being written.
In order to find the best new Christian poetry, the net had to be cast as wide as possible. Publicity was therefore sent to members of the Poetry Society, to all clergy in Britain, to churches and magazines throughout the land, requesting that ‘contemporary Christian poetry’ be submitted for consideration.
The trouble with casting the net wide, however, is that one hauls in an enormous number of fish. In the months following our invitation for submissions, eight and a half thousand poems were received, from amongst which I was required to make a selection for an anthology of some two hundred pages. The poems came from all over the world: from established poets and those who had never published before; from people of all ages and educational backgrounds, of all denominations and none; and the quality was, naturally, extremely varied. The most clearly unsuitable were returned fairly promptly; but from then on the task became more and more difficult, as many poems which deserved to be included were eliminated, simply because of lack of space.
Many people have wondered what criteria were employed for selecting the best of contemporary Christian poetry. Not surprisingly, the first, and most important, consideration was that it must be good poetry. What was being judged was not the quality of religious experience or insight, but the poem embodying that experience or insight. A number of poems moved me deeply at a personal level, several I would have no hesitation in recommending to someone seeking for Christ or struggling with darkness or doubt; but unless they had real merit as poems, they found no place in this anthology.
Other poems were rejected because they were not truly contemporary. By inviting people to submit contemporary Christian poetry we hoped to indicate that we were looking for poetry that grows out of its own age, either by aligning itself with twentieth-century developments of form or by contributing something fresh to the tradition of an historical style. We do not need pastiche, for poetry survives through the ages and we have, in the English language, a veritable treasury of wonderful poetry from former ages. This can and should be savoured and enjoyed, without being imitated.
Victorian hymnody, for example, has had a deep and lasting effect on the poetic expression of religious experience, for it was the diet on which many Christians were nurtured. No modern renderings of Victorian hymn-style, however, appear in this anthology, for we have a rich enough store of such hymns already. The most praiseworthy examples of this particular genre will survive because they have an integrity which springs from their reflecting the reality of their own age. We are no longer in that age (even in the Church!), and those who write poetry are required to be explorers, pushing at the boundaries of language, developing styles that will better express the human condition as we now understand it. Poetry, like religion, is not static, and we are part of the forward march of poetry, contributing in our small ways to a response to T.S. Eliot’s challenge that we should ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’.
But to look for truly contemporary poetry is not limiting. Established forms from the past are not automatically to be rejected, for if sonnet form, or rhyming couplets, or the ballad, are allowed to live and grow, they can still be vehicles for fresh poetic expression. So those who expect all contemporary poetry to be in the form of blank verse will have a few surprises in store as they discover the wide variety of forms represented in this anthology.
Having said that it was primarily the poetry that was being judged, the qualifying ‘Christian’ was also an essential element in the selection. The poems in this book express different facets of what it means to be a Christian living, loving and praying in the world now. Christians are not protected from life but thrown into it to love Christ in the real world. The everyday concerns of ordinary people therefore become the stuff of religious expression, and this poetry reflects the infinite variety of ways in which people come to know God.
One of the tasks facing the Christian artist is to help others to see that all of life is sacred, is filled with God; and this principle is reflected in my choice of poems. Doubt and despair, honest reactions to the world and to other people, revelations that come to us through the natural world or through art, are all part of our contemporary religious experience and find a place in this anthology, even when they are not expressed in ostensibly religious terms.
In these poems there are some striking new images which leap out of the page to open our eyes to the wonder and glory of God. Once one has seen the crucified Christ as a wound in the sky, not only does twentieth-century art begin to make more sense, but the message of the incarnate God suffering and dying for love of human beings can shake us more forcefully. To meditate on the experience of watching for a kingfisher, with all the patience, unpredictability, yet assurance that our waiting will be rewarded, will help us to persevere in the adventure of prayer. To see God in the leaves dancing in the gutter, or in the face of an enemy, or the lonely tattered scarecrow in the field, will sharpen our awareness of the divine presence and teach us to open our eyes to see the eternal God embedded within this world, overflowing with self-giving love.
Without the fresh insights of poetry we risk becoming entrenched in well-worn, but sometimes outworn, images. ‘Lamb of God’, we chant wearily, untouched by the spine-tingling thrill with which early Christian converts living within an ancient Middle Eastern culture would have responded to this metaphor. The idea of sacrificing an animal, cutting its throat on the altar and letting it bleed to death, is simply not part of our experience, religious or otherwise. Lambs, for us, represent either the cuddly woolly toys of the nursery – which leads us to sentimentality – or the rather stupid creatures out on the hills, mindlessly following each other into danger or standing in the middle of the road to gape at our approaching car. Neither of these associations has much to offer as intense spiritual experience and it is no longer possible for us to get inside the minds and experience of those early worshippers, for whom the image of the Lamb of God would have set up intensely powerful reverberations.
In selecting these poems I was aware that tastes differ and that, although any anthology is bound to reflect the taste of the editor, personal preference should not be the only guiding principle. Anthologists, as well as the general reading public, are capable of recognizing merit in works which are not necessarily their own favourites, and to achieve balance in a work of this nature it is important to exercise this faculty. The wide variety in this collection should ensure that everyone will find something to enjoy and treasure, though the other side of that coin is that no one is likely to appreciate every one of the poems.
Most traditional anthologies of Christian poetry begin with the assumption that there is such a thing as a Christian poet, from amongst whose poetry one can choose representative works which are most obviously religious. In this anthology all the poems were chosen from the enormous pool received, irrespective of authorship; though, not surprisingly, works by several well-known poets were found to merit inclusion. The collection therefore took shape around the poems themselves, rather than around the poets.
This is why the anthology has a form which relates neither to the chronology or importance of individual poets, but to the theme and subject matter of the works themselves. The section on ‘Times and Festivals’, for instance, moves steadily through the Christian year, and in ‘The Natural World’ the poems have been grouped in a coherent order.
These poems reflect the reality of living as Christians in the world as it now is. It is therefore natural that they should include beauty and humour, anger and pain, vitality, insight, love and awe. Some can be used as prayers, some are oblique, others are thought-provoking; but all are, in their various ways, celebrating life, both human and divine. They are therefore offered in wonder and praise of God, whose glory and goodness we see in all around us, and through whom we enter into the fullness of life and love.