Accessing the spiritual power of poetry


New York Times columnist David Brooks called Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer" the "best modern book on belief." It's high praise, and from one who was enraptured by the book, it is also well-deserved esteem. But Christian Wiman, a professor at Yale Divinity School, was a poet long before he tried his hand at prose. He believes that poetry has significant spiritual power in addition to aesthetic value. So I decided to sit down with him and discuss how people of faith can begin accessing the spiritual power of poetry even if, at first, they "just don't get it."

RNS: Many modern people struggle to find spiritual significance in poetry. To them, it is just another medium. What do you think the spiritual value of poetry is?

CW: We can only know God metaphorically. The Bible is quite clear about that, and the Bible is filled with metaphors. It makes sense then that you would turn to the place where metaphor is used most intensely and well: poems. Great poems, even when they are not about religious experience, are in a way, about religious experience. They give us some access to the other, to the spiritual life.

W.H. Auden famously said he didn’t think there was such a thing as an atheist poet. I have friends who disagree, but he thought the act of writing a poem was a religious act. Because you were allowing something so radically other into your imagination. And it could change you.

RNS: What do you say to people who say, “I just don’t get poetry”?