Today, March 21st, is World Poetry Day, which is really just an excuse to offer a brief reflection on the Rilke and Eliot symposium held at St. Mary’s earlier this month. St. Mary’s hosted a number of scholars to discuss Rilke’s Duino Eligies and Eliot’s Four Quartets with intentionally theological and philosophical lenses. Alongside organizers Judith Wolfe and Thomas Pfau were Malcolm Guite, Kevin Hart, David Wellbery, and Rowan Williams, as well as St. Mary’s own Christoph Schwöbel and Gavin Hopps. The discussions from these scholars were enlightening and the spirit of the poets seemed to be conjured in every session. The event was as affective as it was enlightening.
A comment was made in an early session about theology’s bad habit of conscripting poetry into a theological way of thinking without substantive references to the text; a pithy quote from the likes of Virgil, Dante, or Hopkins can easily affirm an essential point, but rarely represents a real engagement with the poem or its author. What has reverberated in my mind since the event is learning to take seriously poets and poetry as distinct modes of theological and philosophical inquiry. Our horizons are broadened by reading poetic sources; poetry should be part of the multiplicity of methods that reveals truth, especially theological truth!
Considering poetry’s place of prominence in the theological tradition and in Scripture, it’s odd that poets rarely make an appearance on a syllabus. If poetry offers its own distinctively complex mode of inquiry into theological and philosophical ideas, then scholars (and aspiring scholars) should be intentional in bringing these sources into the larger theological conversations. Thus, allow me to offer a small reading list of books that exhibit what theology looks like when its steeped in poetry and literature:
Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love , by Rowan Williams
Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, by Malcolm Guite
Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being, by Anne M. Carpenter
Beginning with the Word, by Roger Lundin