It is both difficult and necessary to counter the rationalist mode of speaking that dominates Christian theology, propelled mainly by Western traditions that prize reason and intellectualism as superior forms of knowing. Fortunately, poetic theology (or theopoetics), narrative theology, and aesthetic theology are thriving fields that include many voices—male and female—celebrating the affective, imagistic, and non-rational aspects of religious God-talk. But even apart from considerations of current trends within “formal” theological disciplines, women of faith have been writing poetry as an expression of their theological convictions for many years. In honor of #SeptWomenPoets, here are five female poets for whom faith, religion, and spirituality are central themes in their art.
1. Denise Levertov
“What is it?
Break out, frog,
Sing, you who don’t know
anything about anything.”
from “The Communion”
In much of her work, Denise Levertov creates intimate atmospheres in which the speaker stages a private conversation with the forces of spirituality themselves. Her collection The Stream & The Sapphire is most emblematic of her engagement with religious themes, and in poems like “The Communion,” scenes from nature unfold like religious rituals. But it’s also possible, interpretively speaking, that Levertov makes use of this sacrament to represent some instinct within the speaker’s own psyche, potentially representing knowledge, initiative, or the will towards union with nature, reality, and the self—all well-established motifs in Christian mystical writings.
2. Louise Erdrich
“I must become small and hide where he cannot reach.
I must become dull and heavy as an iron pot.”
from “Fooling God”
Louise Erdrich is known mainly for her novels, but she is known for her poetry as well. Her work grapples with questions of cultural identity, in particular her own Native-American heritage. Erdrich is known for representing that heritage within Anglo-American literary forms and traditions, and for exploring ways those legacies both conflict and/or creatively coexist. Faith themes are prominent throughout her work, and her second book of poems Baptism of Desire concerns spirituality as it is shaped by both Roman Catholicism and Native values, both of which Erdrich grew up practicing.
3. Aisha Sharif
“But here is faith, that security checkpoint
you thought you had already passed.”
from “To Muslims Who Do Not Say, Salaam”
Aisha Sharif is a Missouri poet investigating the complex interactions between belief and cultural identity. She is an African-American Muslim woman whose work explores “how racial, gender, and religious identities align, separate, and blend.” In her debut collection, To Keep From Undressing, faith, gender, and ethnic conscience seem to conflict, but her use of inner dialogue and second-person perspective successfully illustrates the ultimate wholeness of the (ostensibly) divided speaker’s being. Imperial over-culture looms in the background, and in many ways, these poems are small testaments to the hostile nature of both secularism and Islamophobia.
4. Autumn McClintock
“We could not separate ourselves
from these creatures as we did from one another.”
Like Levertov, nature, family, everyday household items, and the body are subjects of McClintock’s spiritual gaze. In many instances, the opening of her poems are prefaced by a scripture verse, only to be vacant of explicit religious themes altogether in the body of the poem. In “Home,” Genesis 11:4 frames a domestic scene that’s modern and recognizable.The effect is that the reader is forced to view ordinary, non-religious phenomena through a sacred lens.
5. Abigail Carroll
“We read that the Word
spoke forth creation, but
I’m not so sure creation
wasn’t sung into being…”
Abigail Carroll is a Christian poet who also serves as a pastor of arts and spiritual formation. Her work is deeply theo-poetic, engaging and expressing traditional Christian themes with vivid imagery and cutting phrases. Her poems also have a distinctly ecological character; her most recent poetry book, Habitation of Wonder, is “an offering of poems that travel the intersection of the natural landscape and the landscape of spirit.”