by Alyda Faber
Alyda Faber’s poem-piece “Court, Four Witnesses” appears in the latest issue of CrossCurrents (71.4). We asked Dr Faber to reflect a little on the act of writing poetry, and how this relates to the practice of theology. We are happy to publish her reflections here in The Commons as an accompaniment to her CrossCurrents piece.
I consider my poetry writing to be a mode of writing theology. This means, broadly speaking, that I’m more interested in right brain (gestalt) than left brain approaches to theological writing.
And yet this preference for holistic rather than structural approaches has come to me by way of failure—the inability, after numerous attempts, to compose an academic book in the dominant logical and conceptual mode of contemporary theological discourse. I gave up trying to write like that, letting go the reins in a way that allowed my theological voice to fall into a more intuitive poetic register.
With poetry, theology becomes patient with confusion, and divergent and disordered ideas and images are given room to flower rather than being pulled as weeds. With poetry, some sensed order may be a long time coming.
Writing theology as poetry may incite some viscerally unwelcome effects in the reader, however. Whereas with a theological argument delineated step by step, the reader can usually be confident that they have mastered the argument; theology as poetry may leave the reader bewildered. The expectation of a clear “take away” has been frustrated. The reader might be left with a mood, a feeling, images that linger, or ideas that have been sparked, but nothing that can be grasped.
While the sensation may be aversive or exciting (or both), poetry brings the reader closer to what theologians begin with, what moves them to create, whether in a logical argument or some art form: an often wordless prayer and praise in response to an elusive God. The difference with poetry as theology is that it aspires to evoke such an encounter so that “the unknown remains unknown,” as the mystic Thomas Merton suggests, and that seeking such an unknown nourishes us.
This apophatic mode of theology in lyric poetry, an “unsaying” in Michael Sells’ translation of apophasis, necessarily interacts with a kataphatic mode of logical theological discourse. And yet, while I see the impulses that lead to theological writing, poetic or discursive, as the same, a practice of theological poetry requires an obedience to imperatives without being able to explain them—without being clear on the precise summons in the relationship to this person, this object, this creature, this dilemma faced by the world—in other words, this encounter with God.
Aspiring to spiritual insight cannot be a “fluent” process, as Louise Glück reminds us. If we accept claims made on us, accept that we are answerable, we realize our susceptibility to transformation. Rainer Maria Rilke’s well-known last line in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for example, is an imperative summing up with tenuous, tough tendrils: “You must change your life.” Such work commits us to loving the right good things, and changing course when we learn that our loves are misguided.
Marguerite Porete keenly intuits not only the perennial helplessness of this learning, but also that help takes the form of transformation within helplessness: when “I could not … raise myself up … or come to my own help; … it was then that my better was born.” Falling, failing becomes rising.
Faith in beneficence, the realization of a “more” beyond imagination or thought, a “more” not limited to my own agency and willing, is the realization of poets and theologians alike. Poetry need not be theistic, but it is, at its heart, an answering of summons, repeated, repeated, even if only obscurely known.
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Alyda Faber has published two poetry collections, Poisonous If Eaten Raw (2021) and Dust or Fire (2016), with Goose Lane Editions/icehouse poetry. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she teaches Systematic Theology and Ethics at Atlantic School of Theology.