“To Pay Attention”: An Exploration of Poetry, Faith, and their Intersection

Illustration by Robert Samec

Last semester, acclaimed poet, Yale Divinity School professor, and former Editor in Chief of POETRY magazine Christian Wiman told our Poetry and Faith seminar a story about another great poet, Mary Oliver. Oliver was the first poet—the first person—who revealed the early inklings of my own faith to me. More precisely, she taught me that I could think about faith and still be the person I already knew myself to be, irrevocably shaped by family and school communities that never so much as raised the question of belief. My copy of Devotions, a massive anthology of Oliver’s work, is dog-eared to an extent that almost negates the purpose of dog-earing. The pages brim with so many stars, hearts, underlines, and exclamation points that I feel my sixteen-year-old self, awestruck and beset with full-body chills, resurrected each time I open it. Needless to say, I was eager to learn something about Oliver that wasn’t printed on a page.

Wiman’s story took place in Chicago. Oliver had traveled there from her home on Cape Cod to be honored at a POETRY event. Wiman, then-Editor in Chief of the magazine, met her at her downtown hotel, and the two set out on a get-to-know-you walk. At one point, without missing a beat, Oliver bent down and picked up a dead bird from the sidewalk. She held it gently in her hand and gave it an autopsy with Wiman as her audience: there, she said, stroking the feathers on the bird’s narrow neck, is where the hawk got it; there is where it took the impact of the fall. Then she put the bird in her pocket. Hours later, Oliver and Wiman ran into each other in the kitchen at a cocktail party neither wanted to attend. “I forgot something,” Oliver said, and drew the bird out of her pocket, picking up her assessment where she left off. “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” writes Oliver in “Yes! No!”, one of her poems I treasure most. It thrilled me to hear that she lived as she wrote; the fundamental gulf between admiring someone’s work and admiring their personhood was momentarily bridged.

Over the course of Poetry and Faith last semester, and in individual conversations with Wiman and poets Amit Majmudar and Nate Klug, I became convinced that attention is the tie that binds all poets of faith, poetry about faith, or even poetry that inadvertently reads as faithful. Meticulous attention to the craft itself—to tone, form, and sound. Reverent attention to the world—a dedication to capturing what is overlooked and to shedding new light on what is commonplace, and thus dismissed. Sustained and unflinching attention to pain, so much so that it can start to look like joy. The phrase “love is attention” has begun to ring true to me despite its buzzwordiness: can you imagine a more deeply caring act than never looking away? Take this excerpt from W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks,” a courageous, brutal, and head-over-heels love poem to existence:

Thanks

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

[…]

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

I’ve fallen in love with poetry and faith because, dark though it is, the writers and works that I’ve encountered are, like Merwin in “Thanks,” dedicated to looking so carefully for light that they find it in the most unexpected places. I’m convinced that we need poets of faith now more than ever—both their work on the page and their voices in reflection.

I’ve structured the following interviews as an imaginary conversation—that I periodically mediate and meditate on—between Wiman, Majmudar, and Klug. The three men form a brilliant and ridiculously accomplished—albeit small—sample of poets of faith, with Wiman as their point of connection. Klug interned for Wiman when the latter was Editor in Chief at POETRY, and Majmudar was a guest speaker in my class with Wiman last semester. I made a point of asking this network of poets the same questions, which ended up highlighting the harmonies and dissonances in their notions of faith, poetry, and the work they do together.

***

I started my conversation with each poet by asking: What was your experience with faith growing up? With poetry? Did they have anything to do with each other at first?

In the first few moments of our time together, Wiman told me that he had much more exposure to faith than to poetry in his early years:

CW: But I did write things, these little rhyming things that I think I probably modeled off of hymns, so there was a very early connection between poetry and faith in some way. In fact, at one point in our life, [my family was] living in Dallas and we went to the First Baptist Church, which at the time was the largest Baptist church in the world. In those churches, they have “altar calls” where you go down for a conversion at the end of the service. They’ll ask people if they want to come down and give their lives to Jesus. So one time, when I was eight years old, I went out of the pew—and this place is enormous, I mean, thousands of people—and didn’t even tell my family where I was going. I just ran down to the front. And instead of converting, I gave the preacher a poem that I had written. The poem was, “I love the Lord, and he loves me. I will not forget, and neither will he.” And I remember it because the preacher then published it in the Southern Baptist newsletter, which is an enormous publication. So it actually exists—it’s out there! But I didn’t really encounter poetry—aside from the Bible, it’s a lot of poetry—until I went to college.

Klug, on the other hand, grew up about as far away from a Dallas megachurch as one can get, but gradually found his way to faith.  

NK: I’m now a UCC minister—a minister in a congregational church. But I actually didn’t grow up in any kind of organized religion at all. My parents had both grown up in Protestant churches in the Midwest, and I think they had pretty non-exciting experiences. They didn’t really want to subject me and my brother to organized religion, which I’m actually kind of glad for, because I was able to come to it on my own, when I was in college. And I would say when I did come to it—and this had to do with my relationship with [Chris Wiman] quite a bit—I was also really falling in love with poetry and wanting to become a poet. So they were related in some ways, but also very different in some ways, too.

So what happened when Wiman found poetry? When Klug found faith?

CW: When I went to college and started reading serious books, my faith just evaporated. Or what I thought of as faith. It just went away. I spent twenty years without going to a church. I thought about God all the time, but I didn’t believe in God. But I had poetry, and poetry always gave me some contact with this other thing, this kind of transcendence that I didn’t understand. If I hadn’t had that, I don’t think I ever would have returned to any kind of faith. It’s that experience of having faith kept alive through poetry, faith broadly defined, faith in which there’s not even a God that you need to define, that led me to a more definite faith later.

Exposure to poetry, and to the intellectual world more broadly, introduced Wiman to spiritual doubt—a doubt that kept something important alive in him, something he could file away for later. His “living faith”—and his poetic knowledge—inspired Klug’s own spiritual awakening when he interned under Wiman at POETRY.

 

NK: Over time, I really struck up a friendship with Chris. He was the Editor, so he was very busy. But he was nice about letting me sidle up to his office and ask him a question or two before I had to go at the end of the day. I think he realized that I was really serious about poetry and he gave me books to read, and eventually I started showing him a few of my poems. That was really wonderful to me and really fortunate for me. And from a poet’s perspective, it was a great introduction to the whole world of publishing and contemporary writers. 

[But] I had a few hard things happen to me while I was in college, my first year especially. My best friend’s father was murdered. And I was also just in that pretty normal state for a lot of eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds: that place of questioning things and trying to figure out who I was and what I cared about. Eventually some of the conversations that Chris and I had turned to the topic of religion. He kind of outed himself as someone who had a spiritual life, as someone who was interested specifically in Christianity. But he also recommended Abraham Joshua Heschel and other writers who were outside the Christian space. That was really powerful for me, because I grew up in a classic liberal secular environment. There wasn’t a ton of respect for faith as an aspect of someone’s life. There were very few people that I could look up to who exemplified a living faith that was emotional and intellectual. Chris definitely did that. 

I recommend “Milton’s God” as a powerful example of the dedication to faith—and writing about faith—that Wiman helped Klug discover.

As Klug spoke, I realized that Wiman played a similar role in my life last semester as he did in Klug’s when he was an intern. I was well-versed in analyzing poetry before I enrolled in Poetry and Faith, but Wiman’s teaching introduced me to a much more personally resonant way of doing so. His seminar made me feel that my emotional responses to the works we read—works that deepened and challenged my own, still indeterminate, faith—were just as valuable as, and sometimes more valuable than, my intellectual contributions. Further, the course taught me that exploring faith in my own writing could enrich the work, and make others feel connected to it, in ways I hadn’t previously dared to imagine. 

Wiman and Klug spent much of their young lives journeying towards a place where poetry and faith could cohabitate. Majmudar, on the other hand, seems to have come into the world with a penchant for both poetry and faith, and an intrinsic understanding of how they work together.

AM: I don’t come from a very religious family. My parents and sister are not particularly devout. They do have a respect for all that, they just weren’t super obsessive about it [when I was growing up]. So I didn’t really have much externally imposed faith, which led it to become my own thing that I was doing. And literature was the exact same, this thing that I did on my own. Who knows, if [my family] had been really aggressively imposing [either faith or literature] on me, I might have gone the other way. But my going my own way was to become very much into religion and very much into literature. In the Hindu tradition, our scriptures are in many cases poetry. The Bhagavad Gita is literally a poem—it’s in meter and everything. We have central texts that are epic poems as well. So I was just very into both things from an early age.

Impressed with Majmudar’s early decisiveness, I asked him if he’d ever had a crisis of faith like Wiman’s.  

AM: I hope that never happens. Knock on wood. I just showed up kind of fanatical. I’ve been fanatical about literature and fanatical about religion—not fanatical in a bad way, but just really intensely into it since I was twelve or thirteen. It was just the momentum from past life, for me.

Despite their varying backgrounds, perspectives, and degrees of “fanaticism,” as Majmudar put it, these three men share much in common. They’re all practicing poets with active faiths and day jobs: Wiman is a professor, Klug is a minister, and Majmudar is—get this—a radiologist! In short, they each have a lot to juggle. So I asked them all the question I’ve wanted to ask Mary Oliver ever since I first read her: how do poetry and faith inform one another in your work and in your life? Do you see them as fundamentally inextricable impulses, impulses in opposition to one another, or some combination of the two?

NK: I think I feel it both as a coming-together and a tension. Just in a really practical way, I’m not the kind of poet who writes every day. Poetry feels like it visits me pretty rarely. And when it’s happening, it’s very powerful. So I’ve often felt like it’s almost its own kind of God, its own force. That’s where I feel the tension. And someone like Gerard Manley Hopkins [19th-century English poet and Jesuit priest] really felt this, too. So you can look at it that way, as these two competing things. But ultimately, when I really think about who God must be, like the St. Augustine line, about a God who has their circumference…I can’t remember now, but it’s something about the expansiveness of God.

The line is: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” 

NK: So I feel like ultimately, poetry must be a way for me to exemplify my faith, but I just don’t always feel it personally. They don’t always go together in the way that I think people would think they do from the outside.

CW: There’s separation. Honestly, I don’t know how to draw a line. I mean, I say there’s separation, but I don’t know how to draw a line between my experience of poetry and my experience of faith. Sometimes I’ll write a poem which seems to be an explicit rejection of God, and yet it seems to me an expression of faith. So that seems to me something that I’ve had to wrestle with over the years, that those two things might not be in opposition to each other, that God might actually call some people to unbelief or to atheism or whatever you want to call it, in order that faith can be constantly finding new forms. I even think there can be an expression of faith that has absolutely nothing to do with anything religious. Simply having reality freshened for you or enlivened or made available to you again so that you can see it. That seems to be a gesture of faith, no matter what the poet believes or whether God’s involved or any of that. I find that some of the poets who speak to my sense of faith most profoundly would say that they have no faith themselves. I think that’s pretty common.

Wiman’s words might give Klug, and others thinking through similar dilemmas, some reassurance—true faith can be found in poetry even when poetry seems to reject it. Personally, because I am still wrestling with conflicting feelings about the form God takes—whether I believe in “God,” per se, at all—this idea makes me feel more comfortable leaning into doubt or confusion in my writing.

Majmudar, though, was more decisive, allowing for a superficial distinction between one’s poetry and one’s faith, but insisting on an essential harmony that lies beneath.

AM: Inevitably the thing is, if you do have faith of any kind, whether it’s traditional religion or it’s a secular sort of substitute religion, it’s your hardware. It’s not the software you’re running, it’s the hardware you’re running the software on. If anyone tells you, “I have faith, but it doesn’t really affect how I write”—not true. That’s not true because that’s not really possible. If it’s your faith, if it’s truly your religion, then then it is one hundred percent right there, it’s in the groundwater of your being. 

Check out “Neurology of Love” for some gorgeously faithful groundwater.

Was Majmudar’s essential point similar to or different from Klug and Wiman’s? Majmudar argues that even when one’s personal faith isn’t explicitly relevant to a particular poem, it’s a steady hum behind all other noise, indeed a hum that makes all other noise possible. I think Klug and Wiman would agree—maybe it’s just that the hums of their faiths aren’t quite as steady. But the combination of awe and bewilderment I feel in the face of Majmudar’s serenity does remind me of how Wiman spoke about “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs,” a poem of his that keeps coming back to me because of the deeply loving attention it pays to its subjects.

CW: That poem [started] because I had a friend convert to Catholicism, and I was envious of him because he knew something very definite, and he was very excited. And then I just started noticing in all of my friends, but also in myself, that we were always in some way converting. We were always trying to find something that was going to fix something, you know? Although my friend’s conversion is deadly serious—I start out in that poem making a joke, and the poem makes jokes. But I hope that it becomes more serious at the end, and that it’s clear that I’m not making fun of [my friends], that if anything, I’m sort of making fun of myself. Even the way I just described my own faith to you, as a way of hanging between options and never quite committing to this or quite committing to that.

Wiman continued (jokingly, but maybe not really jokingly):

CW: I wish I could just go be Russian Orthodox or something. It just seems so solid, you know?

I related to this so strongly. Decisiveness, especially in the spiritual realm, is foreign to me, too. And strangely attractive.

In one of our Poetry and Faith classes, Wiman briefly mentioned that he had seen an increasing openness to faith in poetry—and poets—as of late. Wiman is perhaps one of the best-situated people in the world to talk about the contemporary poetry landscape—if his years at POETRY magazine aren’t evidence enough, his staggering ability to quote an anthology’s worth of complete poems from memory should be. Majmudar and Klug, both slightly younger poets, have different perspectives on the change-over-time question. I asked the group: Have you noticed conversations around faith in the poetry world (in America) changing, or opening up, over time? If so, how might we explain this change?

 

Wiman and Klug essentially agreed that the younger generation of poets is more open to conversations about faith,“as long as you don’t attach it to a particular religion. Then they get nervous,” said Wiman. Both poets attributed this to what Wiman calls the “failure of secularism, [of] liberalism, to satisfy certain desires.” They see spirituality as providing an alternate framework for meaning—especially for those who already “find value in literature and making meaning with words,” as Klug put it. Majmudar, with characteristic gumption, complicated these ideas:

 

AM: Secular ideologies can sometimes take the place of religion, particularly in societies where religion has weakened. In the contemporary West, particularly in universities in the West, these are de-Christianized environments, or post-Christian. That creates a vacuum. And into that vacuum, I believe that various forms of leftist ideology have entered, whether you want to call it intersectionalism or woke ideology. It’s polymorphous. That is the faith of contemporary American poets, because they’re largely academics. Christian Wiman is a professor, but he’s at the School of Divinity. Most professor-poets, though, work in creative writing programs and things like that. And in those places, there is a uniformity of thought. [It has nothing to do with] people’s various religious backgrounds. It is a consensus regarding the nature of man, regarding the goal of the collective. It has its own martyrs, its own rituals, its own shibboleths, its own notions of blasphemy. It’s a very utopian secular faith in some ways because it constantly agitates towards an “equal society”—you can basically plug “the kingdom of God” in there. And that is the faith tradition in which they write. It’s not necessarily an old faith or a traditional religion, but that is their faith. 

 

It isn’t everyone—your professor [and I] have a grounding outside of [secular ideology], and so do many others. But I do feel at a certain angle to [many contemporary poets’] way of looking at human beings. They are very centered on people’s physical characteristics. How much melanin does your skin have? What are your genitals? Those things, race and gender, are extremely important [to them]. But that’s not the distinguishing point that I feel. And I think that has to do with my faith, because one of the central tenets of Vedantic thought is that all human beings, and all species even, have this one atom or aliquot of the Divine, the Atman, which is the self. And that self is in the process of going from birth to birth, death to death, striving to rejoin that one Brahman, that one divine, transcendent reality. And accordingly, all of these elements of your embodiment are fundamentally superfluous to your true self. 

 

Again, it seems to me that Majmudar’s notion of faith is somewhat less flexible than those of the other two poets. Majmudar’s faith cannot coexist with identity politics—he feels that other contemporary poets are paying attention to entirely different things than he is. I suspect that Klug and Wiman, on the other hand, would have an easier time incorporating this kind of writing into their more malleable definitions of faithful poetry. So which answer is correct—is faith, true faith, more important to poets and in poetry these days, or have we moved ever farther away from it? I’m inclined to believe the former, especially because I think Majmudar is missing something. The categories (such as race and gender) that he notes as focal points in contemporary poetry are much more societally imposed than physically intrinsic. For this reason, I think many poets believe that we need to acknowledge these categories and how they have been used against us, used to stratify and disconnect us, if we wish to one day transcend them. When poets choose to write about physical identity, it doesn’t mean that they see physical identity as the be-all end-all of meaning. Rather, they are often interrogating these social constructs in order to arrive at something more resonant. 

 

Regardless of my response to Majmudar, there may not be a single way to define faith’s place in the modern world because there isn’t a single definition of faith. (For example, Wiman doesn’t seem concerned by the fact that poets still “get nervous” when it comes to talking about organized religion because, for him, there is a distinction between faith and religion. For Majmudar, though, at least on a personal level, faith and religion seem fundamentally intertwined.)

 

Despite their differing interpretations, I knew each poet had a deep investment in the last string of questions I posed: What is the most illuminating result of poetry and faith coming together? How might each help us think about the other?

 

AM: There are one hundred and one ways I feel like I could go with that question. It’s not necessarily that [faith and poetry are] saying it to one another. I think they’re saying it through one another. Faith can express itself through poetry, and what it has to say can gain power and communicability through the poetic medium. And similarly, the poetic impulse can express itself through faith. The impulse to create poetry, to create artistic beauty, has for centuries been mediated through faith traditions. And that’s why religious art, sacred music, religious poetry, scripture, these are some of the most enduring examples of their respective forms. 

 

NK: I think good poetry is always this process of unsettling, or putting things in tension, or allowing sentences or positions to have as many possible meanings as they can. So I think it helps keep faith dynamic and supple. In that way, it’s such a crucial ingredient in any kind of organized religion. Because if you just have doctrines or even liturgy, all of that is probably a lot more static in terms of its meaning than a poem. I think poetry is kind of at that far edge of contributing to the conversation around faith. And it’s not for everyone. I mean, I’ve worked as a minister now for seven years, and there [are] only a few people in each congregation that I’ve served who are interested in poetry. But for the people who are, I think it really plays this necessary role of keeping spiritual language alive. Making sure that it’s kind of on edge and actually meaningful, as opposed to just rote and participating in tradition for the sake of tradition.

 

CW: I think the fact that poets and religion have little to do with each other is a problem for both. For me, faith is always [about] other people. It’s not just this intense interiority. When it’s only that, it becomes despair. It has to involve other people. And I think the poets that I know often have no experience of communal expressions of faith, and if they had it, they might be more able to write things that could speak to those people. By the same token, a lot of the churches that I have gone to—I have a lot of experience with churches—treat poetry as nothing but little fortune cookie messages. They just extract a little message out of it and they don’t treat it as art, and they don’t understand it when it is art, and they don’t allow it to trouble their message, instead of just being an illustration of it. I think religion could be greatly enriched if it allowed a lot more art, a lot more poetry in it.

 

Since I started writing at six years old, poetry has been a way for me to express my interiority. The question of faith has been a part of that interiority for almost as long. Even before I knew anything about religion, I wondered why, on a windy day, it felt like the trees in the park were speaking to me. I wondered, the few times I visited churches, why I liked being inside them so much, why the vaulted ceilings and stained glass made me feel cared for, lifted out of myself in an otherwise inaccessible way. But until very recently, I didn’t understand that these two parts of me—the poetry thoroughly explored, the faith frequently pushed aside—could be meaningful together. In fact, the former could help me uncover the latter. Reading and discussing faithful poetry taught me to pay sustained attention to the parts of myself, my writing, and the world that I understood the least. The conversations I had with Wiman, Klug, and Majmudar only underscored the power and significance of this endeavor. These poets’ faith has led them to a unique realization: even in a world that places a massive premium on objective truth, the most deeply human questions and yearnings remain, to some degree, ineffable. And instead of shying away from this undeniable unknown, these poets choose to tackle it head-on. They pay attention, even when it is difficult or confusing—in fact, when it is either of these, they know they are doing their job. I believe that given the unacceptable violence and grief of the current moment, paying attention is the bravest—perhaps the only—way to enact genuine change.

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