4 Poets (Part 1) Kent Ira Groff

Books about books are favorites of mine, and books about words are a real book geek’s delight.  I am even excited about the academic study In the Beginning Was the Word, a God-centered philosophy of linguistics, by Reformed mathematician cum theologian, Vern Poythrus (Crossway; $25.00.)   I’ve raved before in these pages about the truly beautiful Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans; $18.00.)  She reminds us of the power of words, about truth, but also about beauty and charm.   Of course Eugene Peterson, especially in his collection of essays and interviews, Subversive Spirituality (Eerdmans; $26.00) has a few great chapters on the power of fiction, and the joys of poetry.  He believes that those who love the Bible ought to also love words, and that our poets and fiction writers are among our best allies as we learn to read, and to care about language.  He is blunt in his frustration that most pastors say they are too busy (or too theological or too spiritual) to read novels.  Calvin Seerveld in Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press; $25.00) has a chapter on how deepening our allusive imagination could help us (among other things) read the Bible better.  And many of the wonderful chapters in a book we named as one of the books of the year last year, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image Journal, edited by Gregory Wolfe (Eerdmans; $30.00), make, in serious and thoughtful prose, paintings, poems, and interviews, this exact point.  

I am not very schooled at poetry—I had an e e cummings paperback as a kid and my dad used to read Tennyson out loud, but that’s about it— and much of it frankly doesn’t interest me.  Some of that is my fault, I confess—one needn’t work so hard reading luminous prose from a good memoirist, and there is more immediate feedback if you follow the narrative—and I suppose most of us could admit to not spending enough quiet time ruminating on the word play and joy of our poets.  (Of course some of it is not our fault—there are a lot of bad poets, who are either overly sentimental and schmaltzy or overly cryptic and off-putting.  But take heart: there are good ones, that are playful and allusive and meaningful and fun.)

I just started Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets edited by Alexander Neubauer (Knopf; $27.95.)  It includes sparkling exchanges about their work, about why we should care, about the state of our artistic culture, and (as in most interviews) a happy blend of the curious and the profound.   There are details about drafts and there is advice about craft.  Mostly, though, you get to eavesdrop with poets who are considered some of the best of our age.  I am sorry to admit I didn’t know most of them. 

Better, though. here in National Poetry Month, is to read some poets.  I could tell you about many we’ve got in the store, many obscure or lesser known (Ron Jellema has a recent one, and he is known in some Christian circles, at least; we occasionally get some orders for Scott Cairnes who has recently done some good writing that isn’t poetry.) And there are some ways “into” poetry  by some who are rightly famous.  For instance, we have a great daily devotional called 40 Days With Gerard Manley Hopkins for those who like his stunning wordy style.  It is just wonderful!  There are the excellent anthologies compiled by Billy Collins (or any of his own accessible work; Ballistics just came out in paperback) or Garrison Keillor’s chosen favorites, Good Poems, which is a great one-volume introduction to meaningful poems that can buoy the spirit.  We are glad for the new paperback version of Mary Oliver’s latest The Truro Bear…, and we always recommend the always-popular selected collections of Wendell Berry.  (Oh, how we celebrated a year ago when his Mad Farmer Poems were finally re-issued handsomely by CounterPoint, in a large sized, gift edition, lavishly illustrated with engravings by Abigail Rorer.)  I hope you know the good work of Luci Shaw, one of our favorites and best sellers.

The 2008 Pulitzer Prize in poetry went to Philip Schultze and he just released a new collection of old and new poems (The God of Loneliness) and I’ve been browsing through a West Virginia poet named Maurice Manning that has been liked to Mr. Berry, whose book is called  The Common Man.

A great, great way to learn about poetry and the ways it can enrich us is to learn from those who have been touched by certain poets or their work.  I often recommend  Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach edited by Sam Intrator & Megan Scribner (with an introduction by Parker Palmer) published by Jossey-Bass ($16.95) or Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, also edited by Sam Intrator & Megan Scribner (Jossey-Bass; $19.95.)

These two may be just what you need: the editors asked teachers, and then, more generally, leaders, to name a poem that has helped them endure their hard word, poems that have inspired them, poems that they found helpful as they from time to time revisit why they do what they do.  Great clippings poured in, teachers and leaders shared remarkable poems, and remarkable stories as to why these verses helped them.  Their little testimonials are offered, and then the poem itself.  I have found the stories about the work to be as interesting to me in some cases as the poems themselves, although the explanations really helped open up the riches of the words.  Nice!

Allow me to introduce you to four volumes of poetry that I have been reading and re-reading recently.

 I will do this in four parts, sharing about each one in the next few posts.

These four are each quite different, and (I admit happily) that all four are friends.  I guess that was why I was firstly drawn to them, as I know the faces and voices of each.  The first is written by a seasoned spiritual director, whose books on spirituality are often enhanced by his fine exegesis of poems or his own simple verse, who has now written a poetical guide to spiritual discernment. One is the work of a professor of English and poetry, and his book is published by a prestigious poetry house; the third poet is a housewife who has recently self-published (and should, I’d say, get herself an agent and become big and famous in the small pond of poets, cause she is that good.)  The last I will tell you about is the first published volume by an established memoirist, a spectacular writer, whose book was published by IAM [International Arts Ministry.]  It is their first effort publishing a book, and we are thrilled to promote it.

Come on folks, follow along.  This is going to be fun.  First: Kent Ira Groff.

Facing East Praying West: Poetic Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises  Kent Ira Groff (Paulist Press) $12.95  Almost anyone in central Pennsylvania who has followed the rise of ministries of spiritual direction knows about Oasis, and Kent’s leading work in this deep field.  He’s written before, books about the inner journey, a book about congregational life that is imbued with a deeper spirituality, a wonderfully evocative book for men and a very interesting book about the spirituality of writing.  Here, he gives us poems he wrote while in India, alongside guidance from the famed Exercises of Ignatius, and a Bible passage on which to meditate. 

Does this stand alone as a poetry book, worthy to be celebrated in National Poetry Month?  Yes, I think it does.  However, for better or worse (for better, in my book) these lovely works are linked to his passion to help others in spiritual formation.  Yes, he was hanging around Anthony De Mello, yes he was in India, and yes these are arranged as a guide through four weeks of the Jesuit discernment stuff.  But mostly, these are prayer guides, lovely words created to help us ponder the riches of life and faith and give voice to ponderings one might have in conversation with the Biblical text.  Use it as a devotional, or read them as poems in their own right.  I cannot commend this enough because I think for many of us, we will warm to the power of poetry when we see it connected to our deepest spiritual concerns.  And, also for many of us, our prayer lives could use some imagination, some zest, some playfulness and some way to connect spirit and life.  Kent Groff is experienced as an aid and fellow traveler on this journey.  Let his avocation of artistic word-play help you appreciate poetry and prayer.

Here is his reflection from Week Two which is themed “Incarnation.” It is called Luke’s Good News.  He writes out Luke 12:22 and then this:

Try this for Christology:
Lord Jesus as you show
us to life life from below
    cradle manger,
     pulpit  boat,
     temple mountain,
eating bread at others’ tables,
befriending Prodigal and Samaritan,
not a place to lay your head,
     gambled robe,
     Roman cross,
     borrowed tomb,
still rising from the dead,
revealing friend in stranger,
known in breaking bread,
giving life forgiving love:

Now I raise doxology:

Let me treasure how I borrow
life today to love tomorrow.

Kent offers a similar incarnational reflection a few pages later, one called Love and Pain, inspired by Luke 7:47.

My young Chinese artist
host plays music on his car radio.
I like it and ask, “What are the words?”
He pauses—
                     “Love and pain.”

How is it life’s one cosmic soup
of love and pain?
Someone with pain of rejection
loves forgiveness’s restoration.
Jesus parties
with folks with little—yet wastes
it all for love—and ends
with not a thing.

Love and pain–
then love—
life’s song.  Again…
Many BookNote readers, I’d guess, have often pondered Mary’s Song from Luke 1.

Here is Kent’s poem Revolutionary Magnificat

This Magnificat is revolutionary:

When a Nazi army encircled an Austrian village one Holy Saturday
(but did not consider what day
the next would be)
and church bells rang
Easter hymns at dawn,
the enemy army (thinking many troops had gathered
overnight) fled with
Alleluias at their heels.

Our praise will be the thing
wherein we’ll catch
the consciousness of the king,
bring peace instead of warring ways.

I was very touched by one called Healing Wounds  which is part of the Week Four portion on “resurrection.”  The devotional text is John 20:26, after which the poem appears.
I tried for years
to heal with scars,
but love’s wounds run
deep.  Then One appeared
who knows such pain
as will remain
forever open
yet life giving,
all forgiving

“Peace be with you,”
came Love’s refrain.

I will gladly
keep these wounds
if you will only use
my vulnerable Self as strength
for giving others
faith and hope and love at length.

Kent Ira Groff is a good guy, a friend of Hearts & Minds, and I think a thoughtful, yet accessible wordsmith.  His vocation is helping others become more aware of God’s presence and how to live transformed lives for the reign of God.  He trains other spiritual directors and is respected among those who work in that field.  Yet, from the very first time I met him, selling his Alban Institute book in Red Lion, PA, I knew he had a poet’s heart.  He resonates with St. John of the Cross and other mystical poets.  He often adds his own verse in his books.  Here, at last, is Kent doing this—his gift, as gift.  We think you might find it both enjoyable and useful. 

Next up:  a college prof who is an old CCO friend, whose new work is, uh, complicated. For reasons I’ll explain, one of them made me bawl. And another former CCO campus minister who stands clearly and powerfully in a grand tradition of black women poets.

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