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Can reading poems bring us closer to God?

100 Great Catholic Poems

Tess Barber

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/26/24

Poetry as part of your prayer life? If this intrigues you, check out a luminous new volume from Word on Fire, '100 Great Catholic Poems.'

Twenty-four years have passed since renowned Yale professor Harold Bloom decried the state of education in America at the time, yet what he had to say feels even more pressing today than it was then.

Among other things, he was worried about the decline in young people reading great literature, a decline he found most evident in young people no longer memorizing poetry. 

What he had to say in this clip from a 2000 interview is so good you won’t want to miss it. He said:

I think that we lost a great deal in education in this country and in other countries when we stopped teaching people to memorize. Obviously, just repeating something by rote without understanding does no good whatsoever. But to possess something by memory, to really read a poem hundreds of times because it can sustain hundreds of readings… I think if you possess a poem by memory, then it begins to possess you. And, you know, you learn how to be alone with it, you learn it more and more deeply. It alters you, I think, it changes you. So I suppose, yes, I’m a great advocate of memorization.

When you really deeply know a poem, when you contemplate it deeply, it changes you. After I ran into this clip of the interview last week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. 

I’ve told my friends at my beloved book club that I believe there are some books that read you just as much as you read them, books that offer a standard to which you hold yourself up. Many poems, in the same way, hold up to repeated contemplation. 

Contemplation through poetry

Contemplation is a word we usually associate with prayer, but it has a peculiar aptness for the right poems too, begging the question: Can poetry be a kind of prayer? Can reading poems bring us closer to God?

One poet thinks so. Sally Read, an award-winning poet and scholar of poetry, said in an interview with Aleteia: 

To read poetry you need to adopt a mindset similar to that of prayer: You need to slow down, you need to not worry about understanding everything. 

In poetry our minds react to deep associations and connections — I sometimes think that writing and reading poetry is like trying to see with the eyes of God. We are seeing beneath the surface and discovering surprising truths. 

Editor Sally Read - 100 Great Catholic Poems
Editor Sally Read

A groundbreaking poetry collection

Poetry as part of your prayer life? If this intrigues you, you have to check out a luminous new volume from Word on Fire, of which Read is the editor. It’s called 100 Great Catholic Poems:

Poetry is the language of Catholicism. From the songs of Scripture to the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church has always used metaphor and image, meter and rhyme, and the music of language to illuminate and inculcate the faith.     

Yet, when it comes to Catholic poetry itself, the song too often remains unsung. Many devout believers recoil from poetry, even when it is deeply Catholic. Many poetry lovers overlook Catholic poetry, even when it is truly great. And passionate readers are left with few resources from which to draw inspiration — even as the number of great Catholic poems continues to grow.     

This groundbreaking collection is designed to change that. 

This book was curated with such care, featuring everyone from giants like Dante and Shakespeare, to mystical saints like Hildegard of Bingen and John of the Cross, to modern masters like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde, to contemporary female poets like Denise Levertov and Anne Porter. 

Each selection opens with a brief essay to explain it, and the volume includes a detailed introduction, glossary of poetic terms, and a wide range of poetic voices.

“The antidote to the soundbite”

“It is a poetry anthology, but it feeds the soul in a very particular, very Catholic way,” Read said, explaining that the 100 Great Catholic Poems can work as a devotional read. “Many people have told me that they read a poem and a commentary a day and incorporate that reading into their prayer life.”

This kind of reading is thoughtful, and slow. It’s not what we are used to in our screen-addled culture, and perhaps that’s why we need it so desperately. Perhaps that’s why we need to start memorizing poetry again, as Professor Bloom intuited decades ago.

“Poetry is not written quickly, and it should not be read quickly,” Read said. “It is the antidote to the soundbite; it should destroy cliché. Without it we wither in intellectual and artistic terms. True poetry is rare — and it always has been. It has something of the sacred.”

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