Here’s something new: an anthology that can be appreciated both as a collection of beautiful poems, and as an aesthetically pleasing textbook.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “God himself does not speak prose.” Certainly that case is well made in this excellent anthology, Joyful Noise: An Anthology Of American Spiritual Poetry, published by Autumn House Press of Pittsburgh.
This is a book with wide range and varied voices, all of which makes it very American. It covers four centuries of spiritual verse. There are Native American songs, traditional African American spirituals, poetry from the colonial period, verse from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We find poems from writers many consider conventionally religious like William Everson, known in religion as Brother Antoninus, a Dominican. There are also poems from surprising and delightful sources like Ezra Pound, a writer not noted for his spirituality, and Allen Ginsberg, a poet who was noted for a spirituality of the most idiosyncratic sort.
In many ways, Autumn House’s greatest contribution is its inclusion of a great number of contemporary poets. One expects to hear from Phillis Wheatley, for example, and to read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”. But this is a book that is filled with the unexpected, the surprising. Some of the modern poets are known to a wide audience, like the former poet laureate Billy Collins, as well as T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost. Other poets, excellent poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Jack Myers and Arthur Sze, are best known to fellow poets and that ever so small coterie of contemporary verse connoisseurs. One poet, Nichole Collen, is just twenty-four.
Our contemporaries, in addition to the excellence of their writing, show something most people do not associate with modern American verse, our spiritual heritage. This anthology demonstrates a consistent concern among poets throughout our history, the search for God, the longing for the spirit.
In religious circles these days, we all too easily dismiss intellectuals who find God in the unorthodox religious practice. Yes, as ironic as it may sound, the American spiritual tradition is a history of the heterodox and the unorthodox. This is very American. Lest we forget, we need merely recall that Puritans were termed Dissenters. And so it goes from then till now. Take Ruth Schwartz, for example. Schwartz is a self-declared shamanic counselor, who, in her poem, finds true holiness in the trees. In this regard, she places herself squarely in a long line of poets for whom nature leads straight to the transcendent. Interesting, her spirituality is not altogether unlike that of another poem in this anthology, Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”, which, in its turn, is not unlike the verse of the colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, who writes, “Then on a stately Oak I cast mine eye …”.
In two words, this anthology is profoundly American. The editor, Robert Strong, has given us the very substance of American spirituality. All this, from the Pawnee to the Puritan to the Moslem to the shaman, this is our liturgy, this is our worship, that most American of all prayers, these our poems. Joyful Noise indeed makes the case, to borrow from Emerson, that the American spirit speaks through its poetry – in this case, great poetry.
There is one other application for this book, one that makes it most useful not only to the literature lover and the English teacher, but also, among others, to the historian, the sociologist, the theologian. This is an intellectual history. To be specific, this book is an intellectual history of American spirituality, from the animistic Native to the Renaissance Protestant, from the Enlightenment Deist to the Transcendentalist, from the Modernist to the Post-Modernist. From the spirituality of the Pre-Columbian Native to that of the post-modern urban poet, its chronological layout makes it accessible to the specialist and the general reader.
Joyful Noise is a collection of primary sources. And those sources are great poems. In that sense, it is a bit unusual. One tends to think of primary sources as records of events. However, the sources herein are records of the prayer, the transcendent moment, the salvific instant. Indeed, one can regard this anthology as the poetic record of the search for theophany in America.
This is an elegant book that at one and the same time has both a vast range and a surprising specificity, the range given by its historical breadth, the specificity given by the vision of the artifact. In this context, it is worth repeating that the artifacts range from the conventionally religious to the heterodox to the completely unorthodox. There are any number of writers who may be viewed as conventionally religious. Cotton Mather and Edward Taylor were both ordained ministers. Langston Hughes, on the other hand, is widely regarded as a pro-Communist, free thinker. Yet in his poem, “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers”, he recalls a time when, as a young man, he crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis, and was moved by the holiness of the river.
Joyful Noise: An Anthology Of American Spiritual Poetry is a beautiful book. Regardless of the reader’s purpose — poetic, educational, theological, sociological, historical, or just reading for the plain old fun of reading — the end result is an explanation, a poetic and historically accurate explanation of the place of spirituality in American life.
Joyful Noise Robert Strong, ed. Autumn House Press, 2007.