HUMS 253, Poetry and Faith

Meeting Time: 
Th 1:30pm-3:20pm

Course Description

This course is designed to look at issues of faith through the lens of poetry.  With some notable exceptions, we will concentrate on modern poetry—that is, poetry written between 1850 and 2015.  Inevitably we will also look at poetry through the lens of faith, but a working assumption of the course is that a poem is, for a reader (it’s more complicated for a writer), art first and faith second.  Students may want to challenge this assumption.  The entire course may end up being a challenge to this assumption. 

One other assumption, and challenge:  faith precedes belief.  Belief is how we respond to abstractions:  dogmas, doctrines, denominations, and such.  Faith is how we respond to the predicament of being alive.  Belief is what we do with our faith.

The reading in this course is intensive rather than extensive.  You will need to read every poem many times.  You will need to memorize at least one of them and parts of others.  We will read a wide variety of poets but usually only 1-3 poems from each of them. 

You will also be expected to read select critical pieces, almost all by poets.  These are primarily to serve as examples of some of the ways that recent poets have thought about their art in relation to faith and culture, but they are also intended to give you some models for your final paper.  I will explain this carefully in class, but please note:  you must read these pieces on your own time.   

Led by:

Christian Wiman is the author, editor, or translator of ten books, including Hammer is the Prayer:  Selected Poems (FSG, 2016), My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013), and Stolen Air:  Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (HarperCollins/Ecco, 2012). Of his work as a whole, Marilynne Robinson writes, “His poetry and scholarship have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world.  This puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say new things in timeless language, so that the reader’s surprise and assent are one and the same.”  Mr. Wiman has been a Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford and a visiting assistant professor of English at Northwestern, and for three years he served as Visiting Scholar at Lynchburg College in Virginia.  From 2003 until 2013 he was the editor of Poetry magazine, the premiere magazine for poetry in the English-speaking world.  During that time the magazine’s circulation tripled, and it garnered two National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors.  For the magazine’s centennial year, Mr. Wiman edited, with Don Share, The Open Door:  One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press, 2012).  Mr. Wiman has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic Monthly, and numerous other publications.  He is a former Guggenheim Fellow and holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from North Central College.  His particular interests include modern poetry, the language of faith, “accidental” theology (that is, theology conducted by unexpected means), and what it means to be a Christian intellectual in a secular culture.