Peggy Rosenthal’s book-long meditation on how poets around the world and over the centuries have encountered Jesus — The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium — was published in 2000.
Yet, it shouldn’t be thought of as a retrospective. The attitudes toward Jesus, by believing and unbelieving poets, that Rosenthal carefully, lovingly set before the reader can be found today among humans, no matter their faith or lack of faith.
They don’t just exist in time. They exist, all of them, in the here and now.
As Rosenthal recounts, there have been waves of theological and poetic fashion that have heightened various images of Jesus down all the many years.
Still, I come away from this deeply spiritual work with the sense that, in some transcendent way, each Jesus identified by these poets does live, even those who contradict each other.
When it comes to understanding God, there is no recourse but to acknowledge our blindness.
We make stabs in the dark at trying to put into words our ideas, feelings and experiences of God and know how feeble those words are. And know, on top of that, how feeble, weak and bumbling are those ideas, feelings and experiences that we are trying to communicate.
After reading Rosenthal’s beautiful The Poets’ Jesus, there is much I could write in an analytical vein. But I think it would be better for me to step away from the mike and let some of the poets quoted in the book’s pages have their say — reverent, caustic, ironic, agonized or however else they frame their look at Jesus.
Here are a few of the poets whom Rosenthal looks at in her book with a few lines of their lines about Jesus:
Jesus as a mother
Ephrem, a Syriac poet of the 4th century
As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk
He has given suck
— life to the universe.
As again He dwelt in His mother’s womb
in His womb dwells all creation.
Jesus as artist
William Blake, 18th-19th century British poet
Jesus & His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists….
The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is God himself.
The Divine body, Jesus: we are his Members.
It manifests itself in his Works of Art.
Jesus being helped in the Garden of Gethsemane by God through Nature
Annette Droste-Holhoff, a 19th century German poet
…While the dead in their graves their voices found
In love’s fulness Christ raised himself on high,
“Father,” he cried, “not my
Will but yours be done.”
The Moon swam out in quiet blue.
Before him, on the dewy green,
A stem of lily stretched up its length.
Then out of the calyx-cup
An angel stepped
And gave him strength.
Jesus as a wimp
Charles Baudelaire, a 19th century French poet
—Ah! Jesus mind the Garden and the Olive Tree!
In pure simplicity, upon your knees you prayed
To Him who in His heaven laughed while you were splayed
By hangmen pounding spikes into your live anatomy.
Jesus as a fish
Ole Wivel, a 20th century Danish poet
It feels at first
As if you were men’s enemy —
Your empty mouth
Will tell us only what is written
In the bubble’s shimmering roundness
One second — but to burst…
You lie there bloody
In foam and tang —
and are our Savior.
Jesus as unknowable, writing words in the dust
Tadeusz Rozewicz, a 20th century Polish poet
Matthew Mark Luke and John
he covered the letters
and erased them
Jesus as a white American bigot
Gwendolyn Brooks, a 20th century American poet
Forgive these niggahs that know not what they do.
Jesus as the Arab people
Badr Shakit as-Sayyah, a 20th century Iraqi Muslim poet
When they brought me down I heard the winds
In long lamentation weaving the leaves of palm trees,
And footsteps receding far, far away. So the wounds
And the Cross to which I have been nailed all through the afternoon
Have not killed me.
Jesus as humanity
Nis Peterson, a 20th century Danish poet
…he stretched his hand toward me,
And lo! The nail-prints flowered red —
Up to the shoulders his naked arms
Were covered with black wounds of sin —And then smile:
God so loved…!
Jesus as comedian
Kathleen Norris, a 20th-21st century American poet
He is there, like Clouseau,
at the odd moment,
just right, when he climbs
out of the fish pond
into which he has spectacularly
fallen, and says condescendingly
to his hosts, the owners
of the estate: “I fail
where others succeed.” You know
this is truth. You know
he’ll solve the mystery.
Jesus as fire
Annie Dillard, a 20th-21st century American poet
We keep our paper money shut
in a box, for fear of fire.
Once, we opened the box
and Christ the lamb stepped out
and left his track of flame across the floor.
Why are we shown these things?
Jesus as the gardener whom Mary Magdalene meets outside the tomb
Andrew Hudgins, a 20th-21st-century American poet
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees…
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldenrod.
Jesus as teacher
Vassar Miller, a 20th century American poet
But with an alphabet that has been burned
Into my bones, a book till now shut
And You unseal it, O Lamb only worthy
To read its alphabet scattered until
I offer it up, steel filings to smithy
Beaten out on the anvil, syllable
After slow syllable.
Patrick T. Reardon