Spiritual poetry is a far-reaching field. Generous people claim it takes in everything from Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to the airy, untethered prose of Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know. . . ."
But religious poetry is different. It has borders and edges, structure, guides. It tends to be written by poets who hold fast to creeds, believe in dogmas (or articles, in Mormondom).Scott Cairns, a Presbyterian contemplative (if such an animal exists), is out to blur the line between the two.
Cairns directs the creative writing program at the University of North Texas. He is also a graduate of the University of Utah creative writing program. And with "Figures for the Ghost," he proves himself to be an illustrious alum. He has published other books of verse, but none have taken his "theology of doubt" to this level. He's not out to inspire. He's out to enlighten. Sentiment is quickly undercut by humor here. Passion is tempered with some perspective. Scott Cairns isn't trying to move you. He just wants to move you off center.
And like many Christian poets today, he must deal with bias. Not only the bias of nonbelievers, but bias from within the ranks. He must deal with the "Donald Davies syndrome."
When Davies edited the "Oxford Book of Christian Verse" a few years ago, he left the impression that Christian poetry since Tennyson is unworthy of your time. It is an attitude shared by many Christian academics. In his "definitive" anthology, Davies trumpets old favorites like John Milton and John Henry Newman - giving them a dozen pages - while modern masters such as Auden, Eliot and perhaps the most underrated women poet of our time, Stevie Smith, go begging.
The book was a travesty.
With luck, young Christian poets like Cairns will eventually rewrite it with their fresh and refreshing attitudes.
For instance, Cairns - like many budding religious writers - has found the power of metaphor. Metaphor that works on the same level as experience. Emerson claimed the day when a youth learned that things he thought were outside of him were really inside him was a happy day. And in the poems of Cairns, the images, stories, tales and comparisons all lead us, inward. The boats that seek out the shore, the roads leading deep into the "interior," the murmurs, the visions - all stand for spiritual experience.
It was Joseph Smith who said everything that is, is spiritual.
Cairns would concur.
This, for instance, from "Prospect of the Interior."
We'd not approach the interior at all
except for recurrent, nagging doubts
about the seaworthiness of our craft.
So, as matter of course, necessity
mothers us into taking stock of our
provisions, setting out in trembling parties
of one, trusting the current, the leaky
coracle, the allocated oar.
The little touches are all Cairns - the buried words ("current" in "recurrent," "worthiness" in "seaworthiness") form his signature.
But more than that, the "big touches" are his as well. In the world of Scott Cairns, the pilgrims who visit Canterbury, Lourdes and Guadalupe have it easy. They know where they're going when they set out.
Cairns is a pilgrim without a destination. All he can do is trust he is being led - like a Moses. And the direction he takes always leads him to strange, uncharted lands.
For Scott Cairns, all roads don't lead to Rome. They lead inward toward the mystery. They carry us toward the Rome within.