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Poster poems: religion


Whether you're believer, blasphemer or Buddhist – this month's commandment is to share with us your spiritual scribblings

In an increasingly secular society, the place of our rich tradition of religiously inspired art is something that has come increasingly into question. People wonder if it is possible to appreciate, for instance, Bach's St Matthew Passion or Giotto's frescos if you do not share the beliefs that informed their creation. For me, this is a false dichotomy. Great art is great art, regardless of its ostensible subject. And the same is true of poetry.

Much of the finest English-language poetry is religious in one way or another, and perhaps the golden age was that of the metaphysical poets. Writers such as John Donne and George Herbert wrote works that explored the nature of their belief with a ferocious intelligence. One of my favourites, Donne's "Holy Sonnet: At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners, Blow" starts in a blaze of glory as it imagines the triumphant day of judgment – only to switch mood on a line break: now comes a quieter meditation on the steps a sinner should take to find his place among the blessed.

Herbert's poem "The Collar" also opens vigorously, as the speaker resolves to cast off his religious life and titular clerical collar and go search of the freedom of "abroad". His conflict is expressed in an almost free verse structure of long and short lines alternating not to a set pattern but to fit the sense of what is being said. As with the Donne sonnet, Herbert ends his poem more softly than it begins, this time with the speaker turning inward and back to God.

While Donne and Herbert adopted an intellectual approach to religious verse, others wrote in a more sensuous vein, seeing the proof of God's existence not in the workings of the human mind but in nature. Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnet "The Windhover" is a prime example. The poet's delight in the sound and rhythms of language mirror his ecstatic vision of God, as exemplified by the perfection of the falcon's flight. Both bird and poem are hymns of glory.

It's a short step from Hopkins to the full-blown pantheism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp". Despite the poet's eventual lip service to conventional Christianity at the end of the poem, there can be little doubt that his true enthusiasm is for the vision of animated nature, possessed of a single universal soul, that informs its opening sections.

If Hopkins and Coleridge in their various ways saw nature as an expression of the divine, other poets have written about the natural world in a way that celebrates its variety and mystery without recourse to a divine agent. One such poem is George Oppen's secular "Psalm", where faith is a faith in language and its ability to comprehend experience. Oppen's poem is not against religion; it simply omits it from the picture. Mina Loy's "Religious Instruction", on the other hand, is positively hostile, not so much to religion itself as to its imposition on young children by "idle adult / accomplices in duplicity".

Of course, English isn't the only language to produce great religious poetry, and Christianity isn't the only religion to inspire it. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote meditations on death and the afterlife that would have been entirely comprehensible to Donne. In the Buddhist tradition, the teachings of the Buddha himself were written in the verses of the Dhammapada. However, the Zen tradition of haiku, with its flashes of insight into the nature of reality that appeal to religious and secular readers alike, has proven more popular among non-Buddhist readers than the longer scriptural poems.

This month's challenge is to share poems concerned with religion. You might be a believer, you might not; either way you're welcome to post your poems here. There's always the risk that it may turn out to be a bit of a curate's egg. Let's see what happens.

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