We need poems.
There are a few pleasures left in book publishing. One is also a privilege: to occasionally be allowed to bring out books that the marketing people aren’t quite sure they’ll be able to sell well. Then, a publisher feels that he or she is able to fulfill the prophetic aspect of our work that drew us to it in the first place. Perhaps I may help to change a few minds and hearts. . . .
The poets in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology were all published with this tenacious hope, since everyone in the business knows that poetry is a hard sell. At any given time, you could quite literally count on one hand the number of poets whose work makes a solid profit for their publishers. The rest is what we call mission. That’s the first delight I have in seeing what Mark Burrows has so beautifully curated in this collection.
The second delight is the sure knowledge that I and my colleagues at Paraclete Poetry have long known: people, whether religious or not, need poems. Poems help us to quell doubts as well as raise questions. Poems help us explore our emotions and spark our imaginations. And they slow us down. To read a poem well is to go slowly, and every good poem resists what’s easy.
A third delight in this volume is a personal one. Indulge me for a moment please. This delight is what I enjoy most about poems: the way in which we (and, in this case, I) “discover” them, still. In each case, I remember where I first found the poets in this volume, and the feeling of delight I experienced when I did.
I found Br. Paul Quenon on the shelf of a monastery gift shop in Georgia in a thin volume from a small press. I soon realized it was ironic to find him on a shelf, because to know his poetry is to know that he’s rarely indoors, let alone settled in the way one assumes of a Trappist. I found Bonnie Thurston years earlier in The Christian Century. I met her first, there, as a poet, only later to know her as one of the smartest people I’ll ever meet. With Scott Cairns, the pleasure of the discovery was in the hearing, at a reading he gave twenty years ago. I know dozens of people who have come to know Cairns that way, and stayed to read more. Paul Mariani and Thomas Lynch, too, I found at readings, and then became one of their groupies. They all make poems for the page that take on a different life when spoken.
Phyllis Tickle, my old friend, I’d never read as a poet until I scoured her out-of-print work while compiling Phyllis Tickle: The Essential Writings. A longtime member of the Paraclete editorial board, she usually remarked that her career in verse was over. I laughed and cried when reading poems she’d written about her children and rural life, and quite literally forgotten, some fifty years earlier. Scholar-professor poets Greg Miller and William Woolfitt were passed to me by scholarly friends with notes such as, You need to read this. He’s good! Many important books have come to me in that way. Rainer Maria Rilke I found, like so many have, in college, but I never understood him until Mark Burrows translated and opened the work up for me. SAID, whose work also appears here in translation, was sent to me by Mark, with a note that read, “He’s one of Germany’s most respected poets today. Shades of Rumi, but much more.” I was soon hooked. Then there is the glorious Polish poet Anna Kamieńska, who barely escaped the Nazis. I first encountered a poem of hers in a collection compiled by Czesław Milosz, appropriately titled, A Book of Luminous Things, a few years before Paraclete began publishing poetry.
Fr. John-Julian was a friend and colleague before I ever knew he was a poet. He was in his eighties when we published his book of poems, and yet we felt we’d discovered a clergy-poet in the tradition of Donne and Hopkins. Rami Shapiro, too, I’d known for years, professionally, and for his other work in prose, before realizing that he was also a poet of great importance. In Rami’s case, I realized this in shul, sitting beside my wife, since many of Rami’s poems began as prayers and appear in many Jewish prayer books (siddurim). He sings like a psalmist.
They are gems, all. May this book change more than a few minds and hearts.
Jon M. Sweeney
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Paraclete Press
(Excerpted from The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems by Mark S. Burrows.)
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