Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, editors, Before the Door of God; An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 425pp.
By Dan Clendenin
This handsomely bound volume collects 3,000 years of devotional poetry, beginning with the Hebrew psalms and the seventh-century Greek woman Sappho, and concluding with "post-postmodern" verse and contemporary poets like Bret Foster (b. 1973). The title of the anthology comes from Emily Dickinson's poem #49: "I never lost as much but twice, / And that was in the sod. / Twice have I stood a beggar, / Before the door of God!" After the ancients and the medieval period (about seventy-five pages), most all the poems are Christian and English.
A "devotional" poem, according to the editors, is more narrow that a "religious" poem; it suggests a sort of "colloquy," that is, "addresses to the unknown, conversations (albeit one-sided) with the divine, in whatever way the authors have interpreted that term." And a specifically "lyric" poem is one that "imitates the movements of a single mind as it negotiates a set of concerns." As such, these poems are more personal than doctrinal. They exemplify two of our deepest human impulses, "the drive to create and the drive to know a creator." And thus a marvelous paradox — poems that describe a deeply private spiritual experience "achieve a transhistorical sense of readerly communion" even three thousand years after they were written.