≡ Menu

The Church of Poetry

There is something wrong in the World of Poetry (of course, something’s always wrong, which is part of the fun).We quibble over doctrinal disputes like the institution we love to hate: the Church. How many recovering Catholics, or any denomination, have found refuge now in the Church of Poetry, this “better scripture”?

Yet if we behave no better, then let the dark ages reign. Let us burn each other at the stake with impunity. Confessionalists confessing, Language poets being obtuse, the new-new-new modernists making whimsy of it all. But, if tortured, I too must confess: I love it all. All of it.

If there were a new Church of Poetry, it should be a movement toward a truly catholic approach, as in broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded, liberal; universal in extent, involving all…(from Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language 1996). The word catholic with a small “c”, not the big “C”. Not “Catholic” as in some monolithic institution of the True, be it religion or poetry.

But it is too easy to want to be a good Catholic (Big “C”) when it comes to poetry: confidence in the one true Canon, delivered by God, articulated through the ages by a series of infallible Popes (ah, the legion of Poets hoping they will, at least historically if not presently, be seen as both Pope and infallible). The textbooks shine (through the dust), the anthologies quiver (with fear at being excised from the Canon, like The Shepherd of Hermas, or the Gospel of Mary).

But I was raised Protestant: that cantankerous brand of rebel wordsmiths who believed the good Lord when he said Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. So, far from the gold brocades and accolades of the reigning bureaucracies (be they ecclesiastical or literary), I always felt that a single poet, all alone in the wilderness, or gathered with a few of the faithful by candlelight at night in a wooden farm-shed across from the high school’s outer fields (yes, this is where it began for me), that any of us could commune with the real deal, a direct pipeline to the godhead (muse or spirit) just by gathering, invoking, speaking in whatever tongues that ushered forth—not waiting for sub-committees to bless or intercede on our behalf.

Bold as Martin Luther in 1517 nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in the university town of Wittenberg, asserting that it is by personal faith alone, not an interceding bureaucracy, that we are saved. Or can write new scripture. Like a poem.

So perhaps I am a “Protestant poet”, rather than a Catholic. Still, there is no salvation here in the democratic urge; Protestants are no better than Catholics at opening their arms to embrace the human race and all its works.

I remember the dust cover of a book that sat on my father’s wooden shelves in the garage, leftover from his seminary days, that said (something to the effect of): Why I am a Nazarene ( and NOT a Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, etc). The book didn’t even bother with disassociating from anything Pagan or Buddhist, assuming everyone knew they were bound for the nether regions already. My father, who was a Nazarene minister for three years before he got kicked out for “speaking in tongues”, began to laugh at the schisms that wracked the proliferating protestant church in the 20th century—churches splitting congregations over whether someone should be baptized by bending forward into the water one time in the name of Jesus, or three times backward in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Like a virus, Luther’s rebel words nailed to the Catholic church door spread till there are now so many denominations it is difficult to tell where truth really lies. Or it is just lies, period. Or if it lies in only one denomination…or touches all of them? Perhaps it is the same with Poetry?

But this is so wonderfully American: no one is going to tell us what to do, or believe. Don’t tread on me, trumpets the banner. Wherever two or more are gathered…enough to start your own church, creed, citadel. Any patriot can. Any poet.


Poetry could learn a thing or two from Religion, or Psychology for that matter. It’s been quite embarrassing, really, watching the gorgeous faithful from diverse cultures down through the ages quibble over Truth, when the obvious Truth is that the blending of the diverse spectrum of color yields a white light that envelopes all single hues (oh my, I wax New Age here). It wasn’t that long ago when the eminent scholar Huston Smith (in The Religions of Man) so beautifully began to document the symmetries underlying these human expressions of the ethereal, or the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell with his Hero With A Thousand Faces chronicling the unifying journey into the Psyche that the world’s great myths detail. Both efforts aimed at stretching our short arms widely round the big wide globe of human longing. Perhaps Poetry could be this large?

And then there was Freud, and of course Carl Jung, and their babies (so to speak), proliferating faster than rabbits-in-a-hurry the many psychologies that kept denouncing the limited vision of each predecessor: B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, Carl Roger’s new humanism, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt, and the recent parade of neuro-scientists reducing all human pathos to brain chemistry transactions. Now, we know that each domain is important, a piece of the whole, none able to claim an exclusive reign as the true king of the psychological sandlot (despite the attempts at bullying). Each a blind man having gotten hold of one part of the immense elephant (in the Hindu story) and excitedly raving about how the human (or Poetry, for that matter) is precisely and only just like this large elephant toenail, or wet trunk, or big flapping ear. Blind—to the immense gorgeous beast much larger than their small hands can fathom.

And so, the squabbles in Poetry between the New Formalists and the Spoken Word rebels, the old Beats and the Language bards, the poorly named Confessionalists (as though the Inquisition of some Holy Academy was still thumb-screwing confessions out of us—ouch, not again please, ouch!), or the Post-Modern Millennialists…all the complaints begin to sound like lawyerly legal briefs pitching their single-sided view of what True Poetry really is. As though there were, indeed, an infallible Pope of Poetry to appeal to, or a Jehovah of Jangle to smite the unbelievers with the wrong set of stone tablets, or a big Freudian Analyst in the sky who could always boil down anything you say to one first cause, like penis-envy.

Maybe it’s poetry-envy…checking each other’s equipment out in the junior high school bathroom stalls. Let’s grow up! (Excuse this downward slide into seventh grade preoccupations, but hey, I think we’ve slid this far!). Show me yours, I’ll show you mine, because we’re curious about the many shapes of the human—not because we’re measuring!

So  whether Beat or Black Mountain, Conceptual or Confessional, Cowboy or Dark Room Collective, Harlem Renaissance or Imagist, Language or Metaphysical, Modernist or New Formalist, Romantic or Slam or Surrealist: I’m interested, I’m curious, I’m frankly amazed!


But really, this small mindedness when it comes to Poetry is even bigger than allusions to religious zealotries or psychological fixations. It’s also geography—a New Geography, a movement from tribal warfare to global citizenry.

The World of Poetry: this one world, entangled, stretching for any global poetry-citizen far past the color-coded boundaries of nation-state boundaries the map-makers devise (whether boundaries of country, or poetry nation-states). If the Internet has brought us one thing, it is the Google-Map ability to see the whole Earth, the entire sphere of its beauty, revving this movement past tribalism, past geo-regional antipathies, towards new identity as a global citizen. That the whole world matters. That Poetry matters. All of it. That it is a jewel. That it is to be praised.

Hallelujah! Can I get an Amen!?

Dane Cervine is a therapist who serves as Chief of Children’s Mental Health for Santa Cruz County in California. His new book is entitled How Therapists Dance, from Plain View Press (2013), which also published his previous book The Jeweled Net of Indra. He is a widely published poet and essayist. Read his commentaries in Contrary: Prepare to Believe and A Secret in Plain View. Or visit his website at: www.DaneCervine.typepad.com.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Frances Badgett August 1, 2013, 9:00 pm

    I love this! Thank you for joining us!

    • Dane Cervine August 2, 2013, 12:43 pm

      Hi Frances, and thanks, glad you enjoyed the piece! It’s been awhile since my two previous essays came out in CONTRARY, so I’m glad to join this contrary-family again…great writing everywhere on this site 🙂

  • E. Ravagni Carter February 14, 2014, 12:39 am

    Thank you for saying this. The often dogmatic nature of a highly divided poetry world has disappointed me for some time. Its good to see someone acknowledging how limiting the narrow view points are that so many in the poetry world gladly lock themselves inside. We’re all here to share and experience each others creativity in all its forms. Thank you again for communicating this simple but powerful truth. Amen.

    • Dane Cervine February 17, 2014, 12:32 am

      Thanks E. Ravagni Carter….glad the Church of Poetry piece resonated. What a wild spectrum of language this world is made of…..thanks for reading.