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Contemporary Christian Poetry
A Review of
The Turning Aside:
The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry
D. S. Martin, Ed.
Paperback: Cascade, 2016.
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Reviewed by Brent Newsom
Since 2010, poet and editor D. S. Martin has curated Kingdom Poets, a weekly blog introducing readers to “poets of the Christian faith, regardless of background.” The range of poets presented in that span is vast and impressive, from the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon to numerous living writers from across the globe. In addition, since 2012 Martin has done readers and writers of Christian poetry a great service by developing the Poiema Poetry Series, an imprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers that champions contemporary poets of Christian faith.
Collecting representative works from sixty poets, Martin’s anthology The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry marks a welcome distillation of his efforts in both his blog and the Poiema series. Doing his due editorial diligence, Martin makes his criteria for inclusion explicit in the book’s introduction. First, eliding the likelihood of theological hectoring or dogmatic pigeonholing, he offers his interpretation of the term “Christian poetry”—that is, “poems which demonstrate that the poet takes Christian faith seriously.” Secondly, Martin asserts that he sought to represent a diversity of styles by poets from around the world. Finally, to help define the scope of the project, he limited his selections to poems originally written in English, and to poets still living in January 2000. While scrupulously adhering to such an arbitrary delimiter might seem fussy, one sympathizes with the anthologist’s difficult task. An editor must draw boundaries somewhere.
The resulting volume, at 225 pages, offers a wide but not unwieldy sampling from both well-established and lesser-known anglophone poets. Arranged chronologically by each poet’s year of birth, the book ranges from Anne Porter and R. S. Thomas, both born before World War I, to Dave Harrity and Jae Newman, children of the early 1980s. Among the great pleasures of The Turning Aside is the intermingling of poets from several countries, which will likely lead even the experienced poetry reader to new discoveries. Though the majority of the book’s poets hail from the U.S. or the U.K. (or have migrated there), I was delighted to discover Canada’s Margaret Avison and Sally Ito, Singapore’s Edwin Thumboo, Ireland’s John F. Dean, and Australia’s Andrew Lansdown, among others. There is also the occasional poet who may be better known as a member of the clergy, like Eugene Peterson and Rowan Williams. Along with these the reader finds more familiar names, such as Richard Wilbur, Luci Shaw, Wendell Berry, Marilyn Nelson, Les Murray, Dana Gioia, Christian Wiman, and Mary Szybist.
Though more comprehensive anthologies are available, The Turning Aside serves admirably as an introduction to the milieu of contemporary Christian poetry, particularly in its transnational focus. Poetry readers who have a hard time locating Christian voices in the wider publishing world will appreciate the book’s gathering of such voices. Alternately, Christians who may not often read poetry will find it accessible, a warm welcome to a new way of engaging with their faith. With this anthology, which takes its title from an R. S. Thomas poem referencing Exodus 3, Martin invites all readers to “turn aside” and look, as Moses did, at “the miracle / of the lit bush.”
Brent Newsom authored the poetry collection Love’s Labors (CavanKerry Press, 2015), co-edits the journal Ink & Letters, and teaches writing and literature at Oklahoma Baptist University. Follow him on Twitter at @Brent_Newsom.