Issue 6.2 poet Brett Foster thinks writing may be an act of devotion, but so can a lot of things if they’re done “to Godward.”
Is writing an act of devotion for a writer of faith? Sure it is, but then again, I have a pretty low bar for what can be done in a spirit of devotion if the mind, heart, and will are inclined “to Godward,” as certainly early religious poets put it. Buying groceries, fixing your son’s bicycle tire, showing kindness to a stranger, or if that last one seems too grand and saintly, maybe just being kind to your own family. These actions can be treated as devotions, in the sense of “doing devotions,” but they are both good in themselves and good in the right spirit they are capable of renewing in us.
I’ve been reading Thomas Wyatt’s poetry and about Wyatt’s life lately, and he speaks eloquently of reaching a repentant place. And Wyatt, a truly worldly and stubborn son of a gun at the court of Henry VIII, often had much of which to repent. He translated the Penitential Psalms at one point, during imprisonment or house arrest, I think, and I imagine him undertaking that task while sharing some of the above concerns for well-directed activity. So, sure, if waving someone ahead of you at a four-way stop can be an act of devotion, I imagine that writing poetry can be, too.
Maybe I should clarify that you don’t have to undertake versions of the penitential psalms to feel justified in your work, to feel assurance that it is devotionally driven and received as devotion. I don’t want to belabor this, and it is hard to find fresh words to say the thing, but there is such a wonderful feeling of spiritual attunement when you are engaging the genuine work (whatever it may be—poodle grooming, maybe, or writing villanelles) that you strongly feel is yours to do. Engaging it with concentration and hope and that proper type of exuberance or pride in the thing. I hope this makes it sufficiently clear that I’m not talking about—not at all—an aesthetic matter. Let writers write all sorts of different things, I say. Some writing is expressly devotional in its subject matter or themes or perspective, but much else can be exhibited or glimpsed through a devotional lens if we’re receptive, or maybe “reflective” (better to carry out the image metaphor here). It’s a matter of outlook. It’s wishing your work to be a gift offered, from somewhere better than your net worth. Something not necessary in one sense but essential in another—a gratuity that is far from gratuitous.
Brett Foster is the author of The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2011). A second, smaller poetry collection, Fall Run Road, was awarded Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Prize, and is forthcoming. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Books & Culture, Cellpoems, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Common, IMAGE, Kenyon Review,Measure, The New Criterion, Pleiades, and Shenandoah. He teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College.