U.S. Mennonite Poetry and Poets: Beyond Dr. Johnson's Dog

Article excerpt

"Russian Mennonites ... write vivid disturbing poetry. Swiss Mennonites ... don't."

--Craig Haas and Steve Nolt, 1993

"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."

--Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

For most of the twenty-some years that I have been writing poems, I have believed that an American Mennonite audience for poetry was a contradiction in terms. I published many poems in literary magazines, and even a few (rather tepid ones) in church periodicals. But it seemed clear that much of my work was too restless, sardonic or oblique for the church press and that Mennonites at large were no more interested in poetry than other Americans. I found outlets for my work elsewhere and tried not to think about it too much, though I occasionally thought wistfully about the lively Canadian Mennonite literary scene, with its high-profile and controversial writers. I found the poets who meant the most to me mainly outside Mennonite traditions, although a few, like William Stafford and Janet Kauffman, had some sort of Mennonite connection.

In the few years since Haas and Nolt--with tongues partly in cheek---concluded that Swiss Mennonites just don't write "vivid, disturbing" poetry, things have changed, some. If they made that statement now, at some semi-intellectual Mennonite gathering, someone in the group would be likely to know of at least one Swiss Mennonite poet--Julia (Spicher) Kasdorf, probably. A real enthusiast in the group might come up with a few more names. It would be too strong to call the recent emergence of American Mennonite poetry, from both the Swiss and Russian streams, an explosion or even a renaissance. Yet as poets such as Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf and a number of others publish poems in national magazines and presses, win awards and become recognized in the American poetry network, Mennonite recognition has followed. Poets are invited with increasing frequency to read, speak and work with students on Mennonite campuses. It has become almost de rigeur, even at standard Mennonite academic conferences, to include some writers and artists and to schedule a session or two of readings or creative presentations. (1) Magazines such as Mennonite Life and Mennonot have given exposure to poets and poems that are less conventional in both style and subject matter than those found in the general-circulation denominational magazines. Even Mennonite Weekly Review noticed when Jean Janzen won a $20,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and Julia Kasdorf's poem "Mennonites" was the subject of a Gospel Herald editorial in 1995 after it was included in the Macmillan college text Many Worlds of Literature.

Among the American Mennonite intelligentsia (a phrase whose ironic qualities I recognize) there is a clearly developing, if sometimes uneasy, sense that poets and other creative artists may have important things to tell us. Theologian Scott Holland, himself a controversial figure in the Mennonite community, puts it this boldly: "I believe that our Mennonite and Brethren artists, poets and creative writers have more to teach us than our theologians and preachers about the ambiguity of desire, the enigma of the flesh, the deceitfulness of the heart, the goodness of grace and the mystery of God in the world." (2)

Holland's key terms--ambiguity, desire, enigma, deceitfulness, mystery--are ones not often invoked, at least approvingly, by mainstream Mennonite church leaders. When they invoke poets, it is likely to be in less threatening terms. Lorne Peachey's Gospel Herald editorial pays much closer attention to the teacher's guide for the anthology and what it reveals about the way "others" see "us" than to Julia Kasdorf's poem itself. He notes with considerable satisfaction the statements in the "discussion notes" that Mennonites have "a single-minded devotion to God" and "seem to actually practice what they preach. …

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