Tracing Religion in the Poetry of Kevin Hart

By Mitchell, Paul | Antipodes, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Tracing Religion in the Poetry of Kevin Hart


Mitchell, Paul, Antipodes


IN MANY CRITICAL CIRCLES, OVERTLY RELIGIOUS POETRY, especially work proclaiming Christianity, is considered the province of greeting cards or pious exaltations of the faith suitable only for church services (Ryken 295-96; Impastato xxii; Baumgaertner 569; Bush; Hero). Despite this, however, there are many contemporary poets who hold Christian beliefs and whose work is given significant critical attention, including Australia's Les Murray, Bruce Dawe and Peter Steele, and the subject of this study, Kevin Hart. Awarded and renowned international poets such as Geoffery Hill, James K. Baxter, Scott Cairns, Eric Pankey, Annie Dillard, Andrew Hudgins, Denise Levertov and Richard Wilbur are also known for their Christian faith (Impastato; Baumgaertner 569-72; Gross).

Critics' simultaneous rejection of some religious poetry and their embrace of these Christian poets means their work must be more than pious exclamation. A possible reason why these poets" works are lauded despite their authors" religious convictions is that they opaquely include themes associated with Christian theology. It appears this could be the case with the work of Australia's Kevin Hart.

HART'S CAREER AND DEFINING RELIGIOUS POETRY

Kevin Hart was born in England in 1954 and moved to Australia when he was 11 (McCooey, "Intersecting" 23; Spinks 5). He currently holds a position at the University of Virginia, and before he took up that job in fall 2007 he was Professor of English and of Religious Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, and was formerly Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Melbourne's Monash University. Brought up a nominal Anglican, he joined an evangelical Baptist sect and then attended Episcopalian (a liberal US denomination) services while living in California. In 1980 he converted to Catholicism (McCooey, "Intersecting" 34).

Hart published his first collection, The Departure, in 1978. He has subsequently published another eight collections and edited the Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (McCooey Intersecting; Hart, Flame Tree). He has also published extensively in the fields of theology and philosophy, notably his book The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (1989).

Hart's early poetry often used traditional religious imagery: "Father, I praise you/For the wideness of this your earth" ("The Stone's Prayer"); "Eating the bread and wine,/Or the simple crosses/Pointing downwards" ("Praying for the Dead"). By the time of Peniel (1991), however, religious imagery was more difficult to find. Where his first two volumes had entire poems devoted to-and imbued by-religious themes, Peniel contained only fragments.

From Peniel to Hart's recent collections (Dork Angel [1996], Wicked Heat [1999] and Young Rain [2006]), conspicuous religious imagery has played a diminished role. Despite this, however, the critic Stephen Watson in a 2003 Verse magazine interview postulated that Hart's later work had become more religious: "[Y]our poetry, as it develops over time, uses obviously religious imagery more and more sparingly. And yet, paradoxically, it seems to me to grow more and more religious, not less" (Watson).

Before assessing whether this is true, it is worth considering what makes any poetry religious. Hart writes that when the terms "religion" and "poetry" are brought together they seem to encompass everything from hymns to carols, and even "stanzas that affirm what Friedrich Schleiermacher called a "feeling of absolute dependence" or what Romain Rolland dubbed an "oceanic feeling"... [or] assertions of God's death and quieter confessions of a gradual fading of belief . . ." ("Australian Religious Poetry" 265).

This definition, however, suggests all poetry is religious, a possibility which some 20th century poets and critics raised: Matthew Arnold believed poetry would replace religion, saying that the pursuit of culture and "godliness" were interchangeable, and Wallace Stevens claimed that the "consolations" of art were generally similar to those of religion (Pooley 32-33; Williams 63). …

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