Poetry and religion: flow with the mystery - Madonna Magazine

Poetry and religion: flow with the mystery

Tracey Edstein 16 August 2022

Speaking a week before the Federal election, broadcaster Geraldine Doogue said, ‘We’re drifting as a country . . . There’s no poetry or imagination in much that you can see . . . It’s pretty pedestrian . . . It’s lack of imagination that turns my vote.’  (Long Distance Call podcast 13 May 2022)

I believe writer, academic and lover of poetry Dr Elizabeth Guy would strongly agree.

Elizabeth recalls a Sydney childhood steeped in reading, conversation and the devout practice of the Catholic faith. ‘Mum was a cradle Catholic and my father a convert to Catholicism, so his faith journey was one of inquiry. I came from a home where everyone was reading and my parents discussed what they were reading.

‘As a child I was a dreamer who found a lot of anchorage in reading. When I was reading I was situated in a place that felt deeply familiar, even if it was imagined. I was reading poetry from a very young age ? and like other kids I was writing some really ghastly poetry!’

Elizabeth was educated by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and then the Lochinvar Josephites. 

‘Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Catholicism was really about social justice and the nuns drilled into us the importance of women’s education. Meanwhile, I was developing a deep appreciation of poetry and realised that poetry positions you to be empathetic. So, there is an interface between my emergence as a person of faith and my love of poetry.’


Elizabeth has reflected much on the synergy of poetry and religious practice. ‘From an early age I was very curious about language and ritual. I remember asking my father about some of the words in the old purple hymnal – quizzing him on “what does that word mean?” or “why is the priest saying this or that?” and I learned from an early age the importance of ritual and symbol, and poetry is fascinated with ritual and symbol. Church language is beautiful and the stories from the liturgy are about mercy but there are also many tales in the Old and New Testament that are terrifying, disturbing and even funny – but if you’re awake to it all it makes you see are the intertextual connections  everywhere.’

Elizabeth is attuned to the effect of a largely secular society’s elimination of religious ritual and the concomitant risk that ‘there’s no rhythm or cadence’.

If you’re looking for rhythm and cadence you might look to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), one of Elizabeth’s favourites.

‘I love the way Dylan Thomas sounds. There’s no small talk in poetry, only big talk, and Thomas goes straight there. He wants to ask, are we all terrified of death? Does anyone else out there think they’ve wasted years? Am I the only one who understands what it is to have failed in love? I love his emotional honesty.’

Thomas’ ‘Poem in October’ concludes with these lines:

O may my heart’s truth
           Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.


‘That’s what I want to have on my grave! I think he’s saying that if I’ve lived my life with emotional honesty then that is the only thing that will imprint the lives of others. And do you know what? That’s enough.’

There are many poets Elizabeth reveres – Anna Akhmatova, Les Murray, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Rosemary Dobson and so many more. She recalls being at Mass in Ireland where the priest quoted from Patrick Kavanagh, from Seamus Heaney, from Yeats… ‘It knocked me over. Afterwards I drove to my girlfriend’s farm and when the workers came in for their midday dinner they heard I was writing a book on poetry, and they just started quoting poetry.

‘I find it extraordinary that a poem written a hundred years ago in another country and another language can say something very personal about my life. Poetry doesn’t have an agenda, it’s just honest. In fact, I’d be much more trusting of a line of poetry than I would be of a statement by a politician or a priest or a boss. I trust poetry can give language to things that are monumental, wondrous, exciting but also to experiences that are vexatious, disturbing and unfathomable . . .’


Her first book is titled The Alchemy of Poetry and she says, ‘Poetry doesn’t have alchemy unless we put ourselves into it. It needs the poet and it needs us. It moves the base matter of words into gold.’

Not everyone ‘gets’ poetry, and sometimes poor teaching leaves lifelong scars. Asked to recommend  a starting point, Elizabeth suggests William Carlos Williams’ delightful ‘This is Just to Say’:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

There is much wisdom in Elizabeth’s view that ‘We need a rich, intelligent way of talking about faith. Like religion, poetry continues to ask the unfashionable questions . . . it’s focused on what’s beyond, on the metaphysical – and isn’t faith in the same wheelhouse?’

In poetry, as in faith, you don’t know everything. As Elizabeth’s father would say to her, ‘You just have to flow with the mystery.’

To learn more, please visit https://elizabeth-guy.com/