Reading Poetry Devotionally: How Poems Nurture Our Spiritual Lives

Class Number: 
June 3-7
2:00 pm - 4:15 pm

Class Price: 

The poet Dana Gioia once asked in a book of this title, “Can Poetry Matter?” That question of course begs another question: matter in what ways? We may read poetry for any number of reasons, but this class considers how poetry nurtures, and enriches, our spiritual lives. By our close reading of poems together from outstanding poets of the last 100 years, we will explore the many ways that poetry inspires us to comprehend our relationships with God, each other, and ourselves with fresh insight. Whether you are an avid or an occasional reader of poetry, we will dig deeper into how poems work, while encountering the work poems do in us as people who aspire, and struggle, to experience a more profound living faith.

There is no specific background in literature required or expected. The course materials consist mainly of poems with some light secondary material to enhance our reading experience, all of which will be provided by PDFs. Topics will include reading the Bible through poetry, poetry and the contemplation of core beliefs, poetry and struggles with faith, and poetry and devotion to social justice.

We have three main objectives for the course:

1. To illuminate the many diverse facets of faith that our poems ask us to contemplate, including those we may not have considered.

(NB: Although religious faith of any kind is enriched by these works, most of our poets express a Judeo-Christian sensibility.)

2. To develop skills in reading poems ‘in their own terms’ and as a form of devotional practice.

3. To consider how ‘poets of faith’ in modernity and late-modernity help us to comprehend present challenges to religious faith and devotion.

David Mahan is a Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Worship, and the Arts at Yale Divinity School, where he has taught for the past 13 years. He is also the Executive Director of the Rivendell Institute and Co-director of the Rivendell Center for Theology and the Arts at Yale. He completed his BA in history at Miami University of Ohio, his M.A.R. in Religion and the Arts at Yale Divinity School, and his PhD in theology and poetry at the University of Cambridge (UK). He is the author of the book An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Thought of Charles WilliamsMicheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill (Princeton Monographs 2009). His courses at Yale include different approaches to 20th- and 21st century literatures that explore themes of religion and spirituality, apocalypse, trauma, race, justice, and redemption. He is particularly interested in poetics and how faith and literature interact to create fresh expressions of and for the modern imagination.

In addition to his work as a scholar and teacher, Dr. Mahan has worked in university campus ministry for 35 years, having served at Yale since 1987. He and his wife Karen, a Spiritual Formation Director at the Rivendell Institute, live in Hamden, CT.

Yale Divinity School

David Mahan