Poetry as Liturgy/ Poet as Priest – The Poetry Guest Blog Series # 28, Part Two by Margo Swiss

The 2007 poetry anthology, Poetry as Liturgy, edited by Canadian poet Margo Swiss

Easter Conversations

“they said unto them, why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen, remember how He spoke unto you when you were yet in Galilee.”
Luke 24.3-6 10-11

Jesus Christ knows flesh,
bodies speaking, always did
do what his Father said.

His mother’s hard labour, first,
in time, his own: walked his talk, then,
was crossed, tombed, shut up for good
dead (it was said)

He heard his Father say, rise,
be born again this day.

“it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James,
and the other women who were with them, which told these things unto
the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they
believeth them not.”

Margo Swiss from The Hatching of the Heart, Wipf & Stock, 2015


I am so pleased to have the poet and scholar Margo Swiss provide a detailed history in English poetry of poetry as liturgy and poet as priest. To know that, while so much poetry does not have an explicitly religious or spiritual basis, there is a history in Christianity of poetry as a specifically religious or spiritual practice.


In 2007 I edited an anthology, Poetry as Liturgy, presenting fourteen Canadian Christian poets from six denominations: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, United Church, and Mennonite. Each described their writing as a poetic liturgy to God and community. I align my own writing of poetry with this perspective, which I will try to explain in what follows.

The term liturgy derives from the Greek, leitourgia, a public work or duty offered to the community. It was in essence a religious act which satisfied the Greek practice of expenditure and sacrifice. The performance in Greek theatre was always preceded by a sacrificial offering to the gods upon an altar that was a permanent fixture of the stage. The tragic hero of drama was exemplary and suffered on behalf of the community. The dramatic process was cathartic for the audience, who vicariously participated in the hero’s fall and eventual catastrophe or death, following which a new order was established.

Greek tragic liturgy highlighted several formative elements of Christian religious practice: ritual performance, spectacle, and the offertory, sacrificial and in effect, cathartic intention by which its assembled members are instructed and edified. Christian liturgy is therefore a “staged’ performance of the Passover meal, in which Jesus offers and serves himself as the sacrificial “Lamb of God.” The “serving” of Jesus Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist evokes “service,” the term most often assigned to the practice of religious liturgy. It is interesting to note that in defining their liturgical function, all the poets in the anthology, in one way or another, applied the term “service” to their role as poet-priests.

When we look at the English tradition, we find that the earliest discourses on poetry emphasize its liturgical function. In The First Book of Poets and Poesie (1589) Richard Puttenham writes: poets were the first that instituted sacrifices of placation, with invocations and worship…as to the Gods; and invented and established all the rest of the observances and ceremonies of religion, and so were the first Priests and ministers of the holy mysteries. Shortly after, in 1595, Sir Philip Sidney published his Apology for Poetry, in which he makes the radical claim that the poet is “analogous to God” in his capacity to create, “through divine inspiration, other worlds.” These ministerial definitions find their literal expression in those poets who are themselves priests. Most notable in the English tradition must be John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom were ordained poet-priests. In my anthology we had two ordained priests, one Roman Catholic and the other Lutheran.

The German Jesuit Karl Rahner develops this conception of the poet-priest and poetic liturgy in what he calls the apostolicity of all work dedicated to sacred intention. The Christian poet by his/her membership in “the priesthood of all believers,” is a poet-priest who, like the ordained priest, uses words efficaciously. In the process of “working” a poem, s/he selects what Rahner calls “primordial words,” appealing here to the Augustinian differentiation between res and signa, between things and signs, or words that signify reality.

The poet-priest uses words to present reality itself, in effect, to bring reality into being in the text of the poem. The poetic process, by its intention and the poet’s attentive work, bodies forth the reality it seeks to express. The finished poem thus “incarnates” its meaning through the careful selection of the ‘right words in the right order’ in the body of the poem. The poem, as it stands, is therefore the incarnational creation of the poet-priest.

In Rahner’s theology, “words are sacraments communicated to human beings (readers) to achieve their true destiny.” He continues: “the poet-priest is the minister of the sacrament and the poem is a liturgy of love which communes with its audience for its blessing and its fulfilment.” The audience or readership of the poetic liturgy, like the congregation of Church liturgy, is a significant “actor“ in the liturgical process. As in congregational worship, the audience of a poem attentively engages with what George Steiner calls the “real presences” of the text. By so doing, the reader effectively “completes” the poetic process. The reader ‘s attentive engagement with and experience of the poem is viewed by many poets as “essential” to the fulfilment of their work. So, too, a congregation’s intention to participate in and attentively engage with the church liturgy completes its process.

Rahner’s final extrapolation from this line of thought is what he terms the pastoral theology of all Christian books. From the efficacy of Holy Scripture God wills that human beings make books. The consecration of the Holy Spirit inspires the potential dignity of all Christian books. He writes: “The Word made flesh in the body of the text wills to encounter the individual in the singularity of heart and conscience.” Finally, Rahner concludes: “read in this way books participate in the necessity, the saving significance, the dignity and divine apostolic mission of all such books.” He even goes so far as to claim, “that the world is not fully itself until it is seen with the eyes of love and celebrated in art.”

StillbornAwake thou that sleepest. Arise from the dead, and Christ shall
give thee light.” (Ephesians 5.14)

One dark night
I heard You speak   and knew
that voice   was none   but You.
But so dog-tired   and too far gone   to rise
I beggared off   pledging to write
                            another night.

Days then passed   and only now
do I recall what I forgot   that
you so kindly all for-
                               gave  those precious words   spilling into
                               lines   a little poem let   go
                               come to not   or even worse
                               what might have been   in time
                               a sacred verse   mis-
                                                             carried now
                                                             your stillborn art
                                                             bleeds away   in tears

                                                             my heart cries 
                                                             to rouse itself

Margo Swiss from Second Gaze, St.Thomas Poetry Series, 2020

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