Poetry and Revelation

For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry

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Kevin Hart
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wading into the deep waters of theology, philosophy, and aesthetics, Kevin Hart’s Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry offers an insightful, complex, and richly-layered example about how to read poetry using the lens of a particular methodological commitment, that of phenomenology. Largely a compilation of previously published articles and presentations, Hart interprets the works of a variety of poets including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, Eugenio Montale, Judith Wright, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Organized into five sections, Hart winds his way through themes such as experience, the poems of Geoffrey Hill, Australian poets, French and Italian poetry, and Marian lyrics.

At times, this organizational structure means that Hart repeats certain claims, evoking in the text a quilt-like sense of an argumentative whole. In this quilt, the stitches show, and readers should not expect a tightly constructed argument that builds from chapter to chapter. The text also asks that the reader be familiar with the basic arc of phenomenology, as Hart only provides bits here-and-there amidst his interpretation of a particular poetic text. Having familiarity with Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign (Fordham University Press, 1989) would likely help the reader prior to entering this text.

That said, the gift of this work is in how it guides the reader into an appreciation of the interpretive depth that phenomenology provides for the reader of poetry, especially from a religious perspective. This methodological assumption is the primary thread holding the text together as a whole. Here, the question about how poetry reveals its insights, rather than why or what it says rises to the fore.

With this question, Hart stresses how phenomenology can free a reader/poet from becoming entangled in a traditional theological and aesthetic conundrum. On the one hand, there is the view that religious poetry must be explicitly linked with the dogmatic, creedal foundations that undergird religious belief. What matters is not a work’s poetics and prosody, but the religious concepts it expresses as such. What the poem clarifies about divine truth—not its artistic value—is the focus of its meaningfulness. As an aesthetic, this mindset seeks then to limit the creative impulses that make poetry so imaginative. On the flip side lies a view of the importance of poetic freedom, viewing any attempt to frame poetry within a prior set of theoretic assumptions as limiting poetic license. Here, all that matters is the poetic imagination, as any commitment to systemic doctrines crimps the very essence of poetry. On both counts, religious poetry is nearly impossible, as it either becomes dull and overly religious (and thus, rather bad poetry) or overly poetic (and thus, too far removed from doctrinal clarity). What Hart argues is that phenomenology helps one see this tension as a false distinction. It is overly simplistic, and avoids the messiness of lived experience.

Consequently, at the center of Hart’s project is the rethinking of the experience of revelation; what matters is how we, amidst the complexity of our lives, experience transcendence as concrete and imminent. Poetic reflection about experiences such as encountering silence, nature, and human temporality are about the revealing of the multiple, infinite ways humans experience the mystery of something beyond themselves. This approach also allows Hart to limit the type of poetry he focuses on to the lyric form, which he views as being primarily about first-hand experiences. This focus leads him to enter the poetic world through notions such as absence/presence, transcendence, and trans-descendence, thereby avoiding a flattening of poetic meaning as he navigates between specification and mystery. It likewise avoids an overly-confessional frame, assuming that such systemic views of faith are they themselves outgrowths of transcendent experiences, rather than any form of special revelation.

This acceptance of the complexity of religious and revelatory experience as a primary part of poetic utterance is one of the true gifts of this text. Poetry and Revelation asks the reader to think about the poetics of faith as it is experienced, amidst doubts, a/theologies, and existential commitments. The text’s reward is that it helpfully provides a way into poetry as parallel experience to that of the life of faith: complex, evolving, and ever rooted in one’s lived experience. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peder Jothen is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Hart is Edwin B. Kyle professor of Christian studies at the department of religious studies, University of Virginia. He also holds professorships in the department of English and the department of French. He has written a number of scholarly books, edited collections, and written several volumes of poetry.


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