At the age of 75, Fr. Kilian McDonnell, founder and president of the Collegeville Institute and a renowned ecumenist and theologian, began writing poetry. Seventeen years later, he has published four volumes of poetry. His fifth collection, Aggressive Mercy, is scheduled to be released in September by Saint John’s University Press. Recently, we spoke with Fr. Kilian about his life as a poet.
During your years as a professional theologian and ecumenist, you wrote numerous scholarly books and articles. But poetry is a very different genre. How did you come to write poetry, and what is your poetry about?
While my academic work is more abstract, I mined the same scriptural characters and themes for my free-verse poetry. My poems center on my experience of the biblical characters. Of course, I engage my imagination and I dramatize; I even imagine details not found in the biblical texts. I distort in order to tell the truth. However, I’m true to the biblical characters and the events. So the poem is not just an idea; it’s my experience. I have a number of poems on Mary who was called to become an unmarried mother around the age of 12. Imagine the terrible situation she finds herself in after the Archangel Gabriel has vanished. My experience of the text tells me she was terrified.
I have often written poems on Judas, a much maligned man, whom I experience as a man who loved Jesus but betrayed him because he saw that Jesus would not drive out the Romans and would not establish a Jewish state. The actual text does not indicate that this was Judus’ motive, but there were zealots around in Jesus’ time and I imagine that Judas was one of them. Even more, I believe that the logic of the gospel allows me to believe that Judas attained God after death. Think about it: Why would the merciful God not gather the man he had chosen, loved, and nurtured? God’s mercy is aggressive.
The title of your last book of poetry is Wrestling with God. Why “wrestling” with God?
I do not write pious verse or inspirational verse. I write about biblical persons who have big problems with God, and with people around them. They make terrible mistakes. They also lie, steal, cheat, slander their neighbor, and fornicate. People like us. Their relationship with God or their neighbor is not an easy one.
I have a template which characterizes the whole of my poetry—which is Jacob’s mysterious wrestling with God. In the story Jacob begins wrestling with a man whom he thinks is a stranger. In the middle of the wrestling match he realizes it is not a stranger but God. Jacob is winning the wrestling match, so God cheats; he puts Jacob’s hip out of joint. They continue wrestling through the night. An ancient Near Eastern tradition dictates that if a wrestling match continues through the night, it should end at dawn. God reminds Jacob that the sun is rising, but Jacob says he will not let go. Jacob has a stranglehold on God that Jacob will maintain until God tells him his name. God does not tell Jacob his name but gives him a blessing, and Jacob walks away from the wrestling match limping. The limp is a symbol of a mysterious, and not quite fair, encounter with God that leaves one changed, even changed in some radical way. Wrestling with God is a risk.
That’s the framework that shapes all my poetry. My poetry is a little edgy, even confrontational. I intend my poems to be tough. I suspect that is one of the reasons why people buy my books. It’s not because I’m such a great poet; rather it’s because I treat these biblical characters like people in the real world, people like all of us. And readers respond. They’re interested in the Bible and they see their own struggles with God in these characters.
After seventeen years as a poet, what do you know now about poetry that you didn’t when you first started writing? What’s changed?
My poems are shorter now. My lines are shorter. My stanzas are shorter. And I’ve learned that good poetry is highly concentrated. I can’t have a wasted word, and to get to that place I have to work very carefully. Most especially, I cut.
The supposition that the poet has an inspiration—that a poem comes to him whole, merely for him to write it down—is not true. At least it’s not true for me, and I suspect it’s not true for most poets. Writing poetry is 98 percent sweat and two percent inspiration. You get an idea for a poem, which is not the same as inspiration. For me, inspiration comes in the process of writing. But it’s still hard work, really hard work. After I’ve written a poem I may put it in a drawer and let it sit for five years. Then I go back and say, “Oh no, that doesn’t work at all.” So I revise again and again. For the sake of the poem, the poet has to be brave and cut favorite lines, even brilliant ones, which do not work. Cut them and use them in some subsequent poem.
What advice would you offer to aspiring poets?
To be a good poet, you have to read good poetry, but also read poetry you enjoy. Good poets often write poems that I don’t really enjoy. So, I encourage aspiring poets to read good poets whose work proves stimulating and enjoyable. While a poet should not imitate another poet, an aspiring poet can learn from experienced poets, seeing how they solve literary challenges.
Who are good poets that you would recommend for people to read?
I would recommend Seamus Heaney, R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, August Kleinzahler, Robert Hall, Robert Haas, Mary Oliver, Kate Ryan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and George Szirtes. If one is interested in religious poetry I especially recommend R.S. Thomas, the Welsh pastor/poet. He is truly a great poet.
How has becoming a poet affected your vocation and your life at Saint John’s Abbey? How has being a poet intersected with being a monastic?
First, I’ll start with a problem. The problem is that I write biblical poetry, and I don’t use sacral language. I use the ordinary idiom and I take on the earthy language of the Bible itself. As I read the scriptures I cannot imagine Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Mary, Peter, and Judas using the pious diction sometimes attributed to them. Occasionally, as in the case of my poems on Job, who is suing God, the diction becomes almost blasphemous because I am taking my tone from the biblical text. Job goes up to the line of blasphemy; he never crosses it. Sometimes I say to myself, “But Kilian, you’re a monk. You can’t write that!” This is a struggle.
My prayer life feeds my poetry, as does my interaction with my monastic brothers. One of the monks said, “Kilian does not have enough to do. He writes poetry.” That became the title of one of my non-biblical poems. Many of the monks at Saint John’s read my poetry and discuss it with me. We often experience biblical texts differently from each other, but talking about these experiences enriches our life together.
A Presbyterian pastor told me he uses my poetry for meditation. I try to engage the reader in my experience of the biblical text, but I’m not out to edify. I’m delighted if I have been successful in making the reader share that experience. As a poet I’m not out to convert readers or make them better Christians. Communicating my experience of the biblical text is what I do; there’s nothing beyond that. But, if I have written a good poem and a reader recognizes something of religious significance in a poem and uses it for prayer or meditation—that’s stupendous. It doesn’t get better than that for me.
Watch a video of Fr. Kilian reading his poem, Peter Confesses to Judas: