I must admit at the beginning of this essay that I am an unabashed Gundy fanboy. His poetry has been deeply influential on personal and professional levels, and I count it as one of the amazing wonders of my life that he and I are friends. I sometimes worry that my love for his work might verge on idolatry, but one of its essential lessons is that we need to find wisdom wherever we can, in all sorts of texts, and I have found it in his. I don’t write poetry often, but Gundy’s work makes me want to do it more, and certainly his writing inspires me to keep looking for the divine in literature and elsewhere in “the world,” that place of transgression which Mennonites view so suspiciously. His work, both poetry and prose, has helped me keep connected to the Mennonite community in times of theological doubt. In other words, I am attracted to Gundy’s writing because I find my journey mirrored in it. I suspect that a lot of others do, too.
Thus it is exciting to have him explicitly doing a form of theology in Songs from an Empty Cage because in a sense I have been reading the rest of his work as such as well. Gundy is a good literary critic because he is a good poet. He understands the power of language, and this skill carries over into his theologizing in this book. He knows how to tell a narrative and mix the mundane with the profound/sacred/divine like many of his poetic influences such as Walt Whitman. This is what the best literary criticism does: it tells a story for us as readers to jump into while simultaneously interpreting the stories that others are trying to tell. I read the book as literary criticism because I myself am a literary critic, and I find that even when one is writing about sacred texts (which is what Gundy is doing, though happily this category in his hands is much broader than in most theologians’) the best way to approach them is as a literary text because ultimately life is about encountering stories and deciding which of them to choose to join. Theology is in many ways simply literary criticism of sacred texts. But, of course, part of what Songs argues is that fitting texts into clear-cut genres is often problematic, and thus others may read the book as something else.
It is hard for me to evaluate Songs objectively because its argument is one I believe deeply is true (of course poetry involves the divine and vice versa; the term “theopoetics” is relatively new for me, and is a welcome one, but it describes what I already felt), and felt it before I read the book, though certainly Gundy’s previous work played a role in me coming to this conclusion. So of course I like it. But I think the book is valuable and accessible for non-poets (and maybe those who think of themselves as non-theological, too), showing them that poetry is more than art, that it does play a role in the world and that is why they should care about it. As William Carlos Williams writes in his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “[i]t is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet [people] die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” Gundy expresses his desire that readers of Songs will be moved to seek out more poetry (162), and this is one of the valuable things about the book. It does not pretend to be complete or definitive, but is simply part of a larger literary and theological web that it wants readers to explore.
From my perspective as a literary critic and as a fan who has given careful reading to Gundy’s work over a number of years, Songs should not be read in a vacuum. It is in a sense a culmination of all of Gundy’s writing, both poetry and prose, up to its publication. As such, aside from being appealing to those who already read Gundy’s work, Songs would also be an excellent starting point for those who have never read him. It would work well as study material in a book group or Sunday school class, something that can be said about very few pieces of literary criticism. I read it a second time to write this essay, and got just as much out of it (though a different something) on this reading as I did from the first, which is a mark of excellent writing. I have had this experience with poetry before, but almost never with theology, so Gundy is on to something with his advocacy of theopoetics.
One of my favorite things about Songs is that even though it does most of its theologizing in prose, eight of its chapters end with poems. Many of these chapters end with Gundy’s poetry, but not in a self-aggrandizing fashion. Rather, this strategy acknowledges that sometimes the “mystery” mentioned in the book’s subtitle is only approachable via the slanted language of poetry.
At the same time, Songs is also eloquent in its insistence that poetry’s investigation of mystery is a concrete, ethical act. Gundy asserts that “the voice as deed is at the heart of poetry” (245), and also that he “suspect[s] that the percentage of committed pacifists and peace activists among poets is probably at least as high as it is among Mennonites” (163n.). Good theology leads to action and good poetry, itself an action, does as well. Too often those unfamiliar with poetry assume that it is only about flowers or love or something, but Songs shows that poetry and theology are important because they help us get through the grit of everyday life.
Another element of Songs that I find essential is its lesson that we should read widely. Gundy’s voice is compelling because it is clear he has listened to numerous other voices first. The book references numerous Mennonite authors, but references even more authors from outside the community. There is a beautiful balancing act in how the book remains devoted to the Anabaptist tradition while still acknowledging that we must seek the divine in “the world” as well, and that part of this process involves paying attention to those things traditionally considered “profane.” As someone who also values the Anabaptist tradition and the knowledge I have gained from “the world,” I will continue to return to Songs from an Empty Cage because it has become part of my personal canon.