Renowned Catholic Poet (and Former Anti-Catholic Atheist) Sally Read Gathers ‘100 Great Catholic Poems’

Sally Read views her poetic craft as a vocation to take people ‘along the way of beauty’

Sally Read is pictured with the cover of her book, ‘100 Great Catholic Poems’
Sally Read is pictured with the cover of her book, ‘100 Great Catholic Poems’ (photo: K.V. Turley / Word on Fire)

LONDON — “The Catholic faith is absolutely steeped in poetry. It runs through Scripture, liturgy and prayer. We might even say that it is God’s chosen way of speaking with us.” The woman speaking is poet and writer Sally Read.

She was visiting London from her Italian home to promote her latest book: 100 Great Catholic Poems, recently published by Word on Fire. I arranged to meet her the day after she gave a talk on the book, organized by The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Church in the heart of London’s Soho district. Soho is an area known for poetry and artistic pursuits, if less so for the proclamation of the Gospel.

“Catholics often don’t realize that they have a fantastic poetic tradition outside of Scripture, a tradition that is truly great,” Read says. “For 2,000 years, Catholic poets have been describing their relationships with God and the world and God in the world — yielding some of the finest poetry ever written — like Dante’s Divine Comedy and the sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins.”

All true, but do we need another poetry anthology? “There are, of course, many Christian anthologies of poetry,” she admits, “and even some Catholic anthologies that are narrower in scope than this one. But this anthology is groundbreaking. It spans 2,000 years, revealing the arc of the Catholic poetic tradition and thus expressing the poetic Catholic heart.”

This collection certainly aims to be truly catholic in the universality of its appeal. The poems are by those of 20 nationalities and range across many centuries. In curating the collection Read has compiled a detailed introduction, a glossary of poetic terms as well as writing a brief essay by way of an introduction for each selection. From Dante to Shakespeare, St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. John of the Cross, to modern masters such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde, as well as contemporary female poets like Denise Levertov and Anne Porter, Read has endeavored to represent the full breadth of Catholic poetry.

Perhaps the obvious question, though, is how one selects from so many poetic riches from across so many centuries.

“Choosing the poems was a process,” says Read. “I found I had to get down to basics and define my terms: What is poetry? What is Catholic poetry? What is great Catholic poetry?” The answers were, she discovered, “surprisingly nuanced and interesting.” In the end, the choice came down to her own discernment, working alongside the editors at Word on Fire.

“What was clear was that the poems had to be squarely Catholic to make this a truly Catholic anthology,” she explains. “That meant ruling out poets who rejected the faith. It meant rejecting poems that were contrary to the spirit of the faith. While those decisions were tough, what transpired as a result was singular. The selected poems not only showcase a stunning literary tradition, but they reveal history, mysticism and renewal within the faith.”

Very much viewing her poetic craft as a vocation, Read is an award-winning poet in her own right, so is this latest anthology a labor of love?

“A total dream and a delight,” she replies. “The best job I have ever taken on! I learned so much through writing the commentaries for the poems. I loved every single poem that I selected. I even got to translate a couple of poems for the anthology: a sonnet by Renaissance woman Vittoria Colonna and the anonymous 15th-century hit Quia Amore Langueo.”

She feels that being part of this process of compiling this anthology has sharpened her expectations of “what a poem can do,” while also illuminating how poetry connects people through the centuries.

“It’s interesting to see how every age has to ‘make it new,’ as Ezra Pound put it, while at the same time using the foundations, or at least some of the bricks, of what has gone before,” she observes.

Is it possible to pick out a favorite poem in this collection? She says at the outset it was the eighth-century Irish Donal Og (“Young Donald”), which she describes as “one of the most heartbreaking accounts of romantic desertion ever written.” That said, she recognizes that her favorite poems have changed over her lifetime and now include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

What has been the initial reaction to the book? “People love it,” Read enthuses. “It’s a very beautiful book and very tactile to hold; the cover — a detail from Botticelli’s The Madonna of the Magnificat — is gorgeous. The poems astound people: Some are familiar; some are almost unknown; all are stunning. And readers have told me that they find the commentaries very illuminating. It’s helpful to be given the historical context of a piece, or pertinent details about a poet’s life, before reading a poem.”

Speaking on the beauty of Catholic poetry in the crypt of a Catholic church in the center of London is an unexpected appointment for poet Read. Two decades ago, when she lived in the city, she may have been an award-winning poet but one who was known as an outspoken feminist as well as a vehemently anti-Catholic atheist. Then, unexpectedly, she converted to Catholicism. Subsequently, in 2016, she published her acclaimed spiritual memoir about that faith journey: Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story. Poetry may have always been part of her life, but this new anthology of Catholic poems has helped her understand how that gift has led her and others down unforeseen paths.

Born in 1971 in East Anglia, England, by the 1990s, Read was working as a psychiatric nurse in London. Many of her experiences from that time were to find expression in her award-winning, if decidedly secular, poetry. Later, it would be explored differently in her memoir, which detailed how, during that time in London, she began to experience her first encounters with Catholicism. But it would not be until much later, in 2010, when married and living in Italy, that she finally converted to the Catholic faith.

100 Great Catholic Poems is not the first foray into poetry by Word on Fire, but it does raise the question: How does poetry fit with the stated goal of that publishing house to evangelize the world?

“It is about taking people along the way of beauty,” says Read. “An atheist friend of mine told me that The End of the Affair by Graham Greene was her favorite novel. This goes to show that you don’t need to fully believe in order to begin to absorb the beauty and truth of the faith which permeates that book. The same goes for poetry. I have no doubt that reading Dante as a nonbeliever would at least prepare the mind and heart for conversion — and so many nonbelievers do read Dante because it is such great poetry. I was evangelized by the poetry of St. John of the Cross. I have no doubt that Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde and Denise Levertov have a similar evangelical capacity.”

So, as we part company, one wonders: Is evangelization the real aim of the book? “I hope it will bring a new generation of readers to Catholic poetry,” says Read. “I hope people will read poetry aloud as a family, and use it in love letters and prayer. I hope priests will quote it in sermons and people will write it in Christmas and Confirmation cards. I hope people will use it to teach and learn.” Then, she adds, “I hope people pick up 100 Great Catholic Poems when they’re feeling hopeless, as well as when they’re happy.”

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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