Encountering the Radical Stranger

One of the most interesting aspects of theopoetics as it stands today is how art of various kinds, but especially poetry, can work to fulfill the exciting promise of demythologizing Scripture, engaging the mysteries of God, and working toward Jesus’ commission to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Kearney and MacKendrick especially reveal the promise theopoetics can offer in understanding the nature of the Other and our capacity for engaging opportunities to know God more fully in and through such encounters. By relaxing or letting go of our received certainties, we enter realms of divine and humane possibility.

Applying John Keats’ concept of negative capability can be particularly useful in seeing how poetry might fulfill some of these promises. Through Keats, the audience is instructed, along with the poet, with being “capable of existing in uncertainties.” This is of paramount importance in unmooring ourselves from received and dogmatic understandings of both Scripture and literature, and ultimately of our place in the world.

One avenue that has been productive in this direction has been the reading of various poetries of witness. Drawing on definitions and contexts provided by Carolyn Forché in her anthology Against Forgetting, I argue that while her definition is good, it may need to be expanded to an extent. Her strict definition only includes poems written from places of mortal peril (work by poets who witness to war, genocide, famine, disease, disaster, etc.). While her reasoning is sound as it pertains to the construction of an anthology with limited space, today it seems perhaps overly restrictive. If we expand our definition of poetry of witness, we might include categories of writing that would include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Danez Smith’s [Insert Boy], which both call attention to the particular pressures and oftentimes awful realities of people of color (though there is also an argument to be made that those points of view also face mortal peril). Whether we consider them to be authentic poems of witness or not, both books serve to drown the reader in the realities that the speakers of the poem exist within, immersing the reader in those realities, and forcing them into the position of witness.

Through the exploration of poems from those two books, within the context of Keats’ negative capability, we can see how poetries of witness not only force us into uncertainties, exploding our notions of the world, but also immerse us in the lives of others, others whose realities are sometimes at distinct odds with our own notions of how the world is. By entering, through the poems, the worlds created in these works, the reader is put into the position of witness, who as Forché says, is responsible for what happens after. By entering these worlds, in other words, the reader is irreparably changed, and through that change they grow in awareness and empathy.