(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The son and grandson of ministers in the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, Mark Jarman employs his skills as a writer to address essential aspects of the Christian faith. The poet was initially impressed by his maternal grandmother, Nora Pemberton, who was an unpublished poet and short-fiction writer, and his father, Donald Ray Jarman, who as a preacher had a masterful command of language. He was further inspired by British poet Donald Davie, whom he admired for his willingness to openly express his Christian faith in his poetry. Of him Jarman has written, “Davie’s religious life was intimately involved with this poetry. This realization . . . led me to engage my own religious beliefs directly in my writing.” Questions for Ecclesiastes continues a conversation about God, expressions of faith, and why faith matters in daily life begun in Jarman’s first book of verse, North Sea (1978), in which he initiated the theme of questioning the real-life applicability of Christian teaching and the example of Jesus.

Jarman is unique as a poet of Christian-themed verse because he challenges intellectual complacency. For him it is insufficient to mouth doctrine or espouse Jesus as a role model. For example, in the title poem, “Questions for Ecclesiastes,” Jarman narrates an autobiographically inspired incident in which a minister (his father) is called to the home of a young female suicide to offer the family comfort and religious perspective. The aim of the poem is to question God’s will in the death of the girl and also the usefulness of the preacher as an emissary of divine will. Divided into nine paragraph-style stanzas, the poem begins in the past tense and ends in the present tense, allowing the speaker to retell the story and then analyze its outcome. Six of the stanzas start with “What if.” Eight of the nine present essential questions about blind faith, and the ninth ponders why God keeps the incomprehensible “a secret” from both those willing to believe and the already devout Christian. Throughout the poem, the preacher’s words and gestures at consolation are made to seem useless because he...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Jarman, Mark. Body and Soul: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Collection of previously published essays on poetic themes. Contains an autobiography that includes the helpful partial memoir, “ Body and Soul, Parts of Life.”

Jarman, Mark. “Poetry and Religion.” In Poetry After Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998. An analysis of various religious poetry and the place of religious themes in contemporary American poetry with close readings of T. S. Eliot, John Berryman, Jorie Graham, and others.

Murphy, Jim. “A Conversation with Mark Jarman” Image 33 (Winter, 2001-2002): 63-78. An interview in which Jarman covers his composing process, his influences, and his intentions for his poetry.

Opengart, Bea. “God-Wrestling as Postmodern Rhetoric in the Work of Three Contemporary American Poets.” Literature and Belief 23, no. 1 (2003): 23-37. Applies the theory of sociologist Arthur Waskow, who used the phrase “god-wrestling” to describe the struggle to believe in the poetry of Jarman and two contemporaries and to address their tendency to pose questions about faith without providing answers in the course of their poetry.

Vela, Richard. “The Subject of the Poem: Religion, the Everyday World, and the New Formalism in the Poetry of Mark Jarman.” Pembroke Magazine 33 (2001): 283-290. Describes how Jarman achieves intimacy through his style, his perception of common events, and reliance on forms of interrogation that fail to resolve the complexities of life and faith, demonstrating that there are no neat endings or easy answers to the provocative questions his verse raises.