This weekend is the American Thanksgiving. Our friends to the south are experiencing one of the most challenging Thanksgivings in years, with social, economic, and political upheaval, coupled with a global pandemic and restrictions on personal liberties like travel and family gatherings. My brother and his family live in North Carolina, so it has been impossible for them to cross the border and visit loved ones in Canada.
This reminded me of the earliest American settlers, the Pilgrims, who faced extreme hardship for many of their first autumns and winters. One particular Pilgrim that I have been reflecting on is the Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). She is on my mind because I am currently working on an annotated collection of her poems.
Anne Bradstreet was a remarkable pioneer in two ways—she was a pioneering settler in 17th-century New England, helping to establish a new community in the New World. She was also a pioneering poet.
Anne Bradstreet is known as America’s first published poet and she is also one of the first professional female poets in English literature. Despite these incredible “firsts,” she is not as well-known as some of her American contemporaries like William Bradford, John Winthrop, or Cotton Mather. Nor is she as well-known as her female poetic successors, such as Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë sisters, or Emily Dickinson. Although Bradstreet was born in England, the reason she holds the unique title of the first “published American poet” is because she was among the original English settlers during the early colonial period in America. She participated in the historic pilgrimage to build a “City upon a Hill,” having left her home in England and travelled to America with her husband, parents, and siblings in 1630. Sailing with John Winthrop’s fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, Anne Bradstreet helped to establish a settlement in the rough and wild country of the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. The famed “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims had already made landfall in the New World ten years before Anne arrived on the east coast of North America. However, the continent was far from “settled,” and in spite of a decade of European presence, the area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a relatively hostile and undeveloped wilderness.
As an aspiring poet, Anne did not write a great deal during those early days in Massachusetts. No doubt this is due to the amount of work required to establish a new colony in a seemingly inhospitable and foreboding land. Anne and her family, along with the other Puritan settlers, faced several debilitating challenges upon their arrival. There were limited supplies of food, textiles, tools, building materials, and other necessities for survival. The previous settlers had suffered significant losses, including illnesses and death, and they were unable to plant sufficient crops or build enough houses for themselves, much less the newly arrived Winthrop pilgrims. The Bradstreet’s first winter in Massachusetts (1630–1631) is known as “the great starving time” when two hundred settlers ended up fleeing back to England and tragically two hundred more perished. Early life in the New World was not only difficult but deadly.
During her years in the New World, Anne often experienced serious sicknesses. In a time when death was common both in the Old World and the New, Anne often assumed her illnesses would result in her death. She also experienced the loss of friends and loved ones, including her parents, grandchildren, and a daughter-in-law. Such frequent brushes with mortality gave Anne a sense of sober contemplation on the priorities of life, which she frequently reflects on in her poems. The theme of her life and her poetry can be summed up with the words of the Apostle Paul, who writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Over the course of her life she also embodied the truth espoused by the Apostle Paul who asserts in 1 Timothy 6:6, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (KJV). Like the Apostle Paul, Bradstreet learned contentment in all circumstances: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13). Because of her Puritan theology grounded in the Sovereignty of God, she believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of her heavenly father both in this life and the next. This is why Anne and her fellow Puritans could make the best of this world, working hard to establish a new community—content with setbacks and grateful for successes—but they knew that this fallen earth was not their final home. Ultimately her greatest joys lie ahead beyond the grave. This is why Anne’s priorities—as her poems clearly show—were with delighting in God and living her life in a God-glorifying way. She knew how she must answer the rhetorical question posed by Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV). Rather than fearing death and cowering from the wrath of God, Bradstreet’s contentment—whether in life or in death—is amplified by her absolute trust in the grace and goodness of God through Jesus Christ. This does not mean that she never struggled with doubts or fears—which she also reflects in her poetry—but it does mean that she lived with a grounded hope in God’s care both in this life and the next.
A Poem of Thanksgiving by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet wrote this poem in 1661 after her husband recovered from a serious illness. At a time when so many people perished due to illness, Anne is so thankful that her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ not only carried her through her time of uncertainty, but also healed her husband.
 This famous phrase is from John Winthrop’s sermon written on board the Arbella in 1630. He and his company of English Puritans were seeking to establish a new, model community (“City upon a Hill”) as a beacon of hope for the world and a fulfilment of Jesus’ call to Christians to be “the light of the world. A city set on a hill, cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).
 The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xlvi.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
Check out my chat with Cody Kaufmann on the Poetry Piper Podcast! I count it a great privilege to be a guest on Cody's podcast. In this episode, we talk about poetry, pipes, my new book of poems, and all sorts of tantalizing tidbits... "Episode 7 - Jeremy W Johnston." Be sure to subscribe, listen to his other episodes, and keep tuning in for future podcasts!
In this short chat, I discuss the poet George Herbert and a couple of his concrete poems. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where the words on the page are shaped to align with the meaning of the poem. We also take a close look at my own concrete poem, "A Cruciform King," as we consider this interplay between the arrangement of words and the meaning conveyed by the poem. "A Cruciform King" and other poems are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers (2020). Here's the link to order!
I am pleased to announce the release of a new book of poems called Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life through H&E Publishing.
My poetry explores the span of a human life through the lens of faith in Jesus Christ. Although you may not be a fan of poetry, the poems are written to be clear and accessible, as well as “beautiful and thought-provoking” (Malcolm Guite, poet and chaplain at Cambridge University). English professor and author Karen Swallow Prior recommends Undiminished Returns “to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry.” The poetry is meant to be reflective and devotional. Author and English professor, Leland Ryken, observes that the short poems collected in the book “are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as John Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune.” Andrew Roycroft, poet, blogger, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland, describes Undiminished Returns as “a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually.” The collection of new poems are written for our time, as Professor of English and Humanities, Doug Sikkema, notes: “in an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another.”
My book is entering the final stages of publication, but my publisher has released a special pre-order 42% discount on the book. You can order the book with shipping and tax for just $15.79 Cdn).
Here is the pre-order link.
Please feel free to share this link widely with those who you think might benefit from my book. See below for more endorsements of the book.
Click here for a sampling of the poems included in Undiminished Returns.
Praise for Undiminished Returns
"I am often asked how to read poetry and what poetry to read. I will recommend Undiminished Returns to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry. By including an educational introduction and selections from history’s great poets, this collection of original poems—written in a variety of forms and about significant themes—is a veritable course in poetry. Even more, the verses within form a beautiful, poetic exploration of a soul in pilgrimage." KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
"What does it mean to believe and be haunted by doubt? Or to doubt yet be haunted by belief? Johnston’s poems, evidence of a life steeped in words and the Word, give voice to a secular condition ill-at-ease with our freedom and autonomy from God. In an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another." DOUG SIKKEMA, regular contributor to Comment magazine and assistant Professor of English and Core Humanities at Redeemer University
"It is in the very nature of poetry that it offers undiminished returns. You can return to the same poem over and over and find that it is richer and has more to offer on each return, indeed one poem, in the midst of such returns, often generates another. So it is with this fine collection from Jeremy W. Johnston; he has returned us to the classic form of the sonnet and taken inspiration from the likes of George Herbert and Christina Rossetti, and in doing so he has crafted a collection of beautiful and thought-provoking new poetry. This return to formal verse is not a repetition but a renewal." MALCOLM GUITE, poet, musician, Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, and the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Sounding the Seasons, After Prayer, and Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Undiminished Returns is a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually. Charting the pilgrim path with candour and with a cadence and rhythm which capture the spirit as well as the body of being a believer, Jeremy W. Johnston opens up the private world of deeply held faith in a way which is at once unaffectedly personal, and touchingly universal. There are echoes here of Herbert, Bunyan, and Hopkins, all flowing into an original voice whose range can convey to us the grandeur of God, the sorrow of sin, and the fearful beauty of salvation in Christ Jesus. These are poems to turn the heart heavenwards, pieces which both capture what is easily seen, and highlight what is easily missed in Christian spirituality. These poems are a joy to read, and will be returned to again and again for their lyricism, thoughtfulness, and God-glorifying focus." ANDREW ROYCROFT, poet, blogger at thinkingpastorally.com, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland
"This book is all that a book should be, starting with its marvelous title. Johnston’s poems are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune. A particular strength of the collection as a whole is its arrangement of the Christian life according to a chronological principle, tracing life in Christ from its beginning to its consummation. The book offers additional riches as well. The personal reflections at the beginning and close of the book are engaging and instructive. The quotations from famous Christian writers that are scattered as epigraphs throughout the book are priceless. The book sparkles with a sense of authorial attentiveness to every detail." LELAND RYKEN, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, literary editor of the ESV Bible, and the author / editor of over fifty books, including The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts and The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasure of Classic Devotional Poems
The Apostle Paul is known for his elongated prose and brilliant rhetoric. He also is known for quoting poetry and surprisingly embedding his own poetry in a few of his letters. Some great examples are Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 3:16, 6:15-16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13.
This morning my pastor, Hagop Tchobanian, preached an excellent message on the first part of Phillippians 2. In this portion of Scripture, Paul includes a creedal-like poem in Philippians 2:6-11. Below is a sonnet I wrote that aims to convey the paradox presented in this Pauline poem, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. It is called, “Divine Paradox: After Philippians 2:6–11.”
Creation itself begins as words. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into being (or sings, as C.S. Lewis might have imagined it). With his words, God brings form, function, and meaning into creation. Out of the empty void came all things as God imagined it. The universe, we are told, is “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Then God speaks: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3 – 4). God’s creativity involved sorting and differentiating one thing from the other. When God created Heaven and Earth, he created order out of chaos.
We are now commissioned to continue the creative process, cultivating the world and making new beauty (Genesis 1:26 – 28). Since we are made in the image of God, we also have a desire to create in the way God himself creates; this does not mean we can create ex nihilo—out of nothing—but it does mean we have been made with the desire to move our surroundings from chaos to order. God’s commission to Adam to name all of the creatures God made is humanity’s first way of ordering the environment and sorting out what is what. It is also humanity’s first creative act (Genesis 2:19). Adam invents the names himself.
Since the beginning, understanding our world through words has been central to our creative and cultural mandate as humans made in the image of God. It should be no surprise, then, to see that poetry has always been a process of creating order out of chaos. Making sense in a seemingly senseless world has a long history in the annals of literature. From Homer’s The Iliad, written as Ancient Greece exited its own dark age, to Virgil’s The Aeneid, which helped usher in “Pax Romana,” to the great period of English poetry as “maker of meaning amid chaos” born in the crucible of WWI. During that frenzied and unstable condition of the trenches, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, sought to make sense of the horrors of war and convey these experiences to the English-speaking world. Although WWI was not the “war to end all wars” as was hoped for, it is John McCrae’s Great War poem, “In Flanders Field,” that still resonates with us as we attempt to come to terms with all occurrences of modern war and conflict in countries around the world.
A biblical example of a poet seeking to make sense of his world in the midst of chaos is young David while on the run from King Saul. Fleeing for his life and trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness as an outcast and outlaw, David hid in the Cave of Adullam and he wrote poems. Many of the poems David wrote appear in the Book of Psalms. Although the Holy Spirit uniquely inspires these psalms, David’s skill of writing poetry was a talent that he likely honed while passing the time as an isolated shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetic prayer was one of the ways David used his gifts to manage the challenges of his life. We still turn to the psalms in our present times of challenges and difficulty, to read them, meditate on them, and pray those words back to God.
Poetry is born out of chaos, and it brings us comfort when we are surrounded by the chaos of life. This is why poetry is the oldest form of human writing and has dominated the literary world for millennia, with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Fairie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost—just to name a few. This is also why poetic hymns have meant so much to the church, especially in times of persecution, and why the poetry of Negro spirituals grew out of the trauma of race-based slavery in the United States.
We live in chaotic and unsettled times again. Such times require poets and hymn writers to help us see God’s plan and purpose written into the fabric of our current culture. Poetry reminds us there is still beauty in times of disorder. Poetry also reminds us of the power of words, especially that of prayer and God’s word. We need to continue the creation mandate to cultivate order and beauty amidst the chaos and ugliness of our surroundings. Like David and so many others in times of uncertainty, we need poets to hunker down and write words of comfort. We need poets to once again point us to the Great Poet himself, the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
 C.S. Lewis describes the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. In the chapters called “The Fight at the Lamp-post” and “The Founding of Narnia,” Aslan is heard and seen singing the world beyond the wardrobe into existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s voice sounded like “the most beautiful,” “harmonious” and “triumphant” music ever heard when he spoke the universe into being.
 See, for example, Psalm 13; 35; 52; 54; 57; 59; 63; 64; 108; 142.
Although good poetry is often complex and enigmatic, there is a value in verse that is both lucid and lyrical. The poetry of the Psalms, for example, is beautiful yet understandable at first glance. Worship songs and hymns are other examples of lyrical yet easy to understand poetry. In his poem “Jordan (1),” the 17th century English poet George Herbert challenges his fellow poets’ penchant for convoluted verse. Instead, he argues for clarity: “is all good structure a winding stair? […] Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines, catching the sense at two removes?” Reading poetry doesn’t have to resemble ascending (or descending?) a staircase designed by M. C. Escher. Like Herbert, I believe there is room for good poetry that clearly speaks to the reader. Here is a pair of sonnets I wrote that are intended to be clear (I hope!) but also meaningful. The pair of poems is called "Symposium," and the sonnets represent a glipmse into a discussion between a preacher and a lost soul.
 George Herbert, “Jordan (1)” The Temple (UK: Penguin Classics, 2017), 76.
“I hate poetry!” English teachers hear this phrase every time they mention the “p” word. Poetry has become synonymous with words like “confusing” and “pointless,” or phrases like “out-of-date” and “hard-to-understand.” If this rings true with you, then let me change the subject for a minute…to twenty-first century Western culture.
We like our communication fast—texts; we like our food fast—McDonald’s; we like our cooking fast—microwaves. Our culture is filled with services and devices that provide ease and speedy convenience. As a result, we have come to expect everything to be fast, easy and just-a-click away. Our collective cultural “attention span” is becoming shorter by the second: when surfing the internet for example, the average viewer will spend fewer than 5 seconds on a webpage before clicking away. The problem with “fast, easy and convenient” is the accompanying lack of depth, vitality and longevity. Few of us cherish emails the way we might cherish a handwritten note or letter; few of us remember the last fast-food meal or celebrate the microwave meatloaf the way we remember and celebrate Grandma’s turkey dinner or homemade pie.
So what do emails, Big Macs and microwaves have to do with poetry? These icons of cultural convenience have very little to do with poetry, other than to serve as a stark contrast: poetry is anything but fast, easy or convenient. So why should Christians bother investing time and energy into understanding poetry? Because poetry helps us to slow down, ponder and understand the deep and profound realities of God’s universe. While our culture is chock-full of vapid, ephemeral experiences, God’s creation is full of inspiring, rich and eternal experiences. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). In our fast-paced, non-stop, 24/7 culture, reading poetry teaches us to slow down and “be still.” Poetry instills in us the habit of remembering and reflecting on who we are, who God is, and what life is all about.
Poetry is also a powerful way to express the wonder, depth and beauty of God’s world and to capture the essence of our human experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poetry of the Bible. The great poems of the Psalms have been the mainstay of many Christians through times of trial and joy; the depth and profundity of the Psalms are in part due to the medium of poetry. This is true with hymns as well; Christians cherish the poetry of hymns sung weekly during church meetings. But our enjoyment of poetry should not be limited to the psalms or to hymns. All great poets are great observers; they hold up a mirror to ourselves and to society, so they have much to teach us about life on earth. In a powerful way, they urge us to stop and reflect on our human experience, God’s universe and his goodness to us in a world mired in sin.
As we read a broad range of poetry, both secular and sacred, we will be challenged to look at ourselves and God’s world with fresh perspectives. Our ability to appreciate the Psalms and hymnody will also be enhanced by concerted attention to all kinds of poems. Most importantly, perhaps, we will learn to pause in our hectic lives in order to take in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
 This essay is reprinted from Jeremy W. Johnston, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Kitchener: Joshua Press, 2018), 59 – 61.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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