A stable lamp is lighted
whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
Twenty-five leading contemporary poets were invited to choose and write about their favorite hymn or spiritual song. Their essays have been collected in an anthology and published by Orison Books.
In Stars Shall Bend Their Voices, some of the most respected living poets meditate on the role of hymns and spiritual songs in their lives and writing. Representing many spiritual traditions and many approaches to personal spiritual practice, Stars Shall Bend Their Voices is a testament to the lasting impact of spiritual music on many of today’s best poets.
Order your copy from Orison Books or from your bookstore.
Essays commissioned for Stars Shall Bend Their Voices were pre-published in Commonweal, First Things, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Literary Hub, Tiferet and other journals.
In the posts that follow, photographs of the poets are linked to sites that tell you more about their lives and work. Buy a volume of your favorite poet’s poems, essays or literary criticism.
All Creatures of our God and King Kimberly Johnson
Amazing Grace Alicia Ostriker
A Mighty Fortress Maurice Manning
Be Thou My Vision Scott Cairns
Breathe on Me Breath of God Margaret Gibson
Caedmon’s Hymn Edward Hirsch
Come My Beloved Yehoshua November
The Eid Takbeerat Zeina Hashem Beck
Great is Thy Faithfulness Kwame Dawes
Hallel Jacqueline Osherow
I Love to Tell the Story Kathleen Norris
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise Lorna Goodison
Islamic Call to Prayer Kaveh Akbar
Jesus is All the World to Me Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel Linda Gregerson
O God Our Help in Ages Past Vijay Seshadri
O Little Town of Bethlehem Robert Hass
One Bread, One Body Kate Daniels
Onward Christian Soldiers Jay Hopler
Psalm 23 Richard Chess
Precious Lord, Take My Hand Sydney Lea
A Rastafarian Hymn Shara McCallum
Silent Night Jason Gray
Tantum Ergo Dana Gioia
There is a Green Hill Far Away Mark Jarman
Cover art: Cluster I by Ekaterina Smirnova
It is hard for me to explain the way in which the melody of this song affects me, but I can say that my body responds well to the fact that it covers a tonal range that comes close to straining my vocal capacity (especially if I begin in the wrong key) without causing great alarm. The pleasure is that for most of the song, there is the sweet place of ease in the melody, and as with the best choruses, it rounds itself beautifully to closure, but begs for repetition.
Zeina Hashem Beck
The prayers were a song I’d memorized over the years. As soon as I heard them, I’d start humming along in my head. It wasn’t the words that drew me in, as much as the repetition, the rhyming, and the rhythm—an incantation of sorts. These prayers had a beat faster than that of the adhan, which lingered longer on the words Allahu Akbar, and they were carried by a multitude of voices. There was something communal about them, something that said the entire city was celebrating, giving thanks.
After all the cruel and unspeakable things that have
been done in the name of “Christ, the royal Master,” we wouldn’t be the soldiers if He ever were
to lead an army “against the foe.” We’d be the foe.
It is a poem about Christmas and about peace written when the butchery at Shiloh and Gettysburg and Bull Run was still a wound in public memory, and it carries, in the aftermath of that war, the intensity of the yearning for peace. Poignant for us, because Bethlehem continues, in our time, to be a focus of that longing.
Something of that hymn’s shape—its words and its melody—cuts me deeply. It always has. I’m thinking that this is because the hymn is both a song of genuine worship, and an exceedingly earnest prayer.
This music, this way of hymning directly to God, was my first conscious experience of mellifluous charged language, and it’s the bedrock upon which I’ve built my understanding of poetry as a craft and as a meditative practice. There is no way to divorce my writing life from my spiritual life; that Venn diagram is just one big circle.
In each stanza, sounding G-sharp in the second line highlights key phrases (‘life anew,” “is pure,” “wholly thine,” “never die.”) The melancholy shift in pitch confirms that it is from an awareness of incompleteness that longing and the path to awakened love begin.
Americans sing the song out of order. Also incompletely. The original German hymn is six verses, but most of us know only three—the first, the sixth, then the second. Which seems like a good metaphor for me as a Christian, incomplete and out of order (perhaps all of us, but I won’t speak for everyone).
The music endowed the service with a sense of special occasion. Hearing St. Joseph’s mighty organ fill the capacious church gave me a physical thrill. It was the most powerful live music I had ever heard. Add to that titanic rumbling the voices of 700 parochial school kids singing in Latin, led by a dozen Sisters of Providence, and you will divine my wonderment and awe.
My suspicion is that I am not the only child from St. Clair Street Church of Christ Sunday School or Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, in the late 1950’s, who remains fond of this hymn for reasons that have as much to do with personal associations as with belief.
My early experiences of Catholic worship – first, as a child in a traditional Latin Mass, and later as a college student attending a revisionary, hippie-style Mass in the round – set the stage for my encounter with this very simple hymn which has come to mean more to me than any other.
The Rastafari world view, implicitly presented or imparted to me as a child, offered a path toward dismantling the pervading colonial world order. Not alone, but in parcel with other anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements that gathered force inside and outside of Jamaica throughout the 20th century, the Rastafari movement helped to provide Jamaica with a different vision of ourselves as a people. With this hymn of Joseph, and many others my family and I and all our brethren and sistren in Twelve Tribes chanted and sang at our gatherings, we were prophesying this vision.
At the bottom of the steps we formed a circle and danced in front of the ancient Wall whose cracks were crammed with desperate notes—scribbled prayers for healing, for an escape from poverty, for children, for finally finding the fated marriage partner. A classmate with a sweet voice would take his spot in the front of our group and begin to lead the Sabbath evening prayers. Soon, the sky overhead turned deep blue, and we sang the hymn that ushers in the Sabbath, “Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride.
One night, desperate for something to quiet my mind (worrying about work, my responsibilities as new department chair), I recalled a verse from the 23rd psalm, He makes me lie down by still waters. The waters of menuchot, deep rest, the kind of rest experienced by God on the seventh day and available to Jews who observe the Sabbath. Well, I mis-recalled that verse, but saying it and visualizing the experience of lying by the waters of menuchot brought me a moment of relief that night. Not sleep, but a brief ceasefire in my war with insomnia.
Hallel, meaning praise—the short service added to the morning prayers on holidays and new moons—is a pastiche of psalms and pieces of psalms and has always been my favorite service, even before I understood it. I loved its sounds and the many lovely melodies used to sing them. But little did I know how revelatory it was and would continue to be. Even after understanding the Hebrew words was second nature to me, a verse could always astonish me.
Caedmon connects the energy of language with the power of divine spirit, and his religious poetry of praise inaugurates a tradition. It’s possible, too, that Bede was promoting that tradition via Caedmon. This way of connecting language to the divine looks backward to Genesis 1 and forward to Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, and Christopher Smart, who sings of the transcendent virtue of praise itself.
My parents had made an immense leap of faith in coming to this continent when they did, when no one from their ancient South Indian world was ever disposed to leave it, especially to go so far, to a place so strange to their habits, understandings, their sense of social order. They had left one civilization for another and for long, suspenseful years were caught between two contrived human constructs, suspended over the abyss of reality. When I hear “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” when I spool it out in my mind, they seem somehow to live inside the hymn.
So it’s ironic, really – it quite betrays me – to realize that I must have loved this hymn for its whiff of the monastery: chalice and incense smuggled in by way of the minor chord. There’s a moment, a breathtaking moment, when the meter defies expectation.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
I sat on our terrazzo tiled living room floor that day, and found Will Thompson’s “Jesus is All the World to Me.” The hymn would become my favorite hymn in the war. Singing it in the privacy of my bedroom one day as the war drew closer, I knew that this was the hymn for my family. I used to know the power of such old hymns as a little girl growing up in my mother’s church during the 1960s. Even as a little girl, I was drawn to them as I was to poetry. Maybe I loved them because Mamma sang them out loud through the house when she was down. Maybe I loved them because they were my first contact with poetry. I had memorized many of them as a child, held them to heart, and believed in their power. This was the old place of peace, I thought, where I needed to take my family. This would be our healing.
I’d call “I Love to Tell the Story” my favorite hymn for two reasons: its simplicity, and the fact that “I love to tell the story” could be any writer’s mantra. The hymn is apparently too simple for the Episcopal hymnal, which is ironic as its author, Katherine Hankey, was a member of the “Clapham sect,” a nineteenth-century group of evangelical Anglicans devoted to ending slavery.
The one hymn in my repertoire is “Amazing Grace.” Part of what’s lovely to me about “Amazing Grace” is the melody, those smooth waves rising and resolving. Partly it is the sweetness of an achieved serenity, in which a “lost” and “blind” past has been absorbed, into a present that ripples with goodness and peacefulness.
It’s not the repeated alleluia. It’s not the catalogue of earthy beauty. It’s not the open-throated Ptolemaic chime. What undoes me is the single minor chord.
I am one who from his middle years onward has chosen to believe in grace, by which of course I mean unmerited favor. That the opening of the most famous hymn composed by Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, came to mind strikes me in retrospect as oddly unsurprising, though in my all-white, Vermont Congregational church this is not a hymn much heard.
I liked the words, translated into a version of English that was more or less Victorian, and must have seemed elevated to my young ears. But I liked much more the strange rhythm of the hymn. There is such a brief pause between the phrases they nearly fall on top of each other. While the melody moves forward it also jumps or bumps—it isn’t a sweet or smooth movement. I can think this way as an adult; as a youngster I expect I just noted there was something strange in the music of this hymn and I liked it for that. And “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a melody I’ve hummed to myself often through the years.
“Immortal Invisible, God Only Wise” is a hymn I love and admire mainly because it is a triumph of a praise song that uses words to describe the indescribable; something to which any hard grafting poet can relate.
It does so in what in the English moral philosopher Mary Warnock calls “beautiful unordinary language”, the only language fitting to describe God who cannot be seen through mortal eyes; who is immortal, most wise, most blessed and most glorious; and above all, most worthy of the ultimate honorific: “The Ancient of Days”, who is almighty and victorious and whose great name we praise.