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This review is taken from PN Review 270, Volume 49 Number 4, March - April 2023.

Cover of The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine
Rachel MannThe Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine, Kaveh Akbar, editor (Penguin Classics) £20
Spiritual Verse

I am unsure if a poetry editor is a kind of god, but in order to do their job well they must deliver judgment on the living and, when curating an anthology of this sort, on the dead too. As Kaveh Akbar notes in his introduction to this rich and varied volume, the earliest attributable author in all of human literature is an ancient Sumerian priestess named Enheduanna. Across four and a half thousand years, she speaks of awe and ecstasy, of body and the Divine, and concludes, ‘Even my sex is dust’. The ancient dead know things and deliver their judgment on those, like me, who inspect their words in search of good news.

I am struck by Akbar’s decision to call this a book of ‘spiritual verse’ rather than ‘religious poetry’. Does it matter? Probably not. Indeed, the decision displays practical wisdom. In such times as these, when – even for religious people like me – the word ‘religious’ has acquired connotations of overweening piety, ‘spiritual’ is a sufficiently expansive term to ensure this book has greater reach and, in turn, saleability. More seriously, as David Jones noted, ‘religious’ implies a commitment and connection to something definite in a way that ‘spiritual’ does not: ligament and religion, Jones noted, arise from the same Latin root, ‘religio’. That which is religious, then, provides connective tissue between word, practice, and a usually unseen Divine.

I commend Akbar’s decision-making regarding which poets to include and exclude. It is exquisite and reflects the richness of world literature; Akbar is catholic ...

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