Humanist Poetry for the Ages

Rob Boston

New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996 by Philip Appleman (Fayetteville, Ark: University of Arkansas Press, 1996) 264 pp., $38.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.T


The University of Arkansas Press I has done the humanist community a great service by publishing Philip Appleman’s New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996. Appleman is an avowedly nontheistic poet who does not hesitate to explore humanist themes in this work. His poems are alternately touching, hilarious, and angry—and they never fail to be thought-provoking.

This new volume survey’s Appleman’s distinguished 40-year career as a poet. Included are some of the best works from Appleman’s six volumes of poetry, all of which are unfortunately now out of print. Given the limited market for serious poetry in the United States, humanists are advised to get their hands on this new book now. Appleman’s 1991 collection, Let There Be Light, was a humanist tour de force, and New and Selected Works contains a generous helping from that slim volume. In “Gertrude,” Appleman reflects on the slow, painful death of his mother. He writes:

I wish all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
death.

After two verses in a similar vein, Appleman concludes:

I wish I had them gathered around,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests—every pious
shill on God’s payroll—and I
would pull the sheets from my
mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees
at her bedside
to be forgiven all their faith.

Other pieces criticize biblical fundamentalism with blistering wit. Noah, Judas, Mary, Jesus, and other figures from the Bible come forth to tell their stories. Appleman’s “Noah” is described as having “all the best instincts of a minor bureaucrat.” Ordered by God to summon pairs of animals for the ark, he never blinks. Writes Appleman:

Think of it—they’re living out there
in that gritty wilderness, and all of a
sudden
they’re supposed to come up with
two elephants.
Or is it more?
“Shem,” Japheth calls. “Is the
elephant
a clean or an unclean animal?
If it’s clean, that means seven of
them
and the ark is in trouble.
And how about rhinos? And hippos? What do
we do
about the dinosaurs? How do we
get a brontosaurus
up the gangplank?” Japheth
loves raising problems that Noah
hasn’t thought of at all. “Pandas—
kids
love pandas, we can’t let them die
out,
but how do we get two of them
here
in a hurry, all the way from China?
And oh, by the way, Dad,
how are we going to keep the lions
away from the lambs?”

The new poems indicate that Appleman has lost none of his verve. One of the best is “How to Live,” written in the form of a first-person diatribe, which explores the tragedy of those who live the unexamined life.

Many famous poets incorporated religious themes into their work. T. S. Eliot’s later poems are loaded with Christian symbols and mysticism. W. H. Auden embraced the Church of England. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Roman Catholic priest, celebrated his faith in his works. Thanks to the writings of Philip Appleman, humanists have the satisfaction of knowing that posterity will know a great humanist poet as well.

Rob Boston

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.


New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996 by Philip Appleman (Fayetteville, Ark: University of Arkansas Press, 1996) 264 pp., $38.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.T The University of Arkansas Press I has done the humanist community a great service by publishing Philip Appleman’s New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996. Appleman is an avowedly nontheistic poet who does not hesitate to …

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