Help Me Be: Praying in Poems by Dale Fredrickson is a thoughtful collection of modern psalms. Fredrickson takes inspiration from Walter Brueggemann’s Praying the Psalms, dividing this collection into three parts: Orientation (Or, Life is Good), Disorientation (Or, Life is Not Good) and New Orientation (or Life is Good Again). The poems function as prayers and laments to God, praising and glorifying him, crying out to him in despair and contemplating the mysteries and beauty of our relationship with him … exactly what the Biblical Psalms do.
Spiritual poetry of this sort is is difficult to critique: it is of a deeply personal nature, and a verse that may seem saccharine and meaningless to one person may be truly touching to another. So bearing that in mind, I’m going to offer some general observations about this slender volume.
First, we need more of this kind of poetry — poems that draw upon our faith, that challenge us and encourage us without devolving into to mere feel-good doggerel. But I think Fredrickson’s poetry would be even more powerful if it challenged us more and if it left more unsaid. The collection as whole relied a little too much on superficial explication rather than subtle nuance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for there are many beautiful lines and touching turns of phrase. But rarely was I left pondering the deeper meaning behind the poems. Yes, as with the Psalms, accessibility isn’t necessarily a negative trait. But, for me, there was a bit too much telling and not enough showing.
Second, the design and layout of the book didn’t help the poems. The square format and placing of the poems on the page felt awkward and distracting. A standard sized volume with generous margins and poems centered on the longest line would have allowed the verses to shine. As is, I quickly felt myself becoming annoyed by these missteps in design and formatting. Poetry already has enough challenges inherent to the genre without offering further barriers to its enjoyment.
So it is with some reservations that I recommend this collection. I hope Fredrickson continues writing and publishing poetry and I hope he continues to allow his faith to inform his poetry. I would be interested to see how he would do so in a less overt way — if, rather than modelling his poems on the Psalms, he wrote poems that were more narrative and more personal, that allowed the reader to experience life and faith along with him, rather than reading about such things. But that said, I think Fredrickson accomplished what he set out to do: these are truly psalms, and as such exhibit both the spiritual depth and poetic shortcomings as those found in the Bible. As a tool for prayer or meditation I think they work admirably.