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A survey of Mennonite poetry should begin with a reference to articles on hymnology in the Mennonite Encyclopedia that trace the history of Anabaptist hymn-writing from its beginnings in the 16th century. Even though the early hymns of the Anabaptists were, as H. S. Bender observes, not primarily "literary vehicles," many of the early hymnaries were explicitly intended to be read for the "edification of souls," and so can legitimately be regarded as the forerunners of the religious verse that dominated the earliest manifestations of modern Mennonite poetic expression.

Mennonite poetic writing even in the early years was restricted neither to the kind of verse that found its way into the early hymnals, nor to the martyr stories, as the several articles on literature reveal. For even as the martyr poems and hymns were being composed, the first of the Dutch Mennonite poets qua poets emerged as significant national literary figures. They included the great Dutch master Joost van den Vondel (b. 1587) and Karel von Mander (b. 1548).

N. van der Zijpp draws attention to later Dutch Mennonite poets active in the 17th and early 18th century: the gifted lyricist Jan Luiken (b. 1649), for example, and Elisabeth Koolaert-Hoofman (b. 1664), one of the first Dutch women poets to publish her work.

There are significant gaps in Mennonite literary history between the early 18th and late 19th century. Whether these gaps reflect a radical disruption in literary productivity, the lack of access to publication, or simply a hiatus in scholarship remains to be fully explored. (Given the evidence for a tradition of informal literary activity among the Mennonites throughout the centuries, one would assume that those with poetic temperaments would have continued to compose, even under adverse circumstances.)

What one could speak of as the modern tradition of Mennonite poetry began in the late 19th century when a palpable interest in things literary, access to a receptive audience, some sense of leisure, and the means of publication developed among the German-speaking Mennonite colonists in the Ukraine. Among the poets of this period were Bernhard Harder (whose work Geistliche Lieder und Gelegenheitsgedichte was published in 1880), Heinrich Johann Janzen, Johannes Heinrich Janzen, Martin Fast, and Gerhard Loewen (literature). All, of course, wrote in German.

Of the Russian Mennonite emigrants who settled in Germany after World War I, A.B. Enns published a book of poems entitled Die Hütte (Emden, 1924) and Hans Harder, best known for his prose, wrote poems as well (a few examples of which have appeared in the Mennonite Mirror).

Jacob H. Janzen

Among the German-speaking Russian Mennonite colonists who settled in Canada, Isaac P. Friesen published two volumes of verse, Im Dienste des Meisters (Constance, Germany, ca. 1910) and J. H. Janzen published a collection called Durch Wind und Wellen (Waterloo, 1928). G. A. Peters published Gedichte I, II (Winnipeg, 1923) and Blumen am Wegrand (North Kildonan [Winnipeg], 1946). The several volumes of poetry by Johann P. Klassen are listed in the article on literature. Heinrich Görz published Gedichte (n.d.) in North Kildonan, and J. W. Goerzen published Germanic Heritage in Edmonton in 1962. Valentin Sawatsky published several volumes of poems in the tradition of these German Canadian Mennonite poets between 1958 and 1983: Lindenblätter (1958), Heimatglocken (1962), Friedensklänge (1971), Abendlicht (Waterloo, 1977), Eichenlaub (Waterloo, 1981), Glockenläuten (Waterloo, 1982), Einkehr (Steinbach, 1983). Many of these poets published their own work and were not able to distribute it widely. Little of it is remarkable from a purely literary perspective.

Most highly respected of the émigré poets for the literary quality of his work has been Gerhard Johann Friesen (pseudonym: Fritz Senn, b. 1894), whose poems (characteristically, laments for the poet's lost idyllic world of the Russian steppe) were collected in Das Dorf im Abendgrauen, edited by Elisabeth Peters, and in Gesammelte Gedichte und Prosa, edited by Victor G. Doerksen (CMBC Publications, 1987).

Most of these German-speaking poets wrote conventional verse in a style predominantly influenced by German Romanticism. Their themes, as the titles of the volumes suggest, most often reflect the authors' concerns about religious devotion or their deep sense of nostalgia for a lost homeland; subject matter tends to range from religion and nature to less prominent concerns about Mennonite history and matters of daily living.

The transition from German to English Mennonite poetry in North America stretches over several decades. It is readily discernible in the various Mennonite newspapers and magazines that publish verse. Among those that publish, or have published, English poetry with some regularity are The Mennonite Mirror, The Christian Leader, Christian Living, The Gospel Herald, The Mennonite, and Mennonite Life. Poets whose work appears in the English serials include, most often, Jean Janzen, Elmer Suderman, Wilfred Martens, Tim Wiebe, Sarah Klassen, Clint Toews, Elaine Sommers Rich, and Menno Wiebe -- only a few of whom have published collections of their work. There is no want of poetry in the Mennonite periodicals of North America; much of it falls into the categories of inspirational or occasional verse, its publication usually (apparently) based on extra-literary considerations.

The most sophisticated poetry by Mennonites (and most satisfying from a literary perspective) is that which has been published in Mennonite and secular literary journals, as well as in poetry chapbooks, during the 1970s and 1980s. This is work that ranges in subject matter from the profane to the mystical; it tends to be contemporary in style. Noteworthy among these strong modern Mennonite voices are Japanese professor and lay minister Yorifumi Yaguchi (b. 1932), who has published two collections of poems in English, as well as five in Japanese; and Americans Lauren Friesen, Jeff Gundy (b. 1952), and [Canadian-born] Jean Janzen (b. 1933). In Canada, where a strong literary tradition developed among the Mennonites, especially in Manitoba, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the best poets are highly respected outside, as well as inside, the Mennonite community. Particularly significant are the works of Patrick Friesen (b. 1946), Di Brandt (b. 1952), and David Waltner-Toews (b. 1948). Others who have published volumes of verse include Sarah Klassen (1932), Audrey Poetker (b. 1962), E. F. Dyck, and Victor Jarrett Enns (b. 1955).

Contemporary Mennonite poetry begs a question raised as early as the 17th century, when the Dutch Mennonite poet Joost van den Vondel converted in midcareer to Roman Catholicism: "how can one define Mennonite poetry?" (Can the poetry of van den Vondel's "Catholic period" be considered "Mennonite poetry," for example? Does the category "Mennonite poets" include converts who were reared and learned to write in another cultural or religious context; does it include those who have left the church and the community but were reared within the Mennonite tradition?) Can one speak of particular Mennonite themes?

Much of what the new Mennonite poets compose has been, broadly speaking, secular. Yet the Mennonite ethos remains as a palpable force in much of their work: as something to rebel bitterly against (in Victor Jarrett-Enns and the early Patrick Friesen); in the use of High German and Low German words and phrases; in the persistent evocation of the loss of a sense of community; and in the moral and theological questioning. Perhaps this most recent (and most literarily sophisticated) poetry is, despite its secular posture and form, the most "Mennonite" of all.

See also Literature, Canadian Mennonite Writers (1950-85); Literature, Russo-German Mennonite; Literature, Mennonites in


[All Goshen publications are by Pinchpenny Press.]

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Author(s) Hildi Froese Tiessen
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Tiessen, Hildi Froese. "Poetry." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 2 Oct 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Poetry&oldid=172277.

APA style

Tiessen, Hildi Froese. (1990). Poetry. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 October 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Poetry&oldid=172277.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 705-707. All rights reserved.

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