The Value of Poetry
Author’s note: I was asked by the editors of Pietisten to be the new poetry editor. It would be presumptuous and impossible for me to replace Bruce Carlson, but I do agree to tell why I think poetry is a necessary emphasis and should continue in your wonderful periodical.
The poet and man of letters, Archibald MacLeish tells in one of his poems how difficult it is for the poet to communicate reality with words. It is like awakening from a marvelous dream where everything is clear and crystal like—and then, when our eyes are opened, the memory of the dream becomes fuzzy and out of focus and confused.
I would like you to hear that poem by MacLeish:
Words In Time
Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!
There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.
That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.
—(Poet’s Choice page 20-21, eds. Engle & Langland)
The Preacher of words, the Teller of tales, the Weaver of words, the Journalist, the Poet—they all face and share the same dilemma. How do you convey reality to people by the use of mere words? Well, I for one think we need to keep our speech lean and bare and meaningful—stripped of needless adjectives.
In Time magazine, Lance Morrow, writing about the danger of using too many adjectives, said, “It is like someone veering around the room, making drunken passes at reality.” Public conversation often makes “drunken passes at reality.” Some commentators are even called “spin doctors.” Such a practice, I think, is the death of language, because it tones down the meaning of words.
Archibald MacLeish refers to people who twist and misuse the meaning of words as “assassins of the language.” We need to guard against using words to twist and misuse ideas or the essence of things. This is common in our society today. Everywhere language is abused—in journalism, over the TV media, among politicians, and, certainly, in the advertising world. Samuel Miller wrote, “We have buried ourselves in words. We suffer today from a disease of speech.” Eliza Doolittle complains in the play My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. I hear words all day through, first from him now from you. Is that all you blaggards can do?”
In this world where language is often reduced to trivia, we are under special obligation to be sensitive in the use of our tongue. When we address other human beings, we are obliged by our humanity to communicate thoughtfully and with care. We are to communicate life and not death. The Poet, Allen Tate, said, “To communicate effectively is to love.” We do this when we use the language of surprise! I was late for a senior luncheon when I was serving a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Upon entering the door I was stopped by Jake Jacobus who chatted with me for a short while. The other seniors were gathered around several tables engaged in conversation. Jake said to me after our conversation, “With your gift for talking you could sell lots of cars.” “Well, Jake,” I said, “that’s not my pail of blueberries.” For a moment everyone in that downstairs room momentarily looked up and smiled. And, of course, they then continued on with their conversation. But it now occurs to me that had I said, “That’s not my cup of tea,” would it have interrupted the conversation of those seniors? I wonder if it would have had the same effect. When we communicate in a language of surprise, there is life! But when we communicate with clichés and tired language we communicate nothing fresh.
Again Allen Tate: “Humanity has never before heard so much of its own voice.” I read of one technician who observed that we now have in place the best-equipped communications system in the world. But now that we have the means to say it, we don’t know what to say.
Pietisten Readers, I think that poetry may be the one medium in print today that still communicates life through words. Speaking of the popular television evangelists, Walker Percy said that even preaching has become “such a weary, used up thing” (The Second Coming, page 189). Percy believes there is an unconscious despair today in modern society that “holds our culture in a veritable death grip.” The author’s uncle, William Alexander Percy, wrote in his book Lanterns On the Levee, “I’m unhappily convinced that our exteriors have increased in importance, while our interiors have deteriorated.... A good world, I acknowledge, an excellent world. But poor in spirit and common as hell” (page 62).
I suggest that this excellent world we live in has become “poor in spirit and common as hell” mainly because its human inhabitants are caught up in things that don’t really matter. Many of us waste much, if not all of our days on things of inconsequential worth and little substance. We spend our time collecting and accumulating and have little energy left for observing anything. We spend our time adding and subtracting and we run out of the hours we need to marvel and to enjoy God’s excellent world.
In this regard, I like what Brenda Ueland wrote in If You Want To Write, about the creative life of the poet William Blake.)
Now Blake thought that this creative power should be kept alive in all people. And so do I. Why? Because it is life itself. It is the spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.
How could we keep it alive? By using it, by letting it out. By giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or to play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset. They do not know as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves. They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunset, as they wanted to” (page 10).
[Note: Bruce Carlson arranged for this book to be republished by the Schubert Club in 1983. It was later published again by Wolf Press.]
If what Brenda Ueland said rings a bell, then it thunders in William Wordsworth poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us:”
The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The sea that bares its bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
Are up gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Finally, I have this magical story about Saint Francis enjoying the night air one evening in the village of Assisi. When the moon came up, it was huge and luminous, bathing the entire earth in its radiance. Noticing that no one else was outside to enjoy this miracle, Francis ran to the bell tower and began ringing it enthusiastically. When the people rushed from their houses in alarm and saw Francis at the top of the tower, they called up to ask of him an explanation. Francis simply replied, “Lift up your eyes, my friends, look at the moon.”