The poetics of faith
“Religion is the supreme experience of the human spirit, and that experience finds its most perfect literary expression in poetry,” wrote Washington Gladden, the Congregational theologian whose life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. I am among those interested in poetry that speaks to the intersection of our lives with the mystery and transcendence of God. Muslim friends tell me the entire Qur’an is written in verse, and one says that in Arabic the poetry is exquisite. Christians are people of a different book, yet significant portions of the Bible we treasure are also made up of poetry or rhetorical prose. Not only are Job and Psalms written in verse, but so also are large portions of the Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Poetry and stylistic prose also shows up in the New Testament. Church hymnals are also preserves of poetry.
A pastor said to his congregation one Sunday morning: “When life tumbles in on you, don’t go first to the philosophers, or the counselors, not even to the pastors or rabbis for solace, go to the poets.” Having spent my entire life in Christian ministry, I wondered about that advice. The more I thought about what he said, however, the more I found wisdom in his words. It’s not that we shouldn’t seek out help from our clergy; of course, we should! But so often we forget about the poets who have a great deal to offer us.
Why go to the poets? Because great poets have a kind of double vision. They have the ability to see beyond the surface of things. They see what you and I see, but they also perceive deeper realities – those often missed by the casual observer. Poets detect those thin places where the soft shimmerings of God can be perceived, what C.S. Lewis called the “patches of God, light in the woods of our experience.” Those sightings do not usually come at first glance, but are discovered after long and careful reflection.
In the mid-1990s my wife and I lost a daughter. It was a difficult time, and the church and my colleagues were wonderful in caring for us. I don’t know what would have become of us without their concern and expressions of care. Yet, as I look back on that time, I have to say that it was a Victorian Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who ministered most profoundly to my open wounds and fractured feelings. It was while browsing through a used bookstore in Chicago that I came upon a little collection of his poems.
It’s hard for me to explain what his poems did to awaken in me a fresh hope and renewed confidence in God’s providence and love. I knew intellectually about our Christian hope, God’s providential working and loving care. What I lacked was emotional certitude. That’s what Hopkins’ poems gave to me. There’s not space to share those poems with you, but here is a sample of some of the words that touched me deeply (excerpts from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”):
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee [...]
Be adored among men,
God, three-numbered form [...]
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then [...]
[...] I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall […]
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, enthroned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides [...]
Much of what he was saying I couldn’t understand, but the poet’s rich language, the tantalizing rhythm and sounds of his verse washed over me like a healing balm. And God spoke to the deepest parts of my being.
Seamus Heaney says, “Poetry offers phrases that feed the soul.” In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver writes, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words after all, but fire for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” This is what Hopkins’ poetry was for me. His words, their sounds and their meaning transfixed me. They got inside. Kim Rosen, in her book, Saved by a Poem, describes great poetry as “a kind of verbal tattoo that marks you forever.” Well, I was marked by those poems – marked forever!
Robert Frost says that “poetry begins with a lump in the throat.…” Much of the best poetry starts with an emotion. The goal is to convey an experience or feelings in such a way that it resonates with the reader’s own inner experience, so that the reader says, “Yes! I can relate to that. That’s been my experience too!”
On this note, some of our best-loved hymns were written in the context of personal tragedies. Lina Sandell, who wrote “Children of the Heavenly Father,” watched her father drown before her eyes on a lake in Sweden, and Thomas Dorsey’s hymn, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” was written after the death of his wife and newborn child. Jack R. Lundbom has even made the case that Psalm 23 was written by David after the death of his son Absalom, something that would help explain its enormous appeal to those confronting death and bereavement (Theology in Language, Rhetoric, and Beyond [Cascade, 2014], 132-144).
Frederick Buechner points out that at the close of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Duke of Albany states: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” These are instructive words. Albany says it’s not enough to say what’s expected; not enough to say what people think we should say; the times demand that we say what we really feel. This is no time for banalities or trite formulas. It is a time to tell the truth.
Why did the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins touch my inner being so profoundly? I was captivated by his cadence and language, even though I didn’t fully understand all the meaning of his words. But it was also his honesty about his own inner struggles. As a Christian, he wrote not what he was expected to say; he wrote what he felt. David in writing the Psalms shares not only his faith, his joy and gratitude, but also his doubts, fears, sadness, resentments, laments. He shares that variety of feelings that are a part of our lives too. Hopkins brought healing to me because he was willing to speak the truth about his pain and heartaches, as well as the mysterious presence of God in the midst of life’s storms. His faith was authentic. Good spiritual poetry should tell it like it is. It should speak the truth about life, and leave us with a restored hope and renewed trust in God so we can embrace our futures.
Good religious poetry usually tells the truth in more subtle than direct ways. There are many religious poems that are simply message-bearers, designed to teach or to give a moral lesson; they have their place, but they are not considered great poems. Consider Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant --”:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
In this beautifully crafted poem, Dickenson is saying that we shouldn’t approach the truth head-on, but in a more oblique or indirect fashion. Allow the truth to dazzle gradually, she says, so the reader won’t be overwhelmed.
Religious poetry should be allowed to be subtle, restrained, and even a bit ambiguous. It should stir curiosity in even the skeptical reader. Here we only need to think of the teachings of Jesus who often spoke in parables and metaphors where the truth was told slant, not in a direct way. These stories make a religious point. Often his disciples were unsure of their meaning. Afterward, they asked their teacher to explain what he meant (for example, Matthew 13:36ff). Religious poets would do well to take a lesson from Jesus.
One complaint made about poetry is that it’s too daunting, too hard to understand. The problem, however, often stems from our approach. We read a poem and immediately look for its meaning. You’ve heard that the right and left sides of our brain function differently. The left side is the reasoning side, the rational and logical side, concerned with questions of meaning. The right side is the more sensing, intuitive, instinctive side, concerned with feeling and emotion. This tendency to look for a poem’s meaning can result from the dominance of the left side. Poet Billy Collins lays out the dilemma in his poem, “Introduction to Poetry”:
[...] I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Now, that’s not to say that the meaning of a poem has no import. As Kim Rosen reminds us, the primary attribute of great poetry is that it’s directed to the ear in your heart, as much as the ear in the left side of your brain. Great poems are interested not only in what is said, but how it is said. Again from Rosen’s book:“As you read poems, listen to them, and speak them aloud, try meeting them as you would a piece of music. Allow your rational brain to relax. Dare to not understand, to lose your grip on making sense of the words. Let the images, like musical notes, pour over you.”