The Awakening Power of Poetry

poetry-magnetic-piecesby Kate Weise, TCS Grammar School teacher

“Poetry was formerly the universal medium wherein human beings expressed and evaluated their highest ideals. We are now in a post-poetry world, where we would rather turn to amusements crafted precisely to distract us away from such deep consideration.”–Douglas Bond, Forgotten Songs

 Douglas Bond is right. Aside from the occasionally poetic lyrics found in praise choruses, pop songs, and rap music, poetry has all but disappeared from modern life. Yet the peculiar art form of poetry offers so much. When we read a poem, we get to watch the poet laugh as he imitates his Creator, twirling words into motion, and stretching his hand across the broad range of grammar. From the rhythms and the beat and the marching of the feet to the simply scrumptious sounds of words—poetry show us how to revel in beauty. Indeed, poetry’s linguistic richness would be argument enough to read it. But let’s consider two other reasons:

1.     Poetry Enlarges Our Minds

Poetry enlarges our minds through its use of metaphor, a literary device running rampant through the Scriptures. Metaphor explains mysteries through everyday examples.  It seems so much of the Scripture uses poetic tools; the gospels are sprinkled with parables, the psalms and the prophets with strange metaphors (Ezekiel lying on his side for a year!). Consider the descriptions of the Savior: Jesus is the Word made Flesh. Beyond this, John speaks of Christ as the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, and the Good Shepherd.  Then, the God-Man institutes a metaphorical ceremony within the church: the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. Throughout the Scriptures, God speaks awesome truth through down-to-earth images. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” Exposure to poems can teach us to make use of poetic knowledge as we contemplate theology.

 2.     Poetry Teaches Us to See

 Poetry also teaches us to pay attention. In a poem, we sit with the author as he pays attention to the details of his life and the world at large. No good poem can be rushed; most need two or three readings to make sense. Yet in the process of digesting a poem, considering individual words, and examining segments of line, we learn to digest the world we live in.

 In One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp explains how slowing down and reflecting (a gift offered to us in poetry) makes us see all the moments “pregnant with wonder” that surround us: the sunlight reflecting off a child’s hair, the rustling of leaves in the wind, the color of a rose in the garden, the whirring sound of wheels on the highway.  As poetry teaches us to pay attention to words, lines, rhythms, and meaning, it teaches us to observe the sanctity of an ordinary moment. So often, the greatest poems come from simple, nondescript moments. But, paying attention to the world and thinking objectively about it in light of faith can lead to cognitive dissonance. If we take time to read poetry, we may crouch by the side of a crushed sparrow to contemplate life, death, beauty, sorrow, and meaning. For the Christian, reading poetry involves the discipleship of doing practical theology, of translating our experiences through the Truths we believe.

Luci Shaw writes: “[Christians] are required to take both earth and heaven seriously; and, moreover, to attempt to find connections that bridge the gap between the two. Learning to be amphibious, that is, adapting to life in these two radically divergent realms, heaven and earth, demands of us that we learn to see again.”

I want to see. I want to understand metaphor. I want to live my life in wide-eyed wonder at this place I live in and the people I meet. Beyond its aesthetic value, the practice of reading poetry can make us more observant, more thoughtful, and increasingly worship-driven.

A Short Anthology of Suggested Poems:

“At the Shore,” by Mary Oliver
“God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Verses Upon the Burning of Our House,” by Anne Bradstreet
“St. Frideswide’s Chapel,” by Luci Shaw
“The Eagle,” by Alfred Lloyd Tennyson
“Santarem,” by Elizabeth Bishop
“Arkansas Stone,” by Bobby Rogers
“Fog,” by Carl Sandburg

Books Referenced:

Shaw, Luci. Breath for the Bones. Nashville: Nelson Publishers, 2007.
Voskamp, Ann. One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Wells, C.Richard and Van Neste, Ray, Eds. Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012.