“How do you find all that time to read?” a friend asks. “It’s my job,” I respond. “As a minister, I am a servant of the Word. Words are my tools. I need to keep my toolkit well stocked.”
This calls not only for serious ongoing study of the scriptures, but an immersion in that grand stream of poetry and prose that has issued from pens and presses for thousands of years. Each word is precious. Each word is dangerous. Each word represents a potential cracking open of heaven and earth.
We know what words in the wrong hands can do. They can launch an army, send people to their death, or slam the door on hope. And words in the right hands? They can convey the presence of God, begin a life-long relationship and rejoice the heart.
I’m not sure I always know whose are the “right” hands or the “wrong” hands, but I do know that words that are carelessly used or thoughtlessly expressed, even by well-intentioned people, can dull the mind and shutter the heart. As a servant of the Word, I want to discover images that give life and find a language that evokes wonder. God help me express the inexpressible.
A couple of decades ago, pastor colleagues gave me a great gift. They pointed me to a way of sharpening my tools; I was encouraged to read poetry. Since then, I try several times a week to spend a little time with a poet. I recommend it for all who care about communication.
Poets have taught me that words are not to be wasted. They have shown me that words should not continually dribble forth like water from a leaky faucet. Words are to be rationed like water in the desert, having the potential to refresh, yes, even to give life.
I can’t identify precisely what poems do for me. I seldom quote them to make a homiletical point. Their value is much more oblique. Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Poets are sneaky that way; the words they use slip under our defenses and penetrate the soul. Poets furnish our imaginations with metaphors that in the strange alchemy of language evoke new understandings. They drum rhythms into our hearts that defibrillate our hectic lives. They project images on our minds that later pop up unexpectedly, like prairie wildflowers after a rain. Sometimes it’s the message they offer that moves me, but often as not, it’s the medium.
When the 19th century “mad peasant-poet” John Clare was asked “where do your poems come from? ” he replied, “I kick them out of the clods.” I ask myself, “is my speech that earthy, that basic, that honest, that rooted in reality?” The clichés towards which I gravitate need a good kick. They need to be demolished so that something fresh and winsome can appear.
I recall an interview on public radio with the editor of The Ludite Journal. In a triumph of bread over principle, the author’s day job is computer consulting. This reluctant geek described one of his favorite anti-technology movies in which a renegade computer is taking over the country. There is only one way to blow the circuits on its relentless advance; that is to feed it poems!
I’m not suggesting that we read poems to bring technology to a screeching halt, but in a world where some cars have never left the driveway without the radio blaring, some television sets are never allowed to reach room temperature and the internet seduces us with data that often obscures more effectively than it elucidates, poems can help to rescue us from the monster of information overload. Poems by their nature slow us down and wake us up. While acquainting us once again with the beauty of language, they subversively suggest that less is more.
Here are a few examples of the ways coming under the sway of poems affects me. I’m not suggesting your responses or reactions will be the same as mine; poems have a gem-like capacity to refract differently on the varied angles, surfaces, and transparencies we bring to them.
When through much use, I find that words are beginning to blur and lose their punch; I turn to Gerard Manly Hopkins. In his poem, “Pied Beauty,” he writes:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Saying these lines aloud a few times does wonders to rouse me to the sheer power of words that taken together, fall like hammer blows on my awareness. Or, to switch metaphors, each word seems a splash of icy spring water awakening me again to the potential power of human expression.
Or listen to the opening lines of a poem called, “Easter Hymn” by Henry Vaughn:
Death, and darkness get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking,
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marr’d is mended;2
These are not particularly elegant words, but their bold, even aggressive thrust gets our attention and offers a theological vista of hope that spans redemptive history.
Poets encourage candor in speaking and praying. Such poems may offer companionship and kinship in the struggles of faith. R. S. Thomas, a curmudgeonly priest of the Church of Wales, speaks with searing honesty of the dark night of the soul. In a poem called “In a Country Church,” he evokes a God known in the presence of his absence:
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.3
Quite in contrast to R. S. Thomas, the poetry of Billy Collins is worth reading for the sheer delight and fun many of his poems offer and for the laughter that is likely to ensue as he offers quirky angles on the familiar. I challenge you to try to read his poem “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice'” with a straight face. How is this for a line that draws one on?
And I start wondering how they came to be blind.4
Mary Oliver shows how to speak volumes with few words–words that in their brevity are pungent and memorable, reminding us that often less is more. Here is one verse from a larger poem called “Sometimes.”
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.5
This verse might well serve as a short syllabus on homiletics to say nothing of suggesting wise guidance on how to be a good listener and a good conversationalist.
Often poems invite us to deeper reflection and introspection. They stimulate thinking on a range of subjects. Listen for example to the last verse of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem: “Gold Watch”
Counting out in her counting-house
My pennies of time.6
Jane Kenyon’s all too short life continues to bless us with her legacy of poems. In her poem “Let Evening Come,” she celebrates the familiar, the ordinary, the near at hand and in the process evokes wonder, and acceptance–lessons well worth learning. Her concluding verse reads:
Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.7
During the Lenten season I always turn to the 17th century poet/pastor/ scholar George Herbert’s poems as meditative material that moves and judges me. I think of him as having more genuine piety in his little finger than I have in my whole body. His sixty three verse poem “The Sacrifice” are words put into the mouth of Jesus. Here are two samples.
Oh, all ye, who pass by, whose eyes and mind
To worldly things are sharp, but to me blind;
To me, who took eyes that I might you find:
Was ever grief like mine?Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
Was ever grief like mine?8
One result of reading poetry may be an unanticipated urge to write some poems of your own. One does not need official authorization or special credentials to play with words and try them on for size and shape and sound and rhythm.
As part of his morning devotions, a pastor friend of mine in New York’s Hudson Valley found himself for several years writing poem-prayers in response to each of the 150 Psalms (the poem-prayers of the Bible). He then set for himself the task of writing a poem about each member of his congregation, including the children. Working on these poems became an exercise in pastoral care as he prayerfully sought to put into concrete expression something of each person’s uniqueness. He reports that he learned to pay attention to their lives as never before and gained a deeper appreciation of their concerns and hopes, their gifts and graces.
Poets expand my imagination by offering alternative viewing lenses and by helping me pay attention to the world in which I live, the people I meet and the language I use. They help me to sift my words, to respect them, to prize them enough to use them with care. As a writer, preacher, and teacher, I owe my audience the best language I can muster. My words may not always move and inspire, but I trust that my poet companions are helping me move towards speech worthy of a fair hearing.
If you stop for lunch in your busy day, try pulling out a slim volume of poems from pocket or purse while you enjoy a sandwich or cup of soup. I believe you will find it very much to your taste to “take a poet to lunch.”
2 Henry Vaughan, The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan, ed. French Fogle (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1964) 218.
3 R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990 (London: J. M. Dent, an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group, 1993) 67. Reprinted by permission.
4 Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1998) 10.
5 Excerpt from “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice'” from, Picnic, Lightening, by Billy Collins, Copyright 1998. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
6 Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton & Co,1964), 11.
7 Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1990) 69. Credit: Jane Kenyon, excerpt from “Let Evening Come” from Collected Poems. Copyright 2005 by The Estate of Jane Kenyon. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.
8 George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) 139, 146.