Thursday, 31 January 2013

Poetry: “a line of words that say it like no other”


This essay appears in the February 2013 issue (no. 511) of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA), page 18

Philip Harvey

When we read the opening poem in the Bible we find ourselves in the midst of praise for God and Creation. This is known as being dropped in at the deep end. Genesis 1 uses repetition to put in our mouths the strong reminder that Creation is good. I find it especially helpful to be told that, like God, we need to take a rest from our labours, if we are to survive at all. The Seven Days is not intended as scientific proof and it is a mistake to read it thus. All the science in the world does not disprove this poem, in fact the poem helps us appreciate science’s explanations about the Cosmos.

Asking what a poem means is not the point. The main question is, why was it written? That is the best place to start when reading a poem. It's the question people should ask when they read Genesis 1, or the Prophets with their magnificent proclamations of justice.  And then, what about the Sermon on the Mount? What it means is an important question, but more so, where is it coming from? Spirituality is about where we were, are and will be.

Despite denials from the postmodern horizon, the Bible remains one of the major sources of English poetry. Psalms is called a collection of the full range of human experience, which may be, though it is more accurate to say an amazing range of human ways of talking to God. Indeed, our prayer life itself draws on the poetic of Psalms as example and guide. “Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord” is a place we must be ready for, or have been. Anytime we may find ourselves “glad when they said unto me let us go into the house of the Lord.” The spiritual life can be explained in such lines, whole traditions of poetry and thought can be sourced there.

Our human need to say things clearly, directly and truthfully places a high expectation on language to do a lot with a little. This is what we want poetry to do, even if it’s not always the result. Obvious and ordinary is okay, every bit helps, but language that gets to the tangle of our experience, to the intrinsic wonder of the world, to the heart of existence has to be more than okay. We want to go where poetry is at work. Just like the questions we keep asking on the spiritual quest.

Every period of Christian history is rich in parables, sayings, hymns and poems. The Celtic version of the Gospel is a favourite of mine, with its awesome acclamation of Trinity known as Patrick’s Breastplate. In medieval Ireland the poets held special status because they were keepers of the law. I take this to mean they kept the memory of the law, but also that they explained from experience the complexity of life. Poets today reserve this second function, though it’s a relief to know they are not left alone to formulate our laws. Making sense of complexity, offering means for identifying our spiritual development, is a business that modern poets have in common. Denise Levertov says “To understand her you must imagine”, she being Julian of Norwich, but also Wisdom itself.

In Christian tradition any spirituality makes account of “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Les Murray says of the Passion that “Ever afterwards, the accumulation / of freedom would end in this man.” Poets acclaim Christ, they also speak to Christ. George Herbert calls him “Quick-eyed Love”. “You rise up and say goodbye to no-one” sings Bob Dylan in ‘Jokerman’.

In a world where the movie is major and the internet interminable, poetry may seem outmoded for those not open to its possibilities. Yet there is not a person alive who has not been stopped by a line of words that say it like no other, or been in a public place, especially places of worship, where certain lines are the only thing that will do, the only way to say it. Poetry is not a foreign field.

Today there are two main ways of enjoying poetry and learning from it, both of them valid for the spiritual life. The first and more common way is by quiet reading. This can in turn lead to prayer. When reading a very good poem at depth we use the same focus and connection as in lectio divina. 

The second way is the spoken word. Where I work at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, poetry seminars are a way of hearing the human voice direct. This is a need in our world of saturation images and artificial sounds: we want the sound of living people. I have given readings of John Donne (“Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right / By these we reach divinity”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Glory be to God for dappled things”) and others where hearing the immediacy of the words is essential to learning their spiritual import. The Institute for Spiritual Studies at Eastern Hill is another venue where poetry reading opens up the lived experience of faith. Attendees at a seminar there on W.H. Auden met his quirky line “Let your last thinks all be thanks”, a place of Christian beatitude that a poet can say and where we all wish to be.

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