Monday, February 24, 2014

Soul Deep

An invitation to those who have lost the joy of poetry

When we were very young, we were delightfully drawn into the playful world of poetry. Every generation of children experiences the same thing, enjoying many books their parents loved, and discovering new ones of their own. Remember Winnie the Pooh's whimsical, "Rum-tum-tum-tiddle-um" or Sam-I-Am's absurd, "Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?"

Then there came the teen years, when, alone in our rooms we tried to write poems or songs (even if we told no one) and studied lyrics from our favourite albums. Whenever we listened to scripture, whether as children or adults, something in the sound of the words themselves–even beyond their explicable meaning–drew us reflectively into their warmth. So many of their truths could never be reduced to anything less.

But many no longer make room in their lives for poetry. I asked some Canadian poets for their perspectives on such things.

"Fear is what hinders people from appreciating poetry," says Sarah Klassen, an award-winning Mennonite poet from Winnipeg, "fear of not getting it. Many readers don't understand that it's OK simply to savour the poem, taste its words on the tongue, hear its music with the ear, feel the rhythm in the body, even if they don't comprehend everything the poem has to say. If readers are uncomfortable with ambiguity, that would be another deterrent, since poems are often open-ended and do not offer clear answers or conclusions," she says.

We shouldn't be afraid of such ambiguity. "For at least the last 300 years, Western Christianity has been influenced by linear, logical thought," says Hannah Main-Van der kamp, an Anglican poet from Vancouver Island. Such thinking has its place, but we need to also be comfortable with mystery. "Do we ever really understand the enigmatic utterances of Jesus?" she asks. "Can we say we comprehend completely when we participate in the Eucharist?"

The late Margaret Avison wrote in her final book Momentary Dark:
---------"Poetry is always in
---------unfamiliar territory."
It helps us to get at what isn't readily accessible through linear reasoning. I believe some people have had poetry stolen from them by academics. Poetry shouldn't make readers feel inadequate; poetry should be accessible to normal, intelligent people—not dumbed down, but accessible. If you've felt excluded, here's an invitation to rediscover the joys of poetry.

To begin, I suggest trying authors whose work carries profound observation in simple, well-crafted lines. Google the following poets to sample their style, then order one of their books so that you're able to immerse yourself in their poetry:
----—Mary Oliver—Thirst (or her new collection Red Bird)
----—Jane Kenyon—Otherwise
----—George Whipple—Tom Thomson and Other Poems
----—Luci Shaw—What The Light Was Like
Before long, you'll find particular styles, ideas, and topics appeal more to you.

"Readers are attracted, I think, to poems in which their own experience is reflected," says Klassen. "In addition, many readers are attracted to poems that raise questions or in some way challenge them intellectually."

There's a huge range within contemporary poetic voices: some poets are primarily storytellers, others play with the music within the words, others, including Margaret Avison, are frequently challenging. I have no objection with difficult poetry, so long as there is a reward awaiting persistent readers. The names of many of my favourite Christian poets often show up in this column, but let me add to these the names of Paul Mariani, Robert Siegel, Rod Jellema, Wendell Berry and Jeanne Murray Walker.

I asked Toronto's poet laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who is a Catholic priest, what attracts people to poetry. His answer: "It is the language of their soul disposed to God. It is the metaphors that are windows onto the timeless."

Consider the conversational quality of John Terpstra's poetry. His poems are longer narratives, such as "Beach" from his book Disarmament. In "Beach" he speaks of those sunning themselves on Sauble Beach as a congregation:
---------"A man throws a tennis ball.
---------His young, long-haired Labrador bounds into the waves
---------and swims to shore holding in his jaws the fuzzy yellow pearl
---------it is clear he would gladly sell everything he owns
---------to retrieve."
In such lines we are shown the familiar in a different light, that hints of deeper truths—Di Cicco's "windows onto the timeless."

Poetry gives us places for our thoughts to meander, to playfully consider truth. George Whipple begins one poem from his recent book The Peaceable Kingdom:
---------"Poems break
---------from silence
---------when ear speaks
---------and mouth listens;
---------when the music of ideas
---------slows to a long caress..."
Whipple's lyrical poetry takes on diverse subjects including his distant childhood:
---------"I remember laundry tossing on the line,
---------the smell of Rinso in wet sheets
---------clapclapping in the washday wind."
Sometimes his poetry expresses faith:
---------"I praise...Him
---------who gives the present
---------of the present
---------each day–the past
---------already opened,
---------the future in the mail."
We are drawn to come along with him on such thoughtful journeys. We play a part with every poet we read, in fact, in the process; poetry requires our participation.

As delightful as this is, our society has lost patience for anything that isn't instant. We don't want to reflect, or do any work. This is why both poetry and spirituality (beyond the shallow and fluffy) is neglected.

Christians shouldn't have this same impatience. We should always be conditioning ourselves to pay attention ("Watch and pray"). Since poetry is the form God has chosen for much of scripture, there must be something in its reflective nature that enhances our ability to listen to Him. Much of what we read in scripture is in the form of metaphors, since Kingdom truths often refuse to be limited to arithmetic-like thinking.

Poetry—besides its use in the Bible—has often been a route through which people have come to God. Denise Levertov, Margaret Avison, Anna Kamienska and Mary Oliver (to share a few recent examples) were all successful poets before their reflectivity led them to reflections about Christ.

Poets observe the world with an expectation that what they see has meaning. We can learn truth through both what God says (the Bible) and what He's done (creation).

"God draws us closer to Him by poetry. God is a poet... He makes a poem of life... poetry is not a genre, it is a way of seeing, living. If we make beauty ourselves, God shows Himself," says Di Cicco.

As I wrote in a recent review of Kamienska's book, Astonishments, "Perhaps poets are the most susceptible to the wooing of the Holy Spirit, because they have trained themselves in attentiveness."

Through the pleasures of reading poetry, I believe we can all become more attentive–more susceptible.

This article was first published in Christian Week, in 2008, and an abbreviated version appeared soon after in Canadian Mennonite.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His new poetry collection, Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis, is available from Wipf & Stock as is his earlier award-winning collection, Poiema.