Contemplative Life, Creation

What Does Poetry Have to do with Spiritual Formation?

Robert Frost once defined poetry as a “way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” Poetry emerged as the first form of literary writing in human history way back in the 3rd Millennium BCE, and indeed the vast majority of ancient literature comes down to us as poetry. When we look at our own sacred texts, we find that well over half of the Old Testament is written in verse; think of the Psalter, the proclamations of the prophets, the song of Moses. The New Testament also harnesses poetry at key moments: Mary’s “Magnificat,” Jesus’ cry of desolation from the Cross, the “Christ Hymn” from Colossians, the songs of Revelation. Widening our gaze from Scripture to the great Christian Tradition, we find centuries of poetry inspired by, reflecting upon, and telling anew the story of God with us: the ecstatic songs of Hildegard of Bingen, the monumental epics of Dante and Milton, the moving verses of Wesley and Newton, the “ah! bright wings” of Hopkins, the peerless tradition of African-American Spirituals, and so many others.

And yet, over the last 50 or so years, poetry has grown more and more marginalized in American culture, confined to the increasingly siloed halls of academic study. For many, including myself, poetry can seem intimidating, inaccessible, or simply dull, and so the careful reading and recitation of poetry fades from our lives. All of us, but perhaps especially Christians, ought to lament this development. Why? What does my spiritual life actually have to gain from poetry? I would like to suggest three things that reading and writing poetry “does” that can enrich our lives as Christians.

First, poetry can draw us into a deeper appreciation for the beauty and endless possibility laying dormant within God’s creation. Ever since Genesis 2, a primary way that humanity has come to know the world around us is by naming it, by putting words to the things we see and encounter. Poetry unlocks deeper levels of knowledge by putting words and things together in new and surprising ways. Take a sunset. From a “factual” perspective (via Merriam-Webster), we would describe a sunset as “the time when the sun disappears below the horizon as a result of the diurnal rotation of the earth.” But a sunset is also when “slowly the west reaches out for clothes of new colors” (Rilke), when the sun “strews the landing with opal bales” (Dickinson). These new names break open unexpected depths of understanding, making fresh the mundane things we experience everyday and enabling us to recognize and acknowledge that they are gifts from God. 

If you would like to see this in action, I encourage you to check out this poem by 2019 Coracle Fellow, Julie Harrison Eastwood, “Does God Feel Nearer?” inspired by time spent sitting by the river at Corhaven on retreat.

Second, poetry can help us wrestle with the mysterious realities of human experience. Love and loss, joy and suffering, beauty and brokenness– all elude scientific description. By incarnating these ideas and experiences into ink and meter over and over again, we are able to gather an ever expanding vocabulary of metaphors and poetic images by which we can make sense of these aspects of our lives. We understand something more about love after reading Shakespeare; we remember David’s cries from Psalm 51 in our own desperate moments of guilt and contrition; we echo Job’s heavenward accusations in the pit of unthinkable loss. When we hear our story reflected in the verses of a poem or in the lyrics of a song we are reminded that “no man is an island entire of itself” as John Donne famously penned.

For a moving depiction of beauty in the midst of great suffering, please read “The Concussion,” a poem by 2019 Coracle Fellow and accomplished artist, Carolyn Marshall Wright, written as she was recovering from a serious concussion.

Finally, just as poetry can help generate a grammar by which we can understand those moments in our lives that defy straightforward description, so too can reading and writing poetry produce a language for understanding the particular mysteries of the Christian life.

Think of the many hymns that help us remember and articulate what happened on the Cross, that put words to our longing for restoration during Advent, that cast a beautiful vision of hope for a creation remade at the end of time. As Christians, much of our spiritual vocation is simply to “remember to remember” the work that the Lord has done across time and in our lives; the poetry of God’s people through the millennia, be it found in Scripture or sonnets, hymns or hip-hop, is a treasure that we would indeed be impoverished to forget.

So, take a moment to look at Bill Haley’s poem “Eucharist,” which reimagines this ancient Christian mystery in striking ways. Take your time; recite the words out loud; and give the poem a couple read-throughs. What do you notice? What do the metaphors and surprising associations help you to notice about Creation? about worship? about yourself? about God?

Perhaps the next time you are in the wood-shop at Corhaven, you’ll consider pulling down one of the many books of poetry and spending some time seeking the Lord through verse and rhyme.

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