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April is National Poetry Month. Of course, perhaps it’s no surprise that they (whoever “they” are who get to assign months to various things) gave poetry to the “cruelest month.” As an English professor, I know just how intimidated folks are by poetry–it’s something that I try and address every semester in my courses and to which I try to respond good-humoredly whenever I sit by a poetry-phobic (which I just looked up and which is actually called metrophobic) person on a plane. Someone who can’t imagine that my job doesn’t involve either inflicting some special kind of torture or unveiling secret access to “hidden” meanings–or some combination of both.
I’m not sure when we decided poetry wasn’t for us–it certainly wasn’t true for my grandparents, who knew long swathes of poetry by heart. And maybe it’s not true for us either, really. To metrophobics I like to point to all the everyday poetry they encounter: their favorite song, for example. We’re perfectly comfortable with the idea that song lyrics (even when they may be obscure) express deeply meaningful things to us. In the old days of making “mix tapes,” one of the main objectives was to craft just the right selection of songs to communicate just the right thing to your beloved. It’s why for many the theology derived from hymns and praise songs is often far more powerful than any received from a sermon. Saying what we mean never seems to get easier, or as T.S. Eliot writes a lot more eloquently:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
The paradox of saying well what we can’t say well is, of course, one of the joys of poetry. Poetry helps me gives me new words to describe my experience, new ways of processing what it means to be human. And for Christians, what it means to be a “Word person.” Whether it’s Dante or Tennyson, John Donne or George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Christina Rossetti, Denise Levertov or T.S. Eliot, Jane Kenyon or Li Young Lee, Mary Oliver or Fanny Howe–and so many more–we have such a rich heritage of poets who have grappled with the lived experience of faith. I challenge you to find at least one poet to read devotionally this month.
And of course, Christians are still a community that has poetry–most obviously, in the Psalms–as part of our normal reading diet. In that vein, I commend to you the video below. Last week I was privileged to be in attendance at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan, when poet Christian Wiman and theologian J. Todd Billings spent an evening in powerful conversation. (I’ve written of Wiman before in this space–and if you don’t yet own any of his poetry, remedy that quickly.)
Both men model attentiveness–to life, to faith, to words. At one point, as you’ll hear, the moderator asks “why poetry,” especially as both face incurable cancer. I was particularly struck by Billings’ answer: he began by noting that he had turned to the Psalms because they were scripture first, rather than because they were poetry. But then he framed what he called the “more interesting question”: “Why did God chose poetry with the Psalms, with Job, with other parts of divine self-revelation in scripture?”
I’ll leave his answer to conclude: “I think that [poetry] has a power–the Psalms as poetry, as prayer–it has a power that just a listing of propositions doesn’t have. And it has a power even that a narrative of prose doesn’t have…: to just dwell in the Psalms and to make those words your own.”