Listen To Article
When the Buildings and Grounds Superintendent signed up to read a poem, I knew we were onto something.
We have a daily community gathering after chapel at Western Theological Seminary where we do introductions, announcements, and share prayer concerns. In January we added a poem to our daily rhythm.
Billy Collins has helmed a project called Poetry 180 in American high schools. We took his idea of a daily poem offered without comment or explanation and tweaked it mildly. In Collins’s version, poems are read from a list he’s put together. Since our community is made up of adult learners, we invited members of the community to select poems, relying on the wisdom of our students, faculty, and staff.
The result has been remarkable.
Since the poem is offered without interpretation or commentary, the poetry moment is far different than almost every other moment at our school. We’re a seminary, after all, we specialize in interpretation and commentary. Our will to dissect rivals that of a medical school. But we don’t dissect the poems. Perhaps you know “Introduction to Poetry” by the aforementioned Billy Collins, where he laments those who want to “tie the poem to a chair with a rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” We don’t let that happen. We hear a poem and let it be. We “just be” with the poem.
In other words we slow down and shut up and listen. We pay attention. What a countercultural move that is.
By not controlling the selections, a wide variety of voices have been brought to us. The usual suspects have shown up: Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, Kathleen Norris, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins. We can’t stop being a seminary.
William Shakespeare and Rainer Maria Rilke have also stopped by. And being in West Michigan, we’ve heard from local legend Jack Ridl. But did anyone expect we would float into outer space with Tracy Smith or sew a button on a dead husband’s shirt with Anna Kamienska? Who foresaw “The Great Sin of Prejudice Against Color” by Sojourner Truth? We have laughed uproariously with the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and the wit of Shel Silverstein. We’ve listened to James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and S. M. Lockbridge.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came when one of the students read a lovely poem and didn’t say who wrote it. Someone (oh, all right, I’ll admit it—it was me) asked, “Who wrote that?” She blushed and said, “I did.” Of course she did. And she wasn’t the only one. Maybe once every couple of weeks someone would offer a poem and not say who wrote it. Inevitably someone (yes, usually me) would ask who wrote it, and the person bringing the poem would confess to being the author. (Unless the person bringing the poem was Ron Rienstra. In that case the poem was written by his remarkable spouse Deb, whose work appears on this site regularly.) Without fail they were remarkable poems.
What did we really accomplish?
Outside of some warm feelings, not a blessed thing. The words were spoken and then floated away into the air. The magic created in each moment is long gone. Is that enough? I believe it is. I believe it is enough simply to do something good without having to create any sort of lasting monument to the good you have done.
Our Buildings and Grounds Superintendent is a presence—he’s tall and husky and wears a work shirt with his name in script on it. One day he admitted that a few drops of liquid escaped from his eyes while a poem was being read. On the day he signed up to read a poem, the one he read seemed at first to be about nature but then took an unexpected turn and was about death.
The words hung in the air after he finished. Each of us thought about our own deaths, and the deaths of those we love. The world was incredibly sober, thanks to the guy in charge of making sure the heat and lights work and the lawn is mowed and snow shoveled.
Maybe it took him four minutes to read it. And maybe we spent thirty seconds in silence contemplating our mortalities afterwards. But it was a moment that lingers, and our communal life is richer for it, and all the other moments from our poem-a-day practice.