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

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.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

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.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

11 Comments

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    The great preacher William Sloane Coffin read a poem every day, said it was an important part of learning to preach, and quoted poetry regularly. He also played the piano every day, learning from Dr. Schweitzer that a day been without Bach was lacking.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Jeff, this is beautiful. A prose poem of sorts. Thank you.

  • Marlene says:

    I’m curious. What was the name of the poem?

  • William Harris says:

    Tracy Smith! Life on Mars is wonderful, though Wade in the Water is probably better suited to reading,

    A very fun poet is the Polish Nobel laureate, Wadislawa Symborska, she’s wry, perceptive, and of you listen closely subtly Catholic.

    A third poet would be Kevin Young. His anthology dealing with death is very good.

    Finally, speaking of anthologies, there’s lots to be mined from the Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Confess your unpopular (at least here) opinion: I can’t stand poems.

    I don’t say that to take away from this post, as I don’t begrudge others their own affinities. I suspect there are a few other oddballs like me out there, and I wonder if any of the lit-minded people here have a (non-snobbish) working theory as to how/why poems seem to speak so much to some people and so little to others.

    //ducks under desk

    • Jeff Munroe says:

      Eric – here’s a funny thing: I read your post and wondered “Why are there ducks under his desk?” Eventually, it dawned on me that you were taking cover under your desk. But my joyful misreading relates to a question I have for you: what do you mean by the word “poem”? It’s a notoriously difficult word to define. If by it you mean “incomprehensible words strung together on a page,” then I am with you. For the first 45 years of my life I probably would have written what you wrote. Then I discovered poems like Billy Collins’s “The Lanyard” and his “The Revenant,” And Brian Doyle’s “Once in a While We Should Say What Is.” These poems are all easily findable on the internet, and they helped me warm to the idea that I could read poetry and not feel dumb, which is how I always felt because I’d read something everybody said was great and not get it and then feel like it must be me. Many of us were traumatized by poetry in school. I understand way more at 60 than I did at 15, but that’s when I was assigned Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and others and was lost most of the time. One other discovery has helped. Like sermons, poems are meant to be heard. They can be read, as sermons can be read, but they are better orally. Sometimes in our poem-a-day practice I don’t know what the poem is about, but listening to its rhythms and sounds still works its charms on me. And so, yes, I sit alone sometimes and read aloud to myself. I have reached the point of not caring what that looks like to the rest of the world. I hope you’ll try Collins and Doyle.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    For approachable poetry for the reluctant reader, try any of the collections of poems selected by Garrison Keillor: Good Poems; Good Poems for Hard Times; and Good Poems: American Places. Billy Collins’ work has always been a favorite for me as well. Along with this blog, my daily reading includes The Writer’s Almanac, which has a poem for the day.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for your reply – and thanks for not chucking things at me.  I get a kick out of how you read the “ducks” comment. It’s a good illustration of how much variation there can be in writer intent/reader interpretation, which perhaps is apropos of this conversation.
    A few observations, in no particular order:
    • When I use the word poem, I guess I mean what most people would mean in the vernacular. Beyond that I wouldn’t have a definition. I imagine there is significant variability in how poems are constructed. It’s rare for a poem of any sort to resonate with me.
    • I guess for me it’s not that I feel inadequate or dumb because I think I’m not understanding something esoteric, but rather that I don’t like the form or often the content of poems.
    • If I had to nail down why I think that poems don’t resonate with me, I would use one word: subjectivity. My heart and mind do not connect well to subjectivity, and as such I also tend to not appreciate abstract art, but rather realistic art or beautiful photography. I guess I relate best to straightforward communication, for better or worse.
    • Thank you for the poem recommendations. I did indeed give them a test run – no dice.
    • I read “The Lanyard”, and my impression was twofold: First, I was struck by the banality of the observation that we cannot repay our mothers with our acts of kindness. Second, I was struck by the oddness of the assertion that little boys give things to their mothers with idea that they are somehow breaking even for all the things mom has done for them. Such a thought never crossed my mind as a boy, nor have my boys ever seemed to think so. Different upbringings, perhaps.
    • Then I listened to Collins read his poem, so I could hear it, and I was even less impressed. I expected his reading to somehow be more illuminating, or “poetic” in a lyrical sense – it wasn’t. I found it quite boring, no offense intended. I was surprised that the audience that he was reading to laughed significantly at several points, which I found odd. I didn’t realize he was attempting to be humorous, but he seemed to accept their laughing as laudatory. I just found it awkward.
    • Then I read “Once in a While We Should Say What Is.” This one did not resonate with me any more than the last one. Question: Is the author attempting to say that he *acutally* physically saw his brother, and that we should recognize and speak the truth of such things or is he saying that in his mind’s eye he can see him? If the former, I’m not sure where he’s coming from. If the latter, who denies that we all see such things, in which case his observation is utterly unremarkable to me. Here I may totally miss the point (and I likely do), but this does not make me feel dumb, just annoyed.
    I don’t know what it might take for me to appreciate poetry. I suspect I never will, which of course is no reason for you not to post it and for others not to like it. It does seem to be exceedingly popular here, and I do tend to read it and the comments that follow, but the beauty is not there for me. I suspect I’m not alone, but I’m sure I’m in the minority of your readers here. Have a wonderful day!

    • Jeff Munroe says:

      Eric – I am really touched that you gave them a try.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Jeff – Thank you sincerely for offering them. I will continue to read your posts, poetry and all, and I will seek to hold an open mind on everything, including poetry. 🙂

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