During Advent, it was my great pleasure to lead a group—virtually, of course—through discussions of five poems by five poets. Each poem was related in some way to the Christmas story. I taught poetry to college students for 30 years. But having retired nearly six years ago, it had been some time since I’d talked about poetry in any depth. And it was a joy!
I’ve always loved poetry. It has become my practice to read a poem or two (or five…) as part of my daily devotions. So I thought it would be interesting to look at what other Christians have to say about why they read poetry—and why they think others should, too.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things, an online journal published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life. He believes that we read creative works of fiction and poetry “because we are people of the book.” More accurately, I would say, people of The Book. Though the Bible, like all ancient literature, is grounded in the oral tradition—stories spoken again and again until they were written down—it is in reading that we encounter God—God who is, after all, the Word.
In their beauty and eloquence, the opening lines of John’s gospel certainly read like poetry:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Because God is ultimately a mystery beyond our full understanding, scripture gives us many symbolic definitions of God. God is The Word, the potter, a rock, a fortress. Jesus is the shepherd, the light, the vine, the bread of life. The Spirit is the wind, a fire, a dove.
Christian educator Timothy Massaro writes in “How Reading Poetry Can Change Your Life” that we should read poetry because some scripture is actually written in that form. Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon—all of these books are written as poems. “Scripture itself,” he says, “is filled with poetry and poetic images that are often difficult to understand.” And because poetry often uses words in ways that require us to think beyond their literal meaning—just as scripture does—Massaro believes that reading poetry can actually help us in reading scripture!
But poetry also serves another purpose. It requires us to look at life differently, to see something in a way we’ve never seen or considered it before. When Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” we know that he isn’t only writing a poem about choosing which path to take on a walk; he is writing about the bigger choices we all must make in life. When William Wordsworth writes, “The world is too much with us,” we understand that he means that all of the concerns of daily life—of “the world”—can consume our lives. When we read poems like these, it’s like a bell rings deep within us, a recognition that yes, we also have felt exactly like that.
And isn’t that one way to understand and love others, as Jesus taught us to do? Listening to the way they say things, the way they see their world?
Well, friends, I don’t expect that I’ve convinced every one of you to include poetry as a regular part of your reading! But I hope that you might consider joining me in the next series of poetry readings and discussion. We will begin on Sunday, January 24, from 3:00 to 3:30 in the afternoon. At least eight of the people from the Advent group will be returning, and we would love to have you join us via Zoom. If you’re interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; and I will send you the Zoom link.
And, to get us off to a great start, here is the poem we will be discussing:
The Summer Day
By Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Try reading the poem once silently, and once out loud. Look for the words or phrases or ideas that you notice, that jump out at you.
Ask yourself what you think Mary is saying to you—after all, she is asking about your one wild and precious life!