FAQ: Why Poetry?

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Tell all the truth but tell it slant – –

Success in Circuit lies.

Emily Dickinson

First Things First: Why Poetry Now?

I’ve noticed a theme in my own life, as well as online after cultural watershed moments in recent memory : the first words that often form in response to trauma are in verse. That explains these two pandemic poems that went viral (pun intended!) in early 2020, and it also accounts for many of the poems you’ll see on this website. Sometimes prose falls short, and I’d argue that a deluge of prose may even be contributing to our current social woes. As activist and author Parker Palmer explains in the book Leading From Within, “inner truth is best conveyed by the language of the heart, of image and metaphor, of poetry.”

What’s the Point of Poetry?

This is an ancient question for an ancient art form. In fact, I’ve recently learned there’s an entire genre of poetry called the ars poetica whose purpose is to explore poetry’s very existence. George Gordon Byron in his ars poetica poem “Hints from Horace” declares,

 ‘Tis not enough, ye Bards, with all your art,
    To polish poems; they must touch the heart:
    Where’er the scene be laid, whate’er the song,
    Still let it bear the hearer’s soul along;
    Command your audience or to smile or weep,
    Whiche’er may please you – anything but sleep.
    The Poet claims our tears; but, by [the poet’s] leave,
    Before I shed them, let me see [the poet] grieve.

Another famous poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, boldly proclaimed in his essay “A Defence of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Whoa—those words pack a punch! But are they true? Does anyone other than dead white men have something to say about the ars poetica as a genre? I intend to explore all these questions here.

Isn’t Poetry Just an Escapist, Irrelevant, and Obscure Hobby?

Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

Roque Dalton

Some poems are meant purely to entertain, ballads crooned by bards around the campfire. With the sports and entertainment industry disrupted by COVID, are we open to new forms of leisure? I find it telling that 2020 is the first year a spoken-word poet won America’s Got Talent. Could it be that some poems aren’t just escapist, but are imaginative, delightful ways to connect with others?

It’s true that contemporary US culture has often marginalized poetry (in fact, our lack of shared poetry is notable compared to other cultures around the world). But I would respond to the question above with a question: WHY have we in the US neglected poetry for so long?

Poetry bids us to slow down. Yet the white western world has assumed for centuries that a capitalist, workaholic, hyper-efficient life would satisfy us. I’d say even a brief glance at headlines nowadays is proving that assumption to be false. Thankfully, many folks have known for awhile now (including folks in Scripture!) that there’s another way. I hope to explore some of those stories on this site. Are we ready to slow down yet?

Why Are Some Poems so Difficult To Understand?

Firstly, if we’re honest, do we WANT to understand some poems? What if the poem says something that challenges our assumptions and worldviews? Are we willing to change, or will we just walk away?

Assuming our own pliability, it could be that the poem is inviting us to sit with it for awhile. Other poets may help us see what we would otherwise miss. How do we find kindred spirits where we can read poetry together? I hope to explore that question on this site, too.

When we find a poem full of allusions outside of our universe, it could be that we are not that poem’s first audience. Sometimes this web site will take up the challenge (the game? the delight?) of exploring poems from other times and places to see what we can learn for our own contexts (hint: if we ever read poetry from the Bible, then we are NEVER that poem’s first audience).

There can be some degree of scavenger hunt fun in a poem, but after awhile, the obscurity can be too much. I remember attending a conference a few years ago where the speaker dragged the author James Joyce over the coals, explaining how Joyce would deliberately change his writing to make it as difficult to understand as possible. Though poetry invites us to slow down, I believe poetry should also be hospitable. A poet just trying to intimidate through literary techniques is not worth the gift of my time and attention, and such poems won’t be found on this site.

What Does Poetry Have to Say to Politics, Justice, and Everyday Living?

Much indeed. The process of writing a poem is a very vulnerable one that is open to change, detours, and surprising insights from beginning to end. This means the poet must release control as well as expectations in crafting a poem, since the very power of poetry (and the definition of poetry’s key device, metaphor) is the connection of unlike and previously inchoate things. This website is therefore for those who are open to the vulnerability, trust, and surprises of the poetic process, and I assume that this process has much to teach us about our efforts to seek justice and the Reign of God in everyday life.

What About Poetry and: Faith, Prayer, Scripture, Trauma, and/or Healing?

Yes, yes, and more yes. Poetry has much to say to all of these things. I’ll certainly share, in prose as well as verse, from my own story about the myriad overlaps here. I’ve interviewed nurse poet Veneta Masson, who has shared her sage-femme insights about poetry and healing. And I’ll invite others into conversations on these crucial topics, too. For now, be assured that if you are asking about these connections, then you are certainly in good company.

What Can I Expect to Find on Your Blog?

For we are God’s handiwork (poiēma), created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Pastiche. Collage. Mosaic. Even the poetic form known as cento—all of these words speak to what happens when we mix together seemingly slapdash ingredients in order to create something new. The older I get, the more I appreciate that the Bible comes from a hodgepodge of cultures, centuries, genres, languages, and social statuses. We receive the Jesus story (and the first four books of the New Testament that focus on his life, the Gospels) not only from elegantly written Luke, but also from man-on-the-street Mark, whose working class Koine Greek made the literati of his day wince with embarrassment. God reveals God’s character through pastiche people and publications, and this blog intends to continue that holy and messy tradition.

As far as genre, you can expect to find not only poems and prayers, but also interviews, book reviews, and reflective commentaries on poetry, prayer, and the poetic process. This blog will feature my voice, as well as the voices of poets from a variety of backgrounds, beliefs, experience levels, and cultures. What will tie all of these blog posts together is an assumption that God works in and through the process of poetry, and that there is much value in exploring the process as well as the finished product of a poem.

Welcome, and have a look around. I look forward to hearing from you.