Greetings Fellow Listener,
It will come as no surprise to you, when I say ‘I like and enjoy poetry.’ However, this was not always so. When it comes to poetry, I am a late developer; I showed very little interest in poetry at High School, the only poems I can remember are the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth.
Fast forward twenty years or so and I find myself in parish ministry in a small South Island town. A ministry colleague died suddenly and his widow invited me to look over his library and take what I wanted. Whenever, I have been invited to look over someone’s library, it is a sacred and poignant moment, on this occasion it was no different. Looking at his vast library, I recall I was not drawn to my friend’s extensive theological and biblical collection, rather, to his books of poetry, from such poets as Frost, Eliot, Yeats and Blake to name a few. Taking them down from the shelf, holding them in my hand, flicking open and casually reading, I intuitively knew which books I wanted. I had been given a gift from beyond the grave by my friend, for whom I have been forever grateful.
I would like to say, following that introduction, I commenced a poetic journey of wonder and enlightenment. Alas, not so, it took another, twenty years for the seed sown to push itself through the hard shell of my soul. After training as a psychotherapist and returning to ministry this time in the PCANZ I knew I needed a way of sustaining and keeping my soul fresh and porous to the mystery and wonder of life. I remembered the poetry books I had been given by my friend’s widow over twenty years previously. Something within, motivated me to take them down off my library shelf, opening them for the first time in twenty years, I discovered words and phrases, which appeared to leap from the page, which touched my soul, enabling me to slow down, listen and be refreshed.
So began a new phase of my life were poetry has sustained and renewed me in various ways, depending on how much time and effort I put into reading, reflecting and allowing the poem to do its mysterious work within me.
During my study leave early this year, I discovered and delighted in the poetry of Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas. He defines religion: ‘as the response of the whole person to reality, and poetry as imaginative presentation of it.’ In one of his poems he writes:
Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.
This echoes the words expressed by Wordsworth: ‘a truth carried alive into the heart by passion.’ Of course there is not just one sole description of poetry, rather, each poet and each poetry reader will have their own favourite descriptive words to describe what happens when poetry is written, read or heard.
I particularly like the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke who in his poem: I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone, has these wonderful words, which may describe the action of poetry to unfold the human soul:
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
These lines express for me the integrity at the heart of what it means to be a human being; it is having openness to the whole of life. It is the call to authenticity, of integrity both with our selves, those we love and the ultimate reality we name as God. For love cannot flow when we are folded over, blocking the very energy source of the soul. R.S. Thomas in his poem Alive: seeks to express the sustaining presence of God as the being of love:
is the deepening shadow
of your presence; the silence a
process in the metabolism
of the being of love.
The word metabolism refers to the set of life sustaining chemical transformations within cells of living organisms. This allows organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. R.S. Thomas describes God as the silence within the metabolism of the being of love. Using the metaphor of ‘metabolism’ in describing God’s activity and presence is truly delightful, this offers us much to explore and reflect.
When I read a poem in a particular setting, sometimes I am asked, what does it mean? Here we come to an important aspect of poetry, what may a particular poem be saying. For me, I am reluctant to get into too specific meaning of what a poem may be saying, rather, within the lines and the spaces between the words, we have an opportunity to discover our shared, hopes, dreams, fears and joys. Last year I discovered this poem by a former Poet Laureates of America, Billy Collins called Introduction to Poetry:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Billy here is inviting us to enjoy, be playful, fall in love with a poem, rather, than engage in a systematic analysis of a poem which may dismember and deconstruct the text. I try to remember this when I am tempted to engage in detailed analysis.
Of course, what one poem is for one person will be very different for another that is the beauty and joy of poetry. What is important is that we take time to rest and be renewed with a poem. There is a delightful poetic parable which reads:
The story is told of a South American tribe that went on a long trek, day after day, when all of a sudden they would stop walking, sit down and rest while, and then make camp for a couple of days before going any further. They explained that they needed the time of rest so that their souls could catch up with them.
As we rest awhile with a poem, we have an opportunity to unfold, to become open and porous to the wonder and beauty of life once more. Poetry offers us a way of being, if you like, a way of being present in the world of being awake to see and hear, as if for the first time. A poem that describes this well is by Antonio Machado called: Is my soul asleep?
Is my soul asleep?
Have those beehives that work
in the night stopped? And the water-
wheel of thought, is it
going around now, cups
empty, carrying only shadows?
No, my soul is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
It neither sleeps nor dreams, but watches,
its eyes wide open
far-off things, and listens
at the shores of the great silence.
Meanwhile peace in our listening at the shores of the great silence