Sunday, October 5, 2008

Poems in our Pockets

The woods and pastures are joyous

in their abundance now

in a season of warmth and much rain.

We walk amidst foliage, amidst

song. The sheep and cattle graze

like souls in bliss (except for flies)

and lie down satisfied.

Who now
can believe in winter? In winter

who could have hoped for this?
— Wendell Berry

Just this fall my eighteen-year old daughter Madeleine started college.  Early in September, she called to say, “Mama, guess what happened in my English class?”  The teacher asked us who was afraid of Poetry?!   And Mama!  All but two of us raised our hands.!”

Afraid of poetry are we.

Ranier Marie Rilke, a German poet of the early 20th Century, writes “works of art are always the result of ones having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.  The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity."  (Rilke in Letters On Cezanne) 

This could hint at our fear of poetry.  All art can be a little disconcerting.  And no wonder!  In attending to it, and opening our self up to it, we are taken to the depths of another’s delights and sorrows and are often even then left hanging.

In seasons of deprivation, I have often found myself gifted with an unexpected providence; a sense of abundance internally in the midst of something restrictive or even devastating on the outside.  Our days seem laced with expressions of this.  Have you noticed?  People tell us some horrific story of life’s relentless blows and then describe the deep inner gifts that were given in time so that at the end of the day, they are grateful for the trial.

But rarely do we ask for the catastrophe, and surely it would be ridiculous to do so.  My mother had a cross-stitched quote in our bathroom that I read many days while growing up:  “If all of our troubles were hung on a line, you would take yours and I would take mine”.  This quip was beyond me and I could not say it honestly.  But now I see that our troubles are particularized and each, when received instead of only endured, creates gaps and incertitude that finally make me soft and supple enough to hear the tender voice of the Other, and put me into a posture to be tended by the Good Shepherd.

I have found that listening to poetry has a similar effect on me.  Listening to poetry extracts stillness from my ‘working breast’, as George Herbert calls it, and quiets my soul like a weaned child. I find that to keep in time with poetry, I must take deeper breaths and move my inner feet at a more deliberate pace. It is all a slowing down, a settling in; the preparation as significant as the hearing.  To rush off after hearing a poem read is incongruent with the form, and so I pause afterwards, like a comma or a Selah, and reflect.  To resume the activity or thinking that was going on before the insertion of the poem is to reenter changed by only a degree, but still, I enter more attentive and calmer, and might I say, truer?

At the end of the day, we will be grateful for anyone and anything that was given to make us more thoughtful, hospitable, restful, kinder; more receptive to Truth and Beauty and Life.  Could it be that in gifting our children and ourselves with poetry of all kinds that we are tasting of the very more of Eternity?

Some essential thoughts about poetry:  (What do you think?)

Poetry is meant to be read aloud.  What is not said is as meaningful as what is said.  Lyrical language (words thoughtfully chosen to ‘get at’ the idea of the writer) is the tool.  In listening, we are better able to take in the meaning.  Voice and pace and word all in one reading. 

In poetry, the form rises out of content.  The inspiration to write comes from an experience or thought first.  This is the rhythm of the Gospel:  First the gift, then the living.  First the grace, then the response.    Poets hear a cadence and wait for words that fit the meaning.

Poetry is related to poverty, often rising from being stripped down to essentials.  The idea is that much can be said with fewer words.  It is the beggar’s garment in the world of literature, where less is more and to be impoverished is to be enriched. 

It doesn’t take long to read a poem.  But it does take fierce attention. Stillness and presence are fruits of our attending to our current poet/friend.  In an age when most of us are exhausted with our ever doing, attending to poetry relieves and soothes us into remembering that we are human beings, not human doings, and that our glory lies in what is given to us not in what we earn.

Poetry Practices

Practice sitting still and quiet for a minute at a time.  This is a meaningful exercise for children as well as adults!  It becomes a game to see if you can ‘feel a minute.’

Let your resonance with one poet lead you to another….How the Holy Spirit must delight in luring us this way.   Madeleine L’Engle led me to  Lucy Shaw who led me to Jane Kenyon who led me to Donald Hall who led me to…

Many novelists or memoirists publish poetry as well.  Reading their poetry makes an internal conversation with them even more layered and personal.   This is how I have come to know Wendell Berry and Kathleen Norris.


Just days ago, my daughter relayed an’ uncorking’’ that occurred upon the reading of a poem.  While reading it she was surprised to find tears and clarity, stirring and rest, joy and the release of a latent sorrow.  All in one place.  All at the same time.

It seems that a childhood steeped in  ‘How I love to go up in the swing, up in the sky so blue.  Oh, I do think it the grandest of things ever a child can do’, and ‘’Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?  Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.” created capacities to hold the likes of Rainer Rilke or Wendell Berry or George Herbert. 

When my children were young we learned this poem by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers: 

Keep a poem in your pocket

And a picture in your head

And you’ll never feel lonely

At night when you’re in bed.

The little poem will sing to you

The little picture bring to you

A dozen dreams to dance to you

At night when you’re in bed.

So - -

Keep a picture in your pocket

And a poem in your head

And you’ll never feel lonely

At night when you’re in bed

May we each taste the gifts that come from being still and open to another in the garb of a poem?