The Surprising Practicality of Poetry

June 19, 2018

During the past two weeks, I have had occasion to be part of sustained conversations on several of the seemingly intractable challenges of our time: creating lasting peace in Israel; providing food for the hungry not just around the world but here in our own country; and, most recently, arriving at an acceptable immigration policy. Creating workable policy that embodies just moral principles is hard enough without adding the complexities of partisan politics. For example, no one wants to see families separated at American borders, but too much of our collective energy that could be spent resolving the problem is being wasted in unproductive debating about who is to blame.

There are no easy answers to any of these challenges. It is tempting to turn our eyes away, either because we do not want to see or because we cannot bear the sense of helplessness we feel when we attempt to see clearly what is happening. None of these issues lends itself to once-for-all solutions, nor to logical, straight line resolutions.  We much prefer dealing with problems that can be solved and checked off the list.

These are issues that must be walked with. They must be agonized over;  they are issues where we are called to do what is in our power to do even when we cannot see that it makes a difference in the big picture. They are issues that call for weighing complexities and ambiguities. They call us again and again to recognize that in this fallen world, we may have to settle for less-than-perfect solutions.  They call for faithful and hope-filled action over the long term.

How do we sustain ourselves for this long and arduous moral and spiritual journey?  Certainly we must pray daily for God’s kingdom to come, for His will to be done in our world as it is in heaven.  We should learn as much as we can about the facts. Seeing clearly is also part of our basic obligation. We must equip ourselves to move forward wisely and with discernment in the face of complexity, ambiguity, and incomplete information.  The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament provide us with practice in this discipline. While there is much in Scripture that is very clear, there is also much that requires us to weigh wisely how to apply its teachings.  The Scriptures are not a telephone directory.  When we want simple answers, we hear our Lord’s words such as “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” We need more than logical syllogisms, mathematical equations, or data analytics. We need clear vision and courage for action.

In these times, we may find sustenance in a surprising place: the world of poetry. For too many of us, poetry was part of our required English classes in high school or college. We struggled to figure out how to “explicate” poems, to say something halfway intelligent about a form of literature that all too often seemed obscure and less than straightforward.  As I have grown older, I have come more and more to appreciate the gifts of poetry not as an escape from the realities of our complex world, but as a way of finding courage to face these realities. Today I will only hint at these gifts.

For starters, poetry helps us develop the capacity for sustained attention and to wait for insight—the very kind of attention required for seeing next steps in complicated situations. Poetry can contain in one poem the kind of tensions and opposites that we encounter in daily life. It does not make things simpler than they really are. Poetry can hint at realities beyond what we see clearly in any given moment. It invites the sense of mystery, wonder, and hopefulness that keep us moving forward when we do not see clearly as far ahead as we might like to. I have found these gifts in such classical poets as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, and John Milton. Today, I pass along to you the name of a more recent poet whom I was just introduced to this past spring. Malcolm Guite is a Cambridge scholar with a number of publications in both poetry and prose. I would recommend his Sounding the Seasons:  Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012). Next month I will talk review his Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Ashgate Publishing, 2008).

May God grant us wisdom and courage for the times in which He has called us to live.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976

[See here for reflections on last month’s recommended reading, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (InterVarsity Press, 2017).]