Why talk about poetry? It might not seem an urgent concern. It certainly isn’t a “hot-button issue.” Our thoughts, however, would be impoverished if we devoted them only to the latest controversy over Pope Francis, the new dismaying scandal, or whether our country will collapse. Even in harsh times, the things that make human life full and sweet still deserve attention.
Art is part of what makes life human. The urge to create has always been a distinctive mark of humanity, and has been manifest wherever people have had time to draw, sculpt, or compose. God made us “making-creatures,” as Tolkien put it, reflecting the image of our Creator by becoming little creators ourselves. If you have no interest in poetry or arts generally, you probably aren’t still reading. But if you are, and if you’re interested in how language relates to human nature, keep going.
Why Does Poetry Matter?
First, I will try to demonstrate why why we should care about poetry and why it matters from a Catholic perspective. Second, I will explain why it is in trouble in our time.
I think I can safely say that the purpose of language is to communicate, to express or seek truth. Poetry does this in a special way: it presents something, not directly to the intellect, but to the imagination. It enables readers to see its subject matter in a fresh light, to look past empirical facts to the more elusive, but no less true, significance of the thing.
This is rather abstract and vague, so I’ll give the example that one of my college professors gave us. Google the definition of “eagle” and you’ll find, “a large bird of prey with a massive hooked bill and long broad wings, renowned for its keen sight and powerful soaring flight.” Well and good—but now consider another perspective on the eagle, from Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The Google definition is perfectly accurate, but doesn’t begin to take into account the majesty, strength, beauty, and fierceness that give one such a thrill when seeing an eagle perched high above or plunging from the skies. Unless our imagination has been quite killed, we all know intuitively that something about the eagle is not accounted for in a bare scientific analysis; still, we struggle to put our finger on that “something more.” It’s hard to articulate in plain language. This, then, is where poetry comes in, expressing and validating our sense that something here deserves our careful, appreciative attention—or perhaps arousing that sense, if we don’t have it.
When it comes to truths that are already abstract or overtly spiritual, poetry’s job becomes even more important. Take, for example, these lines of Shakespeare’s, on love:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
If one said instead, “Love is always constant even in chaos and misfortune,” that would be perfectly good English, and no less true, but would not begin to approach the power and grace of the Bard’s quatrain. The prose sentence may express a beautiful idea, but could easily be overlooked as a truism. The poem throws that idea into fresh, striking vividness, by the joyous, confident rhythm of the words (try saying them), by dismissing all tribulations in the face of pure love, which can look on and never be shaken, by the image of the star beaming brightly and steadily, guiding sailors over the wild sea, as love shines steadily in the soul and guides it. (Of course, all this applies specifically to the virtue of charity, aided by grace, as described in 1 Corinthians 13, not simply any kind of love; but I digress.)
Thus, by conveying truth to the imagination, poetry presents to the mind and heart what we could not have detected with our senses or expressed in prose. At least, a good poem does this. Obviously, this art form, like any other, can be done badly.
This leads to my next point: why talk about poetry on Catholic Stand? As noted earlier, God made us creative beings, though our creating is of a different order than His. Each of the arts, in its own way, can help us bring our lives closer to the perfection that God intended, to deepen our minds and purify our hearts.
How does poetry do this? By seeking to express what transcends the senses, it appeals to the essentially spiritual in us. It contradicts a materialistic worldview, insisting that we look past the plain surfaces of our lives to the depths of glorious meaning beneath them. Good poetry reminds us not to take things for granted or view them shallowly, to think carefully and appreciate the full value of everything. Written from a Christian perspective, it can become a powerful means of seeing the world in the whole light of God’s truth. Written from any wholesome perspective, it can manifest the human spirit straining toward a fuller understanding of reality.
The Modern Problem
As we have seen, poetry assumes several things: truth exists, language has meaning, and things have value beyond the empirical. We have now, however, found ourselves in an age loudly questioning all these assertions. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an art dependent on them is in considerable trouble.
It will hardly be news to most readers that modern skepticism has led many to doubt objective truth itself. Fewer may know that deconstructionism, probably best represented by Jacques Derrida, popularized doubt of the meaningfulness of language (yes, these thinkers used words to dispute that words had any significance). Meanwhile, our culture’s loss of faith, followed by immense confusion about what gives value to our lives, cast doubt on the meaningfulness of everything else. If one no longer believes that truth exists, that words have meaning, and that things’ significance goes deeper than the material, what place is left for poetry?
To clarify, I don’t mean that poetic styles should never differ from those of the Renaissance or 1800’s, nor that I’ve never seen beautiful free verse. I do mean that much of modern poetry does not meet that goal of presenting truth in deeper vividness to the imagination. In my experience, most characteristically modern verse is either indistinguishable from prose or totally indecipherable.
The former may not have anything especially wrong with it, except that it shouldn’t be treated as poetry, any more than a saxophone should be treated as a violin. One simply gets the wrong effect. For example, see the following lines from Peter Cooley’s “Macular Degeneration”:
Now, while they happen, here are the facts:
My son is staring up into his mother’s eyes;
we are standing in the kitchen at the day’s beginning,
half-asleep over mugs of chicory swirling with cream;
he has just barreled in, five today, demanding
a cup of juice from her, not me. Not you,
he repeats. Of course, she fetches it, obedient.
In itself, this isn’t bad writing. It could be a decent opening to a novel. But what makes it poetry, other than the breaking into line segments? It doesn’t prompt readers (not me, at least) to see anything in a new light, or in a deeper way than would ordinary prose. Little family moments can certainly contain depths of humble magic and revelation, about which beautiful poems could be written; but such a poem would have to use its language to pierce through the mundane trappings and make us see the specialness. Cooley’s lines ponder the moment, but don’t reveal its hidden significance—an omission that would be fine if they weren’t supposed to be poetry. (For further illustration of this point, try taking the opening paragraph of an actual novel and mentally breaking it into comparable line lengths.)
The other kind of modern verse, the kind that makes no sense, is even more problematic. If the purpose of language is to communicate truth, writing that communicates nothing—even to intelligent, educated readers—has failed. At worst, this mangling of words has been done deliberately to illustrate that language is really meaningless. I don’t know the thinking behind this piece by e. e. cummings, but it’s certainly an example of this style:
if the Lovestar grows most big
a voice comes out of some dreaming tree
(and how I’ll stand more still than still)
and what he’ll sing and sing to me
and while this dream is climbing sky
(until his voice is more than bird)
and when no am was ever as I
then that Star goes under the earth
I have a B.A. in literature and I can’t make any sense of that—can you? Undoubtedly some scholars out there have ideas about what it means. But one shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to get the basic idea of a poem.
This decline is symptomatic of more than just a coarsening in culture. It indicates a deep loss in our understanding of our world. When the mainstream culture lost sight of God, color and preciousness fled from everything else too. We no longer know how to speak of things—an eagle, family life, stars and trees—in a way that transfigures them, lifting the cover of ordinariness to show their deeper beauty. As far as our materialistic age can see, there is no deeper beauty.
What Can We Do?
Of course, we Catholics can’t passively ignore a problem like this. Our call to “restore all things in Christ” includes restoring and purifying culture. If we retain the convictions that truth exists, words have meaning, and everything we encounter contains some depth of value, cultivating wholesome poetry is in our interests. Our world’s ruthlessly pragmatic mentality may be inclined to dismiss this art as trivial, but before we let that cow us, we should remember all the other things it tends to dismiss (faith, piety, purity, family . . . shall I go on?). Not that poetry is on a level with those, but where our culture is wrong, we should work to elevate it rather than let it drag us down. We must remember, too, that the arts influence people’s minds and souls more than we often realize.
Naturally, not everyone can actually write poems. It isn’t everyone’s “thing”—it’s a talent that, like any other gift, God gives to some and not others, according to His wisdom. If you can, of course, more power to you! But whether we are ourselves poets or not, we can encourage certain kinds of writing. Parents and teachers can seek to instill in children a knowledge and understanding of good poetry. Publishers can promote lucid, artful verse, not being afraid to publish pieces with a more traditional sound. And anyone can determine what he reads, buys, ponders, and shares.
Even if you aren’t interested in poetry at all—and no one has to be; it need not be everyone’s particular interest—you can still strive to resist the stark empiricism of our time, to give careful attention to experiences great and small, and to appreciate them. This is usually what we mean when we call something “poetic” other than words, such as a starry sky or an ocean view: it breaks through the crust of jaded spirits and lifts us up to wonder and appreciation. These, after all, are the right attitudes with which to receive the multifaceted glory of God-given reality.
British poet Charles Causley declared, “All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance, and barbarism.” At least, it can be that. More specifically, its magic can also work to protect or liberate minds from the flattening materialism of our disoriented world, to show the beauty of everything and thereby subtly point to the beauty of God.
Let’s use its magic.