The Gift of Spaciousness: What Poetry Can Offer the Church Today
T. S. Eliot so beautifully described our incarnate God as the “word within a word, unable to speak a word.” And yet this gift he gives to us and between us: the gift of words. Certainly, our present culture, with its 24-hour news, endless noise, and reactive moors of social media, has degraded the very resource we have been given to make peace possible between us. We hear this prophetically in Eliot’s lament: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision.” We hear around us the groaning, the cracking of such decay and division. How can the church respond? And how can poetry (so ultimately attentive to words) help us in this present moment? Its possible gifts are many, but one that is sorely needed in our time is the gift of a spacious inwardness.
Poems are language born from silence, and they offer a silence in which the reader may truly hear. They cultivate and invite readers into just such an interior space. One way they do this is by their very density, which requires their readers to slow down. Poems like Mary Oliver’s much-beloved “The Summer’s Day” invite us to confront ourselves: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Oliver’s speaker throws each of us back onto ourselves, inviting us to recall that our own “I” is precious.
Another gift of poetry is its ability to bring us into the intimacy of another’s “I,” even when that person is far removed from our own experience. Through the medium of the poem, we can enter another’s perspective as if from the inside. Lucille Clifton does this powerfully in her persona poem, “Aunt Jemima.” She invites us to enter the imagined perspective of the woman pictured on those commonplace syrup bottles. Aunt Jemima reminds “white folks of home” while she herself is homeless and yet ubiquitous in so many kitchens. The poem concludes:
oh how i long for
my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family
Through Clifton’s poem we realize the tragic irony that “Aunt” Jemima is separated from her own family. Clifton’s poem exposes the injustice of racism but does so by inviting us into a familiar figure’s first-person experience, which can then become the reader’s. This interior space, paradoxically, leads outward in compassion and a greater capacity to imagine and hear from someone who is other than us. And sometimes, from One who is ultimately Other.
Yet we often turn from the inward journey for the fear of what we might discover there. The poet Christian Wiman writes of the convert:
What did he learn when he learned of his own bad heart?
That scared and sacred are but a beat apart.
Transformation begins with the painful recognition of our fears. And the past year has given us all ample opportunity to face off with our fears of death, violence, loneliness, power and the loss of power. But it is through honest wrestling that God can transform our communities, beginning with the confounding ground of each human heart (as Jacob in his wrestling was transformed and renamed—and not only for himself).
Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
This insistence in poetry creates space for us to wrestle with paradox, with our own contradictory beauties and terrors. If well-schooled in paradox, we may become wise enough to not overly simplify the complexity of human life, thinning it out to a shadow of its reality.
In its vocation, the church herself is instructed to live out many great paradoxes: life by death; now and … not yet; humans as both dust and breath. We are called exiles and then told to plant vineyards; we are citizens of heaven firmly called to care for this earth. A church with such capacity for paradox can begin to bridge the divides perpetuated by racial injustice, political polarization, and, indeed, the fissure that runs right through every one of our hearts.
As both pastors and poets, may we offer the reading of poems as a powerful practice for both individuals and congregations. Included in sermons and liturgies, marriages and funerals, staff meetings and gatherings, and in heightened seasons like Advent and Lent, poems can baptize imaginations to freshly experience long-known truths. They can offer solid words to ground us and space to hold our disparate experiences together.