I recently spoke in my faith community about how poetry connects us to each other and the larger world. If you're interested, listen via this link (starting at minute 35), or read the reflections below.
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in hell, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.” – PS 139:7-10
We can find faith in poetry.
When I was struggling with faith in college, I walked alongside my English professor from the classroom back to my dormitory. She was Jewish, and I asked her, what is even the point? Why read the Bible, if you can’t believe it?
And this woman, not of my own faith, reminded me that I could read the Bible not just as history, anthropology, or an ethical guide—but also as poetry. In psalms (songs) like this, there’s a lyrical reflection on our life which brings perspective to our highs and lows.
I needed this perspective, because in my second year of college, I started experiencing more highs and lows. Everything in life was going well, but I started feeling anxious, aggressive, and confused. I got depressed, and overwhelmed. I started to withdraw, and then felt isolated. And although I found connection to God in study and research, thinking so intensely brought its own kind of disconnection.
But when I went to the library and read poetry, I could connect with my own experiences. I saw that other people felt the world in ways similar to me. They wrote echoes of my own joy and grief. And through them, I could find my way back to connection with the world around me.
In particular, I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest living in England in the 19th century, whose poetry connected in my own dark times, as when he wrote:
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
… And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest Him that lives alas! away.
So I didn’t have to force a connection to something spiritual when I wasn’t feeling it. It was okay to be worried about myself, my family, and my world in a time of war, the Iraq War. I didn’t have to pretend to be happy all the time.
Instead, by connecting in to sadness and grief through poetry, I could come to a peace that brings life.
So how do you do this?
Well, I’m a very visual person, so I sit with coffee and read poems. But you could also listen to podcasts, CDs, or streaming online.
Browse until something catches your heart, then pause.
Listen or read it again.
And for me, if I especially like it, I might even write it down and carry it with me. Memorizing poems that speak to me lets the words some more easily to me in times of stress.
Abraham Lincoln, for instance, started reading and memorizing poetry from a young age. He read books in his stepfather’s library, selected out the poems that spoke most to him, and committed them to heart. And he tried writing poems of his own.
The result? Well, he recited lots of dour poetry at parties. Obviously he was a fun person… Yet his practice of poetry influenced his courage and leadership in a time of war.
Poetry inspired his faith in God and in a larger purpose for the nation.
And reading and writing poetry surely contributed to his lyrical speechwriting, which caught the attention of the nation torn apart by war.
Poetry in Stressful Seasons of Life
Obviously I'm not leading a country in a season of war–and thank God for that!
So what benefit does poetry have for the rest of us? Well, in my own stresses, I have found that immersing myself in vivid words and images gives comfort when the world seems difficult and illogical. It gave me a broader vision when working abroad during the long dark winters in Siberia. And it helps me relax even when I don’t know where I’m going next.
So as many of us face major changes in our own lives, and in our nation, I find that cultivating, exploring, and absorbing these words can help us to pause and take a Sabbath break.
It can help us step back from doing all the time.
It can help us care for ourselves, build empathy with others, and connect to wider things. Here, I think of a poem by writer Wendell Berry, called The Peace of Wild Things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Closing: Ways to Get Started
If you’d like to get started in a practice of poetry, I suggest browsing books at your library or bookstore. Listen online at Poetry Out Loud, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, or the Poetry Foundation podcast. And absorb what you listen to by meditating, drawing, or praying afterwards.
You can even go deeper with artwork, as I did by creating an altered book of Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur:
Finally, you can read poetry aloud with others, letting this emotional language connect directly to your heart.
With this in mind, then, I’ll close with a poem by Anne Sexton, called Snow. You’re welcome to close your eyes and listen, or open them and follow the words on the screen:
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don't bite till you know
if it's bread or stone.
What I bite is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.