Poetry reminds us that all things are connected in unexpected ways
Poetry is, for us, vaguely highfalutin and phony. It is the domain of the impractical, the posturing artiste, the exquisitely sensitive buttercup twirler whose soft pink hands have never been soiled with actual work. Highbrow, pretentious people (we imagine) are the ones who write and read poems, not average people. It is fitting that October is the month of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was not a bookish fellow at all. And yet, for all his unbookishness, he had one quirk which sets him off from much of information-soaked modernity: He wrote poetry.
And yet there is St. Francis, not a pretentious bone in his body, singing (on his deathbed!) “The Canticle of Brother Sun.”
I think we moderns have it wrong. However much the buttercup twirler may claim that poetry is the province of the elite, I think St. Francis shows that it is really the birthright of the ordinary person. For there are simply things we cannot say apart from the language of poetry.
There is a rhythm to life
October, for instance, is a thing which demands expression from us, a thing pregnant with so many mysteries and so much glory that mere prose cannot get close to it. The mystery of autumn lies very close to the mystery of Christ. That’s why the great English poet John Donne said, “In heaven it is always autumn.” There is death here, death on trees as the leaves tumble and fall. But there is immense fruitfulness as well. There is the lengthening darkness as the light is crowded back into a corner and the evenings glow orange, and the chimney smoke rises in offering to God.
But there is also the memory of summer and the promise borne in every seed and fruit that death will not have the final word. Something of the grief and joy of the world attends October eternally, in the dying orchards and the living cider. Some huge bittersweet mystery is at work here, and we feel it in our bones first as children, not as highbrow elitists. There were times, as a boy and a young man who did not know Christ, when I could practically have shouted at all of nature, “Speak up! What are you trying to tell me?”
It is this instinctive impulse to see and think as a poet of which Francis reminds us. Poetry (like October) reminds us that there is a rhythm to life, that certain things make music, that things (like an obscure Galilean carpenter and this fruitful, yet dying, garden) are actually connected and rhyme in a way you would never have thought (“Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die …”).
What’s the use of poetry?
It is therefore no accident that poetry is not the last invention of the human heart, but one of the very first. Who has not heard wee children making up singsongs, rhymes and taradiddles? In the very morning of the world, the first great writings we have from the shepherds, fisherfolk and herdsmen are not economic treatises, but great poems like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, the Iliad and the Book of Job.
So far from being the property of the elite, the poetic impulse is almost unrestrainable in the ordinary soul from the dawn of human history. As Peter Kreeft has observed, the oldest form of language, poured molten from the young human mind, is music. This cooled to poetry and only finally solidified into prose as the world aged.
“So what?” somebody asks. What’s the use of poetry in the 21st century?
Perhaps nothing. And perhaps that’s the point. Robert Farrar Capon, in his marvelous book The Supper of the Lamb, says that the whole of creation is “the orange peel hung on God’s chandelier, the wishbone in His kitchen closet. He likes it; therefore, it stays.” The point of poetry is the point of creation: that “the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”
Love delights in doing useless things (like singing) to celebrate the beloved. That is why God is the Lover of mankind, not the User of mankind. For we are, says St. Paul, his poema, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. (see Ephesians 2:10)
Northwest Catholic - October 2014