“Poetry is the mother tongue of the human race.” – J.G. Hamann (1730–1788)
How do we negotiate our way through the difficult terrain of an uncertain world? The unsettling realities of contemporary life nudge us to seek for a place of assurance and hope. We may be well served in this matter by the gift of poetry, whether we write the poetry ourselves or take up the crafted verse of others. Poetry is not itself a solution to the challenges we face, but is a resource that allows us to articulate our deepest emotions or perhaps opens us to discern an alternative beyond our immediate circumstances.
In his book The Witness of Poetry, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004) speaks of poetry as “a passionate pursuit of the real”. The arts can become accomplices in the dark agenda of tyrannizing power, but they can also serve as the prophetic voice that unmasks the falsehood and lightens the path that leads out of the darkness. Milosz strikes a hopeful note at the end of his book when he expresses his belief that poetry may be of service in helping to relieve the tensions of our modern world. I don’t wish to give poetry status as a solution for social ills but only to suggest that poetry reaches to the heart of what it means to be human and is capable of generating a humanizing influence in its social context. It does this in a way that transcends the flatland of a merely literal account of the world. It engages the language of metaphor and symbol and so hooks the imagination and calls us to fresh awareness.
Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain gives the following account;
“By poetry I mean, not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process prayer. It was a means of communicating as well as of listening and receiving. We may look to poets to give language to our deepest hopes, fears, losses and longings. Poetry plays at the edges of mystery. In a world where much that is true has been made small, flattened, reduced, and ultimately trivialized, how do we find our way to recover what has been lost?”
Walter Brueggemann comments on just such a situation in a book on preaching – Finally Comes the Poet.
“To address the issue of atruth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. … By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae…. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm or meter, but language… that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace, Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.”
The biblical narrative is replete with poetry. It is found in the writings of the prophets where their intent is at times to unmask the errors of their hearers and at other times to remind them of the ground of their hope. Our inclination to embrace the practices of self-reliance and control takes us down a path that is unsatisfying and ultimately destructive while failing to deliver what we want or hope for.
Beyond the poetry of the prophets is the poetry of the psalms where we find a narrative of a counter-world to the one we daily inhabit. Ancient Israel received this narrative by engaging both poetic form and music. They would have known the psalms well. What we sing and what we memorize will nurture our spiritual formation. Fourth century theologian Athanasius noted that most of scripture speaks to us while the psalms speak for us. They speak in realistic tones. There are notes of despair, fear, frustration, anger and uncertainty, a raw honest account of human experience.
Yet we also find expressions of praise, gratitude, longing, hope and trust. The psalms are not a means of escape but a context where we are able to face the darkness of our own situation as well as being reminded of the reassuring promise of what is yet to come. We commonly turn to the psalms when words fail us and we find among those 150 poems, words that capture what we are experiencing, and that express the wide range of human emotion. We are able to draw from the psalms an enriched experience and deeper understanding of God, the world and ourselves. The psalms are a resource of comfort and hope in a world gone awry, but to receive what they have to offer requires the discipline of attention a rare practice in our fast-paced world.