Poetry is a Worldview

 

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Recently, I was sitting at home alone on a Tuesday evening. As sad as it sounds that really describes most of my evenings. But on this particular night my solitude was interrupted by a telephone call from a friend in Georgia. After a few pleasantries, and in the typical southern fashion that recognizes no concept of privacy or personal space, he asked, “What are you doing?” (For some reason whenever you hand southerners a telephone they become the “apple pie and sweet tea” version of the Grand Inquisitor.) “I am writing a poem,” I said. “You’re doing what,” he asked a bit surprised. “I’m writing a poem.” To which he responded, “I don’t believe I have ever called and interrupted anyone who was busy on a Tuesday night writing poetry.” Then he added, “You are a true Renaissance man.”

I appreciated that comment more than he knew. I probably took it more seriously than it was intended. I only wish that I were more medieval because moderns and postmoderns are really bad poets. It’s not because they can’t spell or thump out cadences, it’s because they can’t liken or see isness in the world. For them, everything just is what it is; whatever is is.

Moderns and postmoderns like to think of themselves as distinct philosophical clubs. The postmoderns think that they have transcended the folly of their fathers, and the moderns look down on their poor idiot son. But when it comes to metaphor they are the same salesman.

Metaphor is exactly where they feel they differ, and metaphor is the bed they share.

While the postmods think that all of communication and reality is metaphor, the mods refuse to acknowledge their own use of it. They dismiss it as imperfect and useless, pursuing perfection through math and other false attempts at abstraction. The postmods say that such escape into abstraction is impossible. The mods say “nu uh,” and so on. But when the issue shifts from where metaphor is used, to what it is, they are in agreement. Metaphor is nothing. Both parties agree that metaphor is meaningless.

We, like the moderns, must say that there is meaning in the world though we must not place it in puppet abstraction as they do. Like the postmoderns, we must say that all is metaphor, but must not say that metaphor is meaningless.

In a Christian world (this one), you can drink metaphors. You can eat them. You can crack your skull with one, or skin your pudgy knee. In this world, to exist is to be spoken, spoken by the One Who speaks all. We are held in our being by His Word. All of creation is metaphor, but it is metaphor that you can measure, metaphor with weight, mass and dustiness.

Human metaphor is a means of knowledge and communication. We point with ours, but God’s take on flesh—the flesh of fruit and trees, the flesh of wind and weeds. All of reality is nothing but words, but they are His words, and they are incarnate.

On an ultimate level, reality is made from nothing. We know that there was no matter before creation and that God did not make creation out of anything. He spoke, and it was, and it is. That is what the world is made of. Nothing. No things. There was no matter, then there was matter, and that matter, the matter that we and the world around us are made of, is made from and out of nothing.

But not really, right?

What’s an apple made of? It’s made of glucose, that is made of carbon that is pulled from CO2 that we, among other things, breath out. Apples are made out of the air through a fun game played by the Sun. What is carbon made of? Well, molecules, and atoms, and then electrons, and elementary particles or something, and then something else.

Eventually, even though it is unlikely that we would ever reach the very bottom, and find the smallest brick, we as Christians must say that the apple, and everything else, is made out of nothing. There is nothing that God used to make this apple. We do not say that nothing was grabbed and shaped and moulded into an apple, but that there is quite literally no thing that it is made out of. This apple is held in existence, extended spatially and temporally, by the omnipotent Word. This apple is spoken from nothing. This apple is made by nothing other than a word, an all-powerful, all-creative, all-beautiful word, spoken by the one Word.

This is true for everything around us in time and space. It is true for time and space itself. All things, at all times, are composed of nothing. They are the miraculously enfleshed words of God. The miracle of creation is constant, and should a thing no longer be held, should the apple no longer be spoken, it would be gone and no parts of it would clatter to the ground beneath, because there are no parts. There are only words. Only, but only is the wrong word.

But what does all this mean? How does it affect metaphor? It affects metaphor because we are God’s metaphors. We are His story.

This doesn’t mean that we are not real. But it does change how we think of the real. We are not just dirty bags of mostly water. We are wonderfully miraculous dirty bags of mostly water. We are created from nothing. We are not illusions, we are not the wisps of sound spoken by human voices. We and the stones have shape. We walk through time and space with weight trouble and stubbed toes. We eat and drink, we laugh and our noses run. We are words, but we are words with mass. We are words that can stink, need baths, snore at night, and kiss. We aren’t just prose written with a straight-edge; we are the poetry of Divinity. We are real, far more real than we imagine, because we are words. We and the world have meaning because we were spoken.

This is appalling to all modernities. There is meaning, and it is found in the Word. Our own words, patterns, natures, are metaphors for it. They are the only way that we can communicate; they are the only things that we can be. We are the felt-board shepherds and sheep. We are the story, the painting, the song. We are all metaphors, and we find meaning because of this fact. We are all spoken by God in a relationship of reflection to Him.

Those claiming postmodern status see one-half of the metaphor, things floating, and then deny reality because of it. God is erased, and metaphor becomes meaningless. Moderns deny God as well, and achieve meaninglessness but are not content to remain there. They strive to climb up their own backs into the sky, hunting for categorical imperatives, pi, a straight line, perfect circles, and ones, and zeros.

But we are words, and so we should dance. We should stomp and play, grow muddy and take baths. We are words, and so we know we have weight.

So I write words.

The Prints of Peace

No diadem adorns,
Save for a crown of thorns.
No mirth or joyful song,
Drowns out the jeering throng.
The crowd sits cruelly by,
Only to watch Him die.
They gnash their teeth on Him,
While He yet prays for them.
‘Father, their sins forgive.’
‘I die that they might live.’

A soldier looking on,
With all his doubts now gone.
The One upon the tree,
Was who He claimed to be.
He falls down on his face,
He owns his deep disgrace.
‘When you prayed on the tree,’
‘Were you praying for me?’
Soon his questions all cease,
He sees the prints of peace.

Vocare

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With folded wings they cover their faces;
Those sinless sons of light.
The Terror of Kings, whose glory displaces,
Sits robed in consummate might.
Echoing praise declares His dominion,
Through earth, and sky, and sea.
The Ancient of Days in heaven’s pavilion,
Surrounded in mystery.
~Seraphic Benediction

The threshold moved at the voice of the throng,
The house was filled with smoke.
His holiness proved through antiphonal song,
By the Three-fold word they spoke.
Trembling I stand, my words nearly falter,
‘I am undone! Unclean!’
But coals in his hand from God’s burning altar,
Now claim my lips for the King.
~Prophetic Transformation

The Potter’s Heart

I arose and went down where the potter I found,
Quietly spinning his wheel.
With determined passion, those skilled hands did fashion,
A vessel shaped by his will.

He personally sought the clay that was brought,
He dug each piece from the earth.
His heart had designed it before his hands mined it,
His handprints gave it true worth.

But the clay was so hard that the vessel was marred.
Surely he’ll throw it away.
But he held it steady until he was ready,
His masterpiece to display.

‘It often takes pressure to mold priceless treasure,’
‘I know how much it can stand.’
‘I’ll press it to make it. The pressure won’t break it.’
‘It’s never out of my hand.’

And then through the clamor I heard a voice stammer,
‘I’m misshapen; worthless, bent.’
‘Such great condescension and patient attention,’
‘Deserves more for what was spent.’

A gracious word spoken consoling the broken,
‘So what? I’ll make you again.’
‘If ever you should slip, I’ll still hold firm my grip,’
‘Willing once more to begin.’

‘Once more around the wheel to bend you to my will,’
‘Once more through the fire you’ll go.’
‘Then beautifully varnished with glory untarnished,’
‘My handiwork you will show.’

Sissies Need Not Apply

The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. ~Solomon

And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf’s
Victory, tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet’s
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud While he shaped it, and the old songs as well –
–Beowulf

Men should once again learn to write and love poetry. In previous millennia, poetry was overwhelmingly a male passion. Your manhood would have been questioned if you did not share in the longing for a metrical weave of words. But what has happened? Why do most modern men hate poetry? Why is poetry now largely considered the domain of effeminacy?

Certainly part of the blame falls to that romantic sentimentalism still prevalent in much poetry. That might naturally and rightly turn some men away. After all, most modern men only come into contact with that “poetry” found in greeting cards, and I can’t imagine Beowulf or King David chanting “love is a flower” while scraping the residue of dried blood from underneath their fingernails. Sentimentalism, however, can’t be the only culprit. Even if you show some men less-sentimental poetry, they don’t have the stomach for it.

Perhaps it’s the ghoulish introspectionism of so much modern poetry. Today you can’t crack open a poetry anthology without being suffocated by self-absorbed poems prating on about dysfunctional families and self-inflicted loneliness. It would be nice if men were repelled by most sorts of introspectionism, but in fact our psychological century loves it. That sort of poetry should draw more moderns, not less. And the men who are all chest and no soul – aliens to any self-reflection – need to read more of that warrior David’s poetry. There we often find an introspectionism that would willie those marble men who are repelled by any second-guessing.

I think the main culprit is modernity itself. Modernity and beauty simply don’t mix. Pragmatism and an industrial-sized busyness denigrate everything that can’t squeeze out of a calculator. And the first thing to die under such circumstances is a passion for beauty. For those trying desperately to jump over moving hurdles, pursuing beauty is just foolishness. Men are still those most involved with the machinery of modernity, but the point applies equally to those women who share that passion for urban busyness. And it’s even more wasteful and inefficient if the poets seem to be intentionally mysterious at times, twisting tenses and mumbling meters. We just don’t have the time for poetry; beauty isn’t useful, we say, until we’re in our eighties, when many finally reflect and realize that beauty was truly essential to a good life that has now slipped by.

Why did such a powerful warrior like David hear and write poetry? He had a passion for beauty – a passion for Jehovah, for life, for creation, for friends, for enemies. Simple prose couldn’t contain such a life. There is too much to be said, and the engineer’s syntax can’t capture it. David even with all his sin was a man after God’s own heart, and we need to learn to find that heart. Poetry is a place to start.

One of the consequences of pursuing good poetry is humility. This occurs in a number of ways. When reading excellent poets, we often find ourselves standing before a master craftsman who can combine phrases like the most intricate jewelry or wood-inlayed chest. In the best, we find natural and disciplined talent which will never flow from our own hearts. God does not give His gifts to everyone, and we are to rejoice in that and marvel at those whom He has raised up.

But more importantly, the good poet is the keenest observer of detail. He notices patterns in people and nature which we easily overlook. He gives us metaphors which bring disparate items together in a way that delights and reminds us of the important things in life. But poetry isn’t just for the expert elite. Everyone should take part in this expression of the cultural mandate.

Everyone, especially leaders, should seek to be keen observers of creation and the image of God. We can’t be good stewards if we don’t know the patterns around us. Wisdom demands it. If so, then it takes discipline to pursue beauty. Don’t let a day go wasting by without engaging beauty, especially poetry.

So if you hate poetry or don’t have the time or are just indifferent, consider that this might be symptomatic of some deep failure in you instead of in the poetry. And then, don’t just admit to the failure and go on hanging your head. Hunt for beauty. Track it down. A passion for beauty certainly is characteristic of those great men in the past whose lives were characterized as after God’s own heart. Remember David’s psalms and Beowulf’s celebrations, full of life and faithfulness. What tragedy to be the unpoetic, dry modern at a feast where,

Hrothgar’s hall resounded with the harp’s
High call, with songs and laughter and the telling
Of tales, stories sung by the court
Poet as the joyful Danes drank
And listened. . . .

Lo, The Winter Is Past


’Come!’ The word of invitation,
Bade me hasten to the fearsome throne.
‘Now!’ The sword of condemnation,
Close above my wretched head hangs down.

‘Reason seek,’ said the Lord my God,
Justice strikes fast at the crimson blot.
‘Christ has full-borne the judgment rod.’
‘His blood washes clean the deepest spot.’

From scarlet shades to whitest hue;
My sins transformed by the dazzling Son.
His glaring gaze made all anew;
The snow melts away with my all ruin.