October 23, 2017

Thoughts For a Young Poet

t_s_eliot.jpgThat’s not Clay. Sorry.
I have a son who is showing signs of being a poet. He may be a teacher or a writer, but as of today, his most evident gifts are poetic. Everyone who has read or heard his work has been impressed. I’m not exactly unbiased, but I’ve found some of his poetic efforts to be stunning in their insight for a beginning poet.

I remember the day in English III he encountered T.S. Eliot. Remember those days when someone you read opened up something that you knew was part of you, but now there is another kind of light, another kind of energy? I watched it happen, and it was exciting.

It’s Dad speaking, but I think he has the gift. It’s possible that he will decide to pursue a vocation and calling of a poet or a teacher of poetry. That probably means we should keep his room available.

My son is also a Christian; a Don Miller, Thomas Merton, Shane Claiborne, G.K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis type. A Bob Dylan beat looking for a pub crawl with the rest of the word-writing princes of cool. He’s been growing steadily in his faith since the end of his senior year, and he sees his art in relationship to his faith in Jesus and his desire to live as a Christ-follower in the world.

And there is the problem. It’s not a combination the church blesses. If he were a singer, a guitar player, a “worship leader,” a preacher, a youth pastor or a “creative ministries” guy, the contemporary evangelical church would know what to do with him. But as a poet, he may find himself an oddity or an the outcast among many evangelical Christians.

That’s strange and unfortunate on several counts.

For one, the Bible not only contains poetry, but it is poetic in its entire vision of reality. Poetic language is frequently Biblical language. The Psalms, Proverbs and prophets are all poetic expressions. Many of the teachings of Jesus, and even some of Paul’s most sublime theological passages, are poetic in form and intent.

The church needs poets to interpret the scripture. Sorry theologians, but most of you have a depressingly poor eye for poetry, poetic meaning and the poet’s worldview. Turning the whole scripture into systematics is fine, but if someone took Shakespeare’s sonnets and turned them into a systematics text, I’d feel like a crime was being committed.

I listen to a lot of uneducated preachers, and some educated ones, that can’t be trusted around any metaphor or simple example of poetic parallelism. When a different word appears, they believe a different doctrine is taught. It’s not a failure of theology or of knowledge of the meaning of words. It’s a failure of poetic appreciation.

A second reason that we need poets is to keep the poetic imagination of God’s people alive. Eugene Peterson has written extensively on this, and I recommend any of his works of Biblical exposition as good examples of the holy and helpful use of the poetic imagination.

The word “imagination” has an impoverished life among today’s evangelicals. “Imagination” seems to mean “lie of the devil,” and “danger to your eternal soul” to many regular believers. Poets, of course, work in the imagination like painters work with color or farmers work with soil. They are not simply “rhymers.” They encourage us to see with the imagination; to live with the intensity of poetic insight and the awareness of poetic reality.

Contemporary evangelicalism tends toward the twin poles of a lecture hall and an entertainment venue. If imagination can find a place in keeping church from being boring, there may be some welcome for the poet, but the true influence and power of the imagination in finding the depth, beauty and holiness of life is rarely part of contemporary evangelicalism. Our poetics must fit into the card section of the local Christian bookstore.

An impoverished imagination manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Evangelicals don’t see the world as poets see it. They tend toward pessimism, materialism and the unquestioning acceptance of the values of the corporation and the capitalist. Imagination is a “troubler of Israel,” asking Christians to see the world as charged with the glory and significance of God.

Peterson points to the book of Revelation, in particular, as a casualty of a failed imagination, leaving us with a very ugly literalism and the notion that God is more of a Hollywood producer than the Triune Lord of all history and creation. Studying Revelation with evangelicals these days is like examining a schematic with engineers. We need the poets to rescue us.

Of course, we need the poets to enhance our worship. Not just with more lyrics to more contemporary choruses, but with more words that encourage serious, God-centered, heart-stirring musical and artistic expression. Our churches are devoid of great poetry, and the reason is not only because we have become a banal, shallow generation that cannot appreciate. It is because we seldom, if ever, give the poets any place at all. We are, as Ed Stetzer recently said, quite efficient at convincing many creatives–especially non-musical ones–that we have little use for their offerings and gifts.

I wonder what it would take for the average church to allow a poet regular access to the congregation, in order to write, read, share and facilitate reflection on life via poetry? What kind of church would invite the poets to come and tell us what they see and feel? Could we ever be open enough to the spirit to let the words of the poets come into our communities to describe what our tired rhetoric can no longer communicate? What kind of generous, expectant mindset does it take to realize that the language of the traditional Protestant sermon isn’t always the music of our lives? That sometimes, the poet is the one who has the word or the Word?

We need poets because of their honesty. Evangelicalism isn’t known for authenticity, and that may be a large reason poets haven’t had much of a life in the church. Their voices are often the voices of doubt and pain. They don’t promise us answers in the last stanza. I’m sure many Christians who have the poetic voice would be afraid to let some of their best work be read by their Christian friends. The judgments would be quick and plentiful. We have little mercy on those who break our unwritten “codes” of “what Christians are supposed to say.”

Mostly, I’d like to see the church value and encourage the poet because we suffer from a failure of pastorally, missionally useful language in evangelicalism. Our ambiguity about reading scripture in worship, our preference for the dialect of preachers (from dogmaticians to comedians), our need to put the outline on Powerpoint: all of it betrays a paucity of language.

Poetic language is intense and compact; it is full of experience and comes to us differently than the “heard it all before again and again” language of the typical evangelical sermon.

The church needs its poetry. It needs its Psalms and Song of Solomon. It needs its Donne and Hopkins. It needs to invite the Dickinsons and Frosts to come in out of the cold and into the warm light of faith’s sun. It needs the words of the unknown poets waiting to be heard. But this means confessing that the language of science and exegesis and theological precision are not the language of lament, experience, solitude, celebration or even worship. We may have to confess that the poets, and not the pundits and culture warriors, are the ones with the most power to speak.

Those of you who have ever taken the journal First Things are aware that while every issue is stocked with essays, they are also filled with poetry. I never noticed it at first, but then I began to realize that here was a publication of debate, research, opinion and political discussion admitting that there is another kind of language–the language of the poet–and it had a place on their pages because it should have a place in our lives. Seeing these things together is unusual, but wonderful. In the very existence of those poems is an admission that all is not being said in the usual ways we talk to one another.

Of course, I’d also just like to enjoy poetry more. It’s part of the savoring of life that I miss in my constant work and preparation for more work. Poetry belongs in the sabbath experience that we neglect so easily. Poetry needs to grace our lives far more often. We need to turn to the scriptures to hear God, but we also need the poets to help us hear our own hearts and breathing.

I’m probably dreaming when I hope my poetic offspring will find a place for his gift in some community of faith, or that a wider community will read and welcome his work. I know there is an audience in the pubs and around the coffee-shop tables. I’m hoping there is one around the table of the supper, and in the midst of a Christian community used to words that are cheap and ponderous; rarely elegant, in tune and full of light.

I’ve already discovered that he, rather than me, knows how to plunge into places in life that the usual evangelical sermonettes can’t go. He chronicled the absurdity of Denise and I fighting about hymn choices. He wrote about his loss and recovery of faith. He wrote about his feelings upon hearing his mom was taking anti-depressants, and captured years of pain and secrets in a few sentences. I hardly know how to speak of these things, but he has found the language. For a professional preacher and compulsive blogger to say he has been humbled by his 18 year old son is, well….it’s a pleasure.

I’m praying he keeps working at the gift, and that somewhere there are Christians ready to recognize and hear what God has given him. Perhaps we are ready, after hearing everyone else in this noisy world and church, to hear the poets.

Comments

  1. I know we don’t see eye to eye much, but I will actually say “amen” to this. As a 25 year old, who at once was an English major but became convinced for a while that it would have been profitless to “Christendom” to pursue, I believe we have lost our poets. We have lost our writers and our musicians who rip their guts out in artistic expression. Our art is too clean and too containable to be a realistic representation of the messed-up life Christians live. We don’t juxtapose enough Gospel matter into a form that can slice through our contemporary American blinders. Sermons can do it, and art can do it. We have as many honest artists as we have honest preachers.
    I know I’m “Reformed Baptist” and that’s a bad word right now around here, but at the church I attend we are trying to cultivate an environment for the very thing you mention. It flips a light switch in my mind to think about how the health of the body could be bolstered by seeing true art in its midst.

  2. >I know I’m “Reformed Baptist” and that’s a bad word right now around here

    Thanks for the comment. Here’s how simple it is: Accept that people other than the reformed are Christians, and all is well.

    peace, MS

  3. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    Fun post. Most people who even know who John Donne is DON’T know him for his sermons. 🙂 I’ve never read his sermons but I’ve read a fair number of his poems. Donne, of course, was a big influence on T. S. Eliot and if your son hasn’t checked out Donne yet he might want to. Donne is a lot of work but he’s worth it.

    For me some of the challenge was that I was raised being told some poets were great poets who I just couldn’t get into. Milton and Shakespeare are good and all that but they just don’t interest me at all compared to John Donne or Edmund Spenser. And my favorites are more recent like T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Frost, bits of Levertov or Stafford. I don’t read poetry much anymore but I don’t regret steeping myself in it for most of my teens years and early 20s.

    Did Donne read his poems from the pulpit? Probably not but even if churches don’t always incorporate contemporary poetic works into liturgy I think we can benefit from finding ways to encourage poets to do something. I think evangelicals have drifted so far afield from liturgical cusoms in which new librettos can be composed that you end up hearing about N. T. Wright writing a libretto for a cantata and no comparable effort coming from any officially evangelical author. Maybe that old Credenda article has it right saying Protestants just stink at literature. 🙂

  4. This is great! I would love to see the church embrace and listen to her poets in a meaningful way. We do need them. However, I’m not particularly confident that they will be given their proper place as participants in the church’s ministry. I can just see all the poor poets in churches being lambasted after every reading for the perceived imprecision of their doctrine and the supposed hints of heresy lingering in their metaphors. Poets often need to take liberties with language and divorce themselves from literalism (though not necessarily precision), and too many churchgoers simply can’t handle that, as you point out.

    That’s to say nothing of the fact that poets aren’t given proper respect in society as a whole, either. Part of this might be that too few people these days have been trained to recognize good poetry. I just think of all the farm boys from World War I who were excellent poets because their generation was taught to read, memorize, recite, and write poetry from an early age. We need that back in our schools.

    In any case, all Clay needs to do is stay honest, never stop writing and keep letting people read, and the church will have her poet, even if she doesn’t exalt him as she should.

    As an aside: Michael, you mention your work and preparation as keeping you from enjoying poetry as much as you would like. When I see how much you write and how many fascinating Web links you’re able to point people to (here and at BHT), and when I read about all the stuff you’re up to, I wonder how you have time for it all. I seem barely to have time to read my favorite blogs, much less explore new ones. I’d be interested to read something about the typical day or week of the Internet Monk and how he manages to be so doggone efficient. Has this already been written?

    God bless

  5. As some of the previous comments have suggested, this un-usefulness of poetry within Evangelicalism is not unique to Evangelicals, but is, rather, indicative of the state of our culture as a whole. “Hard Science,” and its associated specialities: engineers, physicists, etc., are considered to be “better” than liberal arts, and the associated English, Art, etc. majors, largely because the “hard sciences” are more useful.

    Perhaps this is a result of our exaltation of reason and science as the sources of truth. Perhaps this is due to our love for—and dependence on—technology. Whatever it is, pragmatism and minimalism often seem to rule our day.

    Thank God for the coffee-shops and pubs. Maybe the poets will eventually turn the tide of our society!

  6. I’m going to say that our RCC brothers do a much better job with this one. I think a poet choosing where would be the most receptive communion to his art would have a no brainer there.

  7. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I emphatically agree that a lot of what we do in our churches is painfully lacking in poetry, and particularly in the keen, penetrating insight that good poetry can bring. Most especially, it pains me that so very few of our modern worship songs have anything like the lyrical power of songs by the likes of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. I would love to see that change.

    But I think that the reasons it’s hard to get this to happen are fairly self-evident: most people perceive poets as weird, which is why they don’t trust them. And on the principle that we usually get the best results by looking for a fault in ourselves rather than in others, it behoves poets to ask themselves why that should be, rather than just to complain about it.

    Now I am absolutely no expert on poetry — I’m the one who couldn’t understand the Wheelbarrow poem a couple of months ago. So you should take anything I say on the subject with a shovelful of salt. That said, I think the problem is the idea of Poetry as a separate discipline. I really have no desire to sit in a congragation while someone Does Poetry at me, and I am quite sure the same is true of the great majority of the people I’ve been to church with over the last decade or two. (By the way, that includes Plymouth Brethren, independent charismatic, Pentecostal and English Baptist churches, so I don’t think this can be explained as denomination bias.) Poetry as a distinct art-form is alien to my generation, as other commenters have pointed out. But what everyone can respond to — can hardly help but respond to — is the poetic applied to other forms. I’m talking about poetic insight in sermons, and maybe most of all about poetic words for worship songs: words that go beyond retreading the same P&W cliches we sing all the time, and that show us a fresh angle on the God we love.

    So if Clay is looking for a church where he can stand at the front and recite to an enraptured congragation, I think he is going to be looking for a long time 🙂 But if he can work his poetic insight and expression into his preaching, then that preaching will be much the stronger for it. And if he can collaborate with a talented, hard-working and sympathetic musician, then maybe he can help to create some of the deep and insightful worship songs that I and others are longing for.

    In summary, I call on Christian poets to be prepared to sacrifice Big-P Poetry and instead to focus on bringing the poetic into existing areas of church life.

  8. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I have a feeling it’s essentially a liturgical problem. CHurches don’t have uses for poetry because in most Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point (at least in low liturgical forms) whereas in higher liturgical forms (not meant to sound like I’m denigrating either because I’ve come to enjoy both) tend to be focused more on eucharist. A church may find it easier to incorporate poetry into services by changing up the format of Sunday services or, as Mars Hill did years ago, by setting up Friday services where bands would play music, and sermonettes would be interspersed with scripture reading and poetry. I can verify this happened because I’ve been at the church a long time and because one of my poems was reading at one of those services.

    And it’s fun to have stuff like that but it seems to require a certain administrative creativity and good will that I’ve seen at my church that I haven’t always seen at other churches. Plus, at the risk of conforming to some stereotype, I’m a Northwesterner and have lived in Seattle for years. As bad as they often are poetry slams show that the local culture has more interest in poetry than my home town down in Oregon.

    In the same way that a church musician should modulate or adjust musical style for what a congregation can get a poet should consider writing poems that may best serve the congregation. Something I learned from my music teachers in college is that this is what really separated the great composers from the average–the ability to distill your artistic skills into any skill level your audience or performers may have. THAT takes a lot of work!

  9. BlueSkyJedi says:

    As a poet myself I know a couple of churches that would. However, truly, they are in the minority.

    You wrote:

    I wonder what it would take for the average church to allow a poet regular access to the congregation, in order to write, read, share and facilitate reflection on life via poetry? What kind of church would invite the poets to come and tell us what they see and feel? Could we ever be open enough to the spirit to let the words of the poets come into our communities to describe what our tired rhetoric can no longer communicate? What kind of generous, expectant mindset does it take to realize that the language of the traditional Protestant sermon isn’t always the music of our lives? That sometimes, the poet is the one who has the word or the Word?

    I’ve been seeking to publish lately and I wrote Christianity Today to see what their guidelines were for accepting poetry because I didn’t see any (silly me) and this is the reply I received:

    “Dear Sir or Madam:

    Thank you for your recent submission. We appreciate the time you put into your work, as well as the fact that you thought of our magazine.
    Unfortunately, CT is not a market for poetry or short fiction. Perhaps you might try Guideposts or Christian Century as other options. We wish you well
    in placing your work elsewhere. Although we are sorry that we cannot help you in your efforts at this time, we appreciate your interest in CT.
    Best
    wishes.

    Sincerely,

    The CT Editorial Staff”

    This was my reading between the lines and my frustrated thinking as I ranted to my mentor:

    Don,
    You know I write poetry and I have been looking to publish some. Back in May I sent a letter to Christianity Today asking if they accepted poetry and the answer below is what I got. I checked out Christian Century and Guideposts like they said and what I eventually figured they were saying essentialy (although not maliciously) :

    “There is no place for Poetry in Christian thought and life because we don’t think it’s serious enough which is why we don’t accept it. Why don’t you try the thoughtful liberal folks down the way or the saccharine sweet positive thinking folks. We’re serious Christian publishers”

    I just found this email as I was trolling through old email and decided to check Guideposts and Christian Century out. The more I think about it the more incensed I get. Where can a theologically conservative poet get a break? The church used to lead in the arts and creativity but now we have banished it to the realm of the theologically weak-minded and the gay!”

    Anyhoo,

    That is the state of poetry as far as mainstream evangelical Christianity goes.

    V

  10. I too, have mixed feelings about this. While I agree with the intent of the post, and we have lost a lot of poetic expression and appreciation, I disagree that everything must be understood through imagination. Hebraic speech in the Bible follows poetic guidelines, so that the mathematician will be understand it. And it is mathematically precise so the poet will be able to appreciate its splendor. We have to realize that God made all of us with varying gifts, and uses these gifts both to speak to us through His Word and to convey His Gospel to those around us. I get very uncomfortable when someone says, “This is the way it is!” even though I’ve done so myself. I know there are certain truths that are absolute, and they are the way it is. Yet there is much in Scripture that needs to be interpreted on a personal basis. Understanding of God’s Word comes primarily and ultimately, from His Holy Spirit, not from either the poet, the prophet or some religious dogma a denomination clings to. We, each of us, must individually, cling to our Lord and allow Him to speak to us as He wills.

    David

  11. I’m late to this conversation. (Thank you David, for finding and commenting.)

    I am a poet, and one of my Baptist pastors did see my writing as a spiritual gift. He encouraged me by having me read a poem during the morning worship service, and the choir director even gave me tips to make my reading more effective.

    Like most poets, I have been surprised at what people find in them, which is probably one strength of poetry.

    I have given up on trying to become published because there are not that many outlets; I don’t have the desire to self publish and/or self market. I also look at what is being published and wonder.

  12. I attend a small Southern Baptist church in Colorado, and our pastor often reads a poem, vignette, modern parable, etc. as part of his sermon, mostly because they can make his point more vividly than just discussing it. Is most evangelical experience so different?

    Sheila