Talk on Poetry as part of All Saints’ Every Day Faith Series
How do we live our ‘Everyday Faith’? Let’s be honest! It’s not easy.
I’m going to suggest to you that we live out our Everyday Faith by ‘giving our attention’ so that we can grow up both into our faith and also into our full stature as human beings created in the image of God.. According to Michael Mayne, the former Dean of Westminster, we need to:
attend to our relationship with God
attend to our relationships with the people around us – and to the darkness and suffering and pain in our world
attend to our ourselves – to our own being.
Tonight, we’re going to look at a few poems to see how they might help us to pay attention in these different domains. Essentially, poems help because they expand our ability to talk and think about important things. They expand our language. Now I’ve got a visual aid here (show knitting). On top is rather a beautiful piece of knitting, but look at all the joins and darnings in on the underside which hold the whole thing together! Tonight I’m going to demonstrate how we can use poetry to strengthen the underside of our lives.
What is a poem?
- ‘the right words in the right order’ (With a nod to my hero Eric Morecambe)
- ‘a speaking picture’ which helps us to make connections(Sir Philip Sidney)
- ‘Offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’(Seamus Heaney)
- ‘Awaking the mind’s attention……to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us’ (Coleridge)
- Contained with a structure of lines, rhythm and sometimes rhymes
- With a rhythm like word-music
7.40 Relationship with myself
We start on a light note with a poem using a very particular form to apply a sportsman’s motto to life.
The Ted Williams Villanelle
(For Ari Badaines)
let anybody mess with your swing.”
Ted Williams, baseball player
Watch the ball and do your thing.
This is the moment. Here’s your chance.
Don’t let anybody mess with your swing.
Its time to shine. You’re in the ring.
Step forward, adopt a winning stance,
Watch the ball and do your thing,
And while the ball is taking wing,
Run without a backward glance.
Don’t let anybody mess with your swing.
Don’t let envious bastards bring
You down. Ignore the sneers, the can’ts.
watch the ball and do your thing.
Sing out, if you want to sing.
Jump up, when you long to dance.
Don’t let anybody mess with your swing.
Enjoy your talents. Have your fling.
The seasons change. The years advance.
Watch the ball and do your thing,
And don’t let anybody mess with your swing.
Wendy Cope (b 1945)
What do you notice about the poem’s form?
: Form of villanelle
- fixed verse form of 5 stanzas of 3 lines
- and structured by 2 repeating rhymes and 2 repeating refrains.
- No established metre, alltho 20th C villanelles tended to use pentameter.
- First and third line of first tercet repeated alternately at the end of every other 3-line verse
- the last stanza which includes both repeated line and helps tie it all up
What is this poem saying about playing baseball? (What is the central image?)
What does this poem say to you about your life? (Focus! Don’t get distracted! Don’t be put off!)
Here we have extended metaphor which is the backbone of the poem. Perhaps we have here a speaking picture, to use Sidney’s term, a picture which helps us apply a sporting motto to the way we live our lives. Note that the form is absolutely integral, for it contains the message, and almost is the message. That’s the big thing about poetry: it comes in interesting packages.
It’s worth noting that different people will get a different message from this poem, which you might see as a processing too. I find its conversational tone collaberative, mutual, affirming. The feeling I get is’ we’re in this together’! It encourages me to be clear what I am doing, to focus and not distract myself with self-doubting.
7.50 Relationship with others- both people and things – ‘All living is meeting’ Buber
Now we are going to look at a few poems which help us to consider our connections with other people and the natural world
Here’s a Japanese haiku:
In the shadow of the cherry tree
There are none.
When we stand with others in the presence of something beautiful, we feel less alone and more connected. It’s probably worth remembering that cherry tree blossom is very significant in Japanese culture and religion. I suggest to you that engaging with poetry and art makes us feel less alone in the world. This haiku (Japanese poem of 17 –sylllables) is by the eighteenth century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1726-1826). Born on a farm, he was raised by a harsh stepmother and had a great struggle with bad luck and poverty. Here however we see him finding consolation as he stands in the shadow of a cherry tree. Now we are all familiar with Wordsworth wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ as he gazes on a field of daffodils. Issa’s engagement with the natural world leads him to feel a connection with all living things.
What thoughts and feelings does this poem prompt in you?
Two poems by the radical poet Blake which offer some challenges as to how we live with one another. Poems can be sly ways of saying difficult things.
The title of this poem suggests a connection between our relationship with others and our experiencing of eternity.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise
Can you separate out the two central images which make up this poem?
Try to tease out these contrasting images:
What does it mean to ‘kiss joys as they fly?
What does it mean to ‘bind to yourself a joy’?
What do you notice about the form of the poem? (How does this contribute to the meaning of the poem?)
What message, if any, does the poem convey to you?
Notes on form
AABB, like a children’s rhyme in shape if not in content. AABB quatrain – rhyming couplets. 4 feet per line. Trochaic feet with stress coming first. Note that this is reversed in the last line. Reading a poem takes time – reading a poem is like receiving the love of God
So in a way a poem is something you have to work at to uncover both its meaning and its glory. (A bit like receiving the love of God. The Anglican theologian and priest Bill Vanstone said that perceiving a work of art takes time and receptive creativity and that it is a bit like receiving the love of God. Poetry slows down our reading. You can’t just skim-read it – though often I try to! It’s like the slow reading of spiritual texts practised by monastics. Reading poetry tones up my soul for receiving the love of God, for reading the ancient literature of the Bible.
A poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
What is the central metaphor in this poem? (What is being compared to what?)
What would you say is the emotional tone of this extended image?
What does this poem suggest about anger in our relationships?
What message does it have for you, if any?
This poem is indeed a ‘speaking picture’. It sets out a little story with a bite, which we can interpret as we choose. A simple 4-beat rhythm in rhyming couplets which sounds a bit like a nursery rhyme, but which deals in the complexities of human relationships.
Our last archbishop Rowan Williams said that literature ‘displays a possible world, a reality in which my human reality can find itself, and in inviting me into its world the text breaks open and extends my possibilities. So here we are being offered a vivid picture – a bit like a parable – which we can interpret for ourselves and which might penetrate our defences and challenge us to think about what we do when we feel angry with our friends or enemies. .
This little poem hints at transformation in the midst of pain.
DON’T CRY CATERPILLAR
Grace Nichols (b 1950)
Don’t cry, Caterpillar
Caterpillar, don’t cry
You’ll be a butterfly – by and by.
Don’t worry about a thing
“But”, said Caterpillar,
“Will I still know myself – in wings?”
Notes Poems help us connect as we try to understand one another across barriers of gender, religion or ethnicity. Grace Nichols is a black British poet born in Guyana. Try to imagine the music of her voice. So I can attempt to transcend the barriers of my own cultural understanding , attempt to walk in another’s shoes, understand their experience by means of a poem. Think of Benjamin Zephaniah writing poems about the windrush. And so build up both our relationship and learn something new!
8.15 Drawing together themes before the break
Poems for pastoral situations
As a gift (pastoral visit, to friends, in care homes). Evidence of engagement which seems to touch the other. An extension of our empathy. (Think about how you would feel if a friend offered you the Cope poem as you were embracing a big challenge )Written out or read aloud, or sent in an email. Sometimes the obliqueness of poetry can fit it for this purpose. However, choice needs to be carefully judged. Can be misinterpreted. Poems can be offered as an encouragement, something to steel the nerve and give hope. Poems can be given as things of beauty. As Keats said, ‘ A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’.
Relationship with God- contemplating the transcendent
This poem reflects on an experience outside to suggest an encounter with God
The Bright Field
R S Thomas
I have seen
the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a
receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Here we see the Welsh poet and Anglican priest in reflective mode. He almost overlooks an experience of beauty; he compares this to overlooking our glimpses of eternity.
The experience: What happened to the poet? Seeing a field with sudden glory. (Happened to me once on Brooke Hill) Do you stop and look at it, or does something inside you make you hurry on? If we are not careful, we can miss it.
Overlooking eternity Thomas says it’s easy to miss the beauty of this ‘pearl of great price’, the one field that had the treasure in it. Then he moves out from this to describe the life of faith: the turning aside, like Moses, to contemplate the brightness of God. This is not fleeting and temporary but is in fact the eternity that awaits us.
Pause for reflection Stay with this poem for a moment. Allow it to sit with you, like a friend. I’m going to give you 2 minutes!… Allow it to speak to you……
Our last poem suggests a way of living with difficulties in a way that helps us apprehend the eternal.
8.40What are years?
Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
What is our
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
This poem deals with some difficult questions and suggests some ways through them. I want to suggest to you that poetry is not propositional truth, but it is more the process by which we come out understanding and clarity. Reading poetry teaches us what Keats called ‘negative capability’- a state of being open and receptive (‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts…’) in the challenges and ambiguities of everyday life (and faith!) without leaping to nail it or to import a fact or undigested ‘certainty’.
Not obviously poetry until you experience it and look and listen more carefully. Moore said of her work that she could see ‘no reason for calling [it] work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it’. When you look carefully, however, you will see that the poem is divided into 3 roughly symmetrical stanzas, and that the words are carefully placed for maximum emphasis. There is even an informal rhyme scheme (Lines 1 and 3 , 5 and 7 with a sort of rhyme, and lines 8 and 9 of each stanza rhyme,
What does it mean? I think it’s quite ambiguous, and I don’t want to pin in down too much. But it relates to all the categories: form/diction; relationship with myself, relationship with others and relationship with God.
The poem starts with the big questions about innocence, guilt and safety. They remain questions in this format. (Poetry is not propositional truth, but it is more the process by which we come out understanding and clarity. It is a sort of negative capability – Keats’ phrase- a state of being open and receptive (‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts…’) in the challenges and ambiguities of everyday life (and faith!) without leaping to nail it or to import a fact or undigested ‘certainty’. So it is the courage to stay with a ‘resolute doubt’, an ‘unanswered question’. In situations of misfortune and even death, we ‘dumbly call and ‘deafly listen’ – who of us has not experienced this? And somehow we get through. The strange thing is that this courage to embrace uncertainty, doubt and confusion both ‘encourages others’ and even ‘in its defeat’ ‘stirs the soul to be strong’.
In the middle stanza, she writes about what it is like to struggle with our own limitations. When we are wise, she suggests, we ‘accede to mortality’. What does this mean? (I remember that the queen acceded to the throne, so I’m thinking that acceding to mortality means actively accepting the limitations of being a human being. Like the sea, we ‘Struggle to be free’ and are ‘unable to be’, so that in the end, like the sea, we learn in our ‘ surrendering’ to finds our ‘continuing’.
In the final stanza, she draws out the implications. How do you live, if you have learn to accept the limitations of your humanity? Well, you might fear that it would make you miserable! Here we are offered the example of the bird, who, though caged, grows taller as he sings. In fact, the very act of singing ‘steels his form straight up’. Even though he is ‘captive/his mighty singing says/satisfaction is a lowly thing, how pure a thing is joy.’ Moore seems to distinguish between ‘lowly satisfaction’ (which is perhaps what we naturally seek) and ‘joy’ itself. So it’s almost as we start off along the journey of life seeking ‘satisfaction’ (‘I’m thinking of the song ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’) and we end up finding pure ‘ joy.’
Moore’s conclusion: ‘This is mortality./This is eternity’.
So it seems to me that the poem is about unknowing: it explores the feeling of not understanding and it offers a process where we learn acceptance of our limitations and learn to sing for joy.
8.50 Concluding reflections
I suggest that, as we read poetry and take time to understand it, we slow ourselves down, and start learning to live in the moment and pay attention to our inner lives, to the people we live with and to the beauty of the world around us. When we read poetry, we are reading about other people’s distilled wisdom and we are invited to share in their process. When we read poetry we also feel less alone. We share with other human beings as they contemplate both the joy and the intense pain of being human and as a result, we feel less alone in the world.
So poetry extends and purifies my language, our language (!) so that I/we can think and speak with new clarity. The ‘speaking pictures’ I find in poetry break open my thoughts, offers me sly challenges as I try to relate well to those around me By means of metaphor, poems make possible new ideas and possibilities. Poems as also work as beautiful things, consoling me and, like the bird in Moore, causing me to discover a joy which makes me stand taller and gives us courage to endure. Poems are also like riddles, which I need to ponder slowly if I am to crack open their meaning. The slow wisdom that I achieve in exposing myself to other people’s thoughts ends up by increasing my capacity for empathy, first for myself and then for other people. Poetry helps me to know myself, to know my vulnerabilities and, knowing myself I can offer myself safely to listen to other people. Finally, as we saw in the last two poems, poetry can help me find language to describe and understand my experiences of God.