Does Poetry Matter?
Words matter. Words are of central importance. But not perhaps in the way that we think.
Christianity is not a religion of a book. We have a book, a wonderful true book given to us by God, but our faith is not centered on the book.
Our faith is centered on a Person, the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. To bring someone into the Kingdom is to introduce that person to Christ, so that Christ in turn can draw that person into the divine life of the most holy Trinity.
So in one sense we don’t need words. We can know Christ directly, encounter him wordlessly in prayer and in the Eucharist.
But words do matter. They matter not because of what you or I have said or written, but because Christ is the eternal, living Word of God, by whom all things were made.
So in a deeper sense, the Word is the most important thing there is. We cannot live without words, for it is the Logos, the living Word, who made us and sustains us and redeems us.
And so that brings us to poetry.
Poetry is special because it seeks to point beyond itself. A poem is a conscious creation of language, different from casual speech or even from cries of the heart. Poetry, and by extension all imaginative literature, but especially poetry, draws us through and past language into the reality beyond.
We make because we are made in the image of our Maker. When we write, we participate in what Tolkien called “sub-creation”. When we read, we inhabit for a time the vision of the writer. And if that work is true, in the deepest sense of true — and Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings is in many ways the truest book I know — if the work is true, we see the world through the eyes of faith, illumined by the light of Christ.
Poetry is experiential. It is incarnational. “Every poem is a little incarnation.” As we read, especially if we read aloud, we enter into the poem, inhabit it, breathe our breath into it, breathe the poem into ourselves. “Inspiration” is the action of breathing in – to draw in great lungfulls of the fresh and life giving air of the Holy Spirit. It’s pure gift. Every spoken prayer, every spoken poem is a returning of that breath in trusting faith, “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist says,aloud when we read aloud we do exactly that. A good poem is tasted, savored, inwardly digested. A great poem, a true poem, becomes part of us, circulating in our blood, knit into our bones.
And so reading a poem, a true poem, is a very dangerous business.
Poetry can change you. You may shut the door, and lock it, but the wind of the Spirit will, like a cold New England draft, find that one little crack to whisper in.
Poetry can change you. It changed me. Once you see the world lit up by the light of Christ, the darkness is darker, the shadows deeper, the questions sharper. “For chosen words can change the things they mean” and our world will never be the same.