Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Poems vs. Poetry

At a church I went to recently (not my own), we sang the following chorus: You are my world, you are my God, And I lay down my life for you. You are my Lord, the one I love, No one could ever take your place. Singing this made me sad. There was a time in the distant past when Christians believed that God was interesting enough to deserve not only praise, but well-crafted praise; that God was beautiful enough to be described with beautiful language; that our poems to Him could actually have something in them of poetry. Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. It's common to defend lifeless choruses with Jane Austen-like words to the effect, “At least their sentiments are correct.” But that's precisely what is not correct about the chorus we sang. It has no sentiments. It has no feelings of its own; it does not make the slightest appeal to ours. The blank, cold, naked thoughts behind that chorus are indeed correct. What else should God be to us if not the whole world? And should we not love God? And there is, of course, no one who could take God’s place. But if we were not already convinced, that chorus could do precious little to change our minds. I don't deny that the this chorus – and the thousand others we sing – may express true and even worthwhile thoughts. Indeed, the meaning of this chorus is high and holy, as with all platitudes. It's much more valuable to know such things are true than to pen lines that confess them worthily. A saint is better than a poet. But times were when saints wrote poetry that could move men a thousand years hence. The poetry of the saints has lasted precisely because they believed that God was worthy of their very best: first, of course, worthy of their best actions and thoughts, but secondarily, worthy of their best words. Nor does God scorn words. Εν αρχη ην ο λογος: in the beginning was the Word. Sitting in front of us at each church service are 1500 pages of those words – and it's no coincidence that those words contain some of the best poetry in any language in the world. So why do our churches have so little poetry? One answer might be that we don’t want the beauty of the words to distract us from their meaning, that we don’t wish for the towering clouds of incense to distract us from the altar. There are indeed some Christians who might make this claim and make it believably. But they do not attend any church I know. The old Huguenots who striped the icons and the paintings and the color from their churches might reasonably strip metaphor and alliteration from their praises; their songs might quite reasonably be as plain and gray as their places of worship. But however convincing a Quaker or Mennonite appeal for simplicity might be, it sounds rather ingenuous in a multi-million dollar sanctuary, with professional musicians pumping out pop-rock praises, a twenty foot electronic image of the pastor standing over the pastor’s shoulder, and DVD's of each service available for five dollars in the sanctuary. No: I think the primary reason we have no poetry in our churches is that we have none in our lives. I don't mean that we have nothing in our life that is worthy of poetry. Far from it: those things which have been the subject of poetry since the foundation of the world – love, loss, heroism, bravery, war, life, birth, death – these are the birthright of Man, and no television shall take them away. Nor do I mean that nobody writes poems anymore. On the contrary, everyone writes poems. But almost no one writes poetry. My theory is that there is a very particular reason for this. No one who hears -- For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright Who art as black as death, as dark as night -- believes that they could write half so well. But it takes a real ear to recognize that – I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you -- is just as good and just as difficult to write. Because free verse has no obvious rules, an unfortunately large number of people have concluded that poetry has no standards. A 19th century poet might spend all day on a sonnet, conclude when it was finished that it was “not very creditable”, and yet produce something worth reading: because in the 19th century, at least some of the marks of good poetry were obvious and therefore could be learned and therefore could be taught. But Holden Caulfield might spend five minutes “expressing himself” in a form with as little regularity as Whitman, as little point as MTV and as little value. In a singularly unfortunate “celebration of myself,” he would conclude that what he has to say is worth saying because he is the one saying it. One result is that within the last several years, an honest-to-goodness bona fide poet laureate wrote the following lines: Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Many people have quite rightly complained about the writer’s astonishingly elusive grasp on reality. But I haven't heard anyone note the far more striking and horrifying fact: that the author of these lines calls himself a poet.


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