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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Force of Poetic Thought

Published Saturday, January 1, 2022 By Larry Woiwode

Modern Reformation is pleased to welcome Larry Woiwode, poet laureate of North Dakota, as the new poetry editor. Larry is the author of the poetry collection Even Tide (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) and a chapbook, Land of Sunlit Ice (NDSU Press, 2016). His poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, Harpers, The New Yorker, The Transatlantic Review, and other venues, and is reprinted in a dozen anthologies. His novels have received the William Faulkner Foundation Award and John Dos Passos Prize and one was a finalist for the National Book Award. He received the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is awarded every six years “for distinction in the art of the short story.”

“If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.”[1]  —Muriel Rukeyser

Some might take this statement of Muriel Rukeyser, an esteemed poet and political activist, as hyperbole when you consider how often people say, “I just don’t understand poetry” or “I’ve hated poetry since high school!” That distaste likely exists because poetry in high school is often taught as an inexplicable entity crowded with symbols and hidden meanings that only the initiated can comprehend and explicate.

I must say right off that this isn’t so. I’ve worked and spent time with dozens of poets, and I don’t know one who hoped to hide meanings or purposely put symbols in a poem. Poets don’t do that. Those outside of the creative process take a critical stance that sets them in a position superior to the poem on the page. They identify symbols and meanings beyond the poet’s intent, and every poem contains elements that evade entire understanding. Paul Valery, the lauded twentieth-century French poet, wrote, “The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is.”[2]

A contra-poetry crowd, I’ll call it, has been around as long as poetry itself, as noted by Pulitzer laureate Edward Hirsch:

Cicero said that even if his lifetime were to be doubled he would still not have time to waste on reading the lyric poets. . . . In America the old line repeats itself with a kind of tired regularity, and every few years some Cicero or other decides poetry is dead. It is not. When Plato suggested banning poetry from the Republic he showed much better sense, for he recognized the revolutionary power of poetic thinking.[3]

This thinking is apparent in the depths to which it took the foremost scientist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein. He said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and added that he thought in pictures. “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”[4] Einstein’s poetic imagination was able to achieve conceptual leaps that more conventional modes of word-filled thought could not.

Visual imagination is the poet’s realm. The word or phrase a critic might propose as a symbol is probably a vestige of visual imagery that moved a poet to write the poem. Said Einstein, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the beauty of the universe itself. Of course, like all great beauty, his music was pure simplicity”[5]—as in the musicality of this poem by Robert Frost:

The way a crow shook down on me
The dust of snow from a hemlock tree
Has given my heart a change of mood
And saved some part of a day I had rued.

A black-and-white poem of cold change turns out for the speaker’s good, with of course a green hemlock front and center and the poet beneath. Was Frost thinking of Socrates’s less exhilarating experience with hemlock? I doubt it occurred to him in this moment of pure simplicity and tight rhyme that lifts into song.

The formulation of a language can occur through poetry. Take the Iliad and Odyssey. Whether composed by Homer or a generation of his adherents, here classical Greek had its beginning. Similarly, when the German tribes, the Angles and the Saxes, retreated from the island of England, the linguistic heritage they left formed Beowulf, which led to the Middle English of Chaucer, which led to Shakespeare codifying the breadth of English. And Dante’s Divine Comedy elevated a local version of Italian vernacular into the Italian language as spoken to this day.

Turn now to a forerunner of Dante, the apostle Paul. Preparing his persuasive gospel to the philosophers at the Areopagus, Paul was aware that poetry articulates the philosophical outreach of a culture. Nearing his conclusion, he said that the god called the “unknown god” was “him in whom we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘We are indeed his offspring.’” In their panoply of gods, Paul says, the poets recognized a single god from whom they sensed their descent, “his offspring”—a catchy phrase.

The poem quoted by the apostle was not a lyric, but a meaningful line of poetry that Paul, who recited or sang many psalms, would pick up on. Its first-person lyrics fall somewhere between discernable statements and song:

Western wind when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again! [Anon]

The songs of a Broadway musical are lyrics set in stanzas that rhyme. Advertising jingles are lyrics. And if the lyrics of popular songs are a gauge of the direction a culture is trending, the majority of American versions are grossly sexually troubling, headed on a hellish downhill slide. America also has serious young and middle-aged and older poets, however, whose books in many instances contain varieties of positive directions. A good number of poets, too, have been employed in business: from T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens to Dana Gioia and Ted Kooser, alongside farmers like Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, plus thousands of professors.

In a recent podcast, Bishop Robert Barron pointed out the powerful influence poetry can exert. According to Barron, Walt Whitman, the transcendental American poet, had such a robust effect on G. K. Chesterton that it moved him to faith in Christ and led him to become an apologist for Christianity and, particularly, Catholicism. The Whitmanesque effect opened nature, and then nature’s Creator, to Chesterton.

Poetry trains the mind to explore creative realms, enabling a reader to escape repeated televised opinions, for instance, most of which are nonfactual. This is one side of the effectual power of poetic imagery, especially animated multicolor imagery projected electronically into the brain. So, a “dark side” to the power of creative imagery does exist, not to the extent in poets, I believe, as in propagandists and criminals who operate at the creative edge to keep a step ahead of rationality and the law. That includes not only scammers, cyber criminals, and drug and human traffickers, but also local and national politicians who employ imagery to deceive. Trust arrives only in the context of truth.

To do a turn on the adage “It isn’t true because it’s in the Bible; it’s in the Bible because it’s true,” I will say, “It isn’t true and beautiful because it’s in a poem; it’s in a poem because it’s beautiful and true.” This echoes the poet John Keats’s dictum:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

To transfer this to the Christian realm, you will find John Calvin state in his commentaries that truth, no matter its source, is from God, and that a reader of Scripture knows that God dwells in the beauty of holiness. He has set down the footsteps of the Word made flesh as a path for anyone interested in poetry or metaphorical thought to follow. When Jesus as that Word speaks, it’s not mere talk; it’s creation and recreation of us in his image. It is supernatural poetry.

Larry Woiwode is the poetry editor for Modern Reformation.

  • Larry Woiwode

1. Muriel Rukeyser, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/muriel-rukeyser (accessed August 10, 2021).
2. Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999), xi (italics original).
3. Hirsch, How to Read a Poem, xii.
4. Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 7, 9.
5. Isaacson, Einstein, 14.
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