The reading of poetry is perhaps not one of the more popular activities among modern Americans. Americans do not lack for hearing poetry on a regular basis however; after all, the lyrics of all those songs on the radio are poetry of a sort. Admittedly it is generally not very good poetry, and I suspect most people don’t really listen to the music for the words—though I’ve noticed that my oldest daughter has an interesting habit of searching on the web for the lyrics to songs she has enjoyed and printing them out. The sheets then disappear into that black hole we call her room.
I’ve noticed in teaching the Bible that for many of my students, though they enjoy the poetic sections of the Bible, they have a tremendous difficulty making sense of them. The reason for this is that most people have little use for poetry and rarely think about it. They were forced to endure antique poetry in school, did not enjoy the exposure, and have not looked at a poem since.
Poetry is not at all like the newspaper articles we peruse, the web pages we scan, and the papers we look over at work. We generally read for information, and for not much else. If we read a novel, then we expect to be entertained by it, to get carried away in a story, and for the moments that we spend in it, to get lost in another world.
Poetry does none of those things.
Poetry has as its purpose the evoking of emotion: it is at its most powerful and useful when it resonates with a feeling that we have within us and brings it out, to where we have to face it. Think about the songs that you’ve heard, the lyrics that most powerfully affected you, and chances are it was because, as you might have said, “it spoke to me” or it expressed “something inside of me.”
Poetry, without the music, can do much the same thing for us if we let it.
For most people, when they think of poetry, they imagine that it is something that has to rhyme. They think of nursery stories, Dr. Suess, or limricks. They may remember some fragment that they had to memorize in high school. But poetry cannot be defined by its framework, the nuts and bolts that are used to build it: especially when there are so many materials out of which it might be built.
Hebrew poetry—the poetry we find in the Bible—will disappoint those who imagine that poetry must rhyme or have rhythm, since it has neither. In keeping with poetry throughout the ancient Middle East, whether originating in Egypt or Mesopotamia, the rhyming of sounds had nothing to do with the building of a poem. Instead, the poets of that ancient world crafted their literary art by repitition: lines that rhymed ideas, rather than noise:
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
their heart is filled with destruction.
Their throat is an open grave;
with their tongue they speak deceit. (Psalm 5:9)
Much modern poetry lacks rhyme too, and yet is no less powerful or emotional than the more stereotypical stuff we were used to enduring in school. Consider this snippet from On the Beach at Night by Walt Whitman, an American poet of the nineteenth century:
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.
And rhyming may be barely noticeable even when present, as in the famous poem Ozymandias by the early nineteenth century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In 524 Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy during the last year of his life: the year he was imprisoned by the Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great, who subsequently had him brutally executed. A Christian, Boethius focused on issues of human freewill, loyalty, love, and the question of suffering, writing his book as if he were having a conversation with Philosophy, whom he personified as a woman. Over the course of his conversation, she reminded him of the transitory nature of his life and possessions. Happiness, she insisted, comes from within. It is a mistake to imagine that external things can ever lead to genuine satisfaction: “Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?”
I have discovered for myself that poetry can also serve as a useful consolation or comfort, as it reaches inside me and pulls out the happiness that somehow got buried under the pressures of life. It has been a wonderful salve in moments of depression, as well as a simple delight in more pleasant times. Poetry acts on our emotions, more than on our cognition. To enjoy it, we must discover a poem or poet that fits our mood, even the events in our lives. Oddly enough, finding poetry that we can enjoy is akin to discovering a perfect restaurant, a fishing hole, or even just the right bowling ball or sweater. It can take some time, and we may wonder if it’s worth the effort. But once we find it, we wonder how we got along without it.