I have had to come to grips lately with my desire for poetry. I have found myself reading it constantly, and even wanting to write it. It is not as if I have said to myself, ‘Boy, I really need to write some poetry.’ It is more of an impulse. The desire is just there to do it, and it is a relatively new desire for me. And so, I ask myself, and offer an answer to you of, why. Let me build a little scaffolding with ideas from others. First, I offer this fine quote from Chesterton:
One need only be a very minor poet to have wrestled with the tower or the tree until it spoke like a titan or a dryad. It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial. Myths are not allegories. Natural powers are not in this case abstractions. It is not as if there were a God of Gravitation. There may be a genius of the waterfall; but not of mere falling, even less than of mere water. The impersonation is not of something impersonal. The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance. Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. but imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 104-105).
C.S. Lewis called imagination ‘the organ of meaning.’ In other words, the imagination comprehends and expresses truth by incarnating it into images (at least that’s my best shot at what he means). Chesterton is on to a similar idea when he writes (above) that poets, myth-makers, and mystics have sought after beauty, and enfleshed beauty, through their imagination.
Just last night, I was reading 2 Samuel 22, David’s great song of praise to the Lord after successive victories over the Philistines. David, of course, as the very next chapter in 2 Samuel points out, was ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel.’ He was a poet, a musician, a songwriter. He was always ready to pray through verse. In this particular text, he is praising God through various mental images. He likens God to a fortress, a tower, and a rock. But more surprisingly, he likens God to (what we would call) a drill-sergeant, a storm, and even a dragon. Why would anyone, at least anyone who loves God, ever compare him to a dragon? It is because he consumed David’s enemies as if by fire. It was as if he had blown smoke from his nostrils and scorched David’s enemies.
I bring this up in this context to make my central point. Poetry, at least good poetry, is a seeking after beauty through incarnation in some sense. It is seeking after the truth through images. It desires to see the truth covered in flesh and bones and dirt and flora and fauna. I have yet to find the source, but it is said that Chesterton said something like, ‘truth, not facts.’ If he didn’t say it, it at least sounds like something he would say.God is not a dragon. If you were to say that God is a dragon you would be a liar. ‘God is a dragon’ is simply not a fact. But, as you seek to know God, and express the truth about God, it might lead you to personify him as such.
Now there are many facts about God, and we must express them. The Bible is a book of history – of facts. But among those facts lies several books made up entirely of poetry. We do not have to choose one over the other. Both are ours. So where is your balance? Are you a fact-person or a poetry-person? God is both. We should be both.
The problem lies in the fact that many folks view poetry simply as a means of fancy self-expression. That brings me back to another quote by Lewis. In talking about Chaucer, he once wrote that ‘poets are, for Chaucer, not people who receive fame, but people who give it.’ Poetry is not simply self-expression. In fact, it doesn’t have to be self-expression at all in some sense. It involves the self to be sure, but it involves the self trying to grasp out for truth and beauty with all of the tools it has at its disposal. The poet is not content to simply talk about himself. He is too busy making the sunrise a spectacle, and the warrior a hero, and the pig a person, and the person a pig.
It’s not all about rhymes either. Poems often rhyme because rhymes can be beautiful. Which is more beautiful, and which conveys a stronger sense of the truth: a) ‘We live in the desert, but God is our refuge,’ or b) ‘Wanderers in the wilderness though we be, yet we find a home in thee’? Which is more beautiful and conveys a stronger sense of the truth: a) Nightingales are really neat birds, they sing pretty, they’ve been around a long time in many different places, or b)
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn
We need poetry because existence is too big, beautiful, and messy to express without it. My soul is too dark. Saying it is dark won’t do. I must say, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ The stars are too magnificent. Saying they’re magnificent won’t do. I must say, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.’ A fool making the same mistake over and over again is foolish. But I can’t just call him a fool. I must say, ‘As a dog returneth to his own vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.’ One way of saying something isn’t enough. We need balance if we are to find beauty.
Therefore if you are a rationalist who has no place for poetry in your life, what are you going to do? That’s where I was just a few short years ago. Chesterton wrote,
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Poetry is a balm. Solomon knew that. That’s why he wrote it. To everything turn, turn, turn.
Poetry is not everything. Not everything must be expressed poetically. But the fact of the matter is that we need not just truth but beauty in our lives. And if your truth is not beautiful, and is not manifesting and producing beauty, and if your response to it is not beautiful, you are a candidate for a cracked head. Get your head into the heavens and breathe the air. Watch a sunset and admit that the water looks like its dancing in pink. Look at a star and admit that it looks ‘like a diamond in the sky.’ You might just find some pleasant sanity running through your veins. You might just find yourself feeling a bit smaller and wanting to spread the fame of another rather than yourself.