Allying poetry with “spirituality,” “faith,” or “religion,” (inseparable terms, in my life), has always put me on edge. If one professes, as I try to, that all things, visible and invisible, are sustained (by and for) the one creator, our grandest literary efforts amount to mere farts and gargles. At best, human utterances (including poetry) serve and glorify God; poetry is not a special language whereby one gains better access to a divine audience, an elevated state of knowledge, or truer experience of the sublime. As for edification, a ham sandwich is better for one’s health. Poetry goes out. Poetry profanes.
Even so, poetry is made and found on the God-given human tongue. And, as God’s creatures, we bring the fullness of our lives, however awkwardly, to the service. (The cobble stones of Palm Sunday might sing better songs.) Therefore, and partly against myself, I too have found poetry (the reading and the writing) useful.
Poetry can do three things (and probably some more) for believers: 1. as I’ve already indicated, and foremost, it can (or must?) glorify the creator; 2. it can (or should?) reveal what is true; and 3) it can exercise the attending muscles.
(Poetry may have similar functions in a secular context … a tool is a tool. We are given many things.)
Reading the Gospel of Mark, I was reminded (uneasily) of my third point, my weakest (or perhaps most easily abused) notion, poetry as exercise. In Mark 13 and 14, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to stay awake–γρηγορεῖτε, grēgoreite. Here is the first passage in the NRSV translation:
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:32-37)
As we know, Jesus’s students were slow to get the message, and so (in the next chapter) they fall asleep, physically (and spiritually?) in the Garden of Gethsemane:
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ (Mark 14:32-34)
When he returned to check on them, he woke them up:
He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Mark 14:37-38)
And once again, he returned to find them sleeping:
And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14:40)
He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ (Mark 14:41-42)
The word γρηγορεῖτε in Mark 13:37 is translated in other versions as: “Watch!” (NIV, ASV, KJV).
Watching can be difficult and the active verb seems appropriate, but staying awake is hard, very hard. Some of us, probably all of us, walk in our sleep. Jesus lived a hard life and few believers are ready to leave “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” for his sake (Mark 10:29, NRSV). Sleep walking allows one to ignore the painful truth. It insulates us from the most difficult choices. We ignore the upsetting sacrifices we are called to provide.
In a smaller way, readers do the same thing. We sleep read. Whole pages of a book can go by like miles on a daily commute. If we think we already know the book, we might even persuade ourselves that we were awake during the reading. And so, earnest folk go to services or sit in quiet corners with the scriptures and force an easy set of cultural cliches on the passages they think they are studying. We all do it. Believers and skeptics.
For me, poetry has been a difficult practice. Reading and writing. I can not sleep through a poem. If I do, I read nothing. I stop reading. I start over. A good poem demands an engaged attention. To hear the poem, I translate. My associations, memories, visions, encounters with people and words are mined to serve the poem. Without them, the poem (and the pleasure or pain it might give) has no place to root. Dozing off, it slips from consciousness. And so, in my case, to read a poem and to read it well, I fight to stay awake.
Perhaps all this is nothing more than a self-serving justification of time spent in an activity that fails to feed my family, fails to feed my neighbor, fails to make much a difference for anyone. (I am not a great poet and reading comes painfully slow.) Though selfishly, I think it does make a difference for me. With what intelligence I have, poetry is an exercise in wakefulness. If I can stay awake for the poem, perhaps I will be prepared to listen a bit longer to the Word. The latter is more difficult, the watching, the waiting, and I will fall sleep. I do fall asleep. I am asleep. In any case, I am training the muscles ow wakefulness for the task. The flesh is weak.
Finally, what little can I say: poetry is one way that at least one believer works to stay awake, works to keep watch, works (as Milton wrote at the end of Sonnet XIX) to “wait.” I will leave any grander claims to braver, surer, quicker minds.