How our favorite poems move us to worship.
It’s turning out to be Poetry Week at Summitview Church. From Pastor Aaron’s application point in last Sunday’s sermon, to the poetry that will be read at this Friday’s Worship Night, we are doing our darndest to follow in David’s footsteps around here.
In a way, this is unfortunate. That poetry has become a neglected and misunderstood art form in contemporary America says something about our understanding of God and his world. Our English word for “poetry” comes from a Greek word which means “to move.” The Chinese character for poetry is made up of two parts: “word” and “temple.” Poetry—good poetry—is supposed to move us to worship as we see things about Jesus, the Word, and his creation in fresh ways. A lack of poetry is followed by a lack of seeing.
To help move us to new ways of seeing, we asked a few Summitviewers/ATN contributors to share their favorite poems.
Samantha Alvarado: I’ve not always had an affection for poetry. Most exposures to poetry are completely utilitarian. What is the poet saying? What is the rhyme scheme? Syllabication? Metaphor? Stanzas? Rhythm? The only thing I knew was that these poets must have had special insight into life or were over-emotional people with nothing better to do than to make complicated words rhyme in confusing ways. Couldn’t they just say what they wanted to say and get it over with? Did they really need to use a whole page to say the sky is blue?
As life has continued, utterly mingled with joy and suffering, poetry has become an unexpected balm. It is a well-planned, complex meal, satisfying a hunger to express or have someone understand the tangled web of thoughts inside of me. Poetry has the ability to name what cannot be properly named, but the naming is usually not quick. It’s really only after many readings does truth come into brilliant, soul-nurturing focus.
Developing an affection for poetry shouldn’t be highly intellectual. Children’s poems are a rich beginning. Isn’t it true that our most holy experiences often spring from those most ordinary? Once, when my children were quite young, they saw a brown, furry caterpillar in our yard. They, and I, together, lived out this deeply placed nature with the first poem we memorized together. This poem was a reward that day—a pat on the back. God had seen my hard work mothering and teaching these little souls. My days with them, spinning and dying, in hopes of new life, had not gone unseen. I frequently remember their joy, “Mommy, it’s just like our poem.”
“Caterpillar” by Christina Rossetti
Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk.
May no toad spy you,
May the little birds pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.
Aimee Fuhrman: I’ll admit it right now, I’m a sucker for kids’ poetry. It’s lighthearted, often funny; it rhymes; it’s easy to read and simple to enjoy. (Who doesn’t want to giggle at “Boa Constrictor” by Shel Silverstein or “My Snake Can Do Arithmetic” by Jack Prelutsky?) Plus, I’m a traditionalist—I like poetry that has meter and a rhyme scheme. (I know, I know…)
But even children’s poetry can have heart and soul. The poets of the late nineteenth century knew that children can grapple with more than they are often wont to do. Their hearts and minds can be guided and shaped in the weightier matters of life, if only we will provide the fodder. But they did it with one caveat–one that echos a biblical mandate: lead these tender minds to the higher, the nobler; set an example before them toward which to strive. A wonderful example of this is Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”
This is what Solomon did for his own son in the book of Proverbs, and thereby what God did for us. The noble standard is set before us, not to dishearten but to inspire. Sure, we may never fully attain it, but we can try. And in the trying we stand taller, we step higher, we reach a better place than if we’d never strived. God knows example instructs and exhorts. So did the poets.
“If” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Trevor Sides: Ted Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who lives in Garland, Nebraska. If you know where Garland, Nebraska is without the help of Google Maps, then you and I can be friends. Kooser’s poetry has been shaped by the people, terrain and weather of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. It’s simple yet serene; unimpressive from a distance but intricate and mesmerizing up close.
Kooser does what the great poets do: he helps you see things that you may not see at first glance. He takes your glasses and, with the soft cloth of metaphor, turns your view of, say, a rainy May morning and transmogrifies it into something profound. Sacred, even.
That might sound overblown. But if the heavens are declaring the glory of God, then somehow, someway, so is the sound of a robin whistling at work during a cold spring rain. We just have to have eyes to see it. The poem below isn’t necessarily my “favorite” or my most “meaningful” poem. But whenever I start to feel my eyes close to the charged grandeur of our world, I turn to Kooser and Delights & Shadows. I turn to page 75 and read of a single bird at work while the rest of us are sleeping.
“The Early Bird” by Ted Kooser
Still dark, and raining hard
on a cold May morning
and yet the early bird
is out there chirping,
chirping its sweet-sour
pleased, it would seem,
to be given work,
hauling the heavy
bucket of dawn
up from the darkness,
note over note,
and letting us drink.
Tina Wilson: One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle. Her series of books about the Austin and Murray families connected with my teenage heart through their mix of fantasy, the love and loyalty of family, and the beautifully written conflict between good and evil.
As a young 20-something teaching overseas, I read my first of her non-fiction books, A Circle of Quiet, and found a kindred spirit who spoke to me of beauty and the magic and meaning of words. In my 30s, her book on faith and art, Walking on Water, helped me begin dreaming again about writing.
And while I prefer prose to poetry, two of her collections of poems grace my bookshelves, and I have turned to them both in seasons of joy and sorrow. My favorite is her poem entitled “Word.”
“Word” by Madeleine L’Engle
I, who live by words, am wordless when
I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then
Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.
I leave, returned to language, for I see
Through words, even when all words are ended.
I, who live by words, am wordless when
I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen