Poetry is a good life companion

Written by Sarah Emtage

Imagine a dimly lit and crowded back room in enemy occupied territory. Restless movement betrays an underlying current of unease. A spotlight illumines a small stage. A poet steps into the light and begins reciting melodically with long dramatic pauses. The words stack up into seeming nonsense. Some onlookers furrow their brows in concentration. A man with a long scarf nods sagely as if he understands. Meanwhile, a figure in the shadowiest corner begins translating the verse into marching orders for the resistance movement.

Poetry can be formidable. Sometimes I’m afraid of thinking I understand it when I don’t. Sometimes I’m afraid of being left in the dark. When I read a mystery novel, I don’t try to outsmart the detective. I wait for the reveal and then revel in the second-hand satisfaction. Poems can be mysteries too, but they are not expected to explain themselves at the end. If this uncertainty makes you hesitant to plunge into a poem, I sympathize with that feeling, but poetry is so much more than a puzzle to solve. Our world is full of cynicism and hurry, and the practice of reading poetry cultivates wonder and patience.

Unless you live in a Shakespeare play, poetry is not the way you talk with people day to day. Poetry is a heightened form of language that takes more time and effort to construct. There are qualities unique to poetry that help us sit at the edge of our understanding.

Poets use repeating patterns and the musicality of words to create extra layers of beauty and meaning. They use specific details and images to connect us to another time or place. They use metaphors to let us see the familiar in a new light or see the unseeable for the first time. Words can do so much, and poetry is what happens when words stretch up to brush the sky with their fingertips.

I work at a college library, and sometimes the library assistant and I talk about poetry. She will often say something along the lines of: “I just don’t understand how words are able to do that!” Once she mentioned the poem “Two-Headed Calf” by Laura Gilpin. I googled it and we sat there and marvelled at it together for a couple of minutes.

I could not definitively tell you the point of that poem, and that is okay. Poetry holds double meanings and unresolved tensions. It is often more of a question than an answer. Wonder is a kind of curiosity that makes peace with not knowing, while still caring very much about what it does not know. It is good to embrace this kind mystery.

When I started using Goodreads to track my reading, I tripled the number of books I read in a year. In some ways this has been great, but there are downsides to the kind of motivation that Goodreads gives me. The incentive of collecting titles in my digital inventory like video game treasure can distract from the actual point of reading.

Sometimes I get more interested in completing books than in paying attention to them. Poetry in particular, suffers from being rushed or read half-heartedly. Poems should be read slowly, savoured, and read again. Poems are not single-use plastics. This is true of all kinds of literature, but of poetry most of all. One poem read many times will do you more good than a multitude of poems read only once.

A poem is pocket literature, meant to be carried with you over a lifetime, and the best way to hold it is to memorize it. Poetry is actually designed to be memorized. Patterns like metre and rhyme make the words easier to reassemble in our brains. I’ve realized that the poems that have impacted me the most are the few I have taken the time to memorize. I learned “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll when I was a kid, and it has been living in my pocket ever since. (It only bites on occasion.) It gave me my love of whimsy and a vision of joyful courage that I draw on as I need it.

Poetry is like camping gear, IKEA flatpacks, and Lembas bread. Poetry is made for travel. It is dense and layered. Every word is chosen with care.

Sometimes this makes it difficult to unpack, but it also makes it powerful. Poetry has the power to share indescribable feelings and open new worlds to you. I have found poetry in and out of the Bible that opens my heart to God. The psalms are exulting and gut wrenching in turn. “Love III” by George Herbert stops me in my tracks. Malcolm Guite’s Easter Week sonnets make me weep. I sometimes pray in rhyme and write poems as prayers. Every language praises God, and the language of poetry can help us express our hearts to God in ways that prose can’t.

God is a poet. In the beginning God created the heavens and earth, and there was morning and evening, the first day. The rhythm of day and night has continued ever since. Poetry and the universe are both built with repeating rhythms. They are both filled with images of one thing that reveal the truth about another. I love thinking about how Jesus created things like fig trees, fish, shepherds, and sheep and then lived with us in His creation and used those images to tell us true and beautiful things.

Every poem is a little incarnation echoing that great Incarnation.

In the beginning was the Word and that Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Poetry also takes abstract truth and makes it concrete and immediate. Poetry is a gift from God that helps us see reality and draws us deeper into communion with Him.

Poetry is vast and varied. There are highly structured poems, and poems that break all the rules. There are poems meant to be spoken aloud, and poems that make a special shape on the page. There are short comic poems to make you laugh, and long narrative poems to make you cry. There are poems about faraway places and poems about your hometown. If you think you do not like poetry, you probably have not found your kind of poetry yet. If you are not sure where to start, start with the poems in this issue. Continue by asking the people you care about what poems have been meaningful to them. And if you feel inspired, don’t be afraid of writing your own!

The path of least resistance will not lead you to poetry. You have to seek it out. Poetry may in fact be the secret code of a resistance movement, but is not intended to exclude you. Poetry is code in a resistance movement that you are invited to join. We live in enemy occupied territory. Cynicism and impatience are invading forces. Poetry is a light in the dark and ration in the trenches. You can carry pocket poems behind enemy lines to remind yourself and others of greater realities. Poetry is a gift from God and a tool of resistance. Resist impatience. Resist oversimplification. Slow down. Welcome wonder.