The discipline of verse

After church on Sunday, I caught a bit of Michael Enright’s The Sunday Edition on CBC.  It was an encore presentation that included an extended piece on the resurgence of interest and acclaim in Emily Dickinson’s poetry (you can listen to it here).  Apparently, Emily Dickinson is having “a cultural moment.”  I listened with curiosity because earlier in the week I had picked up a volume of her poems we have at home and spent time with a few verses.  Apparently, I’m in touch with the zeitgeist of this cultural moment.

Poetry is one of those genres of literature I’m late in my love.  I pretty much had accepted the notion that poetry needed labourious analysis, was too highbrow or I just didn’t “get it.”  Yet I failed to realize how much poetry was already part of my life, in the daily reading of the Psalms and my love for music (essentially poetry set to music).  Now I’m finding regular reading of poetry keeps sharp an appropriate reverence for words and their power (watch a slam poet in action and you’ll feel the power of words).  In our world saturated with words that are spun or full of bluster, mangled and manipulated, savouring poetry is a healthy, not to mention enjoyable, discipline.

Eugene Peterson writes that “the first thing a poem does is to slow us down.  We cannot speed-read a poem.  A poem requires rereading.  Unlike prose, which fills the page with print, poems leave a lot of white space, which is to say that silence takes its place alongside sounds as significant, essential to the apprehension of these words.  We cannot be in a hurry reading a poem.  We notice connections, get a feel for rhythms, hear resonances.  All this takes time.  When we are reading prose we are often in control, but in a poem we feel like we are out of control.  Something is going on that we cannot pin down right away and so often we get impatient and go read Ann Landers instead … in poetry we take a different stance.  We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen.  This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness.” (Take and Read, p. 55-56).

Back to Emily Dickinson, a prolific poet who had only four poems published during her life yet wrote 1,789.  Here’s a wise and lovely one I enjoyed last week.

Who has not found the heaven below

Will fail of it above.

God’s residence is next to mine,

His furniture is love.   (Life, XVII)

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