To understand what poetrys role in creation
is, we must first understand what the creation itself is. In Christian understanding,
Gods creation is not a chaotic realm without form or purpose; it is not a randomly
evolving order; instead, it is a world with direction, shape, and ordera world that
is suffused with Gods truth, goodness, and glory. He has designed it to function in
an interdependent fashion, and human beings are part of that interdependence. The Christian view of
reality admits the metaphysical and spiritual and, thus, suggests that "nature"
is more than just the physical and biological realms; it is also the ethical and
metaphysical. When Paul in his epistle to the Romans wrote that the Gentiles "by
nature" practiced the business or work of the law (2:14-15), he was invoking both
Jewish and Greco-Roman notions of the world. He had in mind the Jewish idea that God has
designed and constructed the world via his own wisdom and that such wisdom is present in
the creation for humans to learn from and abide by. The Greek word for nature, physei,
used by Paul also touches on Stoic notions that humanity and the world are uniquely fitted
for each other.
The apostle John had much the same sense in mind. In the first chapter of the Gospel of
John, the term often translated as "Word" is the Greek word logos. When
John (under the Holy Spirit's inspiration) applied this concept to Christ, he was making a
radical claim. Logos in Greek philosophy is an impersonal rational order that
directs and controls the universe. Thus, John can claim that through the Word "all
things were made." But he can also state that "The Word became flesh" (John
1:1, 14). That impersonal force, he tells us, is actually a personal Being who entered
history. Jesus came to show us what God is like. John, like Paul, is also invoking the
ancient Hebrew notion of wisdom. To be "full of grace and truth" is to express
all that Jewish tradition claimed for sophia (cf. Proverbs 8:22-36).
The concept of a logos suggests that reality is inherently linguistic in
structure, that we need words to relate to, understand, and exist with the world. It
equally implies that an order and harmony exists in creation that is uncoverable, and for
this too, we need words. Wisdom is found in abiding by this structure and harmony.
Furthermore, it is Christ the Logos as Jesus the man who shows us the pattern by
which we relate to the cosmos and more importantly to the cosmos' Creator. Poetry only has
meaning in the end because God has ordered the creation. Literature can only offer us
wisdom because God has designed it as part of the order of the universe. Poetrys
particular gifts include the shaping of language, the heightening and compression of
symbols, a sense of the particulars of the worldall things that depend on a world
that is both understandable and worth paying attention to.
Consider Denise Levertovs poem about the first Christian poet of Anglo-Saxon,
Caedmon. She retells the legend recorded in Bedes Ecclestical History of the
English People that Caedmon, having never spoken verse, first received his poetic gift
by being commanded by God to speak. Afterwards, poetry flourished from him the rest of his
life. Levertov has Caedmon do the talking:
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door;
[. . . .]
the sudden angle affrighted melight effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance. (1-7, 24-33)
In this poem, Levertov brings together the symbols of poetic feet with those of the
awkward feet of the boy, as well as the ring of Anglo-Saxon scop-singing with that
of the dance of being inspired by God. She pays attention to cows and to angels, to a
sacred mystery and to everyday life. Caedmons experience tells us something about
living, about what the world is like, and what God can do with the ordinary. Caedmon is
deeply embedded in physei.
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