Nigel Ford notes that part of the goodness in a poem is in its very construction: "We must look hard at all the elements in the poem and remind ourselves that the goodness of a piece of writing is not solely to be judged on whether its content is acceptable to us" (130). Incarnate truth (as our Lord by his very life has shown us) is apprehended in those moments of enfleshed time that we move in and about. It is worth considering that the very gift of time that God has given us as humans undergirds our experience of plot and poetry. When we tell stories, we are reflecting God's design for us. When we lovingly taste the cadence of words, when we feel their ebb and flow in speech, when we sense in both poetry and prose their innate music, we know a little better God as the Master of Time. Reading poetry, then, is a bodily, attentive experience of particulars, and because it is so, we must care not only about the content of its ideas but also about the content of its rhythmic music and play of symbols.

Poet John Leax writes, "Poets care about the message, but they must first be stewards of language. The message is like a seed. It must fall to the ground and die before it can be born into the poem [. . .] I serve the language so it can bear the message I’ve learned" (33). The gift of language he urges us, too, has its own particular demands. Scott Cairns agrees: "If it’s a poem in verse, its lines must work as lines, providing a complicating counterpoint to the sense of the syntax. Most simply put, a poem must say more than one thing. A poem must not be about an event; it must occasion an event of its own" ("Event").

Listen for a moment with me to a sonnet by George Herbert called "Prayer":

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th'Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

Herbert’s poem in its formal qualities practices the very phenomenon it describes. He piles on metaphor after metaphor – banquet, pilgrimage, war machine, manna, spice – to paint the exquisite nature of prayer. By painting it thus, he creates in the reader a linguistic celebration. We are invited to pray with beauty even as we read of that beauty. The sonnet is, however, vulnerable. It demands a certain kind of reader, one who knows how to live within language, one who can feel the very rhythms of the blood. We must read it with a certain heart and in a certain way. For "something to be understood," we must submit to it slowly, chewing on each syllable, each symbol, even if we also later come back to test and critique. Say it again aloud: "The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,/ A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear." Half its point is the way your mouth wraps around such well-chosen words, such delightful linguistic music. To analyze these lines as iambic pentameter with an arguable trochaic substitution or two, or to note the repetition of S’s and O’s, or to call attention to the internal rhymes "hear" and "fear," is to breakdown what must be lived to be loved.

Another example of this is Hopkins’ poem to Christ, "The Windhover." Here, the sprung rhythm of the lines is tied directly to the flight of the falcon:

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, & stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl & gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! (1-8)

The movement of the bird, his perilous flight upon the wind, is caught in these lines. They are impossible to paraphrase without loss.

Poems also remind us that God calls us to patience, that there are some gifts that can only be given, some skills that can only be obtained, over a period of time. In T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, the poem ends:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and rose are one. (257-261)

To truly understand these lines and all their nuances, one must make the journey with Eliot through all four of his quartets. The very last image of the fire and the rose becoming one has poetic, mystical, political, historical, and personal significance. Indeed, Eliot has brought together all his symbols and associations, all his music, in these last lines to a high crescendo of meaning, and to suck the life out of the marrow of these lines, they must be lived with over a period of time. We are to live in God's kairos, his own eternal time, his own plan for the unfolding of history, and this calls us to reject the world's standard chronos time when it tempts us to live as if God doesn't exist. God’s time doesn’t reject our bodily time; it rejects our distortion of true time. Poetry calls on us to slow down, to pay the price to understand. Patience is the virtue that teaches us how to live. A poem will often not unfold its wisdom or delight without a well-told development that expands as it goes. Its gifts exist in time. We must spend time with it; we must experience it. We must read it aloud and slowly.

Back ] Next ]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding